Visitors to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland can see up to 10 plays in the festival’s three theaters during the summer. The festival presents a total of 11 plays during its season, which runs from Feb. 20 to Nov.1.
Running in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre are William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”; the world premiere of “Head Over Heels,” with music and lyrics by the Go-Go’s; and Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre offers Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”; a Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls”; Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat”; and Stan Lai’s “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.”
Playing in the intimate Thomas Theatre are Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “The Happiest Song Plays Last.”
On my recent visit, I saw five shows and was to have seen a sixth. However, “The Count of Monte Cristo” was canceled the night I was scheduled because of unhealthy air quality caused by heavy smoke from a forest fire north ofAshland.
Smoke has been an issue for OSF in recent days, leading to several cancellations for the Elizabethan as well as the popular, free outdoor Green Show that precedes evening performances. A performance of “Head Over Heels” was stopped during the first act because of smoke.
OSF monitors the air quality each day and announces by 6:30 p.m. whether the show will go on. Patrons then have four options for their tickets: exchange, donate, refund or voucher. The latter is good through Oct. 31, 2016.
Although it’s disappointing when a show is canceled, the health of the actors, crew, ushers and patrons is paramount.
To provide the most accurate, timely readings possible, a temporary air quality monitoring station has been installed on a festival building. Otherwise, the closest station is in Medford, several miles north.
Following are overviews of the five reviewed shows:
A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
This is Eugene O’Neill’s most autobiographical play and reportedly the most painful for him to write.
It focuses on the Tyrone family staying in their summer house on the coast of Connecticut in 1912. The patriarch, 65-year-old James (Michael Winters) is an actor who has spent many seasons on the road. His wife, Mary (Judith Marie Bergan), loyally followed him year after year. She has recently returned home after a stint in rehab for her addiction to morphine.
Visiting are their two adult sons, James Jr., called Jamie (Jonathan Haugen), and Edmund (Danforth Comins).
Initial scenes show much love within the family, but major concerns soon are revealed. Edmund is ill with what he learns is consumption, or tuberculosis. Jamie has led a dissolute life of alcohol and whores. James spends his money on shaky real estate deals but is a skinflint otherwise. Mary, who says she has almost always been unhappy and lonely, relapses into her fog of addiction.
Although it runs about three hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, this production is riveting throughout because of O’Neill’s often poetic writing and the cast’s brilliant acting, especially by Bergan. She embodies Mary’s sense of walking on eggshells, poignantly recalls her youth and then descends into her own tragic world. It’s a tour de force.
The three men also are outstanding as each character deals with his own issues and with the family dynamics. Completing the cast is Autumn Buck as Cathleen, a servant.
The actors have the benefit of direction by Christopher Liam Moore, who orchestrates each scene like a maestro and allows occasional moments of humor to come through. The set by Christopher Acebo features a long stairway that figures prominently in the drama.
Music by Andre J. Pluess underscores the mood, as does the sound design by him and Matt Callahan. Also contributing to the ambience are lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes by Meg Neville.
This production ranks at the top of my list.
GUYS AND DOLLS
Ranking with “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for overall quality is its polar opposite in mood, “Guys and Dolls.” The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows is based on the writing of Damon Runyon and is set in New York City.
With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, its song list includes hit after hit, such as “I’ll Know,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” the title song, “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Populated by gamblers, show girls and street missionaries, it features two love stories. The first involves Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), who runs “the oldest established floating crap game in New York.” He has been engaged to Miss Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli), the lead singer at the Hot Box nightclub, for 14 years. She wants him to quit gambling and get married.
The other couple is Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson), another gambler, who falls in love with Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster), prim leader of the Save a Soul Mission. Their relationship is fueled by bets, some of them unknown to Sarah.
Surrounding them is a host of memorable characters such as Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Harry the Horse (Tony DeBruno), Benny Southstreet (David Kelley) and Big Julie (Richard Elmore), among the gamblers. All are outstanding.
Also noteworthy is Richard Howard as Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s kindly grandfather, who sings the touching “More I Cannot Wish You.”
Even though the cast is terrific throughout, the unquestioned star is Goodrin Nordli as Miss Adelaide. A longtime OSF actor who has played widely varied roles, she displays her singing and dancing abilities as well as unsurpassed comic timing. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off her.
Well directed by Mary Zimmerman, the show is enlivened by Daniel Pelzig’s choreography. The set by Daniel Ostling is minimal, allowing for swift scene changes, often using the actors to move set pieces. Musical direction is by Doug Peck. Pianist Matt Goodrich conducts seven other instrumentalists in the orchestra pit.
The colorful costumes are by Mara Blumenfeld with lighting by T.J. Gerckens and sound by Ray Nardelli.
The show runs about two and a half hours with one intermission.
Playwright Lynn Nottage tackles an important national issue in ‘Sweat.’ This world premiere takes place in 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pa., a factory town that once provided good jobs for its union employees.
In one situation, new owners took over a factory, removed some machines and asked the union to accept major concessions in pay and benefits. When union members rejected the contract, they were locked out.
