A Weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1935, and is one of the oldest and largest professional non-profit theatres in the nation. The staff at Travel Oregon recently spent a weekend in the beautiful town of Ashland, and had the opportunity to experience this amazing festival first hand. Courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, each of us had an opportunity to view four extraordinary plays, including “As You Like It”, “The Cherry Orchard”, “On the Razzle”, and “Rabbit Hole”. “The Cherry Orchard” was both directed and adapted by outgoing Artistic Director, Libby Appel. The Travel Oregon staff felt very fortunate to be present during Ms. Appel’s final season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Read on to hear staff reviews on each of the four plays- and be sure to swing by the Shakespeare Festival- it is an experience unlike any other!
As You Like It by William Shakespeare Reviewed by Mo Sherifdeen
Theater: Angus Bowmer Theatre
Performances: February 16 – October 28
The magical restorative powers of the Forest of Arden along with the conventions of romantic love are the subjects of the visually engaging production of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It”.
Director J.R. Sullivan does a masterful job of bringing together set design, lighting and sound to transpose the play into a depression era American story. The folksy-melodies (an original music score by John Tanner) that permeated the forest scenes were inspired by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and evokes a profound sense of hopefulness experienced by the characters who are trying to find themselves in the forest; it also speaks to the underlying optimism of the country going through the darkness of the depression. This sense of hope is also amplified by the elegant use of space – large sliding panels of oversized leaves emphasize the lush forest scenes in contrast to the sober emptiness of the set design of the court.
Of course the best production elements cannot make up for lackluster characters and most of the actors in this play are anything but that. David Kelly is as dynamic and hilarious as Touchstone while Brad Whitmore and Sarah Rutan where both solid and entertaining in their roles as Duke Frederic and Phoebe respectively. This particular night however, clearly belonged to Miriam Laube who is dazzling and commanding as Rosalind. She’s been with the festival for a few years now and I’ve seen her in the Winter’s Tale and The Philanderer and I am amazed by the depth of her performing ability and the graceful exuberance she brings to her characters.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov - Reviewed by Jessica & Mo Sherifdeen
Director: Libby Appel
Theater: Angus Bowmer Theatre
Performances: February 17 – July 8
The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekov’s final play—based in late 1800’s Russia as the serfs were freed and the influence of the aristocracy was waning—and is a reflective commentary on the end of an era and our ability to adapt to change. Despite the name, there is no “cherry orchard” in the set and the production takes place entirely “indoors” with the austere set design and dark lighting emphasizing and amplifying the themes of loss, loneliness and change felt by the characters.
While this play is often performed as a tragedy, Chekov intended it to be a “tragic-comedy” and this production maintains this intent while still realistically portraying the tumultuous emotions of its characters. It is noteworthy that there really isn’t an antagonist in this play and the actors portraying the major characters work well as an ensemble to portray the diverging points of view.
Almost every major character struggles with memories of the past and goes through cycles of self doubt and confusion drawing a real sense of empathy from the audience. While modern audiences probably connect more with the utopian idealism of Trofimov (the eternal student) or the pragmatic Lopakhin (former surf) and view Lyuba and Gayev as shallow characters who deserve to lose their orchard, you cannot but view them as victims of social change and feel Lyuba’s pain at seeing the place that she grew up in being sold and cut down for a “subdivision.” This emotional connection to the characters stays with you and follows you out of the theatre as you are left wondering what became of each of them as they leave the estate and go forth into a brave new world.
The play is one of two being directed this season by outgoing Artistic Director, Libby Appel and looking back at it, I cannot but wonder if its perhaps a fitting allegory on the change being experienced by the cast of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Whatever the subtext may be, the Cherry Orchard is one of the best executed and acted plays I’ve seen at the festival over the past three years.
