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Hearts in Darkness, Flights of Fancy

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 2006 Season with flying lawn chairs, spirited name droppers, heartbreaking hideaways, mysterious wintry trees--and not a bear in sight

By David Templeton

A riveting, repshaped Diary of Anne Frank, recently adapted by playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a new comedy-drama about the man who flew his lawn chair over Southern California--that would be Bridget Carpenter's rich and metaphorical Up--are the best and strongest of the first four shows to kick off the nine-month-long, eleven-play, 2006 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in the impossibly charming town of Ashland, Oregon. Completing the season-opening four-pack, all running in two of OSF's three central theaters, are a pair of somewhat less rewarding shows: Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, given an elegant if markedly flat and uninspired staging by director Libby Appel, and an energetic, entertaining resurrection of Oscar Wilde's delightful but drastically over-performed The Importance of Being Earnest.

The first to open (scheduled to close in late October) is The Winter's Tale, last performed in Ashland only five years ago. In the extended program notes for Winter, Appel describes Shakespeare's crazy-patchwork romance as the author's "most spiritual, most mysterious play." Would that it were true of this production, a spare, stripped down affair that consequently ends up stripped of all but the faintest glimmers of mystery and spirituality and, worst of all, is almost thoroughly denuded of dramatic tension and believability.

As the young panhandler on Ashland's Sisqouiou Blvd. remarked when I told him I was all out of change, "Bummer." Like that panhandler, who boasted spectacularly braided hair and colorful attire resembling the costume from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, there are visual pleasures to be had from watching this Winter's Tale. Rachel Hauck's sparse set is lovely; wide steps leading up to a gleaming blue floor and a background of ever-looming trees, wintry and barren, literally stripped of their foliage, and the costumes by Deborah M. Dryden effectively communicate the status and class of the long parade of characters; especially nice is the gown worn by noblewoman-storyteller Paulina (Greta Oglesby), flowing black fabric painted in gold with the same leafless tree forms that stand atmospherically over the whole play.

The story, which includes a few of Shakespeare's most outlandish plot twists (wait! The Queen's a statue?) and a number of maddening flip-flops of character, begins in the country of Sicilia, where good King Leontes (William Langan) has, with no reason and minimal evidence, leaped to the conclusion that his wife Hermione (Miriam A. Laube) has been unfaithful with his best friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Rex Young). Bonkers with jealously, Leontes imprisons his wife, orders the execution of his friend and all who would defend him, and demands that Herminone's new-born daughter, whom he suspects of being Polixenes' bastard, be taken away and abandoned to die in the bear-populated wilderness.

By the way: fans of the conveniently ravenous bear that appears at the end of Act One in most productions of The Winter's Tale (and fans of that bear are legion) should note that in this version, the infamous carnivore is represented by a snarling sound effect. When I saw the play, a young Oregonian theater critic to the right of me was livid. "I come to see The Winter's Tale," she seethed, "I want to see a bear eating a guy!"

The story jumps ahead sixteen years (a length of time that appears again in Up, strangely enough), and relocates to the land of Bohemia, where the abandoned baby, Perdita (Nell Geisslinger) has been adopted by a shepherd (the great Josiah Phillips) and raised without knowing her heritage. She has, we learn, recently fallen in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes, who conveniently managed to escaped Leontes' plot and return home to Bohemia. When enough twists of fate and impossible coincidences have occurred to bring everyone back together again in Sicilia, where a penitent Leontes now longs for forgiveness, Shakespeare's story becomes nearly impossible to pull off emotionally, given that Leontes tyrannous actions have rendered him all but unforgivable. It takes a superb cast and some clever staging to give the tale the desired emotional catharsis, but in this production, by the time the catharsis arrives, the flatness and directness of the staging have left the actors little believable emotion to work with.

Appel's primary bit of invention comes in the way she uses the character of Paulina, a noblewoman of Leontes' court. Played with radiant grace and strength by Greta Oglesby, Paulina has been turned into the resident storyteller/wisewoman, beginning and ending the play with the line, "A sad story is best for winter," and stepping in from time to time to deliver exposition that Shakespeare gave to a series of one-off characters. The framing works well to remind us that this is a fable, a gloomy bedtime story that makes little logical sense but perhaps, if properly told, can feel true.

