Oregon Shakespeare Festival: “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Pericles” – April 1, 2015

Every year in spring, when people hear me talking about the shows that just opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, they get confused.

“Wait . . . what? Just opened? You mean LAST year! Last SUMMER, right? The Shakespeare festival is in summer.”

My response is usually along the lines of, “Yes, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs in the summer. But it opens in February. And it closes in October.”

It’s true.

Each year, OSF produces eleven shows between the Spring and Fall, beginning with four shows that open toward the end of February. These are in their two indoor theaters. In June, the big outdoor theater opens too, and that’s when tourism in Ashland is at its highest. But Sonoma County theater fans who prefer smaller crowds do take the six-hour drive up to Ashland before that, and for those willing to do so, there are some very good new shows waiting for them: a world premiere adaptation of a gothic novel, a classic American musical, and two shows written by Shakespeare himself.

I’ll talk about the Shakespeare shows today.

Listen tomorrow for my reviews of the other two.

Playing in the Angus Bowmer theater, “Much Ado About Nothing” kicks things off with a comedic bang. ‘Much Ado’ is, after all, a comedy. But William Shakespeare had a way of writing comedies with plots that often veered close to the teetering edge of becoming tragedies. “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of those, with a story that ventures so far into dark and dangerous territory it becomes difficult, bordering on miraculous, actually, for some directors to ease the production back away from that brink, back into the realm of lightness and love and humor.

With ‘Much Ado,’ director Lileana Blain-Cruz works that kind of miracle by making actual sense of certain plot turns that usually baffle the directors put in charge of making Shakespeare’s various merry mix-ups make sense.

Did that make sense?

Blain-Cruz sets the action in a modern-day version of that Messina, a world that includes such things as toe socks and exercise equipment. But the show still carries elements of an ancient fairytale with plenty of European splendor. The story involves several characters being tricked into and out of love, for good reasons and bad. The cast is spectacular, and they do a good job of giving believable underpinnings for actions that often seem unlikable or unforgivable. The emotions are rich and nuanced, the comedic elements beautifully carried out, the language is crisp and clear, and the climax is believably bittersweet, with just the right touch of hope and happiness.

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime was “Pericles,” a play that has not felt much love for over the last hundred years. Maybe it’s because this epic high sea adventure is not exactly simple or cheap to produce, what with its rapidly changing scenes, flipping like a slide show from exotic islands to ocean storms to shipwrecks to more exotic islands to brothels and palaces and graveyards and jousts and sacred temples to resurrections and battles and tricks and riddles and pirates and kidnappings and, ultimately, the timely arrival of one very helpful goddess.

In this case, she’s on a trapeze.

Sort of. Not exactly. Anyway, it’s cool.

Gorgeously directed by Joseph Haj, the play-that-can-no-longer-be-staged has been turned into that rarity of a theatrical event: a magical, richly emotional play that is, form it’s acting to the unchecked loveliness of its visual presentation, pretty much perfect.

For the full line-up of shows in Ashland visit osfashland.org

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

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