Play On: Oregon Shakespeare Festival Summer Season, Part II

Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Howard) assures Henry V (John Tufts) that there is no bar to his claim to France. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

So I started off yesterday (well, Wednesday) with the Greeks as a theme, but Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella segues perfectly into the next two themes:

Music and Marriage

That bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam

Right, that, but I want to start with the food of love: music.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch has never hidden his love for musicals; 2009’s Music Man was one of his first smash hits as artistic director, and he’s had a surprising number of live musicians onstage for many plays since. But I have noticed an uptick in music within the plays that aren’t musicals since Rauch came on board permanently in 2008.

Shakespeare, as I was told by my high school “Shakespeare on Stage” teacher (Ms. Berit Lindboe, if you ever read this, this entire thing is your fault, and by “thing,” I mean my life as a Shakespeare addictnerd), liked to put songs in his comedies. Thank god our high school class never had to make up tunes to go along with the lyrics. But I digress: The point is that under Rauch, the festival has gone hog-wild with the music.

The four Graces: Spring (Mandie Jenson) Summer (Liisa Ivary), Autumn (Catherine E. Coulson), Winter (Kimberly Scott). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Not in a bad way (you will note later that I don’t consider hogs as hilarious or just plain outrageous as certain OSF plays do), but in a “Wow, this music is gorgeous, and I’m under the stars, and what a moment this is” sort of way. That is, of course, during the plays at the Elizabethan Theatre, which generally run early June through early October, when the weather is (usually) beautiful, and when the company is running repertory in a super-complex high gear.

(Dramatic aside: I’ve been wondering lately if the OSF might become a year-round festival, but then when would people a. rest and b. build for the next season? Repertory theater is hard on people – on everyone involved, and especially on the bodies of the stage crew and the actors. So I’m probably barking up the wrong tree, there, or singing the wrong song, or something. But I have wondered if Rauch would like to extend the season in some way.)

Music marked several key points in the visually sumptuous The White Snake, music plays a small part in Romeo and Juliet, and (obviously) music serves a central, emotionally intense role in Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. (I forgot to mention in yesterday’s review the final moments of the play, when I was sobbing along to “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” as Medea says to Jason, “Your pain is music to me.”)

But it’s the outdoor plays, in the warm summer air, with the blue vault above, wherein the OSF’s music truly comes into its own.

On the second night of outdoor opening, a woman behind me remarked that she hardly felt like she was outside when she was at the Elizabethan. It’s true that the Allen Pavilion and its associated balcony and lights and control boxes etc. make the “outdoor” theatre feel a little more enclosed. But had she been at the epic thunderstorm/near tornado I experienced in 2009’s Don Quixote or any of the rehearsals in the snow that choreographer Randy Duncan mentioned when I interviewed him last year, I think she would feel differently. (Duncan: “And the rain, oh, the rain.”)

Even on cloudy evenings, one thing the audience can definitely see from the Elizabethan Theatre (known to Festival staff as the Lizzie), is the sky. Not that one wants to look up too often, especially during the magical music of, say, Twelfth Night (2010) or this year’s As You Like It. Those moments feel a little like Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” to me; that is, they create a feeling of celestial (and internal) order through song, place, and the combination of human expectation and emotion. But unlike the happenstance in “Key West,” when the sailboat masts line up just so as a woman sings and the speaker and his friends walk along the shore, these moments at the Lizzie are planned. They’re the height of performance concentration, like a brilliant monologue, yes, but with the added effect of music drawing our wandering monkey minds down and in, focused on the stage, perfectly balanced between left and right brains … at least, when the weather’s right – and so it was on opening weekend.

