The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Plus The Greeks (Summer Reviews, Part I)

Touchstone (Peter Frechette) entertains Rosalind (Erica Sullivan) and Celia (Christine Albright). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The short and sweet of my five days in Ashland during outdoor opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

  • Go to As You Like It no matter what else you see. “It’s the play you take someone from out of town to,” said someone on Twitter, and I agree. Gorgeously presented, capably (often better than that) acted, with lighting and set designs that should win someone some awards.
  • If you have a good tolerance for war plays, hit both Henry V (in a rather traditional staging, though not traditional costuming) and Troilus and Cressida.
  • If you have a flexible mind and patience for a rather messy first act, and/or you love any of the plays involved, do go to Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.
  • If you know nothing about the Midwest, have no dear-to-you relatives or friends there, and/or enjoy constant punning and The Merry Wives of Windsor, go ahead and hit up The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. Otherwise, you might want to stay away.

And now, to (far) lengthier considerations of two of the plays; outdoor plays to follow tomorrow (I had more to say than I realized!):

Season planning at something like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival takes more energy than I can imagine – and more texts to potential directors, more complex scheduling arrangements in proprietary software, more thinking about what makes a good mix of new and old, familiar and strange.

Sometimes at the OSF, now in its fifth season under Artistic Director Bill Rauch, themes emerge from deliberate choices like the pairing of Macbeth with Bill Cain’s Equivocation in 2009, or within the American Revolutions plays (immigration, obviously; and forced migration, among others) – and sometimes they emerge for viewers over weekends stuffed with plays. I haven’t asked Rauch, American Revolutions director Alison Carey, or head dramaturg Lue Douthit, but I’ll address the first of the themes I felt/saw during last weekend’s outdoor opening and six-play jaunt in gloriously warm and sunny Ashland.

Thersites (Michael Elich) taunts Achilles (Peter Macon) as Patroclus (Ramiz Monsef) looks on. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Greeks, Etc.

Shakespeare, like many playwrights (and artists) of his time and later, drew on the original inventers of theater and narrative, the Greeks. Though he (and many other playwrights) reinvented the definitions of comedy and tragedy, he certainly also used those definitions in his plays – and sometimes use Greek myth as well, including in the Greek-inspired Troilus and Cressida, a play about the Trojan War that opened in late March at the New Theatre and runs through the end of the season.

The Trojan War … set in modern-day Iraq, or rather the Iraq of 2003, just after the looting of the Baghdad Museum. The play has many characters, almost all guys, almost all playing a part in both armies (hint: The Americans Greeks wear desert camouflage, and the Iraqis Trojans wear green). Another hint: I found it way easier to track the characters because I was (like many fourth-graders) obsessed with Greek myths in my youth and also because I (like many humanities majors) read both The Iliad and The Aeneid in college.

But if you don’t know anything about Helen of Troy, Achilles, Menelaus, Aeneas, etc., don’t worry! As the prologue (in this case, Brooke Parks, briefly in costume as an embedded journalist) says: “Our play
Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle, starting thence away
To what may be digested in a play.”

Indeed, the more you know, the more you may feel at a loss during Troilus and Cressida, as the titular young lovers attempt to get together even in the midst of the Greek siege of Troy (a siege that ended, you may remember, with a large horse – not that you’ll see anything so conclusive in this play).

Pandarus (Barzin Akhavan) arranges a rendezvous between Troilus (Raffi Barsoumian) and Cressida (Tala Ashe). Photo: Jenny Graham.

Who is Troilus? Who is Cressida? What are they doing flirting in the middle of this tale? As director Rob Melrose writes, this is Shakespeare’s war epic, and it’s based not only on The Iliad but also on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Chaucers Troilus and Criseyde – and Shakespeare talks back to all of his source material, shaping the character of Cressida into a young woman who loves but cannot control the nature of war instead of a no-good betrayer of the Trojans in general and Troilus in particular.

