Posts Tagged ‘oregon-shakespeare-festival’
The Three Sisters of Greenwich Village | THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW by Lorraine Hansberry at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a complex, unexpected portrait of the early 1960′s
Perhaps even more moving than the story at hand, SIGN is a bittersweet reminder of all the other great American plays that might have been – had Lorraine Hansberry not died at 34
Say you parachuted in from Mars with no knowledge of 20th century American theatre history and were hustled into a dark space to see some plays. First it’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN (maybe the production now on Broadway with Denzel Washington), and then THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW (maybe the immaculate production now on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Would you ever guess that both these works were written by the same late 20′s / early 30′s playwright? Probably not.
On the one hand, RAISIN, the big play about a black American family in Chicago, is well known and constantly on somewhere. On the other, SIGN, the complex portrait of social and familial turbulence in the West Village in 1964 among a mostly white cast, is rarely seen. As the two main data points left to us from Lorraine Hansberry’s brief life, the plays could not be more different in terms of the worlds and characters they investigate. They suggest a vital and wide-ranging artistic intelligence that was only getting started. And so a lot of the appeal of seeing the moving production of SIGN now on at OSF is marveling at Hansberry’s scope and ambition. You can’t help wondering what other plays she would have given us. What if she had lived to be 70 or 80? Gazing out from numerous portraits, usually with a blazing, confident smile, Hansberry looks like a stylish cosmopolitan prophet way ahead of her time – but potentially at home in any.
SIGN covers a lot of subjects: marital politics, race, class, feminism, substance abuse, political corruption, conformity and wayward traveling. If you go in expecting another “story about the 1960′s”, you’re going to be surprised – but not disappointed. For one thing, it’s 1963/4, so the full on 60′s haven’t ignited yet. There is still so much to come that the characters and indeed author don’t know about, even if we do. The lives here are more interesting than the familiar narratives of either civil rights struggle, rock and roll hedonism, anti-war protests, or back to the land communes. This is not a play about issues, it’s about puzzling, maddening, complicated people who happen to be living in a specific time and place.
The setting is the Greenwich Village apartment of Iris Parodus Brustein (Sofia Jean Gomez) and her husband Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel). Iris is a struggling actor, Sidney is a failed night club entrepreneur who has recently latched on to the money-making (not) idea of buying a local newspaper. Though married, the two loudly grind the relationship gears almost constantly, and you wait for one of them to storm out or explode in frustration. Iris and Sidney are together but they don’t seem to know each other very well. It’s fascinating to watch these two try to find their notes and course in life, with limited success. Sidney is a bit of a blowhard and pushes Iris around, sometimes without realizing it. But Iris yearns for her own life and takes real steps to achieve independence, which keeps Sidney on his toes.
Around the Brustein center orbits a system of other characters. There’s David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), the gay playwright who lives upstairs and is realizing his first big success; Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins), a new politician running for reform who wants to win Sidney’s support; Alton Scales (Armando McClain), Sidney’s former communist friend; Max (Peter Frechette), the artist in a beret; and Iris’s two sisters Mavis, living a life of social conformity (at least on the outside), and Gloria (Vivia Font), a wonderfully rendered and upsetting “call girl”.
It’s a long ride (close to three hours), but I was so captivated, without being able to clearly say why, that I saw it a second time just to be sure. It holds up. This is one of those plays that is perfect for OSF and that OSF can do perfectly.
Late in act two, there is a sort of dream sequence as several of the characters whirl in a vortex of destruction and desperation. This may be one of the scenes that stays with me the most. The world we think we know of the 60′s may be out there, but inside the apartment unique stories unfold – and lives fall apart.
Lorraine, we hardly knew you. But at least you gave us these two plays to savor as we consider how much more you probably had to say.
Oregon. Where else can you have it all – and on the same day? There’s the great indoors and the vast outside. The food, the music, the coast, the trails, the coffee, the peaks, the rivers, the museums, the theatre, the ballet. The human culture and the stunning natural landscape. When it comes to the west coast life style – which is defined by this mix and match of indoors and out – you’re going to have to look pretty hard to find the same variety of activities available on any given day in the 33rd state.
For example, in southern Oregon, there’s plenty of time to ski to Crater Lake in the AM and settle into your seat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the PM. And even see two shows if you can stay awake. One day. Two worlds. Same place.
Just another day in Oregon.
