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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL"

A Journal from Carl A. Rossi

SUNDAY, 28 JULY 2002

My first impression of Oregon was one of smoke - the soothing voice over the plane’s intercom said that if we looked out to our left, we could see the smoke drifting over from the forest fires raging in the western part of the state. I looked, and there - almost in silhouette - were the famous mountains and forests of Oregon (I’d been reading my guidebook), blanketed in what appeared to be the cool, gray mists of dawn. Here and there, trees tore through this blanket like spikes, and I could see winding, narrow dirt roads lacing the sides of their mountains; roads so narrow, you’d swear a child had traced them in with its finger. The flatlands were yellow - not golden fields of wheat, but parched, tinderbox grass. Oregon is in a drought.

My second impression of Oregon was one of heat - a dry, scorching heat that hit me when I stepped out on the sidewalk of the Medford terminal. The smoke had turned the landscape to fuzz, and the smell of burnt cinnamon was everywhere - luckily, the smoke was gentle; diffused - my eyes didn’t burn, nor did I cough; but I soon wished for a cooling rain to wash it all away, to clear the air, and to let the mountains give me a proper welcome.

As I was shuttled into Ashland, the smoke and the heat rode on ahead of us. Yellow continued to run riot, along the highway and up into the hills - what would happen if a careless smoker....? Amazingly, the trees - both leaf and needle - were still green; holding tightly onto their chlorophyll.

And, yet, despite the heat and the smoke, the plays of Shakespeare and others are still being performed in repertory at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and audiences are still flocking to see them - including myself, for the first time (I will be attending the Festival’s productions of Michael Frayn’s NOISES OFF, Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, and Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE and TITUS ANDRONICUS).

* * *

I am staying at the Columbia Hotel (262-1/2 E. Main Street), recommended both for its affordable rates and its being within walking distance of the Festival (“yes” to both). The block was built in 1910 as a planned row of two-story shops; several years later, this particular building was re-designed as the Columbia. Its front rooms, overlooking E. Main Street, still have the inner doors that shoppers would have passed through; those doors have long been sealed shut and blocked with bureaus or chests of drawers; they still peep out at you, though, Kilroy-like.

I’m in Room 21, overlooking Enders Alley - named after the man who designed the block. The room offers a bed, a bureau, a chair and a sink (no phone or television; no air conditioning - an overhead fan stirs the hot, cinnamon air above me). Thus, I shave in my room, use the Men’s Room just around the corner (one of two toilets, each in its bare little closet - I must return to my room to wash my hands), and then move farther down the hall to take a shower. If someone calls in for you, using the hotel’s main number, one of the friendly clerks will tap on your door and hand you his own cell phone; otherwise, you can communicate through the old-fashioned phone booth in the lobby, complete with sliding door to wedge you in (local calls: fifty cents). This set-up may strike some people as being primitive, but the alley is quiet and the Columbia is smack-dab in the middle of things, so I don’t mind “roughing it” while I’m here. I expect I’ll be out most of the time, anyway.

The Ashland Public Library and the Siskiyou Pub (at either end of downtown E. Main) have computers available for the public, so I’ll be able to check my mail (though the Pub has you peering at your screen in near-darkness; your ears are soon ringing from its jukebox).

I picked up a free copy of Ashland’s SNEAK PREVIEW newspaper and headed over to Geppetto’s (345 E. Main or “Eat Main” as written on its awning), known for its Italian cuisine (and, no doubt, its Old World collection of straw baskets and paraphernalia that line the upper portions of its walls). I ordered a cheeseburger and a raspberry lemonade - the burger was quite good - afterwards, I went back to my room for a quick lie-down, then strolled out at dusk to see downtown Ashland at night.

* * *

Ashland lies cradled between the Cascade Mountains in the east and the foothills of the Siskyou Mountains in the south. Its architecture - simple and direct (though a bit showy here and there) gives the downtown area the look and feel of a Gold Rush town in an old-time Western (one building could become the Last Ditch Saloon; another, the Grand Opera House). E. Main Street is its spine, with its tail bone becoming N. Main. Bright red banners with crowned yellow lions rearing up on their hind legs dot these two streets as a constant proclamation, boast and reminder that from February to October, Shakespeare is King here; his Festival, the lifeblood of the town. To quote my guidebook, “....the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the largest classical repertory theater in the country and has the largest audience of any kind of theater in the United States. The annual attendance generally exceeds 350,000.” The town quiets down somewhat when the Festival closes, but it by no means lies dormant: Old Man Winter brings in the skiers.

[Amy E. Richard, the Festival’s Media Relations Manager, comments: “Attendance does exceed 350,000, but remember that’s tickets, not people. Surveys report that our patrons see an average of 3.5 plays. We project that some 100,000 to 110,000 people come to the Festival.”]

Shakespeare is King here, and its inhabitants - born-and-raised natives; former flower children; urbanites who have fled the big cities - cater to his followers. Walk up and down E. and N. Main Streets; even without the yellow lions on their red banners, the Bard is never far away: for example, there’s Shakespeare & Company Bookstore (154 E. Main); CD or Not CD (343 E. Main); The Tudor Gift Shop (68 E. Main), where you can buy everything from sweatshirts, books and videos to Shakespeare lollipops; even Tree House Books (15 N. Main), a children’s store, offers “Baby Shakespeare - Exploring Vocabulary Through Poetry and Video”. And, of course, you’ll find Our Will at the Festival itself.

What do Ashland’s non-theatre residents make of all this? How many of them are aware that in terms of reputation their town’s Festival is on a par with Stratford-on-Avon’s productions or Germany’s Passion Play at Oberammergau (again, quoting from my guidebook)? Many an Ashlander will volunteer his/her services as ushers, etc. - three-quarters of the Festival’s budget comes from earned income; thus, such services are gratefully welcomed. On the whole, Ashlanders seem contented (resigned?) to playing host to the playgoers and tourists who descend on their town (“... [the] Festival contributes more than $24 million annually to the local economy....”). The mood here is low-key; down to earth; a fast-moving, fast-talking Easterner (such as myself) tends to stand out in this crowd.

Many an Ashland youth sports baggy clothing big enough for two - we’re talking authentic Grunge, now - and the girls dress closer to Mother Earth than Sister Britney. (There is an amazing lack of pornography here.) Whether on the street or from behind a counter, Ashland’s young people seem respectful, shy, even friendly, to their visitors. I passed two teenagers, boy and girl, sitting on the sidewalk. “Mister, can you spare some change?” asked the girl. She and her companion looked no different from others their age, so I walked by without offering assistance. The next time I passed them, the girl once again said, “Mister, can you - ?” “No, no,” said her friend. “You already asked him.”

I bought a fruit smoothie (lumpy with ice) at the Ashland Outdoor BBQ’s Food stand at the bottom of E. Main, followed by a caramel apple, sliced to go, at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (33 E. Main) and then turned up Pioneer Street to look over the Festival grounds.

* * *

I was at the Festival before I knew it. I thought I would have to walk up the hill at least a good mile or so, envisioning something along the lines of Massachusetts’ Shakespeare & Company, spread out on its own estate in the Berkshires; instead, I was surprised to find the Festival’s three theatres - the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, the Angus Bowmer Theatre (named after the man who founded the Festival in 1935), and - across the street - the New Theatre, all neatly tucked away just behind E. Main Street, about a minute’s walk up Pioneer.

I could hear a man and a woman declaiming from AS YOU LIKE IT through the Elizabethan Stage’s open doorway. A red-vested usherette sat just outside, chatting with some people. Another usherette soon joined them, and she and I struck up a conversation (Ashlanders are quite easy to talk to, and, especially if you’re from the East, you may be surprised that they will often start the conversation).

CARL: Have you seen any of the shows?
USHERETTE: I’ve seen all of them.
CARL: How are they?
USHERETTE: Everyone’s coming back to see NOISES OFF. It’s very funny.
CARL: How’s VIRGINIA WOOLF?
USHERETTE: Very good. But very intense.
CARL: Do they bring out the play’s humor?
USHERETTE (reflecting): Well, it’s not really a comedy. Some people come out afterwards, holding their heads. They’re devastated.
CARL: How’s THE WINTER’S TALE?
USHERETTE: Well, I liked it. It got some controversy, though.
CARL: How? (Dreading her answer....)
USHERETTE: They set Act One in the late 1940s, and Act Two in the ’60s. (Laying her hand on her chest:) Well, I think it works, even if some people feel you shouldn’t tamper with Shakespeare.
CARL: How do they do the Bear? (“Exit, pursued by a Bear.”)
USHERETTE: You hear it, but you don’t see it.
CARL: They don’t bring it on?
USHERETTE: No.

