OSF celebrates 75th year with intriguing interpretations

Despite the economic chill in the air, and the often cool night climate at its amphitheater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is heating up. The Ashland theater complex is having a banner year — at the box office and on the stage.

Theater buffs are turning out (at a hearty 94 percent capacity) to celebrate OSF's 75th anniversary. Founded by Ashland teacher Angus Bowmer in 1935, the company has blossomed from a shoestring summer outfit into a drama multiplex that sold a record 410,034 tickets in 2009, to an 11-show season.

Most heartening this year, the third under artistic head Bill Rauch, is not OSF's longevity but its creative rejuvenation. Rauch is bringing in intriguing new directors, not relying on an inner circle as his forbearers did. The bountiful acting company boasts a batch of vigorous young first-timers, working alongside respected OSF vets like Anthony Heald and Dan Donohue.

And in most shows, a keener textual clarity is enriched with more interpretive boldness. A musty stodginess that often afflicted Shakespeare's heftier epics is dissipating, and watching such works is becoming less of an ordeal and more of a discovery.

At the opening of the summer season earlier this month, Rauch eagerly shared his plans to commission more adventurous new plays, and attract a younger, more diverse crowd.

But Rauch is also a savvy showman, with a sense of what sells. His vision encompasses Shakespeare's greatest hits and other classics, Broadway musicals, as well as such edgy new works as Ping Chong's adaptation of the Akira Kurosawa film "Throne of Blood" (opens in late July) and "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose," Culture Clash's prismatic view of Mexican-American history (debuts next week).

Takes on the shows now on view in Ashland:

"Hamlet": Rauch's distinctly nontraditional staging of the quintessential revenge tragedy is not far out, by most standards — but raised hackles with some patrons.

Here Elsinore Castle is ringed with barbed wire and security cameras. The Danish prince's duplicitous school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flirty women, not men. The strolling actors re-enacting the murder of Hamlet's father are rapping hip-hoppers. Dad's ghost is played by a deaf actor (Howie Seago). And Ophelia? A feisty tomboy.

Some of Rauch's darts hit, others miss. But overall this is a lively, provocative riff off post-9/11 paranoia, by way of Denmark. And it's anchored by Dan Donohue's eloquent, mercurial, grief-struck Hamlet.

He's the smartest guy in the room, and the pitched battle raging in his brain between intellect and action is enough to drive anyone into lunacy — real, feigned or both.

Christopher Akerlind's lighting puts this struggle in sharp relief, but there are blind spots in the characterizations. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Greta Oglesby), and uncle Claudius (Jeffrey King) are stock figures who don't fully engage with Donohue. And Ophelia (Susannah Flood) fizzles in a mannered mad scene.

If all Rauch's directorial strokes are not equal, the best of them can stir, challenge and excite.

"Twelfth Night": Shakespeare, meet Mozart. The two titans make beautiful music together in an inventive mounting of the romp by Darko Tresnjak, ex-head of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

Tresnjak finds fertile parallels between the sexual politics and master-servant dynamics of Illyria, the isle where "Twelfth Night" takes place, and the realms where Mozart operas unfold.

With a marvelous topiary set by Seattle area native David Zinn, Linda Cho's decorous costumes, and live musicians echoing refrains from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute," this novel rendition of the familiar romp sparks and sparkles aplenty in its late 18th century setting.

The approach requires (and gets) spirited but nuanced acting from arresting Christopher Liam Moore, as a dark-tempered Malvolio, Michael Elich as the commedia-style jester Feste and others. But some, like Miriam A. Laube, who mugs it up as the lusty aristo Olivia, need reining in.

"The Merchant of Venice": Shivering through Rauch's outdoor rendering of the "problem play" that pits Jewish moneylender Shylock against bigoted gentile Venetians is not ideal.

But even a brain-freezing temperature of below 50 degrees can't mar the cogent profundity of Anthony Heald's Shylock — a performance devoid of posturing and suffused with a mournful awareness of "otherness."

What also glimmers through the handsome staging: an alertness to the contradictions in this tragic-comic Venice — a society where the forces of love and hate, fortunes acquired and lost, mercy and injustice allow for no clear villains or heroines.

"Henry IV, Part 1": This third outdoor staging strikingly contrasts the old regime at OSF with the current one.

Staged by ex-OSF staffer Penny Metropulos, the Bard's saga of fathers and sons, kings and courtiers in conflict is ripely cast, with dashing John Tufts as hell-raising Prince Hal, a comically nimble David Kelly as the depraved scalliwag Falstaff and vital Kevin Kenerly as Hal's rash opposite, Hotspur.

But where is an overarching idea, a psychological grid that conveys this rich play as more than a string of lusty jests and a recitation of British history?

With no animating and unifying thesis at its center, it marches flatly from high jinks, to exposition, to combat.

Some bits are entertaining; others boring. But OSF is moving beyond a boilerplate approach to Shakespeare, into more questing, stylistically unified terrain. Traditional-looking, in-period versions of these classics aren't being scrapped — but made more incisive, surprising, engrossing.

"She Loves Me": OSF's scaled-down version of "The Music Man" last year was a misfire.

But this season's more intimate tuner, the delectable Broadway bonbon "She Loves Me," triumphs.

A much better fit for OSF, the romantic charmer was inspired by the film "The Shop Around the Corner," refitted with a deliciously witty score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock ("Fiddler on the Roof").

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, and gift-wrapped to the nines by designers Scott Bradley and Miranda Hoffman, "She Loves Me" unfolds in a fancy Budapest parfumerie in the 1930s.

Two bickering employees, Georg (Mark Bedard) and Amalia (Lisa McCormick), are loving pen pals but don't know it. Their unintended romance unfolds amidst a "family" of co-workers, whose attractions, clashes, ambitions and sorrows are often conveyed gracefully in song.

The score whips up Broadway standards from a froth of gypsy airs, operettas and Viennese waltzes.

McCormick's comic agility and rapturous soprano voice stand out in a fine ensemble. She's Broadway-ready and the real deal: Kristin Chenoweth, look out.

"Pride and Prejudice": Jane Austen's tale of woo is so beloved, there's another film or stage adaptation around every corner.

For Austen fans, there's always room for one more — if it's as enjoyable as the one former OSF artistic head Libby Appel concocted, from a Joseph Hanreddy-J.R. Sullivan script.

The romantic adventures of bright, proud Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster), her unruly family and her brooding suitor Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander) are retold in style. The limber cast is ingratiating indeed, and James Newcomb is a crackup as the unctuous Bennet relation Rev. Collins.

An elegant ballroom set by William Bloodgood, lovely empire dresses by Mara Blumenfeld and a spirit of bonhomie add to the attractions — which even the adolescent boys in the audience seemed to appreciate.

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