Andrée Lanthier

Ashland, head south on I-5 for about five hours, dates and times vary hugely, visit osfashland.org for complete lineup, runs through October, $37.50 - $60

Somehow, on my recent visit to Ashland, I managed, in a mere five days, to see seven of the 11 plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has running, which is great for you because with my advice in hand you can pick and choose, and avoid a similar fate. The Mercury: wading through the overpriced crap so you don't have to.

King Lear, directed by James Edmonson. Edmonson is a crotchety looking old guy who's been a regular at the OSF for about 200 years. He's a marvelous actor, and a lousy director. Stuck in some sort of traditionalist quagmire, his Shakespeare productions typically feature virtually zero action sequences, and have all the pacing and excitement of a turd. With King Lear, Edmonson is working with Shakespeare's greatest play, with two of the OSF's finest actors in the two key roles (Kenneth Albers as Lear; Ray Porter as Kent), yet still concocts a lifeless theatrical experience.

Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three, directed by Libby Appel and Scott Kaiser. Another OSF veteran whose prominence has always mystified me is artistic director Libby Appel, a revisionist so obsessed with minimalism and gender-bending, her Shakespeare interpretations are often impenetrable. I thus went into the already convoluted Henry VI plays (split into two separate productions) with some trepidation, only to be happily surprised. Appel, perhaps with the influence of Kaiser, sets aside artistic pretensions to let the great story here tell itself. Written when Shakespeare was very young, Henry VI tells the tale of the wimpy Henry the Sixth's fall from nobility at the hands of Edward of York (Ray Porter again). I won't even begin to explain all the intricate rivalries and familial grudges that occur, but let's say it's like a medieval soap opera, replete with tons of betrayals, fights, and killings.

The Comedy of Errors, directed by Bill Rauch. Rauch excels at injecting sparkling new life into dry old texts. His Hedda Gabbler last year remains my favorite thing I have ever seen at the OSF, and his Errors this year is simply delightful. Set in a modern-day casino, it converts the hapless twins Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus into, respectively, a backwater hick and a tough Mafia type. Ray Porter makes yet another appearance, playing both parts, flawlessly switching back and forth between cowboy twang and tough guy talk, and delivering Shakespeare's heady language with remarkable clarity and precision. This is the most fun you'll ever have at a Shakespeare production.

Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Laird Williamson. The romantic comedy that inspired a million crappy films about should-be lovers who spend the whole time feigning hatred when everyone else knows they're perfect for each other. Brent Harris is Benedict and Robin Goodrin Nordli is Beatrice; two witty characters who insult each other relentlessly for two hours before breaking down and making out. Meanwhile there's a bunch of other less interesting Shakespearean chicanery; you know, identity mix-ups and note passing and whatnot. But the real stars here are the leads, and they are wonderful.

The Visit, directed by Kenneth Albers. Friedrich Durrenmatt's most famous play is a great read, and I couldn't wait to see it actually performed by some of the most skillful actors in the world. Weirdly, though, it was just okay. The performances were definitely stellar, and Durrenmatt's story about a rich elderly woman who bribes her entire hometown to kill an old rival is too good to not be gripping--but director Albers, like Edmonson, is another ancient OSF veteran who can do pretty much anything he wants, and he does. He has more stylistic flair than Edmonson, but his pacing is equally turgid. Durrenmatt's writing is quick, clever, and relentlessly dark, and The Visit would have benefited from a touch of youthful exuberance.

Topdog/Underdog, directed by Timothy Bond. Suzan-Lori Parks' tale of two black brothers obsessed with Three-Card Monte and with their shared dark past is hilarious, sad, devastating, and shocking. As the bros, Kevin Kenerly and G. Valmont Thomas have a ball with Parks' text, which features masturbation jokes, Lincoln impersonations, card tricks galore, and even a bit of blues singing. The entire play takes place in one dingy little room, and yet will be the fastest three hours you've ever spent in a theater, should you choose to see it, which you should.