When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened its 1999 season with "Othello," a national television crew came out to see why 400-year-old plays were causing such a fuss. Teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo or the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow as young William Shakespeare's love interest is one thing. But would three-plus hours of depressing drama with highfalutin language and no popcorn in sight sell many tickets?
Libby Appel, OSF's artistic director, could only chuckle as she noted the sold-out performances her three-stage venue regularly racks up. It was the same question town fathers here asked 64 years ago when amateur versions of the Bard's works first appeared on the site of an old Chautauqua meeting place.
It may appear as if Hollywood has just discovered Shakespeare. Kenneth Branagh seems intent on producing (and starring in) film versions of the full canon. "Titus Andronicus" with Anthony Hopkins; "Love's Labour's Lost" starring Alicia Silverstone; and Ethan Hawke as "Hamlet" are in the works. But, as Ms. Appel says, "some of us have been loving these plays for a long time."
"Every generation has made Shakespeare its contemporary," explains Barry Kraft, a veteran actor who's had roles in some 80 productions of Shakespeare's plays.
"We do that to him because he leads us to it - he invites us into his stories," says Mr. Kraft, who's also OSF's resident expert on Shakespeare's writing. The stories, the language, and the humanity of the characters are what draw theater professionals and audiences back.
In his new bestseller "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Yale scholar Harold Bloom goes so far as to assert that the playwright "not only invented the English language but used it to create human nature. "The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually," writes Professor Bloom.
Here in southern Oregon, that span of intellectual and artistic achievement between "The Man of the Millennium" (as BBC radio listeners voted him) and the rest of us mere mortals is a source of inspiration, not frustration. It's been that way since 1935 (except for a few years missed during World War II) with the festival having produced every play in the canon at least three times.
"We're always measuring ourselves against Shakespeare," says Penny Metropulos, associate artistic director here. "Shakespeare is the standard for all of our other work."
The other work here - and the key to OSF's record as the most successful nonprofit theater in the country - is classical and modern plays in repertory.
This summer, that includes the works of Bertolt Brecht ("The Good Person of Szechuan"), Henrik Ibsen ("Rosmersholm"), Maurine Watkins's 1920s love-and-murder tale "Chicago," and the festival's own adaptation of "The Three Musketeers," by novelist Alexandre Dumas. Besides "Othello," three more Shakespeare plays are in the mix: "Much Ado About Nothing," "Henry IV, Part 2," and "Pericles."
In all, 11 plays are being presented in three theaters - the 1,188-seat outdoor Elizabethan stage, the 601-seat indoor Angus Bowmer Theater (named for the festival's founder), and the intimate Black Swan, with 138 seats on three sides of the "black box" stage. The indoor plays began in February and will continue through October. The outdoor plays began in mid-June and will end a few weeks earlier.
By season's end more than 400,000 tickets will have been sold to playgoers, who typically see three or four plays while vacationing in the small mountain town with such cleverly-named B&B's as the "Anne Bole Inn." (Get it? As in one of Henry VIII's wives?)
With repertory theater, playgoers get to see actors shift from lead in the afternoon to spear-carrier that night. This year, the prize for diversity goes to Anthony Heald, a veteran of stage, screen, and television, who is a relative newcomer to the festival.
As Iago in "Othello," Mr. Heald is a sawed-off skinhead thug. Treacherous, yes, but nothing subtle about him. A few hours later, he's John Rosmer in Ibsen's "Rosmersholm," a quiet, guilt-ridden widower and clergyman questioning his faith.
The other day, 400 people turned up at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to hear a reading of the fairly obscure "Edward III," only parts of which were written by Shakespeare. Earlier, Barry Kraft's lively lecture on the subject played to a packed house.
As with all of theater, there are artistic hits and misses. "Tongue of a Bird" (which bombed in New York) is hard to relate to. "Much Ado," set in patriarchal Argentina in the 19th century, is thoroughly satisfying. But as artistic director emeritus Jerry Turner says: "How could we fail to take chances when Shakespeare took so many?"
Wherefore art thou, Shakespeare festivals?
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival can be contacted at (541) 482-4331. Its Web site, www.orshakes.org, posts links to 59 other Shakespeare festivals found in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Some examples:
ALABAMA SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
CALIFORNIA SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
KENTUCKY SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
New York City
Stratford, Ontario, Canada
UTAH SHAKESPEAREAN FESTIVAL
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society