Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Presents
Part Two

Also see Part One

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Company is also presenting the Bard's Richard III, John Murray and Allen Boretz's farce Room Service and the world premier of Robert Schenkkan's By the Waters of Babylon.

Richard III

Michael Elich and James Newcom)
Director Libby Appel has gone the full route by presenting the complete Richard III with some very interesting touches. Shakespeare's Richard III is one of my favorite plays and the "villainous" king is one of my favorite Shakespeare characters. Richard is a dominant character that is highly self-reflective and complex in every way. Richard III is also one of the greatest propaganda plays of all times since it was written when the Tudor Queen Elizabeth was on the throne of England. The Tudor reign rested on a tenuous right to the kingship by Henry VII who defeated Richard in the battle of Bosworth.

Richard III is one fascinating play, especially when you have the great actor James Newcomb playing the title role. I really don't know how many productions I have seen of this mesmerizing play, but I remember Laurence Olivier and Anthony Sher's magnificent performances of the complicated Duke of Gloucester who later became the last Plantagenet king. Newcomb plays the role as a bungled rooting hog whose banners have the wild boar as an emblem. He is one of the wittiest Richard that I have ever seen. Newcomb played the role as the Duke of Gloucester in the last part of Henry VI last year at the OSF and ended that production with the "the winter of discontent" speech lifted from Richard III.

Libby Appel opens this three-hour production with a prelude, which includes a Greek chorus of four Queens entering a barren, dark, gray stage with giant smoky grey pillars in the background and a black back drop. The Queens are wrapped in funeral shrouds and they chant the names of their dead, whom Richard has killed. Richard then enters on ominous metal crutches attached to his arms to give the famous "winter of discontent" speech. Once that has been completed the play begins.

Richard III is an untamed and viciously entertaining ride that is riveting from the very outset. The role of mad Queen Margaret, played superbly by Robin Goodrin Nordli, has been enlarged and she appears frequently - sometimes as a ghost of accusation. Nordli is first rate in her ghostly appearance throughout the production. Michael Elich makes a stalwart Duke of Buckingham while Laura Morache as Lady Anne and Linda Alper as the Duchess of York are excellent in their roles. Richard Elmore has a brief scene as King Edward IV and he makes the most of the character's sickly manner; one can see he is slowly dying. Danforth Comins as the Earl of Richmond and afterwards the first Tudor King, Henry VII, plays the role like a male Joan of Arc.

Rachel Hauck's set is dark and foreboding in the first act, all basic blacks and grays. In the second act, after Richard has accepted the crown of England, large blood-red banners with a wart hog emblem in the center come flurrying down from the rafters. The backdrop suddenly becomes bright blood red. It's an ingenious set with superb lighting effects by Robert Peterson. Costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are great period outfits, especially the coronation robe of Richard with its long blood red train.

Richard III is playing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through October 30th.

Photo: David Cooper

Room Service

Michael J. Hume, David Kelly and Tony DeBruno
When I was in the 7th grade, my parents took me to New York for the summer. I saw my very first knockabout comedy, Room Service, at the Cort Theatre and I thought it was the funniest play I had ever seen. This was the summer of 1937 and I remember Sam Levine played the cunning Broadway producer while a young Eddie Albert played the naïve playwright Leo Davis from Oswego. There was also a very young Betty Field in the cast. The farce was a sensation in New York and it played 500 performances.

RKO paid a whopping $255,000, which was big money in those days, for the film rights. They also paid $100,000 to the Marx Brothers to play the major roles. Unfortunately, the film was only a moderate success. There was a very brief revival on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre in 1953 with Jack Lemmon playing the playwright and John Randolph as the wheeler dealer producer. It ran only 16 performances. More recently, the Seattle Rep redid the play with the Karamazov Brothers playing leads. There was also a moderate musical of the play made at RKO in 1943 starring Frank Sinatra. The show is rarely revived since it needs top flight comedy action with impeccable timing.

Fortunately, director J.R. Sullivan has found the perfect comedy actors: David Kelly as the producer Gordon Miller, Christopher DuVal as the hick playwright, Tony DeBruno as the director of the strange play called Godspeed, and Michael J Hume as the producer's general assistant Faker Englund. All of these actors are veterans of many seasons at the OSF.

