The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is nestled in the beautiful southern hills of this fair state, in the town of Ashland, a tourist trap fantasyland lined with overpriced, mediocre restaurants and kitsch shops. Here, the population consists of two sorts of people: visiting old folks who have the money and time to see the kind of productions the OSF tosses out, and the blue-collar, embittered locals who hate them. I'm not making it sound appealing, but I assure you, my theater-loving friend, when you sit in the festival's authentic, enormous Elizabethan outdoor theater, with the evening sky twinkling above you, a stage filled with some of the best actors imaginable below you, and a crowd big enough to fill a mid-sized rock arena all around you, you will feel the town's distinct lameness puff away like smoke.
On my trip to Ashland, I saw three plays. A few of the other 8 productions didn't fit into my schedule, and others haven't opened yet. Visit osfashland.org to see all that's available.
UP, by Bridget Carpenter.
Based on a true story, UP follows Walter Griffin (Richard Howard), a kooky inventor whose crowning achievement came 15 years ago, when he filled 42 weather balloons with helium, tied them to a lawn chair, and took himself on a crazy airborne adventure. The play is ostensibly about his struggle to find meaning 15 years after achieving his ultimate dream, but Guggenheim Fellowship winner Bridget Carpenter buries what could have been a dark, interesting tale in a glut of superfluous, issue-driven plot threads. There's a pregnant "quirky girl" who gets cute with Walter's son, Mikey (John Tufts); the girl's racketeering aunt who runs an over-the-phone office supply business; and dreamlike conversations with the famous French acrobat Phillipe Petit (U. Jonathan Toppo).
Like an overstuffed, committee-driven television pilot, these plot threads butt heads and cancel each other out. Falling into the TV trap himself, director Michael Barakiva coats everything in a sitcom sludge of bland pacing, overly loud pop music, and tremulous pausing. UP isn't just terrible relative to the OSF's heightened standards, it's just terrible.
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand
Director Laird Williamson's rendition of Edmond Rostand's epic Cyrano de Bergerac is as big, bold, and brash as one would hope. Set in the towering, lovely outdoor Elizabethan Stage, a cast of seemingly thousands packs the stage, with Marco Barricelli leading the way tremendously as Cyrano, whose famously big schnozz is trumped only by his even bigger wit and incredible bombast. Barricelli is everywhere, decimating foes with both sword and pen, dancing and singing and joking and fighting, and all the while struggling with his unrequited love for the fair Roxane (Ashland regular Robin Goodrin Nordli). It's a bravura performance as he flexes both toughness and vulnerability in equally magnificent doses. The beloved balcony scene, wherein Cyrano, tragically, uses his dazzling wordplay to help the dunderheaded but handsome Christian woo Roxane, is one of the most tenderly wrought in recent OSF memory.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
This production of a notoriously "lesser" Shakespeare script has two things going for it: stellar OSF director Bill Rauch, and the great comedic actor David Kelly, who, as the goofy clown Launce, famously gets to interact with a real-life dog.
The story follows Valentine and Proteus (Juan Rivera LeBron and Gregory Linnington, respectively), who venture out of their comfortable homes in Verona to explore the ritzier streets of Milan. Left behind and lonely, Proteus' girlfriend, Julia (the wonderful Miriam A. Laube) disguises herself as a man and follows him to keep tabs on him. Rauch's interpretation of all this is brilliant, utilizing a device that precisely carves out the two communities and the differences between them without sinking into cloying gimmickry. Verona is an Amish-like community, with Puritanical values and funny beards leading the way. Milan, in contrast, is a privileged community exhibiting American wealth and excess. In addition to a beautiful design scheme, Rauch's vision has Gentlemen's protagonists entering a new world that makes their heads spin, and their ensuing wacky behavior suddenly makes perfect sense. A suspension of disbelief is necessary for any Shakespeare production, but at least Rauch makes it easy to achieve.