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Brush Up Your Shakespeare

September 03, 2012

Gina Daniels and David Kelly in The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. Photo by T. Charles Erickson/OSF 2012
So how is Shakespeare faring these days up in Oregon? His name is still comfortably wedged in the middle of the moniker Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the plays attributed to him still represent the lion’s share of the productions presented in Ashland each year. But if you think all the heat these days is generated from new commissions at the festival, you would be wrong. In fact, Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch has been pushing the envelope further and further since taking the helm in Oregon with free-wheeling and sometimes broadly re-interpretive stagings. Of course, these shows don’t always hatch directly from the mind of Mr. Rauch, and they certainly all haven’t been artistic successes. But if the offerings this season are any indication, Rauch has aggressively welcomed different thinking and the Shakespeare at this year’s festival is full of some fascinating surprises beyond putting actors in 20th-century garb and transposing the settings of the plays.

Perhaps the best example of this is Alison Carey’s adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor which under the direction of Christopher Liam Moore now carries the title The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. The action of this Falstaffian comedy is moved up to modern day Iowa, and much of Shakespeare’s text has been tweaked and modernized to gibe with the setting. But the radical move here isn’t to change Falstaff to a losing U.S. presidential primary candidate or making his letters to Alice Ford and Margaret Page text messages. No, the stroke here is to take Shakespeare’s play about the importance of being with whom you really love and casting it almost entirely as a play about the contemporary issue of gay marriage in the U.S. The genders of characters are reassigned across the board with the Fords now becoming a lesbian couple and Falstaff wagering if he can bend the eye of the straight Margaret Page before the lesbian Alice Ford. Anne Page is still in love with Fenton against her parents wishes, however this time both parents wish her to marry a different woman, stemming from their fervent support of Iowa’s legal endorsement of same sex marriage. The play is bitingly funny and masterfully shifts the comedy away from simply the standard cult of Falstaff stuff that typically fills productions of the work. When the cast meets in the finale by the life-size sculpted cow made of butter, there is the unmistakable feeling that you’ve witnessed something daring in scope.

This doesn’t make everyone happy. There were boos at times from sectors of the audience, mostly over political proclamations of some of the characters supporting gay marriage. And there were walkouts both during the show and a significant if not great number of audience members left at intermission. And while not all of this may have been politically motivated, even in one of the more liberal enclaves in Oregon, it was undoubtedly a surprise to see people not sleeping but entirely worked up over one of Shakespeare’s comedies, of all things.

Jeffrey King, Laura Griffith, and Miriam A. Laube. Photo by Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
Of course, walkouts were taking place right across the plaza in another production, at least partially inspired by Shakespeare. Another adaptation, this time from Rauch and Tracy Young, had heads spinning with the aptly titled Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. This long gestating project is a theatrical mash up: simultaneous performances of albeit trimmed versions of Euripides and Shakespeare along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1950s television adaptation of Cinderella. If it sounds confusing, it is, with the cast of all three plays in the same spaces at the same time, speaking their lines at moments right on top of one another but mostly at strategic intervals to highlight the many intriguing dramatic parallels between these unexpected bedfellows. Rodgers’ bubbly, fluid score percolates along throughout as a counterpoint to the highly dramatic elements of the other works. Yet despite all the points the show scores, it can tend toward drudgery all too easily like some artful academic treatise on theater that sucks the spirit out of each of its component parts. The show lacks the touch of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s ability to take an unexpected mash up and generate something pointed but thriving in its own right. There is again some clever gender reassignment with Lady Macbeth played by a man in drag, Christopher Liam Moore, and Jason being played by Lisa Wolpe. But even for some of the sophisticated theater audiences of Ashland, the show feels cold and academic losing its spirit along the way.

John Tufts flanked by Russell Lloyd and Shayne Hanson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson/OSF 2012
Not everything is a radical experiment though. This year’s festival is offering a Romeo and Juliette set in 19th Century California and a straight forward interpretation of As You Like It. But perhaps the best Shakespeare to be seen in Ashland this summer is the final installment of Joseph Haj’s trilogy of plays about the ascension of Henry V to the throne. Henry V stars John Tufts is the title role and he sinks his teeth into this meatiest of parts as the young king decidedly and sometimes viciously turns his back on the past in order to rule a kingdom. Haj and his production team again go for a hybrid contemporary/in period look that pops with color against a grey set on the outdoor Elizabethan stage. Haj and his excellent cast tap into the dreadful inevitability of the play and make it one of the most effortlessly thought provoking of this season’s shows. Of course there is still plenty of time to sample all of these productions in Ashland where the season continues into October outside (Henry V and Merry Wives) and November inside (Madea/Macbeth/Cinderella). And even if you only sample the Shakespeare, you won’t leave without seeing some of this season’s biggest surprises.


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