Ashland's `feel' for what will play. For Elizabethan buffs, though, the Oregon troupe is staging a 1599 comedy
Ashland, Ore. — The three most-produced playwrights on the American stage during the past year have been William Shakespeare, Sam Shepard, and Athol Fugard. All three - an Elizabethan, an avant-garde American, and a reformist South African - are represented this summer on the Oregon Shakespearean Festival's three stages, along with other such proven crowd-pleasers as Oliver Goldsmith, Brendan Behan, and Alan Ayckbourn.
This says something about the festival's sense of the modern audience: You don't get to be the nation's largest repertory company, with the second largest audience, without a realistic notion of what plays well (and has done so, these past several centuries). It also helps that the Oregon company handles Shepard's jagged rhythms and bitter anger as skillfully as it does Shakespeare's flourishes and sober musings.
And yet, for habitual theatergoers, the most interesting play may be the one by the least-known playwright, Thomas Dekker, a Shakespeare contemporary.
The festival usually performs three of the Bard's works in repertory on its outdoor Elizabethan stage, but this year an exception was made for Dekker's 1599 comedy, ``The Shoemaker's Holiday.'' The choice exhibits a kind of antiquarian daring: not that Dekker is obscure or challenging, but that he is simply such an ordinary Elizabethan. It is easy to forget how truly Ben Jonson spoke in calling Shakespeare ``not of an age, but for all time.''
``Holiday'' gives us a fascinating glimpse of what late-16th-century Londoners were exposed to most of the time - often witless, overblown stuff.
Director Jerry Turner and his actors provide a thoroughly Elizabethan experience: an uninspired, cobbled-together script, whose plot periodically takes a holiday of its own, but one that can be rescued by a talented troupe through madcap physical gyrations and sheer manic energy.
The story involves a nobleman masquerading as a shoemaker to pursue his love. There are many ludicrous complications, but universal happiness at the end. Like most Elizabethans, Dekker created situation comedy of the purest sort - he devised ridiculous situations and left it up to the actors to make them funny. For the most part, the festival actors are up to the job, although the show does have its tedious stretches.
As the young swain, Dante DiLoreto has a fine time gabbling pidgin-German (the hero, for no particular reason, disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker) and looks laughably overmatched in the clinches with his unabashedly amorous love (Sheryl Taub).
William McKereghan is in wonderful voice as the owner of the shoe shop, bellowing jocose insults at his wife (an equally stentorian Caren Graham) and gurgling with pleasure when nonsensical plot developments make him Lord Mayor of London. Douglas Markkanen embraces the role of Fife, a low-comedy lead with nary a funny line, and earns his laughs the old-fashioned way, by twitching, sputtering, and jumping up and down. Claudia Everett's costumes get into the act, featuring a color scheme that is attention-getting if not always in the best of modern taste.
Novice playgoers with little knowledge of Shakespeare would be best advised to skip this brawling frolic and head for the Bard. But for those who have seen ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and ``Macbeth'' too many times, Dekker's play is a holiday in more ways than one - an interlude so quintessentially and grossly Elizabethan as to represent a species of time-travel.
The festival's two other outdoor productions are polished, if not fully satisfying. Pat Patton's version of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' features a marvelously braying Bottom in Barry Kraft, some splendid mugging by Michelle Morain as the much abused Helena (along with appealing work by Chiron Alston, Jeffrey Nordling, and Katherine Heasley as the other three confused young lovers), and a thoroughly magical set and lighting concept by Jesse Hollis and Robert Peterson.
Matters are a bit more unsettled in the fairy kingdom. Henry Woronicz makes a sweetly fey Puck, but Sheryl Taub's Titania brays awfully boisterously even when not enamored of the ass, and while Derrick Lee Weeden is riveting in his best moments as Oberon, he needs to learn the difference between a gesture and a mannerism.
James Edmondson's production of ``Macbeth'' is oddly but interestingly focused, in part by design and in part by default. Michael Kevin makes a strong but rather stolid Macbeth, and Demetra Pittman's Lady Macbeth embraces evil with giddy enthusiasm. There is no reflection here, no soul-searching, just a straightforward march to destruction.
This throws all the question of motive on the three weird sisters who prophesy Macbeth's kingship. Played by Linda Alper, Ursula Meyer, and Terri McMahon, they are clearly witches in the service of darker powers in this version.
While the rest of the production has been designed with Prussian severity by costumer Deborah Dryden and set designer William Bloodgood, the witches are given some extraordinary paraphernalia with which to entice the gullible Macbeth to his doom.
Edmondson had the innovative notion to combine the roles of Seyton (despite the phonetically intriguing name, a minor attendant of Macbeth's in the original), the drunken porter, and Hecate, the witches' master spirit, in one figure, played with sinister insouciance by Dan Kremer. We thus have Seyton - Beelzebub himself - at Macbeth's elbow throughout, orchestrating his downfall.
Those less inclined toward Elizabethiana or the night air will find a good deal to choose from in the concurrent indoor season, including Goldsmith's ``She Stoops to Conquer,'' Behan's ``The Hostage,'' Fugard's ``Master Harold and the Boys,'' Ayckbourn's ``Taking Steps,'' and Shakespeare's ``Richard II.''
The most compelling work in the repertory is Andrew Traister's fiercely funny version of Sam Shepard's ``Curse of the Starving Class.''
One of the great pleasures of repertory theater is watching actors shift styles when working in radically different plays. Here an excellent cast makes a smooth shift from exploiting the ancient muse to exploring Shepard's mordant vision of an America in which families are ripped asunder and torn from the land by a society of all-pervading fraudulence. Dan Kremer, as the drunken paterfamilias, and Caren Graham, as the disgusted wife making a fumbling effort at escape, are full of grim comic pathos, while Bill Geisslinger, fresh from a forceful Macduff, makes a thoroughly believable sleazy lawyer.
Other good performances are in evidence, perhaps the most affecting being Kimberly Patton's as the screechy but shrewd teen-ager whose terminal exasperation with her family's illusions and the world's deceits leads her to plan a life of crime.
The stretch between Thomas Dekker's antic nonsense and Sam Shepard's deadly earnest attack on modern corruption is a long one, but making the stretch keeps a company fresh and a season both profound and lively.
The outdoor plays run through the first weekend in October; the indoor season continues through Oct. 31.