Ashland, Ore. — The seasons of a great many regional theaters suffer from shapelessness. Annual selections are frequently a melange, dictated by the inspirations, whims, and commercial anxieties of the reigning artistic director.
But some regional theaters have survived through identification with a clear sense of purpose - for example, the classicism of Seattle's Intiman, the devotion at the Actors Theatre of Louisville to new work, and the consistent experimentalism of San Francisco's Magic Theatre.
Some 35 companies around the United States define themselves in terms of William Shakespeare's body of work. Many are summer ''festivals,'' although some produce full seasons including work by other playwrights. Shakespeare's 36 or 37 known plays (depending on how you count) are commodious turf for a company with the depth, breadth, and adventurousness to exploit the Bard's variety. In recent years, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival has been showing just how much can be done within the confines of ''by William Shakespeare.'' The festival, which generally runs 11 or 12 productions in repertory during an eight-month season, is far from limited to Shakespeare. This year's offerings are wide-ranging: Although the outdoor season has finished, the indoor repertory runs through the end of October and includes Tennessee Williams's ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' Noel Coward's ''Hay Fever,'' Cyril Tourneur's ''The Revenger's Tragedy,'' Don Nigro's ''Seascape With Sharks and Dancer,'' and Dion Boucicault's ''London Assurance.''
But Shakespeare is home ground, and this year included ''The Taming of the Shrew,'' ''A Winter's Tale,'' and ''Henry VIII'' at the outdoor Elizabethan replica.
''Shrew'' - which was part of the outdoor festival - is leaving for a six-week, 36-performance tour of California, including two weeks (Dec. 4-16) at Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco.
Pat Patton's staging of ''Shrew'' is highly conventional in one sense - it begins at the beginning and concludes at the end. In all other senses, it is an idiosyncratic business.
''Shrew'' has been produced very nervously since feminist sensitivities sharpened. Most directors do everything they can to mute the theme of male domination, or signal to the audience that they don't share Shakespeare's sexism. Not Patton. He chooses instead to turn the play into a roaring, madcap burlesque. By the time we reach the ''taming'' of the contentious Katherina, it seems to be nothing more than grotesque but hilarious nonsense. Patton transforms the play for modern audiences through a kind of inspired frivolity.
As those epically battling lovers, Petruchio and Katherina, Patton has cast long-tenured Oregon Festival veterans Joe Vincent and Joan Stuart-Morris, and he has worked wonders with them. Each is a strong, talented performer, but both tend to be a bit mannered and stagy. Patton yanks them out of their habits and forces them into a wildly, even brutally physical style. They respond with the best performances of their Ashland careers. The entire cast gets into the spirit of enthusiastic fooling. Douglas Markkanen, in particular, swipes scenes right and left as Petruchio's manic servant, Grumio. Also notable are Gregg Loughridge as the young swain in pursuit of Katherina's sweeter sister, Bianca (played here as a shallow simperer by Susan Wands), William Keeler and Jack Cantwell as two older and (of course) unsuccessful suitors, and Tobias Andersen as the exasperated father of the two wenches. Michael Olich's costumes put on performances of their own; in any other production these outrageous fripperies would be too much, but Patton's approach is broad enough to accommodate them.
The other two Shakespearean productions were not only satisfying, but also intriguing. The shows running in the festival's outdoor Elizabethan replica (one of its three stages) established very different tones with very different material, yet all were almost equally strong. Part of the spectacle at Ashland was watching the company stretch itself in different directions to meet Shakespeare's demands and the directors' conceptions.
''Shrew'' is early Shakespeare, full of youthful vigor and confidence. ''Henry VIII'' is Shakespeare's last work, embodying a mellow if somewhat gloomy view of events which an angrier young man might have portrayed as horrific. It is long, hours long; audiences should come fortified with patience. James Edmondson's staging brought striking clarity and forcefulness to bear on the play's high points, while plodding more than a bit in between. Fortunately, Edmondson had the actors bring out the best in the script.
''A Winter's Tale'' is trickiest for the actor playing the madly jealous King Leontes, who waxes desperate and wrathful within a few moments of the commencement and precipitates a full-scale tragedy before half the play is done, but who then turns around and opens the way for the nearly miraculous healing and reconciliation that occupy the later acts. Barry Kraft kept a sure grip on the character - and the cast as a whole also keeps a balance, with strongly etched characterizations throughout, but none that interfered with the production's sweep toward the transcendent resolution. Hugh Evans's production had a most satisfying pace and sense of pageantry.