Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Risky Business

May 31, 2011

David Kelly, Terri McMahon and K.T. Vogt in The Imaginary Invalid Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

Never a stranger to inventiveness and new twists on old favorites, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival may even be outdoing itself with the number of interesting juxtapositions and interpretative takes to the most familiar plays on its stage this year. Bill Rauch moved Measure for Measure into an urban barrio with great success, and there were several other transformations to be marveled at even if they weren’t always quite as successful. The festival is currently also offering an adaptation of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid conceived by Oded Gross and Tracy Young with some intermittent musical numbers from Paul James Prendergast. Gross and Young had a big hit in Ashland previously with an adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters and now they return with their commedia dell’arte take on the classic French farce. From the outset, it is clear that this Imaginary Invalid will be as broad and as generally crowd-pleasing as possible. David Kelly stars as Argan, the titular invalid, opposite K.T. Vogt as his fresh-mouthed maid Toinette. They are joined by a cast of larger than life relations including a hysterical Terri McMahon as Beline, Argan’s gold-digger wife. The actors repeatedly break the fourth wall engaging the audience directly in the set up of very funny if familiar machinations. The setting is moved to a mid-1960s Paris that swings a little more like London of the period with its go-go boots and psychedelic lighting.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show that is total eye-candy. It was also clearly an audience favorite as well. The crowd was in stitches, and the audience interaction sequences produced some of the most animated audience reactions I've heard at the festival. There are drawbacks, however. Young and Gross’ adaptation does become somewhat exhausting over time. The extreme frenetic pace starts out at full bore, yet, while enjoyable, soon has nowhere to go but down when the energy level is eventually forced to scale back. When the sentimental bits that inevitably arise do so, the whole thing begins to collapse like some delicate soufflé cooling as it’s removed from the oven. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste great however, and even if it isn’t the most reflective time you’ll spend in the theater, the show certainly will not pass without a lot laughs.

Danforth Comins weeps over Vilma Silva as the rest of the cast looks on in Julius Caesar Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2011

And if the juiced up antics of Molière aren’t your thing, right across the plaza at the New Theater is OSF’s current production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Amanda Dehnert. And, though it was a few steps away, the piece couldn’t have been more different in its heavy-handed and politically-minded spirit. Audiences are greeted with a field of banners emblazoned with the faces and quotes of assassinated political leaders from around the world. This is a Julius Caesar focused obsessively on the political aspects of the play and the way civilizations alternately glorify and vilify their greatest leaders. The staging is completely modern dress and almost without any props save some soapboxes, bare wooden work tables, and buckets of stage blood. The cast is dressed up as commandos for some New York Fashion Week assault on the tasteless in their stylish black and Commes des Garçons-inspired wraps. The actors milled about the audience prior to the show, interacting with visitors and eventually coaching the audience on how to chant and cheer on cue when Caesar enters the stage. This populist theatrical maneuver was more interesting as an idea than in execution, however. The role of Caesar is played by Vilma Silva, one of the company’s long-time MVPs. But as commanding and charismatic as she was, the staging left her Casesar as a bit of a cipher. Dehnert missed an opportunity, failing to use this gender-twist as a point of further investigation into the play. Instead Silva’s Caesar was much like most others you’ve seen. Which could be said for the production as a whole. Despite some overly clever lighting with blinding spots aimed this way and that every time you turned around, the show felt inert. Even with strategic cuts, it seemed to drag at times, and the whole audience-as-Roman-citizens ruse never quite jelled. But considering the number of successful experiments OSF is pulling off so far this year, one misstep is hardly a high price to pay for taking interesting risks. Both The Imaginary Invalid and Julius Caesar will run well into the fall.


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