Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: Beauty And The Beast

Left to right: David Kelly, Jennie Greenberry, Jordan Barbour. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Though OSF has a positive track record with classic musicals, the decision to include Disney’s Beauty And The Beast as part of their 2017 season was nonetheless worrying. Would the theatre festival be able to find new meaning in a Disney musical? Fortunately, director Eric Tucker and a talented cast and technical team knocks Beauty and the Beast out of the park, moving from the bright colors of the original animated movie to a darker, more elegant visual style that makes special use of the live theatre format to tell its story.

The gradually defrosting relationship between Belle (Jennie Greenberry), a bold, intellectual girl who yearns for something more than her provincial French village, and the Beast (Jordan Barbour), a cursed prince who must find love to free himself from his monstrous form, sits at the core of the show. Greenberry’s Belle is reasonably faithful to the original movie: Though she’s technically the Beast’s captive, she maintains social control over their relationship for much of the musical. Barbour’s interpretation of the Beast draws from his origin story as a prince, employing a mix of arrogance and social ineptitude. He may have a lot to learn before he can be worthy of Belle, but his slow climb towards understanding is one of the most heartwarming parts of the play.

The supporting cast assembles a larger-than-life group of wildly entertaining characters. James Ryen plays the part of Gaston, a swaggering hunter who serves as the story’s main antagonist. Besides getting the best physical comedy in the play, Ryen is able to generate a surprisingly intense feeling of danger: He comes off as stupid for the most part, but his ability to manipulate and threaten is top-notch. All of the transformed objects in the Beast’s castle provide hilarious performances: The conflict between the uptight Cogsworth (Daniel T. Parker) and courteous Lumiére (David Kelly) is a delight to watch.

What separates the OSF production of Beauty and the Beast from its other stage and movie counterparts is its visual aesthetic. The set (designed by Christopher Acebo) doesn’t use static elements, but instead uses ensemble members carrying props to give the feeling of a location. This allows for greater use of motion; when Belle is given a tour of the castle, for example, the cast moves doors and windows in a circle to give the illusion of movement. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes for the transformed objects convey the nature of the character without sacrificing elegance; Lumiére’s outfit, which employs gloves covered with LED lights, deserves special attention.

OSF’s 2017 rendition of Beauty and the Beast repackages one of the classic stories from the Disney canon with mature, daring visuals that change the way we understand it. The production ranks with fascinating OSF productions like Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady as part of OSF’s commitment to find new meaning in some of America’s most classic musicals.

Beauty and the Beast runs until October 15th.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: The Odyssey

Christopher Donohue and ensemble. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Theatregoers familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Mary Zimmerman may have some idea of what to expect from OSF’s The Odyssey. The play features the grand plotlines and imaginative effects that have become a hallmark of Zimmerman’s mythological adaptations.

While most of Zimmerman’s previous productions have remained reasonably faithful to the setting and time period of the original myth, The Odyssey uses numerous anachronistic elements. Much of this results from Mara Blumenfeld’s costume design: Alcinous (Armando McClain) and the members of his coastal kingdom, for example, are dressed in 1910s sailor outfits with straw boaters, while lord of the winds Aeolus (Armando Durán) resembles a mad scientist from a children’s show. Occasionally, extra meaning is added through these changes, such as the feminist themes in the Siren section. These changes and additions don’t create a new myth as much as they interpret the old one differently: The Odyssey is a living story, born from oral tradition, that exists to be readapted.

Many of the fantastical elements of the play are relayed through theatrical metaphor. To express the titanic size of the cyclops Polyphemus (Daniel T. Parker), for example, Zimmerman projects a giant shadow on a curtain and uses toy boats and dolls to represent Odysseus’ hapless crew. These effects make use of the audience’s suspension of disbelief to provide an imaginative experience that something more realistic wouldn’t achieve. The fight between Odysseus and Penelope’s suitors at the end of the play, in particular, is a breathtaking work of visual poetry.

The play is primarily an ensemble piece, with actors playing multiple characters over its course. Thus, it’s difficult to discuss the work of one particular actor playing one particular role. A few exceptions exist, including Athena (Christiana Clark) and Odysseus (Christopher Donahue). Clark’s Athena isn’t as stern as other portrayals of the war goddess, instead urging Odysseus to go forward with positivity and energy. Her silent presence over the play adds new layers of meaning and insight into the Ancient Greek views of destiny and divine favor. Donahue provides an excellent contrast: He mutes Odysseus’ famous cleverness with a veil of frustration and helplessness. The pain of having home snatched from under him over and over has worn Odysseus down: He just wants to be in Ithaca now.

