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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is starting their 2012 season with a program of intriguing plays ranging from fresh intakes on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida and Anton Chekhov's Seagull to entertaining productions of lunatic comedy with characters playing The Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers and a magnificent version of the old Chinese tale The White Snake. Also, there is a titillating production of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.

The White Snake

The world premiere of the classic Chinese fable adapted by Tony Award winning Mary Zimmerman, who also directs, is a gorgeous, hypnotic and even mirthful production. The central character is a White Snake, played elegantly by Amy Kim Waschke, who is curious about the human world beneath her mountain home. She and her plucky Green Snake spirit decide to slither down to the valley and turn themselves into women.

White Snake meets a na´ve but poor man, Xu Xian, played agreeably by Christopher Livingston. All is not sweetness and light since Fa Hai, an inflexible, tormenter Buddhist monk played robustly by ex-ACT core member Jack Willis, does everything he can to destroy the relationship. Cristofer Jean and Lisa Tejero beautifully round out the speaking cast in this stunning production.

The production features a stunning line of umbrella-carrying actors who breeze their way around the stage, and there are snake puppets controlled by rods operated by actors. All of this on Daniel Ostling's beautiful, empty set with blank bamboo walls on both sides and a rear screen where sky images are projected.

The White Snake runs through July 8th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Romeo and Juliet

I don't know how many times I have seen various versions of this Shakespeare classic. Laird Williamson's inimitable version succeeds in making this familiar tragedy fervent, pertinent and instantaneous in a way that will appeal to modern audiences. This is a production for the 21st century; it's similar to West Side Story without the music.

Director Laird Williamson sets the story shortly after the outbreak of the Mexican-American war of 1846 in the Mexican province of Alta California. The Montagues and Capulets are still feuding and they speak with a slight Spanish accent. They even sprinkle their dialogue with Spanish words and phrases.

Romeo, played excitingly by Daniel Jose Molina, and Juliet, played beautifully by Alejandra Escalante, are still teenagers. They exemplify the gasping impulsiveness of youth. The many cast members give magnificent performances. Elijah Alexander and Vilma Silva as Don and Dona Capulet are charismatic. Jason Rojas and Fajer Al-Kaisi bring extraordinary energy to Mercutio and Tybalt. Isabell Monk O'Connor is enchanting as Juliet's humorous nurse, and Tony DeBruno is wonderful as the well meaning but unfortunate Friar Lawrence.

Michael Ganio has designed a great, spare scenic set. There is an expansive screen about the set with dramatic visuals of the changing sky. Costumes by Susan Tsu are Mexican-themed and there is lovely Spanish music composed by David Reiffel and some lovely choreography by Alonzo Lee Moore IV.

Romeo and Juliet runs through November 4th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Animal Crackers

It takes a lot of chutzpah to redo the 1928 comedy that starred the famous Marx Brothers. Director Allison Narver has successfully made this an entertaining laugh a minute production. Set at a tony Long Island estate, rendered in Richard Hay's scenic design as an expensive art deco bonbon, the story concerns the visit of the celebrated Captain Spaulding and a spontaneous round of art theft. It really is an excuse to let three oddball outsiders pile silliness upon silliness in a comic extravagance.

Mark Bedard as Captain Spaulding (really, as Groucho Marx) gives a perfect imitation of the legendary comedian. The zingers come fast and furious, with numerous classic one-liners. He even sounds and acts like Groucho in song. Daisuke Tsuji is fantastic as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico). He inhabits the look and the sound of Chico in the role. Brent Hinkley is wonderfully outrageous as the The Professor (Harpo) without speaking a word.

Animal Crackers has a large cast and everyone is perfect in their roles. Outstanding are K.T. Vogt as Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont played the role in the film) and Kate Mulligan as Mrs. Whitehead. Jonathan Haugen gives a flawless performance in the dual role of Hives and Roscoe W. Chandler. Eddie Lopez and Laura Griffith are charming as the young romantic couple John Parker and Mary Stewart. They both have melodic voices singing "Why Am I So Romantic?."

