Monday, September 21, 2009

Our Hearts Are Still In Ashland: Updated

We’re just past Portland on the way home but our hearts are still in Ashland. As we walked back from breakfast I asked the Weisenheimer if he smelled smoke. As we drove away we watched a terrible plume of smoke cloud the sun, clearly close by and coming from the south end of town. It’s very dry, the forecast is for temperatures in the nineties, and it’s an unusually windy day there – with the wind blowing out of the southeast, pushing the smoke – and the fire – into town.

No word yet on what has started this grass fire at Siskiyou and Crowson that quickly got out of hand and at last report reached 100 acres. It has destroyed some homes and evacuations are underway. Southern Oregon University must be at risk; because of the nearness to town and the wind pushing it north the whole little town seems at risk. Driving north we saw many engines heading down from Medford.

We’re very worried about this sweet little town that has given us so much friendship and happy memories, and about all the people who make their homes here, work here, and are visiting, and we earnestly hope for safety for all of the firefighters.

UPDATE: The news this evening is pretty good, considering. The winds eased, the firefighters say they are getting control of it, one home is lost and no reports so far of injuries or fatalities. We're relieved that it wasn't much, much worse.

Ashland: Favorite Things

We find, especially for trips of more than a few days, that we prefer the vacation rental option. B&Bs can be beautiful and are usually run by delightful folks, but breakfast at an appointed (and usually too early) hour is not my idea of vacation; nor is conversation before I’ve had my quart of coffee. Hotel rooms aren’t roomy enough on long trips for two writers and their computers, notebooks, and bags of books; they’re too expensive; we don’t need daily housekeeping service; and we like to have a kitchen.

In our five-year search for just the right thing, we haven’t had a bad experience yet. However, we also haven’t stayed at the same place twice, for one reason or another (such as those in the paragraph above). That’s about to change.

We found the Terra Cottage Inn on, listing 65608. Mark and Elizabeth are gracious hosts. They actually have two rentals on their large corner lot with beautiful gardens and a well-equipped outdoor kitchen in the middle. The structures are detached – Mark and Elizabeth’s home, the two rentals, Mark’s art studio and Elizabeth’s pottery studio – so there’s as much quiet and privacy as you want. If you venture out in the gardens to grab a hammock or chaise lounge they’re usually around for some friendly conversation and helpful advice about local restaurants and the neighborhood before you settle in for a book or nap. The Terra Cottage Inn is a two-bed, one-bath apartment over the garages, and it’s scrupulously clean and very tastefully furnished with lots of special touches like Mark’s paintings, Elizabeth’s pottery, fine soaps, plush spa robes, coffee beans for the first day, and a welcoming plate of fruit and chocolate. We’ve already made our reservations for next year, this time for the slightly larger High Street Cottage, vrbo listing 114242. No kids/pets (another plus from our point of view; we do enjoy the quiet). It’s in a lovely neighborhood north of the theatre, just a ten minute walk to the creek, park, and plaza.

As always there was good eating in Ashland. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I am devoted to it. We tried several places this time and settled on Greenleaf as our favorite. Breakfast is hard to screw up, but it became the favorite for their creekside outdoor seating, reasonable portions and healthy options, and reliable service (meaning, my coffee cup was usually full). Bonus: they are also a deli, so we can take home what we need for coffee service and snacks.

After five years we have settled on two favorite restaurants that will always get our trade, usually two or three times during our week’s stay. Liquid Assets Wine Bar has a fun concept. Even with reservations you’re usually invited to make yourself comfortable anywhere you like…which might be in a couch by a low table, or at one of the small bistro size tables scattered around, or perhaps two of them pulled together. They have an extensive list of wines by the glass and you can make our own flight or go with their suggestions. If you drink bottles, as we do, you walk over to the corner where they have shelves of wine retail-style, pick your bottle (they are knowledgeable and happy to help), pay the retail and a very reasonable corkage, and they pour it for you in nice big beautiful crystal glasses. The menu is one short page long, and that’s all it needs to be because it’s all good. Everything is sharable, and don’t miss the sautéed wild mushrooms, beef tartare, salad nicoise, pasta Bolognese with ragu of wild boar, duck pate, or “taste of Spain” plate full of Marcona almonds, quince paste, chorizo, manchego, romesco, and olives – just a few of my favorite things.

The second restaurant we love, and one of our top restaurants anywhere, is the Peerless, consistently fine over the five years we’ve been visiting Ashland. The setting is gorgeous; we usually eat in their very elegant and romantically lit garden among beautiful landscaping and sculpture next to a formal fountain. The food is outstanding; creative preparations of the finest local ingredients without being pretentious or trendy or weird. A year or two ago they modified their menu to mostly small plates (ok, that’s trendy, but it’s a trend that I hope sticks), keeping menu favorites and adding more specials and variety. Favorites are lamb meatballs, duck breast, duck-confit-stuffed dates, squash gnocchi, clams with chorizo. I like my vegetables and they do a great job of accompanying these small plates with perfectly prepared complements, and the chef’s choice vegetable plate is wonderful. But what really shows Chef Mark Carter’s yummy food off at its best is the service. The Peerless has the highest standards for professional table service. Our servers are always knowledgeable about everything on the menu and the extensive wine list. And they have the art of perfect timing and listening, recognizing and encouraging our enthusiasm for good food and wine, and always getting us to the theater on time. An off-hand comment from me led to our server, Angie, and the kitchen putting together an impromptu cheese plate for the end of our meal one day this week. Angie also directed us to our wine of the week, Raptor Ridge Pinot Noir. On the big side for a Pinot Noir, more black fruit than red, with some of that wonderful Pinot Noir earthiness.

