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The flavors of L.A. grace Oregon Shakespeare Festival

March 10, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR
  • Armando Duran and Vilma Silva appear in Arthur Miller's ?A View From the Bridge? in Ashland, Ore.
Armando Duran and Vilma Silva appear in Arthur Miller's ?A View From… (Jenny Graham )

Armando Duran has the gritty look of a Mexican campesino, a man of the soil who squints up at the clouds and wonders if it will rain. You could also say he has the hardened stare of a street tough who earns his living in the illicit trades of a violent world.

Or, at least, that's the way Hollywood casting agents saw him.

In L.A., "I was getting work, but I was always playing bank robbers or a Cuban hit man or a Colombian drug lord," said Duran, a 50-year-old native of Southern California. "If I was lucky, I was the cop who was undercover as a gang-banger, so at least I'd have a back story."

Such is the life of a working actor "of color" in this company town.But these days, Duran has found the full expression of his talent in a theater just north of the California state line. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, he's sunk his teeth into one meaty role after another, across five centuries of theater history.

Shakespeare, Chekhov, Arthur Miller: In Oregon, Duran has done them all. Last year, I caught him as the lead in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge." He's one of a group of expatriate Californians who've helped bring a little L.A.-style sabor to rural Oregon's Rogue Valley.

The artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or OSF, is a man known to everyone in the Southern California theater scene -- Bill Rauch, co-founder of downtown's Cornerstone Theater Company.

I first went to Oregon last summer to see "Othello." We arrived in Ashland, a town of 20,000 people surrounded by orchards and rolling hills, and found a little bit of home.

Despite the bucolic setting, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is as culturally unpredictable as a La Cienega mini-mall. It might give you a black "Macbeth," the small-town Iowa of "The Music Man," an Asian American "Henry VI," or "The Comedy of Errors" as a western.

The surrounding region is more than 90% white. The nearest major cities -- Portland, Ore., and San Francisco -- are a five-hour drive away or more. No matter. The seats are almost always full.

"We are blessed with a really literate, really passionate and adventurous audience," Rauch told me. The festival's most popular play last year was "The Clay Cart," an English adaptation of a 2,000 year-old Sanskrit play from India.

Rauch invited Los Angeles playwright Luis Alfaro to Ashland last year and produced his play "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner" on the OSF stage. Alfaro, in turn, spent three months living in Ashland doing outreach to the region's small but growing Latino community.

"Bill has a vision of the diversity of the country he lives in, and he wants the theater to reflect that vision," Alfaro said.

Rauch's No. 2 is Christopher Acebo, a stage and costume designer from San Fernando. Acebo told me about first discovering the theater as a child and teenager in L.A. in the 1970s and '80s, when his parents dropped him off to see plays like "Zoot Suit" and "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Ahmanson and the Shubert.

As a Cal State L.A. professor, Acebo helped his theater students pull off miracles on a shoestring. At OSF, he works with one of the largest and most well-funded ensemble companies in the United States. "This place is a kind of utopia of regional theater," he said.

OSF company member and San Diego native Rene Millan marvels at the fact that he gets to play roles like Philip the Bastard in Shakespeare's "King John," while still earning enough to support a new family. Ashland is a kind of anti-Hollywood, where he never hears an actor complain about "the size of his trailer."

Armando Duran says Oregon audiences with a taste for classic theater served with spice "saved" his acting career. Next spring, Duran will play the title role in "Don Quixote," in a new adaptation by the El Paso-born playwright Octavio Solis.

"Every year, they offer me something here that I would travel anywhere in the country to do," Duran told me. A lot of other theater people here feel the same way.

"Here, you're allowed to dream as an actor," said Juan Rivera LeBron, a native of Puerto Rico who earned his way to Ashland with an audition that included two soliloquies from "Romeo and Juliet." "Latinos and Shakespeare are two things that probably couldn't be more opposite," LeBron said.

LeBron acquired his love of Shakespeare in college, thanks to one of those great and rare professors we all wish we had. My Southern California public school education suffered from extreme Shakespeare deficits, and I came upon the Bard late in life. I figured that if I were earning my living by writing in English I should know the work of its great master.

In OSF's production of "Othello" I was moved by Dan Donohue's deliciously evil Iago and by the slow-building fury of Peter Macon in the lead. Afterward, I perused the program and was intrigued by the Spanish surnames in the cast.

Vilma Silva, the daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, played Iago's wife, Olivia.

In 14 years on OSF's stages, she's played many of the love-struck, desperate and resourceful women that sprang forth from Shakespeare's imagination. She disguised herself as a boy and won the heart of a man as Viola in the comedy "Twelfth Night;" and was starved into submission as the strong-willed Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew."

"I never assumed that Shakespeare was elite," she told me. She grew up in San Francisco's Mission District and attended a Catholic school where the Bard was an integral part of the curriculum. "I thought if everyone in my class can speak and read it, why can't I? Of course it's mine. It belongs to all of us."

Yes, Shakespeare belongs to all of us. Drive or fly from California to Ashland this spring and summer, and you might see a bit of your city and country reflected on the OSF stages, and echoed in the words of the Bard.

But buy your tickets now, because they can sell out mighty quickly.

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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