Tag Archives: Equivocation

Ashland 5: In addition, furthermore, and to conclude

"Is this a dagger which I see before me...?" Macbeth (Peter Macon) sees a ghostly apparition. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Above: Macbeth (Peter Macon) confronts a ghostly apparition in Ashland. Inset below:
Diana (Emily Sophia Knapp) meets with Bertram (Danforth Comins). Photos: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

One of the advantages of visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as late as I did this year is that every production (and I saw all nine still running in an 11-show season) was fully settled in, as ripe and ready as it’s ever going to be.  Macbeth and The Music Man opened in February. The three outdoor shows opened in June.

Even the most recent addition to the repertory, Paradise Lost, began preview performances July 22, and I saw it Sept. 1. In most regional theater companies, with their three-week runs, it would’ve been shut down before then. Long live the extended run! (And so it will, for a while: Outdoor shows continue through Oct. 11, and the indoor season through Nov. 1, which gives you time and opportunity to make the southward jaunt.)

So what’s the score?

Overall, I think, this has been a strong season, and maybe more important, a promise of stronger seasons to come as Bill Rauch, who took over as artistic director last season, couples his ideas for change with the festival’s many existing strengths.

To help Helena with her plan, Diana (Emily Sophia Knapp) meets with Bertram (Danforth Comins). Photo: Jenny Graham.This year we’ve seen some genuinely interesting directing approaches that put a strong personal stamp on the shows yet remain at the service of the literature — a hallmark (perhaps the hallmark) of the Ashland style. The season includes a couple of knockouts (Equivocation and The Servant of Two Masters), excellent work on the always problematical Macbeth and All’s Well That Ends Well, and illuminating moments of theater even in the least successful shows.

Not that the season and company don’t have their problems, as Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote a couple of weeks ago. His piece (read it here) has been racing across the Internet, ruffling feathers and wounding feelings among Ashland fans and company members alike.

In fact it’s a perceptive essay, and ought to be taken seriously. I don’t happen to agree with all of it, and it’s too bad it’s based on just a four-show sampling, with only Equivocation among the season’s best shows. McNulty also saw Henry VIII, which I thought  beautifully designed and well-performed by its leads in a play that’s largely a losing cause; plus Paradise Lost and The Music Man.

But if McNulty chose to stress the festival’s faults over its achievements, I think it’s because he genuinely meant it as a challenge to improve. And he hit on several truths. When things go wrong the festival does fall back on a declamatory, connect-the-dots style that keeps the plot going but can drain the dramatic life from a show. That’s always seemed to me a product of the need to shout and gesture large on the big outdoor stage, although that’s become less a necessity since the addition several years ago of the Allen Pavilion, which cuts out a fair amount of the ambient noise. The problem is a bit like the one for grand opera: finding performers who can project into those massive spaces without straining or losing nuance. The bad habits sometimes get brought indoors, too: I felt some unnecessary vocal piercing, for instance, in Paradise Lost.

On the other hand, I think that what McNulty hears as shouting is sometimes instead a sort of classical fearlessness — a willingness to open up and play large with the language in an age that’s uncomfortable with hearts on sleeves (particularly in Los Angeles, home of the movie industry, where underplaying is a necessity of the film medium). Unlike a musical score, a play script doesn’t make notation of the range from pianissimo to triple forte: Matters of volume, contrast and vocal shape are for the director and performers to decide. That’s one of the reasons we argue about theater so much. But I’m willing to give festival talents such as Richard Elmore, Linda Alper, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Peter Macon first crack at figuring out the music in their roles (not that I might not argue with their choices after the fact). Continue reading Ashland 5: In addition, furthermore, and to conclude

Ashland 4: There’s Goldoni in those hills!

Truffaldino (Mark Bedard) takes a break. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Above: Truffaldino, the servant of two masters (Mark Bedard), takes a break from his dizzying existence. Inset below: The old tightwad Pantalone (David Kelly) is overjoyed at the prospect of receiving more gold. Photos: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Every season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival needs its lark, that well-turned show of comic wordplay that, while it may or may not also have more serious things on its mind, celebrates the wit and technique and sheer fun of the theater itself.