Melrose goes Shakespeare one further by making it clear that Cressida (Tala Ashe, new to the festival this year) loves Troilus but has to figure out a way to stay somewhat safe in an enemy encampment where the men are all potential rapists. Indeed, the scene within which Cressida gets passed around the Greek men sends a message about soldiers in a long desert campaign that we must by now be somewhat used to hearing – they don’t exactly treat women well.

I call them soldiers, but Ajax (Elijah Alexander, whose naked torso I saw quite a bit of from my seat; if that’s your thing, be sure to ask about sitting opposite the screen and rubble instead of on either side) sounds and acts much more like a Marine, with his many “hoorahs” and his devotion to heroism.

Raffi Barsoumian plays Troilus as a young man who’s got a lock on his emotions (though that … um … couch-loving bit in the first scene certainly does give him a little leeway, not to mention a lot of physical control of a prop) except when he’s around Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus (Barzin Akhavan, who is both excellent and annoying in this role).

One reviewer whose son had recently been in Afghanistan walked out of the show, presumably because the actors play the Greeks (Americans) as dissolute, drug-taking (that’s Michael Elich – Michael Elich! The Pirate King!? Yes! – as Thersites, a scruffy wreck of a short-looking man whose affect remarkably resembles that of a manic junkie from The Wire), angry (Peter Macon, who plays angry quite well, nails Achilles’ standard fault in this portrayal), stupid (Ajax), calculating (Ulysses, played wonderfully well by Mark Murphey [a good reminder that his god-awful role in 2010’s Pride and Prejudice was partly due to the script and direction]) and generally less than smart about women, to put it mildly. Indeed, when Diomides (Kevin Kenerly) finally shows up, menacing Cressida and then saving her from the other Greeks, it’s almost a relief to see someone who’s a mix of venal and loving.

The men (including Bernard White as Hector) act gorgeously, mostly like insupportable assholes, and Brooke Parks as a spoiled Eurotrashy Helen (Helen’s also a torso-barer in her gold bikini) with her more spoiled, more Eurotrashy, brother-betraying Paris (Ramiz Monsef) gets in a few good lines. The play concludes with confused battle scenes, one scene tripping hard upon the heels of another, and a certain lack of resolution, not to mention the absence of one of the titular characters. Does this production speak to the fragmented, foolish nature of war, the way it rips families apart and coarsens male soldiers toward each other (and obviously toward women)? Yes, clearly, and much more about war and damage and the danger of ideological and romantic passion. Troilus and Cressida is a rarely produced play, and this is a strong version of it – go see it, if you have the time.

Macbeth (Jeffrey King), Cinderella (Laura Griffith) and Medea (Miriam A. Laube). Photo: Jenny Graham.

Of course, Medea is one of the original Greek tragedies – by Euripedes, concerning what happens to the sorceress Medea when her husband Jason takes another wife (the royal princess of Corinth) and abandons her and their children. The play, originally produced in 453 BCE, has remained a sort of populist favorite in the nearly 2500 years since.

When Bill Rauch was at Harvard as an undergrad, he met Peter Sellars (a recent grad student, also at Harvard), who mentioned that there were three main forms of populist theater – the Greek tragedy, the Elizabethan drama, and the American musical. This played around in Rauch’s brain for a while, and eventually he came up with the idea of mashing up one of each. Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella premiered when he was an undergrad, with his then-boyfriend, now-husband Christopher Liam Moore playing Lady Macbeth. He has played that role in every production since – in 1998 in a Cornerstone Theatre/Actors Gang production in L.A., in 2002 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, in the Black Swan Lab during the past two seasons of the OSF, and now, in a full-scale, full-bore, fully produced and dual-directed version at the OSF.

Now, I know some reviewers (including another reviewer in Eugene) found M/M/C a mess, not even a hot mess but a cold, annoying mess. I get that. The first act, wherein most of the set-up takes place, had its longeurs, to put it mildly. Though co-adapters and co-directors Tracy Young and Rauch spent hours (months? years?) revising the triple text in special software designed specifically for them by one of the OSF’s IT people, I suspect someone not invested in the project could red-pen the first act and trim it down.

