Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Color of Love

September 30, 2012

Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell Photo by Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
If Vivienne Westwood and Gerhard Richter had a love child and that particular offspring were an opera production, it might look like Vincent Boussard’s new staging of I Capuleti e I Montecchi which arrived in San Francisco this weekend after its premiere run in Munich. Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story, which is not influenced by Shakespeare’s famous play but the source material the bard himself used, has elements most in the audience will find familiar if only slightly rearranged. Here we have Romeo who has just killed Juliet's brother, competing for her hand in marriage against Tybalt in this version of the story that focuses more on the warring families. Boussard’s production though runs from any of the typical trappings associated with this tale of doomed lovers with one of the most obtuse and abstract stagings to grace the San Francisco stage in some time. Vincent Lemaire’s large grey abstract backdrop which evokes a battle on horses towers over the empty stage at sharp uncomfortable angles which is made even more obtuse with the addition of garish neon colored rag collections that the cast wear as costumes designed by none other than Christian Lacroix. And while all the characters in the show are male with the exception of Juliet, the women who do appear onstage evoke the oblivious world of Edina Monsoon with their giant frizzy wigs and Technicolor wardrobe.

And yet, there is something to this, and I’ll admit that by intermission, this barren off-kilter world communicated something to me about the isolation the two young lovers felt as if totally removed from a reality that keeps intruding on the only thing they can see – each other. Guido Levi’s lighting is a masterpiece of rich shifting color that communicates as much emotional subtext to the evening as the musical and theatrical components. It brings to mind the best of the work of Robert Wilson with its painterly approach to a set that can otherwise be static and dull to look at. This production will not make everyone happy and the opening night audience did toss out its share of boos. But there is something to this and some startling images including when Juliet climbs atop a sink in her room, in fact the only feature of any kind in her room, in an attempt to reach out for a statue of two lovers suspended high above the stage and her floor. In essence it is a production that mirrors the very spirit of bel canto opera itself – one that achieves its ends by dealing within a strictly controlled and outwardly pleasing aesthetic milieu despite the shifting dramatic or emotional content of the libretto at any particular moment.

Of course the show also benefits from three of the most important American vocal artists working today. Joyce DiDonato’s international reputation continues to grow and is well deserved. Her Romeo is known around the world and San Francisco is lucky to have such a gripping, colorful, and inviting performance to behold. She floats pianissimos with ease and never gives a hint of unsteadiness or strain flying through the ornamentation of her part. Her Romeo is often heartbreaking and boiling over with emotion. Eric Owens plays Juliet’s father anchoring the few moments on stage that don’t involve either of the lovers. But perhaps the biggest surprise for me on this evening was Nicole Cabell. Her career has grown surely and steadily over the last seven years or so with appearances in a number of major French roles as well as Mozart. But none of this would have prepared one for the riveting, ornamented, and detailed vocal performance she turned in on opening night. Cabell delivered on all the promises of her big competition wins of recent years as a Juliet who was alternately loving, sad, and increasingly emotionally unstable. Her duets with DiDonato were some of the best operatic singing I’ve heard all year. This Juliet is a major leap forward for Cabell and suggests that it wont be long before she is at the top of the operatic game on a much bigger scale. And with the supportive but never indulgent ear of conductor Riccardo Frizza both she and DiDonato shone even in moments where the orchestra sounded a bit rough around the edges. Saimir Pirgu had several good moments as Tybalt as well, although the tenor did exhibit some unsteadiness at the very top of his range on this evening.

Sure there are oddities that chafe in this evening like the giant staircase that dominates the stage in the closing scene of the Act I and the opening of Act II. But in the end, the aesthetic holds and there is a consistency of approach and care that takes this opera about warring families and manages to put Bellini’s version of the lovers right at the center of the action. The show comes highly recommended on many levels and can be seen at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct 19th.


It's The Pictures That Got Small

September 29, 2012

Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan Photo by Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Lynn Nottage’s most recent play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark has arrived in Los Angeles for it West Coast premiere this week at the opening of the fall season for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. The play is a distinctly light-hearted follow-up to Nottage’s last stunner of a play, Ruined about the atrocities of war faced by African women on this very planet in these very days. But even though we are making the acquaintance of Vera Stark for the first time, Nottage is treading territory and a certain light-hearted tone familiar to her audiences in such works as Intimate Apparel. Vera Stark is an actress in a time and place, 1930s Hollywood, where African-American women rarely get the opportunity to do any work at all in their chosen profession. In fact much of the evening deals with Stark’s relationships with the white folks she works with as she struggles to find her place in a town where she and her friends are largely unwelcome outside of serving in a variety of domestic and supporting roles both on screen and off.

