Friday, September 24, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 4: Twelfth Night; American Night

Ashland, Oregon—
WE FINISHED THIS SEASON of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last night with a satisfying production of Twelfth Night. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a favorite Shakespeare play, but there it is, Twelfth Night, about as perfect a play as you can get. The familiar devices: three social classes (nobility, fools, young lovers); slapstick; girl-masked-as-boy; shipwreck; separated souls reunited: and all in perfect balance as well as symmetry. And some of Shakespeare's most lyrical and poetic lines, from the opening
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die…
to Viola's final
And all those sayings will I over swear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
and, of course, Feste's final song with its "hey ho, the wind and the rain."

Darko Tresnjak conceived this production with Mozart in mind. I've always lamented that Mozart and Da Ponte never got around to making an opera out of Twelfth Night; it would have been a natural for them — perhaps if Mozart had lived another ten years. Alas, the Mozart Tresnjak had in mind seemed to be Tom Hulce's version in the movie Amadeus: virtually all comic, hardly any serious. The comic level Shakespeare intends was nively done indeed; OSF excels at Shakespearian fools and clowns, and instead of naming them I'll just refer you to the online cast list. But Orsino and Olivia are, I think, serious and troubled characters; their situations and pains are real, unless profound emotions are too much a bother — or perhaps too private — to be taken seriously these days (as I fear may be the case). And Olivia is partly of their quality, but partly too magician, a profound representation of the playwright himself. Kenajuan Bentley, Miriam Laube, and Brooke Parks were often very satisfying in these roles (respectively), but they were directed to mug and clown too often, throwing off the play's delicate but effective mechanism. Still, the play ended on a note of quiet beauty: Michael Elich's wonderful singing of the final song
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
and the play wasdone, roundly and beautifully, as had been done The Merchant of Venice the previous evening, musically and transcendently.
The previous afternoon we saw American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, the first of a projected 37 plays OSF projects commissioning to recount the American historical experience. Scripted by Richard Montoya for development by the Los Angeles company Culture Clash, it was an intriguing, evocative, resourceful, entertaining ninety minutes of theater. Three big sections are based on three factual characters: Sacajawea, Harry Bridges, and Viola Pettus (look them up if you don't know them): they're met by the title character (René Millán) as he dreams in troubled sleep on the eve of a citizenship exam.

Another section, perhaps the most troubling and evocative of the show, concerns a zoot-suited Johnny (Daisuke Tsuji), a poetic, rebellious youth caught in the Manzanar "relocation camp" during World War II. Somehow Montoya manages to balance broad comedy, poignancy, and political outrage in a persuasively realistic character here. American Night seemed to me the closest approximation to the Shakespearian humanization of social and political history of any of the many such attempts we've seen in Ashland over the years.
Twelfth Night, through Oct. 8; American Night: the Ballad of Juan José (Montoya), through October 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

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