Other standout characters include Kate Hurster as Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, and Benjamin Bonenfant as Telemachus, their son. Their struggles against Penelope’s suitors begin the play, and not only set the stakes for Odysseus’ long journey but provide a more human context for the events of the epic poem. Hurster adds a dash of mischievous glee to her Penelope, as her multiple deceptions bring her not only safety but also satisfaction; meanwhile, Bonenfant’s Telemachus is  prideful and deadly serious, attempting to resolve the situation directly even though he knows he’s outclassed.

The Odyssey is one of Western civilization’s oldest stories, one whose structure continues to resonate even today. Zimmerman’s use of anachronism calls this to attention, implying that even though we don’t live in Ancient Greece or worship Athena, there is something essential at the core of the work that still speaks to something deep witin us.

The Odyssey runs until October 14th.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Left to right: Rex Young, Amy Newman, K.T. Vogt, Vilma Silva, Paul Juhn. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

OSF’s 2017 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is also an ‘80s jukebox musical. This theme may seem strange to traditionalists, but it invites a sense of campy fun into one of Shakespeare’s lightest, silliest comedies. The antics of classical farce combined with bright colors, excellent comedic acting, and cheesy dance music create a remarkably entertaining show.

OSF’s talented ensemble is generally subtle and nuanced, which makes the times they throw caution to the wind and embrace excess all the more fun. (See also their production of The Wiz from last year.) 1980s hits from a variety of genres punctuate key parts of the production: Bardolph (U. Jonathan Toppo) and Pistol’s (Al Espinosa) plot to expose Falstaff is set to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” while the fairy dance at the show’s climax starts with “Thriller,” dance included, and ends with Guns N’ Roses.

At the core of Merry Wives is the bumbling rogue Falstaff, who also makes an appearance in the Henry IV duology that runs concurrently with this show. Standing in his shoes is K.T. Vogt, a nine-season OSF mainstay best known for her comedic roles. Vogt’s performance is outstanding, operating Falstaff with fifty percent ego, fifty percent animalistic lust, and zero percent self-awareness. This impeccable character work is only matched by Vogt’s gift for physical comedy, jumping and air-guitaring across the stage when she makes her appearances.

The rest of the cast keeps up with Falstaff’s buffoonery. Anne Page (Jamie Ann Romero), the ostensible protagonist of the play, resolutely attempts to tie the knot with Fenton (William DeMerritt). As befits the setting of the show, Romero channels the female lead in every John Hughes movie with a sense of earnest, mischievous defiance. Rex Young’s Master Ford, an uptight, jealous stick in the mud, serves as a foil to Falstaff,  but has the same over-the-top comedic energy. Jeremy Peter Johnson’s Doctor Caius, though a side character, nearly steals the show with an outrageous French accent and wild swordplay.

Ulises Alcala’s costume designs help synthesize the updated theme with the original setting of the play, Elizabethan England. Characters are clothed in gowns and doublets saturated with the bright pastels common in the ‘80s, and other throwbacks to that era – including Anne’s hair – appear on occasion. Codpieces play a major part in both the costuming and the comedy, with Falstaff sporting an oversized model complete with a zipper compartment.

In order for Shakespeare’s plays to be relevant to the modern day, they need to be viewed through the lens of goofy camp as much as the lens of serious reenactment. OSF’s 2017 production of Merry Wives is a marvelous execution of the former, making you laugh at the play as much as you think about it. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor runs until October 13th.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017: Henry IV, Part 1

Left to right: Daniel José Molina, Jeffrey King. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Prince Hal, soon to inherit the throne of England, is busy living a hedonistic life with Falstaff and his band of merry rogues. But as Henry IV, Part 1 sets the stage for Shakespeare’s epic trilogy about the soon-to-be Henry V, the weight of the crown becomes increasingly heavy upon Prince Hal’s head. OSF’s 2017 production, continuing with Part 2 this season and Henry V in 2018, brings this classic tale of royalty into a modern setting.

Bringing Shakespeare into the current day is fairly common, most famously (or infamously) represented by Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet. However, with a modern setting comes a difficult balancing act. If the direction is successful, the themes and meanings within the play become more evident. However, if the adaptation gets too cute, it could spell major problems for the production. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz, however, displays good judgment in her adaptation. Falstaff’s carousing makes more sense to us in a trendy club, and it doesn’t detract from the language or original plot.

Daniel José Molina portrays the part of Prince Hal, which he inhabits with spectacular versatility. His drunken antics are frequently too much, even for his drinking buddy Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas), but Hal respects his own limits, quietly avoiding actions that would actually hurt his reputation as an heir to the throne. Molina’s Hal becomes princelier when he’s thrust upon the battlefield – not, perhaps, nobler, but matured by the reality of war. Thomas’ Falstaff, conversely, hardly develops at all: He’s the big fun friend who’s useless in a crisis. His antics change from entertaining in the bar to pathetic on the battlefield.

