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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Three Bloody Shakespeare Plays

With eighty percent of the audience at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival coming from the Bay Area, the festival could really be called Off-Off San Francisco Bay Theatre. The rest of the audience comes from all over the United States, Canada and the U.K. The Festival that runs eight months a year is probably the largest regional theatre group in the country. Last year, 368,776 saw five plays by the Bard and six by classic and contemporary playwrights in rotating repertory in three theaters, including the outdoor Elizabethan Stage (1,190 seats), the Angus Bowmer Theatre (601 seats) and the intimate New Theatre (between 260-250 seats, depending on the production). The company consists of professional actors, directors, lighting and set directors from all over the country. The Festival operates on a budget of $19,277,300 for the season. They received a Tony in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theatre.

We have just returned from seeing five Shakespearean productions and four non-Shakespeare full scale presentations. I will review the productions three at a time, staring with what the critics are calling OSF's "bloody season," since the Bard’s Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Macbeth have blood flowing like water.

I will venture to say that Julius Caesar and Titus are bloody good productions, with Julius Caesar the best of all three with superior acting by the whole cast. The drama plays like a film noir masterpiece with the characters in three piece black suits and uniforms that are a cross between those of World War I and World War II. The set design looks like a police state with enormous slabs of old armor that move about the stage. There is a large billboard that has the face of a benevolent dictator.

The production has a bristling populist energy about the stage and its Caesar looks and acts more like a popular politician than a Roman Emperor. He is surrounded by what could loosely be considered Chicago gangsters and one (William Langan) who could easily be the “godfather”. Outstanding is Derrick Lee Weeden as the opposition leader, Brutus. He plays the character brilliantly and he displays the inner conflict of this powerful man. Dan Donohue plays the golden boy Mark Antony, and he delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech passionately. He is persuasive and powerful. Mark Murphy makes a great Cassius, especially in the second act during the battle of Philippi scenes. The battle scene is exceptional, with a burst of Brechtian music sung by a strange white-faced woman in a German style helmet singing among the artificially induced battle scenes. It is very effective. This is one of the best productions of Julius Caesar that I have ever seen.

Titus Andronicus drips in blood. Poor Titus, played by William Langan, is somewhat of a dimwit since he watches his enemies Empress Tamora (Judith-Marie Bergan) and the Emperor Saturninus (Ray Porter) and family kill and mame his family. Titus’s daughter is raped and her tongue cut out, two of his children are framed for a murder they did not commit and are executed, and Titus even chops off his own hand, thinking that his sons are still alive. In the background is the evil Moor Aaron, played shrewdly by Derrick Lee Weeden who is like a puppetmaster. He even tells the audience that he has never done an honorable thing in his whole life. This is an amazing feat of acting. Ms. Bergan plays the Empress as an ambitious and ruthless viper whose only ambition is to destroy Titus piece by piece. Ray Porter is the wonderfully evil, insufferable and power hungry Roman Emperor. Mark Murphy is very effective as Titus's brother. Jeff Cummings is also very good as the remaining son of Titus, the heroic Lucius.

Director James Edmondson makes this drama work, and he does it so magnificently that you cannot avert your eyes from the violent and horrific scenes. This play is not for the squeamish. This is Shakespeare’s most violent play and this production is handsomely and stylish set.

The Festival's production of Macbeth is one of the strangest Macbeths that I have ever seen. Director Libby Appel is known for tinkering around with the Bard’s plays and she certainly has done it here with this misfired Macbeth. Appel has pared the play down to 110 minutes with no intermission. She has cast only six actors, four womem and two men, who perform all of the roles with lighting speed. This is the MTV version of the Scottish play.

The drama is distilled to its bloody essence. Macbeth is driven more by sex than ambition in this production. Many of the male roles are taken by actresses, and they change scenes so swiftly that it isn't always clear who they are supposed to be. There is a scene in which Saffron Henke plays Lady Macduff's assassin, then immediately plays Macduff himself - all without batting an eyelash.

G. Valmont Thomas is completely miscast as the great general consumed by ambition, while BW Gonzalez gives a flexible performance as Lady Macbeth. She first appears as a “sex kitten” and then suddenly changes into a woman consumed with guilt. The “Is this a danger before me” and “Tomorrow, tomorrow” speeches by Macbeth just do not work with this distinguish actor. Both are clearly understated.

The set for Macbeth consists of a two-step circular platform in the round. The audience sits completely around the platform. In the center is a bucket of thick stage blood sunk deep into the set. When characters are killed, the actors scoop up great handfuls of the theater blood and fling it at other actors to signify death. How those in the front row did not get splattered is beyond me.

Libby Appel's intentions were undeniably earnest and she tries to strip the psychological emotional essence of the drama, but it just doesn't work. Give me the old-fashioned version of Orson Well’s Macbeth.

Macbeth and Julius Caesar will be playing in inside theaters thru November 3rd. Titus is playing at the outside Elizabethan Theatre through October 12. For tickets for all shows call 541-482-4331 or visit 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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