The Oregon Shakespearean Festival; Treasure -- trove of theater in an Oregon mountain town

The Oregon Shakespearean Festival can claim to be more thoroughly a repertory company in some ways than any other in the United States. The festival has an almost show-offy habit of opening four or five productions in the course of a weekend when it first kicks off its season in February. These are followed by a couple of solitary openings during the spring , to keep the pot boiling as it were, and then another round of opening when the outdoor, Elizabethan-replica theater opens for the summer in late June.

The festival continues until the end of October, and once it is in full stride, as many as eight shows can compete for attention on three stages. At these times the constant infusions of theater magic reach a kind of critical mass, and the very air of this picturesque mountain resort town seems to take on a sweet, other-worldly quality, as though the veil that divides the poetry of theater from the mundanity of 20th-century life were trembling dangerously.

The sheer profusion dazzles, but there is more to the Oregon festival's bounty than excess of blithe spirits. Year in and year out, the strongest feature of the continent's oldest Shakespearean festival has been the strength of its seasons, taken as a whole. Whatever the ups and downs of individual productions, the festival's guiding hands have managed to put together seasons which are satisfying in range and balance -- and acting companies to match, for the most part.

There is another benefit to the synergistic effect created by the festival's ambitious seasons -- it allows the festival to take more risks than would otherwise be possible for a theater which frankly relies on cultural tourism for its audiences. There are enough classicist productions of the Bard on the outdoor stage and enough springtly comedies indoors to keep the most middle-brow vacationer happy, and yet enough challenging interpretations of contemporary material or unearthings of obscure relics to keep even a jaded theater-lover intrigued.

The current season, now in full swing, is a case in point. As a broad generalization, this isn't one of the festival's impressive years, being marred by a couple of disappointingly turgid Shakespearean productions. Yet there is more than enough happening of real interest to surfeit any palate.

Actually, the sprightliest and most crowd-pleasing of this season's crop of comedies is the result of a risk successfully undertaken. The Oregon company can't take credit for rediscovering "Wild Oats," a long-forgotten, deliriously life-loving romp by the neglected John O'Keeffe -- that honor goes to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which gave O'Keeffe's 1791 farce its first modern staging in 1976. It has since been done by a couple of other companies on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is still unknown enough and unusual enough to constitute a question mark in planning a season.

Questions disappear rapidly once Jerry Turnerhs production gets rolling, however. "Wild Oats" proves to be one of the most lovable plays ever penned. The plot, contorted to the joint of self-parody, is a jumble of tricks from the 18th-century bag: mistaken identities, long-long siblings, children and whatnot, aristocrats masquerading as commoners and vice-versa, impossible coincidences.

And yet these riotous events are observed with a serenely benign eye. The characters, while caricatured for the most part in the manner of farce, reveal a kindly and optimistic view of human nature which is not at all typical of that genre. Aside from a couple of none-too-fearsome villains, one representing greed and the other priggishness, everyone in "Wild Oats" means well, even while they work at uproarious cross-purposes.

Even more remarkable is the play's surprising air of modernity. The central character, played with the perfect blend of hamminess and sweet sincerity by Denis Arndt, is an itinerant actor, most of whose conversation consists of fractured quotes from Shakespeare and other worthies. There is a play-within-the-play, various characters are confused with each other, the audience is dragged in through a series of progressively more outrageous asides, and in all, the play has the kind of self-reverential quality so characteristic of the modern theater. Much of its spirit is closer to Tom Stoppard than to the comedy of sentiment popular during O'Keeffe's era.

It is impossible to tell where O'Keeffe's wit leaves off and Jerry Turner's witty staging begins, which is a tribute to Turner and his actors. From a large and uniformly excellent cast, one might single out Richard Riehle's bellowing sea captain, Traber Burns's wry saltiness as the captain's bosun and sidekick, and Stuart Duckworth's mincing aristocrat-turned-thespian. Richard Hay's painted backdrops are just right, Jeannie Davidson's costumes no less so, and the festival's "Wild Oats" as a whole is as thoroughly delightful a piece of theater as you are likely to find on any stage.

Turner, who is also the festival's artistic director, has another success of a very different sort as a stage director with his version of that classic though very pathetic hit of Jacobean bloodletting, John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore." Ford's ill-plotted melange of incest, lust, intrigue, revenge, and religious neurosis has very little in it that speaks directly to the modern world. The value of this production is, frankly, educational -- a visit to the Jacobean world, so close and yet so far removed from Shakespeare's, gives us new insight into the development of drama, although we certainly wouldn't want to spend much of our theater-going lives there.

Happily, Turner elects to give us a genuine education. Rather than attempt to mute the more dated aspects and lend Ford's play a false modernity, he gives the period's excesses full sway -- "Melancholy John Ford" would have loved the production. A modern audience cannot help but be amused rather than moved at some points, but Turner's staging is effective enough to keep our interest riveted. Thanks to Robert Peterson's lighting effects and a series of suggestive abstract projections by Peterson and scenic designer William Bloodgood (who also did the scaffold-like set), this is quite literally a lurid production.

The outdoor Shakespearean productions are the Oregon festival's greatest drawing card and usually its strongest suit, but the offerings this year are somewhat disappointing. The best of the lot is Pat Patton's blithe and bouncy staging of "Twelfth Night," featuring Linda Alper's sweetly affecting Viola, Joan Stuart-,orris's broadly effective Olivia, and some spirited fooling led by Wayne Ballantyne as Sir Toby Belch.

James Edmondson's "Henry IV, Part One" has its moments, but seems like a steady but directionless march through history. The production isn't helped by Dennis Smith's pleasant but bland Prince Hall and Barry Kraft's fiery but puzzling interpretation of Harry Hotspur. With "Two Gentlemen of Verona," not one of Shakespeare's funnier comedies to begin with, director David Ostwald tries for a formal, almost dreamlike quality, but only winds up with characters that seem to be sleepwalking.

The festivalgoer's choices don't stop there. In the Black Swan, the smaller, experimental theater, the adventurous visitor can attend Andrew Traister's smoothly crafted version of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," as clear as a prism and just as refractory, focusing on Bill Geisslinger's marvelously seedy Stanley, whose unbirthday it is. The same space also holds a gentle, likeable staging by Joy Carlin of Joanna Glass's new comedy "Artichoke," which has become something of a regional hit at theaters around the country.

The current season is rounded out by a solid, traditional staging of "Death of a Salesman" as well as productions of "Othello" and a grimly funny look at the effects of apartheid by a trio of South Africans, "The Island."

It is a season well-nigh astonishing in its variety and varied effects, acted by a strong and quite professional company. some individual productions may fall short of excellence, but the Oregon Shakespearean Festival consistently offers something special -- the chance to watch a true repertory company in action

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