Five plays in three days — that’s the schedule for my annual visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, hosted by the Whitman College alumni office (which books the rooms and the tickets) and curated by our designated Whitman English professor (who picks the plays). This latter job is a perennial challenge, as there are usually more excellent shows in the repertory than we have the time or ability to see. Thus, for example, we didn’t get into Pericles, the late Shakespeare play running in OSF’s smallest theater, and we caught Much Ado About Nothing rather than an adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
What we did see, however, was at minimum very good and at the top of the scale…well, we’ll get there in a minute or three.
Both Much Ado and Antony & Cleopatra, the two Shakespeare plays we took in, were very good productions. This year’s staging of Much Ado is likely to remind many of the two best-known film versions: Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 movie and Joss Whedon’s 2013 release. Its visual style and color palette is Mediterranean, like the Branagh film, but the wholly modern tone runs closer to Whedon. It’s funny where it needs to be — one of the best running gags has Rex Young’s Dogberry zipping around on a Segway, and Christiana Clark makes an especially energetic Beatrice. It’s also provocative where it needs to be — actress Regan Linton plays a wheelchair-bound Don John with credible bitterness, lending an intriguing dimension to the darker side of the play’s storyline.
Antony & Cleopatra also walks the line between modern and historical staging; the soldiers wear modern uniforms and carry tommy guns, but the Roman leaders often appear in classic white draping and Cleopatra’s exotic and varied wardrobe makes several nods toward Egyptian iconography. This production, to my mind, is more Antony’s than Cleopatra’s — Derrick Lee Weeden’s performance is simply stronger and more focused than Miriam Laube’s, though it’s hard to tell how much of this reflects the actors’ choices and how much should be ascribed to Bill Rauch’s directorial vision. I also found Jeffrey King’s Enobarbus a much stronger presence than that of Cleopatra’s handmaidens — though this too isn’t wholly the performers’ fault, as Charmian and Iras are saddled with uniquely and disastrously awful costumes throughout the show.
Flaws notwithstanding, the overall execution for both of these plays is very good, but neither quite leaps over the bar into “exceptional”. Much Ado is arguably more consistent overall, but Antony & Cleopatra is less frequently produced, and well worth seeing on that basis.
Sweat is…interesting. It’s a world-premiere production, co-commissioned by OSF from playwright Lynn Nottage, and concerns a handful of industrial plant workers in Reading, PA as they deal with upper management’s efforts to break the union. There are two mothers, each with a son, one with an ex-husband, plus the bartender and busboy at the tavern where they hang out after work. A framing narrative is set in 2008, but most of the action takes place eight years earlier, shortly after the ratification of the NAFTA trade agreement.
As the summary suggests, the script’s politics are in no way subtle. Nottage’s story, though, is less about the politics than it is about the people living with the fallout thereof. We see mostly well-intentioned people make choices that force them into unplanned opposition to one another, and must watch as the inevitable tension leads to unforeseen consequences. One conflict arises when one of the women is promoted into a low-level management job both have fought for…and is then forced to help implement an anti-union lockout against her friends. Meanwhile, the bar’s Hispanic busboy takes a strikebreaker’s job — the pay being far better than he can hope for otherwise — thereby angering both locked-out sons. The repertory casting has intriguing resonances here; Carlo Albán plays both the busboy and Much Ado‘s Claudio, and Jack Willis doubles as bartender Stan and Much Ado‘s Governor Leonato. But there are no weak performances, and it’s clear that none of these characters really want to be at odds. They simply can’t back away from the confrontations their choices have forced on them. Sweat is a show that absolutely requires first-rate acting to succeed — but OSF has the talent pool to pull it off, and the results are compelling if not comfortable.
And now we get to the musicals — that’s right, musicals plural.
Guys & Dolls is easily described. This is an old-school Broadway classic, and the production is exactly that: old-school Broadway. The set is mostly simple with the occasional jet-propelled flourish, the choreography is brisk and eager, the acting is crisp and confident, and the songs are executed with energy and vigor. It’s easily a six-stars-out-of-five production, firing on all cylinders from overture to finale, and even though I am normally stingy with my standing ovations, I was on my feet in three seconds flat at the end of the show.
Head Over Heels is something else again.
Start with Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a work known mostly to die-hard grad students of English literature. Next, consider the entire musical output of the Go-Gos. Now if someone told you these two canons had been fused into a brand new rock musical, wouldn’t your first reaction be “What the heck have you been smoking?” But in fact, Jeff Whitty (father of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q) has done exactly that — which may go some way toward explaining why the fusion works as amazingly well as it does.
I won’t even try to explain the plot. Suffice to note that it occupies a space bordering both Shakespeare’s more convoluted comedies (with more than a nod toward the late romances) and the two Marx Brothers stage adaptations OSF has produced in recent years. Your tour guide and master of ceremonies is John Tufts as Philanax, who’s both a classic Fool (think Twelfth Night and King Lear) and a supercharged version of the Leading Player from Pippin, garbed in raucous patchwork and whiteface. Under his nominal oversight, Head Over Heels doesn’t just break the metaphorical fourth wall, it tunnels gleefully through it and out into the audience. I was studying my playbill five minutes before curtain when I became aware of an animated conversation going on in the row behind me — and when I glanced up, I discovered that (a) there was an eight-foot pool of lush purple skirt taking up most of the aisle behind me, and (b) the skirt’s wearer (Queen Gynecia, aka Miriam Laube) was talking avidly with the lady in the aisle seat just above mine. Another half dozen or more cast members were scattered elsewhere along the aisles, similarly occupied.
It gets wilder from there. At curtain time, Tufts strolled out to center stage, introduced himself (both in character and out), and brought on his castmates for similar double-identitied introductions — king, queen, princesses, shepherd boy, valet, lady-in-waiting. We meet the Oracle of Delphi (eventually rechristened Linda), who knows all because she has a copy of the script. There’s romance, cross-dressing, battles with Fierce Wild Animals, onstage adultery (but not exactly), more romance, coming out of the
chamberpot closet, swordplay, an Oracular deus ex machina, some more romance, same-sex marriage, gender-bending, and a whole heck of a lot of singing and dancing. [A side note for the genre fans in the gallery: it is both disconcerting and delightful that Bonnie Milligan as Princess Pamela is, both visually and vocally, something of a ringer for Seanan McGuire.]
My one and only quibble with all this outrageously entertaining nonsense is one that arises all too often in musicals (and especially rock musicals): at times, the orchestra’s enthusiasm occasionally overrides the vocals so that it’s difficult to make out song lyrics. But this was at worst an intermittent problem; as a whole, Head Over Heels is awe-inspiring in the most literal sense of the phrase. It’s on a completely different wavelength from Guys & Dolls, but no less brilliant for all that, and it deserves all the success it can possibly garner.