OSF beats the curse of the Scottish play

"Love's Labor's Lost" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2011. Photo: T. Charles Erickson/OSFT. Charles Erickson/OSF

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Noah, will this downpour never end?

The Scatters have disembarked in Ashland, Oregon, hometown of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ashland is in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, a prodigious distance from Mount Ararat, and also a fair trot from the creeping trees of Birnam Wood. Yet the festival must be wondering just whose curse has descended on it this summer, and when that wandering dove is going to return with the olive branch in its beak. As the puckish Marty Hughley commented, somebody down here must have actually uttered the title of The Scottish Play.

At about 7:15 on Friday evening, the lights went out in the little pink rental house where the Scatters are staying on the south end of town. Lights, clocks, fans, air-conditioner. Mr. Scatter ambled next door to see if anyone knew what was up.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are your lights out?”

He was speaking to a smiling woman relaxing on a porch chair with her legs tucked beneath her. “Yeah,” she said. “The whole neighborhood’s hit.” She paused and gazed southwest. “Storm coming in from the coast,” she said. “Better just sit back and enjoy the show.”

By “show,” she didn’t mean The Imaginary Invalid. She meant the fireworks she hoped would soon be visible in the sky.

A little later the Scatters hopped into the Scattermobile and motored downtown toward the festival grounds. All the traffic lights were out. All the lights in all the houses and shops were out. The word “neighborhood” was beginning to take on a larger than usual meaning.

They approached the big white tent where they were going to see Moliere’s Invalid. Curtain time was approaching. Still no power. The Scatters began to get nervous. Had the Ashland curse bitten again?

Wait a minute, you say. Tent? What tent?

To recap: On June 18, during an understudy rehearsal for Measure for Measure, a loud crack reported inside the Angus Bowmer Theatre. It was a massive beam — the main supporting beam — that was holding the ceiling up and keeping the house from tumbling down. After a hasty evacuation and a canceled show, the festival began a peripatetic shuffle into temporary performance spaces before settling on a large tent near the swan pond in Lithia Park, just below the open-air Elizabethan Stage. With 598 seats, the tent — quickly dubbed Bowmer in the Park — is almost exactly the same size as the real Bowmer, if not the same shape: instead of a fan it’s a modified proscenium, narrower and longer. Associate artistic director Christopher Acebo hunkered down and reconfigured all the sets for the Bowmer shows to fit the new space, and while work crews tackled the problem of repairing the beam so the Bowmer could open again (on Saturday the festival announced a date of August 2) the shows went on.

Back to Friday night. As it turned out, three substations were out and the entire town, plus another 600-odd people stretching north into Talent and parts of Medford, had lost power. A freak, a fluke, a curse — who knows? Officially it was the storm, which never really materialized in the town outself except in the form of a few black clouds. Unreliable conjectures were blaming a starling attack on the power substations, but that was never substantiated. The rumor might have been started by a Hitchcock fan who was playing Angry Birds when the lights went out.

The festival’s regular theaters — the Elizabethan Stage, the New Theatre, and the ailing Bowmer — have emergency generators to keep them operating when the city’s power goes out. The temporary tent does not. Why would a temporary theater have an emergency generator? So a wait began. If the power came back by a bit after the 8:30 curtain time, the show would go on. If not, it would have to be canceled. Ticket-holders had a few choices: hang around and take their chances, go to the box office for refunds, or go to the box office and trade tickets for Love’s Labor’s Lost, which was going on as scheduled on the Elizabethan Stage. The Scatters conferred. They scampered up the hill (actually, Mr. Scatter plodded), raced to the box office, and traded four tickets to Invalid for four tickets to LLL. It turned out to be a simple swapout: the Scatters already had tickets for a Tuesday night performance of LLL, and traded those in turn for Tuesday night tickets to The Imaginary Invalid. Our problem, at least, was solved. But the lights stayed out too long, and Friday’s Invalid was, indeed, canceled. For the festival, this summer is turning into one big money pit.

By this point — the festival really ought to start selling “I Survived the Summer of 2011” T-shirts — Love’s Labor’s Lost was almost an anticlimax. Luckily it was light, and silly, and pretty, and just the sort of comic relief the evening called for. Acebo’s bright flower-strewn set, Christal Weatherly’s playing-field and school-prom costumes, and director Shana Cooper’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the heavily cadenced script clicked most of the time. With the set’s no-girls-allowed sign on what looks very little like a castle and very much like a schoolkids’ clubhouse, Ashland’s LLL sometimes felt a bit like The Little Rascals, with the same sort of nostalgic attraction. Ah, these youngsters. Don’t they have fun getting themselves into scrapes?

You may recall the setup of this early comedy, which dates to 1593. The young king of Navarre talks his best pals into taking a solemn vow to study piously for three long years and forsake any and all frivolous pleasures such as women. Then the beautiful princess of France shows up on official business with her equally beguiling ladies-in-waiting, and … well, you can imagine. It can be argued, and no doubt will be, that there is more to Love’s Labor’s Lost than this; that for all its frisky comedy the play is a probing exploration of the nature of love. Mr. Scatter has seen productions that were more poignant, approaching the almost-heartbreak that suggests impending wisdom before pulling back again. But he has no quibble with a production that basically just wants to have fun. That interpretation is inherent in the play, too.

So, applause enough to a production that is engaged enough to be engaging. Sometimes that’s just the ticket, especially if you got your ticket at the last minute. Congratulations to Gregory Linington, who digs deeply into the young lord Berowne’s anchoring combination of wisdom and loyalty; to Jack Willis for his expressively ridiculous knight Don Armado, a kind of Malvolio without the nasty edges; Michael Winters, for his comically pedantic schoolmaster Holofernes; Stephanie Beatriz, for her merry wit as the lady Rosaline (Berowne and Rosaline seem almost like practice pieces for Beatrice and Benedick); and choreographer Jessica Wallenfels, who gives the whole proceedings a lightly sock-hop kick. The Large Large Smelly Boy laughed uproariously at the sight gags and hijinks. The Slightly Less Large Large Smelly Boy, whose tastes tend to be more refined, tried to hide the fact that he was amused, but was not wholly successful in the attempt.

Tonight, if no one mentions those Scottish dudes, it’ll be Henry IV, Part Two, also on the Elizabethan Stage. On Sunday afternoon in the New Theatre it’ll be Julius Caesar, with the excellent Vilma Silva crossing genders into the title role only to be stabbed in the back; and on Sunday evening The Pirates of Penzance, that lovely piece of Victorian musical tomfoolery, again on the Elizabethan Stage. Finally, on Tuesday, the Scatters will get their first, eagerly anticipated look at a show in the Big Tent with the storm-delayed Imaginary Invalid.

That’s if the dove flies back, and the curse takes a holiday. Let’s hope so. Enough is enough.


PICTURED: The Princess of France (Kate Hurster) and her ladies (Christine Albright, Stephanie Beatriz, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) learn that they are banned from the King’s court. Photo: T. Charles Erickson/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.