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Monday, July 23, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
Myth and mirth take the stage at Oregon Shakespeare fest
By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
With 11 annual productions in its repertory, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is different things to different visitors at different junctures during its season.
Your experience of the West Coast's largest classical-contemporary theater festival is inevitably shaped by which plays are running in the company's three venues. And during my recent trek to the venerable and perennially popular Ashland attraction, the menu featured the usual mélange of Shakespeare and modern entrees — however, some presented quite unusually, given the expansive aesthetic and social agenda of OSF artistic director Bill Rauch.
If you head down later in the summer, or this fall, you can ponder the political terrain of the 1960s in two OSF world-premiere works: the just-opened, well-received "Party People," by the collaborative group Universes reflects on the rise, fall and legacy of '60s radical groups the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords (through Nov. 3); and "All the Way," Seattle dramatist Robert Schenkkan's study of President Johnson's eventful tenure in the White House (Wednesday-Nov. 3).
By contrast, the shows I took in, in early July, explored the elemental theatrical totems of mirth and myth through diverse fare that both soared and stumbled.
"Animal Crackers": Who would have thought this 80-year-old stage and film vehicle for the Marx Brothers would be such a treat, and such a hit this season?
Vintage vaudeville high jinks among the rich, unleashed by a trio of zany con men crashing a Long Island party, fly fast and furious in Seattle director Allison Narver's nimble and frisky OSF mounting.
All the right crackers are in this box: a live band on stage playing the chipper Harry Ruby-Bert Kalmar score. Swell costumes and sets. The pun-encrusted, mock-the-1 percent George S. Kaufman-Morrie Ryskind script (smartly adapted by Henry Wishcamper).
But it's the faux-Marx frères who keep up the comic mayhem, with the clowning and impromptu quipping the Marxes perfected. Mop-wigged Brent Hinkley romps, leers and honks a great Harpo. In the Chico Marx role, Daisuke Tsuji (who alternates in the part with John Tufts) not only aces the poker-faced wiseguy guise and cheesy Italian accent, but he can really plunk a piano, too.
But there's no Marx madness without a Groucho, and Mark Bedard is a smashing one. As the leering prince of anarchy and irrepressible huckster Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, he's a ringer for the real article and a scampering hoot.
Timing is paramount in comedy, and despite minor lapses, OSF's helter-skelter antics proceed apace. But take heed of Groucho's ode "Hello, I Must Be Going," intoned by a shifty-browed Bedard: If you must be going to "Animal Crackers," order tickets in advance.
"The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa": A rural small town in Iowa is the gay capital of Middle America?
That's the farcical myth director Christopher Liam Moore and adapter Alison Carey concoct in this au courant spin on Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." And it's a clever conceit that suffers from overkill. With some dramaturgical jujitsu, the original romp of revenge pranks wrought by two Elizabethan housewives (married to men) now centers on a lesbian couple and a hetero pair so gay-friendly they forbid their daughter to wed a straight guy. (They've picked out a nice, chain-saw-wielding lesbian artist for her.)
There's also a gay, black female mayor, and tavern owner Mistress Quickly now runs a diner.
The sharpest switcheroo is turning the lecherous coot John Falstaff into a smarmy politician with Mitt Romney hair, Clinton's roving eye and an ego bigger than Iowa. As Sen. Falstaff, whose plot to woo and fleece the Windsor wives gets foiled, OSF veteran David Kelly oozes homophobia and corruption while raking in the guffaws.
Alas, though imagining the sort of harmonious, tolerant diversity one might wish for throughout Middle America, "The Very Merry Wives" gets heavy-handed and linguistically cumbersome. (Carey's blend of modern and Shakespearean lingo does not trip lightly off the tongue). And the intentional comic stereotypes — swaggering lesbian pro golfer, limp-wristed gay minister — don't help.
Like the original "Merry Wives," OSF's mock-up is at heart a lusty sitcom but with fewer laughs than its prototype.
"Macbeth/Medea/Cinderella": This ambitious merging of three classic myths into one theatrical opus is rather like a triple-decker sandwich of tuna fish, peanut butter and Velveeta cheese. Filling, yes. Offbeat, sure. But appetizing?
"M/M/C" is clearly a favorite project of festival artistic director Rauch, the play's director and co-adapter (with Tracy Young). As a Harvard University grad, he created the postmodern stackup of legends from works by Shakespeare and Euripides, topped off with "Cinderella" (the chirpy Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version).
In 2002, Rauch and Young reworked the piece, and their companies Cornerstone Theatre and The Actors Gang mounted it in Los Angeles to mixed reviews.
Now here it is again, in an undertaking that's certainly an engineering feat. Three mythic plots are conflated and acted out simultaneously, on a single set. And the cast deserves medals for concentration — especially when they turn into a cacophonous chorale from different theatrical dimensions.
But as in "Merry Wives," the concept often wags the play here. Rather than emphasizing the fables' interconnections and reverberations, "M/M/C" operates more like a three-ring plot circus.
The soliloquies of Macbeth and his Lady (played by Jeffrey King and, in drag, Christopher Liam Moore) are equated with the homicidal ire of spurned Medea (Miriam A. Laube), to the tune of such cheery R & H ditties as "The Prince Is Giving a Ball."
There are moments where the desires, actions and utterances of the three protagonists run parallel. But the similarities of story structure charted in an OSF program note — exposition, action, climax, denouement — are basic to most legends.
For all the effort, "M/M/C" just doesn't yield enough clarity or mythic resonance to make the three-hour-plus epic compelling.
"Henry V": Shakespeare was, of course, no slouch as a mythmaker. And the heroic status he grants to England's Henry V is part history lesson, part legend.
There are differing opinions on this young monarch's successful 15th-century campaign to annex part of France and his victory in the Battle of Agincourt. Relatively few Brits but thousands of French soldiers were slain there. And by Henry's pitiless order, thousands more taken prisoner were quickly executed.
This year's outdoor staging of the Bard's account arrives on the heels of OSF's "Henry IV," parts 1 and 2. They all depict the transformation of a reckless youth into a valiant leader. And OSF veteran John Tufts has starred as Henry in all three.
Joseph Haj's "Henry V" staging is a cogent, fairly straightforward saga of triumph, with a muted visual palette of grays and blacks. Few notes of ambivalence about Henry's brutal strategy are registered. And some comedic openings for the play's dissolute clowns are unexploited.
Much here, though, is staunch and by the book: The French court is foppish; the English military is brash and bold under their young ruler's anxious command.
Tufts completes this part of the Bard's "Wars of the Roses" cycle in graceful form. The actor is sturdy stuff, an articulate and appealingly sincere warrior in a tale well-told, a myth well-made.
"The White Snake": Chicago theater auteur Mary Zimmerman's enchanted retelling of a Chinese legend has ended its hit run at OSF, but merits comment.
Zimmerman is known to Seattle audiences for her inventive adaptations of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and Homer's "Odyssey," presented by Seattle Repertory Theatre some years back.
In just 90 minutes, this new piece deftly employed puppets, human actors, gorgeous lighting and scenic effects to uncoil the haunting tale of a supernatural snake's transformation into a woman — and the love she finds with a soul mate who comes to accept her in all her forms.
The elegant simplicity of "The White Snake," its emotional and mythic resonance, were rewarding approaches to the kind of folk-mythic storytelling OSF is avidly pursuing. Zimmerman has set a benchmark for future forays.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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