The recent Supreme Court ruling affirming marriage rights to all couldn’t be better timed. As it happens, the celebration party has already started in Ashland, Ore. And this party’s got the Go-Go’s, or at least a bunch of their songs. Even Shakespeare would be dancing.
Two weeks before the historic ruling, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival unveiled Head Over Heels, a joyously love-affirming musical by Tony-winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), and anyone wanting to celebrate an engagement or wedding might want to hit the road and snap up some tickets, because this outrageously creative, gleefully uplifting world premiere is one hot show—and I have a feeling it’s about to get hotter.
Directed by Ed Silvanus Iskandar, Head Over Heels does something miraculous with the Go-Go’s greatest hits (and a few lesser known songs), spreading them around through Whitty’s insanely clever comic adaptation of the Elizabethan pastoral romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, by the poet-soldier Phillip Sydney, a member of Elizabeth’s court till be was banned for dueling—and for daring propose marriage to the queen. As incorporated by Whitty and arranged by Carmel Dean, the songs are more than just pop-rock ear candy. Whether translated into English Madrigals, doo-wop quartets, or slinky rock-and-roll tangos, the lyrics cleverly move the story along, revealing the inner lives of the characters as well as if they’d been written for the show. Maybe even better.
When Basilius, King of Arcadia (a delightful Michael Sharon) receives a prophecy predicting the collapse of his kingdom and his family, with hints that an epic act of adultery will threaten his marriage, he packs up his advisors, his wife (a brilliant Miriam A. Laube) and his two daughters, (Bonnie Milligan, Tala Ashe), and heads out to the forest to wait for it all to blow over. There in the wide open, of course, a series of confusions and misunderstandings ensue, most of them revolving around Musidorus (Dylan Paul), a young lovesick shepherd disguised as an amazon woman.
Basically, everyone falls in love with her, leading to a number of well-timed self-discoveries, the end result being that the king’s definition of love, and the meaning of marriage, gets a much-needed overhaul by the time the bedazzled king and his newly-redefined family all gather to sing "We Got the Beat." It’s goofy, giddy fluff, yes, but its sweet, irresistible, occasionally brilliant fluff. And sometimes, nothing is better, or better timed, than a bit of sweetness after a long, hard journey.
The good, the bad and the gorgeously ugly.
That might be a fitting way of thinking about the other shows currently running on OSF’s three stages. A number of shows that run the rest of the season (Pericles, Much Ado About Nothing, Guys and Dolls), I have already reviewed in February, and one other (the brilliant Fingersmith) ends its run on July 9. Two new shows have opened on the company’s two indoor stages since February, and three (including Head Over Heels) are now running outdoors in the just-opened Allen Elizabethan Theater. In a remarkably strong season for Artistic Director Bill Rauch, there are far more hits than misses.
The one major “miss,” however, is a doozy.
Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra has never been an easy play to produce. The story hops all over the globe, there are huge action scenes that play out as nothing but narration (the equivalent of, ‘Look! Over there! Our ships are all burning!’), and the tone of the piece, as written, is a wacky blend of high drama and broad comedy, some of which intrudes on its own self, leaving a sense that Shakespeare kept changing his mind about how funny he wanted this historical epic to be.
For directors, it means they must find clever ways to establish a coherent tone that is not suggested in the script, or risk leaving the audience uncertain where to laugh and where to sit there stunned at the crass stupidity of certain ancient Romans and Egyptians.
Director Rauch, who did a stellar job with his direction of the aforementioned Fingersmith, appears to have decided to just follow Shakespeare’s lead with this surprisingly spare outdoor production, the result being a sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling mish-mash of tonal inconsistencies.
This is a tragedy, after all.
By pushing the comedic moments to goofy excess, even—as in the arrival of a bumbling snake seller—when it comes just as the tragic demise of one character is about to take place, it diminishes, rather than enhances, the whole flow of the show. The snake seller says weird stuff, it's true, but to give him the hillbilly cadences of an extra from Hee Haw, and to have him enter and exit humming the worms-crawl-in song in the voice of a Hannah Barbera cartoon character is just too much at the wrong moment, and it leaves the entire enterprise foundering in a kind of dramatic uncertainty.
Put another way, if the death of Antony and Cleopatra, or both, gets a laugh when it happens, something is seriously wrong with this Antony and Cleopatra.
The story is fairly well known.
Roman General Mark Antony (Derrick Lee Wheeden, doing his best) is in Egypt to keep in the Queen Cleopatra (Miriam A. Laube again, also doing what she can under a confusing directorial vision). Ignoring messages from Rome, Antony spends his days romping like an adolescent, apparently having some sort of middle-aged crisis, for which the cure is lots of drinking and partying, and plenty of giddy sex with Cleopatra, who is likewise acting like a schoolgirl with a crush, cooing and giggling and bouncing on the bed in way that even the teenage Romeo and Juliet might be embarrassed to be caught in the act of. After watching our supposedly mature main characters acting like careless children for 30 minutes, it’s hard to feel bad for them when their world starts to crumble under their irresponsible actions. That’s the point, of course, of the play, to show how great society’s are destroyed by the acts of selfish rulers, but it’s just inconceivable that the real Tony and Cleo would have run around squealing and clapping like toddlers at a birthday watching the clown tie balloon animals.
As Antony’s faithful right-hand-man Enobarbus, Jeffrey King fares best, managing the difficult task of appearing both in-control and out, offering what little emotional balance there is in this otherwise disappointing, surprisingly seasick enterprise.
A less severe example of a play with wild tone shifts is Charles Fechter's 1868 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the three new productions recently opened on the outdoor stage. Retaining a number of script changes made in the early 1900’s by actor James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene O’Neill; keep reading), this adaptation emphasizes the swashbuckling fun of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel while diminishing its, um, boring parts. largely by establishing an over-the-top melodramatic tone that has little resemblance to the serious historical melancholy of the original.
