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Plus: Exploring Ashland’s wide-open spaces

Greedy financiers and rapacious corporate exploiters ready to do anything to get more oil to wage more war might well inspire the shock and awe of recognition, especially through the words of Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, currently at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. Written in the midst of World War II, the text is witty and incisive on currently painful topics, expressed in a program note by director Renee Grinell: “Forty years ago, when I first read The Madwoman of Chaillot, another war was raging, and so was I. I lost friends in the Vietnam War, and now, 40 years later, I am losing the sons and daughters of friends.”

But while such parallels can cause shivers, this play’s insights are wrapped in a comic fable with reputedly batty old ladies as the saviors of civilization, symbolized by a Paris café where the poor and the jugglers are as welcome as the aristocrats and corporate con men.

As the main Madwoman — Aurelia, Countess of Chaillot and owner of the café — Michele Shoshani exudes Gallic charm and the warmth of the character, holding the play together with her stage presence and skill. Bob Service is effective as the philosophical ragpicker who demonstrates in a second act mock trial that the unitary executive has been tried before, under different names. Kicking her first act nun’s habit and broker’s suit, Gloria Montgomery holds center stage and our attention as the judge in that same scene. Pam Service has good comic timing as the Sewer Man. There’s a sweet but slight young lovers subplot that Delcie Moon and Sam Cord handle nicely.

Darcy Daughtry works small miracles with the costumes, and except for a dubious brick wall, Calder Johnson’s set serves the play well. I wasn’t so taken with some of the exaggeration and awkwardness that undercut the satire in an admittedly wordy play, and there were stretches that just weren’t funny on opening night. The cast’s increasing familiarity with the words and with each other could change that.

Perhaps the most famous line from this play is Aurelia’s observation that ‘’Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in the course of an afternoon.’’ It’s disingenuous in a practical sense, but apart from the danger of confirming the complacency of the well-meaning, it does support the proposition that once the relatively simple truths about war for profit are faced, it’s just as natural to live decently as it supposedly is to live rapaciously. There is that hope.

Hail and Farewell

The revels of Libby Appel’s 12th and final season as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are ending, and incoming artistic director Bill Rauch has been in residence to begin the transition. So the opportunity to see Appel’s last Shakespeare play ( The Tempest ) and Rauch’s first, at least as A.D. designate ( Romeo and Juliet ), seems one of those gifts to journalistic cliché — the changing of the guard.

The younger Rauch arrives with a reputation for originality, so it’s not odd that his direction of Romeo and Juliet would be noted for its innovations, and some reviews of that temper led me to expect some radical dislocation that violates the text, as has become all too common elsewhere. But that’s not what I saw.

He does dress the elder Capulets and Montagues in Elizabethan costumes, while the younger wear prep school uniforms and carry iPods. But that turned out to be a minor bit of flavoring, lending emphasis to a “generation gap” interpretation that basically updates the approach Franco Zeffirelli took in his 1968 film, and is even less radical than Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film. Other major character interpretations seem familiar from W.H. Auden’s famous 1946 lectures.

Which is not to say Rauch didn’t do some daring and interesting things, such as the scenes in which Romeo and Juliet separately and passionately bemoan Romeo’s banishment. He plays them simultaneously, creating a powerful counterpoint. But it seemed to me that the greatest virtues of the production were more typical of OSF than different, especially that the whole play is performed. The early scenes that set up the politics of the feud, and Romeo’s infatuation with the unseen Rosaline that leads him to attend the party where he first meets Juliet, are all crucial to understanding the logic and the passions of this play, yet many productions reduce or drop them.

The performances are of the usual high quality, especially Dan Donohue as Mercutio, and Rauch seems to have quickly learned how to use the advantages and work around the disadvantages of the outdoor Elizabethan stage. It’s a venue that suggests to me the combination of a grand old London theatre and a small baseball stadium. Seeing Shakespeare under the night sky surrounded by such a large audience (1,190 at full capacity) provides unique moments, but the acoustic environment is less favorable to the human voice than the indoor Bowmer Theatre. Yet the huge playing area, which extends beyond, below and especially above the stage (to another two or three soaring levels) provide great opportunities — and perhaps demands — for spectacle.

The veteran Libby Appel really knows how to use that space in The Tempest , with acrobatic spirits dancing and dangling in space. She sees Prospero as overcoming his hate and desire for vengeance, and liberating himself through forgiveness, guided by the luminous love of his daughter Miranda (Nell Geisslinger) and the empathetic magic of Ariel, played with such an unaffected contemporary style and yet with a timeless innocence by Nancy Rodriguez that she becomes the animating spirit of the production. Her desire for freedom evokes such sympathy that the theme of various enslavements emerges (emphasized for some of us that night because we saw several in this play’s cast in Gem of the Ocean just a few hours before).

The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last work as a playwright before he retired from the theatre, and now it is Libby Appel’s. As a parting gift she gave us a season to remember. Romeo and Juliet ends on Oct. 5, The Tempest on Oct. 6, but the plays indoors — including Gem of the Ocean, On the Razzle and As You Like It continue to the end of that month.

Coming Up :

Jeff DeMark performs his baseball show, Hard as a Diamond, Soft as the Dirt, at Ferndale Rep this Saturday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. The HSU production, HOMO EXPO: A Queer Extravangza begins a two-weekend run on Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Gist Theatre. Dell’Arte hosts the Brazilian ensemble Lume Teatro for a production called Sopro , in the Carlo Theatre, Oct. 4-7 at 8 p.m. Sanctuary Stage presents their 24-hour 10 Minute Play Fest at the Eureka Theatre on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

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