Oregon Shakespeare Festival/50 years under the stars

On a summer evening in 1935, a feisty little college professor named Angus Bowmer led an earnest troupe of amateurs in a performance of Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.'' The outdoor stage was a makeshift replica of an Elizabethan theater, built by the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps within the ruined shell of a decrepit Chautauqua Circuit hall. The show was sponsored by the City of Ashland as part of its Fourth of July festival, and the actors struggled to compete with the clangor and bustle of a small-town celebration. The next evening, the same band of Shakespeare lovers performed ``The Merchant of Venice,'' with Bowmer playing Shylock. And on the night following, the Fourth itself, a final performance of ``Twelfth Night'' was all but destroyed when the city's fireworks display commenced early, sending skyrockets above the stage and thoroughly distracting the audience. In all, some 500 people saw the performances.

With comical bravado, born of self-mockery as much as prophecy, Bowmer and his troupe proclaimed themselves the ``First Annual Oregon Shakespearean Festival.''

On summer evenings in 1985, at the same site, highly professional performances of ``The Merchant of Venice'' are viewed by 1,173 playgoers at each performance, not counting those in the standing-room section. The figure can be stated with fair confidence, because outdoor renditions of the Bard by the 50-year-old Oregon Shakespearean Festival are almost invariably sold out. Performances in the festival's two indoor theaters frequently sell out, too. During its eight-month golden anniversary season, the company engendered by Angus Bowmer and his confederates will give 643 performances of 11 plays in three theaters to about 310,000 people, the second-largest theatrical audience in the nation.

Clearly, there is a major popular success to be celebrated with the festival's anniversary. The city has a good deal to celebrate as well: While the recent recession buffeted Oregon cruelly, Ashland was merely ruffled, thanks to the festival's $45 million annual contribution to the local economy.

But there is something beyond mere longevity -- remarkable though that is -- to be celebrated in Ashland this year, something that makes this anniversary an event for the American theater as a whole. It might be labeled ``tradition,'' an attribute in which the festival is rich, and in which so much of America's theater is sorely lacking. Still, tradition can be imprisoning if it becomes backward-facing obeisance to the past. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival has its ups and downs, its weaknesses alongside its strengths, but it certainly can't be accused of a stodgy antiquarianism -- it remains a vigorous, improving company, within which risks are undergone and new departures taken.

A homelier word best captures the gift bequeathed by Angus Bowmer and the hundreds of volunteers who labored to sustain the festival during its early decades: ``continuity.'' The festival has grown slowly and steadily, and is thus deeply rooted. This has enabled it to keep growing, even when the environment has turned chilly for theater. Broadway may be dormant and regional theaters around the United States narrowing in scope, but the Oregon Shakespearean Festival is blossoming in budget, audience, reputation (including a special Tony Award in 1983), and professional quality.

The festival owes its enduring strengths to a happy wedding of inspiration to geography. Ashland is very nearly the last place that conventional wisdom (of either 1935 or 1985) would choose as the location of a major regional theater. It is a small town -- the population today is just over 15,000 -- tucked into a valley of the Siskiyou Mountains, which form a rampart across the Oregon-California border. The nearest population centers are hundreds of miles away; until Shakespeare came along, the economy depended on a bit of agriculture, a bit of lumbering, and a small state teachers' college. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival exists in its present form because Angus Bowmer taught at that college and had the inspiration to devote a theater to Shakespeare. (At the time there were no Shakespearean festivals on the continent; dozens have since sprung up.) During its early history, the festival was all Shakespeare, and during the summers only. Despite the company's amateur status, audiences would travel long distances to see the Bard performed on a stage like Shakespeare's own. The present outdoor theater, the third to occupy the site, is an Elizabethan stage whose plans are the closest surviving parallel to Shakespeare's Globe.

