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.
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.
The result is Shakespeare at his most moving and inspiring, with plenty of resonance for today: The legal justification for Henry's invasion of France in 1415 was about as dubious as the one for the US invasion of Panama; the soldiers' heartbreaking discussion of the horrors and responsibility for war the night before Agincourt could have been written on the eve of the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Henry's developing leadership, his relationship with his men, and his humble appeals to God are refreshingly true to the text, and the production is altogether satisfying in a time that seems bereft of true leaders.
Two other productions are of particular note.
``Peer Gynt,'' translated from the Norwegian, adapted, and directed by artistic director Turner, features a heroic performance by Henry Woronicz in the title role. Mr. Turner has cut the Ibsen original by about one-third, leaving it still at a hefty three-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions. What remains is a rich, fantastical journey into the dark Nordic soul.
Somber and chilling in its immediacy is the festival version of ``God's Country,'' a disturbing drama about the white supremacist group The Order. Based in the Pacific Northwest, the violent underground organization in 1984 murdered Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in Denver as part of its avowed resistance to the ``Zionist Occupational Government.''
Mr. Dietz's docudrama-style script and Remi Sandri's riveting performance as Order founder Robert Jay Mathews and also as a skinhead are all the more compelling (some might say frightening) thanks to director Michael Kevin's care not to allow the murderous neo-Nazis to become caricatures. One is left with the discomforting realization that prejudice may be close at hand, as close as one's own passive acceptance of it.
Each performance of ``God's Country'' is followed by a group discussion between actors and audience. For a theater organization accustomed to sell-out crowds primed for enjoyment, such an uncomfortable theme is a bit of a departure.
So too was the recent decision by the festival's board to reject a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts on the grounds that recent NEA restrictions (pushed through Congress by Sen. Jesse Helms and other conservatives) undermine ``full freedom of speech and expression.''
With its expansion to Portland in 1987, the festival is now the largest not-for-profit theater organization in the United States on several counts: number of actors, size of repertory, number of performances, and seasonal attendance, which is up to more than 400,000.
And yet the festival continues to maintain an extraordinarily personal relationship with playgoers, most of whom travel hundreds of miles to see several plays. Nearly every day in the summer, festivalgoers can participate in lectures by directors and drama professors, informal park talks by actors and other professionals, backstage tours, and performances by festival musicians. The Elizabethan stage sits where a Chautauqua hall once stood, and a ``Festival Noons'' series continue the Chautauqua tradition of immersion into culture and ideas. And, when they're not on stage, 10 teams of actors visit nearly 300 schools in eight western states.
``Every time I come back, I'm amazed at how human it still is,'' says ``Henry V'' director Edmondson, who also plays Camillo in ``The Winter's Tale.'' ``For doing theater - for the sheer joy of acting - this is one of the best places you can work.''
One of the best places you can visit, too. The festival season continues through October.