Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Meaning is never monogamous.
                              — Susan Sontag
Eastside Road, July 28, 2011—
WE SAW FOUR SHAKESPEARE plays this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland; all they had scheduled. OSF runs through the entire Shakespeare canon, presenting the History Plays in historical chronological order, the Comedies and Tragedies in a less orderly fashion; and the Bard represents about a third of the entire OSF rep in any given year. (The complete production history of Shakespeare is listed here.)

My college major was English Literature, but my college career was disorderly, to say the least. The last two courses I took to complete my degree were intense summer-session classes in required subjects, oddly postponed far beyond logic: English 1B, the required freshman course in composition; and a survey course in Shakespeare. The latter was taught, I remember, by a fine old-school professor. We read, discussed, and wrote about thirteen of the plays, a third of the canon, taking Charles Jaspers Sisson's edition as our text.

In that class I learned that discussion of the plays and the playwright are endless and too often pointless; we can't be sure of the texts; establishing a chronology of the plays is problematic; and the language occupies what's now a no-man's-land between late Middle English and the standard English of the 19th Century, which is what we generally read and even spoke in class. And I learned that the plays themselves, individually and taken as a canon, are fascinating: not so much for their narratives, though those are often gripping; or their ideas or values, though those have much to give us; but for their elusiveness, complexity, surprise. The plays transcend, by far, their texts.

Susan Sontag, in the essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes,”
…literature is first of all, last of all, language. It is language that is everything. … Barthes's view is irrevocably complex, self-conscious, refined, irresolute… He defines the writer as “the watcher who stands at the crossroads of all other discourses” — the opposite of an activist or a purveyor of doctrine…

Barthes called the life of the mind desire, and was concerned to defend “the plurality of desire.“ Meaning is never monogamous.

                            —Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
We saw an early play and an early late play last week, and they both concern themselves literally with desire: the two history plays we saw, from about the same (middle) period, are more straightforward, but raise problems of polyvalence that proved insoluble, I think, in the OSF staging.

As I've written in the previous three reports from Ashland, I'm not in the business here of ”reviewing“ these productions. I'm not going to go through the laborious and generally pointless (and thankless) motions of assigning adjectives to individual actors, stage designers, costumers. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival you can take for granted the skill, range, and effectiveness of all such components; besides, OSF has a well-designed website that gives an ”overview,“ cast and production credit details, short videos about the productions, and more about each play; index webpages for each can be found by clicking on the bulleted, boldfaced •titles below.

Instead, I'm afraid I'm going to be expressing my misgivings about the general approach that OSF seems to have adopted in its productions of the work that has for seventy-five years been, after all, its raison d'être.

As I noted the other day, OSF began in the spirit of Chautauqua, that uniquely American movement of the post-Civil War period whose purpose it was to bring education and culture to relatively isolated populations. Chautauqua included speechmaking, music, religion, politics under what was often literally a big tent, which often moved from site to site throughout the summer. The movement continued throughout the first half of the 20th century in spite of more technologically advanced competition, as Wikipedia's entry notes:
…by the turn of the century, other entertainment and educational opportunities, such as radio and movies, began to arrive in American towns to compete with Chautauqua lectures. With the advent of television and the automobile, people could now watch or travel to cultural events previously available only in urban areas, and the Chautauqua Movement lost popularity.
Chautauqua still lives, though; the original Institution in the New York town that gave the movement its name still presents lecture series, musical and dance performances, opera, and theater. (A few minutes on its website make it look pretty damn attractive.)

A Chautauqua building was erected, ”mostly by townspeople“ as OSF notes, in Ashland in 1893; it was enlarged twelve years later. ”Families traveled from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California to see such performers as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during the Ashland Chautauqua's 10-day seasons,“ continues the OSF archive, and by 1917 another building took its place, lasting until it was torn down in 1933. Soon thereafter a young teacher from the local teacher's college thought the remaining circular walls looked like sketches he'd seen of Elizabethan theaters, and proposed a production of two Shakespeare plays in conjunction with the city's Fourth of July celebration.

So OSF is grounded not only in Chautauqua but also in the Normal School movement, which developed in this country, in the 19th century, into colleges designed for the training of teachers. In California, for example, normal schools became teacher's colleges, later the campuses of the State College system (now the State Universities).

