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.

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Meet Scott Freck, New Executive Director of the Eugene Symphony

Last summer, while I was (ironically) in Chicago, the Eugene Symphony announced that its excellent executive director, Paul Winberg (here’s a Q&A I did with Winberg a few years ago), was leaving the symphony for a spot as the executive directorof the Grant Park Music Festival.

Winberg left the symphony in good financial shape, still in the black after years of recession. As symphonies around the country go bankrupt or conduct punishing negotiations with their musicians, Eugene seems calm though the development team certainly works its (collective) butt off to raise the money necessary to stay in the black.

Scott Freck, via Polyphonic

Last week, the symphony sent out a press release to announce that it had hired a new executive director: Scott Freck, currently the VP for artistic operations and the general manager of the North Carolina Symphony, based in Raleigh. Freck will move to Eugene in June, and his family (he has a wife and two kids) will follow in July.

But he won’t be new to Oregon; he grew up “outside of Portland.” When he was young, he was a cellist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and he worked as artistic administrator for the Oregon Symphony in Portland for years before he moved in 2000 to that other, hotter, more mosquito-ridden coast.

I had the opportunity to talk to Freck about his return to his home state, his feelings about the Eugene Symphony and his plans for the future – and how to fill Winberg’s shoes and keep the Eugene Symphony financially and musically successful.

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A Gaggle Of Playwrights, A Gallimaufry Of Plays: Northwest 10 Hits Its Fourth Year

What stands out most vividly from the Northwest 10 might be similar to what stands out from last year’s Winter’s Tale, also at the Lord Leebrick Theatre: Local actors Tom Wilson and Dan Pegoda make a good comedic team, and Pegoda plays the banjo well.

Wilson’s not even onstage for their particular pairing in “Lunker,” but his voice echoes in the head long after the 10-minute play, by Kato Buss, comes to an end – an end slightly different, and far more amusing, than the tale on which it’s modeled.

You see, the Northwest Ten doesn’t contain 10 plays – it’s a festival of several 10-minute plays, mostly by Eugene playwrights. This is its fourth year, and the plan for attendees remains the same: Don’t like a play? Wait 10 or 12 minutes, and boom! New play, new characters. Like the weather in Eugene in the spring, I know. Actors and directors tell me it’s fun, and rather a lot of work considering the 10-minute result. This year’s playwrights responded to a theme: Writing on the Wall. In the results, that’s rarely a physical demonstration, more often an ominous phrase hovering over the characters’ actions.

The plays, with their need to set the scene rapidly, establish character and contain a reveal, have an uneven quality that can be charming or annoying. I found myself wishing that they were developed more like sketches, but perhaps I’ve been watching too many random pieces of Portlandia.

Still, playwrights, wouldn’t it be pleasant to develop the idea with your cast? That might create more seamless intentions and better performances. I haven’t asked Kato Buss, but I wonder if he had his two adult characters in mind when he wrote “Lunker” – his play, directed by Mary Gen Fjelstad, exhibited the closest fit between characters as written and actor ability (I should add that in “Lunker,” 8-year-old Nalua Manaois was admirably cute and had all of her many lines down – nicely done).

The bleak “Fool on the Hill” may be one of this year’s keepers, though I wasn’t a big fan of its tone – Ty (Jay Hash) seemed at first to be heading in a different emotional direction than where he ended up, and both Daniel Borson as the annoyingly panicked Steve and Paul Rhoden as the crazed Paul might have been more convincing with less flailing about.

I also kept wondering if these characters had ever read anything about survival in the wild, which was definitely not the half-existential, half-violent point of the play. Or am I taking it too much into the psychological realm when it was the hand of a malevolent spirit (Bob Buechler, the Tree) that caused them to lose their logic? In any case, like a lot of horror, it sticks around.

I suppose loneliness and loss worm their way into our memories and hearts more easily than something like “You Slay Me,” a comedic contribution by Laura Robinson. In that piece, Ron Judd pulls off quite the amusing transformation with a light, surefooted touch that’s fun to see. (Some of the stage business seems too big for the story itself, but it’s still an enjoyable little piece.)

In “Picketing for Pros,” Jorah LaFleur (literally) kicks some serious energy into the proceedings, making her character, Caroline, both outrageous and sympathetic – and hilarious. I admit to an extra laugh at the mention of “an Iowa City clinic” (wave to the fantastic Emma Goldman– is Portland playwright Ari Chadwich-Saund from the Midwest? Hm…). I didn’t think the revelation of Caroline’s actual job fit with her character in general, but again, I might simply want people to be more consistently good than any playwright would go for.

Paul Calandrino is the original NW10 idea guy and one of three producers behind NW10 this year. His contribution is “Cape Perpetua,” in which poor Jay Hash has to play another schlub and Sarah Papineau has to play the schlub’s annoyed girlfriend. I think this piece is a well-intentioned morality tale with characters who are a bit too stereotypical to work. The annoyed girlfriend redeems herself in a fashion that seems both naïve and overly sweet, which is not at all like the other 10-minute plays we’ve seen from Calandrino. I’m uncomfortable with the politics around asking someone who’s not from the disabled community to play a man with a severe disability, but Dale Light performs that character – unfortunately the vehicle for the girlfriend’s redemption – well.

