Sunday, September 19, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 1: She Loves Me; Throne of Blood

Ashland, Oregon—
WE'RE BACK AT the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for six more plays, having seen the other five of the season last March. (Eastside View discussed those plays — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hamlet, Lynn Natage's Ruined, and Lisa Kron's Well here, here, and here.) This installment opened with a study in contrasts: the nostalgic musical She Loves Me and the sober drama Throne of Blood.

The musical was a constant delight, marred only by the amplification of the very good, versatile seven-piece band placed out of sight upstage center, behind the impressive set. Joe Masteroff's book is based on the Miklos Laszlo play Illatszertar, whose fascinating history is laid out in a Wikipedia article tracing its various stage and screen treatments. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick provided music and lyrics, and if they occasionally rely heavily on Cole Porter, well, that's not a bad doorway to lean against.

The play was written in Hungarian in the late 1930s, apparently first produced around 1937 in Budapest, and is typical of the romantic comedy of the time: an aging shopkeeper who suspects his wife is involved in an affair with one of his clerks; the suspect is in fact so shy his only love-life is carried on anonymously in letters to a lonely-hearts agency; another clerk… well, you get the idea. Odds are you've seen at least one film adaptation: The Shop Around the Corner (Stewart, Morgan, Sullavan); In the Good Old Summertime (Garland, Van Johnson); and You've Got Mail (Hanks, Ryan). The musical appeared in 1963, when this kind of nostalgia was on its last legs for several decades: the post-1964 sexual revolution rendered it no more than merely quaint.

Now, though, it seems old enough to have developed some respectability. Nostalgia has its place, awakening us to the lack of romance in our own time, possibly enabling a return to grace and whimsy. Here at OSF Rebecca Taichman's direction seemed both detailed and light-footed; Scott Bradley's sets and Miranda Hoffman's costumes found the best of the slightly vague period in play; and Darcy Danielson's musical direction was spirited and idiosyncratic. (If only the band had been in a pit, and unamplified.)

Lisa McCormick was a knockout as Amalia Balash: a singing actress with a fine musical sense and a total command of physical comedy. Mark Bedard was complex and thoughtful as her foil Georg Nowack, and the rest of the cast were quite well matched to the principals. (Dan Donohue, who spends the rest of his time here as a magnificent Hamlet, takes on an athletic, acrobatic turn as a clumsy waiter.)
THRONE OF BLOOD is a very different adaptation also involving both theater and film: a stage play by Ping Chong adapted from the 1957 Akira Kurosawa film adaptation of Macbeth. It seemed to me a fine piece of theater on its own terms, constantly referring to the Shakespeare play through Kurosawa's visual imagery but without relying on a familiarity with the film.

Christopher Acebo's setting is stratified, with projections thrown against a stage-wide, narrow scrim at the top of the proscenium, distant and often silent action at rooftop level below that, and the main action beautifully centered on the stage level. All three sections balance well; the action is never distracting. (I thought, too, that this staging concept was quite reminiscent of that of last season's Macbeth.)

Stefani Mar's costumes were magnificent — tributes to the complex, handsome, sometimes surreal helmets and armor of the samurai period. And Todd Barton, apparently himself a player of the shakuhachi, turned in what seems to me his very best work in the music and sound design: this is a play for ears as much as for eyes.

Kevin Kenerly was marvelous as Washizu (the Macbeth), and Ako was every bit his match as Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth): they gave deep, complex, intense portrayals of these roles, a little outside the ensemble I suppose, but justifiably so. Cristofer Jean seemed just as beautifully cast as the Forest Spirit, Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's three weird sisters. The rest of the cast, however, seemed a step behind these leads, perhaps deliberately, as if to flatten out the drama behind the intensity of the major protagonists.

I found the piece absorbing yet oddly inert and formal — again, perhaps the intention. I suppose there were deliberate references to Noh and Kabuki theatrical traditions, as well as to Kurosawa's film: but I found myself often thinking of manga, too, the Japanese comic-strip style that flattens narrative behind the two dimensions of printed paper. I don't mean this negatively: Ping Chong's work is engaging as well as intelligent. It'll be interesting to see how it plays the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this November.
She Loves Me (Masteroff-Bock-Harnick), through Oct. 30;
Throne of Blood
(Ping Chong), through Oct. 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

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