Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A Streetcar Named Desire

For many years my response to the common conversation-starting question of what I would do if I had a time machine has been that I'd go back to 1948 and see Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barrymore Theatre in New York. I'm sticking with that, but on the way back I think I'll drop in again on this year's marvelous Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Streetcar, directed by Christopher Liam Moore and featuring Kate Mulligan as Blanche, Danforth Comins as Stanley, and Nell Geisslinger as Stella.

We all know how this Tennessee Williams story is going to turn out for Blanche, and so for her it's not the destination of the streetcar that matters so much as the journey. Mulligan and Moore have crafted a marvelous character who knows she's in a bad part of town, but keeps fighting with all she's got trying to cross back to a better side of the tracks. What she's got isn't enough, of course, but Mulligan plays Blanche with a great deal of depth and subtlety in a performance that was a pleasure to watch.

Kate Mulligan as Blanche and Danforth Comins as Stanley
in Oregon Shakespeare Company's production of A
Streetcar Named Desire
. OSF photo.
As much as this is Blanche's play--we've often seen the role referred to as the King Lear for women--it always seems to be Brando who is lurking about the set somewhere, listening in and occasionally bellowing, "Ha!" Comins makes us forget about Brando for three hours and plays Stanley in a way that makes him almost likable on occasion. He's still a big ape with a hot temper, but he's also smart and occasionally tender. There are some great moments of real connection between him and Blanche before he brutally brings down her house of cards.

There were almost visible sparks between Comins and Geisslinger, whose Stella was tired and knocked up and had her loony sister living with her in their tiny French Quarter apartment. She was also still incredibly hot for Stanley; she goes to watch him bowl, after all! Stella is not taking any crap from either of her roomies, though she accepts and cares for both despite their flaws.

The supporting cast was grand as well, with special props to Jeffrey King, who played Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, who nearly woos Blanche. Revelations about her past chase him away, but you know he regrets it. We also know that he believes what Stanley did, but still can't tear himself away from the poker game.

This year's lineup really showed us how deep OSF's company of actors is. Comins has had some great roles over the years, such as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (another Williams classic also directed by Moore), and the title role in Coriolanus. He didn't disappoint here. It was a hell of a year for Geisslinger, who was great as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and scored as Stella, too. I most remember Mulligan as a hilarious Beatrice in Servant of Two Masters, but she's had some nice roles such as Karen Weston in August: Osage County and Mae in Cat. She totally rocked as Blanche in a memorable performance.

After the show my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, and I talked about writing a sequel: Streetcar II. We decided against it because there would be no story. Stella and Stanley are mad for each other and will put this little incident behind them.

You don't need a time machine just yet to catch this Streetcar. It plays at OSF through Nov. 2.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates is a powerful new musical developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I loved it. Damn it, I'm going to have to stop saying I don't like musicals. 

There's a cool story behind this project. Some years ago Bill Rauch picked up the phone to invite Ramiz Monsef to play the Player King in 2010's Hamlet. We remember the buzz about the play-within-a-play being done by a rap troupe, and we enjoyed what they did. Well, apparently Monsef is a pretty good negotiator. He said he and his buddies wanted to work on a little something-something, and would OSF be a home for that. Rauch said yes.

Good move, because that little something has been workshopped for a couple of years now, earned one of the 2013 slots, and blew us and the rest of the audience away.

The Unfortunates is a collaborative effort directed by Shana Cooper and written by Monsef, his fellow 3 Blind Mice Jon Beavers and Ian Merrigan, and Casey Hurt, with additional material by Kristoffer Diaz. Monsef, Beavers, Merrigan, and Hurt formed the core of the outstanding performing ensemble. 

Apparently Monsef had long wanted to do something on the old blues song, "The St. James Infirmary Blues" (which is derived from an even older ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," thus the title of this musical). Being blues fans, we know and love the song. Monsef and his collaborators took that song and let their imaginations go, riffing on it to create a phantasm, a dream, a hallucination, a life that passes before your eyes. 