The first foray outside Shakespeare's works was a 1960 production of John Webster's ``The Duchess of Malfi,'' and the company stuck closely to the Elizabethans until the opening of the indoor, 601-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre in 1970 gave the festival more room to maneuver and the ability to play during the colder months. The third theater, the Black Swan, a 140-seat studio space, opened in 1977 and became the venue for more venturesome work.

A professional theater plumped down overnight in a town like Ashland might have failed in 1935. But by growing slowly toward professional status over a period of decades, and by broadening its repertory only after cultivating a loyal following for Shakespeare, the festival created its own audience and conditions for survival.

Its remoteness forced the festival to adapt in ways that gave the company staying power. Since audiences come from Seattle and San Francisco, and since few people will travel 300 miles (the average festivalgoer's journey) to see a single play, the company was forced to play in true repertory. At the summer peak, as many as nine productions will be running concurrently, with most actors alternating among several roles. Even during the quieter spring and autumn seasons, four or five shows will be going. This kind of repertory theater, while familiar in Europe, is virtually unique in America. Watching a skilled acting corps handle a broad classical repertory, with a few contemporary pieces thrown in, is the richest of theatrical experiences.

Ashland's isolation also imposes another sort of continuity. Most theaters today assemble casts de novo for each new production. The festival, however, hires actors for a season. It is a company -- the largest in America, with as many as 60 performers in residence. There is continuity from show to show, and from year to year; although faces change each season, a solid core group is held over. The actors who leave often return again a few seasons later. As a result, the festival has a strong sense of identity, to which audiences respond.

The breadth and quality of the current repertory (see accompanying story) are a tribute to Angus Bowmer and the collaborating multitudes whose labors 50 years ago gave birth to an American institution. Their vision is to be celebrated, but no more so than their patience and persistence. It is the slow nurturing of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, and its continuity, that have made the present flowering possible.

One of the advantages conferred upon the Oregon Shakespearean Festival by the repertory system is that seasons can often be greater than the sum of their individual productions. This is the case with the 50th anniversary season. All of the Shakespearean pieces offered on the outdoor stage are admirable in themselves, but seen during a single visit they add up to something more, a sense not only of Shakespeare's ever-astonishing scope, but of the wide latitude this scope allows his modern interpreters. Here are capsule reviews of the three outdoor shows. Wayne Ballantyne Merchant of Venice: Wayne Ballantyne, as Shylock, finds an essential and very recognizable humanity to stress in Shakespeare. Anything but a melodramatic villain, Ballantyne's almost understated Shylock is a harried and oppressed Jew whose claim that he has learned revenge from his Christian tormentors is painfully plausible. Director Albert Takazauckas has taken a classically simple approach to the play, one stressing clarity and contemplation of the underlying issues. Barry Kraft All's Well That Ends Well: By contrast, this play, under Tony Amendola's staging, is stylized, modern in spirit, and highly conceptual. Shakespeare's heroine and hero are both ambiguous figures. Helena uses her skill to cure a king of a wasting disease, demands as a reward the reluctant hand of her beloved, Bertram, and spends the rest of the play winning him back when he rather understandably deserts her.

Amendola and his principals, Elizabeth Ury and Wesley Grant Bishop, do good work in creating central characters who are neither unsympathetic nor falsely romantic. Some first-rate supporting work keeps the audience laughing (this is, after all, a comedy) without undermining the ultimately serious tone. James Edmondson The Life and Death of King John: This illustrates what the Festival does best: refurbishing dated classics. This rarely performed work is Shakespeare at his least inspired, but director Pat Patton and a uniformly strong cast do heroic work in pummeling the play into life through sheer conviction. John David Castellanos gives a splendid, multifaceted performance as the mercurial Philip the Bastard, and James Edmondson keeps us intrigued with King John's dubious character. Meanwhile, inside . . . The indoor shows also display the festival's diversity. Shows offered in the Angus Bowmer Theatre range from Beth Henley's recent ``Crimes of the Heart,'' to Moss Hart's sendup of backstage life, ``Light Up the Sky,'' to Ibsen's ``An Enemy of the People.''

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