Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eating and Playgoing in Ashland

tuna-bean salad, Pasta Piatti, Ashland

OUR ANNUAL WEEK IN ASHLAND, with three other couples, eating, going to plays, talking:

Monday, June 18: dinner at Pasta Piatti, an okay Italian, advantageously located on the town's main street, around the corner from the house we rent every year. Here I had a tuna-canneloni salad (the tuna nicely grilled but in two large slabs; deficient in chopped onion) and spaghetti agliiolio. The latter was off the menu: all the pasta courses were too complicated for the evening, but the waiter whispered that he'd give me a child's plate, enlarged and altered to my order. Nice guy!

Tuesday: Toast from that three-kilo boule from Ken's Bakery, and again, but with oil and salt, for lunch. Dinner at Tabu, a "nuevo latino" joint we've liked in the past. A Caesar salad lacking its raw egg, then four nice lamb chops perched on a salad.

Wednesday: dinner at home, because the Tuesday morning farm market provided us with two beautiful fresh enormous porcini. These we chopped and sautéed with chopped shallots (and a few extra ordinary mushrooms) and then tossed with penne. Delicious!

Thursday: a ribeye steak, my first in months, at Amuse Restaurant. We ate here seven years ago when it had just opened; hadn't been back—our recollection having been that it was too ambitious for itself. On second visit our opinion is changed: it's comfortable, with a good menu and an interesting wine list. Expensive, for Ashland, but worth it. The steak was big (12 ounces) but lean (grass-fed) and nicely grilled, with a careful, understated sauce.

Friday: Pizza ordered in from Pasta Piatti (see above).

Saturday: New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro! If there are One Hundred Great Recipes, there are Ten Great Restaurants. New Sammy's is clearly one of them. No website, but plenty of online blogtivity. Surprise: there is a new entry and parking lot: in a few weeks this will apparently become a wine bistrot, possibly open for lunch. Inside, the dining room is reassuringly familiar.

What I had: for white wine, a Provençal white from the Coteaux Varois, a Vermentino called in France "Ronne," soft, delicate, flowery, but with power. Amuse-guele: a small triangle of rye bread with the softest imaginable duck foie gras, a tiny bit of black mustard on it, a home-made griotte (sour cherry pickled in tarragon vinegar) alongside.

First course: noodles (tagliarini, in fact), with asparagus, smoked ham, and tarragon, in buttery broth. Well: when we arrived we greeted Vern, then stepped into the kitchen to say hello to Charlene, to find that she'd just stepped out the back kitchen door toward the garden to pick some tarragon. Let me explain: behind New Sammy's there's a garden; here Vern and Charlene grow their herbs and vegetables—

Second: braised shortribs with spinach, shiitakes, orzo, a green-garlic flan centered in the presentation, rich reduction sauce. Incredibly rich and unctuous; I ate two of the three ribs, sent the other round the table. And here a fine red, Morgon, 2005 as I believe. No dessert, but the others had delicioius things.

What more to say of Sammy's? The garden; the rooms; the feeling of comradeship...

Sunday: dinner at Peerless. It's changed since last we were here, when it was a high-internet presence, organic-oriented, fancy-menu, sustainably thoughtful but not entirely persuasive place which, once it had you on its e-mail list, let you go with protest. Things have relaxed a bit, and I had the best Martini in years here. I asked for it in my usual way: "Cheap gin, good vermouth, three to one, olives, up. Cold." It came not quite cold but correct in every other respect, and when I asked, I was told that the vermouth was Vya. Perhaps so. And later, they sent little tastes of the stuff staight, the dry and the sweet. The sweet was not to my taste, but the dry was much like Boissière: flowery, dry, clear, lacking any bitter chemical flavor.

Afterward, a salad of basil, not quite splendid tomatoes (it's only late June), and unpersuasive "Mozzarella," and then a very good hamburger, rare, on a bun, no distractions. Couldn't quite finish it, but it was good.

OH YES: THE PLAYS. That's why we're here, after all. I've been remiss in reviews from the Eastside View in recent months, because I'm ambivalent about the entire enterprise. So is Ashland: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival used to collect them all into scrapbooks for season subscribers to read in the Members' Lounge, but last year they stopped doing that, apparently at the request of the actors.

After all, the reviewer sees a specific performance, which may have little to do with the one the subscriber sees a week or a month or six months later. The art of reviewing consists among other things of sharing one's individual responses to a unique event with an unspecified number of unseen readers. (Listeners, if you're doing it on the radio; viewers, etc. ...)

