June 18th, 2008 5:33 pm | by BEN WATERHOUSE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Ashland Tales: A Sampling of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2008 Season

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Once a year, I make the four-hour drive down to Ashland to take in as much of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as I can. Undeniably the finest professional theater in Oregon, the Festival presents around eleven shows every summer. This year I managed to see four of them. Not a great record, but a man can only take so much performance in one weekend.

This year, OSF finds itself in a state of transition. Longtime Artistic Director Libby Appel stepped down at the end of last season after 13 years to make way for Bill Rauch, former Artistic Director of LA's Cornerstone Theater Company. Rauch has made some big changes at the 73-year-old company, the biggest of which is producing a 20th-century play on the Festival's Elizabethan stage, which to date has only been used for Shakespeare's plays and a few other classics. Rauch has also announced his intent to produce more new work at the Festival, and hired Cornerstone co-founder Alison Carey to commission American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, a series of 37 plays by renowned playwrights to be produced over a 10-year period, starting in 2010. The initial list of playwrights is very impressive, stacked with innovators and "Genius Grant" winners. It should be a remarkable project, and will hopefully attract a younger audience—these days, the median age of Festival attendees is 58.

While all of the productions I saw this year were excellent by Portland standards, I liked two and wanted to escape from two others. Here's the rundown:

OSF 2008:

Iago (Dan Donohue) prepares to thrust a mortal wound to Cassio (Danforth Comins). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Othello: I've long been fond of this tragedy, the only one of Shakespeare's works to openly and seriously address racism (The Merchant of Venice, written as an antisemitic comedy but usually directed as a tragedy since WWII, doesn't really count)—as reading material. It's a play with very little action to speak of, composed mostly of Iago's attempts to drive everyone around him insane, and Ol' Bill really pulls out the heavy rhetorical guns to get us inside the mind of a man driven to madness:
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I'll smell it on the tree.

See? Beauty! But, for all the extraordinary language and passion in the text, sitting through three and a quarter hours of even the best live performance is a chore. This year's OSF production, directed by Lisa Peterson and starring the magnificent Peter Macon in the title role, is without a doubt one of the finest I've seen, if not the most subtle—the costumes and stage design are crafted in stark blacks and whites, with Iago, the villain, sporting an absurd black-leather motorcycle jacket. Color seeps in here and there: Othello wears some red (passion!) and Desdemona wears green (she's the object of his envy!) but for the most part the production sticks to monochrome. The acting is appropriately large—Macon's eyes bulge, his hands shake and he falls to the floor in fits more than once—but Peterson seems to be much more interested in Iago than the Moor. And why not? The real mystery of the play is not why Othello fells his wife, but why Iago hates Othello so much that he'll stop at nothing, murder included, to see him ruined. Dan Donohue tackles the role with gusto, appearing to shift over the course of the evening from a Machiavellian pragmatist to an outright demon. It is his performance alone that makes the show worth the trip—but even so, 195 minutes is a long slog.

OSF 2008: CoriolanusVolumnia (Robynn Rodriguez) pleads with her son, Coriolanus (Danforth Comins), not to wage war against Rome. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Of Shakespeare's three Roman tragedies (the other two are Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar), Coriolanus is the least accessible by far. The plot, lifted more or less intact from Plutarch, hinges on the intricacies of the Roman political system, which required anyone seeking to be named Consul to obtain the consent of the people. Coriolanus, a decorated war hero with twenty-seven wounds to his name, is a shoo-in but for one eensy problem: he hates the plebians, and his pride is too large for him to be nice to them long enough to get himself elected. He's actually so rude that, egged on by a pair of uppity Tribunes, the people kick him out of the city. Insulted, he becomes a traitor, and leads the Volsci people to victory against Rome. He's all but ready to take over the city when his mother, with whom he has some serious emotional issues, talks him into leaving well enough alone. Then the Volscis, understandably annoyed, murder him.

Coriolanus is rarely performed these days, in part because the background is so obscure to contemporary audiences, but also because it's a bitch to stage. The script takes place in three different cities and two battlefields, calls for lots of on-stage combat and requires a very large cast. Artistic directors tend to balk at such things. It's too bad, because this is one badass tragedy. Caius Martius Coriolanus is a sort of pre-Christian Rambo who manages to take the city of Corioles one-handed (thus earning his cognomen) despite a pair of serious injuries. His nemesis, the Volsci general Aufidius, is only slightly less formidable on the battlefield, but neither of them can compete with Martius' mother, Volumnia, for hard-core cred. She's got one of the most badass lines in the Canon: when Martius' mentor, Menenius, asks her to dine with him after her son's expulsion, she responds, "Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself,/And so shall starve with feeding." See? You don't fuck with Volumnia.

Given all of the above, I walked into OSF's New Theater last Friday expecting a fairly minimalist production. Boy, was I wrong. Laird Williamson's contemporary-fascist production is spectacular in the literal sense of the word, with soldiers in full combat fatigues running, leaping and crawling across the small stage toting a surprising variety of weaponry from combat knives to bazookas. They enter through the audience and through octagonal foxholes cut in the stage. Outside of battle the costumes are equally impressive, crafted with Roman, American and European Fascist touches—appropriate, given that the Fascist movement used the play as strongman propaganda in the thirties—by Deborah M. Dryden. Martius alone must have over a dozen costume changes. Scene transitions are punctuated with abrupt lighting shifts and crashes and bangs that sound halfway between a machine shop and a war zone.

On top of all that, the acting is excellent. Danforth Cominis (Coriolanus) is a violent embodiment of pride and wrath, speaking with such force, fervor and volume that I half expected him to collapse from the strain. Richard Elmore is particularly persuasive and sleazy as Menenius the Roman politician, and Robynn Rodriguez seems hardly human as Volumnia, her face twisted into a disconcerting sneer of motherly pride and disdain for the people. The ensemble manages to move the audience to sympathize with Coriolanus, who in hawkish nature and contempt for democracy shares much in common with Dick Cheney, over the justly fearful populace. It's a tremendous achievement and, given the rarity with which the play is performed, one which you are unlikely to ever see repeated.
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