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe, and the rest
of the cast of The Unfortunates.
OSF photo.
Here's the story they came up with: a group of men are in a prison camp, where they will be executed. One by one they're taken away. One of these men, Joe, is insensible with fear and grief, kneeling and holding his fists in fighting position in front of his bowed head with a photograph of his sweetie gripped between his fingers. Through chance and the sacrifice of his comrades, Joe's the last to go. But before he does, he slips into the story of the song his friends sang in their last hours: "St. James Infirmary Blues." He becomes Big Joe, the thumper for King Jesse's bar, who in addition to keeping order made sure the dice always turned up sevens. He is useful for and defined by his fists, which are huge. He loves Rae, Jesse's daughter, who was born with no arms, and who sings like an angel, but he can't bring himself to speak for or to her. Jesse allows a hustler to win an hour with his daughter, a bet lost because Big Joe failed to pound the floor with his gigantic fists at the roll of the dice to make sure the house won. After this initiation Rae stops singing and joins the ranks of prostitutes in the bar, to Big Joe's grief and shame. Jesse dies of "the plague" (probably the flu pandemic of 1918), and Big Joe inherits the bar. He cleans things up, which isn't good for business, and at about that time the plague starts picking off the regulars. When it threatens Rae, Big Joe decides to play craps once again to win the money for the doctor. But he returns too late. Rae sold her body to the evil doctor in exchange for the cure, but died anyway, and when Big Joe finds and confronts him, the doctor admits that it was all a scam and there is no cure. Rae reappears to Joe. She has arms, he finds his voice, and he is able to slip out of his ginormous fists and hold her with human-size arms and open hands. The world of the bar slips away and Joe is back in the prison camp, able to stand and face the guard who comes for him with courage, thanks to the song of his brothers in arms.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like a hot mess, or maybe just goofy. Definitely implausible. Certainly not uplifting. I'm glad I knew absolutely nothing about the musical before showing up. I might have skipped it in order to see The Tenth Muse a third time, and that would have been a real shame. Because this was one of the most joyful things I've ever seen.

The story works because it doesn't begin to try to be realistic, and instead uses all the arts and magic of theater to tap in to deeply held human fears and hopes, pulling from and across cultures for symbols, tropes, archetypes, all in service of the theme of our indomitable human capacity to create and feel joy. Awesome. Besides, psychological realism is overrated. 

And it works because music is the story; it is the inspiration, the theme, the conclusion. It is what this play is about. Without the music, the story would have made a pretty good comic book, and it would have been cool, but it wouldn't have been a play. I woke up the morning after seeing The Unfortunates with the music in my head, my ears, and on my lips. Part of the joy of this music is the artists' dexterity across genres. They used a through line of American ways of telling stories with music—the blues, ballads, rock, gospel, rap, and again and always the blues. I suppose the music has had the roughest edges smoothed out to be the hummable, crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, hand-clapping stuff of musicals. That's cool. I was entertained by the little old ladies making a bee line for the CD sales table after the show (I hope they purchased; this little old lady did!). But if I had magical powers I would create a time machine and spirit myself back to the midnight workshops at the Black Swan when they were riffing and jamming and figuring this all out.

Finally, I have to hand it to the costume shop and costume designer Katherine O'Neill. Our faithful readers (both of you!) know that I tend to tweak the costume design at OSF. Here, the costumes were essential to the  story, and they designed and executed them beautifully. Here was their tall order: the story needed a costume for a lovely woman with no arms; great big giant fists—each bigger than the guy's head—that look reasonably realistic and that open and close and will stay on but can be slipped out of at just the right time; and arms that can be pulled out from the shoulder almost to the length of the stage. Plus clowns, prostitutes, preachers, barflies—oh, and rooks (yeah, like the bird). It all worked really well and made sense, in a wonderful outsized comic-book-superhero kind of way. The set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer was slick too, accommodating the live musicians (yay for live music on stage!), drawing us into the scene, and moving us quickly between bar and prison camp locations.

I take back every grumpy thing I ever said about the recent proliferation of musicals at OSF. Good call, Bill Rauch; good call.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Liquid Plain

We saw three world premiers in Ashland this year, new work commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. All three plays pretty much picked us up and body slammed us into our comfy theater seats. First up is The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. 

The Liquid Plain is a well-researched play about the slave trade of the late 1700s run through Bristol, Rhode Island by James De Wolf. The play is about the relationships between a common law couple each escaped from slavery, Dembi and Adjua, who found each other and are forging a life together working in entrepreneurial fashion on the docks, scraping together passage to Africa; the sailor Cranston they drag from the water to salvage his stuff but who isn't quite drowned after all; and their child, Bristol. 