I say that somewhat casually, but nothing about this undertaking is casual: choreographers, fight directors, sound designers, composers for the Medea music, a music director and a mask director and an associate musical director and two stage managers and two assistant stage managers … well, that’s only a part of how it all came together this year. Indeed, because of the two years of workshopping and because of the complexity of the text(s), Rauch asked the scene shop to build the set last December, and the cast stayed around or came back after the end of the 2011 season for a nine-day workshop of the piece last fall.

None of this work means the play itself is guaranteed to be good, of course. But I think that all of the work and all of the time invested in it probably helped quite a bit.

At some point in the Black Swan workshopping, Rauch and Young decided to revise a key character not in any of the three plays, a guide for the audience. He’s now called the Usher and is played by Mark Bedard, the physical comedy genius of 2009’s Servant of Two Masters and many things since, including this season’s Animal Crackers, where he plays a pitch-perfect Groucho Marx. It’s good to have Bedard as a sort of commenter/guide/skeptical audience member, running into and out of the various plays but always serving to help the audience stay oriented. (As oriented as they can; even Bill Rauch says that audience members won’t be able to follow everything and at some point, they should just “surrender.” I followed that advice completely, which helped.)

The costumes are stunning, the set clever and lovely, and the acting more than fine. Miriam Laube plays an achingly angry and sad Medea; Jeffrey King, with his towering body and presence, an unnervingly strong Macbeth; and newcomer Laura Griffith a saucy, smart, frustrated Cinderella. In each play, one other major character serves as a foil: Dee Maaske as the Nurse in Medea, Christopher Liam Moore (who made me shake my head in amazement) as Lady Macbeth, and K.T. Vogt (also splendid) as the snippety, plain-spoken Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.

What’s this mashup about? How do the two tragedies even connect with the light, song-filled Cinderella? Oh, my friends. There’s tragedy looming everywhere. Lurking around the corners of the happiest marriage – Medea and Jason were thrilled with each other at first – and buried in the corners of the deepest love – who could deny that Lady Macbeth wants, er, the best for her husband – lies ambition.

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella: Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

In the case of this piece, royal ambition; Young and Rauch make sure that we see how much Cinderella’s desire to marry the prince means joining a royal family and ruling a kingdom, trading drudgery in her house for a life of full exposure as the princess. The second act brings together the tragedies of all three pieces of theater, most poignantly in the Cinderella-sung “A Lovely Night,” which was about 7-10 minutes I’d gladly relive, as the Godmother and Medea join Lady Macbeth in walking up the stairs to certain doom while Cinderella spins a fantasy for her unsavory relatives.

As the play draws to a close, the costumes of each play fade and the actors appear in black street clothes. Then the price of ambition and of royalty and indeed, perhaps, of love, becomes clearer. The mess of putting these plays together merges into a narrative that makes horribly tragic (and, in the case of Cinderella, frighteningly romantic) sense.

Cast members speak as if they’re only in their own play but the script forces that speech to come in response to statements (or songs) from others. I found the entire experience rather intoxicating, and I couldn’t name you one time where I was distracted by thoughts of the world outside the Bowmer. “It’s magic,” the Godmother says. “It’s poison,” Medea says in parallel, in response. You pick – it’s both, and either, and neither. Like theater, like life.

To be continued tomorrow, with Henry V, Very Merry Wives, and As You Like It.

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2 thoughts on “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Plus The Greeks (Summer Reviews, Part I)

  1. Well yes. ‘Tis true and true ’tis. But is it a play? Is there a story? a plot? a protagonist? dianoia? Any Unity of anything?
    Or is it a circus (of three rings….or three wrings?) I say it’s a wonderment. Something that could not have been done, and there it was. Spectacular. A Cirque des images?

    • It didn’t seem much like a three-ring circus to me because there clearly was quite a lot of unity (were a lot of unities?) around the themes. And yes, you know who the protagonists are, and you know the stories/plots; the thing that Rauch and Young did was to tease out common threads and common swells of emotion at similar times within the scripts. But if plays must always be about protagonists, then Troilus and Cressida is in far more trouble than M/M/C. I found M/M/C far more than spectacle.

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