Saturday, September 29, 2012

OSF: The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa

It can be a hit-or-miss prospect to set Shakespeare plays in a radically different time and place. We've seen Hamlet as a greaser, The Taming of the Shrew featuring boy and girl gangs, A Comedy of Errors placed in the wild west, and Two Gentlemen of Verona set in a modern prep school. West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. It worked for Akira Kurosawa to set Macbeth in feudal Japan for Throne of Blood, though a stage production of the same at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 was an utter disaster that we chose, mercifully, not to review.

Terri McMahon as Margaret Page and
Gina Daniels as Alice Ford in The Very
Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
We are delighted to report that, as crazy as it sounds, it totally worked for OSF to transport the Bard's wives of Elizabethan England to the modern-day American Midwest for the world premiere of The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. This hilarious adaptation was written by Alison Carey and directed by Christopher Liam Moore.

Moore's notes about the show in the playbill call it "a profoundly silly play about deeply serious things." This is an understatement. The central character of Wives is U.S. Senator John Falstaff, hanging around The Hawkeye State after his presidential campaign flamed out in the Iowa caucuses. This leaves him little to do except try to get laid; his targets are every woman on his text message list, with a focus on Alice Ford, the wife of professional golfer Francie Ford, and Margaret Page, wife of farmer George Page. The Pages, solid supporters of Iowa's same-sex marriage law, are working hard at setting up their cheerleader daughter Anne with women, though Anne is straight and has her eyes on male cheerleader Fenton. Throw in a trip to the Iowa State Fair, a 600-pound cow made of butter, and a giant bust of Falstaff carved from manure, and you have the makings of a heck of a comedy.

The actors are all so great it seems unfair to single out any, but I will note a few favorites. David Kelly is a marvelous comedic actor who anchored last year's Imaginary Invalid (alas, unreviewed, but our favorite of the 2011 festival) and is beautifully slimy as Sen. Falstaff. Terri McMahon and Gina Daniels are a riot as Margaret Page and Alice Ford, and concoct several comeuppances for Falstaff, who is easy to fool more than once, when they discover they've received the same sext-message from the senator. (He knows Alice is a lesbian but figures he can convert her.) Robin Goodrin Nordli is a scream as Francie Ford, and especially as her alter ego "Mr. Dodge", a big-money popcorn lobbyist who bears an eerie resemblance to Orville Redenbacher, and in whose guise she approaches Falstaff in order to gather intelligence about her cheating wife, who isn't cheating on her. Brooke Parks is amazingly Teutonic as the German Doctor Kaya, in a feud with Daniel T. Parker's Canadian Rev. Hugh Evans (of the Church of the Unbroken Rainbow) about whose nation's hockey team is supreme. This is not to even mention Judith-Marie Bergan, the Manager of the Come On Inn coffee shop who expects to win a ribbon at the fair this year with her prized boar Sir Sweeney.

Carey's adaptation is true to Shakespeare's story and deftly modernizes it, with all of the dirty jokes and puns we expect from the Bard. Love and marriage win out in the end, regardless of the genders of the participants. Even Doctor Kaya and Slender Shallow, disguised as sheep, find each other and pair up in the end.  The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa is wonderful theater and plays in OSF's Elizabethan Stage in Ashland through Oct. 13.

OSF: Romeo and Juliet

Tuesday we kicked off a two-week visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival by attending a performance of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Laird Williamson.

Alejandra Escalante as Juliet. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
Romeo and Juliet always seems to be a challenge. It is performed so often—this is the 13th time it has been produced at OSF since the festival began in 1935—and the text is so familiar that one has to wonder what else they're going to do with it. In this case, Williamson chose to set the play around the time of the Gold Rush in late 1840s California. But frankly, I didn't find myself thinking much about the setting during the show. It was still just about two kids from feuding families going ga-ga for each other. 

The two kids are played marvelously by newcomers to the festival. Daniel José Molina makes his OSF debut this year as Romeo, and Alejandra Escalante is in her second year, having played Juliet in Measure for Measure in 2011. It seems the temptation is to either cast the two leads as numbskull teenagers and discount their love, or as deadly serious and forget they're kids. Williamson, Molina, and Escalante strike a good balance between the two. 

The rest of the performances were solid, too, but a couple of them stood out. Isabell Monk O'Connor was great as the nurse to Juliet. Jason Rojas, another new face to OSF, was fantastic as Mercutio. OSF veteran Tony DeBruno, in his 20th season at the festival, was spot-on as the friar, though his note to Romeo doesn't get delivered in time, which leads to a tragic end.

It is not always so, necessarily. The first time we saw Romeo and Juliet in Ashland, the leads were played by John Tufts and Christine Albright; while they finished the play stone dead in the Capulet crypt, they eventually married in real life. Though that 2007 production pre-dates the Weisenheimer blog, it remains memorable in that it was the only time we've been rained on here in eight years attending the festival. While we were under cover of the roof, I was worried about Albright in particular, who spent the night getting drenched wearing naught but a flimsy nightgown for the show. Somehow she avoided pneumonia. They've gone on to be regulars here, and Tufts this year completes a three-year run as Hal, with the lead in Henry V. We look forward to what the future holds for Molina and Escalante.

Romeo and Juliet runs through Nov. 4 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland.