Ashland report: Words fail (and rescue) the festival

I walked into the open-air circle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s Elizabethan Stage last night a disgruntled man, and three hours later walked out, finally, with what I’d come to Ashland looking for: the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transformation that fine theater can achieve. Thank goodness for Our Town.

The trip’s been fine: that glorious drive south of Eugene, where the climate changes and the road becomes a curving slice through the mountains. (Why is Rice Hill at the bottom of the hill and the Rice Valley exit at the top?) An overnight stop, with two good meals, at the Wolf Creek Inn, where Jack London stayed in a tiny room for a few weeks in 1911 and wrote a story called The End of the Story. (I’m going to have to look it up: I’ve never read it.)

A quick stop at the nearby gold-mining ghost town of Golden, where volunteers are working to stabilize the remaining wood-frame buildings (the church has new glass in the windows) of a little boom town that was always different: Built by preaching miners, it had two congregations and no saloons. Two or three genuine markers lie in the little cemetery, but most of the headstones are fakes, set there many years ago for filming of an episode of Gunsmoke: So the not-so-wild West reinvents itself. And bless the volunteers, who have split new rails for the fence along the little road and are slowly reclaiming the natural state of the gouged-out mined areas below the town. May they outfox the woodpecker who was tap-tap-tapping away at the old church spire.

But in Ashland, aesthetically, it hadn’t been a good beginning. On Saturday afternoon, indoors at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a gauche and vulgar version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that deserves far, far better. Dream is a wonder of the Western World, one of the most nearly perfect plays ever devised, and I’ve often thought it close to foolproof. Turns out it’s not. It can be defeated by a director and designers determined to overwhelm the magic of its language with insipid pop-cultural winks, incessant visual distractions, head-scratching hand gestures that appear to be choreographed but have no apparent link to the emotional lives of the characters or the plotting demands of the story, and a general busy-ness that makes it almost impossible for the actors to settle into the quiet glowing heart of the story. It was the Roman circus, not the magical wood. My congratulations to Ray Porter, who managed a fine low-comedy focus as Bottom, and Kevin Kenerly, who kept his dignity intact as Oberon while all around him were being engulfed in foolishness.

Putting together a new production of a classic is never an easy thing — there is that struggle between keeping the tradition and making your own mark — but to my mind Dream director Mark Rucker got the whole thing backwards: Obsessed with creating pop-cultural touchstones and sight gags to spice the old girl up, he ignored the emotional depths of Shakespeare’s language-driven story and wound up pandering to his audience (which, depressingly to me, at least, gave the thing a standing ovation). This production is all about distractions, from those strange hand gestures, to the wobbly New Jersey accent that Theseus and no one else affects, to that ultimate insipid nudge in the ribs, a VW bus full of hippies — one of the laziest punch lines in the business. And even that gag, the production doesn’t get right. The festival’s fine technical crew painted the flowers on the van too well, with exquisite detail and shadings that give them dimensionality rather than the homespun flatness of the real ’60s decorations. And why would the mechanicals — who, after all, are honest laborers, hard-working men if not exactly mental giants (and I think that underlying sense of earnest decency is crucial to the comedy of their scenes) — be presented as lazy dope-smoking shirkers (the common if not exactly correct current stereotype of hippies, who having failed to live up to their dreams have become a cultural gag), anyway?

There is a difference between comedy and triviality. As the show jumped like an ADHD kid from pop gag to pop gag from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it struck me that it didn’t even have the courage to connect the play to the contemporary pop-cultural moment. Could it be that that string of “contemporary” pop allusions was nothing more than easy nostalgia playing to the graying heads of the festival’s audience? And if you’re trying to be relevant — which in the theatrical world all too often means connecting too obviously to the daily assumptions of your audience instead of challenging them to think outside their own time and place — why not be relevant to the younger audience you’re going to need to develop if you mean to survive?

On the other hand: On the afternoon before his 14th birthday my elder son guffawed with pleasure throughout the show. And his doctor reports that her teen-aged daughter loved Midsummer so much when she saw it on a school trip that, on a recent trip to California, she begged her mom to stop in Ashland so she could see it a second time. So something’s working here. Am I just a geezer to insist that what the Shakespeare festival used to hold as its primary focus — the supremacy of language — is still important?

