The Bard of Avon in Ashland

The Oregon Shakespeare festival adds fresh touches to the master dramatist's plays

THE Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), one of the oldest and most successful regional theater organizations in the United States, brings several fresh elements to its 1992 season.

It has a new, young artistic director (only the third since the theater's founding in 1935) who has put together a team of guest directors and resident management staff that prominently features women. Together, they have produced a rich mix of 11 plays in repertory on three stages that include some risky as well as rewarding elements.

The festival also has a redesigned Elizabethean theater that blends tradition with modern acoustic and lighting technology in a way that successfully serves both audience and actors - and in the process allows the depth and richness of William Shakespeare's language to match the spectacle of enhanced visual performance.

The festival's new artistic director is Henry Woronicz, who has both acted and directed here over the past eight seasons. Still in his 30s, Mr. Woronicz also has considerable experience with other theater organizations around the country, including directing and acting in more than 30 productions with the Boston Shakespeare Company.

When you take over a performing arts organization that already is playing to packed houses, how can you expect to improve it and make your mark?

"I guess if I have an agenda, it revolves around deepening things," Woronicz said in meeting with reporters early in his first season running the artistic side of OSF. This means offering more works that may be considered challenging if not controversial to an audience of playgoers he describes as "very demanding and discerning," recruiting women directors, "diversifying the acting pool" to include more minority actors, and setting aside some of his budget to commission new plays.

Woronicz was also a key force in convincing the festival's board of directors several years ago to revamp the outdoor Elizabethan theater, which still includes the original walls of a 1893 Chautauqua.

Over the years, street noise from a growing tourist town had made it increasingly difficult for actors to project in a 1,200-seat open theater. Studies showed that one-third of the audience was hearing only half the words, and as OSF executive director William Patton said, "With Shakespeare especially you can't rely on spectacle." Yet the board was reluctant to change a good thing since the seats were virtually filled anyway.

The convincing argument was made by Woronicz, who predicted that it would be harder and harder for the festival to attract top-notch actors to perform on a stage with miserable acoustics.

The new $7.6 million pavilion goes a long way toward solving those problems. About a fourth of the seats are now in a balcony that forms a semi-enclosed theater that is acoustically "tuned." The Elizabethan stage looks much the same, but is several feet deeper. This, together with "vomitories" (stage entrance ramps from beneath the audience) give much greater staging flexibility. Vastly increased lighting and sound equipment add much to the quality of production.

"What's so terrific about this new space is that actors and audiences now occupy the same room," says Kimberly Jean Barry, stage manager for this year's production of "Othello." "There's an intimacy with the audience that is unusual for a theater that seats 1,200 people."

That this is still an open-air theater was proved opening night for "As You Like It" when a drenching thunderstorm drove audience and actors to drier shelter. (This is a very unusual occurrence during the hot, dry summer months here in southern Oregon.)

Along with "As You Like It" and "Othello" on the Elizabethan stage this year there is what is being called "The Conclusion of Henry VI." Veteran OSF director Pat Patton has edited and rearranged Shakespeare's three parts about the War of the Roses into two, the first of which was performed last year. Mr. Patton has done a masterful job of presenting what could be merely a confusing tale of treachery, butchery, and shifting loyalties.

There are strong performances throughout, particularly from Rick Hamilton as Richard, Duke of York; Michelle Morain as the wimpy King Henry's strong warrior Queen Margaret; and Michael Hume as the Duke of York's son who will become Richard III, one of Shakespeare's most fascinating characters. One hopes Mr. Hume will get the title role next year as the saga continues.

Ironically, "Othello" is the least successful outdoor play this year.

Director Jerry Turner says (in program notes) that the play "has very little to do with race or color except to provide a tiny chink of vulnerability in the all-sufficient reputation of the hero."

A more accurate description, I believe, comes from Alan Armstrong, director of the Center for Shakespeare Studies here in Ashland. "This is a play that's radically concerned with race and radically concerned with gender," he said at a recent seminar for playgoers. "Shakespeare is very deliberately exploring these issues. They're not ornamentation here." The question remains: Was Shakespeare supporting or subverting Elizabethan mores, which today could be described as racist and sexist?

LeWan Alexander and Emilie Talbot do quite credible jobs as Othello and Desdemona. Mark Murphey, unfortunately, is more conniving than evil as Iago. But in the end it may be that "Othello" is just too intimate - as Mr. Turner says, most of it takes place in a room with just two or three people - to be presented in this large a space.

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's two other theaters there's a full and fine variety of stories and messages.

The 140-seat Black Swan has Max Frisch's "The Firebugs," directed by Barbara Damashek (whose credits include co-authoring "Quilters"). Mr. Frisch is a Swiss playwright troubled by his country's complacency during Hitler's rise to power and the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. The fable concerns two menacing arsonists who wheedle and threaten their way into the home of a smug and morally obtuse bourgeois businessman. Paul Vincent O'Connor as "Schmitz," a slob of a wrestler and one of the "firebugs," is particularly effective.

Also in the Black Swan is Romulus Linney's "Heathen Valley." This is a powerful tale (based on a historical incident) of a bishop who tries to bring religion to the people of an Appalachian Mountain community where violence, incest, and superstition are the norm.

Although the ending is grim, one is left remembering the strength and love of the valley's reluctant deacon who for a time at least saw things as they should be and helped others see it as well. The part is masterfully played by Douglas Markkanen. Beyond this the play poignantly asks if God exists merely as a theological abstraction, as the bishop represents, or can religion successfully integrate the divine with the human?

In the 600-seat Bowmer Theater (named for festival founder Angus Bowmer) Fontaine Syer directs John Millington Synge's "Playboy of the Western World." Ms. Syer recently was named festival associate director, which means that she will assist Woronicz in selecting and casting plays.

"Playboy" is a difficult play. Synge's treatment of the Irish peasantry caused riots at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin when it opened in 1907. Synge himself may have had trouble with the balance between comedy and tragedy; after he died (at age 37) several versions of an ending were found in his papers. For my taste, Syer plays it too comedic. Drunkenness and alcoholism have long since ceased to be funny.

By contrast, "Henry VI," "As You Like It," "All's Well That Ends Well" (directed by Woronicz), Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," (directed by festival associate director Cynthia White), and "Heathen Valley" achieve a clarity and realism about life that both substantiates comedy and infuses tragedy with wit.

The same is true of the other play directed by Woronicz this year, David Hirson's "La Bete." The story is a sobering satire set in 17th-century France, and the whole thing is in rhymed couplets. The antagonists are Elomire (Moliere spelled inside out), who heads a serious theater troupe, and Valere (the "beast" or "fool" of the title), a pompous, vulgar buffoon of a street actor who is being forced on Elomire by his patron.

Should serious artistic standards be corrupted to accommodate the onslaught of pop culture? This is the old/new theme of a hilarious but unsettling war of wits and values. Ray Porter as Valere achieves a near out-of-body experience early in the play with a 22-minute monologue about himself. In 20-plus years of attending plays at Ashland, this was the first time I've ever seen a standing-ovation midway through the first act.

"La Bete" is a play that challenges the thinker while providing terrific entertainment. Which is what Shakespeare did and what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues to do under new leadership in its remodeled home.

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