Three Comedies at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The last three productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are comedies in the broadest scene of the word. These are very good productions of The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It by the Bard of Avon and Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off. All three boast excellent casts.
The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful production. It is a plotty play and common sense must be left out of one's mind to enjoy this “fantasy.” You have to believe absurd things, such as a king who really shows no emotion when he is told that his wife, who he believes to be dead, has been kept alive for 16 years. There is a shepherd’s son who stands on a cliff over the rugged coast of the island and watches a bear eating a man and a ship sinking at the same time and does nothing about it. He tells his father that “he has seen wondrous things.”
Winter's Tale’s first act looks almost like a scene from the Nutcracker Ballet with a 1950s era court in Sicilia. The men and women are dressed in splendid evening clothes. The set is regally red draped and there is a giant, glistening white cone of a Christmas tree that dominates the center of the outside stage. The king and his court are in a festive mood as they entertain the King Polixenes of Bohemia (James Newcomb). King Leontes of Sicilia (John Pribyl) is entertaining his best friend Polixenes. For no apparent reason, Leontes suddenly becomes insanely jealous of his very pregnant wife, Hermione (Catherine Lynn Davis). He somehow believes that Hermione is carrying on a secret affair with Polixenes, which they are not.
From there, everything goes downhill, as Leontes becomes more and more out of control with his unfounded jealousy. The King wishes his wife to be killed after the birth of the child, the child itself to be taken to a place of wilderness in hopes that it will die at the hands of bears roaming the area. The King descends into the realm of madness. However, lighting flashes and thunder roars, signaling the wrath of Apollo, and suddenly the King regains his senses. Fortunately, the newborn female child is found by a shepard and his son along with a sack of gold and we go into the wild second act.
The second act opens 16 years later in Bohemia. However, it looks more like Height-Asbury during the Aquarian Age of flower power in the '60s. The act opens with the Byrd’s recording of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” sung by hippie shepherds led by the wonderful Michael J. Hume and Christopher DuVal. They are idiotic, good natured peasants that have raised the abandoned baby. The child is now a lovely young lady, Perdita (Tyler Layton), who is having a budding romance with Florizel (Jos Viramontes), the son of King Polixenes. The costumes are strictly from the '60s, with beads, bell-bottom trousers, Afros, and even a Love Bug. Ray Porter is marvelous in his brilliant clowning of Autolycus, and he does a bit of singing like the late Jimi Hendrix. Everything turns out right, even with King Leontes finding his “dead” wife.
As You Like It
As You Like It has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays since I have always found it very flowery and talky. I have seen many Rosalinds in my day, including the legendary Katherine Hepburn. This production is somewhat innovative since most of the comedy takes place in a woods with wild west overtones. It could have taken place in any western state during the Edwardian era. The members of the court are all in western or hunter’s costumes. There are even some wistful musical comedy songs by members of the cast.
Though overall uneven, this production has some excellent performances. Dan Donohue as the clown Touchstone is marvelous, especially in his perverse courtship of Phebe, played by Nancy Rodriguez. Kevin Kenerly as Orlando is dynamite. This actor is a good match for Rosalind - an intensely physical young man who readily communicates with enthusiasm and uncertainty. Deirdre Henry plays Rosalind as a teasing tomboy. However, she lacks sexual vitality since she just capers all over the stage. I was disappointed in Richard Howard’s melancholy Jacques. He seems out of place in this production and his speech, “The Seven Ages of Man,” has no spark. Penny Metropulous' direction also seems lifeless and she punches the concept of the play too hard. There is over-manipulation of the text in some scenes and too many abrupt scene changes.
Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is silly and shallow with no social significance, but it is very funny, up to a point. The first act is the best of the three with the maid, played by Dee Maaske, having fun with her plate of sardines, the telephone cord and talking back to the director (played to the hilt by Michael J. Hume). Tyler Layton is priceless as the dumb blonde, Brooke Ashton. She keeps losing her contact lens, and this keeps the audience in stitches. There is a laugh a minute in that first act.
Noises Off's second act is less then satisfying. The characters all become caricatures and there is just too much action, pratfalling and banging of doors. It is too frantic and too difficult to concentrate on any one character. The timing was also off on the day we saw the performance. The third act is more Monte Python and it seems anticlimactic with more slamming of doors.
I have seen several terrific productions of this farce in the U.K., including the original at the Savoy, and several American productions. I think the British are the only ones who can really pull this comedy across.
Noises Off will play through November 3 at the inside Bowmer Theatre and As You Like It and The Winter Tale will close the second week of October in the outside Elizabethan Theatre. Tickets can be obtained by calling 541-482-4331 or by going to www.osfashland.org.