One of the cool things about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the current season of which I have been reporting on lately, is the way it often programs shows that cleverly comment on each other in interesting ways. This year’s festival, which runs through November 1st up in Ashland, Oregon, has one particularly creative pairing of shows, though to the casual theatergoer, the connection might not seem obvious.
I’m talking about Charles Fechter’s melodramatic 1868 adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” now playing on the big outdoor Allen Elizabethan theater, and Eugene O’Neil’s Pulitzer-winning drama “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” running in the intimate indoor Thomas Theater. What does a popcorn-level swashbuckling adventure about revenge and swordfights have to do with a theatrical masterpiece about drug addiction and chronic self-destruction?
O’Neill’s autobiographical tale 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, 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 (a masterful Danforth Comins) is young, alcoholic, and sick of body. He’s probably dying of consumption. He’s also sick of heart, after learning that his drug addicted mother has just started using again. Over the course of one very long day and night, Edmund will learn his own fate – spoiler: Eugne O’Neil did NOT die of consumption – and will go on to confront each member of his family in turn, as they all pound back enough whiskey to fill an inflatable swimming pool. The exception, of course, is Mom, who prefers shooting up to whiskey shots.
Edmund’s father, James (Michael Winters, also excellent), 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 performing for fear of losing his sizable income.
Guess what that real-life “money-maker was?
Yep. “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the very same adaptation OSF is presenting this year, being careful to retain the script changes made in the early 1900’s by James O’Neill, the real-life actor father of Eugene O’Neill.
This adaptation emphasizes the fun parts of Dumas’ classic novel while diminishing or eliminating its, um, boring parts. It accomplishes this largely by establishing an over-the-top melodramatic tone that has little resemblance to the serious historical melancholy of the original, but works well with the help of some big, entertaining stagecraft, courtesy of director Marcella Lorca.
You probably know the story.
Edmond Dantes 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 captain. His years-long imprisonment in an island hellhole is condensed here, using some storytelling trickery. 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.
Thanks to OSF’s clever programming, audiences can catch ‘Monte Cristo,’ then go see ‘A Long Day’s Journey,’ and when the drunken patriarch talks about his love-hate relationship with “the Money-maker,” everyone will know exactly what he’s talking about.
Thanks OSF. That’s kind of cool.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through November 1st. www.OSFAsland.org.
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.