Reviewed by Judy Richter
This year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is bittersweet because it is Artistic Director Libby Appel's final season. After 12 years at the helm of one of the nation's largest repertory theaters, Appel is retiring. In her introductory program notes, she calls this season her parting gift to the festival's loyal patrons.
She will be succeeded by Bill Rauch, who has been a guest director at the festival and who has been based in Southern California. He has already announced his plans to reorganize the artistic staff, essentially bringing in some of his own people and releasing a few longtime staffers. He will soon announce the 2008 season, followed by casting and a look at how he will deal with the acting company sometime this summer. Naturally there is some anxiety in the company, as there was when Appel took over.
The festival season runs from mid-February through late October, staging a total of 11 plays in three theaters. William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and Tom Stoppard's "On the Razzle" opened the season in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. Still to come in the Bowmer are August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" and Molière's "Tartuffe." David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" has opened in the smaller indoor New Theatre, to be followed by "Tracy's Tiger," a world premiere musical by Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy, Penny Metropulos and Sterling Tinsley; and Lisa Loomer's "Distracted." The outdoor Elizabethan Theatre will open in June, featuring Shakespeare's "The Tempest," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Romeo and Juliet."
Here's a look at the four plays that opened the season in February.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Guest director J.R. Sullivan has set William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" in the early 1930s, when the United States was in the grips of the Depression. Hence the orchard where young Orlando (Danforth Comins) labors for his hateful older brother, Oliver (Jeff Cummingss), is a factory. With the subdued colors of William Bloodgood's simple set (lighting by Robert Peterson), the concept works well.
Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee are mainly jeans and plaid shirts when the scene shifts to the Forest of Arden, where the banished Duke Senior (Jonathan Haugen) and his loyalists live in what looks like a hobo camp. However, when the action takes place at the court of the usurping Duke Frederick (Brad Whitmore), the long cocktail dresses worn by his daughter, Celia (Julie Oda), and her cousin, Rosalind (Miriam A. Laube), are too clingy, revealing the outlines of their undergarments -- a distraction.
Sullivan also begins the play unconventionally with Touchstone (David Kelly), a court clown, or fool, playing an accordion and singing. Kelly, one of the festival's most gifted comic actors, is a welcome presence in all of his scenes, the cause for much mirth.
Laube has been directed to make Rosalind too animated -- frequently hyper and giddy -- robbing her of some of her dignity and strength. Otherwise, the cast is excellent. Robert Sicular, for example, makes the melancholy Jaques a more complex, interesting character than he sometimes seems. Mark Murphey as Adam, Orlando's aged servant, stays in the action longer than usual by joining with Duke Senior's men in song (Woody Guthrie-flavored music by John Tanner) and playing the fiddle. Kudos also to U. Jonathan Toppo's fight choreography in the wrestling scene between Orlando and the champion, Charles (Todd Bjurstrom).
THE CHERRY ORCHARD
As part of her farewell gift to festival audiences, Artistic Director Libby Appel is directing Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." (She also will direct Shakespeare's "The Tempest" this summer.) "The Cherry Orchard" presents some challenges because its main characters tend to be rather foolish, making them hard to care about, at least at first. However, thanks to Appel's insightful direction and an excellent cast, the central characters garner more and more audience sympathy.
This is particularly the case with Judith-Marie Bergan as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, the Russian widow who co-owns her ancestral cherry orchard and estate with her bachelor brother, Leonid Andreyevich Gayev (Richard Howard). Because they're such poor money managers, however, they must sell their beloved home and orchard to pay their creditors. It is bought by Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhin (Armando Durán), a rich businessman neighbor whose father and grandfather worked as serfs on that very land.
Appel elicits strong, multi-faceted performances from the entire cast, including Christine Albright as Lyubov's 17-year-old daughter, Anya; Gwendolyn Mulamba as her adopted daughter, Varya; Gregory Linington as Petya, a perennial student and a precursor of the changes soon to come in late 19th century Russia; Richard Elmore as Firs, the family's elderly butler; and Robynn Rodriguez as Charlotta, Anya's governess.