World premiere by Lynn Nottage about America’s poorest city is highlight of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 season
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced plays for its 80th anniversary 2015 season today.
As always, the most exciting aspect of any OSF season is finding out what newly commissioned world premieres are in store. With the country’s largest acting company at the ready, and strong producing partnerships stretching from Ashland all the way to Broadway, OSF is uniquely positioned in the American theatre eco system to nurture and champion important new plays. The question then becomes – which writers get the nod?
From OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a visionary, ten year (2008-17) initiative which aims to commission up to 37 new plays about moments of change in American history, the news this year is fantastic. Though AmRev’s track record to date has been mixed, it is thrilling to learn that 2015 will feature a world premiere by the astonishing Lynn Nottage (@LynnBrooklyn). Dodging the artistic dead ends of whimsy, wackiness, “magical realism”, and manic profanity that entrance so many of her contemporaries in the American theatre, Nottage is the real deal and writes plays that matter. As good playwrights must be, she is an activist. A new work by this talented Brooklynite is national news, and Oregonians are extremely lucky to be among the first to see it.
“I am truly excited to return to OSF with the world premiere of my new play, SWEAT,” Nottage said recently. “With the outstanding support of OSF, I have spent the last two years visiting Reading, Pennsylvania, examining how the de-industrial revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century is reshaping the American narrative. The play is inspired by interviews that I conducted and my observations of a once thriving city that is now grappling with how to reclaim its lost identity.”
The play is set at the end of the last millennium. A group of close friends share everything: drinks, secrets, love and laughter. But their world is upended by a shake-up at the steel plant where they work and an unspeakable act that has repercussions over two generations. SWEAT is actually one of several plays Nottage is writing based on her experience and interviews in Reading. As previously noted here, the playwright recently received a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation to undertake her research for this play. Find out more on her web site.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nottage, here’s an interview with her from Guernica:
“So much of writing now is about pleasing the powers that be, because the playwrights are dependent on the beneficence of the theaters.”
“Theater can give three-dimensions to two-dimensional stories.”
“A play can be like an injection—it can poke the needle directly into you and infuse you with life and humanity.”
“My plays often begin with an idea that haunts me. I’ll wake up in the morning thinking about it. With RUINED, I was haunted, and I had no idea it would have the impact it did.”
“For some reason, black male stories have found more of a space on film and television now, but as an African-American woman writer, our stories remain frightening or alien and are not invited to be part of the mainstream conversation, even though we’re a key part of shaping American culture. You take out black American women from American culture and a lot of white babies don’t get raised. We were at the forefront of the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, but somehow black women get removed from the conversation. That’s what I’m looking at in BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK—the history of omission.”
“The issue that is pressing for me right now is poverty. I feel as though the class divide is getting larger and larger, and for me it’s a deeply personal story. I have friends who existed in the middle class for years and now can’t feed their families. And when you’re in your twenties or even thirties there’s a certain level of resilience, but when you’re in your forties or fifties, and you’ve been working twenty-five years at the same job and that job’s suddenly removed and you don’t have any options, what are you going to do? That’s increasingly the narrative of America, and it’s being ignored.”
So put SWEAT by Lynn Nottage, which opens in OSF’s Bowmer Theatre in July 2015, on your calendar.
What else is on in 2015 in Ashland?
Eugene O’Neill’s marathon LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT will play in the small Thomas Theatre. There’s a new musical with a book by Jeff Whitty (and music by the Go-Go’s). There’s some Shakespeare (three plays identified so far). Mary Zimmerman is directing GUYS AND DOLLS. And there’s one play yet to be announced.
And strangely, OSF is staging the clunky 19th century melodrama that nearly drove Eugene O’Neill’s father, actor James O’Neill, insane after he performed the lead role 4,000 times over 30 years – THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Dumas. But maybe this play was necessary to give us Gene.
Full list below.