Charles the Wrestler (Kimberly Scott), with his clowns (Daisuke Tsuji, Jason Rojas) prepares to fight Orlando. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

As You Like It is a play overflowing with the doubles and mirrors for which Shakespeare is justly famous: the dukes, the cousins, the brothers de Boys, Touchstone and Jacques, Corin and the Duke, Audrey and Phoebe/Celia and Rosalind, etc., etc. etc., and I do mean etc. – the play abounds with foils, touchstones (in the punning sense and in the more usual sense), reflections, and more. Another reviewer called this production ethereal; true, but As You Like It is only cunningly light, with Touchstone’s foolery and Jacques’ dramatic sighs barely masking serious meaning. In reality, it’s one of the richer, deeper Shakespeare plays, more complex than Romeo and Juliet, for a start, and more philosophically interesting than Henry V.

The company – the men in the Forest of Arden; the women … well, I don’t want to spoil the women singers for those who haven’t seen the play yet, but suffice it to say they play a sentimental, sometimes slightly creepy, but emotionally grounding role – sings a lot in As You Like It. They sing during transitions; they sing to mark the motherlessness of the play’s three main characters (Rosalind, Celia, Orlando); they sing at meals; they sing at the massive wedding. One moment, with the men singing at dinner in the forest, is as fine an example of the value of Shakespeare’s green world as I’ve ever seen. The green world has its perils, its vipers and man-eating felines, but it has these times too, when the community of like-minded lovers of life meets in fellowship, all the happier for the challenges of life outdoors.

Visually speaking, As You Like It is the prettiest of the outdoor plays, full of delightfully Victorian motifs and costumes (designed after Arthur Rackham’s fairies and other illustrations), capped off by a clock that would be steampunk if it had a little more attitude and a little less magic. Don’t leave early for intermission; you’ll miss one of flashiest, most beautiful examples of the OSF lighting crew’s skills this year (the others are in The White Snake, but that closes July 8 and has been sold out for months).

In the listening realm and in contrast to As You Like It, little singing takes place in Henry V. This play, the final piece of the Henriad that’s been running outdoors since 2010*, reaches a visual hand back to the end of Henry IV, Part II last year, when Prince Hal (John Tufts) walked down white stairs in a blazing white costume to be crowned as Henry V of England. But it’s a small reach (a set stained white), and the main design of the play incorporates Vietnam-era cuts of uniforms, all in black and grey, for the English – and a design for the French that bows too much to the play’s more annoying caricatures of Frenchmen as effeminate and dissolute.

As the Constable of France (Ted Deasy) looks on, Duke of Exeter (Howie Seago) tells Lewis, the Dauphin of France (Daisuke Tsuji) just exactly what the Henry V thought of his gift. Photo by Jenny Graham.

One thing I enjoyed this year both in Henry and in As You Like It is Howie Seago as a serious Shakespearean character actor. That salt-and-paprika beard doesn’t hurt his look as the Duke of Exeter to advise King Henry, and it gives him a sense of gravitas as Duke Senior in As You Like It. I also enjoy watching more and more actors in the OSF company learning sign language each year. Christine Albright plays the Boy in Henry V, but she also plays Exeter’s interpreter; in the comedy, several actors serve to interpret the Duke, including most importantly Jacques (Kathryn Meisle). The relationship of the Duke to Jacques is important in any production, and depending on their choices, actors and directors can make it clear that these two are intellectually and emotionally connected. This production makes that connection deeper (and the end of it a little sadder) with Jacques being one of the only people in the company who can, literally, understand the Duke.

Katherine, the Princess of France (Brooke Parks), and her attendant Alice (Judith-Marie Bergan) review the English word for neck. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

But back to Henry. Joseph Haj’s interpretation is traditional, straightforward; a rousing-up-the-blood sort of this most patriotic English play. It’s got a few of the usual charming scenes – especially the one with the bathtub, though I think the French might confuse a fair number of audience members – incorporating Princess Katherine (Brooke Parks) and her maid Alice (Judith-Marie Bergen).