On the way back to the theater you pass Zoey’s Café, doing most of its business as an ice cream counter. I’m not much of a dessert person, except for maybe a fine chocolate late at night. But I think I ate as much sugar on this trip as I usually do in a month because of the Oregon Bing Cherry ice cream. Oh. My. God.

The inventory at local bookstores is a little lighter for me having come through; I think I purchased enough to affect our gas mileage on the way home.

One of my cat Archie’s favorite things is a particular toy mouse I got at the little shop Prize last year. This is the toy he carries around and brings to me when he needs attention/food or maybe in his little kitty brain imagines I need attention/food (usually 4:30 a.m.). The yarn is almost completely unwound from it, so I got a couple more this year to last until next year’s trip—just one year from today.

OSF: Don Quixote (STOS)

Don Quixote is the finale of our stay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and it—and in fact the whole week—bodes well for better and better theater from OSF. This adaptation by Octavio Solis and directed by Laird Williamson is a highly irreverent, gut-busting, and sweetly touching play. The set, props, entire cast, and especially Armando Duran’s stalwart and sensitive performance in the title role manage to convey the disorder of Don Alonso’s mind and the yearnings of his heart with compassion. You’ll want to hug Don Quixote—and run away from him. Because this production also does not shy from the ridiculous. It revels in it.

I can’t think of another play here that has generated such belly laughs from the audience—reactions I wish we got for Shakespeare’s bawdiness if only people wouldn’t take it so damn seriously. Apparently fart jokes will do the trick. The serving wench also does the trick. And the costume department continues to redeem itself on this trip, this time with clever contraptions that facilitate mooning the audience. Duran and Josiah Phillips are a brilliant comedy duo, foils and instigators of all sorts of hilarity.

One of the joys of this performance was the outstanding puppetry. This is a theater art that we don’t see enough of, and it was perfect for conveying the illusions of reality and mania. Puppetry arts were in evidence for the enchanter of Don Alonso’s mind, wobbly geese, a two-part Rocinante, a tricycle Dapple, sock sheep (a new kind of sock puppet!), and especially an exquisitely made and performed Dulcinea, the object of Don Quixote’s chivalry. Puppet designer Lynn Jeffries worked with Bill Rauch at Cornerstone Theater Company, where she was a founding member, and we’re glad to see her work here.

Another special mention goes to actor Howie Seago in his first year with the company. I first noticed him in Henry VIII without hearing a line from him because of his stage presence. One of the marks of a really fine stage actor is knowing how to "be" on stage when not the focus of the dialogue and action. He clearly had this quality. Then came a touching scene, beautiful as a dance, between him as attendant Griffith and Vilma Silva as the dying Queen, where they communicated in sign language. ASL is such a beautiful language and they made it visual poetry. In Don Quixote, Seago played ensemble roles and was equally sensitive and just plain funny. Kudos to OSF for hiring a deaf actor and creatively incorporating ASL into productions. We hope Seago comes back for many years to come.

We were speaking this morning with Elizabeth, the lovely hostess of the Terra Cottage Inn, who had warned us that she’d heard mixed reviews of Don Quixote over the summer from guests. When we told her there were fart jokes, it cleared the air. She recognized the folks who didn’t like it as serious types. Methinks that under Bill Rauch’s artistic leadership OSF is taking itself a wee bit less seriously. They’ll get no raspberries from me for that, only applause.

OSF: Don Quixote

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may not quite rank up with Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy,  Brooks & Reiner, Bob & Ray, Nichols & May, the Smothers Brothers, Burns & Allen, Cheech & Chong, or Newhart & the guy on the other end of the phone line in a list of best comedy duos, but Armando Duran and Josiah Phillips brought laughs and smiles to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Don Quixote on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.

   Laird Williamson directed the OSF production, a world premiere of a new adaptation by Octavio Solis of the Cervantes novel.

It was especially great to see a more substantial role for Phillips, a 19-year festival veteran whom we've mostly seen in smaller parts. It seems he has been cast in several August Wilson plays that OSF has staged mainly in the early part of the season, though we did see him in Gem of the Ocean a few years back. Phillips' Panza had great affection for his mule Dapple, an elaborate tricycle sort of beast. Quixote's steed was an animate object: Rocinante was played by James Jesse Peck (front) and Anna-Lisa Chacon (rear). Alas, poor Peck has spent his summer inside a horse's head. At least we could see Chacon's face.

Duran was great as always; earnest and dreamy and pure as the hero of our show. (The festival photos by David Cooper show Duran, at left, with the Peck half of Rocinante, and Phillips, above, riding Dapple.)