A roar of laughter from the audience within more or less terminated our conversation. I thanked the usherette, then moved out to the street to munch on my caramel apple, which promptly glued my teeth together.

Standing in the middle of Pioneer Street (no traffic is allowed there after 8:30 p.m. on theatre nights in order to cut down on street noise), looking south, I could see the Cascade Mountains faintly in the distance (the burnt cinnamon smell and the heat had receded, now that a cool(ish) wind had begun to blow - but the smoke still remained). The combination of smoke and twilight gave the parched mountains a pinkish quality, and with its zigzag patterns of what seemed to be evergreens, the Cascades eerily resembled the planet Mars. I turned around and looked up at the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, rising majestically behind the Festival (they are most impressive when you walk towards N. Main), their evergreens still giving the appearance of something rich and thriving despite the drought. I turned back to study the barren face of the Cascades - and I sensed Something emanating from it - a Spirit of the Mountains, protecting this little town that lay in its lap? Perhaps Angus Bowmer - a modern pioneer - felt this same way when he set out to build his dream and knew that this was the place to do it.

When night had finally descended, the foothills of the Siskiyou became a towering black wall, and the Cascades vanished altogether - yet I still felt a Presence.

Walking along E. Main, back to the Columbia, I noticed that Ashland’s one and only movie house - the Varsity - was all aglow in neon, upstaging everything around it. (It currently offers MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING; THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; THE ROAD TO PERDITION; DANGEROUS TIMES OF ALTAR BOYS; MINORITY REPORT; and - ironically - REIGN OF FIRE.) Most of the little shops and restaurants had closed by now; the town was turning in for the night. I was about to enter the Columbia, then decided to see what its own facade looked like. I crossed the street and was walking along the outside of the parked cars for a better view, when a police car cruised by. Its driver leaned out and said, politely but firmly, “Uh, sir, please walk only on the sidewalks.” I obeyed, and he drove on.

I checked in, chatted for awhile with the evening clerk, walked down the hall to take a shower, then it was Lights Out for myself.

[End of Day One]

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Excerpts from THE ASHLAND DAILY TIDINGS - July 29, 2002:

ELK CREEK RESIDENTS EVACUATE
Timbered Rock Fire blows up 11,000 acres; firefighting costs soar

Erratic afternoon winds fueled the Timbered Rock Fire, which has so far burned 11,000 acres, resulting in skyrocketing fire fighting costs and home evacuations.

“As of yesterday, the cost of fighting the fire was $1.9 million,” said Howard Hunter, fire information officer for the Bureau of Land Management. ...

About 100 residents of the Elk Creek area have been asked to evacuate to the Elk Creek School because of the Timbered Rock fire. ...

Bill Johnson, spokesman for the Cache Mountain command center, said firefighters had the upper hand until the wind came up at 3 p.m. and a spot fire jumped the line.

“A spot got out and made a run and it exploded, just like that,” he said. “It just pushed everyone that was close out of the way.”

The fire had burned 3,700 acres and was 25 percent contained late Sunday night. ...

A total of 15 major fires, all started by lightning, were burning across 272,422 acres in Oregon, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. More than 11,500 firefighters battled the blazes.

* * *

MONDAY, 29 JULY 2002

The smell of burnt cinnamon woke me in the early hours, and I had to shut my window in order to get back to sleep. The winds had shifted, bringing in the latest wave of smoke.

I headed down to the Greenleaf Restaurant (49 N. Main) for breakfast. The sky was still gray fuzz (the Cascades were barely visible), and the sun, doing its damnedest to poke through, promised that today would be another scorcher. O, for some rain, and a clear blue sky!

Ashland itself was barely awake.

A car, here. A pedestrian, saying, “Good morning”, there.

The Ashland Drugstore (275 E. Main), already open. The other stores, telling us we have to wait until 10:00 a.m.

The Varsity movie house, so vibrant the night before, now looking lifeless without its neon blood pulsing through it.

The Ashland Spring’s Hotel, the town’s skyscraper (eight stories), with its imposing gold eagles guarding the main entrance.

The Elizabethan Stage, the Angus Bowmer Theatre and New Theatre, dark and silent, for now. Even Shakespeare must sleep.

The Clay Angel (101 E. Main), noted for its sign over the door that reads “Ganiard Opera House, 1889”).

City Hall - a big sugar cube with red and white striped awnings; it could pass for a barbershop or confectionery.

A workman, tearing old flyers and announcements off the kiosk in the little triangle where E. and N. Main come together.

Construction workers, wearing hardhats and already sweating, patching up parts of N. Main.

I was the day’s first customer at the Greenleaf, and I asked to sit at the counter (the kid in me). Shakespeare pops up even here: “Ah, what food these morsels be!” is the menu’s legend. I was waited on by a shy, sweet little Asian girl, who smiled and said, “Great” to everything I said. I ordered the ”Full Stage” (eggs, bacon, a homemade scone, and a side dish of fruit), and it was delicious.

While I ate, more earlybirds filed in, and they all asked if they could be seated outside. By the time I paid my bill, my curiosity had grown so that I had to see where everyone had gone to or die, so I fell in line with my little waitress and her latest round of customers and followed them upstairs and out onto the tiny patio, where you can eat while a tiny branch of the Ashland Creek flows alongside the restaurant. But that burnt cinnamon smell made me glad that I ate inside.

By now, cars had started to snake up E. Main. Wake up, Ashland: it’s Monday, again.

Strolling up N. Main, I entered Lithia Park (“a must on any itinerary here” says my guidebook), designed by John McLaren, who also designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Though the Park boasts 100 acres, what little I did walk through was lovely. Amazingly, the well-trimmed lawns are quite, quite green - not a dry patch anywhere. The SNEAK PREVIEW mentioned that Ballet Rogue would present its 18th annual Ballet in the Park series at the Band Shell tonight, free to the public, so I went in search of it ahead of time (I can get lost like nobody’s business). I passed a small playground along the way, and I did something I hadn’t done in years - I sat down on a swing and swung for a good five minutes, feeling happy and free (again, the kid in me).

I passed several people who pointed out the way to the Band Shell, which sits at the base of a gentle, sloping lawn. (The Shell resembles half of a large shed, waiting for the other half to be constructed.) Two men were onstage, doing warm-ups prior to jogging.

CARL: Good morning.
MAN 1: ‘Morning.
CARL: Is this the Band Shell?
MAN 1: This is it. There’s a list of events posted on the side, there.
CARL: I hear there’s some free ballet tonight.
MAN 1: Yep. Every Monday.
CARL: Any good?
MAN 1: Depends on what you mean by “good”. They’re local dancers.
MAN 2 (makes a ”so-so” gesture; then): Come Thursday night, instead. Listen to the band.

Back on E. Main, I bought some postcards at the drugstore, mailed them at the post office on Lithia Way and 1st Street (Lithia Street has green banners with white crowned lions), then walked over to the Public Library - which also opens at 10:00 (a statue of a pensive young woman with a lowered torch resides on the corner - “They lighted the way”). I checked my email, then headed back to the Columbia. The maids were cleaning the front rooms, and since their doors were open, I peeked inside some of them. For the record, at least one room (the Master Suite?) offers not only two queen-sized beds and a couch, but also a sink, a toilet and a bathtub. No phone or television, though.

* * *

You can easily put on weight here. I have yet to find a convenience store anywhere, so I’m obliged to eat in one of many, many restaurants on E. or N. Main - and I’m always fed well. One can also drop a few coins here, too, at the numerous shops - considering how small downtown Ashland is (you can briskly walk the length of E. Main in about 15 minutes), there is truly something for everyone here. Already I have in my possession a handful of refrigerator magnets and Festival souvenir programs from The Tudor Gift Shop; some out-of-print CDs (Shakespeare, of course) from Paddington Station (125 E. Main), billed as “Ashland’s Eclectic Emporium”; and a book or two from The Blue Dragon Bookshop (used; at 297 E. Main). If you’re a theatre person, you may (or may not) be surprised at the well-stocked theatre sections in Ashland’s used bookstores - no doubt supplied by theatre artists/goers who came, who saw, who went. There is even a Footlights Theatre shop, where you can buy Hirschfeld caricatures and Broadway posters, three time zones away from their source. A theatre person needn’t starve here, food- or culture-wise.