Edmond Dantes (Al Espinosa, seriously not-too serious) is a ship’s captain framed by a trio of businessmen and politicians who all have something to gain by getting rid of the gentle, kindhearted Dantes. His years-long imprisonment in an island hellhole is condensed using some storytelling trickery, and after escaping and locating a buried treasure, he returns home as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, planning to exact revenge on all who betrayed him. The performances are tuned a tad bigger than life, but just short of having the villains twirl their mustaches. The large cast of characters make frequent asides to the audience, the beginning and end of which are signaled by the loud snap courtesy of an onstage percussionist and sound-effects man. As his foes fall one by one, Dantes turns triumphantly to the audience.
“Clack!” goes the board. “One!” shouts Dantes. “Clack!” goes the board again, and on the next bad guy. It’s that kind of show. It’s all pretty silly, but it’s fun, and occasionally just emotional enough to make us care about the characters. There are gags mixed in with the clever ships-sails-barrels-and-swords stage craft, but the gags all fit the consistently goofy vibe of the show, which by the end, has wrapped up loose ends and delivered a complex but reasonably happy conclusion. Sort of.
Well directed by Marcella Lorca, who turns the tale into the kind of stage spectacle that was all the rage in the late Victorian era, The Count of Monte Cristo is deliciously empty calories, served on a bed of crisp, not-too-guilty pleasure.
In Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the famously tortured playwright tells a painfully personal family story, thinly disguised as fiction, but burning with the raw anguish, and dark comedy, of truth. Impressively directed by Christopher Liam Moore—putting the “long” into Long Day’s Journey by using the full text, all four hours of it—the OSF production pulls off something truly spectacular here, presenting a lushly real look at the gorgeously ugly inner lives of one very troubled, but occasionally kind of loving, American family, circa 1912.
Edmund Tyrone (Danforth Comins, masterful) is young, alcoholic, sick of body (he’s probably dying of consumption), and sick of heart (his drug addict mother has just started using again). Over the course of one very long day, Edmund will learn his fate and confront each member of his family in turn, as they all pound back enough whiskey to fill an inflatable swimming pool. His father, James (Michael Winters, making palpable the weary regret beneath his tyrannical posturing), is terrified of ending up in the poor house, despite having made a fortune as a stage actor in a popular adventure (he calls it “the moneymaker”) which he considered beneath him, but couldn’t stop for fear of losing his sizable income.
In real life, O’Neill’s father owned the rights to The Count of Monte Cristo, the same version described above, complete with James O’Neill’s own script changes.
Also home for some not-so-warm family bonding is Edmund’s self-destructive brother Jamie (Jonathan Haugen, stunningly good throughout), an actor himself, dead-set on making sure no one he knows, especially those he loves, ends up happier than he. Instead of improving his life to accomplish this, he settles for undermining everyone else’s. It’s a testament to Haugen’s craft that he makes such an unlikable character so relatable. We never exactly like him, but he clearly hates himself so much it’s hard to feel the same way. Then there’s Mary (Judith Marie-Bergan, pitch perfect and heartbreaking), whose gradual decent from meddling mother in the morning to drugged-out, sleepwalking shell in the evening, is more than just disturbing. It’s as unsettling and terrifying as any story of possession and ghostly haunting. Despite several trips to the sanatorium to get clean, poor Mary would rather live in a drugged out past than take the steps to claim an imperfect present.
Strong additional work is done by Autumn Buck, as the family’s kind but clueless servant Cathleen. The skill of this ensemble is nothing short of astonishing, and if watching O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece is a bit like spending four hours in hell, it’s four hours spent with some of the best actors you’ll see on stage anywhere. Is it depressing? Sure, but only in that thrilling-depressing way that great stage art aspires to but can only rarely achieve. If you’ve ever been tempted to see this American classic, but were afraid to enter the darkness, this is the one to see. Trust the darkness, and trust O’Neill. You’re in good hands.
Much more difficult to describe, but equally rich in emotional treasure, is the far less grueling Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, written and directed by Stan Lai. Originally performed in Chinese in 1986, shortly after the 40-year ban on communication between China and Taiwan had been lifted and families long-separated were taking steps at reunion. In its first-ever English version, Lai takes the original script—a kind of site-specific experiment in which two theater companies attempt to rehearse on the same space—and tailors it to the Bowmer Theater, referred to often as such, along with numerous suggestions that someone call Bill Rauch to straighten out the mess.
One of the plays, the deadly serious drama Secret Love, is being directed by a Stan Lai stand-in known only as Director (Joseph Anthony Foronda), putting a typically OSF race-blind cast through the paces of a story clearly based on the loss of his one great love. Striving for perfection, and perhaps a bit of healing, he pushes his actors to somehow make him believe he’s traveled back in time, perhaps to make a different decision this time. That, and get the play ready to open in two days.
When a group of Chinese-American comedians crash the Bowmer, insisting Bill has given the space to them for their rehearsal, a strange back-and-forth is set up. With an outrageously silly send-up of the ancient Chinese fable Peach Blossom Land—about an unhappily married man who finds a magical world where all his dreams come true, but pines for the wife who never really loved him—the newcomers agree to share the space, with some very funny results.
The two plays, of course, have much to say about the same subjects, and the alternating of the stories yields some powerful, and sometimes funny, discoveries.
Strange, lovely, sad, hilarious, and beautifully one-of-a-kind, watching Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is a little like discovering a magical world where anything is possible. You may want to see it over and over. I know I did.
4-1/2 stars.Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through November 1. For the full schedule and information about this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit the website at www.osfashland.org