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The Bard rises from Ashland

Special to The Times

SNOWFLAKES the size of quarters filled the air of the Bear Creek Valley and felted the grassy hills above Ashland with white. Nature, Shakespeare said, mirrors the affairs of man, and this snowstorm was no exception. The first play of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2006 season, opening Friday, was to be “The Winter’s Tale.” And at that moment last month, the whole of the town felt as still and breathless as the wronged Hermione.

I have had a long relationship with this corner of southwest Oregon; my grandfather and uncle served as mayors in two neighboring towns. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, running this year to Oct. 29, always provided me with an acre or two that felt like my own, where I could meet proverbial kindred spirits. The festival attracts not people looking to fill a Saturday night but theatergoers with an abiding love of drama. It is not an ivory tower. It’s a wooden one. Where nature and artifice meet.

This town of 20,000 is slotted between the steep walls of Bear Creek Valley 15 miles north of the California border. It has been steeped in a decades-long experiment with Shakespeare, begun in 1935 by local teacher Angus Bowmer. There are just enough Elizabethan touches -- crenelated parapets on the drugstore, trumpet banners hanging from the streetlights -- to tart up the place but not so many that it seems forced. Wild rivers, historical gold rush towns and skiing lie within 20 miles of Ashland’s main thoroughfare and its three state-of-the-art theaters.

Sometimes in a place like Ashland, visitors succumb to the temptation to treat it like a cultural vending machine. They drop in their change, pull the lever, consume what drops and return home. But Ashland and its environs, even the festival itself, is a richer place when you indulge your curiosity.

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For my part, I talked my way backstage into the costume and design shops and spent time conversing with several of the actors to get an insider’s view of the festival, the town and the area.

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Painting the scene

THE scene shops at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival were cavernous bays filled with a controlled confusion of men (and a few women) rolling great “carts” or sections of sets, back and forth. The air was filled with the whine of wood saws and the hiss of paint guns. The shop was building the set to one of the first plays “The Diary of Anne Frank,” due to open Saturday. The festival’s scene shop is busy 10 months of the year.

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This buzz of activity was matched in the costume shop as well, where Chris Smith-McNamara rode herd over three or four rotating “studios” of costume creators as well as the craft workers who make hats, shoes and armor; the dyers; the wig-makers; and more.

Bill Langan, who is set to play Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale,” has just returned after a year in his native New York City. Ashland may be remote, Langan said over coffee at the nearby Starbucks, but the audience is as sophisticated as an actor could hope for.

“One time I came into the theater and saw balloons attached to one of the seats,” he said. “I thought it was someone’s birthday.” It turns out that the audience member set to occupy that seat was “completing the canon.” At the end of the night, he would have seen every one of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. Rare? Not really. Langan knew at least a couple of others who had done the same thing.

Ashland, lying as it does in a long, narrow valley, is itself long and narrow. The axis of the town is Main Street, running north to south through a mix of gas stations and hillside houses. In the downtown core, where most of the shops and theaters are located, the street splits into Main and Lithia Way. Right below the theaters off Main is a parking roundabout bordered by shops, taverns and Lithia Park. There, in the middle, where punky kids and vagrants lounge, is Lithia Fountain, which delivers foul-smelling mineral spring water.

Once Main rejoins Lithia Way at the public library, a small but heavy-looking stone building, it becomes Siskiyou Boulevard and leads you out past Southern Oregon University and into the pine and madrono-covered hills south of town to Mt. Ashland and, ultimately, the frequently snowy Siskiyou Pass and the California border.

Most of tourist Ashland is in those six downtown blocks. But other walkable neighborhoods are easily reached on foot. East of the main streets is the Railroad District, a small collection of shops, restaurants and cafes clustered around A Street. Up the hill in the other direction, above the theaters, is a windy, leafy residential district. Or, you can walk through Lithia Park. From either direction the dramatic hills -- constantly changing color and texture depending on the time of day, the season and the weather -- reward the wanderer.

