Things have changed a lot at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) since performances began there back in 1935. For instance, when it started out, the OSF included boxing matches along with the plays in attempts to broaden its appeal. Today, the festival is well enough established to focus exclusively on drama, indeed so much so that the physical setup now extends to three separate venues: the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, the indoor Angus Bowmer theater, and the black box known as the New Theatre. And the OSF is not only well established-it is very popular, too. During the past 70 years, more than 10 million theatergoers have passed through its gates. And, in the 21st century, as directorial interpretations of classics, both Shakespearean and otherwise, become more diverse and innovative, the audience’s quest for new and exciting theatrical experiences in Ashland intensifies. Many now embark annually on a theatrical pilgrimage to this beautiful town, which is just north of the California border.
The 2007 season will be the last for the festival’s Artistic Director Libby Appel, who has been OSF’s visionary leader for 12 years. For her farewell turn, Appel has selected some of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays-Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, and The Tempest. But, at the OSF, Shakespeare is never the only thing going on, and this year there are seven other productions of plays ranging from the traditional (Tartuffe, On the Razzle) to the brand new (Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, Distracted by Lisa Loomer).
Appel directed The Tempest, and it is pleasing to think that she finds some consolation for leaving the OSF in the words of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, who likewise surrenders magical powers to honor a deeper truth by forgiving his enemies and freeing the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban, saying, “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well!” Derrick Lee Weeden impresses with his ability to transform from a haughty ruler to a humbled duke. As he dons his magical robe, its design suggesting an oriental despot, he acknowledges “this thing of darkness.” Caliban’s enslavement is vividly depicted in the thick ropes that make up his costume. Caliban is played by Dan Donohue, a talented actor who also makes a willful Mercutio in OSF’s Romeo and Juliet, which is directed by Bill Rauch, the festival’s incoming artistic director.
Rauch has created a fresh and bold interpretation of the ancient love story of Romeo and Juliet, focusing on the play’s generation gap and its vicious cycles of prejudice. To underscore the sameness of the Capulet and Montague parents, the actors playing the parents appear in Elizabethan costume, while Romeo and Juliet and their contemporaries dress, dance, and act like today’s teenagers. John Tufts and Christine Albright are perfectly cast as Romeo and Juliet-both exude youthful passion and look incredibly close to actually being 14 years old.
The Taming of the Shrew continues to raise valid questions despite the widespread assumption that its story is passe in our liberated century. What makes a partnership work? How do relationships survive the bounds of convention? Kate (played by Vilma Silva) has a kind of wildness, and Petrucchio (played by Michael Elich) an irrationality that, taken together, produce a chemical reaction that in turn triggers a more complete surrender to love. Shrew is a joyful, raucous, rich play with more layers than perhaps previously thought.
During these evening performances in the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan theater, when the dusk settles into complete night and stars appear on the quiet horizon (no planes are allowed to traverse above the theater complex), one cannot help but feel a deep, magical connection to the past. Even though no amplification is used, Shakespeare’s lines carry effortlessly from the stage to the last rows of the second gallery. Each evening, Green Show dancers perform for 35 minutes prior to the plays in the courtyard adjacent to the theaters. In summer, all of Ashland lives and breathes theater. From the Tudor Gift Shop selling Macbeth pencil erasers to the restaurant with sandwiches named “the King Lear” and “the Brutus,” the OSF receives a total commitment from the community. With 83 percent of all Ashland tourists theater-bound, the town is mecca for dramatic aesthetes.
Upon my departure, I felt like Lyubov from The Cherry Orchard, who says to her beloved home, “Oh, my sweet, my delicate, beautiful orchard! : Farewell!” Fortunately, unlike Lyubov, I can go back almost anytime-Ashland’s OSF operates continuously between February and October. For Shakespeare at least, and possibly for other theater as well, in the words of festival actor Jason Esquerra, “Ashland is better than Broadway.”