The Bard of Lithia

A trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival revitalizes an exhausted theater critic.

“Uh-oh! We have a critic!”

It's Friday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I have just been outed. Sitting in the sixth row of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, I feel 600 sets of eyes turn on me. We're in a matinee performance of The Cocoanuts, a raucous Marx Brothers adaptation, and the actors have just rushed the audience. Chico, played by John Tufts, spies my notepad and snatches it from my hands. Panic sets in.

"Oooh, she likes the puns!" Tufts says. I look on in terror, straining to remember what I've written. Harpo, the speechless brother, musses my hair. Tufts squeals gleefully: "She likes meeeeee!"

And then they're gone, off to terrorize other audience members. Groucho steals a hat. Playbills fly. I hear a teenage girl squawk as Harpo tries on her rhinestone-emblazoned sunglasses. My notepad is back in my hands. I clutch it dearly.

Like a lot of kids in Portland, I grew up on annual visits to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I was once one of those schoolkids in the back of the theater, held rapt by Puck suspended in a crescent moon during a gorgeous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As my classmates nodded off, I was snared.

The hook stuck: In reviewing theater for WW, I've seen nearly every major Portland production in the last two years. But returning to the southern Oregon town of Ashland as a critic was dizzying. It wasn't just that I'd be reviewing actors I'd revered as a teenager, though that was plenty surreal. It's that the experience of OSF is a wholly immersive one: You mourn the death of Romeo and Juliet at the afternoon matinee and then find those actors resurrected and recast as Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle that evening. Tiny Ashland is overrun with world-class actors. You run into Blanche DuBois at the coffee shop and spot Macbeth buying beer at Safeway. Themes and juxtapositions emerge across shows. It's consuming, draining and exhilarating.

OSF has made Ashland—a sleepy burg of 20,000, notable for its sulfury-tasting Lithia mineral water, proximity to California and views of the Siskiyou Mountains—a theatrical mecca. With three theater spaces, a resident company of about 90 actors and 11 productions a year, only four of them Shakespeare, OSF is one of the largest and oldest theater festivals in the country. A $25 million budget helps attract Broadway-quality talent and a tourist-heavy audience to match: At OSF, 85 percent of attendees come from more than 125 miles away (on Broadway, about 65 percent are out-of-towners).

On my recent visit, I found these audiences unchanged from a decade ago. The blue-hairs on their annual cultural pilgrimages tittered with fresh gossip—in Ashland, actors are treated like tabloid stars. "Did you know the actors playing Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest are a real-life couple?" an elderly B&B guest whispered to me, as we munched freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. And there were plenty of teenagers on school trips, generally being pounced upon by ushers who chastised them for snapping selfies in the theater.

But while the audiences didn't surprise me, the work did (see below). Rather than settling into complacency, cycling through Shakespeare's greatest hits and other reliable fare, this 79-year-old festival still has kick. Since Bill Rauch took over as artistic director in 2008, he's championed musicals, plays from outside the Western canon and new work: Take the American Revolutions program launched in 2008, which aims to commission up to 37 new works about U.S. history by 2017. (One of those, Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, hit Broadway last month, with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston starring as Lyndon B. Johnson. Rauch directed.)

In the current season, a decades-old, little-produced play has been given fresh vigor. A recent Pulitzer winner pulses with street-smart poetry. Actors flex jaw-dropping comedic muscle. Taking in five plays over the course of three days, I was repeatedly reminded of the electricity of the stage, of what live performance can offer that the screen never can. OSF might not produce the riskiest or most avant-garde work in Oregon, but it's some of the finest theater on the West Coast, and indispensable for the deep-dive experience it offers. And never mind that it had been seven years since I'd last been on the Ashland bricks. Reading the playbill felt like paging through a yearbook, preparing for a reunion I was excited to attend. 


