Saturday, July 6, 2013

A guest post from the Ashland Festival



We have a guest blogger: Jeff Burdick, a fellow Shakespeare-lover from California. Jeff loves to go to the famous Ashland Festival. Here is his take on the Shakespeare plays he saw this season. (He saw four other plays as well, so it must have been a seriously busy six-days!) I have left Jeff’s American spelling intact. And, I should add, I am green with envy. Just imagine living close enough to visit Ashford, Oregon, with Shakespeare playing ten months of the year!
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Festival has been going on for many years and long ago branched beyond Shakespeare, though his plays remain the heart of the season, which stretches through 10 months of the year. The height of the season, when most of the plays are playing in cycles, is summer. For about three weeks during the summer, they are producing nine or ten of their annual offerings at the same time. That’s when I go: I watched eight plays in six days.
The festival takes places in a small town of about 20,000 people (many of them stretched out over the rural hills and valleys of the Rogue section of Oregon) so they depend on pilgrims from all over the country to fill the seats. They have three theaters: The Thomas, which is a fairly new black-box theater, the Bowman, which seats 600+ in a traditional proscenium theater, and the Elizabethan, which is patterned on an original Elizabethan stage, including being open to the elements (Rain is common during the summer in Ashland, so patrons come ready to huddle under hoods and plastic blankets).
The actors are professional equity union members, though they are augmented with volunteer community members for 'spear carriers'. It is not at all uncommon to have actors who have appeared on Broadway in the plays. In short, this is not amateur work.
The town of Ashland is exactly what one would hope for: a small town with art galleries, book stores, and walkable streets. Actors and directors are spotted on the sidewalks eating ice cream cones and drinking coffee. It is a friendly place, and it boasts one of the prettiest downtown parks I’ve seen (about 90 acres or 46.5 hectares).
You can visit http://www.osfashland.org for more information about the festival. 

Cymbeline
I've read it on a few occasions with very little comprehension. It is a weird mess on the page: beheadings and morally questionable decisions (would young Posthumous really wager his wife's virginity?), betrayals, four different nationalities, gods who seem to be quite active (and perhaps ineffective?), the usual boy actor (in this case played by a girl) impersonating a girl impersonating a boy, the lost heirs to the throne, the rash 'father' who is really a loyal subject of the real father, the King, and it goes on and on. 

This weird mess became untangled on stage (my first production). The moral problems do not evaporate – in fact, they appear more rash, more unpredictable, more unreasonable than they do on stage. But the cohesiveness of the story was much more obvious.
Posthumouss parents were introduced through songs, sort of ghostly presences that helped tell the story.

Daniel Molena, the Romeo of last year, did not quite fit his role as Posthumous, partly because he is slight and nearly everyone (outside of Imogen) was very large.  He looked like a boy (as she looked like a girl) in a world where he must be a man. The Imogen was spectacular both as a heroine and as a comic when needed. It is, after all, a comedy along with all else it is. 

What struck me about this play is something I've thought about several times regarding Shakespeare's late plays. The moral ambiguities get worse and the events become quite unhinged in several cases (Tempest for another example). Rash behaviors are commonplace. Cruelty is too often a momentary reaction that reveals frustration rather than a cruel nature (one cannot really call Posthumous cruel, though he strikes out at the slightest provocation). But what saves the plays from this period are two things: (1) the disclosure of who and what things and people really are: we discover that the boy is a girl, that the wild Welshmen are the heirs, that the glozing Italian is petty trickster; and (2) forgiveness takes the place of grace. Or forgiveness is grace. Forgiveness is seen as the greatest force in the world, even beyond love and divine intervention. Here, when Posthumous allows the trickster to live (when he has no reason to do it), he gains strength and says that he does gain strength. Forgiveness, even when not required or earned, is the grace that puts things right and allows the future to happen.

Jack Willis as King Lear
King Lear
It is the next day noon, and I am still trying to decide whether I liked the production last night. The first thing is that modern dress hurts Lear in a way that it doesn't hurt most of the other plays. We must believe that Lear is god-like, that he is divinely ordained to his position, that he is powerful in politics and in his person. But when he walks in and is wearing a business suit and when his changes are into fishing gear and then rags, we don't see the King that we must see in order for this play to work. So, one strike against.

