Oregon Shakespeare Festival looks to build on success

03/09/2013 1:00 AM

03/10/2013 8:29 AM

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has made an art of retooling its leadership.

After Bill Rauch was named artistic director designate in 2006 – and succeeded Libby Appel as artistic director two years later – the festival set an all-time attendance record in 2010 with 414,783 patrons. Rauch subsequently was awarded the Theater Center Group's Visionary Leadership Award.

The OSF hopes Cynthia Rider's appointment as executive director yields similar highlights. Rider replaces Paul Nicholson, who spent 33 years with the organization, building it into one of the largest, most prestigious and forward-thinking nonprofit arts presenters in the country.

Rider, whose appointment was announced in August, came to OSF from the well-regarded Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where she had served as managing director since 2009. At OSF she manages a nonprofit organization operating on a $32 million budget in 2013.

Her first season contains the festival's customary 11 plays stretching over 10 months in three theaters.

The recent opening weekend in Ashland featured William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," August Wilson's "Two Trains Running," Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's classic American musical "My Fair Lady" and Shakespeare's imposing "King Lear."

Opening at the end of March is the world premiere musical "The Unfortunates," and in April, Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" joins the repertory.

This summer sees the U.S. premiere of David Farr's "The Heart of Robin Hood" on the Elizabethan Stage, joining Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the outdoor season.

Two world premieres are final offerings of the season. Opening in late summer are Naomi Wallace's "The Liquid Plain" and Tanya Saracho's "The Tenth Muse."

Talking in the lobby of the newly christened Thomas (formerly New) Theatre during the 2013 season's opening weekend in late February, a confident and optimistic Rider acknowledged the expectations in her new job.

"I feel the weight here of the stewardship of an institution that's more than 75 years old," Rider said. "This is an organization of great excellence and ambition, so my job is really to find a way to support that excellence and ambition onstage, in the organization and as a member of the community."

Rider spent a month with outgoing executive director Nicholson, who helped her make the transition.

"I felt like I had an advantage most people never get when they move into a new job," she said. "Paul generously spent so much of his time both preparing for me to come (on board) and then actually with me one on one."

As executive director, Rider inherits a $4.5 million gift that will support the construction of a new rehearsal center where the OSF production building stands. The space will be called the Hay Patton Rehearsal Center, acknowledging the contributions of senior scenic and theater designer Richard L. Hay, a 55-year company mainstay, and William Patton, OSF's first general manager and executive director, who died in January 2011.

A new and larger production center for set construction is being built in Talent, Ore., four miles north of OSF's base in Ashland and should be operational this fall.

Rider said the new center helps OSF continue building on its mission of creating artistic excellence.

"Working here, people know you are working someplace where you have the opportunity to do better work than almost anywhere in the world – that level of excellence."

Artistic director Rauch said that after he first met Rider, he felt she had the necessary managerial skills to complement his creative work.

"I wanted more than anything (to bring in) someone who I could be in deep partnership with, that I could really collaborate with, and who would share the hunger I have for this organization to be as strong as possible," Rauch said.

"I also felt like we needed somebody who could really continue the great progress we've made in unifying the organization."

Rauch noted that OSF has more than 515 employees and 600 volunteers, and that communication among the various departments can be murky. But someone has to make sure it happens consistently and effectively.

"I had a really strong sense that Cynthia was the kind of charismatic, warm, open leader who would really help us move forward in that area, and she really has," Rauch said.

'My Fair Lady'

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe

Through Nov. 3 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Three stars

Director Amanda Dehnert's deconstructed, meta-theatrical "My Fair Lady" strips the production of some rich period detail but adds little in opening up the play. Dehnert uses an estate-approved, two-piano score of the great musical (Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs are the fine onstage accompanists), putting the two grand pianos at center stage. There are bleachers at the rear where actors sit in full view of the audience, which also can see the players change costumes for the various scenes.

Lerner and Loewe's brilliant score suffers no collateral damage from Dehnert's conceit. The heart of the story remains the same. Based on George Bernard Shaw's original complex relationship in "Pygmalian," the musical features the externally transformed flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Rachel Warren) and the internally transformed linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Haugen), who teaches her how to speak and act like a well-born lady.

