Friday, March 28, 2014

Three Plays in Ashland: The Cocoanuts; The Tempest; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

Eastside Road, March 27, 2014—
FOR YEARS WE'VE SUBSCRIBED to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the impressive repertory company in Ashland, where ten or twelve plays are given over a season lasting nearly nine months. In addition to Shakespeare, the repertory these days runs through primarily American plays, including a number of new plays, a few revivals, and, recently, a musical or two.

We've been attending these plays so long we've seen the artistic direction change generations, and — getting on ourselves, and perhaps not as generous about change as we might be — I've been concerned about some of the change. I miss the international rep — Ibsen and Chekhov seem to have faded away.

I'm restless about some of the Shakespeare productions, which sacrifice the Bard's poetry too often to gimmicks apparently meant to make his substance more relevant, more accessible, to contemporary audiences. (The low point was a Troilus and Cressida set in the recent American-Iraqi war.)

Not all the new plays have seemed worth the effort to me, though some have offered interesting contemporary foils to Shakespeare — Tony Taccone's Ghost Light, for example, and Robert Schenkkan's plays on the Lyndon Johnson presidency. And some of the musicals have been sadly compromised by more of that gimmicky "updating": here the low points have been The Pirates of Penzance and My Fair Lady.

So this season we've bought tickets to only five of the eleven plays — only to find, this last week, that the first three of our choices were really very good, well worth the price of admission. If only I could find reviews I can trust of the remaining shows, I might be tempted to give them a chance!

The three plays we saw couldn't be more different. The Cocoanuts, with book by George S. Kaufman and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, was written in 1925 for the Marx Brothers, who improvised or otherwise contributed a good deal of its shtick. Any revival faces the problem of those brothers, of course: they need to be recognizably Marx, but should go beyond simply presenting impressions. This is where the tight ensemble and even talent of the OSF company can really shine, and we were more than happy with Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Eduardo Placer in for Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and, yes, Zeppo (the romantic lead).

The Cocoanuts is vaudeville brought to the somewhat more legitimate theater, and the musical component is fairly important. Jennie Greenberry was a fine soubrette as Polly Potter, the female lead, with a really attractive voice and sharply defined comic acting; and K.T. Vogt did well with the heavy role of her mother. Kate Mulligan and Robert Vincent Frank were just as detailed and engaging as the villains, Penelope Martin and Harvey Yates; and the rest of the cast were up to the marks as well.

The play alternates between sweetness and zaniness, and David Ivers's direction managed that alternation with apparent ease, profiting from Richard Hay's design and Meg Neville's wonderful costumes. I'd love to go back for another look at the show later in the season, to see how they keep it so fresh and funny.

The Tempest saw a fine, thoughtful production in Ashland in 2002, when Penelope Mitropoulos took the lead role, changing Prospero's gender as Prospera, and bringing new, larger resonance to Shakespeare's theme of reconciliation through understanding, patience, and forgiveness.

Then in 2007 the play suffered, I thought, from a more equivocal, tentative production centering on a lead actor who — in spite of repeated successes in other roles here over the years — seemed uneasy with his assignment and uncertain as to the play.

This year the play again hesitates with its lead. Denis Arndt is a diffident, sometimes almost playful Prospero, relying on Daniel Ostling's design, Alexander Nichol's marvelous lighting, and Kate Hurster's often powerful Ariel, rather than on his own voice and stage presence, for the brittle, mercurial force and inventiveness of his magic.

But the production really works well. Shakespeare's familiar contrasting levels of society are acted and directed thoughtfully and effectively but also dramatically, even entertainingly. The Italian nobility, the mariners, above all Stephano and Trinculo (Richard Elmore and Barzin Akhavan), all address Shakespeare's lines, the plot's requirements, and the audience's engagement.

Wayne T. Carr was a fine Caliban, I thought, his resentment sympathetic and his role ultimately reclaimed. Kate Hurster's Ariel was perhaps a bit too big in its conception, but effective and often beautiful. Like her father, Miranda (Alejandra Escalante) flirted with diffidence. In the end, though, they seem like contemporary Americans looking on as their alter egos enact this great play, bringing yet another layer of meaning to the stage.

I wish I had time, patience, skill, and scope to write about Lorraine Hansbury's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window with the insight and substance the play deserves. It's a big, important, powerful play, addressing serious issues both societal and individual. It is narrative theater at its best, I think, set on a plot with beginning, middle, and end, presented through characters who are sympathetic, understandable, now and then surprising. And while the mood is generally serious and occasionally flirts with tragedy there is humor and affection.

The play was badly received at its opening in 1964 — it was too big, too "difficult" for the commercial entertainment critics. Hansbury was already dying (pancreatic cancer); if there were any thoughts of revisions, there was no strength to achieve them. I think some judicious cutting would improve the play: a long drunk scene seems perilously like a bitter survey of postwar absurdist theater.

But Juliette Carrillo's direction makes it clear that this is a perfectly workable, stageworthy play, and the cast pretty well nailed their assignments: Ron Menzel in the title (lead) role; Sofia Jean Gomez as his wife Iris; Erica Sullivan as her brittle, aloof sister Mavis; Vivia Font in the small but pivotal role of the third sister, Gloria; Armando McClain, Danforth Comins, and Benjamin Pelteson in the significant roles of Alton the (mixed-race) friend, Wally the politician, and David the upstairs gay playwright. We saw Jack Willis as the abstract expressionist down the hall; he was just as solid, detailed, and engaged an actor as all the rest.

As you can perhaps tell by the capsule descriptions in the previous paragraph, Hansbury weaves plenty of strands into this dramatization of social issues of midcentury America. It was fascinating to come to know the play just after a reading of John Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of our Discontent, written just a few years earlier. Both writers deal with corruption; both are aware that it is an inevitable and perhaps even a necessary component of the social human condition, as the human reach for ideals always stretches beyond the grasp of the compromises without which daily life seems unbearable and impossible.

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