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Ashland: a spring in its step

By Marty Hughley
March 3, 2014

When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched its 2014 season late last month, one of the usual features of opening night was missing. Bill Rauch, the festival’s unassumingly charismatic artistic director, wasn’t on hand to give his usual round of hugs to actors, patrons and friends. Instead he was en route from New York, where he’s directing Bryan Cranston in a Broadway production of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, an award-winning play about the Lyndon Johnson administration that premiered in Ashland two years ago.

Bill Rauch. OSF Photo

Bill Rauch. OSF Photo

In a way, Rauch will be less of a presence in Ashland this season. He’ll spend more time away from home this spring, remounting his playful update of The Pirates of Penzance, a 2011 OSF hit, for Portland Opera. And he’ll direct just one play at the festival this season, Schenkkan’s LBJ sequel, The Great Society.

Then again, he’s all over this season. After all, he conceived the mammoth American Revolutions commissioning project that the LBJ plays are part of. His other commissioning initiatives will bring a new play by his old friend Tracy Young (who adapted and directed the brilliant 2009 The Servant of Two Masters), and a new musical by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, the rock duo behind the unconventional Broadway hit Passing Strange. His love of musicals will bring us Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous Into the Woods. His love of topicality will bring us Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ examination of war trauma and recovery.

But first came doses of the company’s signature expertise with Shakespeare, plus freewheeling comedy and an overlooked dramatic gem.


Miranda (Alejandra Escalante) helps Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) with his tasks as Prosper (Denis Arndt) and his spirits observe. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Miranda (Alejandra Escalante) helps Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) with his tasks as Prospero (Denis Arndt) and his spirits observe. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Tempest

Even among the works of the English language’s single most celebrated writer, Shakespeare’s The Tempest carries an exalted status. As his last major work, it’s often viewed as his career summation, an artful amalgam of long-developed themes and techniques, a towering dramatic achievement. And it features one of Shakespeare’s grandest characters, Prospero, the deposed Duke whose command of magic has grown so great that he can control the weather and the spirits that inhabit his island refuge.

And yet, there was Denis Arndt onstage at the Angus Bowmer Theatre on the opening night of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, as a relaxed, almost casual Prospero — no grandiose gestures or heightened elocution to be found — the calm eye of the storm.

In several ways, director Tony Taccone accents the strangeness of Prospero’s island (a note in the playbill points out that the word “strange” appears nearly 30 times in the text). As Ariel, the ethereal island spirit bound in service to Prospero, Kate Hurster speaks in an eerie, (synthetically?) altered voice and sports a flame-like coiffure that looks like it was lifted directly from the 1980s New Wave singer Toyah Wilcox. Assisting with her supernatural labors is a quartet of butoh-inspired dancers, sometimes still as stones, other times moving as furtively as shadows. And as the supposedly savage Caliban, the play’s chief embodiment of Otherness, Wayne T. Carr sends up a powdery cloud off his mustard-colored skin wherever he scrambles.

In addition, Daniel Ostling’s scenic design imparts a geometric abstractness to the setting, with a sloping expanse of crimson carpet, ramps that jut sharply into the wings, and a projected backdrop of sodden, slate-gray skies.

Amid all this, Arndt’s Prospero appears as unassumingly at ease as a suburban dad in his den. It’s no wonder he looks at home here; a longtime leader of the Seattle theater scene as well as a busy TV and film actor, Arndt worked 11 seasons in Ashland during the 1970s and ’80s. In this most-welcome return, the language flows from him with a naturalness that’s rare even here, the leading outpost of Shakespeare in the American vernacular. It’s a surprisingly, wonderfully understated performance — almost transparent.

 Of course, Prospero has good reason to keep his cool. The fearsome storm that tosses a ship full of his enemies ashore is his own doing, the beginning of a plan for revenge that by the end brings love and forgiveness along with justice.

While Prospero orchestrates the comeuppance of his usurpers, two richer subplots work in thematic counterpoint to that story arc. Longing for an overthrow that will free him from Prospero’s unforgiving treatment, Caliban eggs on two hilariously drunken castaways, the butler Stephano (the redoubtable OSF veteran Richard Elmore) and the jester Trinculo (Barzin Akhavan), pledging to serve them as the island’s rulers if they’ll kill his oppressor. After all, though they, too, disparage him as a “monster,” at least they introduce him to the pleasures of wine. As if to challenge claims about his “savage” nature, Carr’s Caliban speaks with the most elegant elocution of anyone.

