Ashland, Ore. — For the first 35 years of its existence, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival rose or fell with the Bard. The company built the first Elizabethan stage in the New World, and rediscovered the kind of theater that Shakespeare had written for: clean-lined, uncluttered, fluid, classically direct. The festival was sustained for decades by loyal audiences willing to travel hundreds of miles to see the entire Shakespearean cycle, from ``Hamlet'' to ``Titus Andronicus,'' performed in this manner.
Thanks largely to the loyalty of those audiences, the Oregon company has launched its 50th anniversary season, making it the third oldest regional theater in the country. But the festival's reputation is no longer linked so inextricably to Shakespeare. Since opening two modern theaters during the '70s, the festival has ranged far more widely, from obscure Jacobian tragedy to the verge of the avant-garde.
Season after season, what has been most impressive about the Oregon Sheakespearean Festival in recent years is the breadth and balance of its repertory.
The initial round of five plays in this Golden Anniversary year typifies the new rather than the old festival. Shakespeare has an honored place, but not a dominant one. The repertory shows off a mature, wonderfully versatile company capable of moving deftly from Elizabethan tragedy to Victorian farce to modern naturalism.
``King Lear'' is intriguing, fitfully exciting, yet also a bit of a disappointment, although it features one of the better Shakespearean actors around in Denis Arndt, under the steady directorial hand of Jerry Turner.
The failings of this ``Lear'' are those of emotion, not of skill. Denis Arndt is a master of Shakespearean language and the raw stage presence needed to bring off a major tragic role. He is fully in command here, finding just the nuance he wants for each moment, alternating between roars and whispers. He's too good, in a sense; there is a cool intelligence about his interpretation that tends to quench the king's fire.
Something similar might be said for the production as a whole. Turner's ``Lear'' seems made up of well-conceived pieces, artfully assembled but curiously unmoving. Individually, some of the pieces sparkle. The subplot involving the loyal Duke of Gloucester, for instance, encompasses a sympathetic portrayal of the old duke by William McKereghan, strong support by Douglas Markkanen as his honest son Edgard, and a delicious, rather attractive portrait of perfidy by John David Castellanos as the bastard Edmund.
Elsewhere in the cast, some performances are sharper than others, but on the whole one is conscious of a well-disciplined company moving through its stately paces. Turner has staged a conscientious production needing the spark of inspiration to fuse it together.
``Lear'' is the beginning, not the end, of the festival's pleasure this year. There will eventually be 11 productions on the Ashland boards in 1985. Shakespeare is joined in the early season repertory by a brace of delectable comedies about the art of making serious theater. Pat Patton directs a uniformly marvelous cast in a dizzy version of ``Light Up the Sky,'' Moss Hart's 1948 farce about the backstage backbiting during the out-of-town tryout of a deadly serious play.
Of perhaps more enduring interest, at least to theater devotees, is James Edmondson's gently satirical version of Arthur Wing Pinero's Victorian classic, ``Trelawny of the `Wells.' '' Writing in the 1890s, Pinero was taking a fond look backward at the birth of what was then considered ``realistic'' theater a generation earlier. Edmondson and cast manage a satisfying period atmosphere that comments on the play's periods: the 1860s and 1890s.
``Trelawny'' typifies the best of the Oregon festival's work; it restores to life a play that is both funny in its own right and instructive to playgoers with a taste for theatrical history.
To balance the Victorian ``realism'' (which seems highly mannered today), the festival's winter season also includes a riveting example of the intensely visceral naturalism of much contemporary theater. Steve Metcalfe's ``Strange Snow,'' concerning a Vietnam veteran's struggle to help a troubled friend overcome the psychological ravages of that war, has its limits as a script. While generally believable and often funny, it is long on encounter-session truth-blurting and short on insight.
But it is undeniably an actor's vehicle, and director Andrew Traister makes the most of it with a trio of sterling performers. Bill Geisslinger as the protagonist, Richard Elmore as the bitter, antagonistic friend, and Jeanne Paulsen as the friend's lonely sister provide textbook studies in theatrical verisimilitude.
The most recent addition to the repertory is the first fully professional production of Mark Medoff's ``The Majestic Kind.'' Medoff (``Children of A Lesser God'') is a sentimental writer, and the emotional center of his new work is schmaltzy psycho-babble. However, Medoff coaxes a good deal of orginal humor from the paradoxes of the new West before delivering his turgid message -- something about finding yourself which doesn't bear repeating -- so ``The Majestic Kind'' succeeds as a lightweight entertainment.
``Strange Snow'' runs only until June 16; the other productions will be around until the autumn, although ``Light Up the Sky'' takes a break April 21 to June 14.