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ASHLAND AT 50----THE TOWN THE BARD BUILT

The locals used to snicker at the long-haired actors who would come to town every summer to play Shakespeare in Lithia Park. “Shakes-squares,” they used to call ‘em. Or even “Shakes-spooks.”

That was back in the 1950s, when real men wore their hair short, and lumbering was the thing in Ashland. Who knew that 30 years later the mills would be closed and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be Ashland’s leading industry?

Sandra James of the local Chamber of Commerce estimates that 250,000 people come to Ashland between February and October to see a play (not necessarily by Shakespeare)in one of the festival’s three theaters. She puts the festival’s economic impact on the town at $53 million a year--important money in a community of 15,000. No wonder the banners on Main Street read:"Happy Birthday, Dear Festival.” Without the festival, Main Street might be half boarded up.

Instead it’s thriving, lined with cute shops that seemed to be named after 1970s record labels--Rare Earth, Flower Time. Yet Ashland isn’t a cultural tourist trap. It’s a peaceful town in southern Oregon with a great view of the mountains and the kind of air that makes city air seem like water from a cloudy tap. The visitor slows down to smell the flowers--those big Oregon roses. He strolls to the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre at sundown in a contented mood, ready to be pleased by the show.

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Compare the latent hostility of the Broadway tourist, who has just paid $50 a seat for a new musical, which had damned well better be good. At Ashland, the top ticket is $14.50, and the audience comes in friendly. Not only are they generous with laughter and applause, they listen to the play . This is such a heady experience that Artistic Director Jerry Turner and his directors have to keep reminding their actors that, despite the audience reaction, they aren’t the Royal Shakespeare Company yet.

Not by a long shot. I came to Ashland the other day for the annual conference, my first trip in a dozen years. It was obvious that the standard of acting had improved over the old days, when the average actor was either just out of college or still in it. Now 19 members of the company are Equity members, rather than just a few “guest artists.” Ashland has grown up.

Yet--it has to be said--the Oregon Shakespeare Festival still delivers Shakespeare in a somewhat rudimentary fashion. The banners fly. The words are clear. The characters are accounted for, in a general sort of way. The story is told. But something is missing:a sense that the actors are living the story. It’s more like an illustrated recitation than a firsthand experience.

When the play is a relatively unfamiliar one, this doesn’t matter so much--the plot carries its own interest. The approach can be even be defended as apt when it comes to a pageant play, like this summer’s “King John,” where the characters can be compared with figures on a rather stiff medieval tapestry.

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As for the second play I saw, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” one could argue that it’s refreshing to see it treated lightly, as if Bertram’s brutality to Helena merely indicated an overly Australian attitude toward women.

But when the first half of “The Merchant of Venice” ended with no sense of concern for any of the characters--with no sense of why this play was being done tonight, other than to celebrate Angus Bowmer’s staging it at the first Oregon Shakespeare Festival 50 summers ago--the impulse was not to return for the second act.

I followed the impulse. I walked over to the adjoining Bowmer Theater, where “Crimes of the Heart” was in progress, not a play that one wants to see too often.

But what refreshment it offered. These actors knew who their characters were, knew what they felt about each other, knew why we should care about them. They knew the social background of the play. They had a feeling for the language of the play, which they did not need a microphone to project. They looked under the words, spying when a line revealed a crime of the heart and when it concealed one.

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Amazing. Actors who had seemed naive and monotonous playing Shakespeare on that big outdoor stage seemed alive and flexible here, fully keyed into the world of the play. What was the difference?Was it the director? Was it the fact that “King John” and the other plays were new to the repertory, while “Crimes” had been running for a while?Was it the fact that Americans have an easier time playing Americans than medieval warriors?

All of the above, probably. But one sensed another factor as well:the house. The Bowmer Theatre (circa 1970)seems to bring out the best in an actor, whether he’s doing “Crimes of the Heart” or “Trelawney of the Wells,” which Ashland is doing with real charm this summer. But the open-air Elizabethan Theatre (circa 1955)is almost guaranteed to make the actor look like a spear carrier.

It is a deceptive space, much less Elizabethan than it looks. As in Shakespeare’s day, the actors play against a permanent stage house with the “inner above” and “inner below” of Shakespeare’s Globe. The leaded windows, the half-timbered walls carry out the Elizabethan motif.

It’s an appropriate backdrop as long as the play is being done in Elizabethan costumes. But it seems out of key when the director and costume designer sets the tale in a later time--the Regency period, in “All’s Well.”

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A more serious problem:This “Elizabethan” theater has what amounts to a proscenium stage. True, the stage boasts a bit of an apron, neatly separated from the audience by a low railing. But the stage has no real thrust, as did the platform that Shakespeare wrote for. It’s very wide and relatively shallow.

This raises problems for the actor who has to fill the amphitheater with his voice--unamplified. Unlike a true platform stage, it denies him a point of attack--a place where he can come forward and grab the audience by the throat. Instead, he’s constantly stuck back there in line with the troops.

Not only is this frustrating, it leads to stage pictures as stodgy as used to mark opera in the bad old days. Everybody stands still and “points” to the character with the important speech. Spear carriers come on left, whirl their banners, and go off right. Groupings and processions are boringly symmetrical, sometimes exactly bisected by the “inner below.”

The stage dictates the blocking, which dictates the approach to the text. Who can be free in the middle of such rigidity? Turner defines the problem as trying to fit “an Elizabethan stage into a Greek amphitheater.” I’d say that the problem is trying to make a pseudo-Elizabethan stage do the work of a real one.

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The festival’s third theater is a black box, appropriately called the Black Swan. Built in 1977, it’s a delight. Just now, it houses a newish play by Mark Medoff, “The Majestic Kid.” This concerns a modern man who conjures up a cowboy hero from Saturday-matinee days to help him with his problems, but who comes to see that a feller has to make his own decisions these days--about ethics, about women. The old black-and-white verities don’t work.

Medoff’s script is as trendy as those gift shops on Main Street, but it’s also shrewdly turned, and the Ashland actors again prove their mettle with material close to their experience.

Despite the discouraging words, Ashland remains a spot that West Coast theater lovers should discover. If the Shakespeare isn’t world class, its audience somehow does make a connection with it, and the rest of the productions are done to a very high standard indeed.

The visiting critic finds a true theater community here:artists who have worked together for 10, 15, 20 years without getting complacent and provincial--a real danger when attendance averages 90%of capacity every summer. Jerry Turner, for instance, is currently rehearsing Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People"--translated to modern Oregon. That doesn’t sound like a theater that wants to be a museum.

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