But Stark, a sharp sly Sanaa Lathan, perseveres landing a large role, though it is still as a maid, in the fictional 1930s classic film “The Belle of New Orleans” opposite her white friend, cousin, starlet and employer Gloria Mitchell, played here by Amanda Detmer. This film will end up establishing Stark’s name in cinematic history and serves as the substrate for the play’s second act ostensibly set during a modern–day film conference where fake scholars debate the legacy of Stark while also revisiting her last filmed interview as part of an appearance opposite Mitchell in a 1970s TV talk show guest spot. If it sounds like the play gets “meta” it does. But not necessarily successfully. Filmed segments are mixed with live action here including a live performance recreation of the video interview segment from the 1970s. While the first half of the show has an almost madcap sitcom feel to it with Stark and her friends desperately trying to finagle roles in a big Hollywood film, the second half portends to be far more sophisticated. It rarely succeeds in getting there, though, as director Jo Bonney burdens the academic conference framing device with stock cartoon faux-academic caricatures that grouse and mug for comic effect in what struck me as an unintentional parallel to the minstrelsy that Stark and her friends find themselves constrained to recapitulate in an effort to work breaking down walls in their own chosen field.

It is the confused tone that makes By The Way, Meet Vera Stark most frustrating. The show goes deliberately for cheap laughs when in range of making its biggest points. Nottage also seems uncertain of how to balance this content against the drama of the interpersonal relationship and history of Mitchell and Stark, which at times is offered up as a mystery only to be abandoned in favor of other pursuits and never revisited. The play does cover territory worth considering, though, and despite its faults and the missteps of an overly jocular production, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark does manage to give voice to a particular moment in American cultural history with respect to African-American women that doesn’t always make it way on real life stages. The show continues at the Geffen through the 28th of October.


Imitation of Life

September 23, 2012

Bastian Trost, Sean Patten, and Berit Stumpf; in front: Simon Will
Photo by Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
CalArts’ downtown black box theater, REDCAT, kicked off its Fall season this weekend with another of the kind of performances that it's hard to find elsewhere around town. The multinational performance collective Gob Squad was the weekend’s guest and they brought with them one of their most well-received pieces from 2007, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). It's a witty and supremely clever piece that builds level upon level in a game that takes on history and the way art serves as a form of fractured and inadequate memory. That may sound heavy, but the show itself is often outright silly with a metaphysical complexity lurking just below the surface.

The four onstage performers, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will originally appear as cast members in a triptych of films. There is already a certain artifice however in that the three “films” that are simultaneously projected on the large screen the audience is presented with are not really films but live black and white video feed of the performances the cast is carrying out immediately behind that same screen. The three projections are ostensibly recreations of some of the most famous films of Andy Warhol, most notable Sleep and Kitchen. Of course Warhol’s at times infuriatingly deconstructed and experimental films aren’t gripping material for the stage, but the Gob Squad players know this and instead give their characters plenty of dialog and action that reflects on the idea of Warhol’s film work as a time capsule and the way in which we view the historical relevance of artistic works. Sleep, a single shot film of someone sleeping, now becomes a satire of the acting process itself as various cast members reflect on their inability to get into the role of Warhol's original sleeper. Often Gob Squad's commentary is played for laughs as when Berit and Bastian pretend to snort instant coffee as a substitute for the drugs they assume their 1960s counterparts would have used. There are oodles of contemporary neuroses which serve as an intentional counterpoint to the exploratory angst of Warhol’s Factory and its many denizens.

Of course God Squad’s Kitchen goes even further in its intellectual gambit. Soon the boundaries between the three running films break down and cast members trade and exchange roles in different films taking over the performances of their peers. And by mid-way, each of the performers is furthermore replaced by a stand in randomly selected from the audience who appear in the live streamed performances as the original cast members sit in their former audience seats feeding them their lines one at a time. This most direct manner of implicating the audience in the performance is deft and highly affecting. On the opening night, the cast was blessed with superb and uncanny replacements including the gorgeous and super talented Ayana Hampton who craftily dove into the neurotic gay persona of Simon with zeal. Granted Gob Squad's Kitchen doesn't always maintain its intensity and can get caught up in its own absurdity veering towards tedium. But considering the source material of Warhol's own films. these are not qualities to be expunged, but celebrated. All of which were expertly done in this promising start to the REDCAT season.