In the end Don Quixote matches everyone up properly and rides off into his sunset. It doesn't hurt to dream.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

OSF: The Servant of Two Masters

"Comedies don't get standing O's," said my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, as she stood and applauded wildly at the end of The Servant of Two Masters, performed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre.

This production, directed by Tracy Young, deserved all the huzzahs it received. When the boss decides to stage Servant the eyes of the creative side of the house must light up. It's a chance for the writers to cook up lots of smart, self-referential humor and for the actors to dust off their dancing and musical skills are serve up big, thick slices of ham. The Servant of Two Masters is a laugh riot, and a most welcome one after seeing heavy stuff like Macbeth and Equivocation earlier in the week.

Young and co-adapter Oded Gross do a marvelous job of weaving sly references to the season's other productions and to Ashland locations into the script. They also do a lot with the economy; "budget cuts" are the reason they have a rag-tag collection of costumes and inadequate props.

They key to a successful Servant of Two Masters is a brilliant Truffaldino, and Young has this in Mark Bedard. Bedard is marvelous, and in the performance we saw had a bit more ad-libbing to do than usual, with Gene the chatty audience member and a wayward cell phone that another observer dropped onto the stage. (That's Bedard balancing on his two masters' trunks in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, above at right.)

Usually when I say everyone was great and I don't want to single them out, I end up naming a few, anyway. David Kelly was hilarious as Pantalone, and has a good lip on the trumpet, too. Kelly has proven himself a fine comic actor, also entertaining as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing earlier in the week. Kjerstine Rose Anderson is a good, flexible ballerina and is one of the funniest actors in the company. Kate Mulligan needed no do-overs; she was a ball of fire playing Beatrice and her own dead brother, Federigo, and set what may be a record for quickest on-stage costume change. Eileen DeSandre was cool as a green-faced, Croc-clad chef Brighella (take that, Mario!) who drew frightened responses that reminded me of Frau Blucher. Elisa Bocanegra was brassy and bawdy--and she winked at me!

OSF has proven adept at staging madcap, silly stuff as well as "serious" theater. The Servant of Two Masters was great fun.

OSF: All's Well That Ends Well

I'm not sure that All's Well That Ends Well ends well, at least from our perspective in the 21st century, when arranged marriages are not common and (heterosexual) folks are free to marry whomever they so please, not whomever the king or the parents set them up with.

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Amanda Dehnert, Helena (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) is all ga-ga for Bertram (Danforth Comins), who hardly notices her as she's from a lower class. Bert goes off to serve the King of France (James Edmondson), who is gravely ill. Helena cures him in exchange for marriage to the man of her choice. Bertram. The King makes the match, and Bert goes through with it, but he's none too happy about it, running off to the wars in Italy rather than consummating the deal, and writing, "I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the 'not' eternal." (That's Comins and Anderson in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, above at right.)

Helena chases her spouse down and, through some typical Shakespearean mistaken-identity trickery, winds up with both the family jewels and a child, as Betram knocks her up, thinking he's bedding Diana (Emily Sophia Knapp), a hot dish he meets on the road. All is revealed in the end.

The performances are wonderful. It was especially great to see a couple of the festival's veterans, Edmondson (34 seasons) and Dee Maaske (17) ply their craft in the intimate setting of OSF's New Theatre. Anderson is a delight with great range and super comic timing. John Tufts (Parolles) and G. Valmont Thomas are also outstanding in All's Well.

Weisenheimer liked Dehnert's movie-within-a-play twist on this production. (This is a bit of a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you intend to see the play.) Throughout the play the director has old-style film titles projected on screens around the theater announcing scene changes. In the end, there's a "home movie" of Bertram and Helena living happily ever after with their growing child. In the closing frames of the film, the child walks away from a tree just as The Clown (Armando Duran) walks away from a tree that is the major feature of the set. It turns out the clown, a narrator of the story, is the grown son of the two protagonists, telling their tale.

Hey, I guess it really did end well after all!

OSF: Servant of Two Masters (STOS)

I'm in a little bit of theater heaven. Forget naturalistic acting psychological realism proscenium arch fourth wall bullshit. Give me a talented clown and stock characters in outrageous makeup and a theater in the round romping their way through a silly story and messing with the audience and I'm a happy girl. The theater gore was a bonus!

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of The Servant of Two Masters was produced in the New Theater. I love the New Theatre. In this little black box the action took place on a simple platform, in and out of four identical entrances, up and down the aisles, and on platforms above the entrances in the four upper corners of the theatre. Turns out there was plenty of space for throwing food around in the meal that Truffaldino has to serve to two masters. Oded Gross and Tracy Young did a smart, up-to-date adaptation that added a whole new layer of self-referential funniness to Carlo Goldoni's chestnut.

Since I have often dissed OSF's costume design (always beautiful, not always relevant), let me start by congratulating costume designer Christal Weatherly for very smart and witty, delightful costumes. I mean, any time you can work an old LP cover of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Whipped Cream & Other Delights into a costume appropriately, it deserves special mention! They clearly had some fun shopping at Zappos, too, and sewing in lots of inside OSF/Ashland jokes. A brassiere cup as a pocket was a nice touch. And congratulations on designing the quickest costume change in the history of theater for Beatrice to get into a dress.

