Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ashland theater season, 1: Hedda Gabler's Further Adventures; The Clay Cart

OUR VISIT TO ASHLAND this spring brings us to four plays; we'll see the rest of the season in September. Every year three or four plays run only half the season, so you have to make to trips to see the whole thing — and it's generally a worthwhile thing to do.

Certainly it started out well on this trip, with two plays that gave us plenty to think about. The first was new, having debuted last year: Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. The idea of the play sounds pretty thin: between her suicide at the end of Ibsen's play and her first-act entrance at its next performance, Hedda Gabler finds herself in a kind of Purgatory reserved for dramatic characters so vivid as to have attained immortality. She befriends Medea, is attended by Scarlett's Mammy, dodges a falling Tosca — and is unfortunately still bored by her husband Tesman, apparently as immortal as she.

But Whitty's play, Bill Rauch's direction, and a fine cast make much more of this idea than a succession of joking allusions to Great Moments in Theatrical History. Free Will and Determination are the framework, but strength of character and make-the-best-of-it are the vital signs. And while there's plenty to laugh at, there's more to admire. I came away fonder than ever of Hedda Gabler the woman, having lost none of my respect for Henrik Ibsen her creator. And in the midst of reading Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, Mammy's soliloquies, after finding herself conversing with late 20th-century black women, summon considerable respect for her point of view — and throw plenty of suspicion on revisionist, politically correcting views of history.

This afternoon's play was considerably older: The Clay Cart dates from the third century CE or so, a Sanskrit play full of sight gags, music, tenderness, young lovers, flatfoot cops, sententiousness, and all the other standbys of Roman comedy, Shakespeare, Commedia dell'arte, and all the rest of it. (Sitcoms included.)

The result was enchanting, colorful, fragrant, diverting. A three-man band (flute, percussion, plucked strings) sat upstage center behind an all-purpose disc-arena; the large ensemble often sat as audience while providing shifts of scene. Stylized gesture and minimal dance, along with occasional song and frequent poetic declamation, curiously mediated between a respectfully ritualistic view of the vehicle and a perfectly straightforward enactment: this play is exotic and distant, but familiar and gripping at the same time.

It too was directed by Bill Rauch: good news, as he is the new artistic director of the entire Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I want to see this production again: perhaps I'll have another chance in September.

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