Meanwhile, the fast-blooming romance between Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, who has been marooned with him since toddlerhood, and Ferdinand, a prince whose father conspired against Prospero, benefits here from a better chemistry between Alejandra Escalante and Daniel Jose Molina than the pair showed as stars of OSF’s 2012 Romeo and Juliet.

As with the others of Shakespeare’s late Romances, The Tempest leavens symbolic weight with fanciful spectacle. In Taccone’s hands, that mix winds up with a bit of fairy-tale flavor that suits it well. A dose of subtle magic from Denis Arndt is the special ingredient.


Adriana (Omoze Idehenre) tries to reason with Dromio of Harlem (Rodney Gardiner) as Gustave (Mark Murphey) and Luce (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp) try to minimize damage.  Photo: Jenny Graham.

Adriana (Omoze Idehenre) tries to reason with Dromio of Harlem (Rodney Gardiner) as Gustave (Mark Murphey) and Luce (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp) try to minimize damage. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Comedy of Errors

The production of The Tempest, a playbill note informs us, is part of the NEA initiative Shakespeare for a New Generation. But the show more likely to draw in new audiences might well be The Comedy of Errors as vibrantly re-envisioned here by director Kent Gash.

One of the more frequently produced of Shakespearean comedies (this marks its 12th time at OSF), it features lots of what you’d expect — a shipwreck, mistaken identities, impediments to the pursuit of love and/or lucre, coincidences both nearly calamitous and marvelously fortuitous. What drives the action to such a madcap pitch here is that Billy-boy doubles down on the crazy central device: The story centers on two sets of twins, not only identical but also bearing the same names. Antipholus and his servant Dromio travel to a rival city in search of their long-lost brothers, Antipholus and his servant Dromio.

But this version transplants the story from the Mediterranean to America, the visitors coming from Louisiana and landing in Harlem during its late 1920s heyday. Thus does Shakespeare’s comic romp take in the legacy of family separation that slavery, the Great Migration and economic exigencies have made such a part of the black experience in America.

In addition to employing a predominantly black cast, the production makes a point of dressing the Bard’s wonderful language in the elastic rhythms and colorful inflections of African-American speech (especially in the broader Southern patois of the Louisiana Antipholus) and it fits with a surprising stylishness and ease.

Amid the vibrant urbanity of Jo Winiarski’s scenic design, Kara Harmon’s period costumes and Justin Ellington’s music, the production quickly takes on a headlong energy. Some of that’s in the nature of the play, in which everyone — even the alternating Dromios and, uh, Antipholi — not recognizing the presence of doppelgängers, repeatedly mistakes one twin for the other, piling confusion upon consternation. Some of that’s in the kick from Byron Easley’s jitterbugging choreography.

What really makes this show such a joyful jaunt, though, are the performances at its core, by newcomer Tobie Windham as Antipholus and, especially, Rodney Gardiner — one of OSF’s bright young lights in smaller parts for the past few years — as Dromio, each of them flipping rapidly between slightly different characterizations of their twins. For physical and vocal expressiveness, sharp timing and sheer comic brio, both are terrific to watch. The only disappointment comes at the end, when resolving all the haywire plot lines requires all four central characters meeting at last, and two other ensemble members don duplicate Antipholus and Dromio costumes for the happy reunion. Not to knock their substitutes, but Gardiner and Windham are so good we want to keep watching them twice.


Trixie (Katie Bradley), Nate (Miles Fletcher) and Coco (Erin O'Connor) welcome guests to The Cocoanut Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Trixie (Katie Bradley), Nate (Miles Fletcher) and Coco (Erin O’Connor) welcome guests to The Cocoanut Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Cocoanuts

Normally, the goal for opening night of a stage production is to get the show tight, precise, smooth — no dropped lines, nothing unpredictable, just the finely crafted illusion of spontaneity.

OSF’s production of The Cocoanuts, by contrast, is loose as can be, darn near chaotic. Which is to say, it’s a raging success right from the start.

Two years ago, OSF staged the classic Marx Brothers vehicle Animal Crackers, to great success. That production grew in improvisational daring through the season, and here the returning core cast members — Mark Bedard as Groucho, John Tufts as Chico, Brent Hinkley as Harpo and K.T. Vogt in Margaret Dumont’s society-matron role — hit the ground running.

