Celebrating its 70th anniversary season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has opened with four plays in its two indoor theaters. By the time the season closes on Oct. 30, the festival will have staged 11 plays in three theaters for a total of 773 performances. It will have played to an estimated 105,000 individuals who see an average of 3.5 plays and account for ticket sales of more than 356,700, according to figures compiled from the 2004 season.
The entire 2005 season is dedicated to Jerry Turner, artistic director emeritus, who died Sept. 2. 2004. He was directly involved with the festival for 34 years and continued to contribute in some capacity until 2003. He acted with the company from 1957 to 1972, directed there from 1959 to 1999 and served as artistic director from 1971 to 1991. During his tenure, he directed 54 productions for the festival. Turner also was a renowned expert on Henrik Ibsen and translated several Ibsen plays for the festival, the latest being "Hedda Gabler" for the 2003 season. Turner's wife, Mary Turner, also was actively involved with the company as an actor known under her own name and as Marie Livingston. She attended the opening weekend festivities.
Along with reflecting on Turner's legacy, the festival must soon embark on a search for a new artistic director to succeed Libby Appel, who was named to the post in 1995 and who has announced her plans to retire at the conclusion of the 2007 season. During a press conference on the opening weekend, Executive Director Paul Nicholson said the board of directors has not made specific plans for the search, but has decided that Appel's successor will be chosen in time to plan the 2008 season. In recent years, the festival has announced its seasons about 10 or 11 months before they open.
The 2005 season will feature two world premieres: "By the Waters of Babylon" by Robert Schenkkan and "Gibraltar" by Octavio Solis, both in the New Theatre. Also planned for the New Theatre is August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The Angus Bowmer Theatre is the setting for William Shakespeare's "Richard III," John Murray and Allen Boretz's "Room Service" and George Bernard Shaw's "The Philanderer." Opening later in the Bowmer will be "Napoli Milonaria!" by Eduardo De Filippo and Hannah Cowley's "The Belle's Stratagem." The outdoor Elizabethan Stage, which opens in June, will feature Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and "Love's Labor's Lost," along with Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus." Here's a rundown on the four opening plays:
Continuing its latest cycle of the history plays, the festival is staging William Shakespeare's "Richard III" in the Bowmer. Directed by Artistic Director Libby Appel, it features James Newcomb as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III. Thus he continues to develop the character he portrayed last season in "Henry VI, Parts Two & Three." Newcomb's Richard is indeed a villain, as he proclaims in his opening speech ("Now is the winter of our discontent), but to achieve his goals, he often tempers his villainy with smiles and flattery. His wiles are so obvious to the audience that he often evokes laughter, but as his list of victims grows ever longer, the laughter fades.
This Richard uses metal crutches that not only help him get around but also extend the reach of his arms, sometimes serving as weapons. Occasionally they make him look like a spider as he weaves his web of murder and deceit.
As is typical of an Appel-directed production, this one abounds in dramatic stage pictures created not only by her expert blocking but also by Robert Peterson's dramatic lighting, Rachel Hauck's stark set design, Mara Blumenfeld's dark costumes and Todd Barton's music. Rather than opening with "Now is the winter of our discontent," this production starts with the play's four women -- Suzanne Irving as Queen Elizabeth, Linda Alper as the Duchess of York, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Queen Margaret and Laura Morache as Lady Anne -- wearing veils and lamenting their husbands, sons and fathers whom Richard killed.
The coronation scene is especially striking with Richard descending a staircase and wearing a 25- or 30-foot-long red cape that trails behind him, symbolic of the murders he engineered in his quest for the throne. Then as soon as the crown is placed upon his head, he falls, symbolic of the fate that awaits him.
It's a masterful performance and production.
"The Philanderer" is one of George Bernard Shaw's earlier plays, but already one sees some of his themes coming through. Chief among them is the strength and power of women, as seen in the Ibsen Club, where women are welcome as member so long as they're not womanly. Another Shavian theme casts doubts on marriage, as seen in the title character, Leonard Charteris (Derrick Lee Weeden), a rake who loves women and loves to romance them, but is wary of marriage.
The rival objects of his affections are the widowed Grace Tranfield (the sophisticated Vilma Silva) and Julia Craven (Miriam A. Laube). Their fathers, Joseph Cuthbertson (James Edmondson) and Colonel Daniel Craven (Mark Murphey) also are Ibsen Club members, but they're more old fashioned than their offspring.
