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Friday, February 22, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Fest: Preview!

Posted by Suzi Steffen on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 5:27 PM

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Snow showers in the forecast, chains for the tires, puffy jackets over theater clothing—no big deal, it’s just opening weekend for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in little Ashland, whose traffic has begun as tourists and critics return to town.

With a full year and a half between the cracked beam in the Bowmer Theatre and now, the casts and crews seem (from Facebook posts) to have been working their asses off getting the theaters and plays ready for the four plays that open this weekend.

A total of 11 plays open and run during the next eight and a half months, though no more than nine at any one time, which frankly is kind of enough for three theaters. Hit the jump for a list of this weekend’s offerings in the order we’ll see them.

1. Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare

With the god-awful closing speech from Kate (the “shrew” of the title) about obedience to husbands, Taming makes some of us cringe away from wanting to see it this often at the OSF (it last played at the fest outdoors, with Michael Elich as Petruchio and Vilma Silva as Kate).

Director David Ivers, the artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, says, “It’s important to remember it’s a comedy. It’s not an editorial.” Maybe. The festival’s literature seems dead-set on depicting Kate as being in control during that final speech instead of being the subservient wife explaining to other women how to obey their husbands. Perhaps Kate was pulling a Colbert? Right. Whatever.

A lot rides on Nell Geisslinger, who plays Kate, and Ted Deasy, whom we haven’t seen yet in large roles at the OSF. (But, let’s face it, even if it’s a stinker, the schoolkids will visit in droves.)


2. Two Trains Running, by August Wilson

Bill Rauch, artistic director of the OSF, has often had to answer questions from media folks (and probably audience members) about when the OSF would continue and perhaps complete the 10-play Pittsburgh-centered cycle of August Wilson plays that gained steam under former AD Libby Appel. Last year, Rauch could say that the cycle would continue in the 2013 season.

Two Trains Running is set firmly in the post-assassination and post Civil Rights Act year of 1969 with various African American men (and one woman) dealing with the effects of economic pressures, city policies, and the fallout of Malcolm X’s death. I’m so looking forward to this one. It stars Terry Bellamy, a founding member of St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre; OSF newcomer Bakesta King; Kenajuan Bentley, whose performance in 2011’s Measure for Measure continues to make me laugh when I think about it; and familiar OSF faces like Kevin Kenerly and Tyrone Wilson. Let’s hope this is as compelling as 2007’s Gem of the Ocean and the first act of 2009’s Fences, the last two Wilson plays produced at the OSF.

3. My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe

Speaking of terrible final moments for women, this one’s got a doozy as well. The music’s addicting, true, and the musical fits right into Rauch’s deep love for the American musical and its madcap, emotional ways. The story, lifted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (itself a gloss on Greek mythology), brings the decidedly working-class Eliza Doolittle into the house of (cough) bachelor professor Henry Higgins, who wants to transform her into a lady by means of her accent. Then there’s love, or something.

Director Amanda Dehnert turned the befuddling, uncomfortable for adults who inhabit the 21st century, Shakespeare play All’s Well That Ends Well into a lovely and somehow less problematic piece in 2009. She also wowed everyone (including national critics) with 2012’s Julius Caesar starring Vilma Silva as Caesar, so I’m hoping for the best (and damn it, that music is freaking enjoyable). That one also runs all season, so you’ve got time, but it’s likely to be popular.

4. King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Probably the media meet and greet will include various questions to Rauch about why he chose to direct this particular towering play in the small Thomas Theatre (formerly the New Theatre).

How can he and his two alternating Lears – Jack Willis, who played LBJ in last year’s brilliant and Kennedy-award-winning All the Way, and Michael Winters, who played Big Daddy in the striking 2010 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – possibly hope to do justice to this cracking piece in the confines of that black box space?

Maybe it’s a all a big ticket push with the two Lears? Right, well, opening night, we’ll all be seeing Winters – but I’m sure I’ll try to see Willis at some point later in the season. Fingers crossed that the result will be worth the effort of cramming the mammoth play into that rather un-mammoth space.

Finally, many critics and longtime patrons no doubt look forward to seeing how new executive director Cynthia Rider interacts with Rauch, with the actors, and with the traditions of the 78-year-old festival. (Yeah, that’s even older than many of the patrons! Boom.)

Reviews TK early next week, Portland. May the season be worth your drive.

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