Guilty mid-morning pleasure: I bought a ”bear” (caramel-covered macadamia nuts wrapped in milk chocolate) from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Delicious.

* * *

The drifting smoke really started to thicken this afternoon; even E. Main turned fuzzy. The Cascades had already vanished behind its screen - yet I still felt its presence.

My late-afternoon lunch was a chicken Caesar salad at Ashland’s Outdoor BBQ’s Food stand, and that, too, was delicious - the lettuce and tomatoes must’ve been native-grown. An overhanging hose sprayed a cooling vapor over those of us who ate at the counters.

* * *

Walking, eating, walking, shopping, walking - and waiting for the week’s Festival to begin tomorrow night.

* * *

Suppertime, and I was off to The Black Sheep (51 N. Main), which specializes in British pub food and drink. In spite of the heat, I ordered Irish stew (lamb), with Spotted Dick for dessert (no wisecracks, now). The former: sublime; the latter: less so (slices of what seemed to be dry, crumbling spice cake with hot custard poured over it). But the waitress told me that Monday is always Spotted Dick Night, so it was on the house (in order to get rid of it?).

I miscalculated the time for Ballet Rogue’s performance at the Band Shell: it had started at 7:30, so by the time I got there, the lawn was packed and I had missed “Change: A Rag Ballet” and “Spring Water: A Flamboyant Russian Pas de Deux”. I caught the tail feathers of “Swans: A Dramatic Symphonic Ballet” with eight ballerinas, ranging from 12 to 16 years old, prettily (if unsteadily) going through their routines to the accompaniment of piped-in music. During intermission, a female mime in a bowler hat spent 15 minutes trying to get out of an invisible box, set to fiddle and accordion music (two other female mimes, standing with open bags at stage left and right, blew kisses to anyone who put in a donation). The evening’s showcase, Act II from LA BAYADERE (“The Kingdom of the Shades”), brought the eight girls back onstage, with a handful of other girls from the area to round out the troupe, and two soloists to dance the roles of the mourning swain and the shade of his beloved. (Two blasts of dry ice from the underworld caused snickers in the crowd: “Gee! SMOKE!”)

The leads were more than satisfactory; I focused on the young girls (again, no wisecracks, please). Some of them showed real potential, of actually becoming Dance Incarnate in the future. But, for now, they must learn to keep their balance and to still their trembling thighs whenever they stand en pointe.

Back to my hot, cinnamon room to sleep; perchance, to toss. The week’s Festival starts tomorrow, and I’ll be there. Good night.

[End of Day Two]

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Excerpts from THE ASHLAND DAILY TIDINGS - July 30, 2002:

FIRES ON COLLISION COURSE
Bulldozers build fire line in attempt to aid 17,000 residents

SELMA - Bulldozers worked today to build a last-ditch fire line to protect the 17,000 residents of the Illinois River valley while changing weather brought mixed news for firefighters.

The 71,000-acre Florence fire burned three to four miles from a string of communities in southwestern Oregon.

Fire spokeswoman Pam Leschak said weather forecasters were calling for slightly cooler and moister weather, marginally lowering the volatility of burning conditions. But winds moved to the northwest, increasing the danger that the fire would press closer to Cave Junction, O’Brien and Selma.

The fleet of bulldozers was moving north and south from Woodcock Mountain, located halfway between Cave Junction and Selma. They were building a fire line one bulldozer wide along the ridgetops about a mile from U. S. Highway 199, said U. S. Forest Service Illinois Valley District Ranger Tom Link.

The fire line was holding on a portion of the eastern flank of the fire, said Oregon State’s Fire Marshall office [sic] Tim Birr.

“Whether the wind will move the fire, we don’t know,” Birr said. ...

More than a dozen fires, all started by lightning, had burned across more than 350,000 acres in Oregon, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. About 13,000 firefighters and support personnel battled the blazes.

* * *

TUESDAY, 30 JULY 2002

Another sleepless night - a dry, roasting heat; one that won’t even let you break into a sweat. I got up around 3 a.m., typed until 4:30 a.m., then lay down again - and actually dozed off. Woke up around 8:00 a.m. and typed until it was time to go check my email over at the Public Library.

Stepping out on the sidewalk, I again smelled smoke (the winds had shifted back towards Ashland), but it wasn’t burnt cinnamon - now it smelled like SMOKE, even though the haziness hadn’t increased - or decreased. I began to wonder should I go purchase a surgeon’s mask....?

(Wouldn’t this make an interesting play, if you substitute, say, “plague” for “fire”: a troupe of actors should flee the city along with everyone else, and yet they are obliged to remain because the King has requested they perform for him and so they wait and wait for his summons - never knowing that he is already dead. How many of them succumb as they wait? It could be an interesting study of Reality vs. Illusion; the Importance of Art vs. the Futility of Art; etc. Or is the heat simply getting to me?)

The second floor of the Public Library has a full mural-like view of the Cascade Mountains, scorched - and waiting. It must look magnificent in the autumn, with a deep blue sky behind it....

I headed over to the Ashland Bakery (38 E. Main) for a late breakfast of muselix, fresh fruit and yogurt, and then went back up Pioneer to the Festival.

The Festival’s courtyard - its Box Office is outside (at 6 o’clock) - already had people lining up for tickets; one man - wishing to sell his - sat with them spread out in a fan, which he used to bat the hot air around him. (Has the smoke caused many cancellations?) I checked to see if my tickets and press kit were ready - they were - and moved on. The three theatres may look silent on the outside, but each is the proverbial beehive of activity within - armies of technicians and staff are assembling or dissembling sets, stepping along the catwalks to readjust the lights, washing and ironing costumes, combing out wigs, and keeping the administrative side of the Festival running smoothly.

* * *

Hooray! There IS a supermarket of sorts within walking distance - the Ashland Community Food Store (237 N. 1st Street), an organic cousin to, say, Bread & Circus. Today I bought enough non-refrigerated staples to get me through impromptu meals or late-night munchies. Good! I can’t keep answering the siren call of restaurants - I’d come back to Boston looking like Falstaff, for sure.

* * *

How odd - I stepped out this afternoon, after a nap, and the smoke seems to be gone. I mean, GONE. Blue sky, with a few clouds in the distance. I walked along E. Main, sniffing like a bloodhound, but couldn’t smell cinnamon, smoke, ANYTHING. The dry heat remains, though; but at least that seems to be the sole reason why the Cascades still seem fuzzy; indistinct. Will the winds blow it all back our way tomorrow?

Must get ready now for NOISES OFF - tonight, this week’s Festival begins!

* * *

NOISES OFF
by Michael Frayn
directed by Kenneth Albers
presented at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Scenic Designer: Victor A. Becker
Costume Designer: Anne Murphy
Lighting Designer: Robert Jared
Sound Designer: Andrew Hopson
Dramaturg: Lue Morgan Douthit
Voice and Text Director: Scott Kaiser
Movement Director: John Sipes
Stage Manager: Gwen Turos
Production Assistant: Lori Bettencourt
Assistant Director: Carolyne Haycraft

The Cast:

Dotty Otley / “Mrs. Clackett” ... Dee Maaske
Lloyd Douglas ... Michael J. Hume
Garry Lejeune / “Roger Tramplemain” ... David Kelly
Brooke Ashton / “Vicki” ... Tyler Layton
Poppy Norton-Taylor ... Becky Meyer Corbett
Frederick Fellowes / “Philip Brent”, “Sheikh” ... Richard Howard
Belinda Blair / “Flavia Brent” ... Catherine Lynn Davis
Tim Allgood ... Christopher DuVal
Selsdon Mowbray / “Burgler” ... Richard Elmore

Michael Frayn has written a clever, clever farce and while the packed house alternated between roars of laughter and gasps for breath, I could only sit there and smile in admiration at such cleverness. But, then, I’m a playwright myself, and we’re like that.

NOISES OFF is a play-within-a-play: the onstage and offstage antics of an English theatrical company as they tour the provinces with a silly sex farce entitled NOTHING ON (written by one “Robin Housemonger”, who never appears - pity!). Act I is the final run-through, just minutes before Opening Night (and there are still quite a few glitches); Act II - one month later - takes place backstage (with the set in reverse), to show how the company’s romantic entanglements have begun to outdo those of their onstage characters; Act III - two months later - is NOTHING ON seen from the audience’s point of view again, with the production on its last legs, the script in tatters, and the frazzled/indifferent actors just trying to get through another damning performance.

