The outdoor type: Allen Elizabethan Theatre kicks off summer season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival with strong offerings

The sun is out, the temperature is rising, and it’s time to grab a blanket and pillow and claim your seat beneath the stars in OSF’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre. The outdoor stage opened a few weeks back with strong results. Here’s quick reviews of two of the shows.

And Remember Part 2 of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ epic THE GREAT SOCIETY opens July 27 in Ashland. After playing there through November 1, the show along with part 1 (ALL THE WAY) moves to Seattle Rep in November and December for an unheralded run in rep.

Why we go to the theatre.  Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez, left) and Proteus (Christiana Clark) come together to say good-bye in TWO GENTS. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Why we go to the theatre. Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez, left) and Proteus (Christiana Clark) come together to say good-bye in TWO GENTS. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

Of all the fault lines and social constructs in contemporary America – race, class, regional culture, religious affiliation – none is anywhere near as volatile on stage as gender. Upending, reversing or changing the audience’s received notion of what gender is or should be effortlessly injects a powerful note of provocative interest into almost any show, whether or not such “problematizing” of gender (as the academics call it) is itself even the chief subject.

For example, imagine a LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT with gender roles reversed, or a THREE SISTERS with transgendered men, or TRUE WEST with two sisters. Case in point would be Brian Bedford’s unforgettable performance as Lady Bracknell in 2011. Gender – the body’s socially constructed and always-being-performed role – is powerful stuff. And messing with it instantly sets the audience’s antennae a flutter. Therefore the simple fact that this production of THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA features an all women cast is one of its most interesting aspects from the very first moment. Right out of the gate this directorial choice by Sarah Rasmussen brings a lot to the show.

And it feels like women playing men is more unusual than men playing women. Perhaps because the theatre has a long tradition of men playing women, when women play men it feels more unusual, more threatening to our received sense of order, and our brains have to work a little harder to process what we are seeing into a consumable narrative. We are used to seeing men be feminine. But women being masculine? Not so much. Therefore, the fact that women are playing men here never loses its charge throughout the evening.

It would be hard to over state how appealing and sharp Christiana Clark and Sofia Jean Gomez are on stage as Proteus and Valentine. But I’ll try. Watching these two comport live in front of us, talk, laugh, and bluster is nothing short of magic. Clark has a blazing presence and force – this woman was made for the theatre. And her voice! Meanwhile Gomez is center stage again, fresh from an entrancing turn as Iris in this year’s now closed THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW. She is having quite a season. With her spikey, dyed punk hair style, Gomez is theatrical to the core. So much of a great theatrical experience depends on great actors, and with these two around (as well as the rest of the cast) there is plenty of delight on tap.

It’s not necessarily Shakey’s greatest work, but there’s still plenty to like here, thanks to the core concept and ample fashion hijinx. And watch out. K.T. Vogt is back, deadpanning down front with a dog. You can’t touch this.

Launce (K.T. Vogt) bemoans the unresponsiveness of Crab (Picasso) and his lack of sympathy for his master. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Launce (K.T. Vogt) bemoans the unresponsiveness of Crab (Picasso) and his lack of sympathy for his master. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Sylvia (Vivia Font) rejects the notes from Proteus delivered by and a disguised Julia (Erica Sullivan), who is serving as his page. Silvia's waiting woman (Vilma Silva) looks on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Sylvia (Vivia Font) rejects the notes from Proteus delivered by and a disguised Julia (Erica Sullivan), who is serving as his page. Silvia’s waiting woman (Vilma Silva) looks on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Syliva (Vivia Font) is won by Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez), but all is not well. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Syliva (Vivia Font) is won by Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez), but all is not well. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Crab (Picasso) is impassive to his master's (K.T. Vogt) needs. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Crab (Picasso) is impassive to his master’s (K.T. Vogt) needs. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez) and Thurio (Celeste Den) square off as the ladies go about their business (Royer Bockus, Vilma Silva, Vivia Font). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez) and Thurio (Celeste Den) square off as the ladies go about their business (Royer Bockus, Vilma Silva, Vivia Font). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Julia (Erica Sullivan, right) and her waiting woman, Lucetta (Judith-Marie Bergan), share tales and confidences. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Julia (Erica Sullivan, right) and her waiting woman, Lucetta (Judith-Marie Bergan), share tales and confidences. Photo by Jenny Graham.