The Cocoanuts

One of the thrills of Ashland—if you can talk in such titillating terms about a town teeming with creaky blue-hairs and shrieking teenagers on school trips—is being reminded of the rush that live performance can offer. Sometimes you get it from a more serious production (a few scenes during The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window and Water by the Spoonful gave me chills). And sometimes you get it from the whirling kineticism of The Cocoanuts. In its unbridled embrace of madcap and often unscripted absurdity, Mark Bedard's Marx Brothers adaptation is testament to the vitality of the stage. That might sound like big talk for a silly musical, set at a Florida hotel that's home to a zany menagerie of characters caught in a jewel heist. But, as directed by David Ivers, there's something brilliant and exhilarating and just stupid delightful about watching these comedic beats play out live. The rehearsed bits, while good, can't compare to the tightrope suspense and breathless payoff of the improvisation, and there's not a moment when these performers phone it in. Bedard, who also portrayed Groucho in 2012's Animal Crackers, plays the ringleader brother with breakneck delivery and perfect duck walk, and John Tufts gives his Chico a wonderfully casual sense of mischief and a hammy Italian accent. Chico: "I like big booms. Groucho: "You do?" Chico: "And I cannot lie."

The Comedy of Errors

For a play that's so widely produced, The Comedy of Errors can be pretty tiresome. It's one of Shakespeare's two comedies that centers around twins, but unlike the later Twelfth Night, this early play relies more on slapsticky high jinks and its characters' baffling obtuseness than on wit of language or plot. To his credit, director Kent Gash lends this production a level of gravitas by transporting the action to New York during the Harlem Renaissance and employing a mostly black cast. In this reimagining, Antipholus and his servant Dromio travel from New Orleans to Harlem in search of their long-lost twin brothers (also, of course, named Antipholus and Dromio). Against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the story of a sundered family gains resonance—and we get Elizabethan verse dipped in thick Southern honey and inflected with "mmm-mmms!" and random outbursts of "Langston Hughes!"

But Gash lards the production with unnecessary bells and whistles (there's even a literal bell that chimes whenever a certain plot point arises): neon signs, feather-clad call girls, video projections of the roiling sea, police sirens, and, in a needlessly over-the-top final song-and-dance number, confetti guns. Such pyrotechnics, while jaunty, end up drawing attention to the thinness of the story, and the intimate Thomas Theatre starts to feel like an Archibald Motley-themed video arcade. 

Fortunately, Tobie Windham (as both brothers Antipholus) and Rodney Gardiner (as the two Dromios) give wonderfully limber, confident performances. Gardiner in particular has arresting comic panache, whether jumping rope or darting about the stage to demonstrate the majestic width of a woman's hips. So even when some of the slapstick tries too hard—the actors hold a few tableaux for too long, like preternaturally talented children eager to be praised for their obvious cleverness—we're saved by the warmth and verve of our stars.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

When The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window debuted on Broadway in 1964, New York critics didn't know what to make of this discursive play by Lorraine Hansberry, who'd stunned the theater world with The Raisin in the Sun five years prior. Where Raisin was tightly focused on the struggles and dreams of a black Chicago family—a story that mirrored Hansberry's own life—Sign encompassed issues of sexism, homophobia, racism, forgiveness, commitment, idealism and disenchantment. The sprawling narrative arc made it impossible to distill the play into a single straightforward message, and there were implicit questions about how a young black playwright could write about a bleeding-heart Jewish intellectual in Greenwich Village. Not all reviews were outright pans, but a current of confusion ran through them.

Sign managed to play 101 times on Broadway, closing only after the 34-year-old Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer. Today it's little produced. How fortunate that OSF has unearthed it, in a captivating production directed by Juliette Carrillo. As the play begins, Sidney (Ron Menzel, gangly and filled with nervous energy) has just taken over a newspaper and, with the prodding of a friend, has decided to revive his political activism as well. It's the early '60s in Greenwich Village, and the air is humming with progressive idealism. The titular sign in the window reads "FIGHT BOSSISM," and Sidney hangs it in the apartment he shares with his wife, Iris. Played by Sofia Jean Gomez with shattering emotional range, Iris is a country girl turned second-rate actress, and Sidney has no reservations expressing his disdain for her dreams and lambasting her "stylish ignorance." Hansberry, with great dexterity, prods at the sexism that infused '60s progressive politics, but she never reduces Sidney to an unsympathetic prick.

