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Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers much to build upon

Critic's Notebook: Under artistic director Bill Rauch, the event has a renewed purpose and savvy viewers. Now let's talk overhaul.

August 23, 2009|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

ASHLAND, ORE. — If the Oregon Shakespeare Festival doesn't have the most enthusiastic audience of any regional theater in the country, there must be some performing arts center out there with quite a rabid cult.

Ashland, OSF's quaint home nestled in the foothills of majestic mountain ranges and lined with arts-and-crafts boutiques and casual-nice restaurants eager to pour local Pinot Noir, is a destination town for theatergoing.

Spectators come from all across the Pacific Northwest and beyond for multi-day outings of Shakespeare, other classic and demi-classic authors and contemporary writing of a highly ambitious order.

No, it's not just about the Bard of Avon, though the festival's namesake sets the bar high in terms of dramatic scope and duration. Stemming the TV-influenced tide of much contemporary theater, OSF makes 90-minute intermission-less fare the exception rather than the rule.

The talk this year, the second full season of Cornerstone Theater Company co-founder Bill Rauch's tenure as artistic director, is all about "Equivocation," Bill Cain's drama about Shakespeare's struggle to write about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot intended to assassinate King James I and the nation's Protestant power-brokers. This surprisingly resonant play, receiving its world premiere under Rauch's direction, is a hot property, with a different production slated to open at the Geffen Playhouse in November and another one at Manhattan Theatre Club in early 2010.

And the OSF crowd, a portion of which had caught "Henry VIII" and "Macbeth," both of which shed light on events Cain is dramatizing, was unusually prepared to appreciate the political nuances and theatrical quips of this gallopingly intelligent work of historical fiction.

Rauch, who shared with me the breadth of his bold agenda, has brought to Ashland the same quality of communal idealism that distinguished his leadership of Cornerstone. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he was in rehearsal for Culture Clash's update of Aristophanes' "Peace" at the Getty Villa, he talked about the extraordinary "ownership" of the festival's audience, the sense of investment they have in the institution, as well as the need "to shake things up in the company," to bring in fresh directorial perspectives and to challenge artists to "keep the work vital."

Like everyone else in Obama's America, Rauch is grappling with change and the resistance to change. On the plus side, new play development is percolating impressively with the commissioning of playwrights for a 37-play, 10-year series exploring epochal shifts in American life. (Alison Carey, who co-founded Cornerstone with Rauch, is the director of the project, "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.")

Outreach to local residents, who make up less than 15% of ticket-buyers, has bumped up their attendance. And total ticket sales topped 400,000 for 2008, down just a bit from the record set in 2007, the final season of Libby Appel's 12-year reign as artistic director.

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. But a two-day splurge of theater, which in addition to Cain's drama included "Henry VIII," "The Music Man" and "Paradise Lost," exposed an area of weakness that OSF will need to address to advance its place in the hierarchy of major nonprofit theaters -- a midlevel acting company that could use a substantial overhaul.

This observation was unavoidable in my first day, when I attended a matinee of Clifford Odets' 1935 Depression-era drama "Paradise Lost," directed by Appel at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and an evening performance of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," directed by John Spies at the beautiful outdoor Elizabethan Stage.

I was excited to encounter both of these rarely staged works -- the Odets because it speaks uncannily to our current dire economic straits and the Shakespeare because it's one of the only plays of his I've never seen before, and I was in the mood for some alfresco pageantry.

Audience preferences

The good news about both productions is that the stories were lucidly conveyed, with the meat-and-potatoes of plot presented without a lot of directorial garnish. Given the lumpiness of the tales, this isn't a bad strategy, and it seems to be one that OSF audiences have come to depend on. What I gleaned from my conversation with theatergoers (some of the friendliest and most voluble I've ever encountered) is that these folks would rather be spellbound by narratives than hypnotized by auteurs or even dazzled by superstars.

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