My annual trip to Ashland for theater has never been more of a pleasure than this spring. Three nights and five plays later I am in the thrall of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — the actors, directors, set and costume designers.
My only suggested improvement would be to shorten Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The play started at 8 p.m. and ended just before midnight — a very long evening.
I had never seen “Guys and Dolls,” but friends who had experienced many productions proclaimed it the best yet. Directed by playwright Mary Zimmerman (“The White Snake”), the humor was continuous. Jeremy Peter Johnson, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Kate Hurster in the key roles sang with clarity and emotion. The dancers leaped and spun and danced to perfection. Period costumes and a set that included neon signs, the mission storefront and an airplane crossing the ceiling evoked surprise and delight. Daniel T. Parker as the sizable Nicely-Nicely Johnson makes this minor role into a major achievement with his singing and dancing on tabletops.
This year’s “Much Ado About Nothing” features a diverse cast in modern dress, pink flowers suspended from the ceiling and enough audience interaction to win over anyone who might not be a Shakespeare fan. Danforth Comins as Benedick is a riot as he struts his stuff and engages in the back-and-forth of love and disdain with Christiana Clark as Beatrice. Their physical comedy is impressive, featuring “hiding” behind chairs, crawling across the stage and rolling down the proscenium steps. Given that neither poor Hero’s fiancee nor her father believes her denial of lapsed morality, it is heartening that at the play’s conclusion, although reunited with Claudio, she appears more relieved and resigned than giddy with happiness.
The staging of “Pericles” came as a complete surprise. The story of a shipwrecked king losing his beloved wife and child to be plunged in despair and finally reunited has been enhanced by the addition of original music and lyrics by Jack Herrick. The storyteller keeps the audience informed of the complicated plot in the manner of a folktale told over and over, the staging of the scenes at sea is convincing — waves projected on the back of the set feel quite threatening — and in the small Thomas theater, the audience easily feels the anguish of Pericles and champions his journey. I wasn’t the only audience member in tears at the conclusion.
I had been advised that “Fingersmith” by Alexa Junge from the novel by Sarah Waters could be confusing. Reading a bit of the book set in Victorian times helped to follow the story of the two girls, one raised in an uncle’s creepy household without social life or education beyond reading to him, and the other raised in a London den of thieves. In three acts the play mirrors the book with major twists. The audience’s loud gasps at the end of the first two acts prove the success of the plot.
The changing destiny of women in our world is a theme throughout this year’s plays. You have the weakness of the morphine-addicted Mary in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It’s hard to tell whether her husband’s drinking or her decline into disability is most responsible but the family malaise has ruined every member.
Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” won’t leave the man she loves who refuses to marry her. You have the suffering and strength of Marina in “Pericles”, who is sold to a brothel but refuses to succumb to its ways and Hero in “Much Ado” who must fight her father and her betrothed to defend her honor. You have the opposites of insecurity and confidence in Beatrice, of greed and love in the women of “Fingersmith.” Too many of these women are sadly prized for their virginity, beauty, class status, and for financial gain, but they eventually are able to find their strengths, assert their own morality, and ask for and get what they want.
The Oregon Shakespeare Theater in Ashland runs through October in three venues. For schedules, tickets and information, visit osfashland.org.