‘Twixt Heaven and Hell


During this current economic crisis,” says Paul Nicholson, executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “our strategies for survival are basically to anticipate hard times ahead, to stay very realistic and to be as smart as we can be with what money we’ve got.”

Nicholson, speaking at a Sunday morning press conference on the drizzly opening weekend of OSF’s annual nine-month-long theater-fest in Ashland, Ore., has just outlined a strategy that could also be the basic working plan for every intelligent, wage-earning citizen in America.

It certainly applies to fans of live theater. In times of financial hardship, the arts are often one of the first areas to be hit, as businesses scale back their donations, government and foundational grants shrink or dry up, and patrons make hard choices about where to spend each and every dollar. Last year in Ashland, where the OSF is currently celebrating its 74th anniversary, the festival saw its second-largest attendance in history but still took a slight financial hit, with overall revenues coming in 2 percent lower than anticipated.

“We had a lot of people sitting in our seats,” Nicholson says, “but those people were careful about their money, basically spending less for their tickets, on average, than we’d anticipated, taking more advantage of discount programs, that kind of thing. So all of that hit us, and also the downturn in investments hit us very badly, the result being that, though we had near record attendance—tickets sales only account for about 65 percent of our income—we still suffered a shortfall of over $800,000.”

As a result, for the just-opened 2009 season (four shows currently running, more to be added every month), the organization is anticipating even deeper declines in revenue and has acted by cutting $1.7 million from its original anticipated budget of $26.4 million, planning for a 6 percent decline in attendance compared to last year. Operationally, the cuts were made as judiciously as possible, Nicholson says, curtailing unnecessary travel, eliminating several positions, cutting salaries of the senior management staff, deferring the company’s retirement-matching program and taking a number of other measures.

On the artistic side, the management team, careful not to undercut the very thing that draws people to Ashland in the first place, launched a number of surgical cuts to the plays under development. According to Nicholson, these cuts included using live musicians in just two of the season’s 11 shows, negotiating contracts so that many actors will perform in three shows instead of the previous average of two, and similar changes.

None of these events were anticipated back in early 2008 when the current season was being planned, so the 2009 season features several productions—Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Much Ado about Nothing and Henry VIII; Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s epic Death and the King’s Horseman; a new adaptation of Don Quixote; and a rare musical, The Music Man—all requiring opulent production values, colorful pageantry, dazzling special effects and large casts.

“We chose a pretty big season,” Nicholson laughs, “with what is probably the largest acting company in OSF history. But with very few exceptions, all of the cuts we’ve made have been made with the assumption that we would preserve the original vision and quality of the 2009 season. The least smart thing we could do, at this point, is to undercut our reputation for quality, because that, more than anything, is what will bring people to Ashland.”

“We’ve adjusted,” agrees Bob Hackett, OSF marketing manager. “We’ve adjusted to expect attendance to be down from last year, so our strategy is to simply maintain at our revised projections. Right now, we are doing that. The question is, what can we offer our patrons, and what can we do to bring in first-time patrons, so that we continue to maintain that level of attendance?”

The answer, of course, like the creepy monster-critters conjured by the Weird Sisters in this year’s entertainingly freak-show-ish Macbeth, is not an individual thing, it’s multiple things. The marketing department has launched a new campaign, “Stay Closer, Go Further.” Encouraging entertainment seekers to forgo trips to Disneyland or New York or Europe, and to instead take the relatively short trip (six to seven hours from the North Bay) to Southern Oregon, these ads have already been launched in Oregon, and will spread to California in April.

“We already think this campaign is driving new patronage,” Hackett says. “In this financial environment, we need to reach out to our first-time ticket buyers, both locally and regionally. The idea is that, for relatively low cost, you can visit Ashland, and in so doing actually visit Scotland with Macbeth, visit the courts of England with Equivocation and Henry VIII, visit Nigeria with Death and the King’s Horseman—or even visit River City, Iowa, with The Music Man.

Of course, as the OSF adjusts its budgets and marketing plans to match the changing economy, so are the rest of us making changes in how we spend. Even those of us lucky enough to have jobs are thinking long and hard before committing money to nonvital enterprises. Still, the arts are important, now more than ever, and vacations are perhaps as necessary during times of stress as they are during times of calm. Is there anything that can be done to make a trip to Ashland more affordable?

The answer is yes, and especially if you happen to be spontaneous or have some flexibility in your schedule. As with most things, being young is a bit of a bonus, too.

