A HANDFUL OF EXPERIMENTS.
ASHLAND - Two plays about assassination are running for the rest of the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "Ghost Light," a new play "conceived and developed" by San Francisco Bay area theater director Jon Moscone about the assassination of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, opened June 28. It looks at assassination from a painfully personal point of view and was written by Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
It will run in repertory in the festival's little New Theatre through the first week of November with "Julius Caesar," in a taut little production directed by Amanda Dehnert.
On a visit last week to the festival, I also took in "WillFul," perhaps the most experimental show in the history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It opened this month, and rather than being confined to a single stage, wanders around various locations at the festival campus.
A newsy note: The Angus Bowmer Theatre, which was closed for much of the summer because of a structural beam's failure, is back up and running with plays as usual. The lawn in nearby Lithia Park, where the festival erected a temporary tent theater to house the Bowmer shows, has been replanted and is already greening up again.
Through Nov. 5
Theater director Jon Moscone was 14 years old in 1978 when his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was assassinated.
"Ghost Light," which made its world premiere in the intimate New Theater and runs there through the rest of the season, is an exploration of a man's efforts to come to terms with his father's violent death. It is created by Moscone, the artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, and by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone.
It marks the second installment in "American Revolutions," the festival's planned series of 37 newly commissioned plays on American history.
Christopher Liam Moore plays Jon, a theater director who is struggling to come to terms with a production he's leading of "Hamlet." Shakespeare's tragedy, of course, features another figure whose father has been assassinated, and who, in the wake of the murder, is also paralyzed with inaction.
In particular, the character Jon can't define his vision of the ghost of Hamlet's father.
This all sets off a reverie, whose characters generally live inside Moscone's head: Loverboy (Danforth Comins), his imagined perfect mate; and the prison guard (Bill Geisslinger), the gun toting grandfather he never met, who provides a cynical, hard edged commentary on Jon's self-indulgence.
That this show has problems should come as no surprise. Moscone sets out to set the record straight, a dangerous ambition for a piece of fiction. (His father's death has long been overshadowed in the public's mind by that of Harvey Milk, who was killed at the same time by Twinkie-defense gunman Dan White).
Perhaps as a result, "Ghost Light" is too talky by half. Taccone's script needs polish and focus. It has deft moments, but it also has too many deaf ones. The play fails an essential test: none of the characters has any flesh and blood besides Jon himself.
It is, in the end, a narcissistic story whose sole tension is a hollow conceit, and one that is not well resolved.
The production is solid, though. The set, by Todd Rosenthal, is interesting, combining both San Francisco City Hall and Jon's apartment in a single space.
Acting throughout is excellent, with especially good work by Moore; by Robynn Rodriguez, who plays his friend Louise; and by young Tyler James Myers, who does a professional job as the teenage Jon.
Through Nov. 6
Assassination is examined from an entirely different point of view in Amanda Dehnert's sharp little production of William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
This is a lean, simple, fast-moving and wonderfully satisfying version of the familiar tragedy, in which Caesar and his imperial ambitions are taken down by a cabal of his closest friends.
What might on the surface seem most challenging about this production is that Caesar is played by a woman - and as a woman.
Vilma Silva, a veteran of 16 seasons at the festival, turns in a superior performance as Caesar, playing the role so flawlessly that within minutes of the show's start we're convinced that Shakespeare wrote his script with a female in mind.
In fact, it wasn't until Mark Antony's famous eulogy in the second half came along that I was reminded of the change: "I come to praise Caesar," Anthony said. "Not to bury her."
The action starts, while the audience is still settling, as the players mingle with the audience; in a surefire warm-up, Caesar coaxes the audience into joining the action by cheering and chanting at appropriate moments.
Jonathan Haugen plays Brutus, the leader of the assassins, as sweetly and gently as the head of any conspiracy could possibly be.
In what seemed an odd costume choice, Haugen wore a kilt; a reference to Macbeth, perhaps? Gregory Linington plays Cassius the co-conspirator with easy charm. One of the most interesting performances came from Danforth Comins, who played an energetic, youthful and almost hipster-ish Mark Antony.
A nice touch was the appearance through the second half of the ghostly dead Caesar, who greets each new murderous death among her killers with an almost friendly but fatal touch.
This stripped-down show relegated the rest of the characters to an ensemble, meaning the entire play was acted by a cast of 11.
Scenic designer Richard Hay went for a sparse, functional design in the flexible New Theater, which was configured for theater in the round. Costumes, by Linda Roethke, are of an indefinite modern era.