One of the delights of this particular Saturday matinee performance of OSF's Servant was the tension between players and audience. Actors have for centuries competed for our attention and appreciation with side conversations, coughing fits, nose blowing, altercations between audience members, flash photography, drunkenness, food being unwrapped, food being eaten, food being thrown, people getting up and leaving, cell phones, heckling, upstaging, inappropriate laughter, and stony silence. Actors (and theatre and set designers) fought long to define a distinct playing space and reduce distraction and competition (and in the old days, patrons fought back) before we arrived at the theater etiquette of modern times...and still someone's damn cell phone is going to ring.

We had bad audience behavior this Saturday afternoon as well as some planted and planned audience interaction, and the cast--especially Mark Bedard, very fast on his feet as Truffaldino--was equal to and above it all and turned it into smiles and laughter. To the lady in about the third row: don't take pictures of the performers, even when they're playing with you. They really mean it about no photography and recording. To the high school student with the seat at the end of the row over the entrance/exit ramp: dropping your cell phone onto the playing space is such a loser thing to do. To Gene: don't try to upstage the actors. They're funnier than you are. But you're very cool for being a good sport! To the little girl in the very back row who was so agitated by Truffaldino's candy being stolen and told him about it: I hope you get that excited about theater for the rest of your life. To Mark Bedard: You rock.

The whole cast was strong; Kjerstine Rose Anderson is acrobatic and hilarious (as she was also in All's Well), David Kelly delights and his trumpet playing is pretty good!, I'm increasingly impressed with Todd Bjurstrom (one of three porters), and I hope Kate Mulligan really was having as much fun as she seemed!

To director Tracy Young and the entire cast and artistic team: thank you for being so talented and skilled, so light and fast on your feet, for pleasing us even when we're boorish, and for making us laugh.

OSF: Equivocation (STOS)

I have in the past complained about our big theaters' seeming lack of commitment to local talent, especially in their propensity to import shows from out of town. But the Seattle Repertory Theatre is bringing Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Equivocation to town November 18 to December 13 and I am thrilled. I can see it twenty more times!

A few notes about why this is better than, say, a recent high-visibility import (the Weisenheimer was way too kind). If the Rep's Web site is to be believed, this is the real deal--the entire OSF cast, director, and entire artistic team--and they are superb. Also, this show is good.

Everything about OSF's world premiere production was pretty much perfect. Dazzling writing (Bill Cain) and directing (Bill Rauch). This play is funny, sweet, disturbing, relevant, layered, intricate, wicked smart, and moving. The deceptively simple set, costumes, props, lighting are the perfect palette for some very powerful scenes. Anthony Heald and Jonathan Haugen have long been two of our favorites here in the OSF company and they are extraordinary; Gregory Linington always quietly impresses; I think John Tufts' career is one to watch; and Richard Elmore and Christine Albright are perfectly cast; all deliver superb performances. The continuous staging and ensemble roles are seamless.

I think this is going to be an important play. Don't take the little kids; the torture and execution scenes are too intense for them, and they'd pick up some good anglo-saxon vocabulary that you might not want them to. But if I had middle-school or high school kids, I'd take them. It would be a great opening to talk about power, torture, principles, honesty, and integrity...and history....and theater...and art and writing...and family...

More from the Weisenheimer here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Interesting things seen around Ashland

Even in a forward-thinking town that hosts one of the world's great theater festivals, the vestiges of discrimination remain! This sign is in the courtyard of the inn where we're holed up for the week. I think we've been going in through the front door..

This truck has been parked down the street from our inn all week. Apparently in Southern Oregon, the deer shoot back.

It might have been these guys. Saw them just wandering through the neighborhood.

I saw this sticker on a boat parked on a trailer in our neighborhood. I'm not sure what the sticker means. Curiously, the sticker is on a flat-bottomed boat...


OSF: Equivocation

"I don't like theater," says Judith Shagspeare in Act I of Equivocation. Then again, she's never seen Equivocation. The world premiere of the play by Bill Cain, directed by Bill Rauch at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is the most mind-blowingly fantastic theater Weisenheimer has experienced in a while, nipping at the heels of the 2005 OSF production of Richard III as most favorite ever.

On it's surface, Equivocation is about telling truth to power and not going to the gallows for it. But it's about so much more. It's about political power, in the early 1600s and now, with themes of scheming and spying and torture front and center. It's about art's power or inability to make a difference. It's about loyalty and family and religion. It's about Shagspeare writing "The True History of the Powder Plot." It's about posterity and consequences. It's about incredibly clever writing and joyous language. It's an astounding piece of work.

Rauch gets letter-perfect performances from a small cast, most playing multiple parts. Anthony Heald leads as Shag, writing the Powder Plot, which turns out not to have a plot or an interesting ending, and to be Macbeth instead. Richard Elmore is fantastic as Richard and other characters, most notably Father Henry Garnet, who teaches Shag about equivocation -- answering the real question asked, not the one literally posed. Jonathan Haugen is amazing as the good-natured, agreeable company member Nate and as the king's enforcer, Sir Robert Cecil. Christine Albright shines as Judith, delivering soliloquies though she's not that fond of them. John Tufts and Gregory Linington are actors and conspirators and guards and lawyers and executioners. (That's Heald, left, as Shag and Haugen as Cecil in the festival photo by Jenny Graham above at right.)