As rooted as it is in the '60s, Sign still resonates in 2014. Much of this modern relevance comes courtesy of Iris' sister Mavis (an astonishing Erica Sullivan). She's a respectable uptown lady who bristles with discomfort at her sister's lifestyle but whose comments belie a keen understanding of the hypocrisy around her. "How smug it is in Bohemia," she snips, after a particularly biting comment from Sidney about her bourgeois nature. (A later scene between Sidney and Mavis, in which she opens up her philandering husband, sucks all the air out of the theater. It's a heart-stopping exchange.) At one point, two characters—a gay playwright and a black man pale enough to pass as white—play a round of oppression Olympics still familiar today. But Hansberry's writing throughout is sharp-witted and frequently very funny: There's no painful trudging, no didactic moralizing.

There are times when Sign grows overly talky, and a few elements—a hippie artist who shows up briefly and then disappears; Sidney's professorial, fourth-wall-breaking platitudes toward the end of the play—stumble. But it's a challenging, fascinating work, the kind of play that you gladly let take up whispering residence in your mind.

The Tempest

Never mind the story's magic: The Tempest is the least playful of the five shows currently running in Ashland. Though occasionally shot with vim—mostly courtesy of Kate Hurster as the spirit Ariel, wearing a frizzy maroon wig that makes her look like an extra in Cats—director Tony Taccone's rendering is stolid, disjointed and dulled by Denis Arndt's leaden Prospero. Arndt hasn't acted at OSF since 1988, when he starred in King Lear, and he brings none of the simultaneous vengefulness and virtue that make Prospero such a compelling figure. 

More successful are the four dancers. Inspired by the Japanese dance form butoh, they're painted all in white, and they glide and roll across the stage—covered in rust-colored shag carpeting that wouldn't be out of place in a bowling alley—with a hyper-deliberateness that's entrancing. The brutish Caliban (Wayne T. Carr, nearly as ripped as the Rock) also wears body paint, just in a Shrek hue, and it's often billowing up around him in tiny dust storms. If only Arndt's Prospero were able to provoke anything so moving.

Water by the Spoonful

"Talking about ideas isn't saying anything," says Yazmin, a music professor, when her cousin Elliot ribs her about her smarts. "It's just making syllables with your mouth."

If there's anything playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes doesn't do in her emotionally stirring Water by the Spoonful, it's just make syllables with her characters' mouths. Even when her language is poetic and rich—"come tear my shyness open," begs one woman, a young crack addict striving for connection—each line pulses with urgency. That's not to say Hudes doesn't address weighty issues. Spoonful, which won the 2012 Pulitzer, is a finely wrought drama about addiction, trauma, attachment and loss. The play tells interwoven stories about Elliot, a young Iraq war vet (played by Daniel Jose Molina with a limp-cum-swagger and the brassy vulnerability of a hardened boy still grasping at manhood), and an online chat forum for recovering crack addicts.

That website is run by Elliot's birth mother, Odessa (Vilma Silva, bleeding quiet hurt). Her online avatar is Haikumom—she likes to start each day with 17 inspirational syllables for her flock—and she presides over her forum like a territorial but loving den mother. She fiercely patrols profanity but also steps in to defend new users, as when one named Fountainhead arrives with a monologue about his $300k salary and yellow Porsche. When the others leap on him as a hoax, "a purebred poodle pissing on their tree," Odessa snarls at them. These virtual scenes could have been hokey, but on this checkerboard stage—the blue squares are like pixelated islands—they're anything but. 

Hudes fully develops her six main characters, and her sense of empathy is matched by that of director Shishir Kurup. This is a drama about disconnection that coheres beautifully, and the web of relationships ripples with sensitivity and incisive humor. 

GO: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through Nov. 2. For showtimes and ticket info, visit