Again, I have nothing but admiration for Mr. Frayn’s achievement - in particular, Act I, where he brilliantly captures the frayed nerves, the ”darlings”, the gossip, the infatuations, and the ego clashes of theatre people; and I smiled and smiled, for I know and once worked in situations like that (had I continued as an actor, I’d be Mr. Frayn’s “Frederick Fellowes”, forever seeking out character motivation from his director). But Act Two turns mechanical with its silent-film pratfalls (Mr. Frayn’s witty dialogue all but vanishes), and the engaging leading lady - aptly named “Dotty” - becomes just one of nine juggling plates on sticks; as a result, the play loses its focus and totters on chaos; and Act III is such a rehash of all that has gone before it that I began to wonder, “What is the point?” (though there is an existential element lurking underneath; i.e., “Why am I spending my life onstage, pretending to be someone I’m not?”).

Mr. Frayn is very much the Star of his own play; that is, he has written a farce of such hair-trigger complexity that his director, actors (and set designer) cannot depart too much from his blueprint without risking the entire structure collapsing over their dizzy heads - and they must be top-notch clowns, as well. Happily, the OSF has such a team. Director Kenneth Albers nicely sets up the nine sticks for the spinning plates of Acts Two and Three, lightly fleshing out what are essentially stock characters (the talentless blonde sleeping with the director; the alcoholic has-been, etc.), and he and Movement Director John Sipes have devised a crazy, split-second ballet that sends human bodies hurtling through space as often as those endless plates of sardines (example: in Act Two, Catherine Lynn Davis, playing the troupe’s mother-hen, suddenly leaps up to a higher level and swings under its railing like a chimpanzee in order to make an entrance in time).

The cast is pure gold; limber of tongue (good accents) and well as body. If I must call back a few for a second curtain call, they would be Michael J. Hume as the director - all long hair, scarf and lofty arrogance; David Kelly as a rubber ham bone, forever stretching and snapping back between hysteria and urbanity (he does an amazing chunk-chunk-chunk down the stairs, head first); and, especially, Dee Maaske, as the embattled leading lady, whose changes of the heart midway through the show’s run opens up as many cans of worms as it does of sardines. One treasurable moment: midway through Act III, when “Dotty” turns to an understudy suddenly filling in for another, Ms. Maaske’s face becomes a merger of the Comedy and Tragedy masks: should she laugh? Should she cry? What else can they do to her?

Stick around during the first intermission, where you can witness Victor A. Becker’s cartoon set being turned completely around in one piece to show the backstage world of NOTHING ON - quite a little showstopper in and of itself. (During Act Two, you can even see the actors through the reversed window, now playing “downstage” - brilliant!)

Though I only smiled throughout NOISES OFF, I cannot begrudge a man whose sole purpose is to make people laugh (and, judging by his audiences, he succeeds), and I was always a sucker for the Carol Burnett-Harvey Korman “Funt and Mundane” disaster sketches (Ms. Burnett played “Dotty” in NOISES OFF’s short-lived film version), so if you haven’t seen OSF’s production, then I think you should. Your heart may not be touched, but your funny bone will be tickled.

[End of Day Three]

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Excerpts from THE ASHLAND DAILY TIDINGS - July 31, 2002:

RESIDENTS READY TO FLEE
Evacuation routes posted in Illinois Valley as wildfires rage out of control

CAVE JUNCTION - Firefighters worked today to reinforce their last-ditch line of defense against a 30-mile wall of fire threatening Oregon’s Illinois Valley, as more residents left with their belongings.

Josephine County sheriff’s deputies were scheduled to post signs today marking the four evacuation routes out of the southwestern Oregon valley that is home to 17,000 people.

Commanders of the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires in southwestern Oregon had ratcheted the evacuation notice Tuesday, urging residents to be packed and ready to leave within 30 minutes of a notice to be carried on local radio.

Weather conditions worsened this morning with red flag warnings going up, calling for strong winds out of the north and low humidity on the ridge tops where fire is already spotting miles ahead.

“We are looking at the fire at this time as uncontrollable,” said Greg Gilpin of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

* * *

WEDNESDAY, 31 JULY 2002

Last night’s weather seemed near-miraculous - the wind had blown the smoke away, and for the first time since I’ve been here, I saw a blue sky with small clouds and a lovely, streaked sunset. It was as if the fires out west had never happened, and only the summer’s heat was causing the Cascades to shimmer in the distance.

And I slept well, too - no tossing and turning for this lad.

But the smoke came back by mid-morning today, so it was back to Square One as I headed over to the Festival grounds for a tour of its theatres.

* * *

Once again, I am amazed how three theatres could be built into a relatively small space right off of E. Main Street; all of them, designed by Richard Hay. There was a good-sized crowd already waiting out the New Theatre where the tour was to begin. We presented our tickets and filed into the New.

A brief (very brief) history: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival began in 1935, when English professor Angus Bowmer (1904-79) persuaded the town of Ashland to fund three evenings of Shakespeare during the Independence Day weekend (two shows of TWELFTH NIGHT; one show of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, with Prof. Bowmer as Shylock); all of them to be performed on the site of the old Chautauqua dome, built in 1893. The town fathers were so convinced that Prof. Bowmer’s scheme would put them in the red that they insisted on adding boxing matches to draw in the crowds. Ironically, the fights lost money but the three evenings of Shakespeare made enough to pay for both, and the Festival continued to grow over the years (apart from 1941-46, when there were no productions due to the war). The current Elizabethan Stage (there were two others from 1935-1957) was built in 1959, modeled after the Fortune Theatre, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s Globe. By the late 1960s, ticket demands to the Festival had grown so high, that a second theatre - the Angus Bowmer Theatre - was built in 1970. In the late ‘70s, a nearby car showroom that had been bought by the OSF to be used as rehearsal space was converted into the Black Swan Theatre. In a repeat performance, ticket demands to the Black Swan’s productions led to the New Theatre being built and completed last year. (The Black Swan has reverted back to being used as a rehearsal space.) The outdoor Elizabethan Stage caters primarily to the Bard in the summer months; the Angus Bowmer Theatre produces both classical and modern works, while the New Theatre concentrates on smaller and/or more experimental pieces - and they are all within less than a minute’s walk of each other. Amazing.

Each of the OSF theatres has its own size, shape and personality. From the outside, the New Theatre (360 seats) is a small, brown, split-level box. The plain, beige Angus Bowmer Theatre (601 seats) resembles a circular warehouse, topped with greenhouses. Beyond its ivy-covered wall rises the dignified Elizabethan Stage (1,190 seats) - also beige, and built to resemble a ”wooden O”.

The colorful set for THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN INDIES was still in place as we filed into the New’s auditorium, where we were greeted by “Cassius” from JULIUS CAESAR, who gave a talk and then answered questions. The New is, at heart, a theatre-in-the-round (square, really), but its retractable rows of seats can be shifted, added or subtracted to fit the needs of each particular production. PLAYBOY’s set is against the far wall, making the area a three-quarter thrust stage (270 seats); the auditorium will revert back to an arena for OSF’s small-scale production of MACBETH (I was amused that “Cassius” did not refer to MACBETH as “The Scottish Play”; he admitted he does not believe in the traditional superstition that disaster falls on the actor who calls the play by its rightful name).

We then split into groups; my new guide was “Martius” from TITUS ANDRONICUS (his Big Moment is when he falls into a tiger pit), who led us into the Angus Bowmer Theatre’s auditorium. The set to NOISES OFF had been removed; replaced by the red-tiled kitchen for the matinee of SATURDAY, SUNDAY, MONDAY, to be followed by the evening performance of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The set crew were vacuuming and putting the final touches in the ”kitchen”, so “Martius” was upstaged throughout his lecture. The Angus Bowmer Theatre’s stage and auditorium have a truly unique design: there is no proscenium arch. The black walls of the auditorium continue down to and behind the playing area; the sets are then built into, you could say, a niche at the end of this large room, creating a feeling of intimacy between actor and audience. (Is there fly space? I forgot to ask.)

“Martius” then led us into the circular bowels of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, to the Greenroom area (painted in cream). He explained that the OSF is America’s only repertory theatre that at the height of its season has three productions playing simultaneously each night; here, below stage level, the Elizabethan and the Bowmer actors meet and mingle while waiting for their respective cues, where you might see a Shakespearean king playing chess with a chorine from IDIOT’S DELIGHT. (There are no “star” dressing rooms, by the way; the ensemble spirit begins each night with the actors being made-up, fitted and bewigged in shared space.)