From the old days of Wild Oats and The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Taking Steps to the more recent likes of On the Razzle and The Philanderer and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, the festival has long delighted, and delighted its audience, in theatrical self-reference. Such plays speak to the magical duality of theater, and of art in general: It is of utmost seriousness, and of little consequence. The ability to defend and revel in its inconsequence is a matter of importance in a human society that is constantly expanding and shrinking its limits of permitted expression. In a culture where power calls the shots, the liberating qualities of comedy, which so often crumbles deceits beneath the prodding thumb of ridicule, can be more dangerous than tragedy.

Then again, maybe it’s all just fun.

Pantalone (David Kelly) is overjoyed at the prospect of receiving more gold. Photo by Jenny Graham.This season’s lark is The Servant of Two Masters, the 18th century Italian comedian Carlo Goldoni‘s own masterwork, in a world-premiere adaptation by Oded Gross and director Tracy Young from a literal translation by Beatrice Basso. It is, quite simply, more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Goldoni, who began his career in Venice and moved on to Paris in disgust over the state of theater in Italy, approached the old Italian form of commedia dell’arte through the prism of the French master Moliere and looked ahead to the 20th century collaborations of Dario Fo and Franca Rame. What he achieved was a marvel of comic construction that is at once as tight as a well-tuned drum and as loose as a good jazz improvisation.

Commedia is essentially a form of street theater, with stock characters who are familiar to the audience and who play to form but vary the details to fit the time and place. Thus commedia was always traditional and always as fresh as a daily scandal sheet. Moliere took the form and translated it into literature. Fo and Rame kept the literary qualities but took things back (at least metaphorically) to the streets.

The Shakespeare Festival’s updating of The Servant of Two Masters keeps the action on the stage but with a more than vigorous nod to the trials, tribulations and absurdities of contemporary life beyond the theater walls. You can’t exactly call this Poor Theatre: Despite the Great Recession that this show lightly mocks, the festival is a well-endowed company, and it loves to use the technical gadgets that money can buy. But this production’s emphasis is definitely on the illusions of smallness: the things that a troupe of talented actors with a ragbag of tricks can achieve. And for the festival it’s stripped down: just a stack of small risers in the center of the theater in the round, plus poppings-out from platforms at the four corners of the small New Theatre. Christal Weatherly’s brightly witty patchwork costumes carry the day. (I’m especially fond of the Dottore’s improvised academic mortarboard, made from an LP jacket for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s album Whipped Cream and Other Delights.)

How much of this Servant of Two Masters is Goldoni and how much is his latter-day adapters? Certainly the plot, a lightly silly clothes hanger of a thing designed to hold the asides and physical bits in place, is Goldoni’s. Truffaldino, the servant (Mark Bedard), shows up in Venice just as Pantalone’s daughter Clarice and a fop named Silvio are preparing to be married. Truffaldino is in service to Federigo, who is actually Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise, who is seeking her beloved Florindo, who may or may not have murdered the real Federigo, and who arrives in town and also hires Truffaldino as his servant, and …

There’s no use giving out any more of the plot. It matters, but only when you’re watching. Let’s just say it’s tangled, and ridiculous, and highly amusing. As for the rest, while Gross and Young have taken huge liberties with the writing (and while a certain amount of improvisation works into every performance), it’s clearly in the spirit of Goldoni and commedia. Like Bill Cain’s new play Equivocation, The Servant of Two Masters refers liberally to other shows in the current season and beyond: When one of the characters shudders at a mention of “The Scottish Play,” romantic hero  Elijah Alexander blinks in confusion and replies, “Brigadoon?”

You can’t be this loose on stage without first being tight (no, that’s not a reference to drinking in the rehearsal hall), and this show is a marvel of collaborative craftsmanship. The language is quick and sharp and from the front of the mouth; the action is fleet and sure-footed; the shtick is rigorously rehearsed; the stylized flourishes are easy and exaggerated; the whole thing roars by like a paisley toy locomotive.

