The Oregon Shakespeare Festival 

T he Dog Days of summer approacheth, and thou must needs find other outlets for theatrical pleasures. Why not head for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival down in Ashland? It's a pleasant 5-hour drive, and there's a perfectly nice hostel and campsites in the surrounding area if you're broke. The plays themselves can cost anywhere from $29 to $63 per seat, but they're also really damn good. Of course, that doesn't mean you should throw your money around all willy-nilly--not ALL the plays are worth 30 bucks. Here are some guidelines to help you get the biggest bang for your buck.

1.) The quality of the Shakespeare plays at OSF is determined by familiarity. The OSF does four Shakespeare productions every season and seven non-Shakespeares. The more familiar the plays are the worse they will be. It's ironic, but true. Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare's MOST familiar play, receives a production this year, and it's awful; a sleek, leather-clad, switchblade and revolver-filled fiasco that buys into the glam-rock, Baz Luhrmann Shakespearean irreverence that went out of style years ago. Even the cast seems bored with it, and their lethargy shows in a stream of phoned-in performances.

The other Shakespeare playing while I was there (since I've left Richard II and Midsummer Night's Dream have opened) was Antony and Cleopatra, a play only slightly less familiar than Romeo & Juliet, and predictably, given here only a slightly better production. It goes for a spare look, with little to no props and furniture and a vast, open stage. It's an interesting, text-centric idea that suffers from poor casting. As Antony, the craggy Armando Duran lacks the presence to make his world leader character's self-destruction in the face of love plausible.

2.) New plays at the OSF are pretty much okay. The OSF never really misses with brand new plays, but rarely scores a solid smackdown with them either. This year's additions are a two play cycle by David Edgar called Continental Divide, a title that refers to the opposing political viewpoints of the plays. Both focus on the same fictitious election. One, Mothers Against, covers a republican campaign, and the other, Daughters of the Revolution, covers the democrat's.

Daughters follows a one-time radical activist who investigates into his own semi-violent past, and winds up digging up dirt on the democratic candidate. It's an intriguing story, but Edgar's smarty-pants dialogue transforms the characters into talking heads, as opposed to rich and complex individuals. He fares better with Mothers Against, a tighter play that focuses on a single room: the republican candidate's campaign headquarters during the last couple of days leading up to his public debate with the democrat.

3.) The OSF does plays from between 1850 and 1950 exceptionally well. Time and time again, the plays in Ashland from this time period (an era that includes Ibsen, Chekov, Durrenmatt, Miller, and many more) are the highlight or lights of the festival. This season is no exception.

Present Laughter, Noel Coward's 1939 play about an extravagant star of the stage dealing with the women in his life, is a delightful piece of fluff that stands out from other fluff for the interest it takes in its characters. It has a kind of farcical energy about it, as did many plays of the time, but also avoids annoying farce-like plot contrivances. The hulking Garry Essendine gives a surprisingly nuanced, not to mention hilarious performance as the female-plagued playboy Brent Harris.

Also appearing as an alluring vixen in Present is Robin Goodrin Nordli, one of the OSF's best actresses, and pulling double duty here as the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler, one of the best productions I have ever seen in Ashland. Hedda moves through the final hours leading up to a troubled woman's suicide. Discontent, possibly abused at some point, the meddling Hedda is a complex and mysterious character with ambiguous motivations. Goodrin Nordli imbues her with a pitch-perfect blend of sex appeal and pent-up energy. It's a brilliant performance in a darkly comic production that reminds us why Ibsen is the most produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare. You'll be wasting three hours of your time in Ashland if you miss this one. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS

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