While I felt that this Winter's Tale was too streamlined, the production may appeal to those purists who were so grossly offended by OSF's inventive 2000 production of The Winter's Tale, a psychedelic variation crammed with hippy-dippy costumes, Volkswagen Beetles, oversized sex toys and Albert Einstein in a space suit. In that production, outrageous though it was, the final reconciliation was, against all odds, entirely real, heartfelt and powerful. Comparatively, the 2006 version, like the leaf-shorn trees that hover over every scene, remains sadly cold and lifeless.

Lifelessness is not the problem facing director Peter Amster in his production of The Importance of Being Earnest. There is enough life and electricity in this production to illuminate all of downtown Ashland. Powered by a first-rate cast and slap-dash comic timing, Earnest's main stumbling-block is the veneer of over-familiarity it carries after so many years of popularity among high school and amateur theater companies. Familiarity (sadly) breeds contempt, and--unfair or not--even a production as competently staged as this cannot escape the sense that it is attempting, and largely succeeding, to reanimate a very-funny corpse.

It's a problem, though not a fatal one.

Played out a marvelously bright and colorful, rotating set designed by William Bloodgood, OSF's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest is exactly what Oscar Wilde once said it was: "An exquisitely trivial, delicate bauble of fancy," which Wilde reportedly wrote to convey his philosophy that, "We should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." The superb, racially blind cast seems to have swallowed that philosophy whole, approaching the trivial silliness of the play with serious attention to detail and to the mechanics of drawing room comedy.

As Algernon Moncrief, Kevin Kennerly--usually seen in Ashland in dramatic parts--proves to be a first-rate comedian. Algernon is a gentleman with a penchant for creative fabrication. In order to escape from social entanglements, he's invented a fictional friend named Mr. Bunbury, whom he frequently leaves town in order to visit. Algernon's similarly deceptive associate Jack Worthing (Jeff Cummings), has also invented a fictional alter-ego, a morally suspect brother named Earnest, whom he claims to be visiting whenever crashing the home of Algernon, who in fact, as always known him as Earnest and is shocked to learn that his friend has another identity when at home in the country. Jack, it turns out, has fallen in love with Algernon's equally smitten cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Heather Robison), a flirty young woman with a life-long dream of marrying a man named Earnest. Algernon, meanwhile, having discovered that Jack/Earnest has a young ward named Cecily (Julie Oda), determines to pass himself off as Jack's wayward brother and attempt to woo the pretty Cecily. Imposing her own will on all of this is Algernon's imperious aunt, the Lady Bracknell (marvelously played by Judith-Marie Bergan).

The actors are very good at nailing down laughs that might escape less seasoned players. By working so hard--and with such obviously enthusiasm for the material--the cast, crew and director have all succeeded in bringing much needed freshness and energy to Wilde's overtaxed trifle.

The Diary of Anne Frank, in its original Pulitzer-winning incarnation by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacket, has also suffered--since its Broadway premiere in 195--from over-familiarity and long, knotty string of spotty amateur productions. The original script, based on 15-year-old Anne Frank's powerful diaries, describing her Jewish family's 25-month secret confinement in an upstairs flat in German-occupied Amsterdam, appeared a scant ten years after the end of WWII, and effectively introduced the world to the then-largely-unknown horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Though undeniably moving, the Goodrich and Hackett script has always been dramatically problematic, with its true-life characters, primarily Anne, appearing a bit whitewashed and polished up. This fault can be traced to Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only surviving member of the family, who heavily edited his daughters wartime diaries before their initial publication, removing a great deal of difficult material: Anne's occasional, unkind observations about her neighbors and her increasingly cynical view of the world, her blossoming sense of her own teenage sexuality, and a prickly, growing resentment of her mother. There has been a sense, too, that the original play's ending, in which Anne delivers a gut-wrenching final statement affirming the goodness in mankind, was a calculated attempt to end the play on some sort of positive note, since those words came from an earlier part of her writings, and were certainly not her final observations. The original play's meandering, drawn-out sense of pacing has also, over the last decade or two, come to be viewed as rather dreary and depressing rather than earthshaking and emotional and dramatically rich--as this important story deserves to be.

The new script, adapted in 1999 by Wendy Kesselman, introduces new material from Anne Frank's complete and unedited diaries, and succeeds in fleshing out Anne as a precocious, adventurous teenager whose na´ve views of the world, her family, and the future are heartbreakingly tested--and severely matured--over the course of those 25 months in that upstairs annex. By all measures, this is a far superior script. Kesselman manages to balance the documentary needs of telling a true story with the theatrical requirement that a play, even one telling a sad tale of grotesque brutality and the testing of the human spirit, must be entertaining. The biggest surprise in Kesslman's script is how funny it is at times. Those moments of humor, real and beautiful, take nothing away from the drama of the story; on the contrary, they add poignancy and power from beginning to end.