In terms of acquiring tickets, normally up to $70 a seat, OSF is rolling out two new programs this year. One is the 19&–35 program, inspired by the year that OSF staged its first shows. Aimed at young adults, the program makes tickets available for a generous $19.35. To participate, qualified young adults must register via the festival’s website (Google “OSF” and “19&–35”), after which the cash-strapped patron will receive weekly updates announcing shows for the following week that have seats available at the $19.35 price. Tickets can then be purchased online on a first-come, first-served basis. The emails go out every Friday and are based on how well a particular performance is selling, so the ability to make last-minute travel plans is helpful.

For the over-35 set, OSF also has created a “web specials” program, making available half-price tickets for the following week. Like the 19&–35 program, these tickets are announced based on the number of seats presold for a particular performance. If there are still a lot of seats for The Music Man one week in advance, then half-price web specials will be made available.

“We sell a lot of web specials,” Hackett says.

For those willing to take an even chancier risk and go to Ashland with no tickets waiting at all, OSF still offers half-price “rush tickets,” made available 30 minutes before show time at the box office, as long as there are seats that remain unfilled. Given the festival’s expectations that sales will be down overall this year, it actually works to the benefit of anyone willing to wait till the last minute.

As for where to stay when you get there, the basic rule of thumb is, the farther away from Ashland’s downtown theater complex, the less you can expect to pay, so being willing to drive or cycle a few miles to get to your shows will save you money. Other value-conscious options include the very nice and very close Ashland Hostel (www.theashlandhostel.com), featuring low-priced dormitory-style rooms at $28 a night, private rooms from $40 to $60, and private family suites for $84 a night. Even more affordable, but a little less cush, is the beautiful Glenyan Campground and RV park (www.glenyanrvpark.com), a mere six-mile trip from downtown Ashland, with tent-camping spaces available for $28.50 a night.

For those who simply must have a hotel room and a hot continental breakfast, the best cost-saving way to visit Ashland is to go right now. All around town, hotel rates are cheaper in the winter and spring, sometimes nearly half what they will be when the festival hits its stride in June with the opening of the big outdoor Elizabethan theater.

“Now is a good time for first-timers to experience Ashland,” Hackett says. “The experience we offer is truly a high-value experience, and I’m not just talking about the art onstage. The value is in taking the time to make a trip, the full festival experience, the full Ashland experience.”

 For information on OSF’s season and various ticket-buying options, visit www.osfashland.org. For full reviews of the current spate of new shows, visit www.bohemian.com.

Sound and Fury

Over the last 74 years, the words Ashland and Oregon have gradually become synonymous with the words William and Shakespeare. There’s good reason for that. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened its 74th consecutive season at the end of February, has established a reputation for quality, creativity, and—over the last few years—a willingness to take big chances. As evidence, consider the four shows that opened this year’s season, a season that will last nine months and by the end will have staged eleven shows, four of them by Shakespeare, the rest a combination of classic and contemporary plays. And for the first time in OSF history, the festival is even presenting a beloved American musical. Now playing are Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Wole Soyinka’s Nigerian epic Death and the King’s Horseman, Sarah Ruhl’s metaphysical noir-comedy Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Opening in March and April are Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, and the world premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation, a drama about Shakespeare’s efforts to write that aforementioned, rumored-to-be-cursed epic that has come to be known as “The Scottish Play.” In June, with the opening of the festival’s celebrated outdoor Elizabethan Theater, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Henry VIII will be added to the line-up, along with San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis’ dramatic new adaptation of Don Quixote.

Here in the early part of the festival season, when snow and rain are still possible in Ashland and the shows all take place indoors, there is an introspective, plaintive side to the festival’s offerings, a mix of joyful optimism and melancholy reflection, with, in one case, an entertaining touch of tangible evil. On opening night, in the Angus Bowmer theater, director Gale Edwards unleashed the freakiest, creepiest, most nightmarishly entertaining Macbeth this reviewer has ever seen on stage. In Edwards’ version of Shakespeare’s epic, occult-tinged tragedy, swoards clash, heads are severed (note to propmaster: nice tendrils of flesh!), hands are bloodied, children are murdered, and the three weird witches perform the famous conjuring scene (“Double double, toil and trouble”) with special effects so sharply-wrought and startling the scene will surely go down as the most outrageous, visually striking moment of this entire festival season. As Macbeth, the stalwart soldier seduced by mystical promises of kingship and glory, Peter Macon is appropriately physical, playing the character as a dim-bulb drone with bright ambitions, who, in abandoning his principles with the murder of King Duncan and the usurpation of the crown, pays for his deeds with the loss of equally-ambitious wife, his kingdom, and ultimately his soul. The standout performance in the show is by Robin Goodrin Nordli as Lady M, whose none-too-solid sanity is pretty much history the moment she talks Macbeth into killing the king and taking his crown. As poor, misled Macbeth laments, late in the show, “Life is a tale told by an idiot” That may be true of life, but cannot be said of this emotionally arresting, visually dazzling production, told not by an idiot, but by an innovative director with a strong vision and a cast up to the challenge of bringing that vision to stunning, sleep-disturbing life.

