Posts Tagged ‘oregon-shakespeare-festival’
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 to bring forth 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: “If he clerks, he’s 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 up 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!
Not necessarily. Along with the mostly good reviews comes the unsettling fact that the show has been at the TKTS booth for a while. It was even there on opening night, and has been every day since. With a run currently planned through the end of June, that can’t be making the producers very happy.
Even for a great show, Broadway is tough. Even if a show does well at OSF and sells out at Boston’s ART, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will triumph in New York. Even if ALL THE WAY playing in rep with THE GREAT SOCIETY (part 2 of the story) this fall somewhere in the Northwest is one of the most exciting theatre events in the US in 2014 (as it is sure to be), that doesn’t mean it would work in New York.
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.
A world class theatre deserves a world class production building | OSF’s brand new $7.2M facility in Talent, OR is the largest of its kind anywhere in the US
For years – many, many years – OSF has made do with a collection of smaller spaces scattered around downtown Ashland for all the festival’s set and costume needs. But with the completion of an all new 71,000 square foot, state of the art, as of yet unnamed production building in next door Talent, Oregon, America’s largest repertory theatre has just taken a huge step forward in its capabilities. Everything about the new building, which will fully come into its own during the 2015 season, is better. It’s big enough to drive a golf ball in – and come nowhere near close to hitting the wall (unless you’re really good). There is no other theatre building like this in the US.
Watching Jim Clark, the manager of the place, give a tour, it’s pretty much a kid in a candy shop situation. Clark can barely contain his glee/disbelief that they now have this monster “red barn”. It’s about as good as it gets.
Production photos from THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW by Lorraine Hansberry at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
And here comes opening weekend way down in the sunny south. Oregon’s sunny south, that is – Ashland.
One of the most exciting shows of the 2014 season is Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely seen THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW. And based on the photos, this one looks stunning.
All time hall of fame: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM by August Wilson at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (2005)
In October of 2005 when August Wilson passed away, a top notch production of his first play, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, was on in Ashland.
This was one of those OSF ensembles you dream about. But when Kevin Kenerly’s Levy (currently appearing in Portland in Portland Playhouse’s production of JITNEY at the Winningstad) jabbed his knife skyward and bitterly addressed god directly, the experience moved towards the eternal.