Gorgeously directed by James Edmonson on a stunningly detailed, multilevel set by Richard L. Hay, the OSF production of Kesselman's adaptation is a remarkable achievement, a pitch-perfect blend of emotional content and theatrical craft. The cast, as tight and polished an ensemble as one could hope to find, is so good now its mind-boggling to imagine how they might evolve by the end of the play's run in July. As Anne, Laura Morache hits all the marks in playing the girl's range from 13 to fifteen, from uncomplicated chatterbox to open-eyed and cautious optimist. There is not a weak link in the cast, from Tony DeBruno as Anne's diplomatic humanist father, Otto Frank, to Catherine E. Coulson as Mrs. Van Daan, the irritatingly opinionated but sweetly devoted spouse of Otto's business partner, Mr. Van Daan, whose pathetic deterioration from confident Alpha Male to bread-stealing wretch is convincingly played. As Anne's quiet, shell-shocked sister Margot, Sarah Rutan, usually known for her vivacious portrayal of overt and sexy beauties, is unrecognizably muted here, wearing her terror just below the surface. The moment where Margot and Anne, believing that rescue is at hand, finally relax and confess their hopes for the future, both actresses work little wonders of guarded metamorphosis, a moment that, since we know the sisters are doomed, is especially crushing to see. Linda Alper as Anne's mother Edith is alternately brittle and strong, and Michael Elich, as the nervous dentist Mr. Dussel, is so convincingly uptight that, when he finally reveals a penchant for jokey silliness, one wonders for a moment--not long before Diary's devastating, but undeniably inspiring conclusion--if the poor man hasn't finally cracked.

There is no doubt that hapless inventor Walter Griffin is headed for a crack-up in Up, the bitterly comic, confidently layered new play by Bridget Carpenter. Based loosely on the real-life crises encountered by Larry Walters, the flight-obsessed truck driver who, in 1982, tied weather balloons to his lawn chair and went for 16,000-foot flight over Southern California. In 1993, unable to recapture the peculiar success and the instant celebrity of his famous aeronautical stunt, Walters finally shot and killed himself. In Carpenter's play, it has been 16 years since going vertical in the lawn chair, and now Griffin (Richard Howard) spends his days drawing out plans for inventions that will never take off while his wife Helen (Terri McMahon) pays the bills as a mail carrier. After years of waiting for Griffin to roll his 15-minutes of fame into some kind of steady paycheck, Helen is losing patience with her husband's aimless dreaming. Their teenage son Mikey (John Tufts), meanwhile, is withdrawn and unpopular at school, as rudderless and unfocused as his father, until he meets Maria (Christine Albright) a beguiling, conspicuously pregnant sophomore who lives with her slightly-seedy aunt Chris (a hilarious Robin Goodrin Nordli). Encouraged by Maria to test his own potential, Mikey takes a job as a telemarketer selling office supplies from Aunt Chris's apartment. Before long, he's made more money than his father has earned over the last 16 years, and the shift in balance, along with Helen's growing insistence that her husband stop dreaming and get a job, sets the stage for a catastrophic clash between clear-eyed practicality and head-in-the-clouds idealism.

The clever direction, by Michael Barakiva, is inventive and smart, and the set by scenic designer Daniel Ostling--all sliding panels and sharp corners--is stylish and effective. The funny and knowing script, which strays close to the mystical in its final act, might--in the play's fanciful, bittersweet climax--a flashback to Griffin's life-changing flight in that chair--could be taken as a little too vague and metaphorical for some. What grounds the production is the raw believability of its cast, especially as played by McMahon and Howard.

With a breezy ease that almost seems effortless, Howard plays Griffin as a gentle child-man who, even as the story begins, has already become more absent from his home and family than anyone realizes. He has imaginary conversations with French tightrope-walker Philippe Petit (U. Jonathan Toppo), the guy who walked a rope between the twin towers in New York, in 1974. Petit appears above the set, trotting back and forth across a narrow beam as he offers Griffin wisps of advice and encouragement. Up is a play about walking a line, making breathtaking choices in a world where the dreams we love most dearly can end up taking us further and further away from those who truly love us.

For more information on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, check www.orshakes.org

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Web extra to the March 1-7, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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