I had long begun to mentally stamp my feet for the Elizabethan Stage; finally we were led into the offstage area where “Martius” showed us a few of the costumes, props and lighting effects created by the OSF design teams, and then out onto the Elizabethan Stage and into the stadium-like auditorium. (The chairs are sturdy green plastic and surprisingly comfortable.)

The set for AS YOU LIKE IT was still in place, which consisted of a large curled raked stage that resembled a giant tongue coming at you. Behind it rose up the theatre’s permanent structure: a triumph of wood and scaffolding, painted in slate black and gray, with multiple entrances, a back entrance to be “discovered” in, a second level for any and all balcony scenes, and way, way up in “Heaven” - a flagpole where a banner is run up to announce that there will be a play performed that day or evening.

WOMAN: How does all this smoke affect you as an actor?
“MARTIUS”: It can play havoc with your voice and your energy level. You just have to do your vocal warm-ups very carefully.
WOMAN: Has a show ever been canceled because of the smoke?
“MARTIUS”: No yet. I was told that several years ago, during a performance, fiery cinders were falling onto the stage, and yet the show went on in spite of it.

* * *

CARL: Has the Festival ever done an all-male Shakespeare production?
“MARTIUS”: Not yet. In fact, the trend nowadays across the country is to go the opposite route and have all-female productions, or to have certain male roles played by women, to give actresses more of a range than they would usually have in conventional Shakespeare productions; Shakespeare wrote many great women’s roles, but the men’s role far outnumber them.

* * *

Ms. Richard was kind enough to supply answers to my questions regarding (1) the actors employed for the season; (2) the composition of the Festival’s audiences; and (3) media coverage:

“(1) Probably 30-40% of the actors own homes here in Ashland, Talent or Medford and live here year round. Actors who don’t reside here live in company housing or housing that’s been arranged through the company. In the dark months of November and December, many actors travel or take other jobs.

“(2) Median age is 53, 5% non-white. We do have an audience development program in efforts to diversify. Our student groups come in the spring and fall - we get about 60,000 students who come here, which accounts for about 120,000 tickets. Our recent audience demographics show 45% from California, 34% from Oregon, 14% from Washington and 7% other.

“(3) We are reviewed by papers from major cities throughout the West Coast, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle and Portland. At our openings in February (4 shows) and then again in June (3 Elizabethan shows and the two shows that opened in April), we generally get 40-50 writers who see the shows and write reviews. The only shows that get less coverage are the late openers (THE PLAYBOY OF THE WEST INDIES slot and the SATURDAY, SUNDAY, MONDAY slot). Ben Brantley [of The New York Times] came out here in 1997, but we haven’t had much New York coverage. Much of our coverage from East Coast papers (USA Today, for example) focuses on us as a destination. So it is less a review than an article about the Festival and Ashland offerings. Yes, we get very good local coverage. The Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass papers review all our shows, and we get radio and TV coverage (not reviews) as well. We work very hard to get writers and reviewers here because this is our main way to get the word out. We have a small advertising budget and can’t depend on that.”

Ms. Richard added, “Your tour guide was mistaken. Libby Appel [OSF’s Artistic Director] directed an all-male cast of HENRY IV, PART TWO in 1999 on the Elizabethan Stage - a very well-received production.”

* * *

After leaving the Festival grounds, I went to Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, where I bought OSF souvenir programs from 1949-69; ironically, the one issue I’m missing is from 1954 - the year I was born. Looking through them, I was fascinated and moved to see the parade of actors who had come and gone over the years, and how the ”conventional” Shakespeare look had dominated the first half of the Festival’s existence, before the Elizabethan Stage was built in 1959. Judging by the photographs, dark curtains served as scenery for much of the time; no doubt, the actors’ skills and the audience’s imagination overcame all shortcomings.

“Art is born of restraint and dies from freedom.”

* * *

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
by Edward Albee
directed by Timothy Bond
presented at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Scenic Designer: William Bloodgood
Costume Designer: Constanza Romero
Lighting Designer: Dawn Chiang
Dramaturg: Lue Morgan Douthit
Voice and Text Director: Scott Kaiser
Movement Director: John Sipes
Stage Manager: Gwen Turos
Production Assistant: Mandy Younger

The Cast:

Martha ... Andrea Frye
George ... Richard Elmore
Honey ... Christine Williams
Nick ... Jeff Cummings

You lucky, lucky souls who have tickets to OSF’s production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? - fasten your seat belts, and get ready for an unforgettable Long Night’s Journey Into Day.

The setting is the living room of George and Martha’s house on the campus of a small New England college. George (age 46) is a history professor; his wife, Martha (age 52) is the college president’s daughter. Martha is loud-mouthed, alcoholic and frustrated; she constantly berates George for having had neither the guts nor ambition to succeed her father. George endures Martha’s abuse, though he often gives as good as gets (he thrusts and parries where Martha bludgeons). And then there’s their son.... On this particular evening, George and Martha return home from a faculty party (where the play’s title was sung to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”). Martha, already tanked, announces that a young professor and his wife, new to the college, are stopping by for a nightcap. George protests; Martha insists. Enter Nick and Honey, to all appearances the picture-perfect couple; but, ah, underneath.... What begins as a nightcap turns into the now-famous Evening of Games: “Humiliate the Host”, “Get the Guests”, “Hump the Hostess”, and “Bringing Up Baby”. By play’s end, all of the characters’ falsehoods, lies and pretensions have been summoned up, shattered and swept away, leaving George and Martha clinging to each other amidst the dawn and the rubble.

It is hard to believe that Mr. Albee’s dance-to-the-near-death turns 40 years old this year, for his dialogue still packs a wallop. WOOLF has gone through several sea changes since it first appeared in 1962: its frankness and brutality shocked many way back when (it was refused a Pulitzer Prize on moral grounds); then it was seen as an allegory of all that was rotten with America, with George and Martha (Washington) as the besotted parents of our country; then Mr. Albee was “outted” for awhile and George and Martha were pointed at as two male lovers in disguise (with Martha as a sign of Mr. Albee’s misogyny); happily (hopefully), WOOLF now seems to have settled into the niche where it belongs, as a powerful, well-crafted study of a love-hate relationship. The Reality Factor cries out now and then (for example, Nick and Honey would have made tracks after having one drink), but Reality goes off to hang itself once the Games begin and all Hell breaks loose.

How to present WOOLF to today’s audiences? In the Cold War/Kennedy era, with the counterculture right around the corner? Or in today’s times, with George and Martha as two flower children gone to seed? Director Timothy Bond and Costumer Constanza Romero have chosen the former; the wiser choice, thank you - not only for a few topical references but because Albee wrote WOOLF in the era when Middle America got drunk, not stoned. In what is basically a 3½ hour sit-down play, Mr. Bond keeps the action flowing seamlessly throughout Mr. Albee’s solos, duets and ensembles; masterly orchestrating them so that the play doesn’t simply become One Big Noise - and he has brought out much of WOOLF’s black humor, both sparkling and mordant, that streak through the play like claw marks. Whereas I only smiled throughout OSF’s NOISES OFF, I laughed out loud - and often - at its WOOLF; but, oh, the emotional hangovers I suffered between intermissions, for Mr. Albee’s lethal cocktail goes down smooth, so smooth, but how it burns once it’s deep within your gut....

Though WOOLF by rights belongs to George, its sardonic ringmaster, OSF’s production boasts a near-definitive Martha in Andrea Frye, a big, seductive woman who keeps her character scaled down to human size without removing any of the warts or turning down the volume (what a powerhouse of a voice!) - thus, she teases as well as stings (it’s so easy to play Martha as Turandot). Throughout the evening, Ms. Frye continues to surprise us: her Martha deeply loves her husband despite what she says or does; she is an intelligent, sophisticated woman and not some low-life broad (though alcohol makes her act that way); and in her sudden moments of sobriety she reveals herself to be a jolly (if spoiled) girl at heart. Bravo!

Ms. Frye’s triumph in no way diminishes Richard Elmore’s achievement as George; on the contrary, he is her perfect counterpoint: small in stature but titanic in wit and cunning (twice he stopped the show with his one-upmanship speeches), and, in the end, brutally humane - a stunning contrast to his doddering has-been in NOISES OFF, which I had seen the night before. Whenever Mr. Elmore and Ms. Frye lock horns onstage, you don’t root for one or the other - you laugh and bleed for them both.

