jeffsoesbe (jeffsoesbe) wrote,
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The Ashland visit Report: July 2009

When you go to Ashland, Oregon to attend plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and you're usually seeing two plays a day at 2:00 pm and at 8:30 pm, and the plays last 2.5 hours or so each, life quickly reduces down to the basics, as follows:

- wake up at 9 or so
- small breakfast or slightly larger brunch
- often, swim in the pool (at the request of A)
- if small breakfast then some lunch, else have a diet coke
- walk 1 mile into downtown
- see a play
- have dinner
- dessert, usually at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory
- walk back to hotel
- usually, kids stay at hotel and watch TV (E babysits A)
- walk back to town
- see a play
- walk back to hotel
- awake for a bit chatting about play, go to sleep

Two meals a day is more than sufficient when you're not working out and basically sitting on your butt or sleeping most of the day, and the 4 miles of walking is more than enough to get some fitness.


Ashland is an absolutely great town, because besides the plays there are many fun shops, many bookstores (used and new), great scenery and parks, plenty of tasty places to eat, and a nice, friendly atmosphere. Cars stop and let you cross in the crosswalk. They stop!

Ashland also has a nifty Fourth of July parade where many of the surrounding communities come and take part in the parade, along with all the different businesses or schools or activist groups in Ashland itself. There's floats, and horses, and bands, and dignitaries, and stilt walkers, and fancy cars, and community groups, and lots of candy being tossed to the crowd. Everyone loves free candy!

But the main reason you go to Ashland is, despite what my 8-year-old daughter says, not the candy or the swimming pool. It's the plays. OSF Ashland is one of the finest regional theatres in the country. C and I are big theatre fans, and I actually have BA in Drama, so we have a great time with the plays.

The Quick Summary
- What I saw: Macbeth; The Music Man; Death and the King's Horseman; Equivocation; Henry VIII; Servant of Two Masters; Don Quixote;
- My favorite play: Equivocation, most certainly.
- My favorite production: either Equivocation or Servant of Two Masters. Servant of Two Masters was already a fun commedia dell'arte production, and the "special circumstances" around this performance (described below) might give this production the edge.



Macbeth

It is one of my great shames and embarrassment that, despite the Drama degree, I had never read Macbeth nor seen a production. Also, this was the first play we saw and I was still tired from work and hadn't gotten my theatre/Shakespeare muscles stretched out and warmed up. And if your Shakespeare muscles aren't warmed up, the language can feel very dense and difficult to parse.

As a result, I felt very disconnected from the play and very unsure as to what was happening, despite the fact that Macbeth is not a very complicated play. (The six-word summary would be: kill the king, suffer the consequences.) I was so-so on this play, probably due to my own shortcomings, but C thought it was a rather good production with good performances on the parts of the actors so I'll defer to her opinion on this one.

The Music Man

Now *this* is a play that you use to start off a theatre trip. Light, airy, music, singing, dancing, sweet like candy. I took the kids to this and we all had a fun time. A was enthralled at the singing and dancing and E enjoyed the entire production including how they used color to "open up" the show. The sets and costumes of the residents of the town went from shades of dull grey to bright colors during the course of the show and as the residents were affected by Professor Harold Hill.

Michael Elich played Harold Hill, which was a small surprise to me as he normally does rather serious dramatic roles. He certainly didn't have any trouble with the con-man aspect of the role, but you could see he was having a blast being a singing, dancing, romantic lead as well and did a great job. All in all, a fun, enjoyable production of what really is an American musical classic.

Death and the King's Horseman

This play, by Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, felt to me like it was almost two stories in one.

One story concerned the King's Horseman Elesin who, after the death of his King, must commit ritual suicide in order to help accompany his King to the afterlife. This story also involves the British colonial ruler of the region, who is determined to stop what he sees as a barbaric custom. These actions, and their aftermath, form the core plotline of the play.

The second story is about what is Elesin's apparent non-conviction in committing this ritual suicide. He decides to take a bride in order to pass on his bloodline, he at times delays his suicide ceremony, and even after he has been stopped he is uncertain and torn about how to proceed and how much his own indecision led to the situation (and to the eventual tragic incident that ends the play). The suicide ceremony, which involves dance and music and is very ritualistic, expressionistic, and poetic, forms a good part of the end of the first act.