Then, on Sunday afternoon, to the little New Theatre for Luis Alfaro’s newish play Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, a sweet-spirited mishmash about an obese woman who gets bigger and bigger until she mystifyingly floats into the air (a neat technical trick) and finally, at the end of the second act, whooshes off to points undetermined in the universe. Bye-bye, strange family, she seems to be saying. I gotta be me.

What this all means is anyone’s guess — I’m not going to hazard one — and again, the primary problem seems to be that the language just isn’t there: It’s a play of incidents, effects and characters who have a nice vividness but no direction or purpose in a story that, when you get right down to it, doesn’t really exist.

Still, director Tracy Young has given the thing a nice gloss, and her cast is good: Zilah Mendoza as the fat woman’s sexy sister, Rene Millan as the sister’s policeman lover, G. Valmont Thomas (so funny in last year’s production of Tom Stoppard‘s “On the Razzle”) as the fat woman’s husband, and Sandra Marquez as bloated Minerva herself. Marquez manages that astonishing thing that actors sometimes do: She commits herself completely, physically and emotionally, to a character who makes no sense on the page, thus making us care in spite of our knowledge that there’s nothing there to care about. It’s a marvel of the acting craft. Too bad it couldn’t have been attached to a better project. I’m left wondering why this small and effectively uncompleted play was chosen for production in the first place.

At last, on Sunday night, Our Town, a play that the late festival director Jerry Turner used to insist was the greatest American play ever written. I don’t think I agree with that, but I know where he was coming from. I’m glad that as a culture we’ve finally become inoculated sufficiently from the virus of easy irony to appreciate Thornton Wilder‘s masterpiece again, and I’m glad that Bill Rauch, the festival’s new artistic director, saw fit to have it performed on the outdoor stage, where this play of universal dimensions seems right at home beneath the encompassing curve of the stars.

My most memorable Our Town came many years ago, at the old Portland Civic Theatre, in a production that was quite consciously the swan song of director Bob Nielsen, who was dying from the effects of AIDS and wanted with all his heart and soul to leave this final statement — a caress to the audience and his fellow theater people, really — about the sweet fragility of life and the cold wonder of death. It was one of those rare shows in which there seemed no difference between the magic that was inside and outside the theater doors: a slowing-down of time itself, a rare contemplation of the moment.

Ashland’s production can’t match the memory of that special occasion, but it’s a fine version of the show, directed with clarity and sensitivity by Chay Yew. Anthony Heald is an ideal Stage Manager, our host and narrator and manipulator of the action, the voice of God, perhaps — teetering somewhere in the balance between crackerbarrel cornpone and deep unadorned truth. Yes, we are part of something larger that we don’t understand. Yes, the world’s beauty is contained in the small and “insignificant” and generally overlooked. Yes, there is something humbling about the journey from the cradle to the grave. If the first two acts can seem a little self-congratulatory, the final act lowers the boom. Here: Here’s what it comes to. Worms and indifference. And something else, as the ghost of Mrs. Gibbs reminds the bitter ghost of Simon Stimson. Something that is still becoming.

Our Town works so well at the festival because it is a play of language, a sturdy construction that builds its own world on the architecture of its words. Yew and his Ashland cast understand that for all its seeming simplicity, this play is Pirandellian — a play as much about the possibilities of the theater as about the possibilities of life. Wilder whisks his audience through time and space, stopping and starting the action, reaching emotional truths through overt artificiality, creating puppet characters that somehow spring to life. That’s theater. That’s more like it.

I’ll be seeing a lot more in the next few days, so look for more reports as time permits: Shakespeare’s all too rarely produced political drama Coriolanus; Othello; a Wild West Comedy of Errors; the ancient Indian epic The Clay Cart; Avenue Q librettist (and Coos Bay native) Jeff Whitty’s comedy The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. Plus, if I can score tickets, the jazzy, frisky, musical comedy version of Archy and Mehitebel, based on Don Marquis‘ miniature comic masterpieces, at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. Stay tuned.