In a nice touch, the audience was greeted outside the theater as well as in the lobby by big, monochromatic graphic banners - they looked like political posters - commemorating the victims of assassinations through history.
Around the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus
Through Oct. 9
A man looking for the son he never knew he had. A woman in search of her long-lost twin. A husband embarked on a hunt for his wife's deteriorating memory: These are the dramatic elements that make up "WillFul," an extended reflection on love, memory and loss that makes up the oddest of the 12 plays being put on this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The "play," if you can call it quite that - the festival calls it a "site-specific special project" - takes place in a series of vignettes as the audience is led around to various small venues, indoor and out, around the festival's campus.
When you show up outside the Elizabethan theater with your ticket for "WillFul," you are handed, instead of a program, a map, an audio device and a set of earphones.
"It's like a treasure hunt!" one woman exclaimed.
Actually, as it turns out, it's more like a piece of conceptual installation art, which was, according to the program, "conceived by" guest director Michael Rohd and designer Shanon Scrofano, "written by" Rohd and "created in collaboration" with the cast of 26.
"WillFul" is a difficult show to review. It is not by any means a play in conventional terms, and really can't be evaluated by any conventional standards. Some of its effects depend on surprise, so I'm reluctant to discuss it in too much specific detail.
The audience is split at times into smaller groups, each of which sees a different performance that grows out of those central themes of love and loss.
Though it bills itself as interactive, it's not.
It is, though, an artistic experience, but even on those broader terms it's very uneven.
It feels, in too many places, like a bad MFA show: high in concept, spotty in execution.
The script is stilted and sounds almost liturgical in places. The characters are nameless. There are no stars to speak of in the ensemble cast, which includes such festival favorites as Miriam Laube, Howie Seago and Armando Duran.
Those headphones, frankly, are a drag. The sound quality is awful. Using them isolates audience members from one another, an irony for a show that, Rohd says in the program, should be "an experience that brings strangers together." And they make you feel like you're being dragged through a blockbuster museum exhibit.
But a few moments sparkle. When members of the ensemble spread out and begin talking simultaneously to small audience groups scattered around the Elizabethan theater, the echoing repetition of their similar dialogue is wonderful.
There was a nice bit that involves picking up stones, and occasional passages of the show's choreography are delightful.
All that said, though, I doubt the show would be worth the price of admission for almost anyone outside of a few hard-core theater addicts. "WillFul," to be honest, is a failure, but an interesting one.
OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
What the festival is: The largest arts organization in Oregon, with a budget of $29.1 million, employs 325 people full time, from actors and directors to carpenters, stagehands, seamstresses and office workers. The festival is putting on 12 plays this year, plus the daily Green Show, in a season stretching from early February into November. Oregon Shakespeare Festival is widely regarded as one of the best regional theaters in the nation.
Where: In downtown Ashland next to Lithia Park.
Season: The plays are in full swing until the end of October, with performances in the festival's three theaters every day of the week but Monday.
Lodging: Make reservations early, as many places sell out. The farther you are from downtown, the cheaper it gets.
Tickets: Price range is from $20 to $71.50. The box office number is 541-482-4331, or you can buy online at OSFAshland.org. If a show is sold out, check daily with the box office for returns. If you're flexible, you can often find unused tickets for sale from individuals outside the box office just before showtime.
Be punctual: Shows start on time, to the minute, and late-comers may not be allowed in until intermission.
Remember the weather: Plays in the outdoor theater go on, for the most part, rain or shine. Even in clear weather, summer nights can be brisk. Dress accordingly.
Catch the Green Show: A variety of acts give free performances in the quad between the festival's three theaters each evening except Monday. Shows start at 6:45 p.m.
RECENTLY OPENED PLAYS
And reviewed on these pages today:
"Ghost Light" though Nov. 5
"Julius Caesar" through Nov. 6
"WillFul" through Oct. 9
OTHER ONGOING PRODUCTIONS
Other shows still playing in Ashland; all but "The African Company Presents Richard III" were reviewed previously in The Register-Guard (see bit.ly/2011osf1 and bit.ly/2011osf2)
In the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre:
"Measure for Measure" through Nov. 6
"The Imaginary Invalid" through Nov. 6
"The African Company Presents Richard III," through Nov. 5
On the outdoor Elizabethan Stage:
"Henry IV, Part Two" through Oct. 7
"Pirates of Penzance" through Oct. 8
"Love's Labor's Lost" through Oct. 9