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It Takes Two

September 16, 2012

Placido DOmingo and Marina Poplavskaya Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
How many Foscari does it take to screw in a light bulb? This is just one of dozens of questions left unanswered in Verdi’s I due Foscari (The Two Foscari), an early relative rarity that has made its way to the stage of Los Angeles Opera for the opening of the 2012/2013 season this weekend. And while the opera isn’t a comedy, it is in need of just such a punch line to spice up one of the more tepid season openers in Los Angeles in quite a while. Foscari is LA Opera’s big ticket production of the season. It’s the only new production and the only off the beaten path offering for a company still being careful about its footing in these turbulent economic waters. The reason for the show’s existence right now is much easier to answer. LAO General Director Placido Domingo is the star, and the opera features a juicy baritone role for him. It’s his 140th role and fits in with his current desire to sing many of Verdi’s baritone roles as he has already done with some success in Simon Boccanegra all over the world. LAO’s new production of I due Foscari directed with all the placidity one could imagine by Thaddeus Strassberger, will also tour the world with stops in Valencia and the Royal Opera House in London. But despite some world class performances from Domingo, Music Director James Conlon, and one soprano spitfire by the name of Marina Poplavskaya the show is mostly a dud.

At the very core of the problem is the opera itself. An early effort with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi certainly had some of his core obsessions about fathers and their children sorted out for the stage, but despite the success of both Nabucco and Ernani which preceded it, dramatic narrative is largely absent from Foscari. As the opera opens, the elderly Venetian Doge, Francesco Foscari, played by Mr. Domingo, finds himself in a tough spot as his son, Jacopo Foscari, the handsome Fracesco Meli, has returned from an exile to stand trial again on new charges of treason and murder that are never explained in any concrete way. Members of the Doge’s ruling council have it out for the younger Foscari and convict him despite his innocence and sentence him to further exile. The rest of the opera consists of Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia, a radiant Poplavskaya, begging and pleading for this second exile not to happen or for her at least to be allowed to go with him while the father wrings his hands over his inability to do anything about it. Most operas rest comfortably on a certain amount of fait accompli, but I due Foscari ends more or less right where it begins three acts and three hours later.

Along the way there is some lovely singing. Mr. Domingo amazes again with his tenor interpretation of a baritone role. His stage presence and ability to deliver a nuanced complex performance is still unparalleled. He’s a living breathing master class onstage. And when he's performing, he continues to serve as more than enough justification for reviving this piece and giving it a brand-spanking new production. Poplavskaya does crazy like nobody else, and her Lucrezia is delicious to watch despite having little to do. Her tone was patchy in the upper registers early on, but by Act II she had settled in and was bright and penetrating. Francesco Meli made his local debut as the wrongly accused son and gave a reliable if not always completely assured vocal performance. It you’re no fan of tenors, this may be the opera for you in that Mr. Meli is forced to appear either caged or chained under the threat of violence throughout the whole evening including a rather inexplicable Act I aria in which his cage is lowered down from the fly space above, eventually making its way through the stage floor below. Conlon made the best case for Verdi’s zesty score and tapped into all those things that made the composer great even in his earlier years on Saturday. Clearly a little more rehearsal time with the principals was needed, however, as things went awry on more than a few occasions despite a stunner of an Act II trio.

But perhaps the biggest misstep here was the almost absent production directed by Strassberger with set designer Kevin Knight. The principals appear and disappear on a series of elevated wooden plank walkways that extend and retract surrounded by giant stone walls whose lower regions have crumbled and remain standing through a series of what look to be metallic supports. Despite costumes that reference 15th-century Venice, the whole thing feels like David McVicar’s vision of Fire Island at times. A walk way above provides space for the chorus to enter and leave along the way, but visually there isn’t much going on in this dark, static space even when a fire breather arrives briefly for a festival at the start of Act III. And in another odd twist, projected video used to open each act is covered with several screens of brief explanatory text as if the production team was worried that the libretto wasn't going to be able to quite make sense of it all. They were right, but the text also gave off the air of a B-movie growing tiresome by the start of Act II where the audience is reading over Verdi's beautiful opening score. The show never feels as menacing or conflicted as its characters are inside and it passes without much of an emotional bump. Still it's another chance to see the incredible Mr. Domingo do things that really nobody else in the opera world can which may be reason enough to go before the show closes on October 9.


