Friday, October 4, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Shrew, Robin Hood, Midsummer, My Fair Lady

In between plays about abdication, death, murder, the plague, prison camps, the slave trade, torture, madness, rape, and book burning (more on those gems in upcoming posts!), we appreciated some pleasant and entertaining romps in this, the strongest season we've seen in nine years of coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Heart of Robin Hood set and cast. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
The Heart of Robin Hood directed by Joel Sass in its US premiere is a recent project of playwright and director David Farr that premiered at London's Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. Farr collected the various Robin Hood legends and assembled them into a story that is, not surprisingly, somewhat Shakespearean, with its silly men, a journey into the forest, and a cross-dressing parentless woman who calls her man to his better self. Some of our favorite actors were in this production—John Tufts, Kate Hurster, Michael Elich, Jonathan Haugen—and all turned in fine performances. Erica Sullivan was delicious as the horrid sister. The acrobatic business with a ring that served to evoke Robin's perch in the trees was cool. There were sword fights. It was fun.

Nell Geisslinger as Kate. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
I've said most of what I want to say about the play itself Taming of the Shrew in my review of GreenStage's excellent 2012 production directed by Mark "Mok" Moser. Since then, Seattle Shakespeare Company's production set the bar for Shrew earlier this year in a production brilliantly directed by Aimée Bruneau and starring Kelly Kitchens as Kate, David Quicksall as Petruchio, David S. Hogan as Grumio, and Brenda Joyner as Bianca. It was set in a trailer park—which, let me tell you, worked. OSF's production directed by David Ivers and set at a boardwalk in the 1950s was fun but not as satisfying as either of those Seattle productions. The strongest feature here was Nell Geisslinger as Kate. We have been curious to see her in a leading role after several years of watching her carry off smaller parts, and she rocked it as Kate. Sadly, her Petruchio was not her match. John Tufts as Tranio and David Kelly as Gremio once again put their outstanding comedic chops on display. Jeremy Peter Johnson as Hortensio and Christiana Clark as Biondello also held up their end of the funny business. The set and costumes were a kick, and the family wedding/vacation album slideshow at the end was worth lingering for.

Rachael Warren belts one out.
OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
People love, love, love Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. I don't get it. The story is an "insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last" (with apologies to Shaw, who said that about a production of Shrew). I don't like the ending, and Shaw wouldn't have either. The high school kid next to me fell asleep, and I almost put my head on his shoulder for a little nap myself during some of Eliza's more boring numbers. (To be fair, I believe Rachael Warren was about as terrific an Eliza as there could be.) 

We rushed tickets thinking what the hell, we are so close to seeing the entire 2013 lineup, plus the Weisenheimer likes musicals more than I do, and the holy trinity of Jonathan Haugen, Anthony Heald, and David Kelly is not to be missed reading the phone book aloud, and this is bound to be better than that. 

It was, even though Haugen couldn't make the show. We heard that he was injured in a fall on the wet set the rainy night we saw him in Robin Hood, and that he's going to be ok, which is a relief. Get well soon. Haugen, Heald, and Kelly are so talented, and so funny, and have worked together so long, and have such good timing, that we're sure we missed a lot of really outstanding performing. Haugen's a classically trained singer and his voice is amazing. But I bet most folks in our audience never knew what they were missing. Kelly stepped in for Haugen as Henry Higgins, and was completely convincing and absolutely outstanding. We know Kelly is a brilliant actor, and this just increases our awe and respect for his talent. I also hadn't realized he is such a good singer. The understudy for Kelly's usual part, Colonel Pickering, was Mauro Hantman, and he acquitted himself well. 

The "Get Me To The Church On Time" number featuring Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle and the ensemble in some truly joyful dancing delighted me. And I loved the choice by director and music director Amanda Dehnert to set the show in a period theater, which meant we were seeing some of the business of theater like actors warming up and getting into and changing costume. The ensemble stayed on stage throughout most of the play, sitting on risers immediately behind the primary action, sometimes like observers, sometimes like a choir, and sometimes interjecting a bit of business in character. This production used the score for two pianos. The pianos were hiding in plain sight in the middle of the stage. (As we settled in, I was searching the perimeter of the set and muttered, "Where'd they put the pianos?" The Weisenheimer laughed and said, "You mean those two big black pieces of furniture in the middle?") All of the action happened around, behind, between, and on the instruments, and pianists Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs, in addition to playing brilliantly, were unflappable. 

And, yes, with the possible exception of me and the sleepy kid next to me, the audience loved it. 

The Midsummer cast. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
We saw A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Christopher Liam Moore outside on the Elizabethan stage on a decidedly unsummery night. This was the coldest night of our outdoor shows in this unseasonably early fall weather here at Ashland, and there was little in the play to keep us warm. As the Weisenheimer observed, they wrung all the eroticism out of it. The play was set at a Catholic parochial school in 1964. I read later that timing was intended to be Vatican II by way of explaining the headmaster priest (Theseus, played by Richard Howard) and head nun (Hippolyta, played by Judith-Marie Bergan) shuffling off collar and habit and getting married. Give 'em an English mass and they'll take a mile, I guess. The schoolgirls and boys Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander were too childish without ever seeming to grow up. The fairy costumes were silly even by Midsummer standards, even by OSF standards, and Titania's costume just plain malfunctioned. Terri McMahon did a great job of literally holding it together. 

A challenge in Midsummer is integrating, or contrasting, or doing whatever you're going to do with the fairy world and the people world. This is basically Puck's job. Gina Daniels was a spunky Puck, but all the work fell to her as the rest of the fairies were cast with children, one of whom at least really needed to be tucked into bed, poor little guy. I'm skeptical of video in plays, and projecting a video of Daniels around the facade to convey Puck flitting around the forest at her work was one of most egregious examples of how not to use video in a play that I've ever seen. And throughout there was some sort of white noise going on that might have been a malfunction in the sound system, or might have been intended to be crickets and such, but sounded to me like a poorly loaded dishwasher running. 

Fortunately, the play was saved by a merry band of teachers, coaches, lunch ladies, and janitors who put on their own school play to celebrate the solemnities. Here, the costumes and props were delightful as they used whatever was at hand—cafeteria trays, colanders, basketballs, mops—to adorn themselves and their theatrical. It was wonderful to see Brent Hinkley in a role with a good amount of stage time, as gym coach Nick Bottom, and he took all the stage time in the world to die as Pyramus, going through pantomime after pantomime of nasty ways to go, keeping the audience in stitches. Jon Beavers was a wonderfully nerdy Francis Flute, and I loved the choice to have the character actually be so moved by playing Thisbe that he forgot himself, found a voice as an actor, and turned in a touching performance. K. T. Vogt continues to steal every single scene we have ever seen her in. As Pam Snout playing Wall, she too found her voice and overcame her stage fright with the help of the cellist (yay for a live musician, Michal Palzewicz, on stage!) by turning her lines to song, set to that famous bit from Carmen

The opportunity to see all these plays is a dream, and so in the end these four plays, in words from Midsummer, need no excuse, and all is mended. 

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