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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014

Also see Jeanie's review of A Big Meal

The Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival is starting their 2014 season with a program of six intriguing plays ranging from the zany 1925 musical that starred the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts, to the world premiere of A Wrinkle in Time based on the classic children's book.

The Cocoanuts

The Cocoanuts appears to be the big hit of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. The 1925 Broadway musical with a score by Irving Berlin starred the Marx Brothers and in 1929 was the Marx Brothers' first sound film, which made those legendary brothers famous.

The film has always been my one of my favorites. Watching the zany antics of Mark Bedard as Groucho, John Tufts as Chico, and Brent Hinkley as Harpo on stage is also pure enjoyment. They all easily morph with their wacky antics into the personas of the Marx Brothers. I will say that not every pun, crack, and sight gag works but they do not all have to work to make this one of the funniest and most satisfying evenings I experienced at the festival.

There is a silly plot about the Florida scams of the 1920s, rich widows, and gorgeous daughters, some Berlin music and of course the Marx Brothers characters, as all of the bedlam unfolds. The only recognizable song in the score is the Berlin classic "Always." Many of the skits are off the cuff, as in the performance we saw, in which the brothers went into the audience on an Easter egg hunt climbing over the patrons to find the eggs.

The seventeen-member cast really rocks in Mark Bedard's adaptation of the silly plot. K.T. Vogt is hilarious playing the straight woman (think Margaret Dumont), even as the scenes with Groucho deteriorate into pure havoc. Kate Mulligan is a hoot as the scheming Penelope. The romantic leads, Eduardo Placer as Zeppo and Jennie Greenberry as Polly, make the most of their roles. Both have beautiful vocal cords singing Berlin's songs. David Kelly is sidesplitting in the role of Hennessy the detective, and when he sings "The Tale of a Shirt" Carmen-style he rocks the house. ("I want my shirt, I want my shirt. I can't be happy without my shirt.") There are ballet dancers, chorus girls, and a five-piece band in this sprawling two-hour 1920s musical.

Direction by David Ivers is fast paced and sharp.

The Cocoanuts will run at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 2nd, 2014.

Water by the Spoonful

Quiara Alegria Hudes's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an intriguing two-hour drama about the complexity of online relationships, cyber chatroom communities, PTSD and addiction. All of this is set in the intimate three-sided Thomas Theatre.

Water by the Spoonful is a provocative drama that centers on Elliot (Daniel Jose Molina), who has just come back from serving with the Marines in Iraq. He has demons involving an Iraqi civilian. Every character in this challenging play has had an addiction to drugs. Each has antagonized their demons with denial but each is still seeking connection and healing.

Daniel Jose Molina gives an outstanding performance as the ex-Marine who is now trying to become an actor. He reminds me of a young John Garfield with his crisp speech. Vilma Silva is superb as Odessa who runs an online recovery chatroom for pseudonymous users of crack cocaine. Celeste Den as the person with the online name Orangutan gives a spunky performance. Bruce A. Young is pitch-perfect as Chutes & Ladders, a paper pusher and failed father. He symbolizes the delicacy with which the play in concerned. Barret O'Brien as Fountainhead, Nancy Rodriquez as Yazmin, and Barzin Akhavan as the mysterious Iraqi citizen give excellent performance.

Sibyl Wickersheimer has devised a shimmering set, a series of computer-screen-like squares that beep and shift in the moody lighting by Geoff Korf. Shishir Kurup's direction is piercing. Water by the Spoonful runs through November 2nd, 2014, in the Thomas Theatre.

The Tempest

I can't remember how many times I have seen this magical play by William Shakespeare. I have seen good and bad productions over the years. Tony Taccone of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre helms this play at OSF and has added a new dimension.

This is a charming production, bathed in beautiful light on an almost bare stage. Alexander V. Nichols has created pools of white lights, dark shadows, and a curtain of hanging lights. He has also incorporated four all-in-white shirtless dancers. They are a conundrum that represents Prospero's illusions and Arial's companion sprits.

Denis Arndt puts a different spin on the character of Prospero. He plays the role almost like a devoted grandfather to Arial, and he is indifferent to what is going on and doesn't seem to give a damn. It is a good performance.

Kate Hurster is excellent as Arial and she gives the strongest performance in the production. She speaks the lines with a peculiar buoyant quality, and her songs are exquisitely sung. I had some problems with Caliban, played by Wayne T. Carr. It is a different take and he does a more physical interpretation of the role, skulking and slithering around the stage. Alejandra Escalante is charming as the na´ve and guiltless Miranda while Daniel Molina is splendid playing Ferdinand as a gangly, awkward teenager. Richard Elmore is a hoot as the steward Stephano, playing him like a shanty-singing sailor. Barzin Akhavan is hilarious in his overacting as the booze-drinking companion of Stephano.

