ASHLAND, Ore. —  It was snowing on the Siskiyou Pass but my daughter, a theater student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, was waiting for me and my tickets to the opening plays of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season. Wind and snow and freezing rain: Was it worth it? Absolutely. The four plays we saw on weekend of Feb. 25 portend, as the Bard might say, an outstanding, if not thrilling, season ahead.

Opening night: ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I admit to dragging my heels, even in the cold wind, on the way to the Angus Bowmer theater to watch the star-crossed lovers. How many times can one watch them look their last and expire tragically in the Capulet tomb without thinking, oh, just get on with it. Is there anyway to breathe freshness into the timeless tale?

There is, and director Laird Williamson and his cast did it. Moving the work in time and space is tricky business, and having watched fiascoes such as Henry IV set in Depression Era Texas (hark, here comes Wales to attack the oil rigs), Two Gentlemen of Verona in Amish Country and Romeo and Juliet on the Day of the Dead, I am always jittery at such prospects.

Williamson, however, strikes gold with the decision to put the play in Alta, Calif., in 1840  in the soon-to-vanish world of hidalgos and vaqueros.  The warring Capulets and Montagues become two landed Mexican families in a world that is as doomed as the young lovers.

The strutting cowboys in their spurs and chaps are the tinder boxes of emotion, looking for quarrels; the ladies in their sumptuous gowns are utterly romantic. And the Americanos are already coming, although no one has yet found gold at Sutter’s Creek, we all know what is going to happen.

 The Prince, who opens and closes the play, becomes Captain Prince, U.S. Commander of Verona and Juliet’s suitor is Capt. Paris, the general’s nephew. The rationale for marrying a daughter of an old Mexican family to the arriving American power becomes all the more understandable if not urgent.

It all works magnificently.

Visually, it’s a just as fascinating. The set consists of a stark red wall in front of which is a wooden, web-like structure that becomes, in turn, the town square where all the quarrels take place, the scene of the Capulet’s party where the lovers meet, the famous balcony scene, the cell of the Friar Lawrence and the tomb where the lovers die.

While these are not the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen, the two young actors portraying the lovers (Alejandra Escalante and Daniel José Molina) are utterly credible, and I have a feeling that they are going to grow into their roles throughout this season. Meanwhile, one surprising and delightful aspect of the cast is the Isabell Monk O’Connor’s performance as Juliet’s nurse, accompanied by Joe Wegner as the droll servant. There is, of course, little comic relief in this tragedy, but this pair provide it here.


‘The White Snake’

I always have the highest expectations for Mary Zimmerman’s modern takes on ancient tales, and “The White Snake” surpassed this.  

She has adapted the Chinese fable  of a snake that transforms itself into a human and marries a mortal man. According to program notes in the oldest versions, the snake is a demon, and innocent man is rescued by a wise monk. Over the centuries, the snake has “shed its skin” many times: In this version, the snake, on a quest for knowledge, comes down off her remote mountain and falls in love with a man. She brings him good fortune and transforms his life too. It’s the religious man who is determined to destroy the marriage and save the man from this unnatural alliance. Hmm.

Told with puppets and great clouds of silk that become mountains, lakes and storms, this work is captivating from the moment it opens with a white paper snake poring over scrolls to its mysterious conclusion. It’s sheer theatrical magic.

Sublime, stunning and spectacular, this is the play to take your kids to and to thoroughly enjoy yourself.

‘The Seagull’

If my daughter had to drag me to “Romeo and Juliet,” I had to haul her to Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” A friend of hers had to slog his way through the script. It’s so Russian. All they do is talk.

But a free ticket is a free ticket, and she went along with me anyway, saying she could always leave at intermission if she could not take any more.

 At intermission, however, no one could have budged her from her seat.

That’s how Chekhov is. Ill-performed, it can set one fidgeting, if not dozing, for several hours, but when it’s well done, it unfolds the human soul in layer after intriguing layer. This one, directed by Libby Appel, is superb.

Part of it is the staging. The story of the actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina and her lover, the writer Trigorin,  and the young people they destroy takes place on the lake-side estate of Irina’s brother. The lake is the home of the seagull, a creature so easily murdered — in a moment — by man.

 In the festival’s New Theatre, with seats around the “stage” on three sides, the theater becomes this lake, with rich blue tiles covering the floor and flowing up over the open wall. Set pieces are moved on and off the floor but the overwhelming impression is that we are on the edge of a fathomless lake.

That’s is just the setting, however. What powers this show are the extraordinary performances — to a person — of this cast. They come to life: Irina’s tormented son; her brother who never did anything he meant to do; the self-satisfied doctor, the frustrated daughter of the estate manager, and the tragic Nina — the seagull of the work — are all mesmerizing in the roles.

By the finish, you’re not just looking down on the lake; if you haven’t fallen all the way in, you’re being battered by the stormy winds around it. If you have always thought you should appreciate Chekhov more, or always wished you liked him more than you do, this is the play to see.

‘Animal Crackers’

Finally for recession relief and pure escapist fun, there’s “Animal Crackers,” Henry Wishcamper’s adaptation of the classic Marx Brother’s work. The George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind work premiered on stage in 1928. But in 2012, what most of us know is the 1930 film with the zany plot and endless gags and wisecracks. In this polished, stylish, lavish production, the actors recreate the antics, the voices and mannerisms of the crazy Marx Brothers so well, the effect is to catapult the audience back in time. It’s entirely possible to believe you are watching Harpo, Groucho, Chico and Gummo, not just in glorious Technicolor, but as they might have romped through the Long Island estate of the pompous Mrs. Rittenhouse, circa 1928, before the Crash.

Skewering the rich — not an untimely sport in 2012 — it’s hilarious, nutty, and sheer fun.

Coming up

And this was just the opening of the season. Opening March 18 is Shakespeare’s rarely performed “Troilus and Cressida,” set in the modern Middle East.

Coming up April 18 is “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” an adaptation created by the festival’s director Bill Rauch and Tracy Young from Euripides, Shakespeare and Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical version of the fairy tale.

The summer season, opening in June in the outdoor Elizabethan theater includes “Henry V,” “The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,” and “As You Like It.”

As part of the Festival’s commissioned works on American history, they will also be presenting world premiers of “All the Way,” by Robert Schenkkan, about the Lydon Johnson years (July 25) ; and Universe’s “Party People” (July 3).

I sense another trip to Ashland soon.

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