Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Opens with Four Good and Different Productions
Part One

Also see Part Two

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon is celebrating their 69th year with a season of exciting theatrical events.. The company was established in 1935 and is among the oldest and largest professional regional repertory theatre companies in the United States. Their eight month season includes 12 plays: six by Shakespeare and six by classic and contemporary playwrights, in rotating repertory in three theatres, the outdoor Elizabethan Stage (1,190 seats), the Angus Bowmer Theatre (601 seats) and the intimate New Theatre (seats 270 to 360 depending on the production). They will be presenting 784 performances this year. Last year's total attendance for the whole season was 381,340 with 86% capacity in all three theatres. Patrons see an average of 3.5 shows, making the total number of visitors to the Festival each approximately 105,000. Much of that attendance comes from the San Francisco Bay area.

The company hires only the best actors, directors and scenic designers from New York, Los Angeles and outstanding regional companies, and these actors are paid well, receiving housing and stipends, and they get excellent training. Every production is of the highest order, one that would even make Off Broadway and Broadway take notice. In fact, Time magazine featured a major article on the company on June 2, 2003 entitled "Bigger Than Broadway."

The OSF has opened this season with four very different productions: the Friedrich Durrenmatt's classic The Visit, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's old warhorse The Royal Family, Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog and Shakespeare's riotous comedy Comedy of Errors. Later, additional works from The Bard will include the full Henry VI, which will be played in two theaters, King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing. They will also present Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, a new version of Oedipus Complex (which has been adapted from the works by Sophocles, Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud by Frank Galati), and the British hit Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones.

The Royal Family

Judith-Marie Bergan
and Dee Maaske

Each season, the OSF attempts to resurrect a comedy from the Golden Age of the late '20s and early '30s. This year it is George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 classic comedy The Royal Family, which is a put on of the Barrymore clan. This wonderful production has a stellar cast of some of the best actors in the country. The last time I saw this fun warhorse was years ago with Eva Le Gallienne playing the elderly legendary actress who is still yearning for greasepaint and footlights. Ellis Rabb played Tony, the egomanic actor (patterned after John Barrymore) in that production.

Kaufman and Ferber's sharp and sophisticated dialogue is still great drawing room discourse with just a touch of Noel Coward, but not as brittle. The ensemble, led by Dee Maaske as the matriarch of the family Fanny and Judith-Marie Bergan as her actress daughter Julie, make the farcical goings on superb. Ms. Maaske is delightful as the materfamilias who holds everything together. Her tribute to what is an actor's life is very touching. Ms. Bergan is wonderful, posing and preening with almost every outlandish gesture that could be attributed to a "great lady of the theater." There is a little of Katherine Hepburn in her portrayal of the star of the Broadway theatre.

Brent Harris, who starred in last year's production of Noel Coward's Present Laughter at the OSF, brings the same kind of "hammy overacting" to the role of Tony who has just walked off the set of a Hollywood movie because of "differences" with the director. Harris really out acts the original John Barrymore, but it works well in this production. Even the over-large college bearskin coat he wears is fantastic.

The whole cast is outstanding with special kudos to Michael J. Hume as Oscar, the producer who apparently is the only sane member of the troupe, and a comic performance by Eileen DeSandre who shuffles about the stage answering the consent ring of the telephone. Her Brooklynese voice when she says "Hellooooo" is a real hoot.

Peter Amster directs the comedy with a fast and furious touch, and the two-story set of a New York living room is a detailed work of art.

The production will run at the Angus Bowmer Theatre throughout the whole season, which ends October 31.

The Comedy of Errors

Ray Porter and Crystal Fox
I don't know how many times I have seen the Bard's Comedy of Errors, both here and in the UK. I have seen so many versions set in different time periods that it has become hazy in my mind. There was an outstanding production in the UK that placed the comedy in the Hollywood of the '20s, and of course we can't forget Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse that played fast and loose with the plot.

Director Bill Rauch pulls out all stops and makes this a gag-filled physical comedy that is somewhere between a Marx Bros film and the Three Stooges. He even gives the two hour fifteen minute production a "Las Vegas" feel. The set alone, on a revolving turntable, is fantastic, with a Vegas lounge singer, slot machines, a Caesar's Palace waitress in an outlandish garment, palm trees and a lot of neon lights.

Ray Porter takes on the role of both Antipholuses while Christopher DuVal plays the roles of both Dromios. Porter uses two accents; one sounds like something from the Waltons television show and the other is a faux Las Vegas hip accent. DuVal's accent sounds more like Gomer Pyle while playing the Syracusian. The two really ham it up and it takes a while to get used to them disappearing from the stage and coming back as the other person. However, it is much fun and should not be taken seriously.

Crystal Fox is fine as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. She radiates a sexy image and has an elegant voice to match. The opening scene is straight from The Godfather, with men in black suits headed by a Sopranos-type gagster (Mark Murphy) interrogating Egeon (Clive Rosengren), the twin's father, as to why this Syracuse merchant is in Ephesus. The rest of the cast is excellent, with a wildly outstanding performance by Eileen DeSandre playing the occult Dr. Pinch in one hilarious scene.

Comedy of Errors is a slick, fast-paced production that will appeal to persons who don't care for the Bard's works. It is also very popular with the young members of the audience who might get turned on to Shakespeare. The comedy will run at the Angus Bowmer Theatre throughout the season which ends October 31.

Photo: David Cooper

Part 2 features reviews of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit and Suzan-Lori Parks Topdog/Underdog.

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

- Richard Connema

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