Anthony Heald's rascally Alfred P. Doolittle and a tuneful Cockney Quartet are scene stealers, while David Kelly adds a dutiful Colonel Pickering, Higgins' well-meaning colleague.

Shaw refused a pat resolution to his play in any version, and the question Eliza so poignantly asks – "What is to become of me?" – still hangs in the balance, speaking to the greatness of the story no matter how minimally it's presented.

'The Taming of the Shrew'

by William Shakespeare

Through Nov. 3 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Four stars

Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" has never been considered one of his difficult-to-categorize "problem plays," but creating a satisfactory modern telling of the story can be problematic. How do modern audiences view Petruchio's "taming" of Kate, which we see as essentially brainwashing through food and sleep deprivation? So this part of the story, the breaking of Kate, remains troublesome.

In director David Ivers' bright, clear-eyed version of the story, Padua, Italy, has been reimagined as a romantic modern beach town with the action taking place on the waterfront boardwalk. As a neon Ferris wheel twirls in the distance, a rockabilly trio jams on a balcony and the slightly menacing Tunnel of Love leers from stage left.

The smartly conceived central conflict doesn't offend. Ted Deasy's cool Petruchio, while confident, never overplays his hand, so it's not a boorish machismo he's featuring. His wooing and the subsequent "taming" are resolute, but done with a rueful sadness that it must be this way.

Nell Geisslinger doesn't shrink from Kate's transformation, but despite her famous speech detailing a woman's duties to her husband, the sensual physicality between Kate and Petruchio leaves no doubt that theirs is a marriage of equals.

Inspired comic business from gifted supporting players John Tufts as Tranio, Tasso Feldman as Grumio and Christiana Clark as Biondello supply substantial laughs. Meg Neville's detailed costumes and Kristin Ellert's video projections are added bonuses in this lush production.


Two Trains Running'

by August Wilson

Through July 7 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Three 1/2 stars

August Wilson's melancholy but hopeful "Two Trains Running" has always been one of the master playwright's lesser-performed works. A talky, subtle slice of life, the 1992 drama owes much to the sensibilities of William Saroyan and Clifford Odets, who also wrote working-class character-based studies.

The seventh in Wilson's 10-part "The Pittsburgh Cycle" takes place in a run-down diner that is about to be demolished in an urban renewal project. It's 1969 and more militant ideas of Black Revolution have begun to push up against the nonviolent status quo.

The electric Kevin Kenerly's young, hungry Sterling has just gotten out of jail for robbery, and he's not only looking for work but also trying to jump-start his life. Sterling tips the stasis of the sleepy diner's regulars, particularly Wolf (the excellent Kenajuan Bentley), a jaunty numbers runner.

Foremost in Sterling's sights, though, is the mysterious Risa (graceful Bakestra King), the diner's quietly intense, glacially paced waitress.

Terry Bellamy's Memphis, the diner's stubborn owner, longs to return to Mississippi and the little farm he was forced to flee, while West (Jerome Preston Bates), a successful undertaker, calmly builds his real estate empire. Josiah Phillips' respected Holloway mediates all disputes while reciting an oral history of the area.

Tyrone Wilson has a spectacular turn as Hambone, a mentally impaired but beloved diner regular.

Director Lou Bellamy finds simple, profound truths about 20th century African American life in Wilson's cautiously optimistic work.

'King Lear'

by William Shakespeare

Through Nov. 3 in the Thomas Theatre

Four stars

The unremitting intensity of Shakespeare's "King Lear" fully rages in director Bill Rauch's intimate and foreboding in-the-round staging. Rauch employs two different Lears in alternating performances, the brilliant Michael Winters (whom I saw), and the equally formidable Jack Willis.

The two will share the part, considered one of the most demanding roles for a veteran actor. Rauch said the differences each brings makes his shows equally different productions, though all the other actors and elements remain the same.

The invaluable ensemble includes Daisuke Tsuji as the insightful Fool, Raffi Barsoumian as the seductive Edmund, and Vilma Silva and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Lear's cold, ambitious daughters Goneril and Regan.

"Lear" explores unsentimental human insight as it shows a man once revered as a monarch broken down to his most feral state because of his hubris and failings. Rauch's modern setting simply places the allegory in a familiar contemporary context.

Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.

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