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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Interesting Mix of Plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Part Three)

Also see Part One, Part Two, and Part Four of Richard's coverage of the 2004 OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon is one of the most esteemed regional companies in the nation, and for a very good reason. They hire top actors from New York and from the major regional theaters in this country to appear in prestige plays from March through October each year in their three state-of-the-art showplaces. This includes the beautiful Tudor-style, 1,190-seat Elizabethan Theatre where great Shakespearean plays are performed under the stars. The 601-seat Angus Bowman Theatre does not have a bad seat in the house; it has wonderful acoustics and the staging of plays here is comparable to any New York production. The recently opened, intimate New Theatre house seats 270 to 360. The company has had 784 performances to date and, although the attendance is down 8 percent due to the sluggish economy, over 300,000 tickets have been sold during the season.

I reviewed four of the OSF productions in March (The Visit, The Royal Family, Topdog/Underdog and Comedy of Errors). The Royal Family and Comedy of Errors are still playing in the Angus Bowman Theatre in repertory and will continue there until the end of October. The seven remaining plays that will play until the end of October will be reviewed here and in Part Four.

First, the non-Shakespeare plays, which are drawing huge attendance at the two indoor theatres.


A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun is the unqualified hit of the season at the Angus Bowman. This production is as good as the original Broadway production that I saw in 1960 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre which featured Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. Director Andrea Frye has assembled a superb cast to portray an African-American family in 1950s Chicago. The grandmother has just received a $10,000 insurance check on the death of her husband, and the family all have plans on what to do with the money. Mostly, the women want to get out of the ghetto-type neighborhood and move to suburbs that are still white dominated. However, son Walter Lee has a get rich quick scheme in mind. The drama in this marvelously written play shows that family loyalty can triumph over economic depression.

The acting here is strong. There is not one bad performance in the two-act drama. Scheming son Walter Lee is dynamically portrayed by Chris Butler. You can't help but sympathize with him as he strives to rise above the circumstances of his life as a chauffeur for "the man." A trio of incandescent actresses play the women of the house. Pat Bowie is Lena Younger, the no-nonsense matriarch, and she is superb in the role. Crystal Fox is excellent as Walter's wife Ruth who wants desperately to get out of their rundown apartment and neighborhood. Aisha Kabia plays Walter Lee's sister Beneatha, who is going to medical school. She plays the young woman as the new African American ready to get away from the old scheme of things. She is infectious in the role. The young grandson Travis is played by talented juvenile actor Travis Bond. Mirron E. Willis is the Nigerian who is interested in Beneatha, giving a strong performance with a great African accent.

Raisin's characters have brittle, defined confrontations with each other and the monologues by the family expose their longings, worries and aggravations. There are many highlights in this absorbing family drama, such as drunken Walter's confrontation with the family on his own life, and the wonderful and funniest African tribal dance performed by Beneatha and her boyfriend. Even the great dance between the intoxicated Walter and sister Beneatha is fun. The set by Richard L. Hay is a beautifully detailed, clean but run down ghetto apartment. This is an exceptional play done with an exceptional cast. A Raisin in the Sun runs through the end of October.


Oedipus Complex

Oedipus Complex, by playwright Frank Galati, is probably the most talked about production of the current OSF season. This dazzling stage production is having its world premiere at the Angus Bowman Theatre. The 90-minute, one-act drama is tightly written and brilliantly staged. This intricate work unites Sigmund Freud and Sophocles as it sharply goes between 1890s England and Thebes in 429 B.C.

Oedipus Complex opens in Vienna where Freud is lecturing his students. The dazzling set by James Schuette is a 19th century surgical amphitheatre of dark wood, a jury box seat and a geometric half moon design of rows where the students sit looking down on the center of the stage. These students also become the Greek chorus and in one scene don masks of Sigmund Freud.

We see scenes of Freud's childhood where he subconsciously hates his father for having sexual relations with his mother who is Freud's first love in his life. These scenes lay out the eternal triangle of mother, father and son relationships. Everything that a man becomes is from his conflicts in childhood. This is paired with the story of Oedipus by Sophocles and the Oracle of Delphi prophecies that he will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. All of the action takes place in the center of the surgical theater. The gist of the Greek story is that the gods are more powerful than mere mortals, and the same holds true for the childhood urges of modern man.

William Langan is an ideal Freud. His confrontations with Oedipus and with the some of the cast are well worth watching as he keeps the drama moving at a fast pace. Jonathan Haugen creates a vibrant and tragic Oedipus. Both Michael J. Hume as the Shepherd and Kenneth Albers as the Corinthian representative are excellent in their small roles. Judith Marie Bergan as the mother and queen is very effective in the roles. Gregory Linington is also very good as Freud's colleague, Wilhelm Fliess. However, this character needs to be more fleshed out to become effective in the confrontations with the psychoanalyst.

Oedipus Complex is a thinking person's play. The playwright has sheathed the torment-filled story of Oedipus in a Victorian setting as Freud examines his own neuroses while writing his works. The play runs through to the end of October.


Humble Boy

Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy is a good old fashioned British play that was a great hit in London's West End. It opened at the Cotteloe Theatre at the Royal National in 2001 with a great cast of Diana Rigg, Simon Russell Beale and the late Dennis Quilley. It was so popular that it moved to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. The Manhattan Theatre Club presented the play last year where it received so-so reviews.

Felix (David Kelly), a Cambridge don specializing in theoretical physics, has returned to his family home in Gloucestershire to attend his father's funeral. He is shocked to find that his dominating mother Flora (Linda Alper) has already cleared out his father's possessions, including his precious bee hives. Felix has problems communicating with others and he is always disheveled. His strong and very ruthless mother has no real love for him and for many years she has carried on with verbose neighbor George Pye (Tony DeBruno), who runs a very lucrative bus company. Rosie Pye (Terri McMahon) is the daughter who used to be in love with Felix and Merry Lott (Suzanne Irving) is a typical English mousy, maiden lady. Wandering around the set on occasion is the mysterious gardener Jim (John Pribyl), who turns out to be the ghost of the dead husband.

Humble Boy has a nice balance of humor and sadness. There are many literary qualifications in this very witty English play. There are references to Hamlet, and some learned bits of information about beekeeping and horticulture. There is some Tom Stoppard type of writing in this play, and much of the plot is a thinly disguised Hamlet plot, especially the relationship between the son, the mother and the lover. The dialogue is very bright and intellectual, and often amusing.

David Kelly gives an outstanding portrayal of a stumbling and confused Felix while Linda Alper gives a good performance of a bitchy mother. However, in the second act, she seems to lose her English accent and she becomes more like a Jewish mother. Tony DeBruno gives a bombastic performance as a man who came up the ranks without intellectual stimulus. John Pribyl, with his wonderful theatrical voice, is extraordinary as the gardener. Suzanne Irving gives a tour de force performance in the second act when she gives a wild pre-lunch blessing; it is a highlight of the production.

Humble Boy's cast must share honors with an amazing set in the intimate New Theatre. Seats had to be removed and several exits closed to accommodate the Gloucestershire garden set. This is a summer garden in that shire with a beautiful profusion of roses, flowers, shrubs and even an apple tree. The floor is made of large cuttings of "stone," and the set is dominated by a huge beehive with a mound of wind chimes nearby. This is a lush set.

Humble Boy plays at the small New Theatre to the end of October. For tickets to these and other productions please call 541-482-4331 or fax 541-482-8045. You can also order tickets by going to boxoffice@osfashland.org.

Part Four reviews include the Shakespeare's plays Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3.


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


- Richard Connema



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