Oregon's Tribute to the Bard

Retiring artistic director Jerry Turner has helped make the Shakespeare Festival one of the top regional theaters in the US

THE dramatic works presented this year by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival add up to a search for values and self-worth.Not every play will suit all tastes, and some productions are stronger than others. Audience members are apt to go away feeling as troubled as they are inspired, which can be worthwhile. But in total, the 10 plays in the 1991 season constitute a substantial and satisfying illustration of artistic director Jerry Turner's guiding belief that classic theater, as he told the company in a talk this spring, is "a renewable truth ... ephemeral and permanent, timely and timeless, mysterious and knowable," and th at "creativity is basically a moral act." In his 19 years as artistic director (which followed 15 years as an actor and director), Mr. Turner has been both a true believer in the classics and a risk taker who has helped make the Oregon Shakespeare Festival one of the most successful regional theaters in the United States. In addition to directing more than 40 productions here in Ashland, Turner has translated and adapted several works by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. He also has been an outspoken opponent of attempts to censor works of art. Last year the festival turned down a National Endowment for the Arts grant in protest of anti-obscenity restrictions placed on the agency by Congress. This season, the festival presents on its outdoor Elizabethan stage what is called "The First Part of Henry VI" (actually Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 1" plus about the first half of Part 2), as well as "Julius Caesar" and "The Taming of the Shrew." "Shrew" has in recent years been seen as one of the Bard's more difficult plays to perform. In an age of equal rights for women (at least in theory), how can an audience stand Petruchio's apparently abusive treatment of Kate and her ultimate submission to his will? But under Sandy McCallum's perceptive direction, Henry Woronicz and Cheryl Taub are an equal match - and not just in wit and energy. She helps him see that true love is more important than wealth; he helps her find her real worth beyond the fr ustrating limitations created by her father (played by Mr. McCallum) and her other suitors. Director Pat Patton has done a good job of combining (and in some cases rearranging) the first half of the "Henry VI" trilogy, which is one of Shakespeare's earlier and more difficult histories. Mr. Patton's depiction of court intrigue as the War of the Roses begins makes up for the fact that the king is a wimpy kid - unlike his heroic father, Henry V. "Julius Caesar," under Michael Kevin's direction, is an eerie and ominous play, heavy on ritual and graphic (although not gratuitous) bloodletting. The principal characters - Richard Elmore as Julius, Remi Sandri as Brutus, Matthew Davis as Cassius, and Patrick Page as Antony - are well cast and strong. Both "Julius Caesar" and "Henry VI" are about the crumbling of the old order of political dominance, illustrating that ends do not justify means (in "Julius") and that shaky political alliances ultimately fail (in "Henry"). Next door in the festival's Bowmer Theatre, the festival tackles another of Shakespeare's most troubling plays: "The Merchant of Venice." This production is set in modern times, and director Libby Appel's use of Jewish symbols and depiction of Shylock (less than wholly sympathetic in an excellent, yet disturbing, performance by Richard Elmore) has caused a local controversy among those who feel the anti-Semitism is too harsh. The irony is that Ms. Appel is Jewish. When her reading of the play is understo od, it makes sense. (See story at right.) Also at the Bowmer is Jerry Sterner's "Other People's Money," directed by Mr. Woronicz (a young festival actor and director just named to replace the retiring Turner as artistic director). This is a jarring work about the hostile corporate takeover of an obsolescent wire factory. If the play had been less well written or performed, it would be easy simply to boo the villain (corporate raider Lawrence Garfinkle) and cheer the heroine (hotshot Wall Street lawyer Kate Sullivan). At least until the surprise ending. But life and great literature are not that simple, and neither is this story of conflicting values. Playgoers here may also see George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara." Again, there is conflict between the seemingly clear-cut values of Barbara Undershaft (dedicated to saving souls as a major in the Salvation Army) and her father Andrew, a wealthy and amoral arms merchant. Can one make war on war? Thanks to Shaw and Turner's direction, the answers in the search for transcendent values are not easily found. In the festival's third theater, the 140-seat Black Swan, Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms" is about two hostages: an American teacher held prisoner in Beirut and his wife, who is urged to remain silent by the government. "Some Americans Abroad," by Richard Nelson, follows the faculty of a college English department maneuvering for advantage on a theater tour of England. During the festival's spring season, the Black Swan presented Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind," which director Cynthia White described as exp loring "the tenuous line between sanity and madness, between reality and fantasy." In its affirmation of what is eternal, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," in the Bowmer Theatre through October, may in the end provide answers to the questions raised by the other plays here this year: that modesty and love and a profound appreciation for what is at hand are what matter and endure. As director James Edmondson writes in the program notes, it is here on the spare stage, in "the musings of the Stage Manager and the dialogue of these complicated characters leading simple lives that we find the r eflection of our individual humanity and our place within eternity." This year in Ashland is marked by particularly strong performances by women. Cheryl Taub as Kate in "Shrew," Liisa Ivory as Portia in "Merchant," Robynn Rodriguez in the title role in "Major Barbara" and as the lawyer in "Other People's Money," Fredi Olster in "Woman in Mind," and Mimi Carr in "Our Town" and "Two Rooms."

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