Saturday, June 23, 2007

OSF '07

Last week I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seeing 4 plays in 3 days. This was one of my favorite seasons ever: no duds and lots to think about!

The Taming of the Shrew: Obviously, a difficult play to present these days, but I really liked director Kate Buckley's approach. (How cool is it to have "Shrew" directed by a woman named Kate?) She did not burden the play with too much comic shtick or anachronism, and she took a psychological approach to the characters. You might not agree with what they did, but you understood why they did it. This way, the play became thought-provoking rather than just offensive. It also helped that they established that Kate is instantly attracted to Petruchio--the first man who isn't afraid of her--but she's too proud to admit it, and too afraid of love. So she keeps acting shrewish, and you agree that Petruchio needs to jolt her out of it. And when subjected to Petruchio's ill-treatment, this Kate was never timid or cringing. Her final speech is still a little hard to hear...but I got the sense that she is proudly enjoying her new reputation as "most obedient" where before she was "most curst." And she gets to chastise her sister again--in a civilized way.

In this day and age, though, it's also hard to like Lucentio, who falls in love with a girl simply because she is beautiful and docile. Isn't that anti-feminist too?

The production was fairly traditional, with an extra passionate-Mediterranean flavor by a literal emphasis on the Italian setting. The actors playing Petruchio and Kate (Michael Elich and Vilma Silva) were perfect for their roles and I also really liked the wily-servant character, Tranio (Jeff Cummings). And "The Taming of the Shrew" is not a completely hidebound, conservative work. Any play with so many servants impersonating masters, and vice versa, gives some hope for overturning old hierarchies.

Photo of Kate and Petruchio by T. Charles Erickson.

The Cherry Orchard: Libby Appel's swan song as artistic director, a play about the sad end of old ways and the need to go on. The audience was really terrific and focused. What I love is that this play has so much truth to it, different audience members react to different emotional moments or lines of dialogue. But every moment of the play--in the writing and the acting--resonates deeply with multiple people. How many works of art can you say that for?

A theme I noticed for the first time was insiders vs. outsiders. The relations between the 12 characters constantly shift, so you wonder, Who belongs in the inner circle? Why do the outsiders not find common ground in their isolation? Or, is everyone an outsider? Many characters express admiration for "hard work," but very few of them actually want to work, and they can't see how this unites them. They all have deep and visible flaws, except for Anya, but can't recognize their own failings. (Is Anya meant to symbolize hope for the younger generation? Wouldn't that be too obvious for Chekhov?) Yet no one is a villain.

Libby Appel chose a great cast of OSF veterans who brought out the humor and idiosyncrasies and flaws and, again, truth of each character. I stayed for the talkback with actor Gregory Linington, who played Trofimov--he's getting typecast as shy, uncomfortable nebbishes, since last year I saw him as Mr. Marx in "Intimate Apparel." (And the actor who played Esther in "Intimate Apparel" played Varya here--another hard-working, emotionally closed-off woman.) Seeing this play, I also thought that the character of Trofimov must have influenced Tom Stoppard when he wrote the role of Belinsky in "The Coast of Utopia." Billy Crudup's portrayal of Belinsky ranks as one of the best performances I've ever seen; while no individual cast member of "The Cherry Orchard" gets on my "best performances ever" list, together they make up one of the best ensembles I've seen.

Photo of Lopakhin, Firs and Ranevskaya by David Cooper.

On the Razzle: I adore Stoppard, but this is one of his lesser efforts. The old Austrian play that he adapted has a sturdy farce structure, and he added lots of his trademark wit and ridiculous puns, the lies and misunderstandings pile up, the ridiculous stereotypes and silly costumes get trotted out... It's all very fast and entertaining, and OSF performed it well, but I wanted more. I'd rather laugh at something because it's true and recognizable (as I did in "Cherry Orchard" and "Shrew") than because it involves a crazy pun or wacky physicality. Any attempts to give "On the Razzle" a deeper message, like Weinberl's speech on the value of the merchant class, feel shoehorned in. File this one with Steve Martin's "The Underpants" under "Adaptations of old German-language sex farces that have lots of surface wit but no social value or empathy."

Photo of Christopher and Weinberl by Jenny Graham.

Rabbit Hole This is a powerful, moving play: I would say that it, too, feels truthful, but there are many scenes I know I cannot truly understand until I am married or have a child. I was gripped and wrenched, even, but did not sniffle along with the rest of the audience. Robin Goodrin Nordli, who played Becca, can do no wrong, in my book. Izzy (Tyler Layton) was charismatic and funny, Howie (Bill Geisslinger) and Nat (Dee Maaske) also splendid. However, I thought the actor playing Jason (Jeris Schaefer) was one-note and forced.

As a play, "Rabbit Hole" is almost great, but is ultimately too easily plumbed to be a masterpiece. I don't get why Shakespeare and Chekhov made the choices they did in the same way that I get David Lindsay-Abaire's play construction. He's following the modern playwriting rules, and I can see the skeleton a little too obviously. "OK, this is a play about a grieving mother, sympathetic, sober, upper-middle-class--so to provide conflict, contrast, and comic relief, let's give her an irresponsible sister who gets pregnant! Also, let's give the sisters an older brother who died, to underline the theme of losing a child..." As a comparison, it feels right, and mysterious, and not over-explained, for Ranevskaya in "Cherry Orchard" to have lost a son...for his absence to gently haunt the play. But it feels too transparent, in "Rabbit Hole," that Becca and her mother Nat have both lost children.

Photo of Izzy and Becca by David Cooper.

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