Also visually striking, though far less nightmarish, is director Chuck Smith’s transporting adaptation of Death and the King’s Horseman, by the great Nigerian playwright, Wole Soyinka. The play, written in 1975, is based on a true story from 1946, in which the colonial British government attempted to interfere with a traditional Yoruba death ritual, with tragic consequences. Atmospherically staged within a live sound-scape of tribal drumming and African folk-singing, Death is the lyrical, palpably mysterious story of Elesin (the great Derek Wheeden), charming and beloved horseman to the recently deceased king. In the opening moments of the play, set amidst the colorful daily celebrations of the village marketplace, we quickly learn that Elesin is living his last day on earth. With the death of the king, custom requires Elesin to commit ritual suicide, so as to become the king’s guide through the afterlife. As Elesin contemplates his life and the sacred act he will soon commit, he is alternately goaded and watched-over by the village Praise-singer (G. Valmont Thomas) and Lyoloja, the “mother” of the Market (Perri Gaffney), who sing Elesin’s praises while beginning to doubt his commitment to his duty. For all his boasting and talk of being the only man in the region to not fear death, Elesin is clearly attached to this life and its pleasures, impulsively demanding one last new bride, just hours before he is to die. When the British District Officer, Simon Pilkings (Rex Young) learns of the Horseman’s impending suicide, he moves to stop it, an effort that, to the local people, would mean a tearing of the fabric of the Universe, the destruction of the tribe’s spiritual future. In Soyinka’s lyrical, poetry-infused play, the audience is witness to more than just a clash of cultures. With language so rich and sweet it’s like a triple helping of desert, Death and the King’s Horseman is about the power of mystery, the fear of the unknown, and the human need to make sense of that unknown by inventing rituals to explain it. As Elesin, Wheeden is spectacular, playing a man as con flicted, complex and self-deluded as poor bloody Macbeth, only with a soul far more worthy of redemption.

Though Shakespeare is the primary draw to Ashland, OSF has committed itself to the presentation of contemporary plays by emerging playwrights. In the case of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, one could argue that the playwright has already arrived. Though not yet 30, she’s produced a body of work that rivals many writers twice her age, and has been officially the Hot New Playwright for the last five years. Still, Ruhl seems to be growing and evolving with each new year, as evidenced by her most recent work, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (reviewed a few weeks ago in this paper, and still playing at The Berkeley Rep), so it is illuminating to look back all the way to early 2007 (!), when she was still dabbling in the kind of whimsical metaphysics that she’s mastered with plays like The Clean House and Passion Play, the sort of thing she appears to have left behind with the infinitely more grounded, controlled Vibrator Play. Though a brilliant crafter of twisted language and odd situations, Ruhl is primarily a visual writer, crafting plays that have a very specific physical look. In Dead Man, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, that look is spare, surreal, and minimalist, moving from the near deserted New York restaurant in which her protagonist Jean (Sarah Agnew) discovers that a man (Jeffrey King) has just died a few tables over—his name was Gordon Gottlieb, and he’s still sitting there—and impulsively answers his constantly-ringing cell phone, to the stark, frighteningly chairless family mansion at which Jean is invited to dinner by Gordon’s oddball mother (Catherine E. Coulson, known to Twin Peaks fans as the Log Lady), who is curious to know why her deceased son’s cell phone is now in the hands of a woman she’s never heard of before. It seems that Jean has a knack for improvisation, and sensing that the people in Gordon’s life are sad at his passing, she begins inventing stories about the dead man’s last words, his dying wishes, and his fondness for his family; to explain her possession of the cell phone, which continues to ring, ring, ring, Jean tells Gordon’s wife Hermia (Terri McMahon), his weird but earnest brother Dwight (Brent Hinkley), even the mysterious woman who keeps calling Gordon’s phone, that she used to work with him, which surprises everyone since Jean is clearly a shy, by-the-books, compassionate type of person, and Gordon, it turns out, dealt in black-market body parts, matching rich folks in America with livers, kidneys, and hearts harvested from prisoners in Chinese prisons and willing sellers in third world countries. As Jean, Agnew is a delight, all bottled-up enthusiasm and adrenalized sweetness, which intensifies when she suddenly recognizes her attraction to poor insecure Dwight (he was so-named because his mother felt sorry for the little-respected name), comes face to face with Gordon’s femme-fatal mistress, becomes drawn into the shadowy world of body-part selling, and, when the play finally crosses over into the kind of supernatural netherscape Ruhl excels at creating, finds herself having a long-delayed conversation with the man whose phone and family she’s been so desperately protecting. Hip, hilarious, and unnervingly strange, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a refreshingly outrageous excursion into those attitudes and innovations that, in a world ruled by portable technology, can both bring us together and force us apart.

