The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its seventy-three year old doors to new a season of change. Paul Nicholson, celebrating twenty-nine years as Executive Director at OSF, and Bill Rauch, kicking off his first season as the festival’s Artistic Director, introduce what they call “a merging of the old and the new” while acknowledging our “increasingly global world.” The season bursts onto the scene in the Angus Bowmer Theatre with Mark Rucker’s young and sexy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by director Leah C. Gardiner’s dramatic, poetic, and highly recommended production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences, which offers insight into the African-American experience during the transitional time of 1957-1965. Bill Rauch directs his version of the two-thousand year old Sanskrit play, The Clay Cart, offering love, lust, intrigue, some very Shakespearean cases of mistaken identity, and much comedy, proving a feast for the eyes and ears. To complete this opening tetralogy, the soft-spoken but heavy-hitting playwright Julie Marie Myatt blesses this festival in the New Theatre with the world premiere of her play, Welcome Home Jenny Sutter, directed by Jessica Thebus. Myatt not only tells Jenny’s story as a woman coming home after her service as a marine in Iraq, but also acknowledges all who have suffered through war. Jenny Sutter is moving and generates thought and conversation, even if one can’t quite come up with the “right” words to say.
These four productions are in many ways very different, but Rauch has done a magical job at creating syntheses and ties that bind them together. Alison Carey, the newly appointed Director of the U.S. History Cycle, which looks forward to opening its first of thirty-seven productions in 2010, gave me the best advice to offer you when embarking on this brave new world of plays at OSF. “Pay attention to the details.” Why is this the best advice? Because it’s the details that provoke the ideas that lead to the vision of the insightful bigger picture. Let us acknowledge and learn from the past, embrace the changes and transitions of the present, look forward with hope to the future, and celebrate the knotted girdle that ties these worlds together.
Mark Rucker introduces one of this season’s main themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by emphasizing the role of the changeling boy. In Shakespeare’s play, the boy, who Titania abducts from his Indian father, presumably exchanging him with another child, is not represented by an actual physical character, and is only referred to three times before being shuffled from our consideration. Shakespeare does give the boy an indirect voice, however, by incorporating a literary device referred to by Shakespeare contemporary George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie) as “the changeling.” The device creates an absurd exchange in syntax that in the end, offers more pleasure to the ear than the more sensible version. Most notably, this device is experienced in Bottom’s famous account of 1 Corinthians, when he expounds that “The eye of man hath not heard, he ear of man hath not seen…” Rucker monopolizes on this device by creating a physical (though true to Shakespeare’s text, non-speaking) role for the changeling boy—interchanged between Collin Malcolm and Kevin Weatherby—and by emphasizing the many ways in which this word can be defined. The inconstant lovers change the objects of their desire throughout the play, some due and some not to Puck’s mischief in the wood. Bottom is physically changed into an ass and then back again into his own human version of the connotation. The Fairy Queen straightway falls in love with this ass, and once her sight is restored, she turns it back to her Oberon. The traditional roles of men and women are also reversed at times, with Rucker’s production emphasizing strong and passionate women in the Amazon Queen, in Helena and her pursuit of Demetrius, in Hermia when she disobeys Egeus (her mother in this production), and in Titania and her decision to defy her husband.
But enough of this. Onto the sexy.
Set design in Midsummer is best described as industrial, feminine, strong and sensual. Scenic Designer Walt Spangler and Lighting Designer Robert Peterson work together to create a 20th Century industrial feel while Rucker gives a nod to the preceding four decades through music, dance, costume, and various revelry throughout. Inside the walls of Athens, the set, comprised of large metal structures, is a left to right (almost) mirror image framing the action, resembling—dare I say—a woman in a compromising position. These structures change direction to signify entrance into the Athenian wood, and become tree-like, on which the fairies climb, perch, spy, and at the right moments, thanks to Peterson’s insightful lighting design, make the mesmerizing fairies invisible for the sake of the action on other parts of the stage. Imposing neon stars loom above, and a beaming disco ball invites the audience into the dance party of the year.
Katherine Roth’s costume design, which according to word on the street has gone from R-rated in the previews, to a now more kid-friendly PG, is sexy, flirty, and in the fairy realm, out of this world. The Athenian court is bright and white, clean and pristine in dress, while the wood is the closet for the late eighties early nineties underground dance scene. Roth creates a fine ass out of Bottom (Ray Porter), arming him with a couple of handy hooves and some long and hairy ears. Although Porter does nothing in particular to steal the show, his comedic commands to fairies Peaseblossom (Neil Shah), Mustardseed (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), and Cobweb (Eddie Lopez), under the guidance of the hornèd Moth and “First Fairy” Mark Bedard, for such things as a good scratch or a bottle of hay proves entertaining due to some prominent fairy eye-rolls.
