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June 1, 2006

Heading: Stage Matters, Bard Trek: The Ashland Season, by William Kowinski, photo of actors in "Intimate Apparel"

North Coast theatergoers are among the 120,000 annually who trek to Ashland for several days of plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This column is about plays they can see this summer. I'll have more on the OSF experience next week, along with a review of Chicago at North Coast Rep, which opens June 1.

Ashland is tucked in a serene valley sheltered by hills and mountains, gently suggesting the topography of Shangri-La. The restored full version of Frank Capra's Lost Horizons reveals that mythical place to be a refuge for the best art and thought of a besieged humanity. After a few days of experiencing Ashland and seeing plays in two of the best-designed theatres I've ever encountered, I was prepared to endorse the phrase used by OSF publicist Eddie Wallace, who called Ashland a "theatre Shangri-La."

Of the four plays I saw on our trek in mid-May, two were by contemporary playwrights. Up, by Bridget Carpenter, is being produced for only the second time anywhere. Set in today's San Pedro, its central character is a man (played by Richard Howard) who once became famous for attaching weather balloons to a lawn chair and soaring to airliner height (based on a true incident), but is still searching for something as fulfilling for his life's work. He adopts as his inspiration the Frenchman (U. Jonathan Toppo) who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974 (also a real incident). But the play is as much about his wife, a letter-carrier whose faith in him is waning under financial pressure (Terri McMahon) and their teenage son (John Tufts), who befriends a pregnant teenage girl (Christine Albright) new in town, and her deep-drawling, Tarot-reading, entrepreneurial aunt (Robin Goodrin Nordli).

Crisply directed by Michael Barakiva, with energetic and pitch-perfect performances, the play is very funny, so you might not realize until later that every character did something very cruel to another. Playwright Carpenter worked on the play specifically for this production and it takes wonderful advantage of the capabilities of the 300-seat New Theatre, with panels flying open and the tight-wire over the suburban kitchen. The ending is a problem, but it's an involving and provocative play throughout.

Intimate Apparel by contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage is set in early 20th century New York, and concerns a modest young African American seamstress (Gwendolyn Mulamba) whose correspondence with a man from Barbados while he is laboring on the Panama Canal (Erik LaRay Harvey) leads to marriage. Their lives intersect with a wealthy and lonely white socialite (Terri McMahon), a ragtime piano-playing prostitute (Tiffany Adams), a Jewish cloth merchant (Gregory Linington) and a maternal landlady (Perri Gaffney).

This drama (directed by Timothy Bond) uses graceful language, generous acting and expressive staging (with scenic design by Richard Hay) to portray complicated and often warm relationships, in an historical context in which we see class, race, ethnicity, gender roles, economics and even technology influencing the fates of the characters. The audience in the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre was spellbound, and audibly got the main character's final secret, expressed in a single gesture.

Lynn Nottage is a fast-rising playwright, and Intimate Apparel is a solidly built and subtle play. But the more eccentrically structured and uneven Up had the virtue of being continually surprising, and provoked a lot of spirited discussion and differences of opinion on the play's meaning and merits of various characters (such talk is frequent around Ashland). Catch it if you can before it closes on June 23. Intimate Apparel continues through October.

[Photo above: In Intimate Apparel, Esther Mills (Gwendolyn Mulamba) endures Mrs. Dickson's (Perri Gaffney) exhortations to join the engagement party downstairs and stop feeling sorry for herself. Photo: David Cooper.]

In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Kevin Kenerly and Jeff Cummings are fully satisfying in the male leads, but it is the women that distinguish the production, directed by Peter Amster. Heather Robison and Julie Oda as the young ladies, and Judith-Marie Bergan as a more handsome than usual Lady Bracknell, emphasize the sometimes neglected female half of the play, adding new colors to this classic comedy. And the wit still works.

But what of the Bard? OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Stage opens in early June with The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (along with the play getting the most advance buzz, Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac). King John begins in the New Theatre on July 4. But the season is anchored in the Bowmer by Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, directed by OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel.

It begins with a burst of color, music and motion — thanks to the excellent sound system as well as the staging, it duplicates in the audience the mood of the characters as we first see them. The court of the mythical Sicilia is joyful at the reunion of its King with his childhood friend, now King of the equally mythical Bohemia. But in the midst of revelry a single light flashes on the face of the King as he reveals his paranoid fantasies about his friend's involvement with his wife, Queen Hermione. A tragic course is set, with murderous plots, betrayals and death. But this course is broken and even reversed, in part by intervention of the gods, and in part by love.

This late play has some of the earth-magical qualities of The Tempest, with echoes of Greek drama and several of Shakespeare's previous plays. The production features powerful performances by Miriam A. Laube as Hermione and William Langan as King Leontes, and performances by the entire cast that make the story crystal clear as well as affecting and funny, played against the apparently simple but highly evocative scenery of Rachel Hauck.

Also featured is Mark Murphey as the trickster Autolycus, whose antics delightfully prove that physical comedy can serve a substantive text, both as relief and as integral to the story. Shakespeare's plays are timeless partly because they speak in different ways to every time, and in this one I was struck by how those who served this king felt honor-bound to dissuade him from his disastrous course. Too bad they aren't serving in the non-mythical Washington.

I recommend all the plays I saw, but don't miss The Winter's Tale. Also currently at the OSF are two I didn't see: the new Wendy Kesselman adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank (until July 9) and Bus Stop by William Inge (through October.)

For show dates, ticket prices, etc. go to


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