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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013

Also see Richard's review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is starting their 2013 season with a program of intriguing plays, ranging from modern day takes on The Taming of Shrew and King Lear to a glorified concert version of the Lerner and Loewe classic My Fair Lady to impressive versions of August Wilson's Two Trains Running and Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. Also, there is the energy-driven world premiere The Unfortunates.


The Taming of the Shrew

I have seen many versions of this Shakespearean comedy over the years in England and IN this country. This version takes place in a Padua re-imagined as a boardwalk arcade. It is a rapid-paced, raucous, no-holds-barred version of the Bard's delightful comedy, thanks to director David Ivers. There is a lot of broad and physical action along with some unabashed contemporary references. Cuts have been made in this version, since it is only two hours long with intermission.

Petruchio, a rock star, and Kate have a fetish for tattoos. The Baptista family owns and operates a boardwalk refreshment stand. When Petruchio arrives for his wedding, he comes in on a Harley-Davidson. There is even a three-piece rockabilly band on a balcony that plays during scene breaks. Needless to say, this is a wild and wooly production of the Bard's work.

Ted Deasy, who looks like Jerry Lee Lewis, admirably portrays Petruchio. He has the right amount of swagger and speaks the Bard's words in modern day style. Tasso Feldman makes a charming Grumio. His physical comedy and confrontational tone are entertaining. Nell Geisslinger makes an impressive Kate. She never loses sight of her comedic timing and permeates the role with vulnerability and compassion. Outstanding is John Tufts who plays the changeling servant Tranio, channeling Thurston Howell III from "Gilligan's Island." He is so egotistical that he can't remember Bianca's name (Binaca? Beyonce? or Whatever). Royer Bockus is perfect as the airhead Bianca and David Kelly is hilarious as her fussy aging suitor Gremio. Jeremy Peter Johnson as an equally smitten Hortensio is uproarious. He is dressed country western with an outrageous wig and a glistening Stetson hat.

Director David Ivers' splendid cast also includes Wayne T. Carr as Lucentio, Robert Vincent Frank as Baptista, and Brent Hinkley as the Tourist.

Meg Neville costumes are fantastic and reflect something out of a Fellini movie. Jo Winiarski has devised a fun, detailed set of a boardwalk that could be in Atlantic City.

This production will run through July 7th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.


King Lear

King Lear is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays; over the years I have seen many productions of this tragedy, including a Japanese version starring Nigel Hawthorne in London. The Bill Rauch account now playing in the intimate Thomas Theatre is one of the best versions I have ever seen.

This is an exceptionally sensitive and smart production. It has a contemporary time frame, making a rare immediacy and visceral impact. The director uses the limited space of the intimate theatre to turn the play from allegory into a real and present-day story.

Michael Winters (alternating with Jack Willis) superbly plays Lear as a cheerful short of person happy to let go the burdens of rule. He is also thin skinned and hot tempered when cross. Vilma Silvia is flawless as the conniving Goneril, and Robin Goodrin Nordi gives an outstanding performance as the ruthless Regan. Even the opening scene is played different. In most productions, Cordelia (played excellently by Sofia Jean Gomez) doesn't enter into a gross display of affection because she is so revolted by her sisters. In this presentation, the older sisters are drawn more sympathetically than you usually see. Cordelia, who really loves her father, is a kind of outspoken rock chick who just refuses to be phony. Outstanding in this production is Daisuke Tsuji who plays the fool.

Bill Rauch's casting choices are impeccable. Peter Frechette as Goneril's husband Albany, Red Young as Regan's spouse Cornwall, Raffi Barsoumian as Lear's younger illegitimate son Edmund, Richard Elmore as the Earl of Gloucester, Armando Duran as the Earl of Kent, and Benjamin Pelteson as the plotting legitimate son of Lear are superb.

Costume designer Linda Roethke provides up to the minute military uniforms and beautiful gowns for the women.

This is King Lear up close and personal. It plays through November 2nd at the Thomas Theatre


The Unfortunates

The world premiere of The Unfortunates opens with a group of prisoners from World War I awaiting executions. One by one, each is removed from his cell by an "enemy" and we hear the fatal gunshot off stage. These prisoners keep their spirits up by singing the old, wailing "St. James Infirmary Blues." Joe, the sole survivor so far, petrified and almost in an unresponsive state, is waiting to be executed and suddenly remembers the lyrics of the song.

The stage becomes King Jesse's bar-brothel gambling den and Joe has become the hero of this fantasy. The production becomes an all-singing gospel and New Orleans blues presentation that seamlessly links all these distinctly American styles together.

Ian Merrigan is wonderful as Joe and Big Joe. Ramiz Monsef superbly plays all of the villains, while Joe Beavers vivaciously plays the corrupt King Jesse. Kjerstine Rose Anderson is glowing as the forlorn Rae. Cristofer Jean is impressive as Koko.