The production moves deftly between rehearsal and stage, between the dungeon and the court, as Shag figures out how to equivocate on his gig to write the "official" version of history, and to tell his truth as well. It is purposely playing this season, at the same time as OSF's productions of Henry VIII and Macbeth, with which it makes a sweet trio of theater.

Equivocation runs at OSF several times each week through the end of October. It comes to Seattle in November for a run at the Rep, and the plan is to bring this same cast north. Do not miss it. I want to see it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.


A year or so ago the Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a survey of members, essentially asking if we would still like to see seldom-produced plays such as Henry VIII. The membership said yes. So did Weisenheimer, figuring if not at OSF, then where and when will we ever see them? Indeed even at OSF, an organization most likely to produce these plays, they're rarely seen. The current staging of Henry VIII is just the fourth since the festival opened for business in 1935, and is the first since 1984 when Seattle favorite Laurence Ballard had the role of Cardinal Wolsey.

The 2009 staging, directed by John Sipes, is a feast for the eyes and ears. The costumes are gorgeous, and performances solid all around. Vilma Silva, a multiple Wisey Award nominee and best supporting actress in 2008, is especially strong as Queen Katherine of Aragon, cast aside by the king for not bearing male heirs, and because the younger Anne Bullen (Christine Albright) happened along to a ball. Anthony Heald is appropriately conniving as Cardinal Wolsey. (That's Silva and Heald in the  festival photo at right.)

As well done as it is, as a play Henry VIII really doesn't go anywhere, and takes nearly three hours to not get there. We weren't all that jazzed about Elijah Alexander in the title role. He's not the Henry body type, but mainly he wasn't so kingly and in charge as we have come to expect our monarchs to be.

OSF has completed the Shakespeare canon three times. Now they even have a bard scorecard you can fill in. When you complete your personal canon you can get a certificate. I'm happy to check off Henry VIII, and can wait another 25 years before seeing it again.

OSF: Macbeth (STOS)

Well, that was a pleasant surprise! It's not that I wasn't looking forward to Macbeth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; I just didn't give it much thought at all. I associate Macbeth with high school/college because I read it and saw it so often then, and several times since. But, what the heck, we're down here, we'll see what they do with it.

This production, directed by Gale Edwards, kept my attention, and was even riveting in places. This was the most violent stage production I think I've ever seen. They did really cool stuff with theater gore. The schoolkids raised on the Matrix tittered but I thought the effects were neat-o. And the fight scenes were athletic, intense, and realistic; they really did have me leaning forward in my seat and holding my breath, and I was worried about Kevin Kenerly (Macduff) even though everyone in the theater knows how it's going to come out. Not sure about the egghead-fetus-monsters that came out of the cauldron; those were a little goofy. As usual here at OSF, I have no idea what the costume designers were thinking. But overall director Gale Edwards took some risks with conventions and our suspension of disbelief and it mostly worked. I agree with the Weisenheimer that the brilliant (actually, very dark and focused) lighting made all the difference.

Good idea to have the women--Lady Macbeth and the weird sisters--be so sexual. (How can you not?) Robin Goodrin Nordli is always a treat to watch, and she was fierce and irresistible as Lady Macbeth. The chemistry between Macbeth and his Lady crackled--their sexual chemistry, the alliance and understanding between them, and the disappointment, disgust, and chasm between them. Kevin Kenerly's Macduff is a perfect foil and complement to Macbeth, showing a range of emotion and resolve that is equal to and finally believably superior to Macbeth's. Rex Young was a super creepy ghost Banquo, and I loved Josiah Phillips as the porter. (I never get enough Josiah Phillips down here; more and bigger roles for him, please!)

Before I describe my impressions of Peter Macon in the title role, a word about acting. I appreciate subtlety and understatement as much as anyone, but am not one who is allergic to anything more than, say, a flick of an eye to convey emotion. I especially appreciate actors (and directors) who can suit their acting to the stage and the style of the play. I expect something different between Balagan's tiny black box theater and a Greenstage production at Lincoln Park. Between the Lizzy and the Old Cow here at OSF. Between a fourth wall play like Hedda Gabbler and a commedia dell'arte-derived romp like Servant of Two Masters. And I do NOT expect what we get in movies and TV. I especially wonder about critics who call out mugging in productions on the Lizzy. I always want to ask them just a few questions: Where were you sitting? Have you sat in the balcony or row P? And how much TV/movies are you watching? Overacting is going to be in the eye of the beholder...and when I do think it's happening, I always wonder what's going on in the dance between actor and director.