Once Again With Feeling

September 12, 2012

Rachel Sorsa, Jayme Lake, Arsene Delay, and Melody Butiu Photo: 2012 Craig Schwartz/Getty Villa 2012
Euripides’ Helen is one of those reminders that there hasn’t been anything new since antiquity. It is as arch and post-modern as anything you can think of with its deconstructed storyline and revisionist aesthetic. The play, which is currently being presented by The Getty Villa as their annual theatrical offering in the outdoor amphitheater this fall, is slyly modern, a stance only abetted by Nick Salamone’s adaptation directed here by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights’ Arena. Written just years after The Trojan Women, Euripides returns to the fall of Troy and the fate of the beautiful Helen by retelling the legend with a completely different narrative capturing another co-existing version of the fate of those who were so intimately involved in the fall of Troy. This time around, we find Helen living on the Egyptian island of Pharos where she was magically transported at the time of her original kidnapping from Menelaos and replaced with a double who was carried onto Troy and the arms of Paris. She has sat by and tragically waited and wondered over the fate of her husband and people for 17 years and knows nothing of her double’s existence in Troy. Thus when Menelaos and some of his soldiers wash ashore on their journey home, the two fail to immediately recognize one another until they eventually align to escape the despotic rule of Theonoe and Theoclymenus.

Helen may not have Strauss’ music, but it certainly has the fun of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos. Even more so in this adaptation which casts Helen, the chorus and many of the other characters as Hollywood movie star archetypes including Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. The point, of course, is that the most beautiful woman in history has been unfairly demonized and in fact is just a woman waiting for the return of her husband and misunderstood by so many. It’s a crafty and reasonable gesture on Salamone’s part especially for the chorus. But it doesn’t always work and the metaphor fizzles out long before the play is over. It can also be disturbing at times as Hattie, the slave to Theoclymenus and Theonoe in this version, is directed with relentless reference to the character of Mammy from Gone With the Wind. The minstrelsy is supposed to come off as more ironic commentary, but it doesn’t always succeed, creating some sitcom style laughs in pockets of the audience over the play’s short 90 minute running time.

But the show, which makes excellent use of the amphitheater’s space, still drives home the intellectual magic of Euripides work with its morphing of twice told tales through their very repetition. Rachel Sorsa stands at the center as the discarded queen in hiding and manages to keep things crisp without descending into parody or camp along the way, a temptation that can easily creep into this material. I was also enamored with the three choristers – Melody Butiu, Arséne DeLay and Jayme Lake who milk their Hollywood femme fatales for gags but also were able to side step playing them as mere practical jokes. This Helen is good for the Getty and it provides audiences here with one of the most watchable shows the Getty Villa has yet put on. If you get a chance, it comes recommended before it closes on September 29th.


In the Wings - Sep '12

September 11, 2012

Placido Domingo stars in LA Opera's I due Foscari
September is already fully upon us and the Fall season is raging our way. After a particularly lazy summer here at Out West Arts, things are heating up again and what better way to start that a preview of the things you shouldn’t miss before we’re already in October. The big event this month is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the U.S. operatic season. Los Angeles Opera Artistic Director and superstar Placido Domingo will take on his 140th role when he appears again in a baritone part in Verdi’s I due Foscari on September 15th. He’ll be joined by a great international cast including Francesco Meli and Marina Poplavskaya under Music Director James Conlon in a new production that will travel with Domingo around the world including appearances at the Royal Opera House in London. LAO will also present a star studded production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the title role and both Julianna Di Giacomo and Angela Meade making their company debuts sharing the role of Donna Anna. Meanwhile in San Francisco, Music Director Nicola Luisotti is heading up a revival of Verdi’s Rigoletto with two casts including among others Željko Lučić and Aleksandra Kurzak that will wrap up just in time for the not to be missed Joyce DiDonato to arrive as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi starting on the 29th.

Andy Akiho will appear at the Carlsbad Music Festival
The Los Angeles Philharmonic will return to Walt Disney Concert Hall at the end of the month as well for the opening performances of their season under Gustavo Dudamel. After a Gala opener on the 27th, Dudamel will take his first crack locally at a specialty of the orchestra under his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen with Starvinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The members of L.A.’s favorite indie orchestra collective, wildUp, will also continue their widely regarded and very exciting residency at the Hammer Museum this month with a solo recital from pianist Richard Valittuto on the 15th with music both new and older from the likes of Cage, Stockhausen and others. But perhaps the biggest new music event of the month will take place in Carlsbad starting on Sep 21st when the Calder Quartet will usher in this year’s installment of their own Carlsbad Music Festival which promises to be just as adventuresome as previous years. The three days of programming will feature appearances by Timo Andres, Matt McBane, Sara Watkins, Wu Man, and a performance of Michael Gordon’s excellent Timber for wood percussion instruments by the Mantra ensemble on the 22nd. The Calder Quartet of course will wrap the weekend up with a show to include work from this year’s Composers Competition winner Andy Akiho.