I found the play enormously intriguing, especially in its portrayal of the clash of cultures (native African versus colonial British) and its use of drum music throughout the play to underscore the speech and actions. The language itself is very poetic and I had difficulty at times understanding what was going on. But I can not deny the play's power, and the strong work done by all the actors in the play especially Derrick Lee Weeden as Elesin. This is a play that I think deserves to be seen again, and then I would begin to get a deeper understanding the play.

Equivocation

Wow. Quite an astounding play, and in addition it was excellently performed and produced. "Equivocation" is a play that, like all excellent plays, is about so many things. "Equivocation" is about history, and politics, and Britain, and theatre, and Shakespeare, and truth, and power, and art, and creative expression, and religion, and (I’m certain) much, much more.

But at its core it is about the relationships between people in difficult circumstances, and especially about different kinds of families. There is the family of Shakespeare's theatre troupe, and there is also his own family. Shakespeare's son Hamnet died when the boy was 11, and that loss and its repercussions hang over and permeate Shakespeare himself, both in terms of what he writes about, and in terms of how he deals with his daughter Judity (who was Hamnet's fraternal twin).

The play is set in 1604/1065 and begins with Shakespeare being commissioned by Robert Cecil, primary minister and advisor to King James I, to "dialogue" a play the King has written about the Gunpowder Plot (the legendary plot by English Catholics to tunnel under Parliament and blow it up), which had happened within the last year. Oh yes, and the play must contain witches ("The King likes witches.")

As Shakespeare and the King's Men (the troupe) begin to develop and rehearse the play, they start to have questions about the Powder Plot itself and how much of what they've been told happened was actually true. They also argue over whether they should even be doing such a play, based on controversial current events, because whatever they perform could easily put their lives at stake. Shakespeare is able to talk to a few of the surviving conspirators and ends up with more questions about the plot, and has several testy scenes with Robert Cecil about his questions.

Throughout the play, plot conspirators are being executed, loyalties and friendships are being tested, and Shakespeare's own relationship with his daughter Judith is being cast in a new light as Shakespeare realizes things about himself and the people around him. I won't spoil how the plot winds up, but I will say that it links to one of Shakespeare's big tragedies (the "witches" are a big hint) and provides new insights into that play as well as into Shakespeare's work itself.

Equivocation showcased strong performances from all six actors, who played a variety of roles during the play. It also featured my favorite performance: that of Jonathan Haugen as Robert Cecil, a character who was so multi-layered and so deviously diverse he was a sheer joy to watch. Anthony Hecht as Shakespeare and Christine Albright as Judith were also very good as their relationship evolved during the course of the play. But again, the entire cast was wonderful and strong.

Again, Equivocation is a marvelous play and I would highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, or theatre, or Shakespeare, or Britain, or families. This was my favorite play of the visit, and when C and I go back in October we will certainly see it as C needs to see it and I would love to see it again.

Henry VIII

The interesting thing about having Macbeth, Henry VIII, and Equivocation all together in one season is that they all reflect on each other. I enjoyed this production of Henry VIII, but I enjoyed it even more having seen the other two plays first. As a result of Equivocation, I did a lot of Wikipedia reading on the English royalty and political history between Henry VIII and James I so that helped with my understanding and enjoyment of this play.

Interestingly enough, for a play titled Henry VIII the King himself doesn't have a really dominating presence in the play. The play is more about the people affected by Henry's decisions, first the Earl of Buckingham, then Queen Catherine, then Cardinal Woolsey. These were also the three strongest actors of the play for me with, respectively, Michael Elich, Vilma Silva, and Anthony Hecht all turning in solid performances. Vilma Silva's betrayed, angry, yet proud and unyielding Catherine of Aragon was probably the best performance in my opinion.

There was also a minor technical glitch in this play where a large prop horse rolled out during the first pageant scene (with Henry astride it) didn't roll back at end of the scene. The actors in the next scene worked around the horse, then after that scene the house lights went down, a short announcement over the PA said "we will take a break while we deal with a technical difficulty", stagehands came and out shoved the horse back in, and the play continued. That's one of the dangers of live theatre, but in the next play we'll see how unexpected events can lead to something great happening.