The usefulness of reviews therefore lies in the degree to which one knows the reviewer's bias, consistency, knowledge, awareness, and so on. And so reviewing, if it's to be used with any responsibility, requires the reader to spend as much time on reviews as on the material under review. Another step in the direction of quanitities of trivia piling on, and concealing, scattered events. To hell with it. But for the record:

On the Razzle (Stoppard): Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. The play opened Feb. 18 and closes Oct. 28: imagine how tight the ensemble is! I've heard that at each performance someone throws in some new bit, just to keep everyone on toe. Perhaps. It's unusual Stoppard: pure farce, little intellectual matter. You may know the story as The Merchant of Yonkers, which we saw a season or two ago in Glendale at Noise Within; or as The Matchmaker, or Hello Dolly! even. No matter: this is fresh as paint and funny as hell, and the costumes are fabulous, and it even looks like Vienna. We gotta go back.

The Tempest (Shakespeare): Dangerous, to repeat this show so soon after Penny Mitropoulos's magnificent production last year. That's what I was thinking until just now, when I Googled it, and found that was seven years ago! That's how beautiful and powerful that production was, and one of the "problems" about Ashland is that it has to live with its past successes. Libby Appel has been Artistic Director of the festival for six or eight years, and is leaving, and has directed this as a sort of valediction: unfortunately, as staged in the outdoor theater, it seems to me to have three problems. The Prospero-Ariel-Caliban triangle is never really attended to. Prospero himself seems indeterminate (at the end, for example, he is neither frail nor majestic, but vague). And the musical contribution, especially a long masque with two interpolated sonnets sung by half-nudes who swing upside-down from ropes, is intrusive, irrelevant, and long. Too bad: a magnificent play flawed, though not fatally, in the production.

The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare): This went better, with fine costumes and blocking (again, outdoors), clear delivery, good balance between major and ancillary characters, fond and funny local (Padua) color. I'd see it again.

Tracy's Tiger (committee/Saroyan): Some liked it. Not me. Dated, diffuse, symbol-ridden, lightweight. A divertissement has its place, and I don't mind having seen it, but I don't think it'll last.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare): A very seriously flawed production, with the elder generation costumed and behaving like Renaissance Italians, the younger one (R & J and their various cousins) like people of our own time, that is the beginning of the 21st century. This made for various problems, as when party music morphed from lute-and-recorder to hip-hop; or when a crime-scene yellow-plastic-police-action ribbon fenced off Mercutio's murder scene.

The cast was wonderful, none better than Mercutio, in fact. But the play was damaged by this "concept," and I wouldn't go back.

Gem of the Ocean (Wilson): The first play in August Wilson's cycle of ten vignetting the African-American experience through the 20th century (though the next-last to be written), this struck all of us as profound, moving, and beautiful. Some found it emotionally draining: to me, it was serene and classical in spite of the injustices and pain it presents. "Live right, die right" and "This is a house of peace" are the two refrains. A fabulous physical production and a perfect cast, with the best use of music I've heard at OSF.

Rabbit Hole (Lindsay-Abaire): we decided later, our friends and us, that people who have lost children, whether to accident, disease, or birth defects, have something in common that people who have not do not. The play is about the grief a suburban family feels after the accidental death of a child, and it would be churlish to impose my subjective response to the play on my readers. A woman's play, perhaps. Not for me.

The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov): The second Cherry Orchard we've seen in the last few years (the other was at Noise Within), this one minimizes sentiment in favor of realism and therefore humor. You know every one of these characters; here, you can enjoy them and then say goodbye at curtain time. The audience was hanging on each line; the cast treasured each character. What can you say: if you like Chekhov, this is truly outstanding; if you don't, what are you doing here?

As You Like It (Shakespeare): Hooray: the week ended on an upbeat. The play started under slight clouds—would it work to set it in Depression America?—but grew and flew and soared from there on, leaving me with tears in my eyes at the beauty and truth and love of the piece. Yes yes yes.

In a few weeks we have to come back for the two plays that haven't yet opened: Tartuffe and the new Distracted. If we can manage it, I'll see On the Razzle, Gem of the Ocean, Cherry Orchard,, and As You Like It again.

So: Four unqualified successes. Two new plays not to my taste but effective and successful to other sorts of audiences. Two or three other plays flawed, one seriously in my opinion, to the extent that I'd advise caution with them.

Those are very good odds indeed, and we'll be back next year.


Susan said...

Loved finding your blog! We are going to Ashland in two weeks and your commentary is exactly what I was looking for. We have tickets to On the Razzle and Taming of the Shrew and reservations at Amuse and Sammy's. Any other must sees or dos? What do you think of the backstage tour or the preface?

Charles Shere said...

The backstage tour is well worth its time—informative and fun. You'll leave it with new admiration and respect for the amount of work and thought that goes into these productions.

As to what to see or do: for us, Ashland is a town pour flâner—stroll, loaf, window-shop, watch the people (you'll see actors among the ordinary folk).