Shakespeare aficionados will go to considerable lengths to feed their passion. Stratford-upon-Avon is a good two-hour drive from London, but that doesn’t prevent swarms of vacationers visiting the English capital from negotiating the hundred-mile trip to pay tribute at the birthplace of the Prince of Playwrights. The most highly attended of North American Shakespeare destinations is the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario; it is located more than two-and-a-half hours from Toronto, the big city from which it draws its largest audience, but the cars and buses pour in unabated. So it is with Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the oldest and most revered such enterprise in the United States. Founded in 1935, it is the main magnet for visitors to its small, easily navigated city of 20,000 souls. One can fly into nearby Medford, but since direct routes there from major airports are relatively scarce, far-flung visitors are more likely to drive in from the airports in Portland (300 miles, which means five hours, not counting stops), Sacramento (four and a half hours), Oakland (five and a half), or San Francisco (nearly six).
Is it worth the effort? You bet. Although it has its ups and downs, like any festival does, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a dependable source of fulfillment for theatergoers of many stripes — not just Shakespeareans — and of the 104,000 people who purchased tickets during the 2015 season, 85 percent made the effort to get there from considerable distance. Almost all are multiple ticket buyers, averaging between three and four shows each. The festival has plenty of offerings to choose from: In the 2016 season, which began in February and runs through October, its three theaters keep hopping with 11 plays running in repertory.
The Bard does hold pride of place, but because this season’s five Shakespeare plays are scheduled most heavily in the second half of the season, I was able to catch only Twelfth Night during the first week in June. I regretted it, because the production (directed by Christopher Liam Moore) was a disappointment, done in especially by boorish shouting, rather than nuanced acting, from Daniel T. Parker (Sir Toby Belch) and, to a more moderated extent, Kate Mulligan (Maria). The show’s Olivia (Gina Daniels) and Malvolio (Ted Deasy) were solid but neither seemed born to their roles, and the androgynous part of Viola and her brother Sebastian, separated by shipwreck, got a chipper personification (by Sara Bruner) that seemed about 70 percent Peter Pan. The production had its appealing aspects all the same. It was set in 1930s Hollywood, with Olivia being a diva of the silver screen and Orsino the head of Illyria Studios (with a shockingly inconsistent foreign accent that was ostensibly that of a German or Austrian émigré). Some costumes and stage pictures were memorably lovely, but the whole thing seemed justified mostly by the play’s expanded finale, staged as a ’30s movie musical song-and-dance number. But for that, the production seemed geared more to high-school sensibilities. That was perhaps not a mistake, given the large number of high-school students in attendance, but even they grew antsy far before the end. As consolation, I stopped by the festival’s gift shop and bought the two-DVD set of Twelfth Night in Tim Carroll’s “original practices” production from Shakespeare’s Globe in London (on the Kultur label). That interpretation became a smash hit when it toured to Broadway with its period-authentic all-male cast headed by Mark Rylance as a peerlessly dainty Olivia and Stephen Fry as an unforgettable Malvolio.
The season’s other Shakespeare works are Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale, both in the festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre, a large outdoor theater designed to evoke Shakespeare’s time; Richard II in the intimate Thomas Theatre; and Timon of Athens, in the mid-sized Angus Bowmer Theatre, with the estimable Anthony Heald in the title role. I would hold out great expectations for all of these. And speaking of Great Expectations, only so-so was an earnest theatrical adaptation of Dickens’ novel of that name by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper. It was a tall order to transpose the perils of Pip to the stage, and the writers did so by packing in a succession of fleetly changing scenes and having the actors portray multiple characters. In the end, though, the rather complicated exercise seemed unnecessary, and not an improvement on the original.
The rest of the week more than compensated. The Yeomen of the Guard is not among the most visited of Gilbert and Sullivan’s farcical operettas, but it is as nutty as any of them thanks to a plot that involves a condemned prisoner who wants to get married before he is executed to prevent a government official from inheriting his estate, a father and daughter who plot to spring him from prison so the daughter can wed him, and a plethora of attendant subplots and complications. The director Sean Graney and his colleagues at The Hypocrites, a small Chicago theater company, have previously rethought some of the more famous G&S shows — The Pirates of Penzance as a Caribbean beach party, for example. For The Yeomen of the Guard, their first G&S revision to be premiered away from their home turf, they transpose the action from the Tower of London in the 16th century to a wacky jailhouse in the American Wild West, and they reduce the proceedings to a seamless hour and a half. The songs are at heart the G&S originals, but the actors are given a long leash about how to deliver them. The result veers largely in the direction of country-and-western, with the actor-singers joining in to assist with the instrumental accompaniments on guitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion, and even a musical saw. Some of the songs stick closer to their roots, with several of the performers showing such astonishing vocal breadth that they sound at home even in Victorian bel canto or neo-Renaissance madrigal style. The tweaking of the action includes a modern touch whereby a pair of itinerant singers — a man and a woman in G&S’s original — are recast as two women; their evolving relationship becomes a bittersweet but respectfully affectionate saga of lesbian love misaligned. Most of the audience sits in regular theater seats, but about 70 attendees occupy the stage area, where they interact with the performers, move about to wherever space is available at a given moment (a pair of large merry-go-round horses proved perennially popular), and wander at will to an onstage bar to obtain cheering beverages. Somehow the actors negotiate all the obstacles with unflappable élan. The whole thing is madcap and boisterous, but it was one of the most creative and ceaselessly surprising theatrical undertakings I have seen in a good while.