By contrast, the characters of Nick and Honey come off as rather colorless (their sole function seems to be showing that the younger generation is no better than their elders), but they were nicely realized by Jeff Cummings and Christine Williams. Mr. Cummings shows a crack sense of timing in Nick’s lengthy exchanges with George (they’re a vaudeville team without either character knowing it), and Ms. Williams’ pert suburban shepherdess gradually slides into a sodden, haunted Ophelia (even the green of her dress somehow turns sickly).

William Bloodgood’s large, warm, sloppy set design wonderfully evokes Martha herself - and Ms. Romero gives that good lady three character-revealing costumes: Act One’s fire engine-red dress with a heart-shaped opening to expose a tempting hint of cleavage; Act Two’s black-and-leopard “Sunday chapel dress”; and Act Three’s back-to-earth shirt and slacks. A few bugs that I must swipe at: the nagging, PSYCHO-like strings sawing away before the show and during intermissions; and Dawn Chiang’s sky stubbornly remaining at midnight throughout until sunlight pops through at the final curtain. Other than that, hosannas all around.

Thank you all for this WOOLF; it can knock on my door anytime.

[End of Day Four]

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Excerpts from THE ASHLAND DAILY TIDINGS - August 1, 2002:

FIRST WAVE OF EVACUEES EXITS FIRESTORM
Up to 500 people either leave or promise to flee as wildfire advances

CAVE JUNCTION - About 500 people have either left their homes in the Illinois River Valley or told officials of their intention to do so as the largest wildfire in the Coast Range in years burned out of control today.

The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office said 400 people have evacuated their homes and registered with the Red Cross, and about 100 more have notified the police of their intent to leave. ...

The Biscuit Complex, including the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires, held steady at about 186,000 acres overnight. Containment was only at 5 percent, fire officials reported.

Holding the top priority in the nation for scarce resources, fire commanders called in more helicopters, bulldozers, hotshot crews and top-level management teams.

In all, three of the nation’s 16 top-level management teams are on the Biscuit Complex.

About 15 major wildfires were burning on more than 423,000 acres in Oregon on Thursday, battled by 13,000 firefighters.

* * *

THURSDAY, 1 AUGUST 2002

The daily routine now seems to be cool morning with no smoke, followed by thickening smoke (with heat) in the afternoon to the point where the air becomes near-impossible to breathe, followed by the shifting winds blowing it all away by early evening. Repeat.

Man cannot breathe by Smoke alone....

* * *

THE WINTER’S TALE
by William Shakespeare
directed by Michael Donald Edwards
presented at the Elizabethan Stage

Scenic Designer: Michael C. Smith
Costume Designer: David Zinn
Lighting Designer: Robert Peterson
Sound Designer: Robby MacLean
Additional Music: Jacob Elijah Aginsky
Dramaturgs: Barry Kraft, Lue Morgan Douthit
Voice and Text Director: Ursula Meyer
Voice and Text Assistant: Rebecca Clark
Movement Director: John Sipes
Choreographer: David Hochoy
Stage Manager: Bruce Wallace Hostetler
Production Assistant: Lori Bettencourt
Assistant Director: Scott Werve

The Cast:

In Sicilia:

Leontes, the King ... John Pribyl
Hermione, the Queen ... Catherine Lynn Davis Mamillius, their son ... Kyle Barnes

Lords:
Camillo ... Kenneth Albers
Antigonus ... Barry Kraft
Cleomenes ... James Edmondson
Dion ... Christopher Burris
Leptus ... Cristofer Jean

Ladies:
Paulina, wife of Antigonus ... Demetra Pittman
Emilia ... Catherine E. Coulson

A Jailer ... James J. Peck
A Mariner ... James J. Peck

In Bohemia:
Polixenes, the King ... James Newcomb
Florizel, his son ... Jos Viramontes
Archidamus, a lord ... Robert Vincent Frank
Old Shepherd ... Michael J. Hume
Clown, his son ... Christopher DuVal
Perdita, the lost daughter
of Leontes and Hermione ... Tyler Layton
Autolycus ... Ray Porter

Shepherdesses:
Mopsa ... Saffron Henke
Dorcas ... Becky Meyer Corbett

Time ... Robert Vincent Frank

Ensemble:
Stan Brown, Christopher Burris, Becky Meyer Corbett, Catherine E. Coul son, Robert Vincent Frank, Jim L. Garcia, Saffron Henke, Cristofer Jean, Nancy Lee-Painter, James Peck

Musicians:
Jim Calhoun, Joe Diehl, Crystal Reeves

This is the third production I’ve seen of Shakespeare’s Late Romance of Jealousy/Winter and Forgiveness/Spring, and though I would not say it is the best of the three ­ the other two had their moments ­ but it is certainly the most enjoyable.

For the longest time, THE TEMPEST was the only one of Shakespeare’s Romances performed on a regular basis, but THE WINTER’S TALE has slowly, slowly been gaining on it (can CYMBELINE be far behind?). The TALE may never be placed alongside the masterpieces of Shakespeare’s Mature Period nor may it ever become “popular”, but it is endlessly fascinating to see or read and a tempting challenge for directors, actors and designers - the challenge being Acts I-III are darkest tragedy (Leontes’ irrational jealousy leads to the deaths of his wife and son and the banishment of his newborn daughter) and Acts IV-V are healing, pastoral comedy (the daughter is found; husband and wife are miraculously reunited), and how to join these distinctly different halves into a whole?

The main source for the TALE comes from Robert Greene’s novel PANDOSTRO, OR THE TRIUMPH OF TIME (1588); in the novel, the King’s jealousy leads to his wife’s death and daughter’s banishment; years later, the King commits suicide after conceiving a passion for his newly-found daughter, now a grown woman. Seen as a tragedy, this suicide seems both inevitable and just; but Shakespeare broke off this ending and brought in the rogue Autolycus, shepherds, a sheep-shearing festival, and the Statue of Hermione. Why? Perhaps Shakespeare wanted to send his audience home happy; perhaps to show that people can change for the better; but, even more so, perhaps he changed the ending for himself, both as Man and as Artist (his Sonnets and OTHELLO show he was no stranger to sexual jealousy), and it comes as no surprise that THE TEMPEST soon followed: serene, forgiving, and Shakespeare’s farewell.

If you love THE WINTER’S TALE - and I do - you’re bound to come to each production with your own list of Things To Look For. Here is mine:

1. How is Leontes’ sudden jealousy brought about?

Some scholars say that King Leontes of Sicilia already harbors suspicions that his Queen, Hermione - in her ninth month with child - has cuckolded him with his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia and that his prompting her to beg Polixenes to stay on with them is to confirm these suspicions, thus his “Too hot, too hot!” aria is ready to be sung, in all its dark orchestrations.

For the OSF production, Hermione - after persuading Polixenes to stay - suffers a kick from her unborn child; Polixenes gallantly leads her to a chair where they sit and chat upstage - at one point, Hermione allows Polixenes to place his hand on her belly. Leontes: “Too hot, too hot!” The concept works, not so much in the interpretation, but in the casting: John Pribyl’s Leontes is tall, gaunt, and Nordic (dare I say Aryan?); whereas Catherine Lynn Davis’ Hermione and James Newcomb’s Polixenes are warmer, the same height, and possess a brother-sister sense of fun that unintentionally shuts out the doubting, repressed Leontes.

2. What are the countries of Sicilia and Bohemia like?

Shakespeare switches the kingdoms of PANDOSTRO; thus, Bohemia becomes the Great Good Place; the Land of Spring. (He has taken ribbing through the ages for this action, for Bohemia has no seacoast to lay the banished infant on - but Shakespeare’s Bohemia, like Prospero’s Isle, is not to be found on any map.)

Director Michael Donald Edwards and his designers Michael C. Smith (sets), David Zinn (costumes) and Robert Peterson (lights) set Silicia somewhere in a cold northern Europe in the late 1940s - early 1950s (accompanied by “heavy” classical music); jet black, slate gray and frozen red are the colors of Leontes’ kingdom (Hermione’s trial eerily evokes the Nuremberg trials). Spring has never smiled on this Sicilia, with its solemn curtains and icy mirrors, so worthy of a Snow Queen. In startling contrast, Polixenes’ Bohemia becomes the day-glo land of hippiedom in the Groovy 60s (sans drugs) - and, surprisingly, it works. Peace.

3. What about the Bear? (“Exit, pursued by a bear.”)

No bear. You only hear the beast. Grr!

