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Back tonight from the annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival via the usual college alumni tour.  A very good year, all told; of the five shows we saw, I count one as superlative, three as excellent, and one as...let's say adequate.  The notes are below, cut-tagged to avoid taking up excess screen space.  Note that the clips you see following each title come from the end, not the beginning, of my play-by-play remarks.

Friday night: Merchant of Venice (Elizabethan stage)
I was looking forward to this, as I've been very impressed with Anthony Heald (Shylock) in many of his other roles at OSF...and because my local newspaper had done a long profile earlier this summer, in which Heald discussed his portrayal in light of he and his wife having become Jewish via conversion.  Unfortunately, the production as a whole struck me as problematic.  Heald does well with the role, but Vilma Silva as Portia just wasn't compelling, and given the production's emphasis on not stereotyping its Jewish characters, it was disconcerting when the portrayals of Morocco and Aragon veered into extreme and deliberate stereotype.  Others in our tour group were impressed with the staging of the trial scene (involving a number of live mikes on the stage), citing resonances to war crimes trials; I found it disconcerting and difficult to follow as characters walked in and out of microphone range.

Portia and the foreign princes aside, performances were generally very good -- just not on the same page with one another.  This is by no means an awful production, but I found it severely unfocused.  While others in our tour group had issues with particular aspects, most of them seemed to like this staging better than I did.

 Saturday afternoon: She Loves Me (Bowmer theater)
A musical (albeit a somewhat small-scale one) dating from 1963, set in a perfume shop in 1930s Budapest; the Hungarian play from which it's adapted is also the basis for several other screen and stage interpretations, including the film You've Got Mail.  I believe this is only OSF's third full-on musical, but the production is an out-of-the-park home run.  The parfumerie set is beautifully designed, the seven-member orchestra (whose bandleader plays piano and accordian!) is enthusiastic without being overbearing, and the cast absolutely sparkles, from romantic leads Mark Bedard (Georg) and Lisa McCormick (Amalia) to OSF veteran Michael J. Hume as the much-put-upon shop owner and OSF veteran Dan Donohue in a small but hilarious comic turn.  The structure actually feels like a hybrid of operetta and musical -- many of the songs are woven closely into dialogue and the emphasis is strongly on character rather than production numbers, though an extended Disastrous Restaurant Sequence is very funny indeed.

This one gets six stars out of five from me; it's that good.  OSF audiences have been getting much too generous with their standing ovations in recent years, but this staging deserved the one it got from us.

Saturday evening: Hamlet (Bowmer theater)
Dan Donohue, as Hamlet, begins this modern dress production by sitting silently onstage from the moment the theater opens for seating (half an hour before curtain), alone in the midst of the rows of chairs set up facing his father's closed casket.  He remains there until curtain time, when house and stage both go black, and the lights come up as the play proper begins.  It's a fascinating creative choice, one of many that draw younger, contemporary audiences strongly into the staging.  Howie Seago plays the Ghost; he and Hamlet communicate by American Sign Language in an Elsinore thick with security cameras and intrigues.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are young women with whom Hamlet has a past and an easy not-quite-sexual chemistry; the cast list in the playbill identifies them as the daughters of his childhood nanny and cook respectively.  And the Players are a traveling hip-hop troupe.

This is not an ambiguous Hamlet; the Ghost is clearly a ghost, Claudius is clearly guilty of murder, and the atmosphere isn't too far from 24 or Alias where double reverses and betrayals are concerned.  But that doesn't keep it from being a remarkably effective production, spearheaded by very strong performances from Donohue and from Jeffrey King as Claudius.  The secondary players are nearly as good save perhaps for Susannah Flood as Ophelia, who doesn't quite catch a consistent note.  All in all, this may be the most accessible staging I've seen in years while retaining every bit of the play's depth and nuance, and if it doesn't quite reach all the way to "brilliant", it doesn't miss that level by much.

 Sunday afternoon: Throne of Blood (Bowmer theater)
This is exactly what the title implies: a brand new stage adaptation of the Kurosawa film of the same title...which is itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  By contrast to most of Shakespeare's plays, it runs a spare hour and three quarters.  But adapter/director Ping Chong definitely succeeds at translating the highly distilled core story of Macbeth to a feudal Japanese setting, complete with an eerie white-robed forest spirit played by Cristofer Jean whose multi-voiced prophecies and Fate-like omniscience keep the production aptly framed in menace.  On one hand, the staging and execution echo Noh forms: spare, stylized, and tightly controlled.  On another, there's enough going on -- including an overhead screen with occasional supertitles (and additional background images) -- that those serious about catching all the nuances may well want to see the show twice.

If you're mostly a Shakespeare buff (as I am), this is a fascinating and highly effective novelty.  If you are any sort of Kurosawa buff (as it happens, I'm not), this is likely a rare and not-to-be-missed work of wonder.  Note that once this show finishes its run in Ashland, it's traveling to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC for a week's run in November, as part of the Next Wave Festival [this link loads a short video featuring Ping Chong].

Sunday evening: Henry IV, Part I (Elizabethan stage)
The costuming is nominally eighteenth-century or so (I think), but the staging for this show is otherwise almost purely traditional, and eminently successful -- something of a novelty by recent OSF standards, given the degree to which they've transposed and re-invented many of the Shakespeare productions in the last few years.  Here, the diction and delivery are crisp and clear throughout -- something OSF hasn't always managed consistently in the recent past.  David Kelly's Falstaff is lively but relies mostly on the lines for his comedy; John Tufts as Prince Hal, by contrast, manages to add an appealing, energetic openness to his portrayal that noticeably enhances his chemistry with the audience.  This version does a particularly good job of building up the two opposing political factions in clear fashion, then executing the climax involving Hal and Hotspur (Kevin Kenerly) to striking effect.  I count this the best Shakespeare we saw during the weekend, albeit very narrowly over Hamlet.

Have You Heard This?

"Changing from bad to good's as easy as...taking your first step!"

-- Kris Kringle (to the Winter Warlock)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

June 2017

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