Théâtre de la Ville-Paris perform Ionesco’s Rhinoceros
On the theater side there are six shows not to miss. REDCAT will kick of its fall with an appearance from Gob Squad who collectively will recreate Warhol’s Factory with a multi-media piece entitled Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had it so Good) starting on the 20th. Meanwhile, the Geffen Playhouse returns with the local premiere of another well received new play from Lynn Nottage on the 26th with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark that is rightly highly anticipated. And though it would require a trip to San Francisco, you’d be foolish to miss the West Coast premiere of the recent Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart which opens on Sep 13th. The unwieldy monikered CAP UCLA series also will bring two performances of one of this years highlights on the 21st with the Théâtre de la Ville-Paris who’ll bring Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to the stage at Royce Hall on the 21st. I would also mention that Shakespeare’s more rarely performed Cymbeline will make a local appearance at the start of the A Noise Within season when in kicks off in Glendale on the 22nd. And finally for those in San Diego, Th Old Globe will present the world premiere of a new musical by Jay Kuo, Allegiance, set during the 20th Century internment of Japanese Americans in California starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung. As usual this list only scratches the surface, but hopefully it sets you out in the right direction. Stay tuned for more.


Big Night Out

September 06, 2012

Denis Matsuev. Photo by V Vyatkin
Classical music at the bowl never benefits from subtlety. The world-class acoustics of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the orchestra’s summer digs in the hollow sounding amplified space of the Hollywood Bowl are two worlds that couldn’t be farther apart. Delicacy has no place at the Bowl where it is crushed by any number of natural phenomena including some of the world’s noisiest audiences. So programming for the big and bold when it comes to sound is never a bad idea, and Tuesday’s program was big, Russian, and oversized in about every sense. This was largely due to the presence of pianist Denis Matsuev, the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition winner, who brought his big, oversized playing to the right place at the right time with the L.A. Phil and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski this week. Matsuev comes off as a modern day Liszt figure. He does much more than concertize with the biggest and best, exploring corners familiar and not of the piano repertoire. He has a taste for jazz, improvisation, and piano transcriptions of both operatic and orchestral works. It's showy and plainly highlights his virtuosity in crowd pleasing ways. But he also projects a seriousness on the stage, jumping into performance quickly with great energy and no hesitation. All of these penchants were on display when he kicked off Tuesday night with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This was meaty playing that was fast, furious, and demanding of attention. It felt impetuous like the composition of a young man that it is. Matsuev milked the rhythmic elements and Urbanski and the orchestra met him punch for punch like some highly coordinated drill team and less like an ongoing battle. It was thrilling from beginning to end in the most visceral sense.

Matsuev flew off after the concerto and came back on the stage for solo piano transcriptions from Stravinsky’s Petrushka and with an encore of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Again, this was not subtle playing and certainly never wistful or tongue-in-cheek. But the sheer brute strength of it all worked well. The Petrushka often sounded like the full orchestra was playing as Matsuev’s hands flew across the keyboard digging in with seriousness even in the lightest flourishes. It was dramatic and exciting playing that filled the giant space around it and left a highly enthusiastic crowd.

The Shostakovich that closed the program, Symphony No. 10, couldn’t have provided a bigger and less successful contrast. The darkest and quietest of Shostakovich’s symphonies is often thorny in its misery. The music crumbles easily and maintaining a decisive thread throughout requires masterful skill. There are some superlative solo passages, which thrive on fine detail from clarinets and horns among others. Urbanski, the young rising Polish conductor, managed to give those solo moments room to breathe, but the opening Moderato sounded wooden, and moments of insight and excitement were too easily followed by playing that was decidedly less focused. Of course, the acoustics didn’t help either, and Urbanski’s interest in detail could get lost in the amplification. Shostakovich’s music often overwhelms, especially those who perform it and this particular performance felt a little too cold to engage the crowd after a decidedly more fierce opening segment. Here’s hoping both Urbanski and Matsuev haven’t made their last appearances in L.A., though. There was much more promise to be excited about than disappointment in the evening’s offing.


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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