Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Other Regions

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017
Ashland, Oregon
Reviews by Bill Eadie

Jeffrey King and Daniel José Molina in Henry IV
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) can be a theatregoer's idea of heaven. Generally performing four or five productions a day (two in the afternoon, three in the evening), it offers sophisticated takes on the familiar mixed with the new. The chance to see six shows (of the eleven produced) across a three-day weekend almost makes up for the fact that Ashland, Oregon, is difficult to reach (six hours' or more drive from major metropolitan areas, and limited service to Medford airport, fifteen miles to the north).

Of necessity, OSF operates on a repertory model. Actors are hired for part or all of the season, rehearsal periods are longer than what is standard, and because each production will perform perhaps three times a week, variety is a constant. Actors are also likely to interact with audiences, either in forums or informally as both groups move about town.

It can be pretty heady stuff. And audiences aren't particularly tolerant of failure, so everyone's under pressure to make it work. Mostly, it does—in years of attending I can't recall a single production that didn't work on some level. This year was no exception.

Of course, not everything goes perfectly all the time, which is part of the joy of live theatre. There's going to be variation in what individuals will or won't like. And, because the company's mission is rooted in Shakespeare, it presents the entire Bard canon over time, making certain that such hits as Timon of Athens, King John ,and Henry VIII will be on the bill at one point or another.

None of those appeared this season, but my choices reflected the mix being presented. I saw two of Shakespeare's plays, two that were Shakespeare-influenced, and two that made theatre out of poetic texts.

K. T. Vogt and Cast in The Merry Wives of Windsor
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Shakespeare productions presented contrasting views of the character of Falstaff. Henry IV, Part 2 showed Falstaff in decline, his carousing limited to bawdy houses, his military adventures relying on trickery to succeed. The Merry Wives of Windsor presented Falstaff as a cuckold, a victim of smart women who figured out his scheme.

Of course, Henry IV is not solely about Falstaff. In the main it is about a young prince who progresses through rebelling against his father to accepting his obligations as his father's heir (and, in Henry V to lead heroically as King). OSF presented both parts of Henry IV this season and will present Henry V next season, all of which featured Daniel José Molina as the prince who becomes King. The two Henry IV productions are both staged in-the-round, providing intimacy that can be used to advantage. For example, the reconciliation scene between Mr. Molina and Jeffrey King, as his father, is as raw and real as could be, viewed from only a few feet away.

Merry Wives is set in warmth and was thus a little out of place when played on the outdoor stage in unseasonably cold 40-degree weather. Still, the cast did its best to heat up a silly plot about mismatched lovers set to '80s rock hits.

The production's main attraction is K.T. Vogt, one of the festival's top clowns. OSF has been quite deliberate in casting non-traditionally, sometimes to make a point, sometimes not. It seems that casting Ms. Vogt as Falstaff provides an opportunity to give audiences a chance to see her take on the role. I thought that she looked uncomfortable in it early on, but she blossomed as the night went on. It probably didn't help that I had seen her in top form in another production that afternoon.

That production, a theatrical adaptation of the film, Shakespeare in Love, was one of two Shakespeare-related shows I saw on this trip. An imagined take on parallels between Shakespeare's personal life and his plays, the play retains a good deal of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's film version, but Lee Hall's adaptation strengthens the role of Christopher Marlowe (and, lengthens the play to three hours). Queen Elizabeth (Kate Mulligan) still gets the best lines, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter is still the working title for the play, and a dog still steals the show. Under Christopher Liam Moore's tutelage, the big cast works both mightily and well on the stage of the 600-seat Bowmer Theatre. It's the kind of production that keeps audience members returning season after season.

The other Shakespeare-inspired production I saw was the world premiere production of Off the Rails. Playwright Randy Reinholz has based his Wild West tale on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, sometimes quoting directly from that play's text. But, in this version, Angelo (Barret O'Brien) not only takes over as mayor of the town, but he's administering the local boarding school that is designed to strip Native children of their Indian heritage and turn them into "real Americans."

Asia Mark and Steven Sapp in UniSon
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Festival artistic director Bill Rauch, who directed a memorable version of Measure for Measure in 2011 featuring an all-female mariachi band, here coaxes his cast into playing the humor and joy that, momentarily, trumps the horror of how the children are treated. (Full disclosure: Mr. Reinholz and I both serve on the faculty at San Diego State University.)

Two other productions are creatively imagined versions of poetic texts. One is familiar: Mary Zimmerman's restaging of her adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey, while the other, titled UniSon, is based on the poetry of playwright August Wilson.

If you have seen Ms. Zimmerman's staging of classic texts such as Metamorphoses or The White Snake you know to expect vivid imagery, clever stage tricks, and disciplined, almost regimented, performances. Add to all that a towering performance by Christopher Donahue, a longtime Zimmerman collaborator, as Odysseus, and you have a three-and-a-half-hour outdoor evening that never lags.

August Wilson is best known for his plays depicting changes and ongoing challenges in African-American life during the 20th century. His poetry, on the other hand, seems to have been personal, depicting the changes and ongoing challenges he experienced in his own life. OSF commissioned its resident ensemble, UNIVERSES, and composer collaborators Broken Chord and Toshi Reagon to create a play from the poems.

The play depicts a Wilson-like character (Steven Sapp) who passes a trunk to his apprentice (Asia Mark) with instructions that its contents be destroyed after his death. The apprentice becomes curious, though, and in doing so brings the poet back to life to confront episodes based on Mr. Wilson's poem, "The Seven Terrors." Robert O'Hara's production, featuring song, dance, and Mr. Wilson's beloved jazz, depicts the poet wrestling with demons and eventually finding peace.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, runs through October 29, 2017 (the outdoor theatre closes October 15). For tickets and information, visit

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