'The acting is top-notch'

Supporters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are resounding in their rejection of a Los Angeles Times review that branded OSF acting as disappointing.

Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch said OSF actors deserve praise rather than criticism, in part because they have to transform themselves across many roles on three different stages.

"They have cultivated a huge variety of styles ... that require them to be absolutely at the top of their game," Rauch said.

Rauch added that he has no plans for doing an "overhaul" of the acting company, as suggested in a lengthy Aug. 23 review of this season's works by critic Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times.

McNulty also offered considerable praise for the festival in his piece, commending audience enthusiasm and Rauch's vision and noted, "No one could argue that this three-stage theatrical behemoth with an annual operating budget of more than $24 million isn't gleaming with renewed purpose." He called "Equivocation" a "hot property" and singled out for praise the performance of Anthony Heald as Shag in the play. He said plays were "robustly staged" and noted the "ownership" that audience members feel for the festival's works.

But he was far less kind toward some of the acting. McNulty said several plays "exposed a weakness that OSF must address to advance among major nonprofit theaters — its mid-level acting company needs an overhaul."

The review said the acting was "disappointing."

"Undoubtedly, there are many able performers in the sizable resident company, but bad habits appear widespread," McNulty wrote, describing "generic emotions (such as) eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics."

Audience members on Thursday disagreed with that sentiment.

"The acting is top-notch, professionally done, to the max," said Lorraine Davis, a playgoer from Eugene, as she prepared to enter a matinee. "The acting is the key and core of the experience and it doesn't get much better than here."

Her husband, Mason Davis, said a lot of critics pan what they see "but it's all subjective and I happen to like what we see here."

Rauch, in an interview this week, said most critics have been "very positive" about the festival's presentations in the current season.

"If I were to react in a knee-jerk way to everything written in the press, I would be a very busy man," Rauch said. "I thrive on the input of others. I hold onto what's valuable and toss away the rest."

A Santa Barbara couple, Peter and Linda Beuret said they had read and disagreed with the review when it came out Aug. 23.

"It's fine acting in everything we've seen here," said Linda Beuret. "His review doesn't correspond with what we've seen here for five years. This festival and the excellence of performances is what drew us into theater."

"The review would depend on what he saw and what mood he was in," said Peter Beuret.

Jim Risser of Ashland, board president of OSF, called the criticism of Festival acting "nonsense, based on the work I've seen at theaters all over the country. We have one of the best acting companies."

Risser said the critic didn't review specific plays but made "generalized comments" that lacked understanding of the demands that actors have talent to work in ensemble and do plays as varied as "Equivocation" and "The Music Man."

Another playgoer, Valerie Hood of Seattle, observed, "The acting is excellent. We're going to every single play here. All the actors are very good. I had tears at one of the plays."

Her husband, Lee Hood, noted, "I'm shocked the review was that negative. Some of the actors are superb and some are OK."

Risser said McNulty's use of the word "quaint" to describe Ashland reveals a "big city critic who maybe can't believe the acting can be all that good here."

McNulty lauded OSF plays for being "lucidly conveyed (without) directorial garnish," adding, "These folks would rather be spellbound by narratives than hypnotized by auteurs or superstars."

Rauch said that is no accident.

"We are a language-based theater "¦ the language is always the main event "¦ we tell the stories with clarity and passion."

Tracy Young, director of two plays at OSF, said she found festival actors "everything you could want — willing, adventurous, knowledgeable and dedicated, with great esprit de corps."

The OSF audience, she added, is "extraordinarily knowledgeable about Shakespeare ... very canny and savvy and that raises the bar. The dynamism between audience and actor is so electric. It's extremely rare and special."

McNulty's review and commentary is available at www.dailytidings.com/bard.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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