If you are a Gilbert & Sullivan purist, you may want to steer clear of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current incarnation of Yeomen of the Guard — it is, I’m advised by the G&S purists in our tour group, a sufficiently free adaptation that they might as well have called it something else. (Possibly Boys & Girls of the Golden West….)
If, however, you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind a little country in your sort-of-light operetta (Yeomen being the G&S equivalent of one of Shakespeare’s weirder, edgier “comedies”, on the order of Measure for Measure) — and especially if you’re the sort of person who likes meta in their fanfiction and more than a little audience-generated improv in your live theatre — then run, do not walk, to the OSF box office and book your ticket now.
In fact, while the libretto is definitely retuned for this production, it’s not as severely mangled as my purist fellow travelers might lead you to think. Though the setting is a light-duty Wild West town square with props and costumes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Muppet Show set, it’s still called Tower Green, the yeomen are still called yeomen, and the intricate scansion that makes G&S what it is remains largely intact.
Indeed, the most unusual element of this staging isn’t the cartoon-Western set design at all. It’s the fact that about twenty percent of the audience for the show is being seated right there on that cartoon-Western set…which includes an actual operational saloon bar, where (if you’re among that part of the audience) you can buy yourself a beer or a soda or what have you at any time during the 90-minute duration of the performance.
But the presence of a live cash bar onstage isn’t, in itself, what’s novel here. What’s novel is that the audience in what’s being called “promenade” seating essentially becomes part of the cast for that performance. Those sitting on-set will — not may, will — find themselves moving from haybale to rocking horse to billiards table and back as the action ebbs and flows. An actor might unexpectedly swap hats with you during a musical number. Another actor might call you out for looking entirely too much like James Taylor. Or someone could spill their beer right into the players’ main traffic lane, thereby becoming comic relief for the ninety-odd seconds required for an usher to produce towels and clean up the spill. [Yes, all of those things actually happened the night I saw the show.] And all of those moments combine with the crisp, high-energy artistry of Ashland’s crackerjack repertory performers to produce something that’s not merely wonderful but wondrous. Even for the many promenade denizens who aren’t pulled into the limelight — and, for the more traditionally seated audience — the resulting explosion of sheer interpersonal chemistry makes for a uniquely delightful theatrical experience.
The consensus among our tour group afterward is that doing the show that way must be even more than usually complicated and exhausting for the actors, though a few of us also pointed out that for at least some of them, it’s likely to have been the most fun they’ve ever been legally allowed to have onstage.
One can only hope that it’s a sufficiently successful experiment for OSF to do it again. Because next time, I want one of those promenade seats….