Traditional or not, Henry V is always a pleasure. I love every bit of the language, from the opening scene with the bishop and archbishop discussing Salic Law (a scene that is confusing for modern audiences and often played, I think correctly, for laughs, with the Catholic powers scheming to hold onto their lands by telling Henry he should fight to rule France because it’s his right) to the powerful goodbye scene of Mistress Quickly (Bergen) with Pistol, Bardolph, Nym and the Boy after Falstaff’s death. I broke down watching that scene this year, thinking about the excellent Falstaff we met in last year’s Henry IV, Part 2 and the way Hal broke him during the coronation. I love the campfire chat of a disguised Henry with the cynical Will; I think King Henry’s Ceremony monologue proves that Shakespeare saw Hal as still a bit shallow, still a bit without understanding of the common man, though he was also a hero. Of the history plays, this is probably the one that most people know the best (with Richard III a somewhat close second) thanks to the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh movies, and the play’s status in the second half of the 20th century as a rousing WWII piece for the suffering British during the Blitz.

Tufts has done much research to serve as Prince Hal and King Henry; he (and Albright; they’re married) visited England and France, learned the longbow, saw the field where the great battle of Agincourt took place on October 25, 1415 (St. Crispin’s Day) – and he was good as the dissolute Hal hiding a keener spirit in Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2. I don’t think he is spectacular as the king, though; the famous monologues fall a bit too rhythmically from his mouth (in other words, the iambic pentameter should hold an echo in the actors’ speech but not be so strong that the audience knows where the lines break, and with the big speeches, Tufts doesn’t always make the leap into more realistic speech rhythms).

But he’s fine in general, and it’s a solid production of this most marvelous play. Thinking about King Henry’s scene with Bardolph (Brent Hinkley, who’s simply a superb Bardolph) gives me the shivers, and reminds me of my goosebumps in Henry IV, Part 1 when Falstaff says to Hal, “Do not, when thou art king, hang a thief,” and Hal responds, “No, thou shalt” (in this case, Falstaff already being dead, Bardolph fulfills Hal’s prophecy).

This may be the year of Jeffrey King for me; I adored him as Macbeth and thought him splendid and not overly Welsh-tastic as Fluellen. Albright as the interpreter and as the Boy also stood out (and as Celia in As You Like It, she was absolutely splendid)

So it’s fine, and well done, and beautifully acted for the most part. Certainly on opening night there were shouts of approval and a standing ovation – something we didn’t see for Henry IV 1 or 2 (and I hope the attendance numbers for V are stronger than for IV too). Finally: I can’t wait for this cast to record the play with Blackstone Audio, the way the OSF did with Hamlet in 2010 and Measure for Measure in 2011 – I’d buy this Henry V in a nanosecond, and listen to it all of the time, because I am such a nerd and love the play so much. I might skip the wooing scene; yuck; but everything else – oh hell, yes. (Rauch and Executive Director Paul Nicholson were coy about which plays may be recorded this year; they have a contract for two plays – my bet is on Henry and As You Like It, though of course Romeo and Juliet could be a hot seller.)

Before I move on to Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, I must say that I wish the Festival had put on Richard II in 2009 to make the Henriad a more full story, and also because I appreciate that play’s intensely, self-consciously pretty language. But never mind; you don’t need to know a ton about Richard II (whom Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, deposed and murdered) for the Henriad to make sense. Nor do you really need to understand that after Katherine of France and Henry of England get married (as they are about to do at the close of Henry V), good King Henry passes on syphilis to his infant son, then dies of dysentery when the baby is nine months old – though knowing that, plus knowing about Joan of Arc and the end of the Hundred Years’ War (and the beginning of the Wars of the Roses) will help you understand the final, bitter lines of the epilogue. (I can’t help saying this: If you don’t know about the Wars of the Roses, but you love <i>Game of Thrones</i> (books or TV show), you are missing so much. Please learn about the Lannisters Lancasters and the Starks Yorks, and tell me which of the characters in GoT you think is Richard III … )

… and oh dear, it’s almost midnight … on to VMW, and more on Marriage as a theme, tomorrow.

EDIT: I realize I can be insufferable about history, but it was my major, and it makes the HISTORY plays that much easier to understand. Plus since people adore Game of Thrones, I thought I’d put in a plug for the history on which they’re based. Makes it all the more fun, I believe. Here’s a decent little Salon piece about the links b/t history and Game of Thrones.

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