So for me, larger than life can be just fine, and Peter Macon was that. It's so nice to see vigorous, virile, muscular, athletic performances for Shakespeare's lead characters who are, you know, military conquerers, conniving politicians, murderers, and kings. In Edwards' and Macon's hands, Macbeth's ambition, appetite, violence, and craziness send shock waves. The most important and finest thing to me in Macon's performance is that he has mastered the language and speaks it beautifully. Macbeth is almost all verse, and Macon accomplished the difficult feat of making the verse sing and rendering the meaning immediate, spontaneous, clear, and believable. I could feel (more than hear) the beat of the blank verse without it ever slipping into monotony or recitation. And I'd love to have the "She should have died hereafter..." speech recorded so I could listen to it often just to cheer me up. All of that said, I would have reined in some of the physical emoting a little bit. There were a few times when I almost wanted to close my eyes to hear his powerful and moving delivery of the poetry without the distraction of quite so much hand wringing. I'm convinced now that Macon is a wonderful addition to the company. All I would suggest is just a little less writhing. I look forward to Macon's impressive command in future performances.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

OSF: Macbeth


From its opening sequence featuring a fast-paced swordfight that ended with a decapitation and a 10-foot fountain of blood, to the lopping off of the lead character's noggin at the end, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth in the Angus Bowmer Theatre was thrilling and exhilarating.

Gale Edwards directed the play, and scored with the casting of Peter Macon as Macbeth and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Lady Macbeth. Blood flows almost constantly during this production, but when these two share the stage sparks fly. The opening sequence, when Macbeth returns from the wars with a new title and witch-inspired ambition, is absolutely electric. (That's them in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, at right.)

While we were none too impressed with Macon as Othello last year, we can't say enough about his marvelous turn as Macbeth. Strong, ambitious, sexy, crazy, paranoid, stubborn, funny, charming, despairing, grieved, and resigned, he runs the gamut, makes the language his own, and absolutely dazzles. Nordli, who won our Wisey Award for best actress as Hedda Gabler last year, is brilliant as the lady, standing up to and lighting the fire of ambition in this dude three times her size. She runs that household and is a fine PR rep for Macbeth, until guilt and that damned spot drive her off the deep end.

The rest of the cast are mostly grand, but I'd give best supporting actor to Mark McCullough, the lighting designer for the production. McCullough bathes the set largely in blood red for much of the show, especially the first act. This cast a glow on the top of Macon's bald pate, as if he has blood on his head the whole time. I wasn't sure if this was purposeful, but it sure caught my eye. The lighting also made the curved staircase that was a prominent feature of the set into something of a mood ring for the production, going from blood red during the gory scenes to glowing gold when Duncan is about (albeit briefly) to green when Birnam Wood is marching toward Dunsinane. There was also a great scene of a solo speech by Lady Macbeth, during which her shadow loomed behind, 40 feet tall on the back wall of the theater. Cool!

Another great scene that is played as something of a comedy is the banquet at which the bloody corpse of Banquo turns up to torment his old friend Macbeth. He flails around and challenges a spectre nobody else can see -- at one point the pair tromp about on the banquet table -- until the ghost vanishes and Macbeth finally gets hold of himself and  bids the guests sit still. With perfect timing Lady Macbeth responds, "You have displac'd the mirth."

Macon is at his best near the end, despondent upon hearing of the death of his lady, and utterly convincingly delivers the brief-candle, tale-told-by-an-idiot speech from the depths of mourning, crumpled on the ground in woe.

The swordplay in Macbeth is marvelous. We found ourselves ducking way back in row J, and Sweetie fears for Kevin Kenerly, who as Macduff has spent the larger part of 2009 repeating a violent fight with a much larger man. The Scottish Play is believed by many to be jinxed. Something awful could happen. Watch out, Kevin!

One bit of costuming deserves note. Early in the second act Macbeth visits the witches for more information about the future. In the process they leave their handprints on Macon, one right atop his head, and several others on his back. These stick with him throughout the rest of the play. I get it -- the witches words have touched him and are always on his mind. But the prints thing was a little hokey. I was OK with the 20th-Century garb worn by the characters, though it's not everyone's cup of tea.

After the show, we heard a couple of patrons lamenting that Edwards had "botched" the play. We could not disagree more. Macbeth is a truly marvelous production, one of the favorites for me in five years attending OSF.

OSF: Much Ado About Nothing (STOS)

Having seen Branagh's Much Ado so many times, as the Weisenheimer mentions, and having read the play multiple times, I was aware of what Branagh left out. So it was fun to see a production that put back in some of Benedick's struggle to be taken seriously by Beatrice, the prince, Claudio, and--as played by the very funny David Kelly--even himself.

Kelly was a surprising choice to me for Benedick, but he sure had the comedic chops and also portrayed a much wider and subtler range of emotion than we sometimes get in the comedies. We saw the insecurity that lurks behind being a goofball; the sharp eye and wit that doesn't miss much; exasperation and frustration; and reluctance, resolve, and action.

Which makes the ending all the more disappointing. I assume it was a directorial choice to sprint through the last forty or so lines (I like Kate Buckley's work here and in Shrew a few years ago, but was she afraid we would all be Dodgers fans?). This is Benedick's time to shine, and in a few pithy and memorable lines Shakespeare has him take his rightful place as the only man of Padua in a restored order where all is well. These exchanges with Beatrice, Claudio, and the prince should be savored.

Robynn Rodriguez was a fierce and feisty Beatrice, as she should be, and she nails the rapid-fire timing of the banter. She is convincingly frustrated to tears by the clueless and hurtful men around her. And while I now think Peter Macon is a bit of a ham, I agree with the Weisenheimer that he was very funny as Don Pedro. Special shout out for alumnus of Seattle stages Todd Bjurstrom as Borachio.

