Sunday, April 28, 2013

Three Plays in Ashland

FOR A NUMBER of years, since September 2001 in fact, we've been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions in this southern Oregon town. Until last year, in fact, we'd be in residence for a solid week, sharing a rented house with three other couples, friends we've come to know pretty well in the course of attending plays, discussing them, agreeing, disagreeing, persuading, failing to persuade.

Alas, tempus fugit; that social habit has run its course, though we remain good friends back home in California. For some of us the Ashland experience has lost some luster. I've complained my own share, God knows, about a number of the productions. And for the first time in years, we're not seeing everything this year, not even close to everything.

We are making two trips on our own this year, returning in October for Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and two new plays. And this weekend we've seen three others, with varying degrees of success — ending, I'm happy to say, on an almost unqualifiedly high level.

Friday night we saw August Wilson's play Two Trains Running. We've now seen more than half his ten-play "Centennial" cycle of plays centering on the black experience in Pittsburgh, PA, one play set in each decade of the 20th Century. This is of course a significant cycle of plays, and some of them — notably Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — strike me as unequivocally successful, plays that deserve to stay in the active repertory.

To judge from the current OSF production, Two Trains Running is secondary. The sixth play in terms of order of completion, it's set rather statically, in a down-at-the-heels restaurant threatened with condemnation for an urban redevelopment project. It's 1969, and the bleak coalition of real-estate development and misguided cultural do-goodism has begun the final assault on the flourishing if marginalized black culture that flowered in the Harlem Renaissance and in other American cities from Baltimore to Portland.

In spite of one of OSF's major actors, Kevin Kenerly, who brought detail and energy to the role of Sterling, and Bakesta King's unforgettable portrayal of the waitress Risa, something seemed flat about the performance we saw Friday night. I think the fault lies in the script, which is oddly formulaic and abstract, lacking the memorable characterization of other Wilson plays. Tyrone Wilson was quite moving as the holy fool Hambone, and the rest of the cast did what they could with their lines and direction.

Lou Bellamy makes his OSF debut with this production: he's specialized in Wilson, directing more productions than any other director. He notes that Two Trains Running is true ensemble theater: "it refuses to allow the isolation of any one character." I see this as Wilson's most Chekhovian play; the ensemble depends on the "isolation" or, better, the detailing of each of these characters as they weave through the fabric of the dramatic situation. I suppose I should see another performance.

A FEW YEARS AGO OSF began a new annual feature: a musical is to be done on each year's program. The first out was Enter the Guardsman, and it was triumphant. So was She Loves Me, another neglected standard (based on the Molnar comedy The Shop Around the Corner). Other attempts have been less successful, including The Music Man and a disastrous vulgarization of The Pirates of Penzance.

This year's musical is an adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece My Fair Lady. I didn't want to see it, as it's being given with two pianos rather than the marvelous original orchestration, but I was roped into it. In the event, the piano transcription was reasonably successful (though the violin added every now and then was problematic, being flat far too much of the time). The real problem was the direction.

Amanda Dehnert apparently specializes in mistreating scripts. Last year she cast a woman in the title role of Julius Caesar, throwing in a Kabuki actress for good measure. This year — well, let her make her own case:
While there is something tidy in the relationship of the alive-ness of the theater (risk and reward) and the experience of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins (what they risk, lose, and gain), this tidiness bothers me. Life isn't neat and theatre isn't clean. Life is messy, so should theatre be…
But of course George Bernard Shaw's plays are the epitome of well made plays, and Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of Pygmalion into My Fair Lady is notoriously impeccable. The play is about artifice, and makes its point brilliantly by being artifice itself. It is never vulgar, or slapstick, or in our face, not even — perhaps not especially — in the sections depicting the, ahem, lower classes. Alfred P. Doolittle is, as Higgins says, a philosopher, not a clown.

The Alfred in this production wrestles with direction that belongs in a Vegas club, not an intelligent theater; and to his credit Anthony Heald salvages his role at the end of the night. David Kelly finds a sympathetic Pickering, too; and when he's not made to do incredibly stupid things, Ken Robinson gets more sympathy than the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill usually deserves.

Otherwise, the women provide the best moments in this production. I thought Rachael Warren was an unusually deep and thoughtful Eliza. The marvelously named Chavez Ravine was delightful as Higgins's mother; so was Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Freddy's.

Jonathan Haugen seemed miscast to me as Henry Higgins. Of course anyone in that role has to deal with the specter of Rex Harrison, whose inimitable way with the script and whose authority as an irascible charmer are virtually unique. Haugen enjoyed the role, and often found real character in it, but seemed smaller than this production, noisy and violent throughout, demanded.

O UR VISIT ENDED with a first-rate production and performance of another masterpiece, Tennessee Williams's 1949 A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, Christopher Liam Moore completely trusted the script, directing a performance relying on its insight and poetry and on the fine individual and ensemble acting of the four principals.

Danforth Comins, as dependable a trouper as OSF has, was a magnificent Stanley, balancing the pure animal with mental intensity. Nell Geisslinger was sympathetic throughout as Stella. Kate Mulligan grew throughout the performance as Blanche DuBois, propelling the fragility and fatigue of the opening scene toward the madness and overwhelming tragedy of the close. Jeffrey King found plenty of detail in the role of Mitch, elevating it to a level of dramatic importance almost as high as the other three.

There were problems: the music was too loud and demanding; the set a little unfocussed and fussy; the supporting roles of neighbors and poker-players a bit too strenuous. But the rest of the production, and the portrayals of the central quartet, were so well done those problems receded almost out of memory.

Moore's direction of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 2010, was haunting, powerful, and beautiful. This Streetcar was nearly as triumphant. I hope his work points the OSF future, and Miller's proves to be a momentary detour.

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