The characters, especially the fool, the bastard, Cordelia, Kent and Gloucester were remarkably done. Edgar was uneven, but very good. He was hampered, I think, by being nearly naked through much of the play as Tom. It wasn't that he was self-conscious – he wasn't – but that the audience – or at least I – was trying not to notice what was right in front of us. The fool, an Asian kid with duct tape to fix everything was too clingy (bad direction) but utterly winning – poking holes in the king's folly with great enthusiasm and real concern.

Why didn't Shakespeare give Cordelia a lot more to do?? She is as strong as a punk chick in the first scene, returns as a strong warrior at the end – but we needed so much more of her. Don't I remember that she had a scene (s?) in France while she reacts to news? Must look that up.

[Nope: I guess I just hoped that S had written a scene in France for Cordelia. A creative memory isn’t the best attribute to have. The play would have been better if S had simply listened to me.]

Lear is being played by two actors, alternating. I saw the one that has the reputation of being less likeable. I won't be seeing the other so can't make that comparison. He was dynamic, perhaps too weepy too soon. But a fine actor.

A huge iron fence across the stage was off putting. It placed a barrier that seemed (oddly) to restrict our hearing for those on the other side. Certainly it hurt the blocking and sight lines. The odd scenes after the war with burned out furniture (that no one noticed?) strewn across the floor. A huge iron wreck suspended from the ceiling (perhaps the post-war remnants of that ridiculous fence?)

The bastard in the early scenes was perfect; in the later ones, not quite as focused. The two sisters, frequently drinking (and for good reason), one as a horsey type with riding gear, the other one a princess with flowing hair and clicky high heels – good differentiation. The husbands not so grand. Too old for the women, too ineffectual as men. Odd. As was the husband for Cordelia, who looked older than King Lear, but mercifully stayed away once he had claimed her as wife.

What was so important for me on this production was the intensity. I literally stayed up until after 1:00 in the morning, letting the tension drain a bit before i could sleep. The bodies were all around us. The actors were within a few feet. The fool’s first scene was from an audience seat directly behind me: he’d been planted before the play started and sounded like a heckler. A thrown drink splashed my face. Stage "spray" was evident. This is such a huge play that placing it in this small space made it almost too immediate. The tension was high because the stakes for the audience were high – we were living this.

Which brings me back to the contemporary dress issue. When a car alarm goes off, when an intercom buzzes, etc., we laugh. The comedy in Lear is deadly serious, and must be: it is the fool's role to make us laugh with insight. The domestic laughs relieve tension. But the car alarm "jokes" drag us out of the play with cheap laughs that accomplish only a laugh.
I won't soon forget this production and probably won't read the play without remembering the delivery of specific lines and scenes. But I didn't love it. 

The Taming of the Shrew.
The earliest of the comedies, and a total and complete joy. Silliness, a compact plot that fit easily in two hours. An inspired and completely silly cast played this to the hilt. Sited at a 'Coney Island' beach carnival in Italy. It is impossible not to like this play. Kate was far more fiery than usual, with an attitude that seemed impenetrable. All of the actors were spot on. 

The most important thing here was the finessing of the misogyny that is so evident at the end. Kate capitulates totally, giving in to her husband, her lord and master, giving up everything she is. But what the director did here was brilliant. Petruccio, listening to her speech, realizes what she is giving up for love, and he, accepting the resignation, resigns to be with her. As she kneels to him, he kneels to her. It really was a transforming pantomime, and it felt exactly right. 

Two hilarious hours. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream
I almost regret booking this one, but I had the evening free and didn't want to pass up anything I could see. So, here's hoping this evening's performance will be as original as My Fair Lady's. 

I must mention the set. The same set is used for Cymbeline, Robin Hood (which I did not see) and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is, without doubt, the ugliest set I’ve seen at Ashland in two years. The stage is nearly swallowed by six huge columns that stray off in random directions and, apparently, are there for no reason at all. The center of the stage is dominated by a two story construction that leaves a deep cave in the middle so the people off to the side of the theater must certainly miss a great deal of the action. I was fortunate to have center row seats for these plays so I could see. There are trees and trellises and vines and mushrooms all over the place. The result is a small apron where much of the action takes place and a variety of places where things happen with a great deal of climbing about. Since this is already an Elizabethan theater with various windows and openings, the whole thing is redundant nonsense. A bare stage would have been preferable. 

As usual with 'Midsummer', I go in thinking I can’t stand another production and then laugh myself silly throughout the evening. This was conventionally done except the time period: a 1964 graduation ceremony from a Catholic high school is the jumping off spot. Delightful ensemble acting. Silly opening with Theseus and Hippolyta represented by a priest and nun who are planning marriage! 

