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Shakespeare As You Like It

Oregon festival offers four of Bard's plays plus challenging contemporary fare

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 1990


THIS year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is presenting a meaty mix of plays ranging from hilarious spectacle to powerful history, dark farce, fantasy, and a gut-wrenching tale ripped from yesterday's headlines. As in recent seasons, the quality of production and performance at the festival - one of the few classical repertory theaters in America - continues to get better and better. Part of this is due to knowhow - 55 years of presenting Shakespeare in rich, full, and largely traditional productions on the outdoor Elizabethan stage.

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In the past 20 years, however, a newer tradition has also developed in the festival's two indoor theaters here and in its newest theater, located 300 miles north in Portland. On these stages, the festival explores a wide range of classical and modern theater, while building and nurturing a solid company of professional actors and directors (nearly 90 in all). And increasingly the OSF seems willing to challenge a remarkably faithful and sometimes proprietary audience.

``If one made a list of the plays in repertory of the past decade, it would dramatically demonstrate that the festival is clearly in the first rank of American theaters, in terms of ambition,'' asserts artistic director Jerry Turner. ``Not every production succeeds on a consistent level, of course, nor do all our audiences agree on directions taken or concepts ventured. But in terms of sheer energy, at least, the festival's record is impressive.''

Certainly that observation applies to the 1990 offerings. The Shakespearean productions presented at the 1,200-seat Elizabethan outdoor theater include ``The Comedy of Errors,'' ``Henry V,'' and ``The Winter's Tale.''

At the 600-seat, indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre (named for the festival founder), audiences can see Shakespeare's ``The Merry Wives of Windsor,'' Henrik Ibsen's ``Peer Gynt,'' John Guare's ``The House of Blue Leaves,'' Irish playwright Brian Friel's ``Aristocrats'' (opening July 28), and ``God's Country'' by Steven Dietz.

In the intimate 140-seat Black Swan theater are S.N. Behrman's ``The Second Man'' and Mark Stein's ``At Long Last Leo.'' (``The Voice of the Prairie,'' John Olive's nostalgic romance about storytelling and the early days of radio, closed a couple of weeks ago after a four-month run at the Black Swan.)

The Shakespeare here this year is first-rate. The raucous, bawdy ``Comedy'' is played for maximum laughs, as the Bard's two sets of long-lost twins bungle their way to reunion. ``Merry Wives'' - with Sir John Falstaff wooing two women who turn the tables on the dissolute and scheming old knight - is set in 1920s Britain, an update which makes sense in the context of a nation looking for fun and women looking for respect after a particularly hideous war.

``Winter's Tale,'' Shakespeare's late exploration of raging jealousy, romance, repentance, and rebirth, is meant to transcend reality and is one of the tougher plays in the canon for audiences to appreciate. But the Ashland production works well, thanks mainly to strong performances by festival veterans Rex Rabold as the troubled king Leontes and Mimi Carr as the shaman/storyteller Paulina. Newcomer Patrick Page steals the lighter portions of the show as the trickster Autolycus.

The season's finest production, however, is ``Henry V,'' well-known this year because of Irish actor-director Kenneth Branagh's recent film version. A lesser director might have been intimidated by Branagh's approach, but James Edmondson - a top-ranking West Coast director and stage actor - confidently plays to the strength of Shakespeare's words and story, with the help of the extraordinarily fine cast he has drawn from the festival company, particularly Marco Barricelli as the young king.