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.
OSF 2008: Coriolanus
Volumnia (Robynn Rodriguez) pleads with her son, Coriolanus (Danforth Comins), not to wage war against Rome. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Antony and Cleopatra
Julius Caesar