The Shakespeare festival is so theatrical!

We were in Ashland for our summer run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: five plays in all this time, meaning we missed some good ones, Othello, Our Town, and Fences, most prominently. Our colleague Bob is heading down THIS weekend so perhaps will set up a little online back-and-forth when he gets back to talk about the individual shows we have in common and the festival in general.

What was I looking for? Well, the usual, I suppose. New descriptions of old plays, new descriptions of my reality, a little inspiration here and there, something dazzling, the OSF comfort food (reliably good acting and good production values). But something else, too. This is the first year in the reign of Bill Rauch as artistic director of the festival, and I was looking for changes. I wasn’t expecting MUCH. OSF is the aircraft carrier of American theater companies, the largest non-profit theater company in the country (at least it once was) with many decades (since 1935), even centuries one might say (enter Shakespeare), of tradition to uphold. But maybe, I thought, I’ll be able to detect a new hand at the tiller. When Henry Woronicz took over from Jerry Turner in 1991, some changes were immediately apparent, notably the company’s far wider recruitment and employment of minority actors, part of the “color blind” casting movement that has become common at regional theater companies (you know I think that’s a good thing, right?). On the other hand, Libby Appel continued many of the initiatives that Woronicz started when he left the festival abruptly in 1995 (yes, we know the gossip). Her interests emerged and colored the festival more slowly and less dramatically.

Cut to the chase. What do I think I detected? I will enumerate! But first the caveats: I saw five of 11 plays on schedule this year; veterans of the festival might say, “I’ve seen them do that before,” and may even by right (though I think my points will still stand on the matter of degree); memory is a tricky thing.

1. The festival is more theatrical. Or at least more self-consciously theatrical. “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” (Jeff Whitty’ new play) is about theater, even, but in general there as “let’s put on a show” attitude through the productions, from the Shakespeare-turned-to-song of The Comedy of Errors to the gay cabaret (in Portland, think Sissyboy) that inspires Titania’s fairy court (oops) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the consistent breaking of the fourth wall to address the audience directly and even enter it, this is theater that KNOWS it is theater and not television or film.

2. It is shifting to a more presentational, less naturalistic style. This goes with the first point. One of the pleasures at Ashland has been the deeply detailed, naturalistic sets for the American plays of the 1930s and 1940s or the Restoration comedies. Those were gone in the shows I saw, replaced by shinier, more abstract, more conceptual designs. The Clay Cart plays out on a huge golden circle and uses pillows — on which the actors lounge while waiting to occupy the Great O — to suggest walls, thrones, etc. In Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner the obese main character starts to float, a very cool metaphor but more like magical realism than kitchen sink drama. The Hedda Gabler extension took us on a metaphorical journey to the Mind of the Playwright, through the woods and across the lake, with no trees and no water. I liked this approach, personally, and it’s not as though the festival was saving any money on these sets — they were as elaborate as ever. A

3. It’s more sensual and sexy. I’ve been going to the festival since 1984 (not every year, mind), and I’ve never seen kisses as passionate and heartfelt as these. Real kisses. Deep kisses. Meaty kisses. And groping. Not just a pat on the fanny, either. More than that: There have been reports of excited teen-age hooting and gasping during Miriam Laube’s slow, stripping off of her jewelry in The Clay Cart, a tease that left her lover and the teens in a puddle. They weren’t alone. Did I mention the Kama Sutra wrap of Eileen DeSandre around her beloved? Inn Midsummer the lovers were losing their clothing throughout the show, and in Breakfast there was lovemaking both gymnastic and aerial (though the latter was implied). Hedda managed to keep her bodice intact, thank goodness!

4. It’s more musical. Libby Appel’s productions were musical, too, often effectively so, but these shows took the music to another level. Comedy IS a musical, really, and songs break out in The Clay Cart, singing alongside the Indian music combo that sits and plays on the stage. There are music jokes in Breakfast and song-and-dance numbers permeate Midsummer (the aforementioned gay cabaret). And on next year’s schedule? Music Man!

So, did I like it? Uh, yes, I did, though in all the theatricality I think some of the nuance of meaning was lost. I love to watch various interpretations of Bottom’s awakening in Midsummer, for example, and that was rushed over. Weirdly, despite the deep musical adulteration to Comedy of Errors, I think it got at the texture of the play better than most recent productions, which turn it into a zany romp, which is there in the play, sure, but which is balanced, Shakespeare-style, with other, more somber currents. But the overall level of energy, engagement, reaching out to other styles and other cultures, was welcome. The most important thing about OSF stayed the same — it’s still a great time.