Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Oregon Shakespeare Festival Presents
Also see Part Two
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened its 70th season in February, is currently presenting six productions in its two indoor theatres. In all, 773 performances in 11 productions will be presented in three theatres, including the original outside Tudor amphitheatre beginnng this month. The season will end on October 30.
The five productions to be reviewed here are: the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's By the Waters of Babylon, William Shakespeare's Richard III, August Wilson's brilliant Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, John Murray and Allen Boretz's American farce Room Service and George Bernard Shaw's little seen The Philanderer. Eduardo De Filippo's 1945 drama Napoli Milionaria! will be reviewed in the latter part of August along with the outside Elizabethan Theatre productions of the Bard's Love's Labor's Lost and Christopher Marlow's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus plus Sir John Felding's The Belle's Stratagem and Octavio Solis Gibraltar.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 and explores the race relations between blacks and whites in 1920s America and the African-American search for identity. Although Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesy) is the main character, the drama centers on Levee (Kevin Kenerly). This young, psychologically wounded trumpet player is desperate to make it in the white man's world with his new take on music. He has had demons haunting him since he watched his mother being raped by a group of white men and his father's vengeance on her attackers. The playwright pits his character against Ma Rainey, who believes in the old style R & B rhythms. We see not only white and black confrontations but intra-racial altercations as well.
Kevin Kenerly (now in his 6th year at OSF) is charismatic in the role of Levee. You see the man's anguish, which is both mesmerizing and excruciating. He changes moods from high-spiritedness to a raging volcano of anger. He is thrilling to watch and hear with a climax that knocks your socks off. Greta Oglesy is wonderful as the intractable Ma Rainey who knows what she wants and gets it. She projects fear, anger and bitterness about her life.
Abdul Salaam El Razzac gives an elegant, polished performance as Toledo, with a vibrant theatrical voice. He is the intelligent member of the jazz combo who metes out nuggets of African history and home grown philosophy. He knows that the black man will never find out who is as long as he caters to the white folks. Josiah Phillips plays the business-like Cutler who always starts the jazz sessions "A one, a two, you know what to do." Both he and Frederick Charles Canada, as the laid back Slow Drag, are exceptional in their roles. Julia Pace Mitchell as the sex toy is very good while Mark Peterson is fine as the stutterer Sylvester. Bill Geisslinger as the radio station owner and U. Jonathan Toppo as Ma's agent are good.
Set designer William Bloodgood has designed a great two-tier '20s radio set in the three-sided New Theatre. It has amazing details with mikes, dials, studio widow and a place for the combo to practice. Timothy Bond has kept this two hour, two act production going at a fast pace.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom plays through October 30th at the New Theatre.
The author wrote this play hurriedly over a six week period in 1893 in six handwritten notebooks. At this time, Shaw was a habitual Fabian Socialist, going from place to place and lecturing on his philosophy. The first draft was finished in June but he could not find a backer. It was published under Plays Unpleasant in 1898, then finally received its stage premiere in London in 1907. There were mixed reactions to the play. G.K. Chesterton said, "in the play there are five hundred excellent and about five magnificent things," while another leading critic A.B. Walkley said, "it is one of Mr. Shaw's least happy experiments."
The Philanderer can be considered a British farce, with the playwright taking on the women's liberation movement in the Victorian era that started with A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. In fact, most of the action takes place in the Ibsen club where both men and women are equals, which was radical in those times. Shaw also makes fun of the sanctity of the medical profession by making a buffoon out of the "famous" doctor who thinks he has found a new disease of the liver. There is a generation gap between the old ways and new ways in Victorian society plus slavish references to Ibsen.
It all centers around Leonard Charteris (Derrick Lee Weeden), who is the philander and readily admits it. He is caught between two women: Grace Tranfield (Vilma Silva), who won't have him, and Julia Craven (Miriam A. Laube), who won't have anyone else. Charteris favors Grace and disdains Julia. He enlists the aid of Dr. Paramore (Jeff Cummings) who is more concerned with liver disease than any living thing. However, he does have a certain passion for Julia. This triangle is played before the women's fathers and a female member of the club in men's clothes. There is much said about A Doll's House and how the play has resounded throughout Victorian society.
Director Penny Metropulos has fashioned the play as a Victorian Music Hall production with a young man in page boy coming out onto an "electric gas lighted" stage to sing a rip-roaring music hall number in a cockney accent. He is joined by a young girl as they go into their dance. John Tufts is perfectly delightful in the role while Aisha Kabia is cute as a button as the female partner. After their exit, the farce begins with Derrick Lee Weeden, whose acting is more Shakespeare than Shaw, talking about his philosophy on the opposite sex. There are several other musical numbers wherein certain members of the cast break out in music hall numbers.
Derrick Lee Weeden, with his theatrical baritone voice, is just a wee bit over theatrical in this role, as is Miriam A. Laube in the role of the somewhat neurotic Julia. Her antics of falling to fall and acting like a child of six get to be a little much. However, Derrick (who played a lead in Continental Divide at the Berkeley Rep and on tour in the UK) plays Charteris very cagily. He is shudderingly attractive in the role. Ms. Laube shows good mood swings in her jealousies and sweetness of speech. Vilma Silva is excellent in her aloofness and her character's clear vision of men. The old men played by Geoffrey Blaisdell and James Edmondson give properly harrumphing performances.
William Bloodgood's set is delightful, especially the Edwardian setting of the living room and the way the set turns into the comic Ibsen club where women are forbidden from being "womanly women" or those who use their feminine charms and fragility to attract men. There is also a very large photograph of Ibsen dominating the center back of the stage. Peggy Metropolis has beautifully paced the production and this is a prickly and intelligent, gorgeous production.
The Philanderer runs in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 10th. For tickets to these production by calling the box office at 541-482-4331 or check availability at www.osfashland.org for all shows.