Animal Crackers runs through November 4th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Seagull

This marks the second time I have seen Libby Appel's version of the Anton Chekhov play. Marin Theatre Company did an excellent production of this classic play last year using several OSF actors. The current production is playing in the intimate New Theatre with the audience on three sides of the players. This is a new and delightfully fresh approach to the Chekhov masterpiece. Playwright Allison Horsley has done an incredible job of moving the playwright's language into present-day idiom without stuffing the dialogue full of awkward attempts at modern slang.

Where Marin Theatre Company's production was very theatrical, this production is much friendlier. All of the actors give superb performances, especially Tasso Feldman as Konstantin the talented son of fading actress Arkadina, played brilliantly by Kathryn Meisle. Once again Michael J. Hume is a consummate actor portraying Sorin. It is an outstanding performance. Armando Duran is beguiling playing Dorn, who basks in the courtliness of the village's womanizing retired physician. Nell Geisslinger gives a beautiful performance as Nina, a beautiful young village girl who yearns to be an actress. Al Espinosa is poignant as the popular writer, Trigorin.

Christopher Acebo has designed a minimal and melancholy set of a villa by a lake, delicately lit by Alexander V. Nichols to suggest the seclusion of these people.

Seagull plays through June 22 at the New Theatre.

Troilus and Cressida

Rarely does any company present this play, since it is a very talky drama with no central characters. Even Troilus and Cressida are minor roles. I have seen several productions in the UK and it was never my favorite Shakespeare play.

Director Rob Melrose of the Cutting Ball Theatre has changed all this by setting the drama in the current war in the Middle East. Outside the walls of Troy, the Greeks are debating the merits of the campaign. They look like American soldiers in desert battle fatigues, and the Trojans are dressed like Saddam Hussein. This is a vibrant production and fits well into modern times. There is a lot of breezy talk about women and, despite the sarcasm, director Melrose never lets the play become too preachy. This is a tragedy, a history play and comedy all thrown together and it works.

Barzin Akhavan is entertaining with a different take on Pandarus. He plays the role as a smarmy Las Vegas comedian. The legendary Helen (Brooke Parks) who launched 1000 ships appears in a gold lamé bikini with big hair and an everlasting drink in her hand. Raffi Barsoumian as the spoiled, naively lovesick Trojan prince gives an excellent performance while Tala Ashe is first rate as the clear-headed realist Cressida. Elijah Alexander is entertaining as the unthinking Ajax, who postures and bellows during the two hour and forty minute production. Peter Macon, Jeffrey King, Barzin Akhavan, Mark Murphy, Tony DeBruno, Kevin Kenerly, Ramiz Monsef and Michael Elich all give brilliant performances.

Michael Locher's minimalist set in the three-sided New Theatre effectively conveys the endless desert with a giant Erector Set bridge. There are broken monuments scattered about the stage.

Troilus and Cressida plays through November 4th in the New Theatre.

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella

Bill Rauch and Tracy Young show great boldness in attempting to present a Greek tragedy, an Elizabethan drama and an American musical comedy side by side on the big Angus Bowmer stage. The three plays runs concurrently, and it is like looking at three different productions. It is an interesting curiosity of drama vs. light comedy. This is a big production with three scripts, two directors, and more than two dozen actors in Deborah Dryden's period/fantasy costumes with masks, a six-piece orchestra and a lot of big ideas. A character called the Usher played by Mark Bedard attempts to hold things together.

Dialogue from one often informs the other and sometime a speech from a character in Medea ends up in a speech from Macbeth. It sounds confusing, yet somehow they pull it together. This really is not a single play but a considerate exercise in juxtaposition. Sometimes the chorus of Medea takes a momentary break to sing and dance in a musical number from Cinderella; or, Cinderella and her stepsisters attend Macbeth's banquet and politely ignore his ravings.

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella has some excellent acting, especially Miriam A. Laube as a brilliant warming human Medea. Christopher Liam Moore is powerful as the complicated Lady Macbeth while Laura Griffith is charming as Cinderella. She has great vocal chops singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

This is not a commercial play in the true sense of the work and I doubt if any other theatre company could attempt to present this highly unusual production. Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella plays through November 3rd at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

For tickets to the OSF please call 800-219-8161 or visit www.osfashland.org/.

- Richard Connema



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