Ashland is the first town you encounter when driving into Oregon from California on Interstate 5, and it would be an easy town to ignore were it not for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is held there every year. This season is the 77th for the organization since it was founded in 1935 (it was dark during the World War II years). Over those years, more than 20 million visitors have seen the plays that are produced annually.
My wife and I saw four plays this year as we joined a group of 40 or so in a trip arranged and sponsored by the staff of Capital Stage. The plays were pre-selected from the 11 that are in production this season. Here are my reviews of the four we saw (in the order we saw them):
“Henry IV, Part One” – Shakespeare’s 10 historical plays (he also wrote comedies such as “Much Ado about Nothing” and tragedies, including the well-known “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth”) cover the British reigns of kings from the 12th through the 16th centuries, with particular emphasis on the monarchs from the 1400s.
“Henry IV, Part One” is especially popular among the history plays. A primary reason for its popularity is the central role that the old, fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, holds as a bar-buddy of Prince Hal (who ultimately becomes Henry V). Falstaff is a great comic figure, and his scenes enliven the play far more than typical Shakespearean comic-relief might in his many other plays. In the production we saw, the Falstaff role was played by Tyrone Wilson, the understudy of the actor who regularly plays the part. Mr. Wilson did a nice job. His performance was not the problem with the production, which was directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
Instead, the production suffered from an attempt to modernize the story. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t appreciate most attempts to make Shakespeare “relevant” to modern audiences. In this instance, the modernizing efforts included machine guns in lieu of swords and women instead of men. As to the latter, I’m not talking about women actors playing men’s roles; I’m saying that the men in the original script were made women (and then acted by women). Thus, for example, the key role of Hotspur, the rival to Prince Hal in the final act, was a woman. And her wife was also a woman, which made their love scene doubly confusing, since the dialogue still suggested “she” was a “he.” Similar mis-identifications regarding gender occurred throughout the production, leaving many of us bewildered. Suffice it to say, despite excellent acting and fine production values, the overall experience was disappointing.
“The Odyssey” – No, this one isn’t Shakespeare; it’s Homer – the man (or maybe woman, as some now claim, or maybe a bunch of story-tellers, as others have suggested) who told in poems of the great battles over the claim to the beautiful Helen, who had been promised in marriage to a Greek king (Menelaus) but was abducted by Paris of Troy. In “The Iliad,” Homer depicts the culmination of the 10-year war fought by the Greeks and the Trojans over Helen. “The Odyssey” serves as something of a sequel. It traces the 10-year struggle of one of the Greek warriors, Odysseus, to get back to his home, where his faithful wife, Penelope, and loving son, Telemachus, await him.
The story of Odysseus’s perilous efforts to get home has been adapted in any number of updated works (the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is a good one). In sum, Odysseus’ travails were horrific and, one might say, ungodly. Much of his trouble was brought on by the sea-god Poseidon, while he was greatly aided throughout his ordeals by the goddess Athena. Both of these gods, and several others (including a martini-drinking Zeus and a Hermes who looked like a FedEx-deliveryman), played significant roles in the Ashland production. And it was that aspect of director Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the story that I found most appealing, especially in the relationship she shows between Athena and Odysseus (about which, more in a moment).
This production was, in a word, masterful. Produced in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater, it converted the otherwise sparsely set stage into a playpen for the imagination, with a series of brilliantly conceived effects giving the scenes a mix of realism and fantasy. As an example, when Odysseus encounters the Cyclops giant, the giant is shown through a screen as a shadowed enlargement of the actor playing him. Thus when he casually eats some of Odysseus’s crew, the men appear to be little chicken strips in his hand. Effects like that one were fascinating additions to the production, which also benefitted from terrific acting (Christopher Donahue as Odysseus and Christiana Clark as Athena were particularly wonderful).
As to the role of the gods in the story, Ms. Zimmerman’s production focused on the love that Athena obviously had for Odysseus in a way that made meaningful the theistic theme that runs through much Greek literature. It depicts the reverence for the gods in a way that perhaps suggests how the concept of a loving and all-powerful God ultimately became the Judeo-Christian version of a deity who is still pretty popular in modern times. This production made sense of the attraction of belief in gods (or God) in a way that few others I have seen ever have. The closing scene, with Odysseus planting his oar (to secure a good death when that time comes) while Athena looks on lovingly, was pitch-perfect beautiful – the kind of dramatic moment that rightfully brings tears to one’s eyes.
“Shakespeare in Love” – The 1998 film was from a script by playwright Tom Stoppard, and it was a big hit (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes). The staged version was adapted from the film by Lee Hall, and it is directed in the OSF production by Christopher Liam Moore. The story tells of Shakespeare’s love of a woman who disguises herself as a man so as to be able to play a role in one of his plays (“Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter” – ha ha). Complications ensue.
The production was first-rate, with everyone in the large cast appearing to have a good time. We saw a matinee performance on a hot afternoon and were pleased to be inside the Angus Bowmer Theater, thereby avoiding the 100+ degree temperatures outside. But after the brilliant “Odyssey” the night before, the frivolity of this one was a bit of a letdown.
“Beauty and the Beast” – After having seen an excellent production of the Disney-version of the 1991 hit movie at Sacramento’s Music Circus just a month earlier, this production (directed by Eric Tucker) paled by comparison. It wasn’t that anything in the staging of the musical was bad, but little of the humor and charm from the animated film came through in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater. And I’m not sure I need to see a musical when I come to Ashland.
What I do look forward to seeing are productions like “The Odyssey” and versions of Shakespeare’s plays that are produced as originally intended and written. But my complaints about three of the four plays notwithstanding, I would do it all again just to experience the magic of Mary Zimmerman’s “The Odyssey.” And the other three still held up as good, if not great, entertainment.