The Unfortunates plays through November 2nd at the Thomas Theatre.


August Wilson's Two Trains Running

Two Trains Running is part of August Wilson's famous "Century Cycle" of plays telling the stories of black characters during each decade of the 20th century. This drama doesn't have the broad emotional appeal of his more family based entries, such as The Piano Lesson and Fences. Here, the characters are mostly acquaintances.

The setting is a diner that's about to be bought up for urban renewal by the city of Pittsburgh. The themes are more political, economic and spiritual, than familial.

Two Trains Running is more of a character study since not much happens except that Memphis, the diner owner, does sell the diner to the city. The theme is vibrantly performed by a superb cast. Their speeches are about giant themes like righteousness, pointlessness, and the charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. They also converse about money and death.

Lou Bellamy has assembled a splendid cast of African-American actors to make this an impressive evening of thinking man's theatre. Kevin Kenerly is effervescent as Sterling. He captures the recently paroled character's aspirations and the hopefulness of his future. His romantic interest, a waitress played touchingly by Bakesta King, is vibrant. Josiah Phillips gives a superb performance as the diner's philosopher Holloway. Terry Bellamy as Memphis, Kenajuan Bentley as Wolf, Tyrone Wilson as Hambone, and Jerome Preston Bates as West are perfect in their roles.

Vicki Smith has designed a superb detailed set of a diner.

Two Trains Running runs through July 7th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.


A Streetcar Named Desire and My Fair Lady

I have decided to group these two "warhorses" together since I have seen the original productions of both in New York and London and I worked on both films while I was at Warner Brothers.

Most productions of Tennessee Williams' Streetcar have been steamy productions full of sensual byplay by Stanley Kowalski, Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski. In Christopher Liam Moore's production I did not get that feeling. That saying, it is still a very good production for persons who have never seen this piece on stage.

Danforth Comins channels his portrayal of Stanley on the order of Marlon Brando, even using some of Brando's style of speaking. There is no sympathy for Blanche DuBois, played by Kate Mulligan. She is not a delicate woman, but Mulligan is really a little too strong for the portrayal of a gentle person. She is competent as an actress and this is a different style for this character. There is one scene in which Kate Mulligan shines, when Blanch attempts to seduce a young newspaper collector, played very well by Daniel Jose Molina. This is the elusive character I was seeking in the role. Neil Geisslinger gives a good, sympathetic performance as Stella.

Jeffrey King is excellent in the role of Harold Mitchell (Mitch), who conveys tenderness toward Blanche and then has a feeling of reflective duplicity once he realizes that Blanche is really not a delicate Southern lady but a lady damned by society for her love for young boys.

My Fair Lady is a very innovative production and something I have never seen done quite this way. David Jenkins' inventively intangible scenic design consists of no overt set. It's a combination of abstract spaces onstage with the complete cast sitting in theatre seats looking at the audience. The actors in these seats come forward when they are needed to sing the wonderful score. Two pianists are centered on the stage and the cast works around these pianists. Other members play violins in some of the musical scenes. Also on the stage is huge lettering (looking like the Hollywood sign in the hills of movie land) that says "My Fair Lady." There are hints of fences, doors and streets here and there. All of the cast are dressed in various Edwardian costumes.

Many of the songs are put into different places from the classic musical—even the robust "Get Me to the Church on Time," which choreographer Jaclyn Miller turns into a dance, with the cast of energy-driven dancers thumping their feet and using wooden pole sticks in unison for a very long time. This seems out of place for the Lerner/Loewe musical. The romantic song sung very well by Ken Robinson becomes an outrageous comic piece, with a lot of comedy bits such as Ken hugging one of the iron banisters in the audience section and looking shyly up on the stage.

Jonathan Haugen is splendid as Professor Henry Higgins. He truly sings Higgins songs, not bantering the lyrics as near-spoken dialogue. Rachael Warren, who is an older Eliza than I have seen, can sing and dance with gusto and she puts a special stamp on the role. She is wonderful singing "Wouldn't It Be Lovely." The night we saw the production, Anthony Heald, who had played Alfred Doolittle, had to return to his home for personal business and his understudy Rodney Gardiner took over the role. Gardiner was full of energy singing "Get Me to Church on Time" and "With a Bit of Luck," but this young actor plays the role as a combination of Sammy Davis Jr. and Robin Williams. David Kelly does fine work as the sweetly stuffy Pickering.

The choral work is outstanding as most of the cast joins in on all of the songs, even where there are only solo parts for Higgins, Liza and Doolittle. The famous ambiguous ending is accomplished with a simple action that echoes the 1938 movie version of Pygmalion.

My Fair Lady runs through November 4th at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

For tickets to these productions and upcoming production go to www.osfashland.org or call 541-482-4331


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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