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Ashland's finest of the current Shakespeare fest

click to enlarge SURREALITY SHOW Doomed soldiers are transported into the story of the blues standard 'The St. James Infirmary' in OSF's 'The Unfortunates.'
  • SURREALITY SHOW Doomed soldiers are transported into the story of the blues standard 'The St. James Infirmary' in OSF's 'The Unfortunates.'

As Shakespeare once wrote, "Summer's lease hath all too short a date," which is a fancy way of saying enjoy the good weather while we have it—and for some of us, that means escaping to the mountains for a bit of scenery, sun-screen and Shakespeare.

Though the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has technically been running since February, summer is the time of year when folks from all over the country—including a huge number from the North Bay—make the trek up over the Siskiyou Pass and down into the impossibly charming town of Ashland, Ore. In June, when the vast outdoor Elizabethan Theatre opens, along with three new productions, the total number of shows playing in repertory is nine. Two more will be added in July, and one (August Wilson's Two Trains Running) will end, but this is the time of year when the most shows are happening all at once—and the audiences begin to arrive in droves.

Why?

Because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is, quite simply, one of the finest repertory companies in the world, and their productions employ some of the best actors and directors in the business—not that the occasional onstage misfire doesn't occur. It does. And this year, there are a couple. There are also a handful of productions that rank as the best I've ever seen.

Here are my views of the OSF shows currently running.

'KING LEAR' (Thomas Theatre) ★★★★★

It can be risky bringing new ideas to plays that are universally well-known, jarring audiences out of fond expectations. In Bill Rauch's intense, relentlessly paced take on Shakespeare's King Lear (through Nov. 3), the risks pay off big time, resulting in what is the best, most entertaining, upsetting, unsettling, thrilling and deeply moving Lear I've ever seen—and frankly, I've lost count of how many times I've seen this soaring tragedy.

But I've never seen it like this.

Staged in the round within the intimate Thomas Theatre, director Rauch sets the play in modern times with echoes of past generations hanging over it. King Lear, easily the lit world's most heartbreakingly foolish monarch ever—and one of the theater world's most demanding roles of all time—is played on alternating nights by two different actors, Jack Willis and Michael Winter, possibly to give each other time to rest up for the next emotionally grueling show.

At the start of the show, Lear is ready for retirement. Fond of the perks of being king but ready to relinquish the responsibilities of leadership, he goes against the counsel of his advisers, and offers to split his kingdom into three, giving rule to each of his daughters, Goneril (Vilma Silva), Regan (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez).

Almost immediately things go badly, and hints of Lear's coming dementia are spied by his daughters, with Lear promising the largest holding to whichever of them can testify to loving him most. When Cordelia, honest to a fault, refuses to play the game, she is disinherited, and Lear's kingdom is divided between Goneril and Regan.

For the following three breathtaking hours, told over three full acts with two intermissions, the breaking of Lear's kingdom continues, everything crumbling into small and smaller pieces, along with his sanity, as the daughters, and their husbands, cheat, lie, conspire, seduce and murder their way deeper and deeper into war, madness and ruin. The pace never slackens, and the inventiveness with which Rauch brings fresh ideas and visuals to the story never wanes.

The cast is marvelous, committing body and soul to the ensuing mayhem, and the aching, poisoned hearts of these all-too-human characters are always in view. No matter how brutal or bloody the action, Rauch keeps King Lear grounded in stark, brave believability.

It may leave audiences shaken, but its goal is to move us and make us willing to examine the wise and unwise choices we all make, to question the motivations behind every word of flattery and compliment, and to see the broken hearts behind every human cruelty.

'THE UNFORTUNATES' (Thomas Theatre) ★★★★½

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's commitment to original work has produced a number of plays that have gone on to become huge successes elsewhere. I predict the same road lies ahead for a smart, uncategorizable new musical that has proven to be one of this year's biggest hits.

Directed by Shana Cooper, The Unfortunates (though Nov. 2), by the hip-hop team 3 Blind Mice and playwright Kristofer Diaz, was developed through a series of workshops and late-night sneak peeks. Occasionally baffling, but mesmerizing and deeply moving, The Unfortunates is a theatrical fantasia on the themes and characters from the American blues song "The St. James Infirmary Blues." Layering elements from the seminal folk ballad "The Unfortunate Rake," the musical begins with a group of soldiers waiting for execution, one of whom finds himself transported into the world of the song the soldiers have been singing as they await their fates.

The visuals are gorgeously strange (Tim Burton strange), and the songs combine blues, rap, folk and rock to create a truly original, weirdly satisfying piece of musical theater. There have been countless variations of "The St. James Infirmary Blues," in which a dying young man tells the story of the woman who "cut him down" in his prime. The song, in various forms, has been covered by everyone from Cab Calloway to the Doors to the White Stripes, and has been referenced in a famous Betty Boop cartoon, countless books and movies, and even a few old cowboy laments.

As the doomed soldier, Joe (Ian Merrigan) is transported into the song, he becomes Big Joe, the fighter with enormous fists, in love with the armless prostitute Rae (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), whom he cannot help, even with his skills as a fighter and gambler. The plague is raging, and St. James Infirmary is the only hope, with the doctors' offer of a cure—for a price. The dreamlike qualities of the play are brilliantly created with some strong stagecraft, resulting in one of the most memorable and emotionally complex plays of the season.

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