“Sweat” focuses on the human costs of those moves mostly through two worker families. One is the white Tracey (Terri McMahon) and her young adult son, Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer). The other is the black Cynthia (Kimberly Scott); her young adult son, Chris (Tramell Tillman); and her ex-husband, Brucie (Kevin Kenerly). Tracey and Cynthia are best friends, as are their sons.
Everyone interacts mainly in a local bar presided over by bartender Stan (Jack Willis), a former factory worker who retired on disability after an on-the-job injury. The other bar denizen is Jessie (K.T. Vogt), another factory worker. Stan is assisted by busboy Oscar (Carlo Albán), who wants to work at the factory.
The play opens in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Tyrone Wilson), separately interviews Jason and Chris after the two have been imprisoned. Jason is sullenly defiant, while Chris talks of wanting to become a teacher.
Action then reverts to 2000 when all is apparently well. While things worsen at the factory, Cynthia is promoted to a management job. Her friends become resentful, accusing her of abandoning them, but she insists she’s doing all she can on their behalf.
The tension reaches a boiling point when Oscar turns scab and goes to work at the factory. That’s when the audience learns why Jason and Chris went to prison.
Directed by Kate Whoriskey, the production is well-cast, with each actor creating a believable character. Special mention goes to Willis, whose Stan provides a patient, calming voice when the bar patrons drink too much or become too angry.
“Sweat” was co-commissioned by the festival, along with Arena Stage, as part of its American history cycle. It rightly focuses a spotlight on what happens when people lose their jobs. However, it could use some pruning to eliminate some seemingly repetitious scenes, and the rough language, although probably appropriate to the characters, seems overdone.
A revolving set by John Lee Beatty, with lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, allows for easy scene changes. The production also features costumes by Jennifer Moeller, sound by Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn, and videos by Jeff Sugg.
It runs about two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Lileana Blain-Cruz directs a mostly workmanlike production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” with its two pairs of lovers and some schemers. The best known lovers are Beatrice (Christiana Clark) and Benedick (Danforth Comins). Their relationship seems more like enmity as they exchange barbs until other characters gull them into thinking each is in love with the other.
The secondary lovers are the younger Claudio (Carlo Albán) and Hero (Leah Anderson). Hero is the daughter of Leonato (Jack Willis), the governor of Messina, and Beatrice is her cousin.
There are no obstacles to their love until the scheming Don John (Regan Linton) makes Claudio believe that Hero is unchaste. Things get complicated after that, but all turns out well.
Once again Willis provides a solid anchor to the production. The rest of the cast does well, but there’s little chemistry apparent between Albán as Claudio and Anderson as Hero. It’s better between Comins as Benedick and Clark as Beatrice, but it’s still not enough.
Director Blain-Cruz sets the action in the present. Hence she inserts modern touches such as having the malaprop-prone Dogberry (Rex Young), leader of the watch, ride a Segway. She also overdoes some comic scenes, and the party scene is annoying with its strobe lights (lighting by Yi Zhao).
Choreographer Jaclyn Miller and composer-sound designer Chad Raines seem to borrow from “Evita” with the music and soldiers’ entrance for the tomb scene reminiscent of “Peron’s Latest Flame” in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
It would seem that the director wanted to appeal to young audiences. She apparently succeeds there, judging by the enthusiastic reception from the large group attending the festival’s 12-day Summer Seminar for High School Juniors.
“Much Ado” runs about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND
The low point among the five reviewed shows is “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” by Chinese American playwright Stan Lai, who also directs. It would seem that he, too, aimed his direction toward young audiences. The seminar students gave the show a standing ovation, but many adults delivered only polite applause. A few left during intermission of the two-hour, 30-minute performance.
Lai translated his play from the Chinese for this American premiere and, in this case, set it in the festival’s Bowmer Theatre. In it, two theater companies are mistakenly scheduled to rehearse two different plays at the same time.
The first play, “Secret Love,” is set in Shanghai in 1948 and Taipei in the late 1980s. It focuses on the love between Jiang (Cristofer Jean) and Yun (Kate Hurster), who are separated during upheaval in China. During the intervening years, Jiang takes a wife (Vilma Silva). Jiang and Yun meet again many years later when he is gravely ill. It’s a touching story.
The second play is “In Peach Blossom Land,” set in a fictional Chinese fishing village and an unknown upstream village in the fifth century. In this play, Tao (Eugene Ma) is a fisherman married to Blossom (Leah Anderson), who is having an affair with Master Yuan (Paul Juhn), a fish merchant. When Tao learns of the deception, he goes upstream and discovers the idyllic Peach Blossom Land.
“Secret Love” is the more successful of the two plays within a play because the characters and situation are believable and are played seriously.
On the other hand, “In Peach Blossom Land” overreaches for comic effects, often resorting to silly slapstick and portraying the cuckolded Tao as nothing more than a buffoon.
The set is by Michael Locher with costumes by Helen Q. Huang, lighting by Alexander V. Nichols and sound by Valerie Lawrence.
For tickets and information about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, call (800) 219-8161 or visit www.osfashland.org.