Judging Shakespeare: Outdoor Festival awards explained

2 weekends, 6 plays, 3 judges, 16 awards, and one iambic screed.

Sara Jane Fridlich and Lauren Modica share the stage in PAE's "Cymbeline."

Sara Jane Fridlich and Lauren Modica share the stage in PAE’s “Cymbeline.”

In Oregon’s brief window of summer sun, there’s a parade of Shakespeare shows. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival—actually  year-round—becomes a vacation destination, and more locally and humbly, there are tons of Portland offerings. Portland Shakes did full stagings of “The Taming of the Shrew” and its long-lost sequel “The Tamer Tamed,” about which ArtsWatch has already published four volumes of thesis-worthy critique. Meanwhile, outdoors and in many ways outside the box, there are ongoing summer productions from the likes of Original Practice Shakespeare (or OPS), Willamette Shakespeare, Post5 Theatre, Portland Actors Ensemble (or PAE), and even the Brody Theater, whose specialty is improv.

Post5’s Outdoor Shakespeare Festival wrangles together as many such productions as it can fit into the Ronni Lacroute Courtyard for a free two-weekend showdown. This round, there were six: PAE’s “Cymbeline,” OPS’s “Macbeth” and “Comedie of Errors,” Post5’s “Julius Caesar” and “The Complete Works of Shakspeare (Abridged),” and Brody’s “Anon & On & On.” Mostly just to add suspense, three judges were invited to weigh the plays’ relative merits. Actor Tobias Anderson, writer Matt Styner and I crunched our notes over a bit of Burgerville and made the following selections, complete with justification.

Best Production – “Julius Caesar”  and Best Director – Ty Boice for Post5’s “Julius Caesar”

We realize it looks bad to give these biggies to the festival hosts, but it’s also the only option. “Caesar” was only rivaled by “Complete Works,” which was a) also by Post5 and b) a comic summary, not exactly Shakespeare. We had to render unto “Caesar” what was “Caesar”‘s, not because of but despite Post5’s home field advantage. Far and away the most serious, put-together show of the fest, its late-summer debut is poised to ease us back into a serious fall arts season.

We also decided that “best director” goes with “best show.” How could it be otherwise? What would it imply if we were to say, “THIS is the best production…but not the best director?” A personal vendetta against an effective dictator? Similarly if we said, “THIS is the best director…who didn’t make the best production,” would that hint that we thought the show’s actors were total schlubs, sullying the vision of the delicate genius at the helm? Nah. These categories had to go together. Hence, Caesar ruled the big categories.

Best Lead Male Actor – Paul Angelo as Brutus in Post5’s “Julius Caesar”

“This was his show,” remarked actor/festival judge Tobias Anderson, who also felt strongly (sorry, OPS) that only memorized works could qualify for this prize. But a close runner-up was Heath Koerschgen as Marc Antony, who instead got the prize for his eloquent, heart-felt performance of Caesar’s eulogy.

Best Lead Female Actor – Crystal Muños as Lady Macbeth in OPS’s “Macbeth”

Sarah Jane Fridlich as Imogen was a strong contender, playing both her girlie and boyish roles elegantly and aptly if a bit straight. She was Tobias Anderson’s favorite by merit of knowing her lines. But Lady Macbeth’s wily ways won out, as Muños brought, well, so much CHARACTER to every line that she even caused the show’s prompter (whom, tsk, she repeatedly needed) to lose HER place. Could’ve been cleaner, but she definitely put meaning before routine.

Best Supporting Male Actor – Brian Allard as MacDuff in OPS’s “Macbeth”

This category was flush with contenders. Orion Bradshaw almost had it in both an OPS and a Post5 role, and James Ingberg was appropriately oily as “Cymbeline”‘s lecherous liar Iachimo. But as the lone critic who shed exactly one actual tear over the fest’s two weekends of merriment, misunderstandings and murder, I pulled hard for the guy who plucked it unbidden from my else unclouded eye. “All my pretty ones? Did you say all?” Yes, poor Duffer. Still can’t stand to see a strong man cry.

Best Supporting Female Actor – Lauren Modica as The Queen and Belarius in PAE’s “Cymbeline”

Playing a villainous queen, then a cave-dwelling (male) barbarian, Modica was a standout with crisp diction and fierce faces. Her villainy was a bit TOO commanding to be fully believed, but it was balanced nicely by her jocular persona later in the play. “Caesar”‘s Veronika Núñez as Portia also earned a nod, lashing out in Spanish when her lines got heated, unleashing some of the same fuego that Lady MacBeth more cunningly concealed. Ithica Tell as Casca also had a choice “Caesar” moment, whipping out an unexpected (but perfect) smart-phone to schedule a conspirators’ rendezvous.