The emphasis in this production is by all means on the flamboyant fairies and that knavish sprite, Robin Goodfellow. John Tufts brilliantly embraces his role as Puck, obviously enjoying every toes together stance and every Jim Careyesque turn (made all the more entertaining by his six-inch, wingèd platform boots), while seizing any opportunity to break into dance or grab the mic and sing a loungey tune. His already strong brow, with the help of some ingenious makeup design, lends itself to the goat-like attributes of the mythological Puck. Tufts leads the flaming fashionista fairies, the lot wearing tutus and mesh tanks (oddly more erotic than it sounds) in their mischief and mayhem, as well as some in sync dance moves that lead one to believe that these fairies got hold the movie “Blades of Glory” in preparation for this Dream. In the spirit of change, the lovers’ clothing goes through its own transitions, thanks to the thieving fairies, and some subtle dyeing techniques that introduce themselves from scene to scene.
Theseus and Hippolyta are an unlikely pair that somehow work. Shona Tucker moves like a cat and plays the Amazon Queen with a seductive Eartha Kitt purrgrowl, oozing sex appeal. Tucker generates ample laughs when she is visibly horrified by the idea that poor Hermia may have to engage in an austere and single life on Diane’s altar. Michael Elich portrays Theseus as a New York wise guy. Think a polished Paulie Walnuts (Sopranos) in his younger days, with the slicked back hair, the pronounced NY Italian-American accent, lots of show to his style, and of course, less the swearing. Theseus won Hippolyta with his sword, but on this stage, he woos her with diamond trinkets, and his audience with his comedic timing.
Kevin Kenerly and Christine Albright portray the Fairy King and Queen, and battle it out in a seductive tug-of-war over the changeling boy. Kenerly’s usual precise diction and distinct, authoritative tone works to his benefit as the one character in this play who holds power over all the others. His costume is like a buffed-out bird into bondage, echoing Tina Turner in "Beyond the Thunderdome" and King Xerxes in Jack Snyder’s film, “300.” Albright is strong and passionate, sexy and bound tightly in her bustiers. She also sings one heck of a tune as her fairies dance an aerobic round in the strobe lit theatre.
Emily Sophia Knapp is short of stature but strong of both spit and fire as Hermia. Her youth and imposed feminine naiveté is emphasized by her wide-eyes and her toes pointing inward stance, while Helena (Kjerstine Anderson) is a whole head about her competition, towering like a maypole over the dwarfish Knapp. The two initially share the same hairstyles, the same white stockings and similar white dresses, perhaps emphasizing the notion that in the coming scenes the two are destined to be interchangeable.
Tasso Feldman as Lysander outdoes his competition as a bright-faced, youthful, energetic and dramatic Athenian youth with all the appropriate raging hormones. He writhes on the floor in admiration of his lady love, and seems about to jump out of his skin with enthusiasm when relaying his plan to steal into the woods. Feldman and Christopher Michael Rivera as Demetrius battle it out center stage, showing their fighting prowess by snapping at their own (padded) boxers.
The Rude Mechanicals are powerful as they roll onto the scene in their flowered VW bus, although I have to note I’ve recently seen this vehicular device in TheatreWorks’ “Summer of Love” production of Twelfth Night in Mountain View, CA. Here, however, the boys (and girl) are a troupe of aging hippies and summer of lovers with a delightfully terrible sense of style. Eileen DeSandre as Flute, who seems to have swapped out an X for a Y chromosome for this part, jumps upon every line that insinuates she is a man who should not be playing the role of a woman. Richard Elmore as Starveling puts name into action, chomping on Bugles and apples throughout the play; based on his appearance alone, he could have easily walked out with a pint of Cherry Garcia. The play with the play is fun and perfectly ridiculous, with considerable laughs arising from the antics of the beloved Josiah Phillips as Snout, and his lips penetrating the “crannied hole or chink” during his presentation of “Wall.”
In an hysterical turn of events, Linda Alper plays Hermia’s mother (versus father) Egeus as a yenta who carries a purse full of tricks and a comedic neurosis that speaks stereotypical volumes. Rather than usher Alper off the stage at the end of the play like Shakespeare does to the brooding and disagreeable Egeus, Rucker creates concord out of discord by permitting Alper to join the lovers (who join us in the audience) so we may all together enjoy the Mechanicals play.
But what of that changeling boy? How does Rucker achieve harmony there? The boy’s presence and eventual exit follows that insightful bigger picture I was talking about way back when. The discord of the play is caused by the mere presence of the boy. Titania wants him. Oberon wants him. They fight, and as a result, the natural world is in disorder, and layers upon layers of chaos follow. Once the exchange of the boy is complete, the boy becomes insignificant. In this case, he sort of shrugs and leaves the stage of his own accord. His presence is replaced by the future. Besides, the changeling has places to go, people to see. He finds a voice in Clay Cart; he takes shape in Fences; and if you pay attention to detail, you’ll find that he walks the stage throughout Jenny Sutter. All of these plays end with a notion of hope and look toward the future, breathing light into the sometimes darkness that can pervade a dream.