As adapted by Bedard from the 1925 Broadway original by Irving Berlin and George S. Kaufman, and directed by David Ivers, The Cocoanuts is a bit closer to a conventional musical than Animal Crackers. That is, the story — about a hapless hotelier trying to cash in on the Florida land boom, a love-struck desk clerk looking for a career start, and a pair of jewel thieves feigning respectability — is more than a pretext for gags, and the songs feel less like breaks for us to catch our breath.

All the same, it’s all about the laughs, and those are just as plentiful. And just as cheap. (Groucho: “Would you like a suite on the 3rd floor?” Chico: “Nah, I’d rather have a Norwegian in Finnish basement.”)

Bedard isn’t just the star, he’s the ringleader of a semi-improvisational circus, ad-libbing expertly around any flubbed lines (his or anyone’s), making sly OSF and pop-culture references, mounting impromptu sorties into the audience, yet keeping control, ultimately, of the show’s rollicking rhythm. Meanwhile, Tufts and Hinkley both get further under the skin of their iconic comic models. Hilarious supporting performances from Kate Mulligan as a scheming villain and David Kelly as a detective add to the fun.

There’s no single show-stopping moment on the order of the chorus line of dancing puppets that opened Animal Crackers, but a run-through of the percussion routine known as the “cup game” (popularized recently in a music video by Anna Kendrick) is a rousing enough bit of flair.  And as this gang gets even more comfortable with the show’s freewheeling approach, there’s no telling how wild things might get.


Sidney (Ron Menzel) and Gloria (Vivia Font) enjoy the music, while David (Benjamin Pelteson) lingers in the kitchen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Sidney (Ron Menzel) and Gloria (Vivia Font) enjoy the music, while David (Benjamin Pelteson) lingers in the kitchen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

Tempest, Cocoanuts and Comedy run all season long, into the beginning of November. That makes The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window the short-timer among the opening four. It closes July 3. But if there’s a must-see show among this uniformly strong slate, it could well be this seldom-seen drama by Lorraine Hansberry.

That’s in part just because chances to see it are so rare. But even if Sign isn’t quite the masterpiece that Hansberry’s epochal A Raisin in the Sun is, the sensitivity, vitality and verisimilitude of this staging by director Juliette Carrillo make clear that it has been unjustly overshadowed.

Yes, it’s nearly three hours long, and talky; but a play coursing with ideas about politics and society, race and class, power and passion ought to be talky. If the particulars of the story — a tale of activists and artists in early-’60s Greenwich Village — bring to mind mothballs, the play’s thematic core is evergreen. Hansberry’s characters are, in their various ways, grappling with questions of whether, and how, to engage with the world around them, a world that inevitably thwarts ambitions and tarnishes ideals.

Sidney, played by the lanky Ron Menzel with an appropriately Bohemian mix of casualness and intensity, starts the play ready to leave political activism behind. He’s suffering from “ostrichism,” in the view of his friend Alton (Armando McClain), who tells him, “You’re gonna wear out your ass sittin’ on that fence.” Sidney counters that he has experienced “the death of the exclamation point.”

Nonetheless, Alton cajoles him into working for local political candidate Wally O’Hara (given a sly, one-of-the-boys charm by Danforth Comins), an avowed reformist. Hence the sign, which reads “Fight Bossism.”

Sidney’s idealism and intellect — words such as “lucidity” and “shibboleths” are the stuff of casual conversation for him — are admirable, but his self-centeredness shows in the demeaning way he treats his wife, Iris, a second-rate actress.

Various narrative arcs develop, involving Alton, Iris’s conventional older sister, Mavis (a very funny Erica Sullivan), their call-girl younger sister Gloria (a very touching Vivia Font), and David, the gay playwright upstairs (Benjamin Pelteson). But the heart of the story, and of this compelling, well-balanced production, is in the relationship between Sidney and Iris.

Sofia Jean Gomez, a fine, spunky Cordelia in last year’s King Lear, is a revelation as Iris. A cocktail of sweet tea and mercury, she’s by turns goofy, fragile, formidable, deflated, willful, and deeply sympathetic throughout. Her mastery of emotional tone makes the tricky mix of antagonism and affection, devotion and disappointment in the Sidney/Iris relationship feel marvelously authentic.

 As the story’s threads resolve, heartache awaits in both love and politics, but so, too, does a measure of success and renewed commitment. Sidney ultimately takes down the sign, but by then this play has become a window into powerful ideas and emotions.


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