On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard- Reviewed by Carole Astley
Director: Laird Williamson
Theater: Angus Bowmer Theatre
Performances: Feb 18 – Oct 28
I had the pleasure (and I mean pleasure!) of seeing “On the Razzle” in my first-ever weekend of Shakespeare plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opening weekend in February. We had been told how wonderful this play was, but until you really see it for yourself I don’t think you really ever believe it. I had seen several Shakespeare plays in the past including the wonderful outdoor Shakespeare in the Park plays in Portland, and frankly as much as I have enjoyed the experience of a Shakespeare play, it was sometimes hard to understand the actors and sometimes that meant you weren’t really sure what was going on.
Let me first say, that the experience of the top-notch actors in Ashland at the OSF was worth the drive from Salem (about 5 hours)! These actors were amazing and I could understand every word which meant I could easily follow what was going on! From my first play Friday night to my last play Sunday afternoon, it was a treat to experience this high level of theatre. These actors are of Tony Award-winning level and many famous actors have actually gotten their starts in Ashland…I can see why. This is “true” theatre and the talent levels are really amazing.
After a couple plays on Friday and Saturday (“As You Like It” and “Cherry Orchard”), we were ready for the infamous “On the Razzle”, of which we’d heard so much about. From the moment the lights went off and the set was unveiled, I was hooked! The playwright, Tom Stoppard, is known for his intellectual curiosity and depth, wit, clever puns and delight in the English language which meant that just about every sentence out of the actors’ mouths had a double meaning or made you pause to think about what they were really saying.
This play not only made you think, but made you laugh the whole way through. “On the Razzle” has truly mastered the “farce” or one could say they are the “Masters of the Farce!” (Farce: a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character). One example of this is instead of having the shopkeepers, Weinberl and Christopher, ride a bike or ride a horse to Vienna (probably two of the most popular ways to get around back then I’m guessing), they were on a horse that was actually a bike and then they rode it like a horse…you have to see this, it was hilarious!! Another fun thing about this play is that you’ll see some very similar scenes in the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. One scene “borrowed” from the play is when Ferris decides to jump in and join the parade, but there are many more…so you may want to watch this movie before seeing the play so you can have fun finding more similarities between the two.
An invaluable tip you must know before you take your seat at the theatre: Place your intermission food order before the play starts to avoid the really long lines! You’ll feel like a princess (or prince) walking up and having them hand you your glass of wine, cookie or snack while all the other play goers are standing in those long lines! I know because I was in those lines and was sneering at the smart folks who had pre-ordered. Never again!
Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire Reviewed by Ashley Moran
Director: James Edmondson
Theater: New Theater
Performances: Feb 22 – Jun 22
David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole” is a present-day tragedy, about the ways we each deal with grief. The story of this play begins with a couple grieving over the death of their son, who was hit by a car. The story evolves with various stages of grief (anger, frustration, sadness etc.) and also focuses on the ways people help one another through the various aspects of grief.
Becca (played by Robin Goodrin Nordli), does an excellent job of portraying a grieving mother. Her emotions are so intense, it feels as though she pulls you into the play, and you are going through the same tragedy along with her. Her facial expressions emphasize these emotions, and make the story she tells seem completely real.
Howie (played by Bill Geisslinger), does an equally fantastic job of portraying a grieving father. Each time he cries on set, I have to fight back my own tears. His character is very strong-willed, and goes out of his way as much as he possibly can to make his wife happy again.
Izzy (played by Tyler Layton), is Becca’s eccentric sister, who adds a great deal of humor to the play. She consistently asks her sister for advice, and grieves for her nephew by acting out in a child-like fashion.
This play also takes place in the 21st century, which is easy for the audience to relate to. The slang and costumes are also very modern- even the cuisine used on the set consists of items you would find in any American restaurant. Because these aspects bring the play closer to home, it has affected me on a deeper emotional level.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a once in a lifetime experience, and we strongly encourage anyone and everyone to visit!
-The Staff at Travel Oregon
Editor’s Note: For more information on theater in Oregon, please visit our Arts & Culture section.
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