Kimberly Scott as Dembi, Danforth Comins as a just-washed-
ashore Cranston, and June Carryl as Adjua in The Liquid
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
Never appearing in the play but critical to the characters and action is Adjua's unnamed sister, who did not survive the trip over on the slave ship. We are reminded of her presence at various points before and during the action by an empty chair with buckles on the arms suspended by ropes on a pulley, like the one in which she would have been lowered overboard by Captain and later United States Senator De Wolf. 

Making appearances are De Wolf, played by an apparently indefatigable Michael Winters; a rake and reckless captain, Liverpool Joe, who takes risky voyages picking up people from the underground railroad and returning them to Africa; he is played by one of our favorites, Kevin Kenerly. Balthazar is a sailor throwing in with Liverpool Joe in a quixotic effort to make his fortune, or just get by. And the ghost of William Blake visits Bristol (the place and the character) by borrowing a disemboweled and gibbeted cadaver (must have been great fun for the costume shop); both Balthazar and Blake are played with the perfect balance of gravitas and comedic relief by Armando Durán.

After setting up the characters, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and their losses, things get complicated just before intermission, as the ragtag crew is about to embark on their long-dreamt-of journey to Africa. Adjua announces her pregnancy, and Dembi takes actions that will separate him from his beloved forever. 

When we return from intermission, it is about 40 years later. Adjua died at childbirth, and the now-grown Bristol has come to Rhode Island from England to take revenge on De Wolf and find her father. The men she finds—Cranston, De Wolf, and Dembi—all hold surprises for her in her journey back to her roots. 

In an epic that crosses generations, it can be a bit too easy as an audience member to stay detached. Only Dembi and Cranston span intermission on stage (not counting a ghostly Adjua, which I didn't think added anything). Just as we have come to care about one set of characters, we come back from intermission, get a little exposition about what happened to them, and are introduced to a new character. We don't have a lot of time to get to know and care about Bristol. We care about her largely because we cared about her mother and aunt; because she is seeking their story, seeking answers to their questions, and seeking justice for them. In general, the play is stronger when it is showing rather than telling (and aren't most plays?). Kwei-Armah and the design teams did a great job of finding ways to strengthen the script by emphasizing the showing.

For instance, I appreciate the playwright and director's willingness to make us squirm in Wallace's story about disgusting events in our history using very specific, grotesque details. One example is the good work the set, lighting, and costume folks did to make Cranston's affliction with guinea worm uncomfortable for us (google it; don't say I didn't warn you). 

Bakesta King was fantastic as Risa in Two Trains Running earlier this year, and even with my playbill right in front of me I did not make the connection; she so completely embodied such different women that I did not recognize her. Well done. I don't know how Danforth Comins does it, playing some really vile characters all year this year including Cranston. And he does it so well! I think if I'd met him in a dark street in Ashland I might have jumped in fright. But then I hope I would remember how cute and goofy he was as Orlando in As You Like It a few years back and have the presence of mind to tell him how much I enjoy his work. Especially when he's playing creeps. Newcomer to OSF June Carryl was mesmerizing as Adjua. I think Kimberly Scott can pretty much do anything on stage; Scott turned in a bravura performance as Dembi. 

On the day we saw The Liquid Plain, there was a power outage in the Thomas Theater. This gave us the opportunity to get yet another glimpse into the magic of theater making. We realized how startling such an event must be for the actors. For us in the audience, we don't know what's going to happen from moment to moment, and it's plausible that the line Scott had just delivered was so momentous that it caused lightning and thunder and darkness. That is, until the exit signs clicked over to backup power and it stayed otherwise dark a little too long. But for the actors, who must come to absolutely trust that all the lights and props and sounds are always going to be exactly where they should be, at exactly the same time each time, it must have been a jolt. When the backup generator kicked in and the lights came up, Kenerly was laughing and I suspect Scott may have ad libbed a choice word or two. The actors filed off the stage, and the operating crew thoroughly checked everything over during an unscheduled intermission, running every mechanical part of the show through its paces. Then, they got us back in our seats, the actors filed back in, picked up just a few lines ahead of where the lights had gone out, and didn't miss another beat. Given how emotional the play is and the way the story was building, I was a bit surprised how little the event marred our experience. We all fell right back into our roles. 

Naomi Wallace is a distinguished American playwright, with a resume full of accomplishments and awards and grants. She wrote a fine play in The Liquid Plain. And what's really cool is that the other two world premiers commissioned by OSF from less well-known (so far) artists absolutely held their own with Wallace, Tennessee Williams, Lerner and Loewe, and William Shakespeare. More on these new plays soon.