It's probably largely forgotten today how strong the liberal-arts ideal was in the generations leading up to 1957, when the Russian space satellite Sputnik awoke the United States to its relative complacency as to the teaching of mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Until then the primacy of the liberal arts had been pretty much unquestioned. After the Eisenhower administration, though, arts and letters took a back seat in general education, not only in advanced education, but also in the earlier years.

Where math and the sciences provide the knowledge and methodology by which society achieves its purposes and goals, however, it's the liberal arts that provide the knowledge and methodology that define and determine them. Science is knowledge: how. The arts are wisdom: why. Shakespeare's plays provide a particularly rich store of wisdom and stand, of course, at the center of English literature, perhaps of world literature, and therefore at the center of our liberal arts.

(This is probably the place for another clarifier: by “liberal arts” I mean, as Wikipedia puts it,
a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization.
“Liberal” because derived from Latin liber, “free”: the kind of education every free person was expected to have. This brings us inevitably to a consideration of social class; and perhaps a lingering reason the word “liberal” and the values of the liberal arts are questioned is the lingering notion that they are the province of snobs, of the idle rich, of an “elite” who consider themselves above the common man.)

But we are far off track. My point is, there are those in the arts industries who recognize and lament the lack of appreciation for the arts, for the values represented by, say, Shakespeare and Mozart and let me add Velasquez, among the general American public; and those people — artistic directors especially — do what they can to bring culture to the masses. OSF, for example, produced this year's Julius Caesar as “part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, a national theatre initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest, heavily adapting the play to “decontextualize” it, as an acquaintance pointed out, from its specifically historical moment.

Other productions were similarly adapted or interpreted, often with interpolations meant to appeal to contemporary audiences by referring to elements assumed to be within their common awareness. As Shakespeare could count on his audiences knowing about the Gunpowder Plot, say, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, so OSF counts on audiences responding to allusions to Broadway tunes, rock songs, and standup comedy acts.

The danger here from my perspective is that by demystifying Shakespeare for today's high school students — and there are many of them at OSF productions — my own attention to the plays is distracted as I puzzle over the relevance of an interpolation referring to an item of pop culture of which I am utterly ignorant. But then, this presumably is the cross the younger audience hangs on as it deals with Shakespeare's original text. I'm seventy-five years old; I've read the plays; I've seen nearly all of them (Pericles, Timon of Athens and Cymbeline have eluded me, along with The Two Noble Kinsmen).

Best of all, as no bad interpretation ever truly spoils Mozart, neither can it destroy Shakespeare. We can always return in our memory to a great production seen in the past, or turn in our imagination to a great one yet to be seen, latent in the script. For the meantime, here's what I think about this year's productions:

•Love's Labor's Lost (1594): This early play seemed to me quite effective, set on the outdoor Elizabethan Theater stage, costumed in a vague late-20th-century style. Shana Cooper made her directorial debut at OSF in this production; she was Assistant director for Macbeth and Equivocation in 2009. A complex play, Love's Labor's Lost centers on the intention of the young King of Navarre, and three of his friends, to devote three years to study and sobriety. They are immediately distracted, however, by the visiting Princess of France and her three maids-in-waiting, and the oath is soon broken.

Shakespeare provides several layers in this play, as he did in A Midsummer Night's Dream, written soon after. The trick in casting and directing this play is to individuate these layers — clowns, simpletons, rustics, wits, scholars, and the nobility — and to keep them in balance while bringing out the potential within each. Some of Cooper's concepts threatened to run away with the show, notably the entrance of Navarre and his men disguised as Russians. (They dance in, parodying the Russian Dance from the second act of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.) But the more outrageous such bits are, the more they succeed theatrically. Robin Goodrin Nordli, as Boyet, was memorable in a scene with a Martini. (Yes, Boyet is a woman in this production.)

(Bay Area audiences can see Shana Cooper's work this fall: she directs the California Shakespeare Theater's production of The Taming of the Shrew, running September 21-October 16.)

•Henry IV, Part Two (1598): None of us eight Ashlanders — four couples who spend a week together every year to see these plays — was happy with last year's production of Part One (my comments on that production here, and note particularly the comments), so we weren't looking forward to Part Two. In the event, though, it was more satisfying. Again, director Lisa Peterson stressed the comic scenes at the cost, I thought, of the serious ones. Too, casting and direction of the supporting nobility — Northumberland, Hastings, Prince John — seemed haphazard, un-integrated.

