By Bob Hicks
Sunday was one of those days when Ashland repays all its debts and reminds you why you make the pilgrimage in the first place. The Scatters did a two-fer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: an enthralling Julius Caesar in the round at the compact New Theatre in the afternoon, a warm and comically capacious Pirates of Penzance on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage in the evening.
If you haven’t read or seen Julius Caesar since that unfortunate high-school freshman English class a few years back, take heart. Nothing didactic or dutiful here: this is storytelling at its most elemental and joyous. Director Amanda Dehnert’s production takes advantage of a lot of the bells and whistles that the festival’s prodigiously talented technical staff can muster, but the heart of the show is squarely in the acting and the script. It’s stripped-down theater, strategically rebuilt.
Take, for instance, the entrances and exits, always a beat ahead to keep the action swift. Or the way that the production’s 11 actors easily shift props around, often in mid-speech, to change the scenes. Or the way that Fabian Obispo’s sound design, as insistent and barely noticeable as a refrigerator’s hum, underscores the language, sometimes cutting away entirely so the words hit nakedly on the ear. This is stuff that almost any theater anywhere can do. But few do it with such intelligence and skill.
One of the great advantages of the New Theatre, which holds just 300 seats for this production, is its intimacy. Without having to worry about projecting into a large auditorium or open-air space, the actors are free to use all the subtleties of their vocal ranges to explore the possibilities of the language. Yet the space is also big enough to allow for startling visual effects and expressive acting styles, such as Ako’s vivid symbolic gestures as the soothsayer in Julius Caesar.
Mostly, though, Dehnert and her actors dig deeply into the story itself, and Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s best-shaped and most urgent tales. It’s about statehood, leadership, loyalty, motives, revolution, the fickleness and easy swayability of public opinion, unintended consequences. Sometimes it seems to be about the sheer folly of shaking things up just for the hell of it, like the bored revolutionaries in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed. Sometimes it’s about conflicting notions of leadership. And always, it’s about the shifting and capricious identities of groups, which always take on their own shapes independent of the individuals who make them up. The conspirators who shake up the Roman world here could be of almost any political persuasion: Obamaites, Tea Partiers, North African freedom fighters, al-Queda insurrectionaries. The point is, stability — a virtue that Shakespeare valued highly — is threatened, and the spectre of anarchy looms.
The festival cast is a true ensemble, performing at an extremely high level. Jonathan Haugen’s Brutus might indeed be the noblest Roman of them all, but he also has a fascinating underlay of Eeyore to him, a brooding moodiness that makes him both susceptible to the radicalism of Cassius and unwilling to follow revolution to its its most logical extreme. By insisting on compassion and rationality, he puts a stopper in the bottle. This is a real Brutus, not an ideal; his sarcastic spat with Cassius in the army tent is vivid and funny and telling. Gregory Linington as Cassius is lean and angry, an agitator, a calculator, a man more than a little motivated by envy. Danforth Comins’ Mark Antony is a man filled with pride and capability, fueled with the sweet juice of politics and strategy. His delivery of the “Lend me an ear” speech — he delivers the famous first lines not as an oratory but a shout, to quiet the rabble and command their attention — brings home the sheer brilliance of the thing. This is surely one of the best and most effective political speeches ever written, and you can almost hear Comins chortling as he watches it take its effect. Caesar himself — or herself — is played with effective magnetism and easy believability by Vilma Silva, as a female head of state; an Indira Gandhi or Maggie Thatcher or Golda Meir. The best classic theater feels both familiar and brand new. That’s exactly what this exciting production achieves.
Among the many enduring astonishments of The Pirates of Penzance, which first took to the stage in 1879, is the sheer audacity of its story, which is ridiculous to such an extraordinary degree that it’s uproariously funny.
W.S. Gilbert, the word-and-story half of the Gilbert & Sullivan team, had the gift of taking common Victorian attitudes and stretching them to the silliest of circumstances to reveal their flaws as well as their strengths, and Arthur Sullivan’s music gave these comical excursions their perfect settings. I have a feeling P.G. Wodehouse was paying close attention.
So was Bill Rauch, the festival’s artistic director, who has a special affection for musical theater and who directed this production. Musicals have become a featured part of the mix during his tenure, and last year’s musical, the buoyant and wistful She Loves Me, was about as perfect and lovely as a show can be. I wouldn’t put this Pirates quite in that category, but it’s a mightily amusing show, and undoubtedly the season’s biggest crowd-pleaser. Count the Scatters among the mightily pleased.
Rauch took the risky step of producing Pirates on the big outdoor stage, where the open air and the 1,200-seat capacity make it all the more difficult to control the unruly tentacles of a rowdy comedy that also demands pinpoint precision to set off its little comic explosions. Timing may not be everything, but in a show like this it’s an awful lot, and Rauch and company have it down pat. The venue necessitates body mikes, and at least under the overhang of the pavilion, where the Scatters happened to be seated, it resulted in an occasionally boomy reverb and a slight metallic tinge to the vocalizing. But that’s par for the course with musicals these days, and in the end it was a small price to pay for the pleasures that accompanied it.
Ashland’s Pirates is cartoonishly gorgeous to look at, with an almost stately sense of Victorian theatricality, from the visible orchestra to the fluttering rod-puppet seagulls to the hatch-door entrances and exits from the floor of the stage. One of the joys of the Victorian theater, and an extension of the attitudes of its age, is its fascination with simple mechanics. Victorian and Edwardian theater delighted in a sort of erector-set fantasy in which you could also see the way things work.
Michael Elich, a highly adaptable actor who starred as Harold Hill in the festival’s Music Man a while back, brings strong-voiced bravado to the Pirate King, and Eddie Lopez is a brightly tenored delight as Frederic, the reluctant pirates’ apprentice. Khori Dastoor as sweet-voiced Mabel, the object of Frederic’s affection; Robin Goodrin Nordli as the aging pirates’-maid Ruth; David Kelly as the smoothly tongue-twisting modern major general; and Cristofer Jean as the mopey-eyed sergeant of police provide deft and captivating major support.
The production includes a few quick excursions into more modern popular-music styles, including a brief and entirely fitting nod to the Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four. Purists may cringe, as they did at the embellishments in Joseph Papp’s fabled 1980 revival featuring Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline. But it’s never overdone, and while I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, it seems fitting considering G&S’s well-known taste for topicality. Every now and again it’s nice to freshen the old horse up. At the festival, she’s trotting quite friskily and gaily.
PHOTOS from top:
- Mark Antony (Danforth Comins) grieves for his dead Caesar (Vilma Silva). Photo: Jenny Graham.
- Enter the Pirate King (Michael Elich) as his shipmates look on with awe (Rodney Gardiner, Daniel T. Parker, Kimberly Scott, Christopher Livingston). Photo: T. Charles Erickson.