The Liquid Plain is part of the American Revolutions cycle, OSF's 10-year program to commission 37 new plays (the number of plays in the Shakespearean canon) about moments in United States history. I wish more people knew about this cycle, and I hope OSF becomes as well-known for commissioning exciting new work as it is for Shakespeare. We've seen five of the six American Revolutions plays that have been produced so far, and we missed one only because it was produced in Chicago at Steppenwolf. We are pretty close to completing the Shakespearean canon. Based on what we've seen so far, we would love to complete this canon as well. 

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. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: King Lear

Director Bill Rauch cast two actors we admire as King Lear, splitting the grueling 130-show Oregon Shakespeare Festival season between them. We never miss Michael Winters's work in Seattle as well as at OSF if we can help it, and we have enjoyed Jack Willis in the past couple of years that he has been performing here at OSF. When tickets became available, the Weisenheimer secured seats for performances by each actor, and we looked forward to it all year. We were not disappointed.

Asking which Lear was "better" is like knowing two old men with different but fatal ailments and asking who is sicker. We saw two different characters named "King Lear," but each within the bounds of the same story and a cohesive vision for the production by Rauch.

We saw Willis's Lear on our first afternoon here. His Lear was choleric, bombastic, snide, entitled; a hard-drinking, hunt-loving, bull-in-the-china-shop man's man. He was remote from those around him from the start and only became more so as his private demons, including sexual frustration and inadequacy, dragged him further into his personal hell. Willis's interpretation took some risks and stretched the elasticity of the text, to mostly persuasive and effective results. This Lear did not go gently into that dark night. He succumbed with rage and at the end a touching resignation.
Daisuke Tsuji as The Fool and Michael Winters as Lear in
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear.
OSF photo

Two days later we saw Winters play Lear. This Lear was vulnerable, befuddled; seemed genuinely well-intentioned and surprised, as well as furious, when his "retirement party" didn't go so well; and fought against the darkness closing in with bursts of a range of emotions and attempts to grasp at those around him. This Lear was probably just holding it together and maybe could have continued to do so until the pins were knocked right out from under him and he could not get his balance back despite lurching and pinwheeling his arms to try to right himself. Winters hewed more closely to the text and its ambiguities, especially that balance between flaws of mind, body, and character that must be so challenging for an actor, and crafted that balance brilliantly. This Lear finally fell with heart-bursting anguish.

For the rest of the ensemble playing to these two different men, we thought we detected more wariness and determined loyalty to Willis's Lear; more frustration, affection, and physical interaction with Winters's.
Jack Willis, pictured above, alternated with Michael
Winters in the title role of King Lear. OSF photo.

A moment that exemplifies the differences between these Lears is near the very end: Cordelia and Lear's reunion before they are captured. The line is, "Do not laugh at me, / For, as I am a man, I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia." Willis says this over his shoulder "confidentially" to Kent, and it is endearing and plays for a bit of a laugh. Winters says the line looking directly at Cordelia, with his arms outstretched to her, with aching loss and hope.

The rest of the ensemble is as glorious as the two brilliant actors playing Lear. The two characters I was most interested in are Kent and the Fool. They interact the most with Lear, and are loyal to him even as they see his folly clearly. They are the truth tellers in the play and I find those characters fascinating—especially Kent in his predicament, as he has to dissemble and disguise in order to continue to be true to Lear after telling the truth to him and getting banished.

Daisuke Tsuji was a wonderful Fool; we know he has outstanding clown skills. He's Lear's conscience, needling him, trying to distract him, and trying to call him to a better self when he rages. Tsuji starts the play in a seat as part of the audience, and it was hilarious to watch the people around him get increasingly annoyed as he got increasingly restless and finally burst forth with inappropriately loud and long laughter, just as he got up and joined the action. Armando Durán's Kent was everything I had hoped for from a Kent. He is the counterpoint to Lear, the person who is behaving as a king should but this king doesn't, with a proper understanding of duty, loyalty, his station, and his responsibility to protect.

We've been coming here long enough to know that Vilma Silva and Robin Goodrin Nordli are outstanding actors, and it was a delight to see them so well-matched in the major roles of Goneril and Regan, respectively. They nailed it. Silva's Goneril is a frustrated leader, someone who could have and probably should have been wearing the pants in the family if that had been allowed. As exploitative as she is, you can almost sympathize, certainly understand, her temptation to seize an opportunity to exercise her talents. Nordli's Regan is babied, not too bright, supremely manipulative, usually drunk, and probably a little nuts. In other words, her father's daughter.