ANGUS BOWMER THEATRE
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by William Shakespeare (February 20 – November 1)
GUYS AND DOLLS Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Joe Swerling and Abe Burrows (February 22 – November 1)
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
FINGERSMITH Adapted by Alexa Junge from the book by Sarah Waters (February 21 – July 12)
Directed by Bill Rauch
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (April 15 – October 31)
Directed by Stan Lai
SWEAT by Lynn Nottage (July 29 – October 31)
PERICLES by William Shakespeare (February 26 – November 1)
Directed by Joseph Haj
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill (March 25– October 31)
Directed by Christopher Liam Moore
TBA, to be announced in late Spring 2014 (July 7 – November 1)
ALLEN ELIZABETHAN THEATRE
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare (June 2 – October 9)
Directed by Bill Rauch
HEAD OVER HEELS Book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics from the catalog by the Go-Go’s (June 3 – October 10)
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO Adapted from the book by Alexandre Dumas (June 4 – October 11)
THE COCOANUTS have landed | Audience powerless to resist ageless, madcap hilarity at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ladies and gentlemen, THE COCOANUTS have landed. Not in Florida, the setting for the 1929 Marx Brothers film that is the departure point for this newly adapted stage musical version by Mark Bedard, but much closer by, in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. And in what may prove to be one of the runaway hits of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, a cast of nuttily comic talents has taken up an irresistible and very loud residence in the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the next nine months. You have been warned.
On opening weekend at OSF, the order of shows matters. Just as any one play has a beginning, middle, and end, a group of four plays over three days works together in a certain way. Savvy planning takes maximum advantage of how to affect and entrance the audience, ultimately sending everyone home with a great overall buzz. It’s a carefully organized four act production.
This year THE COCOANUTS was perfectly positioned as the main event act three on Saturday night. Diehards committed to all opening shows had already seen a solid if somewhat unexciting TEMPEST as act one on Friday, and an unforgettable rendition of the rarely produced THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW Saturday afternoon as act two. But neither of those shows could be called a comedy. And if there is one thing a full house in a theatre longs to do, especially if they have traveled from afar to be part of a multi day gala celebration (the only way to describe opening weekend at OSF), it is laugh. No force on earth is stronger than the desire of an assembled audience to laugh. And on Saturday night, the floodgates finally opened and flew right off the hinges.
There’s two parts here to the fun: the show, and the actors. While the show itself is solid and benefits from referencing a much loved film, the real attraction of COCOANUTS is a dazzling cavalcade of OSF super stars. Much as a lot of the appeal of the Marx Brothers was the Marx Brothers themselves, as opposed to the plots they found themselves enmeshed in, this is the kind of show that succeeds or fails on the strength of brilliant physical comedy. The actors have to be good enough that they can simply stand there, look at you, and it (meaning your ability to not laugh) is all over. Mission accomplished.
But if there is one aspect of the structure of the show to call out, it is the reliance throughout on short but recurring, hair-raising improv segments. Like a pause at the top after a long roller coaster climb up and before the thundering descent, realizing that the cast, in front of a sold out house, is suddenly off book and airborne with no net or harness causes no small degree of terror (for us and them, no doubt). Will they pull it off? It takes that crazy moment of pure chaos first before the flipside of uncontainable joy when they bring it home. And on opening night, the improv moments were so good they should have all been scripted in for the rest of the run to save everyone some extra inches of stomach lining.
Commanding the shock troops of mirth is Mark Bedard as Mr. Hammer (Groucho). Bedard is fast, hyper attentive, and very much in control. On opening night, during one of those inevitable moments when an audience member decided that, yes, this quiet pause was finally the time to unfurl that glazed donut wrapped (in several layers) in what sounded like brittle Christmas present paper (were they a plant?), Bedard was instantly on it, instructing the poor suckah: “Yeah, go ahead and unwrap it now.” Hilarious. Along with a speechless Brent Hinkley as Harpo and John Tufts as Chico, Bedard leads his three musketeers into a night of endless technicolor laughs – and several prolonged scenes of spontaneity.
There’s plenty of madcap hi jinx and breathless shenanigans to keep the laughs rolling up the lower slopes of the mighty Siskiyou. But for some actors, just standing there, or making the slightest move, is sufficient to bring the house down.
Brent Hinkley. Even if you don’t know him by name, you know him. He’s that drunk guy with a ruddy nose, listing to and fro, or swiping at a butterfly in his underwear like an overgrown toddler. He’s the village idiot with a heart (if not brain) of gold. He’s the guy roused from sleep wearing an absurd vintage Shakepeare era sleeping cap. Hinkley is a master at filling in the borders of OSF scenes with such exquisitely funny detail that you can easily miss what is really going on, because you can’t look away from him. Hinkley is more center stage here than in other shows, but treat yourself some time and just keep your eyes on Hinkley the whole time he’s on stage and watch what he does.