As Shakespeare wrote the play, King Henry IV (Jeffrey King) has a surprisingly small number of on-stage appearances. Yet it’s his interactions with Prince Hal and his ongoing struggle against Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) and her aunt, rebel leader Worcester (Kimberly Scott), that drive the plot of the play forward. King’s portrayal is troubled and serious, splitting his attention between problems ranging from Hotspur’s military rebellion to Prince Hal’s adolescent one. His actions aren’t driven by emotion, but by a sense of self-preservation for his bloodline and his country. Hotspur and Worcester are as righteous as Henry IV is resigned; Escalante injects a powerful passion into both Hotspur’s battles and love life, and Scott’s Worcester possesses a cold, powerful indignation.

The technical element of Henry IV, Part 1 keeps pace with the constantly changing tone of the play. The scene introducing Falstaff’s gang makes use of garish neon colors and pulsating music, while the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury is executed with a brutal military grittiness not seen on the Ashland stage since 2012’s incredible Troilus and Cressida. Accolades go to the technical team (scenic designer Adam Rigg, costume designer Dede M. Ayite, lighting designer Yi Zhao, and composer/sound designer Palmer Hefferan, among others) for their adept navigation of a difficult text: They know when to go over-the-top and when to let Shakespeare’s writing speak for itself. The ever-present back wall, featuring a torn mural of King Henry, writes volumes on its own.

Henry IV, Part 1 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a more balanced view of the weight of royalty than Macbeth or Richard III, which descend quickly into madness and betrayal; rather, it looks at the weight of character needed to be an effective ruler, and the vast gulf between “prince” and “king.” Despite being the first in a trilogy, OSF’s 2017 production of Henry IV, Part 1 possesses the deep meaning and character development required to stand on its own.

Henry IV, Part 1 runs until October 28th.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Oregon Shakespare Festival 2017: Julius Caesar

Left to right: Stephen Michael Spencer, Rodney Gardiner (kneeling), Armando Durán, Danforth Comins. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has a misleading name. Although the Roman leader does play a significant role, and his assassination is what sparks most of its action, we never learn much about him or see him develop. Rather, Julius Caesar is an examination of political ambition, public opinion, and how the worst acts are often paved with good intentions. Shana Cooper’s bare, unsettling production strips away the formal veneer of ancient Rome to expose the action as men committing acts of horrific violence for unclear reasons.

Armando Durán portrays the role of Caesar in this production. His interpretation is very different from that of Vilma Silva, who played the same part in OSF’s 2011 production: While Silva was composed and quiet, Durán has a casual, Reaganesque charisma that makes it easy to see why the Roman public adores him. Vaguely aware of the plot to assassinate him, Durán’s Caesar resigns himself to his fate: He accepts that Caesar the public figure is something that has eclipsed Caesar the man, and that his death is no longer anything over which he has control. The objections of Calpurnia (Amy Kim Waschke), his wife, complicates the topic, however: As her sincere, emotional dialogue work correctly notes, Julius Caesar is still a human being, regardless of where history has seated him.

After Ceasar is assassinated, war ignites between loyalist Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) and the turncoat senators led by Marcus Brutus (Danforth Comins) and Cassius (Rodney Gardiner). Barbour’s emotional interpretation of Antony, combined with our perspective of the events mainly coming from the senators, leads one to believe that he is strong but straightforward; however, his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech is so terrifyingly persuasive that it undoes not only the hold the Senators had on the common people, but the audience’s conception of Antony himself.

Cassius has the clearest conscience about killing Caesar, but because the audience is never given a clear vision of Caesar’s actions, we don’t know if  this is a mere power play or done out of some kind of conviction. Rodney Gardiner’s performance leads us to believe Cassius’ motives are more on the selfish side, as his preparations for the killing are tinged with an almost innocent enthusiasm. Comins’ Brutus is a fairly standard handling of the role – a conflicted man who doubts his actions from the start of the play – but his performance is heartfelt and powerful.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set, and Cooper’s direction of the Roman public, is what gives the play new meaning. The set is somehow both sterile and destroyed, making use of wooden slats, folding chairs, and a statue covered with cloth and packing tape. The members of the public caper about dressed in Greek chorus masks, reminiscent of a gang of cannibals in a Mad Max movie. Nothing we are presented onstage implies that ownership of the Roman empire or of the hearts of the people has any value whatsoever, and that the entire course of the play is a series of pointless acts of violence.

Julius Caesar at OSF’s 2017 season strips away the majesty of ancient Rome from the story of several people who murder thousands for vague reasons. It’s a filthy, bleak, depressing rendition that reveals more about Shakespeare’s original text than any production draped in togas.

Julius Caesar runs until October 29th.