Tag Archives: The Music Man

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 2: Much ado about book shops

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christpher Morley, illustrated by Douglas Gorsline

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, 1917. Illustration by David Gorsline, 1955 edition, J.P. Lippincott Company.


Mount Parnassus, as you’ll recall, is the home of the Muses,
rising above Delphi in Greece. For that reason the word “Parnassus” has come to stand for music and poetry in particular, and for literature and learning in general — if not for civilization itself, then for those things that make a civilization worth building.

With only one show Wednesday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — Much Ado About Nothing, in the evening on the open-air Elizabethan Stage — my sister Laurel and I spent the afternoon rustling around in book shops along Main Street.

There is, of course, Bloomsbury Books, at the south end of downtown, a good general new-books store that I’ve been visiting off and on for more years than I can remember, and where I’ve made many a find, including John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius, an imagining of the events that led up to the events in Hamlet. This time I was looking for a specific book, David S. Reynolds’ history Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, and it wasn’t there.

So we crossed the street and, leaving the realm of the new, embarked upon the fascinating, tempting, nostalgic, disorienting and reorienting world of what once was.

It’s hard to imagine two used book shops that put on such different faces as the pair along the east side of Main in this literate foothills town.

Shakespeare Books & Antiques, closer to the festival grounds, is the work of a collator, a curator, an ordered and interesting mind. Everything is neatly lined, carefully arranged, comfortable. The antiques are lovely and tasteful, from a wondrously detailed old cast iron fire engine to sets of beautiful blue china. The place is an invitation, evoking images of rose petals and tea. And the books are handsome and substantial: You could spend hours happily checking these shelves.

The Blue Dragon Book Shop, just across from Bloomsbury, is an old curiosity shop — a clutter of loosely arranged subjects and oddities, a rambling undergrowth fertile with possibility for hardy explorers hacking their way through with sythes. Old sheet music flutters on one table. Another holds mid-1950s copies of Playboy and 19th century editions of Harper’s Weekly with Thomas Nast’s Civil War illustrations. You need to watch your feet, if not for snakes, then for makeshift standing shelves jutting into the aisles.

When an old book interests me I open the pages and smell it. The smell can be dank and chemical and spoiled, like a bottle of corked wine, and that’s the end of it: The deal’s off. Or it can smell of old wood and dried leaves and mushrooms on a log, a smell that only time and settling-in can achieve. That’s the book for me — if not to buy (I do have a budget, and a limited amount of book space) then to handle, to hold, to feel with my fingers and take in with my eyes before reluctantly returning it to its shelf.

I find an 1898 children’s book, Who Killed Cock Robin? and Other Stories, which has ornate illustrations and gives a lively alternate version to the old poem and is, I realize, a bargain, but not one I choose to afford on this day. I pick up a nicely printed copy of Francis Parkman Jr.’s The Oregon Trail, with excellent drawings, that smells good and is in good shape at a good price. But it plows straight into the story (first published as 21 installments in the old Knickerbocker Magazine in 1847-49) with no introduction, and if ever a book needed to be set properly in its time and place, The Oregon Trail is it. I leave it for another person on another day.

At Shakespeare Books Laurel discovers several editions of the Edward Fitzgerald translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, each with its own elegant illustrations, none quite like the edition we grew up with, which Laurel now owns, complete with unfortunate childish pencil doodlings on the opening pages.

At the Blue Dragon she calls me over from a row away, where I’m looking through a two-volume 1940s edition on pre-Columbian art,  Medieval Art of America. I like to look through books published during World War II, which often are on thick pulpy paper and usually smell alive and are testaments to the determination to make beauty even in a time of scarcity. Sometimes too much scarcity. Medieval Art of America seems thorough, and serious, and impeccably researched. But it contains not a single illustration of the art it so painstakingly catalogues.

“Do you remember this?” Laurel asks, handing me a slim, well-bound copy of Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels. This is a 1955 edition from J.P. Lippincott Company, with fine line illustrations by Douglas Gorsline, and whether it’s the same as the one in my father’s collection I can’t recall (Laurel has that one now, too) but it smells like a bright autumn day and it’s ten dollars and I buy it.

Parnassus on Wheels is the unlikely and whimsical story of a New England farm woman in the early years of the 20th century who buys a traveling horse-drawn van complete with horse (named Pegasus) and dog (Boccaccio, or Bock) and gads about the countryside, selling books to farm and town folks. As a child the story reminded me of the library bookmobile that made regular visits to the farms of friends. As a townie I could walk easily to the library on my own, but sometimes I wished the bookmobile would stop at my house, too.

Continue reading Ashland 2: Much ado about book shops