Topping off the joy of this Servant of Two Masters and letting it take flight is what theater folk call “breaking down the fourth wall” and civilians call simply “playing with the audience.” Bedard and others banter with people in the crowd, cadge candy and sandwiches, flirt, mock, sit down and chat. Pretty soon the audience is shouting back at the actors, hissing, crying out warnings and suggestions, and generally laughing like hyenas in a room full of helium.

You just don’t see that sort of thing in Macbeth. Even when the witches — pretty stock characters, themselves — are cackling their silly incantations over their smelly stewpot.


Clarice (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) and Beatrice(Kate Mulligan), disguised as Federigo, come to a new understanding. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Clarice (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) and Beatrice (Kate Mulligan), disguised as Federigo, come to a new understanding. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Ashland 3: the ‘Henry VIII’ whitewash, ‘Equivocation’ hits a home run

Queen Katherine (Vilma Silva) urges King Henry (Elijah Alexander) to cease the heavy taxations on his subjects. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009.

Above: Vilma Silva is soon-to-be-dumped Queen Katherine and Elijah Alexander is the charismatic king in “Henry VIII.” Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival/2009. Inset below: Portrait of Henry VIII by unknown artist, in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1540.

I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with Henry the Eighth. Not that I let it go to my head.

A few years ago Mrs. Scatter, on one of her periodic scavenger hunts among the urban assemblages of second-hand stuff, discovered a giant street sign, weather-battered but arresting, from a British pub called the King’s Head that was part of the Vaux Brewery chain. It’s magnificent, in a run-down way. On one side, painted in the beefy commanding Holbein manner and peeling from years of exposure to wind and rain, is a portrait of Henry VIII. On the other — the side that now faces the wall — is Edward, the reluctant king who reigned over the Commonwealth for less than a year in 1936 before choosing the twice-married American socialite Wallis Simpson over the crown. Thus Vaux and the King’s Head laid claim to the two monarchs who got tangled up one way or another with divorce courts.

Now Henry eats up most of a wall in the Scatter dining room, and if guests find him threatening or domineering, they don’t mention it: no sense in ruffling the royal feathers. We call him Hank, and find him a pleasant companion on the whole. He displays a lusty appetite, which encourages good eating.

Portrait of Henry VIII by unknown artist in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1540It’s almost as if we’ve turned this towering, talented, shrewd and savage leader into a pet — and so, in a way, does Shakespeare in Henry VIII, his final play. When it came to politics Shakespeare, whose company was sponsored by the king, played a necessarily careful hand (see Equivocation, below). His Henry, while hardly blame-free, is a generous-hearted fellow, good to his courtiers, solicitous of the feelings of the wife he’s dumping after 20 years, self-persuaded that his exchange of used-car Katherine for racy new convertible Anne is a matter of conscience, and painfully misled in matters of taxation and treachery by that rascal of a right-hand man, Cardinal Wolsey. In meticulously pruning the monarchial vines Shakespeare’s created a fine hearty fellow, if a little mixed-up and dense — and if there’s one thing the real Henry was not, it’s dense.

Henry VIII has some grand pageantry and good speeches and a few good character sketches, most notably of the canny schemer Wolsey and the heroically wronged Katherine, but in Shakespearean terms it’s not a very good play: too little drama, too much speechifying, too many stretches where it needs to get on with the show, and an ending — the birth in a bejeweled manger of darling little Elizabeth, hope and savior of the nation — that smacks of royal toadying to the Nth degree. So it’s a bit of a surprise that this flattering gloss of a history is this season’s best production on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Not the best outdoor play (Much Ado About Nothing is that, by a far shot) but the best production. Continue reading Ashland 3: the ‘Henry VIII’ whitewash, ‘Equivocation’ hits a home run

In Ashland, it’s ‘Equivocation,’ unequivocally

Anthony Heald as Shag (center) in Equivocation. Photo: JENNY GRAHAM/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mr. Scatter has been going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland since roughly the last Ice Age, when he was still fooling around in the cave with that nice new five-hole bone flute he’d got for his coming-of-age ceremony.

