The good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s not just the name of an old Clint Eastwood movie.
It’s also a fitting way to think about this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, currently running
in Ashland on OSF’s three world-class stages. Yesterday I talked about the VERY GOOD “Head
Over Heels,” a new musical by Jeff Whitty of “Avenue Q” fame.
With summer kicking into gear, there are several shows running on those three stages, and that’s one of the good ones. So let me tell you about the BAD and the UGLY, both of which could be used to describe OSF’s unsatisfying staging of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Tony and Cleo has NEVER been an easy play to produce. Directors have to find clever ways to establish a coherent tone that’s not actually suggested in the script, which – sorry Mr.
Shakespeare – is a bit of a mess.
OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch helms this production. Usually spot-on, Rauch appears to have decided to just follow Shakespeare’s unfocused lead, the result being a sometimes entertaining, frequently baffling mish-mash of tonal inconsistencies.
By pushing the comedic moments to goofy excess, it diminishes, rather than enhances, the
whole flow of the show. Consider the arrival of a bumbling snake seller who acts like an extra
from T.V.s Hee-Haw show, a bit of outrageousness that comes just seconds before the tragic
demise of a major character. And after watching the supposedly middle-aged Antony and
Cleopatra act like lovesick puppies for thirty minutes, it’s hard to feel bad for them when their
world starts to crumble under the weight of their irresponsible actions. That’s the point, of course, to show how great societies are often 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.
Such choices leave the entire enterprise foundering in a kind of dramatic uncertainty.
This is a tragedy, after all.
In this production, that’s true in many ways.
Let’s move back to the category of the GOOD, with the clever, emotionally rich “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” written and directed by Stan Lai. The American premiere is a translation of a Chinese play originally performed in 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 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is referred to often by name, along with numerous suggestions that someone should call Bill Rauch – mentioned earlier – to come 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, putting his race-blind cast through the paces of a story clearly based on the loss of his one great love. When a group of Chinese-American comedians crash the theater, insisting Bill Rauch has given them the space for their rehearsal, a strange back-and-forth ensues. 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, genuinely touching results.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through November 1. www.osfashland.org
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.