The only let down was Puck, whose character seems to have been some sort of afterthought by the director. She (Puck is a sprite who is decidedly male but frequently played by a female) starts off as a sort of lady in waiting in formal court dress, then changes into ... rags, I guess is the best description, with colored pieces of cloth hanging off her, in an attempt to look fairy like, perhaps? The overall effect was young bag lady. Her energy was varied. Her voice was grating and hard to understand (the only actor I had trouble hearing and understanding during the entire week), and she was neither of the things that Puck frequently is: a bit menacing or totally delightful with mischief. She waivered and never found a center.

The mechanicals stole the show, as usual. This time, they were the gym teacher, the lunch lady, the janitor, etc. from the high school. “Wall” was the lunch lady, decked out in strainers for her bra and lunch trays arrayed around her body and hanging from her arms. A hilarious site gag. But more important was these characters threw themselves into their roles entirely, believing in their play. 

Pyramus, the gym teacher, is inspired. His deaths (I think there were 8 or 9 alternate deaths) were hilarious and played directly to the audience. But what Shakespeare does – and what these actors made real – is use language to do exactly what he wants to accomplish. When, finally Pyramus is dead for the final time, Thisbee, an extremely tall and skinny Ichabod Crane type who is now dressed in drag, whispers her goodbyes to her friend, and in one second the audience moves from chaotic laughter to sentimental tears.

Turned on a dime. Amazing work. A thoroughly enjoyable evening

About Me
I am a college English instructor. I focus on Freshman composition, critical thinking, and literature in a small community college in the California central valley. I am also president of our Academic Senate, chair of our Honors program, and a leader of our Student Success program. The notes are simply my aide-memoire, not formal reviews or critiques. They were written in most cases the morning after the performances and then revised and augmented after returning home, after I had had a chance to think more deeply about the plays. They, in short, are not polished productions, but personal 'diary' entries.

Satima and I have been Facebook friends for many years, and I’m flattered that she asked to place my notes on your blog. I am happy to share them. I am happy to answer questions.

4 comments:

  1. The festival must provide quite a bit of work for actors and other creative types, Jeff. Do they seem to engage the same actors and directors every year or do they give work to some new faces as well?'

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    1. Jeff Burdick's reply: (Blogger was in a bad mood when Jeff tried to post it himself)

      The Ashland Shakespeare festival is one of the larger employers in southern Oregon. They have an enormous staff of actors (about 74 this year, 70 of whom are Equity union members (which means they are professional, not amateur, actors). Only some of them are employed year around, and those are used for school and community outreach. A small troops travels throughout the western states doing performances, readings, and workshops.

      But it is in the support crafts that the figures become truly startling. There are literally hundreds of people employed (full and part time) in various crafts ranging from direction and producing and writing (they do several original plays each year) to costume designers (they make all of their own costumes and wigs) and lighting personnel, etc. The list of contributors runs many pages long.

      Many of the actors return each year; some are only hired for a single role or a single season. Since the plays are in rep, often a single actor will be in more than one play.

      Since they are Equity actors, many of them do other gigs during the balance of the year, including television ads, Broadway productions, television dramas, etc. It is surprising how many of the actors one recognizes.

      And that's another fun thing about the festival. The actors all live within a few blocks of downtown Ashland (both blocks of it!), so one encounters them at the coffee shop and at the grocery store. They are accessible and friendly for the most part.

      As you can imagine, the ticket sales do not cover all of these personnel. A few are volunteer, though fewer than one would expect: even most of the ushers are paid. Contributions from individuals and corporations make up the rest -- and it is a considerable pool of contributors. There are features involved with membership: I, for example, have early ticket priority, a dedicated lounge for when I'm there, and some "behind the scenes" tours and discussions that come with membership.

      I failed to mention one of the more appealing things about the festival: Every evening at 6:45, there is a Green Show, which features artists of all sorts: clowns, musicians, dancers, etc. Two performances last week were Elizabethan specifically: a "lecture" complete with music on early musical instruments by a woman who has reproductions of a HUGE variety of original instruments, and she played songs on each; and a dance troops that specializes in recreating dances from the court of Elizabeth.

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  2. Thanks for visiting! The 'traditional proscenium theater' is named the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and is named after our founder, Angus L. Bowmer.

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