As usual at OSF, the comic roles were often beautifully characterized, often through small details; but the Cheapside elements — Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet — were pushed nearly to burlesque, and the induction scene, with Silence, Shadow, Feeble, and Bullcalf, drowned the poignancy of mustering in further burlesque. (Again, however, the acting was superb.) I can see how this approach will attract audiences looking for laughs, but I'm not sure I see those audiences made aware of the darker side of the play. We'll see what happens next year in the conclusion, Henry V, a particularly dark play if you look between the lines.

•Julius Caesar (1599): like Shana Cooper and Lisa Peterson, Amanda Dehnert is a newcomer to OSF, having previously directed only All's Well That Ends Well here (in 2009). This was definitely a concept production, compressed and tightened to emphasize the muscles of betrayal and conspiracy; it reminded me of the similarly compressed Macbeth that opened this intimate New Theater back in 2002. That's fine: nothing wrong with adapting Caesar to such a concept. But setting the title role on a female actor seemed to present more problems than insights; and making her dream in Japanese seemed downright silly — why do this, if not simply because you have a dramatic Japanese actress on hand (the one-named Ako, memorable in last year's OSF Throne of Blood)?

The intent seemed to be to contrast Caesar's dreamy eloquence with Cassius's brutality and Brutus's political pragmatism, inherently an interesting idea except that Caesar's military successes are thereby cast into some doubt — though here too if the intention is to show up the unthinking support the citizens give him/her, the play gains both complexity and relevance to the present day. But in the end concept seemed to me to outweigh integrated presence; I felt that I'd seen interesting conversations about Shakespeare's play, more than a persuasive production of the play itself.

•Measure for Measure (1603): Disclaimer: I think this one of the greatest of all Shakespeare's plays, bringing to the familiar ideas and gimmicks almost a uniquely successful and persuasive degree of balance, thoughtfulness, and dramatic expression. You know the story: Duke, for motives never clearly stated (probably because they are complex and conflicting), absents himself, leaving his friend Angelo (never a name so ironically chosen) in charge; Angelo metes harsh justice, though himself both a past offender and a present hypocrite — possibly against his will. The play is a bookend to Merchant of Venice, with Isabela taking on Portia's role; and the oddly tangential ending recalls those of Love's Labor's Lost and The Winter's Tale.

We saw Measure for Measure in the temporary tent-pavilion erected for productions scheduled in the Bowmer Theater, closed for emergency repairs, and it's perhaps really not fair to fault the production in these circumstances. But I was dismayed by director Bill Rauch's decision to let his concept — setting the play's underclasses in a contemporary Latino context — so run away with the serious implications of the plot. Had Mistress Overdone not been made the maîtresse of a particularly obnoxious strip club, and the interpolations of an admittedly first-rate all-girl mariachi ensemble not so often been too loud, and the distracting subtitles at one side of the stage been allowed to translate the Spanish-language songs composed (very effectively) for the show, the concept might well have worked better; and perhaps they will once the show returns to its proper stage.

LIKE ALL CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, Oregon Shakespeare is in a difficult spot. The economy; audiences; commercial entertainment; the historical moment; technology; politics — all these things intrude, oppress, distract, sideline, even attempt to trivialize the work that is at its core. But that was true in Shakespeare's day too; in fact, much of the power of his work consists precisely in his awareness of these things, in his grasp of their being both problems and subject-matter. I worry sometimes that OSF — and specifically Bill Rauch, its Artistic Director — too often thrashes about in conscious attention to methodologies designed to approach these matters, instead of basking in the riches of the literature, the company, and the place. The approaches being found to solving problems of audience and expense are too visible; they distract from the theater. But the successes continue to outweigh the shortfalls. We'll be back next year, perhaps sooner.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer Street ,Ashland, Oregon 97520. 2012 season:

•Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (dir. Laird Williamson), Troilus and Cressida (Rob Melrose), Henry V (Joseph Haj), As You Like It (Jessica Thebus)
•Repertory: Chekhov's Seagull (Libby Appel); Kaufman & Ryskind Animal Crackers (Allison Narver)
•Premieres: The White Snake (adapted by Mary Zimmerman, from the Chinese fable); Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (ad. Bill Rauch and Tracy Young); Robert Schenkkan's All The Way (Bill Rauch); Universes'sParty People (Liesi Tommy); Alison Carey's The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (Christopher Liam Moore)

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