The plot focuses on Leonard's uneven relationship with the two women and efforts to get Julia to marry Doctor Paramore (Jeff Cummings), whose claim to fame is what he believes is a rare, fatal liver disease that he has diagnosed in Colonel Craven.
As is usual for Shaw, the play is talky, especially in the first act. However, the talented cast, directed by Penny Metropulos overcomes most of it. Metropulos also keeps the tone light through music hall-style singing, mostly by John Tufts as the pageboy. Weeden, an imposing, powerful actor, seems a bit out of his element in this lighter comedy, but he seems to grow more comfortable in the role of Charteris. Aisha Kabia completes the cast as Sylvia Craven, Julia's younger, more liberated sister.
The stylish costumes are by Christina Poddubiuk, the handsome set by William Bloodgood, lights by Michael Chybowski and musical direction by Sterling Tinsley.
Successfully staging farce requires several key ingredients, starting with a play that quickly winds up the action and the complications, then pulls back slightly to allow everyone a chance to breathe before taking off again. Then it must have a director who understands this rhythm and who paces the show so that the manic action doesn't peak too soon. Finally, it must have a group of actors who are attuned to the pacing, who have a terrific sense of comic timing and who create characters who completely believe what's happening.
The festival successfully blends all of these ingredients to whip up an absolutely hilarious "Room Service" by John Murray and Allen Boretz. Director J.R. Sullivan applies just the right touch to the action, and skilled comic actors apply their talents to keep the audience chuckling, giggling and sometimes roaring with laughter.
The story involves a group of actors staying at a New York hotel while they rehearse a new play by an unknown playwright. They're convinced they have a hit on their hands, but their producer, Gordon Miller (David Kelly), is still scrambling for a backer to put up the cash. In the meantime, the bills are mounting and the hotel manager, Joseph Gribble (Richard Howard), is trying to collect some money from them because he's being squeezed by Gregory Wagner (Jeffrey King), a quick-tempered higher-up who's come to town to check up on him. At the same time, the playwright, Leo Davis (Christopher DuVal), an innocent from Oswego, N.Y., arrives and bunks in with Gordon and the play's director, Harry Binion (Tony DeBruno).
The action finds Gordon and his associates trying to stay one step ahead of Wagner to avoid eviction and to cash a backer's check. Their efforts get ever more creative and hilarious as other complications arise. All of the actors, who also include Tyler Layton, Michael J. Hume, Linda K. Morris, Danforth Comins, Eileen DeSandre, Richard Farrell, John Pribyl, Robert Sicular and Jake Street seem tailor-made for their roles. Richard L. Hay's hotel-room set, Joyce Kim Lee's '30s costumes, Robert Jared's lighting and Todd Barton's music complete the picture.
It seems that every season the festival chooses a comedy that's sure to be the season's hit. "Room Service" is it.
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
"By the Waters of Babylon," the first of this season's two world premieres, has an interesting genesis that goes back to the 2002 season, when the festival presented Robert Schenkkan's well-received "Handler," directed by Bill Rauch. Schenkkan was so impressed with two of the actors, Armando Durán and Catherine E. Coulson, that he began to think about how they might work together in a love story. He took the idea to Lue Morgan Douthit, the festival's director of dramaturgy, and was commissioned to develop it. He did so with input from the actors, director and dramaturg, resulting in a fascinating, beautiful two-character, two-act play.
The contemporary action is set at the Austin, Texas, home of a widow, Catherine, who has hired a gardener, Arturo, a Cuban immigrant, to try to tidy up her overgrown back yard. They begin to converse, just casually at first, then more intimately as they talk about their lives.
It turns out that Arturo is a writer who loves Cuba but hates what Fidel Castro has done to it. Almost on a whim, he and some drinking buddies commandeer a boat one night and set off for Florida. The journey turns out to be far more arduous than they had imagined. In the end, only Arturo survived. Now he suffers from writer's block. Catherine was married to a prominent college professor who viciously abused her. His fatal heart attack brought her no sorrow, only relief. They had no children, and she's a loner.
Both of them are wounded survivors with virtually no support system. However, they find support and love in each other, giving hope to both. Steered skillfully by director Rauch, Coulson and Durán take Catherine and Arturo on an emotionally perilous journey that proves rewarding for both the characters and the audience.
The set by Michael Ganio seats the audience on three sides of the floor-level stage in the New Theatre. The simple costumes are by Denise Damico, the lighting by James F. Ingalls, sound (birds, insects, rain) by Jeremy J. Lee and choreography by Janis Rosenthal.
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