At most theater companies, the decision to stage the world’s most popular musical would be a slam dunk, but with an institution whose reputation is supported by the twin towers of tradition (Shakespeare and his ilk) and originality (see the previous review), unleashing a storied, mainstream warhorse like Meredith Willson’s The Music Man is tantamount to treason. As it turns out, this version, a dream project from OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch, is not your grandfather’s Music Man, though it probably wouldn’t fry his mind either. Borrowing a trick from the movie Pleasantville, Rauch has reconceived the show as a multi-racial fantasy, with the staid, conservative, early-1900s town of River City, Iowa solidly black-and-white) even the American Flag, flown proudly in the show’s 4th of July opening, is black and white and grey. With the arrival of the charmingly flamboyant, fast-talking band-instrument salesman “Professor” Howard Hill (festival stalwart Michael Elich, outstanding in every way), who walks into town dressed in eye-popping red and green, the town gradually succumbs to this “colorful” stranger. Each time Hill convinces one of the townspeople to burst into song, they join the ranks of the technicolored. On a stripped-down set, with the approximation of houses upstage and what amounts to scaffolding and lights on the flanks, Rauch has staged the show with a minimum of the usual musical-comedy frosting; though there is a small orchestra pit—another first at OSF—the live orchestra is deliberately small, and the overture, usually an all-the-bells-and-whistles event, is performed by a single actor, sitting in a suitcase, playing snippets of the show’s greatest hits on a harmonica. In many ways, the production’s most ingenious abdication from the norm is in the casting of the renowned deaf actor Howie Seago (his resume includes stints working for the greatest directors on the scene) as Hill’s helpful sidekick, and retire con artist Marcellus. Especially daring is this casting choice given that Seago, who signs his way through his on-stage conversations, as Elich translates, has one of The Music Man‘s biggest show-stopping songs, Shipoopi, which ny necessity is given her to a usually minor character, Marcellus’ good-girl girlfriend, Ethel Toffelmier K.T. Voght) as the people of River City dance, sing—and sign—in a massive, crowd-pleasing American Sign Language blowout. The unconventional casting doesn’t play so well in the casting of Gwendolyn Mulamba as the town’s prim music-teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo, who initially recognizes Hill as a charlatan before succumbing to his romantic charms. It is defiantly fantastical that in the Midwest in 1917 a white salesman would openly court a black music teacher, but okay, musicals are fundamentally artificial, and color-blind casting has for years been the norm at OSF. The primary problem with the casting of Mulamba is a musical one: her style is operatic, deep chest singing, rich and full and warm, and it doesn’t match what anyone else is doing on stage. It’s a shock every time she opens her mouth, an interesting casting choice that doesn’t quite work.

The Music Man, which will surely prove to be a solid draw despite its unconventional approach, is daring and different enough to silence the Oregon Shakespeare Festival purists, while serving up the kind of apple-pie promise that sells tickets in an uncertain economy. With Macbeth, Horseman, and Dead Man for company, even before any of the other shows have shown up, The Music Man is starting out a year that looks to be one of OSF’s most surprise-packed seasons in recent memory.

For more information on these plays and the entire OSF season, visit their website at [ http://www.osfshakespeare.org ]www.osfshakespeare.org.

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