4. Are the tragic and comic strands blended in this production?

Yes, they are. That so-crucial scene - here, the end of OSF’s Act I - which starts with a hair-raising storm (excellent sound by Robby MacLean), the abandoning of Perdita, followed by Antigonus’ death, and then pivoting 180 degrees to the warming comedy of Old Shepherd and Clown is so well done, with its blues and grays suddenly giving way to all three levels of the Elizabethan Stage lighting up in lemon-lime colors, with Old Shepherd and Clown entering as long-haired hippies - our (my) generation’s equivalent to Shakespeare’s pastoral farmers. When I think of how many talents went into pulling off this little scene - Messrs. Edwards, Smith, Zinn, Peterson, MacLean, Barry Kraft (Antigonus), Michael J. Hume (Old Shepherd) and Christopher DuVal (Clown) - I can only bow in admiration.

5. How is Time dressed and played?

As the lights dim for Act II, the Byrd’s recording of “Turn, Turn, Turn” is heard over the sound system. A cardboard cut-out of the Apollo space module is lowered, while Time - dressed as an astronaut - ascends through a trap door in the stage. Time removes his helmet, revealing an adorable Robert Vincent Frank made up to resemble Albert Einstein (sans dialect, thank you). The effect is show-stopping and joyous and prepares the way for the paisley parade to come.

6. How is Autolycus played?

This rogue is not always listed in synopses of the TALE, since he has no direct bearing on the plot; Autolycus provides an ironic “city” counterpart to Old Shepherd and Clown’s rustic innocence, and thus a personality actor is needed. Happily, OSF has such a one in Ray Porter, whose Autolycus - dressed in seedy yellow-and-orange hipster threads - could have stepped right out of a San Francisco head shop. Mr. Porter plays him as a counter-culture trickster, but not a mean one (I have seen a mean Autolycus - brrrrr! What a cold spring THAT was!), and he is blessed with a funky singing voice for the pop arrangements of Autolycus’ ditties. When Mr. Porter - sporting a white afro and dressed like an Elvis swinger - crashes the sheep shearing festival in a flower-power VW to sell his wares (his parchment ballads now become 45s), he - and Mr. Edwards’ 60s concept - won me over.

7. How is the Statue Scene done?

Either the Queen really died offstage (Leontes says he will view her body and then bury her with their son) and this is marble come to life, or Paulina has hidden her away for sixteen years (hints Hermione). Either one is implausible, but, oh, how moving it is when Hermione steps down to embrace her repentant husband! I believe the second approach works best - for once Perdita has been found, and the two Kings have bonded again, all that needs to be done is for Paulina to produce Hermione - and the oracle’s prophecy is fulfilled.

Here, the Statue rises up through the trap door, with Ms. Davis draped and posed in semi-recline, wearing immaculate white - sadly, at the performance I attended, an evening breeze ruffled the drape of her train, which in the Souvenir Book does indeed look sculpted. (In my sillier moments, I would love to see the Statue of Hermione posed as a Vargas Girl, chatting on the phone....so much for my being a purist!) The final image of the production are Leontes and Hermione, alone, kissing. All is forgiven.

In addition to Mr. Porter and the delightful clowning of Messrs. Hume and DuVal, other standouts include Mr. Kraft’s burly Antigonus (so bearlike himself, he truly goes to meet his Maker); James Newcomb’s engaging Polixenes (he makes a hilarious hippie when disguised); and Catherine Lynn Davis’ moving (if chirpy) Hermiones (her declaiming voice recalls Billie Burke - “And Toto, too!”). But John Pribyl’s Leontes begins as a bare bone and remains one even when repentant, and Demetra Pittman is the third Paulina I’ve seen played as a soapbox shouter and not as a lady of the court. (Why do so many of today’s actresses turn Shakespeare’s women into fishwives?)

For my next TALE, I would like a Bear, please - or must I run across the stage myself?

[End of Day Five]

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Excerpts from THE ASHLAND DAILY TIDINGS - August 2, 2002:

BACKFIRES STALL BISCUIT BLAZE
Black swath aids in firefight; cool weather gives crew a break

SELMA - A shift in the wind allowed firefighters to torch miles of brush in an effort to save thousands of homes in southwest Oregon.

Hotshot crews poured fire from drip torches, burning a black swath of safety for the 17,000 people of the Illinois Valley. With each mile of burnout added along the 30-mile front of fire, the threat to the towns of Selma, Kerby, Cave Junction and O’Brien diminished.

By this morning, a front of moist, cool air had descended on the fire. The moisture level had risen to a point where firefighters had trouble lighting some burnouts overnight, officials said.

“We’re close to turning a corner, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Illinois Valley Fire Chief Kyle Kirchener said.

* * * [FRIDAY, 2 AUGUST 2002]

TITUS ANDRONICUS
by William Shakespeare
directed by James Edmondson
presented at the Elizabethan Stage

Scenic Designer: William Bloodgood
Costume Designer: Susan Tsu
Lighting Designer: Robert Peterson
Composer: Todd Barton
Dramaturg: Douglas Langworthy
Voice and Text Director: Scott Kaiser
Movement and Fight Director: John Sipes
Assistant Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo
Assistant Director: Michael Barakiva
Stage Manager: Jill Rendall
Production Assistant: Mandy Younger

The Cast:

The Romans:

Saturninus, son of the late Emperor ... Ray Porter
Bassianus, his brother ... Gerson Dacanay
Titus Andronicus, general against the Goths ... William Langan
Marcus Andronicus, his brother,
tribune of the people ... Mark Murphey

Sons of Titus Andronicus:

Lucius ... Jeff Cummings
Quintus ... Stan Brown
Martius ... Craig Bridger
Mutius ... Jake Street

Lavinia, daughter of Titus Andronicus ... Julie Oda
Young Lucius, son of Lucius ... Ian Greenberg
Publius, son of Marcus Andronicus ... S. A. Rogers

Kinsmen of Titus Andronicus:

Sempronius ... Dane Bowman
Caius ... Chance Carroll

Aemilius, a noble Roman ... Jim L. Garcia
Servant to Young Lucius ... Alicia Mandelkow

The Goths:

Tamora, Queen of the Goths ... Judith-Marie Bergan

Sons of Tamora:

Alarbus ... Danforth Comins
Chiron ... Cristofer Jean
Demetrius ... Gregory Linington

The Moors:

Aaron ... Derrick Lee Weeden
Nurse ... B. W. Gonzalez

Ensemble:

Craig Bridger, Dane Bowman, Stan Brown, Chance Carroll, Danforth Comins, Gerson Dacanay, Jim L. Garcia, Alicia Mandelkow, S. A. Rogers, Jake Street

Out of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is perhaps TITUS ANDRONICUS - his macabre tale of murder, lust and revenge in ancient Rome - that can bear the weight of (and even take off with) a director’s feverish interpretation. The OSF’s current production, though commendable, IS one for the squeamish; i.e., all of TITUS’ gruesome highlights are there but carried out with taste and discretion (example: when Titus bids his handless daughter Lavinia to carry his own severed hand between her teeth, the latter chooses to cradle it in her arms). Though I prefer my Shakespeare well-done, this is one production where I would have liked him raw. (“Aim for the groundlings!” I cry.)

Titus Andronicus, an old Roman general, comes home from his latest triumph, that of conquering the hated Goths. Out of gratitude for his years of service, the people of Rome offer Titus the position of Caesar, which he graciously refuses and grants to Saturninus, the eldest son of the previous Emperor. Among Titus’ prisoners of war are Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor, her secret lover. When Titus has Tamora’s eldest son put to death in retaliation for the death of his own sons in battle, the Queen begins to spin her web by becoming Saturninus’ Empress, heeding the Moor’s wicked counsel (and bearing him a son out of wedlock), and using her remaining sons - Chiron and Demetrius - as her instruments of revenge, resulting in an unstoppable flow of murder, rape, disfiguration and cannibalism on all sides; happily, virtue does triumph in the end. There isn’t another play in Shakespeare’s canon quite like TITUS, which prompts some critics to conclude (1) this bloody little shocker couldn’t have come from the pen of the Swan of Avon; or (2) if it did, then Shakespeare was deliberately parodying the popular blood-and-gore genres of his day (just when Titus starts to rise to tragic heights in his madness, you realize in a flash ‘twas all a ruse to catch his own flies).