RICHARD III

Following up on his wildly successful run in 2010’s Hamlet, you had to wonder what Dan Donohue would be like as Richard III. Would he be more or less the same presence on stage, just in a different role? Wouldn’t he remind us of Hamlet? Would he be fresh and new? And the answer is, thanks to his superb acting ability, the Donohue we knew from Hamlet is completely unrecognizable here. He is almost a different physical specimen on stage, with stringy hair and misshapen posture and a somewhat impaired brain. If you didn’t know it was Donohue, you might not even recognize him at first. This talented actor has created another fully formed character for us, and he is compulsively watchable for the entire duration of the show.

It’s actually hard to describe exactly what is wrong with Richard in this incarnation – or who he is. And that makes it more interesting as we seek to discover whether he is putting us or the other characters on, “acting”, or if he’s just a bit of a psychopath. A lot of the time Donohue is sort of blankly numb with a look on his face that would not be out of place on the proverbial village idiot. But then his Machiavellian intelligence flashes out, and we realize this in no dummy. This Richard does not wear all his emotions (or any) on his face. Therefore we are peering in to what may simply be a moral void, wondering what motivates him and what he will do next.

Donohue has that most prized of all an actor’s possessions – a voice that can create drama and character all by itself. His vocal signature has perhaps just a touch of tobacco to rough it up, but the clarity and fine detail is truly stunning.

He looks dumb.  Note to self: He isn't.  Richard (Dan Donohue) woos the grieving Lady Anne (Kate Hurster). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
He looks dumb. Note to self: He isn’t. Richard (Dan Donohue) woos the grieving Lady Anne (Kate Hurster). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
It's Shakespeare, so the body count has to be kept high.  Richard clears the way to the Crown through hangings, poison and beheadings. Ensemble. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
It’s Shakespeare, so the body count has to be kept high. Richard clears the way to the Crown through hangings, poison and beheadings. Ensemble. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Richard III (Dan Donohue) and Richmond (R.J. Foster) battle for the throne. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Richard III (Dan Donohue) and Richmond (R.J. Foster) battle for the throne. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Margaret (Franchelle Stewart Dorn, left) and the Duchess of York (Judith-Marie Bergan) have both lost husbands and sons because of their feuding houses. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Margaret (Franchelle Stewart Dorn, left) and the Duchess of York (Judith-Marie Bergan) have both lost husbands and sons because of their feuding houses. Photo by Jenny Graham.
At the urging of the King, Buckingham (Anthony Heald) promises peace with Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli), as Rivers (Al Espinosa) looks on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
At the urging of the King, Buckingham (Anthony Heald) promises peace with Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli), as Rivers (Al Espinosa) looks on. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The ghost of George, Duke of Clarence (Jeffrey King) haunts the dreams of his brother Richard (Dan Donohue). Photo by Jenny Graham.
The ghost of George, Duke of Clarence (Jeffrey King) haunts the dreams of his brother Richard (Dan Donohue). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Margaret (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) laments the wrongs done to the House of Lancaster as Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and her sons (Tyler Joseph Kubat, Javier Muñoz) look on. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Margaret (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) laments the wrongs done to the House of Lancaster as Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and her sons (Tyler Joseph Kubat, Javier Muñoz) look on. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and her brother Anthony, Earl Rivers (Al Espinosa) give audience to the Duke of Gloucester. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Queen Elizabeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and her brother Anthony, Earl Rivers (Al Espinosa) give audience to the Duke of Gloucester. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Richard III (Dan Donohue) prepares to battle the Earl of Richmond. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Richard III (Dan Donohue) prepares to battle the Earl of Richmond. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Henry, Earl of Richmond (R.J. Foster), prays for strength for the battle, as Richard (Dan Donohue) seeks his rest. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Henry, Earl of Richmond (R.J. Foster), prays for strength for the battle, as Richard (Dan Donohue) seeks his rest. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.