And another: K. T. Vogt. As the bruising, outstandingly funny Mrs. Potter, who is a mother-on-a-mission (namely get that daughter married to the fella with a future, not the desk clerk), Vogt is simply too good to be believed. Channeling some of Hinkley’s butterfly chasing elan, Vogt is often just outside the narrative (and one step behind it), frumping and woozily swinging an overloaded handbag at a world that just won’t behave. She is quite possibly the single funniest person in this show – which is saying something. Unfortunately none of the production photos feature Vogt in code red mother mode, but for anyone who has seen the show, an indelible image of her teetering around stage in a somewhat cavernous dress, hefting that god almighty handbag while trying to maintain Victorian era standards, will be burned into memory. At one precious moment, pulling the rug out from under her daughter’s infatuation with the desk clerk, Mrs. Potter clarifies that there is one way to know if he (Eduardo Placer) is “just” a clerk: “One who clerks, Polly, is a clerk.” Bam. Case closed.
But don’t answer yet. You also get David Kelly, Kate Mulligan, and Jennie Greenberry. The list goes on. But in the interest of public safety and order, we should probably stop at this point.
One more improv gem (and I don’t think this is a spoiler alert as it appeared to be a one night only event). Late in the opening performance, as considerable comedic firepower had already been deployed and wheeled off stage, funny man John Tufts was delivering some pointed comments to director David Ivers where he sat in the audience, when suddenly he said something like: “Most of this show was directed by David Ivers. Except for this part.”
Uh oh! With zero warning, there we were again at the top of that roller coaster summit, plummeting in space, holding the person next to us, or screaming with our hands held high above our heads if we were really tough. The brilliant aspect of this particular foray into the unknown is that you got the feeling Bedard did not even know what was coming. Was this purely Tufts and Hinkley, deciding to insert a little something into the center of a mainstage OSF show? Do they have to, you know, CLEAR IT WITH ANYONE BEFORE DECIDING TO DO THAT?? You’d love to know. After a long and skyborne double twisting backflip, as the landing came into view and you realized Tufts was indeed going to stick it (and the roller coaster was going to stay on the tracks), Bedard could do nothing but stare deadpan at the audience for a good minute of hysterical house-destroying laughter as if to acknowledge: “So, that happened.”
It did happen. It happened again and again. And it will keep happening until November 2.
So don’t delay, visit Florida (aka Ashland) today!
Now Hear This: Oregon Shakespeare Festival to use electronic amplification for all outdoor shows this summer
There’s no way to soft pedal it: For many theatre devotees (which include both the audience as well as practitioners up on stage), electronic amplification of the actor’s voice is a kind of antichrist. With technology in the theatre providing an increasing array of special effects these days, the use of the naked human voice, and the audience’s direct connection with it (at least in straight plays – musicals are another matter), remains a stubborn holdout, with amplification being a kind of red line, no go area.
But amplification is on the rise – sometimes in the most unlikely of traditional theatre centers. After being somewhat shocked to find that three of the four opening plays (all indoor) of the 2014 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival use amplification to some degree (THE TEMPEST amplifies several speeches by Ariel, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS amplifies the entire opening monologue, THE COCOANUTS is amplified in entirety from start to finish), I caught up with Artistic Director Bill Rauch to ask what was up.
While expressing strong support for the naked human voice, which he sees as central to the theatre experience, Rauch also presented the arrival of increasing amplification on OSF’s outdoor stage as an inevitability given recent trends. To some degree, Rauch inherited this issue, and he said that OSF had been receiving complaints about difficulty hearing in the upper deck of the outdoor stage before he assumed the top job in 2007. But in recent years, complaints about hearing have become “epidemic” and “we had to do something about it.”
So what are the trends Rauch sees that got us to this point? There’s the audience, the actors, and the directors to consider.
On the audience side, Rauch believes the rock and roll generation is more comfortable with amplification and even expects it. Perhaps after attending a few too many WHO concerts, graying baby boomers NEED amplification just to get up to the level previous generations would have been at. Rauch also believes that more of the OSF audience is not used to having to lean in and listen hard to hear.
When it comes to actors, training today puts less emphasis on Shakespeare, and it’s harder for younger company members to stand and deliver to the nosebleed seats. For directors, there is a move away from presentational “park and bark” styles of oration, and more of a focus on relationships between characters. As characters face each other more to talk, it becomes harder to hear them.