Have you noticed a theme aside from writing on the wall? Many writers are directors or actors in the production. “Fish Climbs Tree”’ by Light features Tom Wilson again acting beautifully (that terrified whine!), but one of the two main premises, involving a gun and a computer, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The last play, “Inner Tube” by Fjelstad, had me laughing despite some awkward acting over the New Age/Western-style “Buddhism” bullshit its characters spout while one rips the other’s heart to shreds – such a perfect play for Eugene.

The turnEnsemble with Brandon Rumsey, James Bean, Sarah Pyle and Noah Jenkins, all students at the UO, provides music between and occasionally during the plays. It’s unobtrusive and provides small little hints about what’s to come in several of the plays.

The NW10 is always a mixed bag – but one that gets the brain spinning. You’ve got one more weekend, this one, to see the plays on Friday or Saturday nights or at the Sunday matinee (there’s a talkback after that one) – the tickets are $15, $12 for people 25 and younger, and you can get them by calling 541-465-1506 or clicking here.

Ballet Fantastique Wants to Kick(start) Its Wild West Way to Italy

Krislyn Wessel, Justin Feimster and Adam Haaga (all part of the Italy cast) in "The Tale of Zummurud" from Arabian Nights in January 2012. Photo by Jackson Hager, Vanguard Media

What do you do when Italy calls – but you don’t have a lot of money to fly there?

If you’re scrappy Eugene “chamber ballet” group Ballet Fantastique, you get to work on your funding. Guest dancer Alberto Liberatoscioli hails from San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, where his mother directs a ballet school (though now he’s with Ballet Nebraska).

He played Lando (that is, Orlando) in the spring 2011 Ballet Fantastique production of As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet. According toBFan executive director Hannah Bontrager, he pitched the idea of taking As You Like It home with him to San Benedetto’s ministry of culture, which had for some time been wanting a U.S. company with Liberatoscioli to come present a ballet there. “Alberto showed them our DVD and our programs and photos,” Bontrager says. The minister was so impressed that the town’s ready to pay for the theatre, their production costs and their lodging.

Bontrager says, “It’s always been a dream of ours, like many ballet companies, to perform internationally.” And like any ballet company, Ballet Fantastique puts a lot of effort into creating each new show, Bontrager says. “To perform it just a few times is always sad for the dancers – and for my mom and me as choreographers and producers.” So heading to San Benedetto holds some serious appeal.

Ashley Bontrager as Annie Oakley, one of the added characters, in As You Like It: A Wild West Ballet in April 2011. Photo by Gregory Burns

Now all Ballet Fantastique has to do is come up with airfare for the 10 artists and their choreographer, BFan artistic director (and Hannah’s mother) Donna Bontrager. Since last summer, the group has been doing everything from a car wash to galas to other fundraising activities in order to get the money together.

“We’re happy with any contribution,” Bontrager said. Company dancer Leanne Mizzoniwas surprised and touched when one of her 7-year-old students brought her a handful of change one day and said, “It’s for the Italy fund, Miss Leanne!”

The latest – and most urgent – effort is the $4000 Kickstarter campaign. On the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, you can keep any extra money you raise over your goal, but if you don’t meet that goal, you get none of the money. And the Ballet Fantastique deadline is March 26. As of this writing moment, they’ve got 45 backers and about $3300 pledged – which is still far enough away from the goal that Bontrager admits to some nervousness. “We have our pie chart in the studio, and we’re sort of whittling,” she says.

The company recently concluded a sold-out Arabian Nights, the first time they created a full-length dramatic ballet, and the first time a show sold out before the day of the show. That probably bodes well for the company’s application to become a resident company at the Hult Center (they’re in the middle year of the three-year process). But the dancers and choreographers didn’t rest on their laurels.

“As as soon as we finished Arabian Nights, we resurrected last fall’s Incendio,” Bontrager says – because they’re going on the road, but this time just I-5 to Everett, Washington, where they’ll present Incendio. At the same time, she says, “we’re working on Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet, which is going to be one of the most collaborative things we’ve ever done.”

Amelia Unsicker prepares for Cinderella: A Rock Opera Ballet (May 12-13, 2012, at the Hult). Photo: Jared Mills, Woden Photography

So the dancers and choreographers are dealing with several shows at once. It’s not as if the dancers have time to focus solely on BFan rehearsals. Most of them have three or four jobs aside from Ballet Fantastique, where many also teach classes during the day when they’re not rehearsing.

“For us, it really is a labor of love for everybody involved,” Bontrager says. The company would love to raise enough money get to Italy for the planned July performance. “Every dollar really does make a difference to us. We’ve had a few people who have pledged $2 or $10. We have that shoestring mentality, and we’re proud of it. We do a lot with a little.”

What’s on in Eugene? REVIEW: The Crucible at University Theatre

Kylie Dehaven as Abigail Williams, Andrew Poletto as Reverend Parris. Photo by Ariel Ogden

In what I feel sure is a self-reinforcing loop, I couldn’t help but think of Dar Williams’ song “Holly Tree” as I watched Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Hope Theatre at the University of Oregon.