Jeffrey King, Bruce A. Young, Al Espinosa, Barret O'Brien, Jeremy Thompson and Kurt Langmeyer all give good performances. The Tempest plays at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 2nd, 2014.

The Comedy of Errors

I have seen many versions of this Shakespearean comedy over the years, including one years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that was set in Las Vegas. This production is outstanding and so full of energy that I was wonderfully exhausted after the production.

This Comedy of Errors is set in the exciting Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and is performed in the intimate Thomas Theatre. I think it is the most endearing, funniest production of the play I have ever seen. For 90 fast-paced, high-energy minutes the actors beautifully mug their tuchuses off. It is full of zany goings on and jokes that will hit you over the head. At the end of the production the whole cast breaks into the Charleston. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but I most certainly was entertained.

Tobie Windham, who was here in the Bay Area last year in The Whipping Man, plays both Antipholus twins and Rodney Gardiner plays both Dromios. They are rib-tickling with their imaginative elucidations and speedy changes of jackets and inflections, including a Louisiana accent. The whole cast is fabulous as one-liners grow logically out of the situation. San Francisco Bay actress Omoze Idehenre gives a beautiful performance as Antipholus' offended wife.

Kara Harmon's imaginative and gorgeous costumes are perfect for the era of the '20s in Harlem. The women strut in colorful hats and fancy shoes. The set is like a Roman stage, with three houses side by side at one end of the stage.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

I saw this Lorraine Hansberry play at the Longacre Theatre in New York back in 1964 starring Gabriel Dell and Rita Moreno, and I was impressed with the sharp dialogue of the drama. It received mixed reviews from the critics but I thought it was an excellent production. It was produced when the United States was on the cusp of major social upheaval. Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer shortly after the play opened.

The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window follows the shock of the Kennedy assassination and the rage of the Vietnam War. The drama contains so many ideas that it might have confused the average playgoer back in the early sixties. There is homosexuality, suicide and political upheavals mentioned in the two hour piece. All of this is centered on Sidney, a Jew and former communist living in Greenwich Village. There is a black man passing in white society and an openly homosexual playwright, and an artist so avant-garde that he does not care what his art means.

Director Juliette Carrillo and an awe-inspiring OSF cast expertly approach the playwright's character study of the '60s. Ron Menzel as Sidney and Armando McClain as the light-skinned African-American friend Alton Scales bring depth and anguish to their roles. Sofia Jean Gomez gives a marvelous performance as Brustein's wife Iris. Vivia Font is wonderful as Iris' much whispered about whore sister. She doesn't appear until near the end of the final act but she is terrific in a vivid tour de force of acting.

Danford Cumins is excellent as the easy natured freshman politician Wally O'Hara who turns menacing toward the end of the play. Jack Willis nails the cameo role of Max the Bohemian artist, with his booming voice and stage presence. Benjamin Pelteson is memorable as the muddled gay playwright David living next door. Rounding out the cast is Erica Sullivan who gives a good performance as Iris' sister Mavis.

Scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams provides an evocative backdrop of the streets of Greenwich Village as well as a detailed-filled interior of a typical apartment of the time.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window plays through July 3rd, 2014, at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is having its world premiere at the festival this year, in a production that seems to be a work in progress. The one-act drama is an adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's beloved book.

The fantasy is about children searching for a lost father and the challenges of adulthood. Tracy Young's adaptation and staging capture all of the complexity of the 1962 novel. Scenic designer Christopher Acebo wisely chose a minimal set and scenery with some minimal special effects.

The plot is simple. Meg Murray is obsessed about being a misfit, feeling ugly, stupid and unlovely. Her father, a physicist working for the government, has disappeared. Her mother, who is a scientist, is holding together the family that includes younger twin boys. Mrs. Whatsit casually refers to a "tesseract," a secret project the father was working on when he disappeared. This project was about the fifth dimension that dramatically compresses time and space—a wrinkle in time. The audience finds out that an evil power is holding the father. so Meg and company decide to find him and defeat the evil power.

All in the large cast give good performances, especially Alejandra Escalante as Meg, Sara Bruner as the younger brother Charles, and Joe Wegner as a childhood friend of Meg. They maintain the innocence and spontaneity of the three children as they travel through time and space.

Judith Marie Bergan, K.T. Vogt, Daniel T Parker, Kate Mulligan and U. Johnathan Toppo also give charming performances.

A Wrinkle in Time plays through November 1, 2014, at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

For tickets and information to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival go to www.osfashland.org.


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

- Richard Connema



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