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September 23rd, 2009 BRETT CAMPBELL | Performance
 

Autumn at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Tilting at windbags.

     
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ARMANDO DURAN IN DON QUIXOTE

With the economic and political Depression of ’09 hammering the arts world, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival decided to make some lemonade out of today’s sour reality, turning to a great voice for working people from the Great Depression: idealistic playwright Clifford Odets. His 1935 drama Paradise Lost tries to make the general crisis specific by documenting the fall of an honest small businessman to the greed of his own partner and of a corrupt politico-economic system. Sound familiar? It’s a solid production, featuring two of OSF’s most compelling veterans (Michael Hume and Richard Elmore), and a moving portrait of the human impact of predatory capitalism. Yet the sprawling three-act script feels dated, hampered by barely disguised polemics, and a concluding call for working-class solidarity that rings hollow in this age of irony. Despite excellent performances, noble intentions and sympathetic characters, Paradise Lost drags, ultimately sacrificing depth for didacticism.

Odets’ theme of idealism facing unsympathetic reality is nowhere better embodied than in Don Quixote, yet Cervantes’ 500-year-old comic tale seems less dated than Odets’. OSF’s dazzling world premiere of Octavio Solis’ adaptation finds real pathos in the Don’s mad quest for chivalric virtue. The colorful staging, featuring Lynn Jeffries’ humorously Taymoresque giant puppetry, conjures a magic-realist atmosphere, and Laird Williamson’s snappy direction does its best to overcome the inherent dramatic deficiencies of the episodic play. Yet despite moments of magic, Don Quixote never quite takes flight. Armando Duran’s attempt to dignify Quixote ultimately makes his delusional exploits inexplicable. I’m not sure realism is what Don Quixote needs.

What it does need is the wryly unruly flair that permeates Tracy Young and Oded Gross’ riotous adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters, easily the funniest comedy I’ve seen in 14 years of OSF. The production, which begins with actors attired in hand-me-down costumes and wielding leftover props from other OSF plays, lamenting recession-induced budget cuts, employs no real set but makes good use of the whole theater. Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century commedia dell’arte becomes a frame for a nonstop series of jokes, japes, wit and even juggling. The energy-draining original song interludes aside, everything crackles: audience interaction, stage-fighting penplay and trombone fu. The audience was on its feet and cheering before the bows could even begin. Laughter may not cure our Depression, but it sure makes it go down easier.


SEE IT: Various times and theaters in Ashland, Visit osfashland.com for tickets. Don Quixote closes Oct. 1, Servant of Two Masters Nov. 1 and Paradise Lost Oct. 31. $20-$91.
 
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