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Oregon Shakespeare Festival's vision grows through time, space and classics

By Misha Berson, The Seattle Times
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 17--The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) motto could be, "If we build it, they will come." Year after year, hundreds of thousands of theater lovers travel to OSF's three-theater complex in bucolic Ashland.

The boutique-y little burg is one draw. But Shakespearean theater is integral to the town's appeal. And patrons often buy OSF tickets on blind faith, long before the season opens.

Such audience insurance has bred complacency at times for OSF, and aesthetic sluggishness. Not, however, since Bill Rauch became artistic director in 2007. The ambitious leader strives for a delicate balance between OSF, the traditional institution devoted to ungimmicky Shakespeare, and OSF the au courant forum for risky new plays and overhauled classics.

Rauch's vision is still a work in progress. With OSF's resources, there should be more transcendent peaks. But in Ashland last month I saw a company moving closer to Rauch's goal, a robust theater less faddish on the classics and devising intriguing new work.

I was impressed with the historical power of the new "The Great Society," the second half of Robert Schenkkan's two-play saga about Lyndon Baines Johnson. (Its prequel, "All the Way," won a Tony on Broadway this year, and both parts will come to Seattle Repertory Theatre this winter.)

Here are my takes on five other OSF shows:

'Richard III' (Elizabethan)

The production is fairly conventional, but director James Bundy and lead actor Dan Donohoe consider Shakespeare's malignant monarch from an unexpected angle.

The estimable Donohue isn't the gloating, lip-smackingly vile Richard of Gloucester of many a production. Here's more the overlooked middle son, a wiseacre sociopath tragically underestimated by his royal relations. As he breezily knocks them off on his way to the crown, this Richard is not just missing the empathy gene. He's a sulky adolescent who never matured.

It's not an entirely successful approach. For one thing, Richard seems too detached a seducer to woo Lady Anne (Kate Hurster) into marriage -- after he's offed her dad and hubby.

More on point is Richard the toxic comedian, whose witty dissing of his victims to us is both a hoot and a creep-out.

Donohue's eloquently mopey air of casual cruelty leaves lots of oxygen on Robert Hay's dungeonlike set for female relatives to call out this son of York. As his in-law Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli), his disgusted mother (Judith Marie-Bergan) and the bitter dowager Queen Margaret (fire-breathing Franchelle Stewart Dorn) blast him with insults ("Poisonous bunch-backed toad," and worse), we get the picture.

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Not only is the guy a murderous snake: He's the scraggly kid who flew under the radar, and no one anticipated his genius for bloody treachery.

'The Tempest' (Bowmer Theatre)

Donohue's naturalistic acting syncs with esteemed OSF veteran Denis Arndt's turn as the exiled aristocrat Prospero in Shakespeare's bittersweet final play. Arndt and astute director Tony Taccone have divested the role of the loftiness and grandiloquence we often associate with Prospero.

Here he is an outcast stripped clean of all psychological and ceremonial trappings of his station, and civilization. He's entered a near-Zen state of calm, and takes only a mild, rueful satisfaction in shipwrecking and punishing his ex-foes. Even when his cherished daughter (Alejandra Escalante) falls for a suitable mate (Daniel Jose Molina), his joy is muted.

This fresh conceit is enhanced by Daniel Ostling's vibrantly spare design and Alexander V. Nichols' lighting, and an ensemble of ashen spirit helpers who float through, doing Prospero's bidding.

His punk-haired fairy Ariel (Hurster) and mustard-dusted slave Caliban (Wayne T. Carr) complete the sense that Prospero's haunt is not an isle, but a separate realm of being.

'Two Gentlemen of Verona' (Elizabethan)

Seattle has seen a lot of all-female Shakespeare, but this is a first for OSF.

Director Sarah Rasmussen barely calls attention to the feminized casting, and doesn't use it to explore gender dynamics -- like the near-rape of comely Silvia (Vivia Font) by her beau's best pal Proteus (Christiana Clark).

Instead we get a straightforward, double-romance romp, with some very amusing antics and some loudly overbearing ones performed with more gusto than nuance.

As is standard at OSF these days, the cast is racially and ethnically diverse. And there's a reminder of how much is to be gained by that in the captivating performance by Clark, a black actor whose graceful swag, alto voice and ease with iambic pentameter make her one dashing Proteus.

'Family Album' (Thomas Theatre, closes Aug. 31)

In addition to Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" (which I missed), OSF is airing a muddled new tuner by the team behind Broadway's "Passing Strange."

Concocted by composer-writer Stew, co-composer Heidi Rodewald and director Joanna Settle, "Family Album" fast-forwards from the adolescent odyssey of "Passing Strange" to the midlife crises of hipster rockers.

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Heimvey (Luqman Brown) and his tough-minded partner Claudia (Casey Scott) lead a band that's barely scraped along. On the eve of what might be their big break at Madison Square Garden, they crash in a chic Brooklyn loft (many insider New York jokes) with Heimvey's ex-lover Cleo (Miriam A. Laube), now a very hot (and pretentious) avant-garde artist, and Norman (Alex Emanuel), her slick manager.

Have Cleo and Norman sold out? Is it better to make artistic comprises and thrive, or remain true to oneself and broke? Can both states coexist in a communal "family," where artists live and create under one roof?

Pretty generic questions, but in Act 1 they're addressed with satirical verve. The overextended Act 2 gets messy, really messy, and can't decide what it's saying and where to end. The saving grace overall is the smart, melodic and rollicking rock score, performed to the hilt by the multitalented cast. Wrap those dynamite songs around a tighter, less precious book, and magic may happen.

OSF has the budget, and theatrical wizardry, to conjure technical and scenic wonders few regional companies can match. Those assets are on full view in writer-director Tracy Young's version of a beloved sci-fi novel for youth by Madeleine L'Engle.

Meg, an awkwardly precocious 14-year-old, unravels the mystery of her scientist father's disappearance with the help of a trio of supernatural neighbor ladies.

They whisk her, her brother and a pal to the dark planet of Camazotz, to break through the space-time continuum and outsmart meanies.

The action can get frenetic, and quantum-physics is easier to digest on the page. But the cast is winning, especially Escalante as intrepid Meg. And the stagecraft is otherworldly, conjuring alien creatures and starry galaxies, with smooth transitions from dimension to dimension. This is a spectacle to spark a young person's imagination -- and remind them how far you can travel with a book.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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(c)2014 The Seattle Times

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