Friday, March 17, 2006

Visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

We had a lovely time in Ashland, our first visit to the renowned regional theatre. Ashland is a charming small town, whose main street is lined with chic, interesting shops and gourmet restaurants, all in the shadow of pine covered hills that gesture to mountains beyond. The theatre is Ashland’s major economic engine; its three theatres sit together on a small rise above the main drag. The facilities are comfortable and warm, even when Ashland, in the winter, is relatively damp and cold. The operation seems impeccably run; our guide for the backstage tour was one of the company’s 60 resident actors, whose smart, informative talk fascinated the 15 or so participants who followed him, rapt, around the theatres’ front of house and back.

The festival attracts spectators from all over the country but especially from the San Francisco to Portland corridor, many of whom subscribe or come to Ashland every year to take in four or five productions at a time. This is the festival way—the OSF, the Shaw Festival, Stratford, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival all operate on a similar structure of presenting productions in repertoire, so that visitors can saturate themselves with multiple plays a few days at a time. The OSF offers eleven productions a year, nine of which run in repertoire at the height of their season. In a two-day visit, we only got to see two, but the experience whet our appetite for more.

The Importance of Being Earnest

This is my favorite of Wilde’s plays, in which I performed when I took acting classes as a kid at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Wilde’s bon mots and wit stayed with me, and all these years later I find them even more pungent, smart, and topical. Perhaps this is why Earnest is being performed at regional theatres all over the country this year, a coincidence I found inexplicable until I saw the play again.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre is an intimate, warm space with a modified, small thrust stage that brings the audience close to the actors, making the back row of the 600-seat hall seem not very far away at all. The Earnest set design builds the play’s few different scenes on a turntable, which revolves easily and prettily from interiors in the city to exteriors and interiors in the country, neatly outlining the play’s dance between urban and rural moral codes.

The set’s colors and textures are lush and rich, but the design is also playful; in the last scene of the play, busts of famous playwrights stand atop library shelves. Although the play is set at the end of the 19th century, the anachronistic busts depict writers from across generations, including Coward, Shakespeare, and Wilde himself. The joke plays not only visually, but metaphorically, underlining the play’s resonance for contemporary audiences.

The double-identity plot, all of which hinges on the name “Ernest” and its homonym “earnest,” is a silly romance in which Jack Worthing cooks up an incorrigible brother named Ernest who’s always getting himself into trouble in whatever place Jack isn’t—the city or the country. His ward, Cecily, falls unaccountably in love with the idea of the character, so that when Jack’s dandy friend Algernon Moncrieff arrives, passing himself off as the wayward brother, she willingly falls into line as his lady.

Jack, on the other hand, passing himself off as Ernest in the city, woos Algie’s cousin Gwendolen, daughter of the great dowager, Lady Bracknell. Both women love the men because their names are Ernest. Both men, caught in the bind of their subterfuges, require immediate re-christening with the required name, or they’ll lose their lovers’ faith and their hands in marriage. Complications ensue, all of which are resolved for the best in typical farcical fashion.

The play is filled with asides to the audience, in which a character speaks his or her inner thoughts, which often contradict those he or she shares openly. This gives a good production something of a Brechtian feel, as the actors address the audience directly and collude with them in the evening’s good fun and critical stance. The OSF actors deliver their asides with crystal clear good cheer and a knowing chuckle to the crowd, inviting us in on amusing, sometimes wry, always intelligent jokes.

As Wilde intended, the mores of Victorian society are satirized mercilessly, but the jokes seem fresh more than 100 years later because contemporary American society under the reign of George the W is as riddled with fake sanctimony and ridiculous propriety as the culture Wilde criticized. The superficiality and slavishness to appearances over substance; the silly repartee that substitutes for real engagement; the astounding self-centeredness of each character; the strict hierarchy of social roles and interaction; all these resonate in contemporary American culture, and make Wilde’s parody more timely than ever.

A Winter’s Tale

I’m usually not a fan of Shakespeare productions. The language, instead of seducing me with its complexity and poetry, tends to alienate me, and I take even longer than usual to fall into the rhythms of the play. Gertrude Stein wrote about going to the theatre that in her first few moments of watching every production she experienced “syncopated time.” She fell behind the narrative as she tried to absorb the scene, the atmosphere, the characters, and the experience of being in the world of the audience as well as the world of the play.

My own sense of syncopation at Shakespeare is always attenuated. I’m tripped up not by the lack of naturalism, or by the stinted speech and sometimes awkward dress and the way the actors’ bodies bend themselves into different poses and attitudes as a result; I don’t necessarily need naturalism with my performances to make them mean something. I’m more distracted by how archaic the language sounds, and how hard I have to work to find my way in (to “blast” my way in, as avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman used to say about what spectators needed to do to enter the off-kilter world of his performances). Often, I never make it, because I’m put off, irritated that we continue to venerate a writer who was simply successful in his own day and never meant to be so venerated, but comes to us as canonical through a centuries-long discourse of critical, ideological, and pedagogical insistence.

I was surprised and moved, then, to find myself entranced by the OSF’s production of A Winter’s Tale, which I’d seen only once before, in a muddled university theatre production almost 20 years ago that left a bad taste in my mouth for the play ever since. The OSF production, directed by Libby Appel and performed in their indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre (where, remarkably, I’d seen Earnest the night before, evidence of the OSF’s marvelous quick set changeovers), is a taut version of the text, running just under three hours and launching immediately into its storytelling, holding the audience spellbound from its first moment to its last.

Paulina enters to sit on the steps that ring the front of the thrust stage with King Leontes’ and Queen Hermione’s son, telling him she has the perfect tale for a winter’s night. Before we know it, the frame has receded and the central story begun, with Leontes and Hermione at a party in their Sicilian kingdom, both trying to encourage Leontes’ friend King Polixenes of Bohemia to extend his visit. When Hermione’s entreaties work, after Leontes’ have failed, the king becomes unaccountably suspicious and flies into a jealous rage that undoes the rest of their collective lives.

While it’d be silly to look for rational reasons for Leontes’ outsized, violent fears, and while the story requires a certain suspension of disbelief throughout, Appel’s production convinces us not to worry too much about the details. Her succinct direction allows us to attend to the emotions, the nuances of each moment as they’ve vividly conveyed. The actors’ skill lies in their ability to conjure the immediacy of the present, even as their actions gesture toward a tragic future or mire them in a mistaken and unhappy past. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of Shakespeare in which the story moved so fluidly and took my imagination and my emotions along so effortlessly.

I still tripped over the experience of that awkward, archaic syntax and vocabulary, but the actors made such good sense of the language that it felt colloquial. I was drawn into a story that seemed told in the vernacular, and left free to concentrate on the folly of power and jealousy, of retribution exacted for wrongs no one even dreamed of committing. The inevitable deaths and unfolding sorrows felt resonant and new, as we watched the king come to terms with the devastation wrought by his own insecurities.

Although the last act bogs down in second-hand story telling, in which minor characters spend a long time reporting on unseen events, the visually spare, compellingly choreographed production evokes a sense of redemption, of the world setting itself once again aright after a terrible, too human wrong has turned it awry. Because the play is finally a romance, the long dead Hermione is resurrected to live happily ever after with her king, and the relationships are forged anew. But the spare, sharp production manages to let the sorrow linger, as though even while we watch Leontes and Hermione reunite, we know that the residue of what they lost through his jealousy (time, common memory, and especially, their sweet son) will haunt them, offering us a cautionary tale about abuses of power and the fatal stupidity of overactive male egos threatened by strong, seductive women.

The Feminist Spectator