Director James Edmondson may share Opinion No. 1, for he keeps his TITUS at arm’s length, perhaps hoping to slip the play past the audience as a forerunner of the tragedies of Shakespeare’s Middle Period and not as a Shocking Good Time. His interpretation works well enough, and some stylistic touches do make the same point as would a bucket of Red No. 2 (the slitting of two throats is suggested by the miming of a knife crossing its victims’ necks, trailed by a bloody strip of cloth). But, overall, this TITUS lacks the primal power that an over-the-top production would give to its wooden characters and its comic book plot (“STAB!” “CHOP!” would be its balloons) - let us not forget that the audiences in Shakespeare’s day liked their violence as lusty as their comedy (this was an era of drawing-and-quartering, among other real-life tortures), and many an actor would have concealed on his person a bladder of blood (real, no doubt, from the local butcher) in order to gush when pierced with a dagger or rapier.

That said, there is much to enjoy in the OSF production; in particular, its five villains, who are far more engaging - and amusing - than the play’s dull, virtuous characters (even Titus himself is hard to love; he’s incredibly pigheaded from start to finish). Judith-Marie Bergan plays Tamora, Queen of the Goths, with Wicked Stepmother relish (she brings a wonderfully droll delivery to her lines, without a trace of Camp), and she is ably partnered by Derrick Lee Weeden’s sensual Aaron the Moor (Mr. Weeden doesn’t flinch from the play’s many racial slurs, some of which Aaron himself spouts) - I’m sorry to have missed his noble Brutus in OSF’s JULIUS CAESAR. Ray Porter, too, delights with the subtler side of Saturninus, but his voice clouds up terribly when he rants; and Gregory Linington and Cristofer Jean are fascinating as Tamora’s barbaric sons - they lounge magnificently all over the stage, watching and waiting like pet leopards.

William Langan does well enough as Titus, but he bears such a striking resemblance in looks and temperament to Anthony Hopkins (who starred in the recent TITUS film adaptation) that I felt I was watching not a performance but an imitation, albeit a good one. Julie Oda and Gerson Dacanay make a charming couple as Lavinia and Bassianus, but their voices quickly harden in declamation - Ms. Oda is far more affecting when mute and handless, trembling under Mr. Langan wing; and Mark Murphey contributes a lean, taciturn and flat-voiced Marcus.

Susan Tsu has designed suitably pagan costumes (though the villains tend to dress like rock stars); for me, the most haunting part of William Bloodgood’s set design are those pots of (fake) fire that dot the stage during the nighttime scenes; they instantly evoke ancient Roman interiors and create long, ominous shadows that coat the walls during entrances and exits.

My next TITUS will be back in Boston at the Ubiquity Theatre, produced as an extra-ghoulish Halloween show with rock music, and Boston’s all-male Gold Dust Orphans could always do a camped-up version. Neither company may be faithful to Shakespeare’s text, but they may also zero in on TITUS’ bloody heart - more so than Mr. Edmondson’s tasteful, almost apologetic production.

[End of Day Six]

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SATURDAY, 3 AUGUST 2002

I left Oregon the same way I came - in smoke; those magnificent mountains and forests were still blanketed in gray. Hopefully the fires will soon be under control.

Still, I’m glad I went: the Town of Ashland is charming; its residents, friendly; great restaurants and shopping, too; and, of course, there’s the miracle of the Festival itself (with at least one performance - Andrea Frye’s “Martha” in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? - worth telling your grandchildren about). Would I go back? Yes, in spite of the six-hour flight to San Francisco, the one-hour shuttle to Medford, and the taxi/van into Ashland. Be advised, though: you need to reserve your tickets well in advance, and a season subscription is recommended - these productions sell out on a regular basis, especially the New Theatre productions (360 seats, max).

Of course, New Englanders/New Yorkers may choose to go no farther than Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, which also offers a charming town and its own mountain range (the Berkshires) and is bolstered by the town’s Tanglewood Festival (concerts) as well as Jacob’s Pillow (dance) in nearby Lee. S&Co. is also in the process of constructing its own Elizabethan stage replica, based on the Rose Playhouse. Apples and oranges - I still recommend the Ashland experience, at least once.

Will Boston ever have a Shakespeare festival to rival the OSF or Shakespeare & Company? Right now, we have the Publick Theatre on the Charles River (I have yet to attend one of their productions) and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which recently closed it sixth (seventh?) season with HENRY V on a makeshift stage constructed on the grounds of the Boston Commons. The CSC performances are free and well-attended, and Artistic Director Steve Maler (who recently joined the staff of the Wang Theatre) has done a commendable job of bringing the CSC to life, a feat that Angus Bowmer himself would have applauded. Still, the CSC has quite a ways to go - many of its actors squeak by when it comes to speaking blank verse, and as I not-so-gently pointed out when reviewing last summer’s TWELFTH NIGHT, Mr. Maler’s Bard interpretations leave much to be desired - though he has now raised my hopes with his faithful-enough HENRY V, despite the ”gimmick” he wrapped around it. In his opening speech to this summer’s audiences, Mr. Maler mentioned the possibility of having two productions up and running for next summer (as does the Publick Theatre every summer); it would be a wise move for Mr. Maler to invite Dr. Anthony Cornish of Tufts University to share the directing honors - last year, Dr. Cornish directed a dream production of ROMEO AND JULIET with student actors - mere babes - in Elizabethan costumes, and it was one of the finest nights in the theatre I had attended in a long, long time. That college production was worthy enough to have been transferred intact to the Commons. (I think a two-production summer season - one traditional Shakespeare, one not-so-traditional - would go over very well, even if it could mean CSC having to charge admission to swing it.)

Does Boston have the financial backing, public interest, and the location to construct a permanent outdoor theatre along the lines of OSF’s Elizabethan Stage? In terms of funding, I can only go by the occasional email alert that the City of Boston keeps threatening to cut back on its funding of the arts - not a good start (the CSC has already been forced to cut back on its number of performances). The word “free” is enough to bring out audiences who wouldn’t normally pay to see Shakespeare, so an audience can be cultivated. The location? That’s a tough one, but not an insurmountable one - with its own theatres snugly tucked just behind E. Main Street, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has proven that a theatre can be shoehorned in just about anywhere. The Boston Commons may be too small for a permanent structure; in Cambridge, perhaps, or along the Charles River (wouldn’t that be a coup: two Shakespearean playhouses on the banks of our own Thames!)?

Does Boston have local actors for Shakespeare? I could give you the names of a good handful of men (and a few women) to form the core of a troupe - the up-and-coming would need to be trained in declamation, swordfights, physical comedy, and - so important! - theatre history (a good dramaturg would be worth his/her weight in gold). In my review of HENRY V, I brought up the question of whether or not Mr. Maler continue to bring in “name” actors instead of grooming the local talent (his choice of a Henry was unfortunate, as was New Rep’s choosing another “name” actor for their near-farcical KING LEAR several years ago).

And, finally, anyone who comes to sample Boston theatre will find plenty of other things to see and do, both in and out of town. If a miracle could happen in a little town in Oregon, I don’t see why it can’t catch fire as well in the so-call Hub of the Universe.

* * *

Some may read these scribbles of mine as a whole-hearted endorsement of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the expense of Boston’s own theatre scene. T’ain’t completely so: in the past few years I have seen enough growth in the theatre community to give me hope: new theatre companies are popping up (though some have already folded); this year alone, I have seen many good-to-excellent productions and ensembles, with audiences seeking them out instead of simply running to the more-expensive Broadway imports, and actors are choosing to remain in the area instead of taking off for New York or the West Coast. In my review of THE HOUSE OF YES several months ago, I mentioned the importance of repertory companies being formed here, which would give actors, directors, and designers (and don’t forget the playwrights!) the financial security they need along with a sense of familiarity amongst themselves, which can go a long ways towards enriching their productions, as well as testing themselves as artists.

But in terms of accomplishment, right now I would have to give the laurels to Ashland: its Festival is open eight months out of twelve; at the height of its summer season, it has three shows - classical or contemporary - running simultaneously, Tuesdays through Sundays; and it continues to draw top-notch actors, many of whom can make enough of a living to stay in the area. Perhaps, in another twenty-five years or so, the still-young CSC may have its own theatre and corps of actors, directors and designers who can call it ”home”; in the meantime, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival could prove to be a role model as to How It’s Done.

“O brave new world, that has such people in it!
Let the theatre thrive here! And so ... we begin it.”

- from ROMEO BANN’D; libretto by Carl A. Rossi

* * *

For more information on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, go to:

http://www.osfashland.com/


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