Setting the play in immediate post-war Sicily wasn't a distraction, which it seems is as much as I can ask of Shakespeare plays set in more modern times. I do choose to speculate that the whole fountain scene was a bit of one-upmanship to Branagh, and Kate, your staging was a splash.

OSF: Much Ado About Nothing

Weisenheimer has seen Much Ado About Nothing about a zillion times. My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I wore out a VHS version of the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film before finally springing for the DVD, which we watch frequently. Thus, we were delighted to lead off our week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with a production of Much Ado on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, but wondered what they could do to get around the well-remembered images of Branagh, Emma Thompson, and the film cast.

OSF delivered.

Director Kate Buckley set the OSF production in post-WWII Italy. (Sweetie speculates that the costume department scored a big discount on a supply-truck load of 40s military regalia.) Buckely restored a lot of dialog that Branagh cut. And she cast the major combatants/lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, as much older characters than is typical. Robynn Rodriguez and David Kelly were marvelous as the lead couple.

Kelly in particular was hilarious, not only in his verbal sparring with Rodriguez but in a number of slapstick scenes as well. Particularly riotous was the scene in which his cohorts attempted to plant the seed that Beatrice loved him. He started out hiding behind the wall of an on-stage pond, skulked around behind various props around the stage until he found himself back at, then underwater in, the pond. A couple of prodigious spit takes and requisite splashing of the front-row folks, and he was off!

A great surprise was a virtuoso performance by Peter Macon in the role of Don Pedro. We pretty well dissed Macon for his performance as Othello in his OSF debut last year. But he showed great range and comedic chops as the leader of the returning warriors in this production.

OSF veteran Tony DeBruno is a hoot as the bumbling constable Dogberry. I would be remiss if I did not write down here that he is an ass. Juan Rivera LeBron and Sarah Rutan were fine as the young lovers Claudio and Hero, though Claudio is such a schmuck you want to slap him, falling for the trick that made him slander his honey at the altar. Christopher Michael Rivera drew the short straw and had to play Don John the bastard. I'm really looking forward to someone taking that role and doing it up nasty. Bill Geisslinger was steady and agitatable as our host Leonato.

My one real quibble was that Kelly raced through Benedick's play closing speech awfully rapidly. That college-of-witcrackers thing is one of my favorites, and it was over before it began. All in all, OSF's Much Ado was an entertaining success.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Long and wine-ding road to Ashland

By tradition Weisenheimer and my Sweetie, the official scorer, travel to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Monday, a day when the theaters are dark. This year, however, Sweetie discovered that the 40th annual Umpqua Valley Wine, Art, and Music Festival was taking place in Roseburg, Oregon the weekend before our Ashland dates, and attending seemed a no-brainer.

The festival, held on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, was grand. We tasted quite a number of wines. Tip of the cap to Greg Cramer from MarshAnne Landing wines, a great raconteur selling nice juice with astronomical labels. You can't beat that! And the music was fun. We especially liked Norman Sylvester, the original Northwest boogie cat, on Saturday evening, and the Colin Ross Band on Sunday afternoon.

The best part, though, was that we had to find lodging in the Roseburg area, and Sweetie really scored when she discovered the guest cottage at Delfino Vineyards. What a treasure! We had the one-bedroom cottage, spa, lap pool, five dogs, and 160 acres of vineyard and forest all to ourselves. It was quiet and relaxing out there. It was cool to wander the acres of newly planted Tempranillo grapes. It's all the rage in the Umpqua valley these days. Microclimates down there are very much like that in Spain, and there's some great Tempranillo being made in Oregon. We were escorted around the grounds by Ziggy, Gracie, and Ringo (pictured below). There are chickens on the property. Sweetie would likely scold me if I failed to mention the farm-fresh eggs we had for breakfast. Yum!

Jim and Terri Delfino have created a wonderful spot. I suspect we'll be back.

Delfino has a lovely Zinfandel, and we made our way out of town with a half case of that. (They don't make wine on site, yet, but grow and sell the fruit.) As we headed south on Monday we hit a few more wineries: Melrose, HillCrest (the oldest estate winery in Oregon), Girardet (Baco Noir is good stuff), Abecela (the pioneers of Tempranillo in the U.S.), and Spangler. The car was about three cases heavier by the end of the day.

We arrived in Ashland at our Weisenheimer headquarters for the week, the Terra Cottage Inn, in late afternoon, walked into town for dinner at Pasta Piatti (another tradition), crashed early and slept late.

Today is spa day, and tonight our first play of the week, Much Ado About Nothing, in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

Reviews coming here!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bucket of Honey entertains

Seattle folks looking for a fresh and thoroughly entertaining musical act should keep your eyes on the club listings for dates by Bucket of Honey. My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I enjoyed a marvelous set by Bucket at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard this weekend.

Bucket of Honey is Annie Jantzer and Nate Bogopolsky. We first saw them perform at Schmorgasborg, the FREE monthly late-night variety program (I guess the kids are calling it a "theatre mash-up" these days) held at 11 p.m. every third Saturday at Balagan Theatre. Schmorgasborg is hosted by Terri Weagant and Julia Griffin.