Best Entrance – Adam Thompson as Romeo in “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”

Thompson wins this for the literal, if not figurative, suspense, dangling and kicking from a window before an unceremonious drop. An honorable mention goes to Nathan Wright as Guiderius in “Cymbeline,” brandishing that production’s best prop—a severed head—with crazed abandon.

Best Exit – Keith Cable as The Porter in OPS’s “Macbeth”

Why the best exit? Unforgettability, plus…(London,France)…underpants. Apron in the front and tighty-whitey party in back, Cable played a comic drunken stumbler with sympathy and dash, making his rambling asides about damnation, hangovers and impotence as hilarious and out-of-place as they ought to be in Act II of Shakespeare’s otherwise-dead-serious blood-curdler. It was both a pity and a delight to see him go.

Best Sound Design – K. J. McElrath for PAE’s “Cymbeline”

Though moved by Chris Beatty’s “Breaking Bad” treatment of “Caesar,” (full of ominous industrial clangs and bangs), the judges ultimately had to go with McElrath, who played live piano through a whole show, folding in at least a few melodic jokes. “He even matched the music of ‘Perfida’ with a scene where the actor was being perfidious. That’ll get my vote,” said Anderson.

Best Non-scripted Moment – Orion Bradshaw  in OPS’s “Comedie of Errors”

When Bradshaw, as Antipholus, handed a set of keys to his befuddled servant Dromeo, the latter feigned confusion so completely that Bradshaw had to shout out, “Figure it out!”

Best Ensemble – Post5’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)”

It was a no-brainer that the smallest, tightest-knit, and most heavily tasked cast would take this honor. As judge Matt Styner noted in his review, “The three-man team consisting of Phillip J. Berns, Adam J. Thompson, and Brett (no J) Wilson seemed to have a great chemistry and trust in each other–which is critical for this sort of hyperspeed romp.”

Speak the Speech (Best Monologue) – Heath Koerschgen as Marc Antony  in Post5’s “Julius Caesar”

Marc Antony’s eulogy to Caesar is a natural proving-ground for actors, and Koerschgen nailed it, doing diligence to all of its intended emotional weight and manipulative mixed messaging. A close second was Philip J. Berns as Macbeth, believably hallucinating a dagger before him and attempting to pluck it from thin air—which is not easily done with a straight face, let alone Berns’ murderous chill.

Best Fight Choreography – PAE’s “Cymbeline”

An ensemble swordfight went into comical slow-motion overtime at the climax of “Cymbeline,” narrowly winning out over the point in OPS’s “Macbeth” when Macbeth and Macduff dropped their swords altogether and reverted to fisticuffs.

Best Movement Choreography – The Two Dromeos of OPS’s “Comedie of Errors”

The ubiquitous Berns, here as Dromeo, and his “identical twin” counterpart Sara Fay Goldman mirrored each other (at one point, literally) and did an overall fabulous job of syncing their wiry statures and  reflexive moves. Forced to endure a repeated refrain that could be called the “standard Dromeo beatdown,” both reacted consistently, and with just enough slapstick to keep comedy in their pathos. The witches of OPS’s “Macbeth” were also worth watching, slinking sluttily around the stage and suggestively licking blood from their splayed fingers. More “bubble” and “trouble” than “toil”…but it worked.

Best Costumes – Marisa Kanai Post5’s “Julius Caesar”

Cymbeline almost had this, with classic Elizabethan ruffs ‘n’ puffs that far outdid the plainclothes of the OPS shows.  But in the end Caesar usurped the honors by modernizing with impeccable tailoring and fastidious intention. Though crisp menswear can look drab, easy and uniform, here there was nary a collar popped, nary a cuff askew, without a method motivation. (Which only stands to reason with the costumer doubling as stage manager, and former Armani model Boice in the director’s chair.)

Best Props – OPS’s “Comedie of Errors”

This one is appropriately listed last because the competition for this category wasn’t very tough. “Caesar”’s daggers were credible, but they can’t win them all. “Cymbeline” had a good severed head, but deplorable swords—pool noodles—and amusing but distracting mounts—stick-and-head hobby-horses. In “Comedie,” the weapons were at least rigid and some seemed handmade, which was the least they could do and the most we could say.

“The best thing about this festival is that they got it together and made it happen,” said Anderson. Too true. The fest itself showed a rare spirit of cross-company camaraderie and offered an even rarer cultural attraction to the oft-neglected Gateway District. And for that, every player deserves the proverbial back-pat.

“But wait!” you may say. “Where’s Brody Theater’s ‘Anon, & On, & On?'”

“Wasn’t that part of the fest? Why no awards?” This show was so incomplete, so taxing of its audience and indulgent of its actors, and so remiss from fulfilling its own customized poetic premise, that it inspired me to review it in the form of an indignant sonnet. Read “Anon” review >>

A. L. Adams also writes monthly column “Art Walkin'” for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury
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