Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ashland: Theater notes

WE SAW NINE PLAYS last week, in our annual trip to Ashland with three other couples:

. King John
. Two Gentlemen of Verona
. The Winter’s Tale
. The Merry Wives of Windsor
. Cyrano de Bergerac
. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
. The Importance of Being Earnest
. Bus Stop
. Intimate Apparel

So it was four Shakespeare plays, the first three in two days (for we often see matinees and evening performances on the same day); three classics; two new plays — rather a representative Ashland season.

(Two other plays, The Diary of Anne Frank and UP, had been given earlier in the year.)

Let’s take a look at the Shakespeare plays first, since this is, after all, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Bard’s plays are the centerpiece of every season, and many of the productions are given out of doors in a theater meant to suggest the Elizabethan Globe.

Further, OSF gives Shakespeare’s history cycle in historical order (not the chronological order of their writing). This tends to mediate between two views of the cycle: as Shakespeare; as history. Since by now, well over four hundred years after his birth, Shakespeare himself (not to mention his plays) is history, these productions offer an absorbing contemplation of historicity, of what history is; and thereby of what our own time stands for in relation to history. Not, I’m afraid, a very pleasant contemplation, much of the time.

Shakespeare may well have written King John after his three Henry VI plays, but its subject is the earliest historical material he treated. OSF presented the play this year for the first time in twenty-one years, so it was a production not to be missed: if you’re seriously interested in Shakespeare, or theater, or Ashland’s festival, you’ll want to see this.

It’s housed in the small, technologically savvy New Theater, where the director, John Sipes, has set the production in the period of World War I, projecting film sequences from that war on the backdrop and even the floor to take the place of Shakespeare’s battle scenes; costuming the cast in the formal clothing of heads of state and diplomats of a century ago; and letting a generic 19th-Century-Monumental public building stand throughout the production as its backdrop.

A program note suggests this was done to make the substance of the play more relevant to our own time by bringing it closer in time. I’m not sure this was achieved: much of what goes on today seems closer to King John’s Dark Ages than it does to the beginnings of Modernism. In any case the play is relevant enough and then some, as seems always to be the case with Shakespeare; and the visual aspect of this production doesn’t hurt, for Shakespeare is resilient.

(This is itself an interesting point. I remember being discouraged twenty years ago by Patrice Chereau’s similar updatings of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Wagner’s theater is apparently more easily damaged by directorial fiddling. Why is this?)

The play is “about” three problems: succession to the throne; England’s resistance to the Pope; and the resistance of the English nobility to an autocratic King — all three still relevant, if you substitute our troubled electoral process for succession; the collision of national and global concerns for the struggle between London and the Vatican; and Congress (and for that matter the electorate) for nobility.

The cast seemed to me very even, quite up to both the subtleties and the stamina required by this intricate yet most direct drama.

We saw King John in the afternoon; that evening we saw Two Gentlemen of Verona. Here too was a period update, for the two gents were Amish, or something close to the mark, off from a country-bumpkin Verona to test their moral clarity on a rumspringa (a vacation free from all family and community restraints) to a rich and pleasure-loving Milan.

It’s an early play, probably his second comedy, and no more substantial than his first (Love’s Labours Lost, performed here last season, in a similarly fast-paced, “contemporized” version. Seen outdoors at the Festival Theater it worked quite well, with fine costumes and lighting, vocal clarity, and an engaging cast — quite upstaged by an utterly enchanting Jack Russell terrier named Terwilliger and his somewhat absent-minded master, Launce, ably played by David Kelly.

Next came The Winter’s Tale, set in its original period and place (unspecified mythical times, improbably fanciful Sicily), in a stark but beautiful production in the broad, capacious Angus Bowmer Theater. Three Shakespeare plays, three theaters, three views; History, Comedy, Problem Play.

I’ve seen the play before. OSF performed it fairly recently; and we’ve seen it elsewhere. But, whether because we’d heard its director discuss the play in a lecture earlier in the day, or because of fine performances from the cast, I’d never before felt the depth and complexity of the play so beautifully expressed. The Winter’s Tale was apparently written at about the same time as The Tempest, and only the neglected (and disputed) The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, neither of which I’ve ever seen, postdate them; and The Winter’s Tale plays, at least in this production, as a mirror twin to The Tempest .

And as a more interior twin. Where Prospero’s actions and preoccupations take place in the context of his family (I include Ariel and Caliban among them) and his court, Leontes’s precipitate and fatal jealousy, and his subsequent remorse, seem utterly un-understandable, completely private. The play centers on him, and he’s a powerful figure (as William Langan’s performance proves); but while he has our sympathy we see the play through the others in the cast. Shakespeare seems on the brink of a new geometry of his affects, finding a new role for his audiences to play in their response to his genius.

And yet another matter: this Winter’s Tale connected back to King John. Twenty years of play-writing seems to come full circle. History has become Myth, but continues to center on individuals and their private demons.

Our final Shakespeare play was The Merry Wives of Windsor: while the production and the performance were sound enough, the play is perhaps Shakespeare’s least. Elizabethan Englishmen have no business trying what French farce does so much better. I liked virtually every aspect of the production, and recommend it to anyone who likes the play; but it was, for me, the least of the nine plays we saw.

I’ll try to get to the remaining five plays here soon, but in case I don’t, here’s a concise discussion:

. Cyrano de Bergerac: pretty damn good, we thought. A first-rate Cyrano and a fine physical production; but the Burgess translation not up Brian Hooker’s, used in the 1950 Jose Ferrer movie.
. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: effective and compelling and fine fine acting and production, though production a little busy, and play a little overworked. Relatively new, by David Edgar, based on Robert Louis Stevenson. Worth seeing.
. The Importance of Being Earnest: not the best production I’ve seen — stylish but a little flat, lacking the brittle quality that makes Wilde just a bit menacing under the surface.
. Bus Stop: a fine performance of William Inge’s sentimental play. One of the strongest productions of the year.
. Intimate Apparel: a new play, by Lynn Nottage: an interesting attempt; a charming first act, too politicized and ambitious a second act; couple of brilliant and moving performances in the lead roles.

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