It's hard to cram Bucket of Honey into a category, but I'll try. Jantzer plays flute, Bogopolsky plays guitar, and they both do vocals. They're something of a folk rock hip-hop classical R&B comedy duo. Which still does nothing to explain the fact that their most crowd-pleasing tune is a cover of the 1974 Carl Douglas smash hit "Kung Fu Fighting." They also did a lovely rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Had there been a sidewalk at the Sunset, surely it would have been lighting up square by square as people danced.

One thing is for sure, and that is that Jantzer has some kick-ass pipes, and I'm not talking about the flute. Bucket of Honey does a entertaining show with good humor and a sweet helping of musical virtuosity. We hear a Web site is in the works. In the meantime Facebook types can follow them at Bucketof Honey.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Don't miss the funeral at Elephant's Graveyard

SPOILER ALERT: This review tells how the play comes out. If you'd rather be surprised, just know that it's really good. And go. Then come back and read this.

They hung a five-ton elephant on the basement stage at Balagan Theatre last night. Though Mary, the central character in Elephant's Graveyard, never appears on stage, you feel her presence throughout.

George Brant's play is a fascinating tale based on the true story of the day in 1916 that the town of Erwin, Tennessee executed a 10,000-pound pachyderm, hanging her from a rail yard crane. Balagan's new production of the show, directed by Jason Harber, packs an emotional wallop.

The story is simple. Mary the elephant is the star of the Sparks Circus, until one day, upon being mistreated by a rookie handler who had just joined the greatest show on Earth, throws said handler to the ground and stomps on his head, killing him. The townspeople demand justice and the ringmaster, fearing the red ink that could result from folks staying away from a dangerous circus, is willing to cut his losses and give it to them, over the protests of Mary's trainer and most of the other circus workers.

The show had the potential to be awfully boring. There's no action as such; the characters are mostly relaying the stories of what they did and saw. But Brant's writing is crisp, and Harber, making his Seattle directing debut, decided to have all 13 cast members remain on stage throughout the play's 75 minutes. It worked--everyone got to agonize through the events and the decisions together with us in the audience.

Harber also assembled a top-notch cast and gets wonderful performances out of all of them. I almost hate to single any of them out. However Chris "Sloop" Bell as the clown was a living, breathing answer to the question of why so many people are creeped out by clowns. He is the most enraged at the execution of Mary and winds up tasked with digging her grave. The tears flowing down his face at the closing curtain, taking much of his clown makeup with them, were amazing. Also props to Ray Tagavilla, who showed tremendous emotional range as Mary's trainer, a long-time partnership. It was gut-wrenching to watch him, teary eyed, tell of how he helped with the hanging. (Tagavilla was also marvelous in Balagan's Picasso at the Lapin Agile last spring, and is featured as a Spotlight Award winner in the currrent issue of Seattle magazine.) Michael D. Blum was grand as Sparks the ringmaster. The role demonstrated great range for Blum, who was hilarious in The Comedy of Errors at Greenstage this summer. And Banton Foster took on the role of the sheriff of Erwin with great zeal.

While there are a few laugh lines in the show, it's not really funny. It's an emotional punch in the gut that ended with few dry eyes in the sold-out house. Elephant's Graveyard is an amazing tale examining questions of justice, commerce, spectacle, race, gender, and revenge. Balagan's production is not to be missed. Tickets here; Balagan season tickets also are still available, and a steal at $110 for the nine remaining shows in the season.

Disclaimer: Weisenheimer is president of the board at Balagan, but it doesn't mean I'm biased.

For background on the story, this page on the Tennessee GenWeb site has a pretty good synopsis, as well as links to other Web resources.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September is theater month

Happy September! It's Weisenheimer's favorite month because it means that my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I will soon be headed off to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival! Theater heaven!

In the meantime there's still plenty happening on the local theater scene.

Balagan Theatre's season opener, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, with the fabulous Terri Weagant, just wrapped last weekend. Play number two, Elephant's Graveyard by George Brant and directed by Jason Harber, opens Thursday. It's the West Coast premiere of the play and Harber's directorial debut. Balagan favorites Ryan Higgins, Chris Bell, and Ray Tagavilla are in the cast, as is the company's executive director Jake Groshong, who hits the stage for the first time in a couple of years.

Tickets for Elephant's Graveyard are available on-line, and you can still get Balagan season tickets, a steal at $110 for the remaining nine shows in the season.

The usual disclaimer: Weisenheimer is president of the board at Balagan, but it doesn't mean I'm biased!

There's a bit of Balagan flavor to the next show at West Seattle's ArtsWest Theater. Balagan board member Mike Dooly is in the cast of ArtsWest's production of Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Carol Roscoe. The show opens Sept. 9. It's the season opener for ArtsWest and the Seattle premiere of the play, which ran from February through June at OSF.

We especially loved Dooly as Iago in Balagan's Othello last year. He's was also in Closer, Death/Sex, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Balagan, played in Wooden O's Richard III this summer, and had a couple of great roles in the 14/48 festival last month.

Tickets to Dean Man's Cell Phone can be found on-line.

Go see live theater!