Two plays of a more serious nature also jumped to the A-list. Well, Vietgone by the Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, is described as a comedy, and it is that. But many of the finest comedies are joined to tragedy at the hip. “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot,” Charles Chaplin once observed, presumably. The tragic background to this play is the world of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, the plight of people sundered from their families back home in a country that no longer exists as it was, uprooted foreigners trying to find new footing in a resettlement camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. In Qui Nguyen’s play, the focus is on the young — two guys and a girl among the refugees, plus an American soldier, all with hormones flowing at full tilt. They’re ready and eager for modern life in the US of A, unlike the girl’s mother, whose stubborn refusal to acknowledge her changed circumstances gives rise to considerable hilarity. The cast seems large, but in fact the 18 characters are played by only six actors, their spot-on portrayals so diverse as to qualify as marvelous. At the heart of the action is the randy magnetism between refugees Quang (James Ryen) and Tong (Jeena Yi), but director May Adrales has molded the whole group into an ensemble of unusual vibrancy. It is a period piece, set almost entirely in about 1975, but it draws on a rich array of popular culture, including more recent styles. Pop ditties from the ’70s are there, but so is anger-laced hip-hop; and one of the most astonishing scenes is a fight between the refugee boys and a redneck biker, played out in detailed kung-fu choreography. Often brash and sometimes vulgar — these displaced persons can swear like stevedores — Vietgone is always entertaining, enlivened by the collision and coalescing of distinct cultural and theatrical traditions. It serves as a challenge to the American memory, which tends to recall the Vietnam War as just a morass of mistaken strategies and intentions. These refugees, however, are uniformly grateful for the United States’ involvement in their internecine conflict, and they make no bones about the fact that they would probably not be alive but for American intervention. The play also takes on immediate relevance when, 41 years after the fall of Saigon, a flood of refugees is again on the march, now from a different part of the world but facing the same challenges refugees always do.
In 2008, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival embarked on a 10-year commissioning project called American Revolutions. The plan was to engender 37 new theater works (37 being the number of plays Shakespeare wrote, more or less) that focus on signal moments of the country’s past as a way to illuminate aspects of national identity. Roe, by Lisa Loomer, was born of that incentive, and it takes on a piping hot potato: the abortion issue. The protagonists are the two women who were on the Roe side of the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, which decriminalized abortion. One is Norma McCorvey, identified pseudonymously in the court papers as “Jane Roe” because a similar case in the works already involved a more standard “Jane Doe.” She is the product of a horrible family environment, is leading a hardscrabble existence in Texas, is hobbled by substance abuse, and is unhappily pregnant for the third time. The other is Sarah Weddington, a relatively untried lawyer who seeks a pregnant woman desiring an abortion who might become a plaintiff in a case tackling the anti-abortion statutes then in force in Texas. A fascinating tale unfolds, complicated by unpredictable shifts in McCorvey’s outlook; after serving as the poster child for the pro-choice movement, she ends up embracing religion and becomes an anti-choice activist. (Yes, this is what happened in real life.) On the whole, these two women don’t like each other. Roe is both a vast political epic and an intimate personal story. Loomer lets her story leap blithely through the years, sometimes relating episodes as reminiscence. Far from being a preachy history lesson, this world-premiere production, directed virtuosically by Bill Rauch (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director), is a feast of intersecting theatrical approaches, embracing song and dance, comical confrontations, wry observations of quaint proto-feminist ritual, even working recordings of the Supreme Court judges of 1973 into the dialogue. The actors render powerful performances. Sara Bruner, as McCorvey, is a tornado of erratic emotion, a character who is both hard to like and easy to sympathize with, improbable as that may sound. Sarah Jane Agnew, as Weddington, provides a sturdy foil for McCorvey’s chaos; her emotional restraint is indeed that of an analytical attorney, but her character seethes with purpose nonetheless. Another standout in the cast is Catherine Castellanos, as Connie Gonzalez, who becomes McCorvey’s lesbian partner (it’s complicated) until Jesus says that’s not OK — and continues to prop her up even after that. Among Loomer’s admirable achievements in this captivating theater work is that although it focuses on a hotly argued issue, it is not itself polemical. Dispassionate and even-handed, it sticks to historical facts (while casting them in an entertaining way), and it manages to put a human face on both sides of a question that indeed stands as a touchstone of recent American history. ◀
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is at 15 S. Pioneer St., in Ashland. The current season continues through Oct. 30; phone 800-219-8161 for tickets.