Monday, April 27, 2009

Four plays in Ashland

Portland, April 27—

I'VE BEEN REMISS: I should have told you about the plays we saw last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. We've been coming here to see the plays for nine years now, and have settled into a two-stage annual visit in order to see the entire season, since some plays run only half the year, others run only during the "summer" season when the outdoor theater is open.

Last week we saw four plays, an interesting, even intriguing group: two concept plays, two tragedies. We saw them, I think, in the best possible order, quite by chance.

The first was a new play, Equivocqtion, by Bill Cain. The nut: William Shakespeare is asked to provide dialogue for a play written by the recently crowned King James on the subject of the Gunpowder Plot — a tricky thing to deal with. One can't lie; neither can one simply write the truth: the answer is to "equivocate" by answering, not the questions raised, but those behind the questions. Along the way we see Shakespeare and four other members of The King's Men work out scenes from plays currently under construction, notably Macbeth and Lear.

There's a lot here to delight seasoned OSF audiences, of course: but Cain goes beyond simple play-about-plays, I think, to write a drama that deals intelligently with the layers and ramifications of his subject. Too many, perhaps; the subplot hinging on Shakespeare's relationship with his daughter Judith is one complication too many, in my book. But the play's insightful and provocative, the direction's inventive and propulsive, and the acting's first-rate. I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Macbeth, which we saw the following night, was simply one of the finest performances I've seen in a theater. Staged in modern dress but faithful to the script and generally unspecific as to time, the production remains tightly focussed on Shakespeare's language, the emotional power of his drama, and the psychology of his characters. Peter Macon was exceptional in the title role; Robin Goodrin Nordli his equal as Lady Macbeth, and Kevin Kenerly a resourceful, complex Macduff. The scenes with the witches, even the porter's scenes, stayed quite within the serious scope of the play. I can't imagine the play done better.

Then there was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, written in 1975 — truly a great play, whose author detaches himself from his subject to allow a truly tragic circumstance to play itself through. It's easy to see the result as simply a culture clash between Yoruba spiritualism and British colonialism, but it's deeper and more universal than that. When we saw the play, last Thursday afternoon, Peter Macon, who'd played Macbeth stunningly the previous night, was pressed into service as the understudy to the lead role; though partly on book he was magnificent. The play was as detailed and timely as Equivocation and even more resonant, since addressed to a larger issue. In recent seasons OSF has been investigating the dramatic repertory beyond western Europe: this staging proves the vital importance of continuing to do this, as our understanding of both our own repertory and the universal human condition is thus enlarged.

Thursday night we ended this spring's visit to Ashland with, thankfully after three deep and serious plays, a divertissement: Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. The play opens with a cell phone ringing insistently in a restaurant; its owner, having just died, does not answer; the one other person in the dining room does; and the play goes on from there. The first act made me think of Wallace Stevens's plays; the second act, of those of Michael McClure. (Incidentally, it's high time McClure's plays were revived, and OSF is a logical company to undertake them.)

I'll write no more about Dead Man's Cell Phone except to say that the physical production is often quite strikingly beautiful, that though addressing poignant aspects of human life it's generally very funny, and that the entire cast, but especially Sarah Agnew and Brett Hinkley, are utterly wonderful. I'd see this production again in a minute.

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