Sunday, July 24, 2011

New American Theater at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon, July 24, 2011—
IN SPITE OF THE IMPLICATIONS of its name, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has long been a significant proponent of new and recnt plays, as announced in the organization's "mission statement":
Inspired by Shakespeare’s work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory.
This year, in addition to Tony Taccone's important premiere Ghost Light (discussed here a few days ago), the repertory includes Tracy Letts's August: Osage County (premiered 2007), Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III (1987), Julia Cho's The Language Archive (2009) (which closed last month after a four-month run), Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1990), and the site-specific collaboratively developed WillFul, which opens August 7.

Of these, we saw Mockingbird and Language Archive four months ago, when the former impressed us greatly and the latter rather less. This week we've seen two others, in addition to Ghost Light — which, I'm afraid, throws a long shadow over them.

The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me particularly weak in the theater. Of course the specific theater was the temporary tent-pavilion installed in Lithia Park while the August Bowmer Theater is closed for emergency repairs, and allowances have to be made. The tent works reasonably well, and probably serves as a reminder of the Festival's early days, back when that uniquely American institution the chautauqua was still vital. (Indeed the chautaqua idea is still alive at OSF, and quite influential in its productions of Shakespeare; I'll write about this season's examples in the near future.)

The biggest problem associated with this tent (once past the question of the discomfort of audience seating) is the acoustics: it's a dead house; after one production without amplifiction the actors were quickly fitted out with body mikes. I may be over-sensitive to the consequent problems, since I'm more an ear person than an eye one: microphone noise and imbalance of consonants and vowels to begin with. Worse, as far as I'm concerned, is the changed aural perspective: not only does the sound come from another location than the actor's, but intimacy and distance are confused. The result is dislocating, disorienting; and if that's only on a subconscious level it's nevertheless disturbing and ultimately fatiguing. (I can only imagine the effect on the actors themselves.)

Beyond this, though, The African Company Presents Richard III seemed to me lightweight, a History Channel show brought to the stage. In portraying the difficulties encountered by a black theater company producing Richard III in New York City in the 1820s it was funny, informative, and politically correct; but it didn't seem to me to flesh out its characters, to investigate narrative elements that might have proved even more interesting and rewarding. It joins an intriguing subset of OSF plays, plays about Shakespeare plays: last year we saw Throne of Blood, a samurai version of Macbeth; the previous year's Equivication also considers The Scottish Play. (In 2008 we saw The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, another metadrama.)

Much more successful, to my way of thinking, was August: Osage County. A realistic narrative drama is not the kind of play I'm drawn to aesthetically; it seems to me Ibsen, O'Neill, Miller, and Albee have pretty well exhausted the vein: but then along comes another brilliant work in the genre and you're held, in my case against your prejudices, by a writing, direction, and acting that can only be called masterful. (And the defects of the temporary tent-pavilion theater disappear.)

It probably didn't hurt that as a child I lived a hard year not ninety miles from the bleak setting of the play (Pawhuska, Oklahoma). The accents, dress, even the food depicted in this realistic production were perfectly authentic and, to me, evocative. The dysfunctional family had different problems from those I knew: it's profane where mine was religious, pill-popping where mine tended toward alcohol. But the resulting repression, evasion, domination, manipulation, and cruelty, whether intended or not (I think not), was familiar.

I recalled Aristotle's definition of tragedy the other day: I do think August: Osage County, more than, for example, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, conforms to the classic definition. These characters fall for no flaw of their own making, though the means by which they fall may be self-inflicted; and the enactment of their tragedy leaves the audience exhausted but, I think, purged.

I don't write these pieces as a theater critic. It's easy enough to find reviews of these productions online (though I haven't bothered this time), and cast lists and program notes are available on the well-designed OSF website. One of these days I may get around to writing about the impressive acting company OSF maintains: it's a real pleasure seeing such fine actors taking leads in one show, supporting roles in others, understudying elsewhere; and it's a pleasure seeing the results of productions with long and numerous rehearsals and runs long enough to develop fine-grained detail. This is not that day. Company information about these productions can be found on the links below:

• Tracy Letts: August: Osage County , directed by Christopher Liam Moore, through November 5
• Carlyle Brown: The African Company Presents Richard III, directed by Seret Scott, through November 5

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