In Oregon, a Rich Mix of Plays That Entertain and Challenge

Bard festival also features contemporary playwrights

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival - one of the oldest and largest theater companies in the country - the mix of plays can be almost as important as the individual productions. Most visitors travel considerable distances to this small town 300 miles from a major metropolitan area, staying long enough to see several if not most of the 11 plays performed in three theaters. For many, the experience of the whole may be greater than the sum of the theatrical parts.

"Great plays not only talk to us, they talk to each other, creating a series of incendiary ideas and feelings as the afternoon's performance meets the evening's show head on," says Libby Appel, OSF artistic director. "Each year we are challenged when we create a new season to find a dynamic balance ... works that vary in scale, structure, and message, yet all with strong voices."

Ms. Appel and company have succeeded in this regard. From one of William Shakespeare's earliest works ("The Two Gentlemen of Verona") to the world premire of Lillian Garrett-Groag's "The Magic Fire," they are presenting a rich mix that is both entertaining and challenging.

Among the themes explored this year are family relationships and the nature of love, the scattering of outcasts and the plight of immigrants.

Family struggles - particularly between parents and children - are featured in Shakespeare's "King Lear," Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," and "Nora" - Ingmar Bergman's 1981 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." All three productions are strongly cast, firmly directed, and inspired, proving that in the right hands even the most familiar works have something new to say.

Exile from a royal court or from one's homeland is a common device of Shakespeare's. In "As You Like It," one of the Bard's most popular works, the good guys - Rosalind, Orlando, and Duke Senior - find their way back from banishment to a world of harmony and romantic resolution. "Timon of Athens," one of Shakespeare's rarely seen works, has quite a different outcome for the title character, a man who hasn't a clue about the true nature of friendship or generosity and ends up tragically as a result.

Both these plays - produced on the outdoor Elizabethan stage here with very different emotional impact - are satisfying, largely because the lead roles are played so well.

Separation from one's roots has also been a dominant theme at the larger of the two indoor theaters here.

David Edgar's brilliantly conceived "Pentecost" springs from the dissolution of the Soviet system into countries that long to be considered "Western," drawing in present-day economic and social disruption from other parts of the world as well.

In a medieval church in an unnamed Eastern European country where a startling work of art has just been discovered, these forces come together in a collision of history and values that is jarring (to say the least) and sometimes shocking.

World premires

For several years now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has offered world premires of contemporary works. Last year it was "The Darker Face of the Earth" Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove's Oedipus tale set in the antebellum American South.

In 1993, OSF commissioned "The Magic Fire," by Lillian Garrett-Groag. After readings and workshops, it was ready for production here this year.

This funny and poignant story of an eccentric emigrant family (some Italians, the others Viennese) takes place in Argentina, where they have come to escape fascism in Europe - only to see it arise in their new home after World War II. The family finds solace (and a certain measure of protection) in their love of literature and opera.

This is a thoughtful and entertaining work, despite a string of wordy narrations by the main character looking back on her life as a little girl. It certainly deserves to be produced elsewhere.

Ethnic diversity

Another recent development at OSF has been the selection of plays, directors, and actors reflecting greater cultural and ethnic diversity. This year, that includes Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky," the story of five African-Americans experiencing the "Harlem Renaissance" at the beginning of the Depression. Presented in the intimate Black Swan theater here, it is one of the festival's best productions.

Rounding out the season, which continues through October, is Tom Stoppard's "Rough Crossing." This farce features a mix of egocentric actors, writers, and an incredibly funny ship's steward (played with comic brilliance by Dan Donohue) aboard a transatlantic liner. OSF produced Stoppard's mind-bending "Arcadia" last year, confirming the playwright's wide-ranging talent.

* The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 1998 season will include: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' 'Measure for Measure,' 'Cymbeline,' 'Henry IV, Part I,' and 'The Comedy of Errors,' all by William Shakespeare; Richard Sheridan's 'The School for Scandal,' Lorraine Hansberry's 'Les Blancs,' Anton Chekov's 'Uncle Vanya,' Eugene O'Neill's 'A Touch of the Poet,' and the West Coast premieres of 'Vilna's Got a Golem' by Earnest Joselovitz and Sandra Deer's 'Sailing to Byzantium.'

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