It's Not Quite Business as Usual At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The season has been marked by debate over a multicultural approach

THE Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 1994 season has been one of tradition and some turmoil.

There's the usual rich mix of Shakespeare, other stage classics, and more contemporary works among the 11 plays that have run in repertory in three theaters since mid-February. And the high quality of acting, directing, and staging that has developed over nearly 60 years of productions is much in evidence.

But some of the newer plays this year, as well as the treatment of some of well-known ones, has caused a lively debate in the local press and among some of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) faithful who wonder if artistic director Henry Woronicz has an agenda that stresses multiculturalism and experimentation.

Mr. Woronicz (a veteran actor and director who took over the top artistic post two years ago) has included Constance Congdon's ``Tales of the Lost Formicans,'' David Mamet's ``Oleanna,'' and Allan Cubitt's ``The Pool of Bethesda'' - three plays with disturbing themes, jarring images, and harsh language - as part of the '94 season.

And ``Hamlet'' (which Woronicz himself directed) has a set that some find disconcertingly incomplete, mixed-period costuming, and the casting of Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a male-female couple.

But ``Hamlet'' works very well. The seemingly half-finished set symbolizes a nation and family experiencing (as Woronicz put it at a press conference) ``time out of joint, unfinished business, uncertainty.'' And Richard Howard's performance as a frenetic Hamlet trying to make his way through overwhelming circumstances is first-rate.

OSF's production of ``Pool of Bethesda'' (which closed as scheduled in mid-July) was the American premiere of the British playwright's recent work about a physician's hallucinations and existential struggles as he faces death. It's an ambitious piece, and certainly relevant at a time when this country is wrestling with the subject of health care. But in the end it does not adequately address the philosophical and spiritual questions it poses.

CONTINUING in the 600-seat indoor theater through October are Lanford Wilson's ``Fifth of July,'' ``The Rehearsal'' by Jean Anouilh, and the Moss Hart-George S. Kauman collaboration, ``You Can't Take It With You.'' The Elizabethan stage features Shakespeare's ``The Tempest'' and ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' plus ``The Two Noble Kinsmen,'' Shakespeare's late play written with John Fletcher.

The latter is a rather tedious work made somewhat palatable in this instance only by the energetic performance of Corliss Preston as the jailer's daughter. At least it justifies the festival's claim to have performed the full Shakespeare canon over the years (some plays much more frequently than others).

But the other two Shakespeare classics presented on the outdoor stage are much better. Festival veteran Michael Kevin as Prospero in ``The Tempest'' is particularly effective.

In ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' the casting of two middle-aged actors (Paul Vincent O'Connor and Michele Farr) as a Benedict and Beatrice with considerable life experience makes this well-known play more interesting.

Woronicz is to be commended for opening up the festival to a greater variety of actors and directors. More women and people of color are directing. More plays with strong female parts are being selected. And there are more opportunities for actors of diverse racial and ethnic background to perform.

``The Colored Museum,'' George C. Wolfe's biting and poignant (and also very funny) satire on racial stereotypes has all African American actors. One of the most memorable performances this year is by B. W. Gonzalez, a young black actress also plays Ariel in ``The Tempest.''

``Our general policy is that unless race is a specific issue or challenge, we will look for opportunities [for alternative casting],'' Woronicz said earlier this season.

Under his leadership, the festival is also developing and will likely produce (in 1996) a play by Rita Dove, the United States poet laureate, titled ``The Darker Face of the Earth,'' an adaptation of the Greek tragedy ``Oedipus Rex.''

For all the fuss about any change in direction (which largely died down as the season progressed), one of the country's oldest and largest repertory theater organizations is still a place that draws an annual attendance of some 350,000 to a small town 300 miles from a major metropolitan area. And it still can pack houses for Kaufman and Hart's 1936 Pulitzer Prize winner about a heartwarming and eccentric family ``without slapping on a new interpretation,'' as director Peggy Shannon put it.

Henry Woronicz is just the third artistic director since OSF began in 1935. One of his challenges has been moving the festival and its loyal audience onto new theatrical ground. In large measure, he has been able to do this without breaking too much with tradition. In some ways, that's been as exciting to watch as the drama onstage.

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