Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Did You Hear the One About Calvin Coolidge?

April 03, 2012

Kathryn Meisle, Tasso Feldman, and Nell Geisslinger with Al Espinosa looking on. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
If you’re looking for good old-fashioned stagecraft for its own sake in Ashland this spring, it’s easy to find. But perhaps the most comprehensively satisfying production onstage now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is Libby Appel’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. I’ll admit my bias outright – I love Chekhov. Can’t get enough of it. The romantic tortured souls. The long-winded circuitous beauty of it all. And that ever-present feeling of decay and the desperately maintained denial all of characters share to a greater or lesser extent. Appel, OSF’s Artistic Director Emeritus and Bill Rauch’s immediate predecessor in Ashland, is a lover of Chekhov as well, having directed many of the Russian great’s work here. She returns to the New Theater to direct this clear and decidedly modern language translation that sparkles as the world it depicts seem to vanish in the twilight giving way to evening.

Irina, played by Kathryn Meisle in her OSF debut, is a famous actress who has returned home with her young lover and celebrated author Trigorin, a dreamy Al Espinosa. She disdains the protean artistic efforts of her own son Kostya, a radiant and passionate Tasso Feldman, who's fallen for the daughter of a farmer on the neighboring estate, Nina, played by Nell Geisslinger, who dreams of being an actress herself. No one here is truly happy, with each player madly desiring another they can never have, and even if they do manage to connect, hold the other only temporarily. Tragedy ensues and a heart crushingly slow pace with doom seated at the table from the opening. Appel and Horsley have shifted the axis of focus toward the three primary women in the play, Irina, Nina, and Masha, the farm caretakers daughter who unrequitedly loves Kostya in another wonderfully realized turn from Kate Hurster. The women in Seagull sometimes risk being portrayed as little more than commodities of exchange between some spectacularly troubled men. But here Irina is portrayed as more forcefully in charge of events and the relationship with her son more darkly hued and less immediately affectionate. Of course, Nina metaphorically represents the bird of the title, and here it is much more her tragic story than Kostya that dominates the show. Seagull is splendidly done and should be on any visitor's list to see this spring in Oregon before it closes on June 22.

Mark Bedard with K.T. Vogt and ensemble Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
Across the plaza, meanwhile, in the Bowmer Theater is the season’s main comic offering, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s Animal Crackers. Even if the name isn’t familiar, much of the show will be to audiences since this 1920s production is mostly remembered as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers. As with the films that followed, the Marx Brothers didn’t play characters in their theatrical performances other than the ones they had created for themselves independent of the shows – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and to a lesser extent Zeppo who appeared in both the stage and film versions of the piece. Reviving the show for the modern stage has largely rested on the quality of the impersonations of the Marx Brothers. And OSF has managed to cast three of their own quite well, including Mark Bedard as Groucho/Cpt. Spalding, Brent Hinkley as Harpo/The Professor, and in the performance I saw, John Tufts as Chico who produces the most startling transformation of the three.

The humor is broad and filled with wordplay and the plot it occurs in is mostly insubstantial, though packed with more straight-man characters than you’re likely to be able to keep track of. The exception to this is K.T. Vogt who plays Mrs. Rittenhouse, one of the many characters made famous by the Marx’ long time foil Margaret Dumont. Vogt expertly takes the punches from her cohorts on stage and gives as good as she gets along the way. Of course, the script has been worked over a bit given that there are only so many Coolidge jokes one can deliver in an evening in the 21st Century. And even with that Groucho’s famous warning after a sequence of bombs still stands, “These are the jokes, folks” But as with the Marx Brothers’ stage act, the best parts of this show are the improvisation the players engage in with each other and the audience. Granted some of the improv is designed only to appear that way in a fashion similar to James Cordon’s commedia dell’arte-inspired hit One Man, Two Guvnors, which is about to open on Broadway this spring. All the main players in Animal Crackers get plenty of time in the audience up to and including clambering over seats and viewers and have enough prescreening information on the audience to land some surprise laughter and applause inducing zingers. Needless to say this comic staple of this year’s season will be around in Ashland all the way to November.


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