Mrs. Scatter hasn’t been taking the trek that long, but she’s a devotee (of the festival, not the flute). Their next generation, the astonishing Ms. Sarah, was practically weaned on the plays: She still sometimes speaks in Elizabethan cadence, just for the fun of it. And now the Large Smelly Boys demand their annual attendance, in not “Are we …?” but “When are we?” terms. This ends up costing quite a few clams.

For complex scheduling reasons that by this point have skipped my mind, the Scatter family travelers won’t be getting to Ashland until the beginning of September this year, which means that we’re relying a lot on hearsay and the word of friends — one of whom, Marty Hughley, actually covers the festival professionally for The Oregonian. Here’s his latest, pretty glowing report.  We check in on the Web site Ashland Link. And people come back and tell us what they thought.

Two clear-eyed friends — veteran journalist Paul Duchene, who spent a lot of years in the arts wars and is now executive editor of Keith Martin’ Sports Car Market magazine, and writer Sherry Lamoreaux, co-author of the Algonquin Round Table play Vitriol and Violets — just came back from the festival, and they’re still glowing with the pleasure of having seen the world-premiere production of Bill Cain‘s Equivocation, a play about Shakespeare (or Shag) and what happens when truth and the Official Version don’t align. Here’s what they have to say:

Paul Duchene:

In case you can wangle a way, I saw the best play at Ashland I have seen there in 25 years. It’s a world premiere and it will go to Broadway and the West End for sure. It’s already headed to LA’s Geffen Theater first.

The play is Equivocation and it’s a classic case of how to write a current thriller by setting it in past times.

The plot is that Shakespeare is hired by James I’s government to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot (Guy Fawkes etc al) and how disaster was narrowly averted by the King’s security services.

But as Shakespeare looks into it, he’s not sure any plot ever existed and suspects that people were tortured into confessing something that didn’t happen, as a means to keep the Catholics in line. And the question arises about how to ask hard questions in dangerous times and how not to answer them, because his probing is putting him and his company in danger. Equivocation was the Jesuit way of not answering a question without exactly lying. “Look through the question to see what they’re really asking and see if you can answer that honestly…”

Playwright Bill Cain got the idea when he was in the Tower of London looking at a rack and a government sign above it that said “Nobody was ever tortured on this rack for their religious beliefs.”

And Cain thought of all the names of prisoners scratched in the dungeons below, along with last messages for their wives and families.

It’s brilliant stuff. He was flying back to the States and he thought: I have to go back and research this and write it in London. And he got off the plane in New York and booked a flight back.

Best of all, it’s not a work in progress, it’s sorted.

Sherry Lamoreaux:

We got to see Equivocation … what a play.

It’s linear and easy to follow but many of the scenes progress like tapestries shaken from folded sleep (my, how earnest of me). All the stories dovetail and work. All the layers — (politics then and now), families, death, truth/lies, the Shakespearean canon and the inside workings of theatre in general — are balanced among themselves, and between poignancy and humor. The playwright is working from deep knowledge and complete mastery. An absolutely sure touch. Brilliant material, brilliantly directed and performed, set off by a set so clean and simple that when a noose comes on, it commands the stage. Perfect lighting.

Maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen at Ashland … and it is not a work-in-progress, it’s fully baked. (I’d tighten the ending by four lines, but that’s just me.)

I’ve seen nothing that indicates it was commissioned for OSF, but the play speaks to the setting and the festival as well, and the season uses it like a jewel in a crown, setting other plays referred to in it on its skirts.

Paul and Sherry also brought back good reports on Helena de Crespo‘s performance in Shirley Valentine at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. De Crespo, the globe-trotting, Portland-based actor, stars in Willy Russell‘s one-woman play through July 13. A lot of people still remember her Portland performance a few seasons back in Alan Bennett‘s Talking Heads.