Oregon Shakespeare Festival: “Guys and Dolls” and “Fingersmith” – April 2, 2015

One thing about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that surprises a few newcomers is that only about four or five of the eleven shows they do each year are by William Shakespeare. The festival mixes things up a lot, adding original shows, historical classics, world premieres, musicals and American standards. This year – with four shows open already and more to come as the year unfolds – two non-Shakespeare shows are already clear hits.

Such is the case with Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” a show so popular that no high school and community theater company in the nation can resist taking a crack at it. Everyone knows it.

But forget what you think you know about “Guys and Dolls.”

Director Mary Zimmerman, a card-carrying theatrical magician of the highest order, is known for tackling impossible source material like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This year, she’s taken on the herculean task of making Guys and Dolls look fresh, fun, and significant – and she’s done it.

Behind a mostly bare stage occupied at all times by a wooden table and a portable scale model of New York City, a massive wall occasionally opens up revealing windows that display various scene-setting images like palm trees or sewer grates. Other scene elements roll off and on – or bounce on, in the case of several dozen beach balls that appear in one scene set in Havana, Cuba – but the real razzle-dazzle in this Guys and Dolls is the superb cast.

As the confirmed-bachelor and gambler Sky Masterson and the engaged-but-marriage-phobic Nathan Detroit, Jeremy Peter Johnson and Rodney Gardiner are forces of nature, bringing stellar voices and magnificent character work to what could have been nothing but easy-to-phone-in cliché’s. In the hands of such inventive actors, these two cartoonish characters – affable criminals caught in the magnetic pull of love – become richly detailed human beings.

The entire cast follows suit, somehow turning these broadly drawn people into folks with real emotions roiling under their skins, and the result is a “Guys and Dolls” that has more than just dynamite singing and dancing and a fluffy, superficial plot – this one has real heart.

And that brings us to “Fingersmith.”

Sarah Waters’ bestselling Victorian crime thriller became the novel to read about ten years ago, fueled by its daring combination of Dickensian detail and heart-pounding lesbian sex. With a sprawling cast of characters, public hangings, Victorian pornography, and that aforementioned girl-on-girl bedroom action, Fingersmith might not sound like an obvious choice for a Shakespeare Festival.

So it’s a good thing OSF likes to break rules.

This world premiere commission from playwright Alexa Junge brings with it enormous buzz and huge audience awareness.

And it pays off.

The story – about which little can be revealed – is set in two very different households in 1861 Londonl. Sue Trinder is a pickpocket who’s grown up in the makeshift “family” of the amiable Fagin-like criminal Mrs. Sucksby. When a legendary conman named Gentleman pulls Sue into his scheme to swindle a mentally frail heiress, things, to say the least, take a few unexpected turns.

Directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, the story clips along with pacing and polish, its shape-shifting cast augmented by some delightful stagecraft, including boats and carriages sailing or clip-clopping along on a rotating stage. Alternately moving and scary, hilarious and engaging, “Fingersmith” will keep you guessing to last surprise, in a show so full of surprises you’ll lose count.

It’s a must see.

For the full schedule and information about this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit the website at www.osfashland.org

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

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