There is so much more to a production of a play than the text, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of seeing a play is watching how the artists bring the text to life. There were a number of smart additions to, or interpretations of, the text. For example, there was a lovely bit of symmetry as disloyal son Edmund picked Gloucester's pocket for his keys in order to betray him. Later, faithful son Edgar surreptitiously replaced blind Gloucester's money in his pocket, refusing to accept it for guiding and protecting him. 

One change to the text—well, stage directions anyway—provided an elegant solution to the Fool's disappearance. The text indicates that the Fool and Kent help Lear off the stage in act 3 scene 6, and after this the Fool does not appear again. In this production, Lear accidentally and without noticing mortally wounds the Fool in a tussle as the Fool and Kent attempt to restrain Lear in his frenzy over an imagined Goneril escaping justice. The Fool dies without Kent or Gloucester noticing in their haste to rescue the King; Edgar discovers it which only adds to his horror, and he removes the body at his exit ending the scene. 

As effective as these interpretations and additions were, there were changes to the text that were not so salutary. There were a number of times when a line or word just sounded jarringly wrong, and I found myself thinking "Did Shakespeare really write that?" After the play I looked up all of these moments that I could remember and, it turns out, no, Shakespeare did not write that. Now, I recognize that the text of King Lear is especially problematic (basically two different versions have come down to us). And I'm not such a purist that I cannot abide any fiddling around with the text. Deletions and rearranging the sequence of scenes and speeches are par for the course. However, if you are going change the author's words, there should be a good reason—and you want to be sure your writing is on the level of the author's. Whoever was changing the text in this production is no Shakespeare. And the only reason I can suppose for the changes would be to try to make the language more accessible to today's audience. Just one very small example: Kent is railing against Oswald, Goneril's steward, and threatens to "daub the walls of a jakes with him" after treading him into mortar. In this production, it was "daub the walls of an outhouse with him," which is a startling introduction of American English into the middle of a (mostly) unadapted Shakespeare play. "Jakes" is a fine old word. Armando Durán, playing Kent, is an excellent actor. Did Rauch really think we would not get Kent's meaning? That shows an unjustifiable lack of confidence in his actors, and an unnecessary lack of confidence in the audience. 

We were in the Thomas Theater (which I still think of as the New Theater) in the round, in contemporary time, and the set was beautifully spare and simple, making small details even more effective, such as Lear tearing a map into three unequal portions (the largest intended for Cordelia) and the crumpled pieces of paper reappearing over and over again throughout the play, a tangible reminder of Lear's folly. The scene where Lear is shut out in the storm was marvelously stirring with some flashlights and a fan, all manipulated on stage by actors and stagehands. At OSF, where they have the resources to get fancy, it was delightful to see some good old-fashioned theatrical magic made with the simplest of props and the talent of the cast and crew. The lighting and sound throughout were extremely well done. The design choices helped ensure that there would be little separation, physical or emotional, between us in the audience and the characters on stage. Both productions we were in "terrible seats" (as we overheard an actor from the production describe them), directly, and I mean directly next to the throne set midway up a stairwell from the stage proper to an exit at the top of the theater. A good deal of action, not just entrances and exits, happened on this stairwell, and while it did mean a little bit of craning our necks, we didn't mind. It was worth it to be terrified by Goneril, who was close enough to pluck my eyes out. 

Finally, a wish. I would love to see a production of King Lear that casts the same woman as Cordelia and the Fool. There are relatively few good parts for women anyway (compared to the number of roles for men), and Cordelia really is a crummy part by itself. But playing both Cordelia and the Fool would make it an amazing role, especially for a woman who has terrific clown skills (there are some!). It makes sense logistically. The Fool does not appear until after Cordelia's exit for France, and Cordelia does not appear again until after the Fool mysteriously and permanently vanishes. In fact, knowing that the younger actors played the parts of women and of fools, it seems entirely possible that the role was played by the same boy in Shakespeare's time. It also makes sense artistically, as we the audience recognize the same actor who played Cordelia returning to continue to be the King's conscience and darling in another guise. It would make one of Lear's last lines especially poignant: "And my poor fool is hanged."