Room Service centers around Gordon Miller, a real con man who is producing an American historical piece that runs from Washington crossing the Delaware through the coal mining strike of the '30s. Miller has run up an enormous bill at a Time Square hotel where his 21-member cast is being housed and fed during the weeks of rehearsals. So far, Miller has been able to avoid his own eviction and that of his cast since his brother-in-law is the hotel manager. They still need an angel, and so far it looks bad. To make matter worse, the hotel's supervising manager is coming to look at the books. He cuts off their room service with an ultimatum of "pay up or get out."

It's playwright Leo Davis' first time in the big city and he has 67 cents in his pocket. Under the impression that his first play is about to be seen, he wants to bask in the glory of success. What a rude awaking he has when he enters the hotel room. It would not be a farce if everything were hunky dory, but a lot of things go wrong as we watch this fast paced comedy with broad physical humor and quick zingers.

Room Service starts out slow in the first of three acts, but by the time the second act opens, it is fast and furious and the timing is flawless. David Kelly is wonderful as the zany producer who has an answer for everything. DuVal is perfect as the nerd playwright from upstate. He relishes the craziness of the character. Veteran comedic actor Michael J. Hume is the prototypical New York gruff and his "crying scene" is hilarious. Tony DeBruno as the director who has a great head of a bull moose that needs a home (don't ask why) is perfect as a straight man for David Kelly's antics.

Room Service has some other wonderful comic performances, especially Eileen DeSandre as Sasha Smirnoff, who was formerly with the Moscow Art Theatre and is now a room service employee. Of course she wants a role in the production and gets it with her hilarious third-act speech to the coal miners. Jeffrey King, who is constantly in a state of bombastic hysteria, gives a bang-up portrayal of the supervising manager. His favorite word throughout the whole comedy is "goddam," and every time he says it the audience howls. Richard Howard as Miller's brother-in-law and manager gives a great performance that is reminiscent of the roles that Franklin Pangborn had in the '30s comedy films. John Pribyl as the angel representative, Richard Farrell as the hotel doctor, Hilda Manney as the hotel manager's secretary, Tyler Layton as an aspiring actress and Miller's romantic interest, Danforth Comin as an Irish bill collector from "We Never Sleep Collection Agency" and Robert Sicular as Senator Blank in a small key role are all marvelous. There is also a small walk-on by Jake Street as a bank messenger.

Richard L Hay has designed the perfect set that looks like it is straight out of the Edison Hotel in the late 1930s, even with flashing lights outside. The costumes by Joyce Kim Lee are from that era also. This production will be the audience pleasing staple of the festival.

Room Service plays at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through October 29th.

By the Waters of Babylon

Robert Schenkkan's two-character, two-act play By the Waters of Babylon is having its world premiere at the smaller New Theatre. The Oregon Shakespeare commissioned the 1992 Pulitzer Prize playwright who had written The Kentucky Circle and the Off Broadway hit Handler to write a play for two of their OSF core member actors, Catherine E. Coulson and Armando Durán. These two actors made a strong impression on Schenkkan during the rehearsals of Handler which played several season ago at the festival.

By the Waters of Babylon is a somewhat stupefied and confused lyrical love story between two opposite type characters. Amando Durán plays Arthro, a Cuban writer exiled from Castro's Cuba. He is now working as a gardener in modern day Austin, Texas, where he is hired by widow Catherine, played by Catherine E. Coulson. Catherine is somewhat of a pariah in the neighborhood since her popular professor husband has mysteriously died. Somehow, the college group associates her with his death. She is also a manic talker and is always asking meddling questions and pushing potent cocktails to the gardener.

Babylon's first act is given over to Arturo, whose dialogue is saturated with politics, including a lengthy lecture on the rise and reign of Fidel Castro. The second act concerns the background of Catherine who we find was physically and mentally abused by her husband. She is bright but very insecure and does not want any man around her again. She talks mostly in a nonstop sequence of violent emoting in this act. The drama becomes almost lyrical at the end as Psalm 137 comes into play, "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion." There is a poetic dreamlike ending as they go to these "waters."

Director Bill Rauch has kept the scenes moving swiftly and Michael Ganio has designed a wonderful garden and patio set that is more weeds than flowers. It covers about one fourth of the three-sided theatre. The lighting by James F. Ingalls is spectacular.

Catherine E. Coulson and Armando Durán are wonderful in the two hour play. In fact, they are better than the play itself. This play needs two strong actors who can keep the audience interested if it is to play in other regional theatres.

By the Waters of Babylon runs through June 24th at the New Theatre.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is located in the college town of Ashland, Oregon just over the border from Northern California. It's a six hour drive from San Francisco on all freeways. Tickets can be purchased on line at or call the box office at 541-482-4331.

- Richard Connema

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