Rauch also tried to spin the move toward outdoor amplification (which he calls by the mellifluous name “sound reinforcement”) as an issue of equity and access. Namely, “friends of the festival and critics” are somewhat oblivious to the issue. Front and center in the plush real estate where they typically sit, hearing is not a problem. But up in the cheap seats it is, and this discrepancy threatens OSF’s ability to bring the full experience of the outdoor stage to all audience members.
While that could be true, you can’t help wondering if the real problem today is that OSF simply has an outdoor venue that is too large for the type of theatre it now wants to do there. How unfortunate that the only tool in the toolbox to solve this problem is to fundamentally change the nature of the experience for all.
This summer will be an experiment on the outdoor stage, where all three shows will be amplified. Rauch said OSF will see how it goes and no doubt learn a lot.
Will the traditionalists be pacified? It remains to be seen. It’s worth noting that the art of traditional, unamplified Shakespeare (indoors and out) is alive and well in other parts of the world. And if a recent viewing of Mary Rylance in London’s Shakespeare’s Globe production of TWELFTH NIGHT at the Belasco in New York is any indicator, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the thrill of a commanding, unadorned, world class voice filling a large space with Shakespeare’s magic. Amplification, according to an actor friend, “makes the sound artificial and detracts from the immediacy of live theater.” And if the liveness of theatre is one of its strongest defining assets, what are we giving away if now everyone on stage sounds a little more like everyone on the screen? A lot.
What would Mark Rylance say about the trend toward amplification on OSF’s outdoor stage? Probably nothing very printable in a family-oriented blog!
Leading the way: THE GREAT SOCIETY, Part 2 of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ epic at OSF, is a leading US theatre event in 2014
If you can only catch one play this year at OSF, the world premiere of the second half of Robert Schenkkan’s epic about President Johnson is probably the one.
This will be one of the more interesting new plays to hit the US stage this year. And you’ll want to get those tickets early.
Who says America doesn’t want real plays about history? ALL THE WAY posts another strong week at #13 in sales
For this past week, it racked up $726K, which was good enough for 13th place. Not bad for one of those dull history plays, right?
Must mean it’s pretty damn good.
If you missed it at OSF in 2012, you’ll get another chance this fall somewhere in the PNW…
Thin edge of the wedge. Increasing use of amplification endangers essence of OSF experience: the unique, intimate power of unaided human voice
UPDATE 2.24 Allen Elizabethan Theatre getting new sound system. All actors will be miced in all outdoor shows this summer.
To theatre purists, among whom can probably be counted a good percentage of both the OSF company and audience, nothing is more central to the electrifying experience that is live theatre than the unaided human voice. You don’t pay $100 to sit outside under the stars and experience Shakespeare in traditional format unless you feel strongly that there is something special about this style of delivery. Interpretations of plays change, on stage effects and technology evolve, but what has always been the same, from the time of old Bill to now, is that nothing got in between the actor’s lips and the audience’s ears: filling a space with sound depended entirely on the power and clarity of the actor’s voice.
When the first musical came to Ashland a few years back, so too did the practice of electronic amplification of the actor’s voice. Based on the current production of THE COCOANUTS, the practice now is to mic not just during the songs of a musical, but throughout the entire show. The practice is also being used increasingly for effect in straight plays (such as Ariel’s songs in THE TEMPEST) as well as on the outdoor stage.
It seems worth reflecting that electronic amplification totally changes the essence of a live OSF show – and for the worse. For one thing, the sound is notably inferior. On opening night of THE COCOANUTS, levels changed as characters moved in and out of center stage. The absolute quality of amplified sound was also worse, making it harder to hear certain high speed passages. Taking an actor’s voice and amplifying it degrades the quality of the output by definition. There is no case in which the quality and texture of the output is enhanced – though in a loud room audibility may be improved. In the case of THE COCOANUTS, while mic-ing during songs is understandable, there was no need to amplify during the rest of the play at all, and doing so degraded the overall quality of the live experience. This should be a concern for actors as well as the audience. Mic-ing makes you sound worse – which is in no one’s best interest.
Amplifying an actor’s voice unavoidably changes it. It is no longer 100% human. Done poorly, the effect can be simply awful. But even when done well, the feeling and tone created by amplification is completely different from the traditional live experience that keeps OSP audiences coming back. It feels more like TV or film. For purists or anyone else who believes that the essence of the live experience at a place like OSF is the human voice, this should be cause for concern. For hundreds of years, live theatre has never needed electricity to be electrifying.