The singer-songwriter’s lyrics speak of arable land in New England before the Revolution, and just exactly how men of power and rank got their hands on it when women and children, among others, were vulnerable. Miller’s 1953 play, which many people will remember reading in American Lit in high school, reveals this power grab as well.

The Crucible concerns both colonial history and what Miller was experiencing as he wrote it – the Joseph McCarthy era. The play still holds a fair amount of power because of its injustices and complexities; it doesn’t need any justification about “the terrorist era” to make it relevant now and anytime, for at the heart of it lies both a question of personal morality and a question of institutional rot. Those will never be irrelevant.

Just in case you don’t remember the particulars, or in case you didn’t have it assigned in high school: A young woman, Abigail Williams (Kylie DeHaven) covers up her and her friends’ nighttime activities in the forest with accusations of witchcraft. Abby and the other young women of the town were dancing, drinking love potions and listening to Abby’s uncle’s servant Tituba (Naomi Wright) sing songs from Barbados – and they’re discovered by that uncle, Salem’s Reverend Parris (Andrew Poletto).

Kylie Dehaven as Abigail Williams, Riley Shanahan as John Proctor. Photo by Ariel Ogden

This is a problem for the young women. They’ll be publicly whipped for their sins, and they’ll be whispered about all over town and farther. Most of them are servants who need employment or young women of good families who want husbands. The girls find themselves in a bind; this Puritan society has no give to it, no way for them to enjoy themselves without being considered sinful. Meanwhile, they can see that Reverend Parris’ parishoner Thomas Putnam (Karl Metz) wants land and wants to blame certain people in the town for his wife’s miscarriages. They’re clever girls, and they’re stuck in a terrible society for young women – and to get out of their trouble, they play the men against each other and end up killing many of their neighbors. Miller never meant The Crucibleas a play striking a blow for women’s rights – the main antagonist is a young women who wants to get her married lover back and manipulates an entire town, killing people, in order to try for that – but nonetheless, it’s easy for a modern audience to see how girls with no apparent power found horribly damaging ways to take any power they could.

And in the play, the Salem and Boston men enable them time after time by being more willing to believe the girls’ ravings of spirits and their self-inflicted bruises and wounds than being able to consider the political undercurrents of accusations.

Director Theresa May, a professor in the UO’s Department of Theatre, has a cast comprised of mostly inexperienced actors, but they perform admirably. As John Proctor, one of the main focuses of the play – Proctor would not accuse other witches, just as Miller and some others would not give names of fellow former Communists to the McCarthy hearings – Riley Shanahan bears a heavy acting burden that he carries well. Proctor had (consensual) sex with Abigail Williams when she was his servant, and ever since, he’s been trying to reconcile with his wife Elizabeth (Antonia Gomez) and work his farm outside of town. He doesn’t like Reverend Parris’ preaching, so he skips church sometimes, and he’d like to hire a different pastor. And he’s still attracted to Abby. All of that comes even before Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft and before he himself ends up with a death sentence for witchcraft – commutable if he’ll only name others as witches.

Andrew Poletto as Reverend Parris, Riley Shanahan as John Proctor, Antonia Gomez as Elizabeth Proctor. Photo by Ariel Ogden

Part of the strength of the second act comes from the crossing trajectories of two other men: Reverend John Hale (Michael Sugar), who starts out with the intense desire to ferret out witchcraft and who realizes where his well-intentioned but terrible errors have led; and Deputy Governor Danforth (Michelle Yeadon), who takes his authority all too seriously and practically foams at the mouth to enforce what he considers the laws of church and state. (And thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for dividing state from church after the American Revolution!) Sugar, strong in this role, and Yeadon, superb in her depiction of a self-righteous blowhard, show the tensions within and between those who question and those who can’t afford to question, lest the entire social framework come crashing down.

A Fisher King sense pervades the final scenes – the town is wracked by wandering cows; orphans roam from house to house, looking for food, work and affection; crops rot in the fields. That’s all because authority has sickened and been corrupted, not by some evil spirits but by lust for property, power, and righteousness. The land won’t right itself until authority does – and judging from Danforth’s actions, that’s going to take some time.

This play runs about two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission. The Hope Theatre, thanks to its size and lighting grid, is always hot (wear layers that you can take off, and you’ll be happier). But this production of The Crucible keeps the audience in a firm, worried grip as it barrels toward the anguished cry of conclusion.

The Crucible only runs through St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Tickets are $12 for seniors and students, $14 for the general public, and free to UO students with ID who arrive at the box office between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on the day of the performance (or 1 and and 1:30 p.m. on March 11, the one matinee performance). Tix here or at the door. Getting to the University Theatre is quite easy– there’s free parking just across 11th Ave.; the EmX stops right at Dad’s Gates; or you can park a bike at numerous spots near the building.

If you haven’t read it since high school, or if your high school was too concerned about your possible rebellious tendencies to let you read it, now’s the time to see this deservedly classic play.