In a small Oregon town, the play's the thing

If, in the middle of a warm summer day, you see a couple in casual garb peering at photos in the window of a real estate office here, you can be pretty sure they're fantasizing about how they could possibly move their lives to this mountain town 300 miles from the nearest big city. It happens all the time.

Nestled in the mountains just north of the California-Oregon border, Ashland is a small Western town (population 21,000) with a progressive outlook and a strong sense of neighborliness and community, home to a state university, and surrounded by one of the most ecologically diverse areas in North America - just right for scientific exploring and wilderness adventures. And at the center of it all is a major theater organization that is fast developing an international reputation.

Ashland is a place where one can spend the afternoon clearing the senses with a raft trip on the aptly named Rogue River (where some of the scenes in "The River Wild" were filmed), eat a fine French or Thai or Italian meal, then watch King Lear descend into madness under the stars on an outdoor Elizabethan stage. Or if that's too much of a downer, go next door and catch a version of "The Comedy of Errors" that's Marx Brothers hilarious.

The town's main attraction is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Each season, OSF typically presents five works by the Bard plus a variety of classical and modern plays ranging from the popular and well-known to the obscure and challenging. Over the years, that has meant running through the full Shakespeare canon - every one of the 37 comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances - at least three times.

This year, that includes "King Lear," "Comedy," "Much Ado About Nothing," and a particularly accessible and illuminating version of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays adapted and cut down to two plays with a smaller cast.

Think of the War of the Roses in terms of the US political climate today - "red states versus blue states" - and you're reminded of how relevant these 400-year-old works can be.

In addition, there are regular extra-curricular activities tied to the productions: lectures, backstage tours, concerts, free talks by actors and production staff, and a nightly outdoor "green show" featuring music and dance.

"We've got an audience that doesn't come for one play but that sees five or six plays," says OSF artistic director Libby Appel, referring to a yearly audience approaching 400,000. "So we want them to have as full and complete and varied an experience as possible."

Sometimes a particular theme emerges between or among plays. This year, the festival has produced Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" and Suzan-Lori Parks's 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winner "Topdog/Underdog." Both plays - written 50 years apart by African-American women - "confront issues of family and dreams," says Ms. Appel.

In recent years, OSF has made a special effort to increase the racial and ethnic diversity here, in play selection as well as in casting. For some longtime playgoers more used to Elizabethan Shakespeare in traditional period costume, this has taken some getting used to.

But, says Appel, "my deepest and truest belief is that it always enriches the play. There isn't a country that's more diverse than we are. We're an American theater, and we need to reflect an American culture."

In fact, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's name has become a misnomer: Most playgoers, as well as directors and actors, are from out-of-state; while it's rooted in Shakespeare, most of its plays are not by the Bard; and it's not a short-run festival but a full-blown repertory organization (one of the largest in North America) whose productions run all but the winter months.

In recent years, the OSF has grown rapidly in prestige and recognition, gaining high praise from Time magazine and The New York Times.

It not only presents 11 classical and modern plays on three stages from February through October, but it's also commissioning new works (there will be two next year) and sending productions to London as well as to major US metropolitan theaters.

Opening July 31 is a new work adapted and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Frank Galati. Commissioned by OSF, Mr. Galati's "Oedipus Complex" is based on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, plus the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre. It's described in advance as "exploring the profound impact of the Oedipus story on the psyche of the 20th century and its prevalence in literature, theater, and film." Not for all tastes, perhaps, (or for youngsters), but it promises to be a thought-provoking and controversial addition to the theatrical mix here.

The story of how a little summer outfit off the beaten path grew to become one of the country's top theater organizations is one of luck, pluck, and vision.

"Culture" (in a formal sense) got launched here with the first Chautauqua building in 1893. Performers such as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryant, plus the supposedly healthy "Lithia water," drew families from miles around.

The Chautauqua movement died out a few decades later, but the cement walls of the old building in a park in the center of town remained.

In 1935, Angus Bowmer - a young teacher and amateur actor - persuaded town officials to put up $400 to produce three Shakespeare plays inside the walls of the old Chautauqua over the Fourth of July weekend. Anticipating a financial loss, officials scheduled boxing matches onstage as well. When the finances were tallied, the Bard had beaten the pugilists at the box office. With a faith borne out by history, Mr. Bowmer called it the "first annual" Shakespeare festival. Except during World War II, it's been going ever since.

Over the years, productions became more professional, the 1,200-seat Elizabethan Theater evolved and grew to its present form, and two indoor theaters were added to the complex, which is in the center of town and at the entrance to a 93-acre park that wanders upstream past duck ponds, tennis courts, and a Japanese garden to the local swimming hole in the forest above.

In a sense, Ashland is a clear example of the "old West" of ranching, logging, and mining overtaken by the "new West" of outdoor recreation, refined culture, and history as education and entertainment.

Within easy daytripping distance are Crater Lake National Park, the coast redwoods, salmon fishing, and Jacksonville, Ore., an old gold-mining town designated a National Historic Landmark. Jacksonville also is home to the Britt Festivals, a Wolftrap-style setting that hosts performers ranging from Frederica von Stade to Lyle Lovett.

The Sierra Club and commercial outfitters lead day hikes, mountain-bike runs, and white-water trips into the surrounding Siskiyou and Klamath mountains - an area the World Conservation Union considers to be "of global botanical significance."

The "wildland-urban interface," as they say, is just a couple of blocks from the town center. Deer (and the occasional black bear or cougar) can be spotted in neighborhoods.

But there are no more sawmills here. Art galleries, bookstores, and B & B's abound. Five-acre homesites and hobby vineyards are replacing working ranches on the hillsides. It has become, to use the trendy phrase, "micropolitan."

More and more, the population is made up of retirees and those who bring a job with them - many of them "equity émigrés" who sell their tract houses in the overheated California real estate market, leave the high-pressure lifestyle behind, and buy or build their dream house with a view.

That's the life many visitors here aspire to. Or as Sunset magazine has put it, Ashland is the kind of place "where the town itself is the major attraction."

But for most people, the reality is an activity-packed trip that nourishes body, mind, and spirit. Then comes the long drive home, with plenty of time to plan next year's visit.

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