Servant of Two Masters

This play is a modern translation of an old Italian commedia dell'arte play, with added scenes that place the play in a modern setting and in a modern theatre ("Look, the audience is already here!"), and added songs that relate to the play and the modern times. It's a very broad comedy, with purposefully overdone acting, many physical bits, interaction with the audience, purposeful technical glitches ("oh no, the lights went out again") and references to current events.

It was an absolute blast to watch. We took the kids and both of them had so much fun watching the play, the comedic bits, and being "involved" in the play. E got the jokes that were aimed at the adult members of the audience ("I'd like a spotted dick" (audience laughs) "It's a dessert, people! Google it!"). We were already having a lot of fun watching the play, when midway through the first act something unexpected happened.

The lead actor, Mark Bedard playing Truffaldino (the Servant of Two Masters), was doing a scene where he had a letter to one of his masters but he didn't know who it was for (he couldn't read). So he was going to open it, then ask someone to read it, then re-seal it with chewed up bread. Suddenly, he got a nosebleed. This wasn't just a small nosebleed, this quickly became a freely flowing near-gusher. After wiping a little blood on the letter (what else was he going to do), he asked the audience if anyone had a tissue. Luckily he got one, so he stuffed it up his nose and kept going with running improvised humorous comments ("you're getting a special production here, folks!", or "Can you still see me through all this stuff?").

Bedard was on stage for the next *ten* minutes, at least, all the while dealing with the nosebleed. Of course, the other actors didn't know what was happening at first so when they came on stage they immediately started laughing because Truffaldino was running around with bloody tissues stuffed up his nose. Soon, the other actors started commenting on Truffladino's condition ("you've had a rough day, servant", or "some one has resealed this letter with bread, and *blood* ewwwwww!") and taking off old tissues while bringing on replacement tissues and eventually a whole box of tissues ("Here you go, son!"/"I"ll just keep this, thank you very much!").

Finally, Truffladino's time for an exit came (with a proper line from a co-actor of "Let's get you inside, get you to a doctor, then get you fed, lad!") and he left to roaring applause from the audience, applause that was repeated when he made his next appearance later in the act.

The play itself was a marvelous, fun, production, but how the cast adjusted to the sudden problem, and kept the show going, was a tribute to the power of a theatre to adapt, adjust, and make something out of it that was certainly even funnier than the original play (which was already very funny).

I would highly recommend "Servant of Two Masters". It's a funny, enjoyable play with some marvelous performances and plenty of laughs throughout, as well as some actual touching moments. Even if you don't get a nosebleed in your production, you'll still enjoy it a lot.

Don Quixote

After the experience of "Servant of Two Masters", it would be difficult for any play to match the bar set by a play that deals with the unexpected so well. So I was worried that "Don Quixote" would fall flat for me especially since I had heard, when chatting with someone earlier in the week, that the play wasn't that good.

But I enjoyed "Don Quixote". It's a new play, adapted from the novel by writer Octavio Solis, and has poetic moments, and touching moments, and many comedic moments. The plot is drawn from the first part of the novel, where Quixote leaves his home and travels around on his horse trying to bring back chivalry and perform good deeds. But, because he is Quixote and perhaps a little out of touch with reality, he misinterprets situations and often causes more trouble. His friends rally to find him and bring him back home, using his illusions to help them out.

Overall, I had a good time watching it and was very entertained. Josiah Phillips was great as Sancho Panza, and Armando Duran heroic (with a touch of derangement) as Don Quixote. The other actors in the play also did well, and the costumes were very nice. There was also some very lovely puppet and marionette work with the dream-like figure of Dulcinea, vultures in one scene, windmill dragons in another, and the horse Rocinante.



In summary, it was another relaxing, and enjoyable trip to Ashland. Here's the first three plays I would recommend, in order: Equivocation; Servant of Two Masters; Death of the King's Horseman. C and I are going to return in October, and we'll see the first two again, as well as "Paradise Lost" which hadn't opened yet.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a great theatre company, and Ashland is a wonderful town. It's an easy 4-5 hour drive from Portland or Sacramento, and only 6.5-7 from the Bay Area. Anyone who is anywhere near to Ashland owes it to themselves to head down for a few days and check out the plays and the town itself. Good times await you!
Tags: ashland, theatre
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