One trademark of Appel's direction is the vivid stage pictures she presents, especially in opening scenes. A prime example is the opening of the second half, set at a party (choreography by Suzanne Seiber) where the hosts and guests are seen dancing in silhouette (lighting by James F. Ingalls) on the uncluttered, subtly hued set by Rachel Hauck. The music and sound are by Todd Barton, the lovely costumes by Deborah M. Dryden.
The new translation by dramaturg Allison Horsley, developed in collaboration with Appel, is strongly Americanized with sometimes jarring slang like "humongous". Otherwise, it's highly accessible.
ON THE RAZZLE
Playwright Tom Stoppard is at his dazzlingly witty best in "On the Razzle," an archetypal story that also inspired Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." which in turn led to the hit musical, "Hello Dolly!" Although some of the particulars differ from the latter two works (no matchmaker, for example), the idea is the same. Two naive young clerks in an affluent merchant's store set off for a great adventure while the boss is away and the store is closed.
Stoppard makes the story a classic farce with mistaken identifies and just-in-time escapes through many doors. He then embellishes it with brilliant word play -- puns, malapropisms and other verbal twists. Director Laird Williamson and his cast capture all the wit and hilarity with right-on characterizations and razor-sharp timing. The result is just over two hours of hilarity.
The pleasure starts immediately with Kendall Smith's lights flashing on a star-spangled curtain in front of Michael Ganio's proscenium-framed set as Larry Delinger's lively, Simpsons-inspired music is heard. The curtain opens to reveal the entire cast bustling about the shop owned by Zangler (Tony DeBruno), self-described "purveyor of high-class provisions."
The vain, pompous Zangler plans to march in a grocers parade in Vienna, then have dinner with his fiancee, Mme. Knorr (Suzanne Irving), a widow and milliner. While he's gone, he wants his housekeeper, the dour Gertrude (Eileen DeSandre, marvelously straight-faced), to send his niece and ward, Marie (Teri Watts), to the home of his sister-in-law, Fräulein Blumenblatt (Catherine E. Coulson). He wants to keep Marie away from her boyfriend, Sonders (Shad Willingham). In the meantime, his clerk, Weinberl (Rex Young) and apprentice, Christopher (Tasso Feldman), set off to Vienna for their great adventure. What ensues is a hilarious series of coincidences, mistaken identities and chases. Director Williamson orchestrates the action to perfection, with each actor creating likeable characters. In addition to those already named, major players include G. Valmont Thomas, Terri McMahon and Michael Elich.
It seems that every year includes a comic hit that runs throughout the festival season. This year's sure-fire winner is "On the Razzle."
The subject is grief in David Lindsay-Abaire's new play "Rabbit Hole." Becca (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and Howie (Bill Geisslinger) live outside New York City along Long Island Sound. They're financially comfortable, as evidenced by Richard L. Hay's set with its modern kitchen and living room (lit by Darren McCroom) and Deborah Trout's costumes. As the play opens, it has been eight months since their 4-year-old son, Danny, ran into the street in front of their house and was killed by a passing car. Becca has had a particularly hard time coping with anything beyond day-to-day tasks, and she has halted intimacy with Howie.
Becca's younger sister, Izzy (Tyler Layton, who looks like she could be Nordli's sister), is a frequent visitor to the home, as is their mother, Nat (Dee Maaske). All are grieving about Danny in some way. Also grieving is Jason (Jeris Schaefer), the high school senior and aspiring writer who killed Danny, strictly by accident. As the characters interact, they gradually begin to heal. Jason plays a large, though unwitting part in helping Becca.
James Edmondson directs with great sensitivity, helping the actors and audience through some of the play's more wrenching moments, which are believably handled. Irwin Appel's music for piano provides transitions and represents Danny's spirit, Edmondson said during an opening weekend press conference.