Back from our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — as usual, well-stuffed with (mostly) very good theater.
First up this year was Richard III, a solid traditional production on the Elizabethan outdoor stage, with the bonus that Richard was/is played by fellow Whitman College graduate Dan Donohue. Dan graciously appeared after the performance at our tour group’s discussion meeting to talk about the show. I very much liked Dan’s Richard — played with a dry, self-assured charm and no prosthetics (the appearance of a withered, useless left arm was entirely physical trickery). Others in the group correctly pointed out the strength of the female roles in this production — amusingly, it turns out that Richard III, at least in this staging, easily passes the Bechdel test.
Next we had The Tempest, staged in the Bowmer theater on a spare but ingenious set (we learned later that some of the players referred to it as “the Dorito chip”). Everyone was very impressed with Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as with the rude comics and Caliban and with some of the clever special effects and props employed by Ariel. The major disagreement was over Prospero, played by Festival veteran Denis Arndt. I was greatly underwhelmed by what I saw as a weak imitation of Dumbledore or Gandalf, too much the kindly grandparent with no real gravitas, out of step with the rest of the production; our group’s faculty guide thought Arndt did a good job of making Prospero accessible. (Judging purely by the audience murmurs I heard on the way out of the theater, the “underwhelmed” crowd was in the majority.)
The group’s third show was The Comedy of Errors in the Thomas theater (the newest, smallest performance space), which I am told may have been the strongest Shakespeare play of the weekend. I skipped out on this, however, in favor of the Festival’s brand new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Excellent Shakespeare notwithstanding, I’m very glad I did. On one hand, I have a number of reservations about the structure and design of the script; OTOH, the execution was mostly very good indeed, with a number of excellent performances (including Tempest‘s Miranda as Meg Murry and Dan Donohue as her father). I will likely have more to say about this eventually, but it is a fascinating if flawed adaptation, and worth the viewing.
Sunday brought The Great Society and Two Gentlemen of Verona. The former is the direct sequel to the Tony-winning All the Way, chronicling President Lyndon Johnson’s second term in office, his struggles with Vietnam War policy, and his clashes with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a powerful show with many superb performances, and moves briskly through its 3+ hour running time; whatever one’s personal politics may be, this is a compelling drama and a thoughtful look at the history of that time.
By contrast, Two Gentlemen is mild-mannered and understated, perhaps this season’s most conservative Shakespeare…except that it’s presented by an all-female cast (well, almost all female; I believe that Picasso, the gorgeous and very patient St. Pyrenees dog playing Crab, may be a male). Interestingly, the production makes no changes whatever to Shakespeare’s language; it’s simply that many of the women are playing male roles just as young men in Elizabethan times would have played the female roles — and the staging pretty much ignores this, just as an Elizabethan cast would have ignored the reverse anomaly originally. This got mixed reactions from our group; many viewers wanted more overt nods to one or another feminist sensibility. My feeling is that that’s a no-win scenario, and that the director’s choice to play the script as straight as possible is the best possible way to show how timeless Shakespeare’s stories really are — even in what’s regarded as one of his weakest plays. I liked the production a great deal and thought it made a good conclusion to the weekend.