Outside Ashland, there are many ways to extend your experience. A 15-minute drive gets you to the Mt. Ashland ski area, where you often find snow into summer. My wife and I saw snow several years ago when we took a break from theater and hiked around the high, deserted trails with friends.

At Grants Pass, a 45-minute drive northwest, you can take flat-keeled motorboat rides up the Rogue River into the remote wilderness where western novelist Zane Grey had his cabin. In neighboring Jacksonville, a historic town that had an enormous gold rush sometime between Sutter’s Mill and the Yukon, is a host of antique shops.

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Finally, and there is no reason to come this far and not see it, there is Crater Lake, the deepest freshwater lake in the country. Although it is 85 miles away, it is worth every switchback mile of the drive.

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Makes you want to stay

THE variety of things to do and see is attractive to more than visitors. Frequently, it’s part of the reason actors who come to the festival intending to stay a year or two wind up settling in and making their professional and family life here, they say.

Actress Catherine Coulson was invited to the festival 12 years ago. She had just finished working on a popular TV series and wanted to do something new. Independently, her husband, Marc Sirinsky, recently ordained, was offered the position of rabbi at Ashland’s Temple Emek Shalom, a congregation down in the valley.

Not surprisingly in a town with such artistic talent, the synagogue is a symphony of stained glass, laser-cut wood and windows that look out over a natural spring. The congregation is full of musicians and actors. “We’re the only synagogue we know of that advertises in Playbill,” Coulson said.

Like the festival’s actors and staff members, theatergoers are undeterred by its remoteness. Each year, from chilly February to gloomy November, and during all the pleasant summer months in between, the festival sells more than 350,000 tickets to 11 plays. Each season, the festival produces four Shakespeare plays, several modern ones, new commissions and non-Shakespearean classics. This season, besides “The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare is represented by “King John,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Contemporary plays include “Up,” by Bridget Carpenter; Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel”; and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by David Edgar, the playwright of “Continental Divide” fame. Bridging the gap are “Bus Stop,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

The festival also offers backstage tours, lectures by specialists in the plays, conversations with playwrights and actors, musical performances and staged readings of plays in development.

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If past is prologue, I’ll surely be back again. Like Shakespeare’s plays, the festival and the area reward repeated viewings.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ashland’s a stage

GETTING THERE:

Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport is about 15 miles from Ashland. From LAX, Alaska and American Airlines have nonstop flights. Connecting service (change of planes) is available from Burbank (Delta, US Airways and United), Long Beach (US Airways), Orange County (Alaska) and Ontario (Delta, America West). Restricted, round-trip flights begin at $198. Several car rental agencies are at the airport, or there is a shuttle service to Ashland that costs $10 to $20.

WHERE TO STAY:

Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St.; (888) 795-4545, www.ashlandspringshotel.com. A renovated historic hotel right below the theaters. $79-$139 off season; $129-$209 high season (May 29 to Oct. 10).

Stratford Inn, 555 Siskiyou Blvd.; (800) 547-4741, www.stratfordinnashland.com. Motel with large rooms and swimming pool, five-minute walk from theaters. $85 off season; $120 mid-season; $165 high season.

Ashland Bed and Breakfast Network has information and booking for hundreds of lodging options in and around Ashland. (800) 944-0329, www.abbnet.com. Prices vary.

WHERE TO EAT:

Chateaulin, 50 E. Main St.; (541) 482-2264, www.chateaulin.com. French restaurant and wine shop on Main Street. Excellent food and wine with good service. Three-course prix fixe menu, $35.

Martino’s Lounge, 58 E. Main St.; (541) 488-4420. Downstairs big brother Macaroni’s Ristorante is fine, but all the action is in the bar upstairs.

Omar’s Restaurant, 1380 Siskiyou Blvd.; (541) 482-1281, www.omarsrestaurant.com. Rat Pack-era seafood supper house on Siskiyou Boulevard past the college. $60-$100 for dinner for two.

Morning Glory, 1149 Siskiyou Blvd.; (541) 488-8636. Excellent for breakfast with large portions and fresh ingredients, in a homey house with colorful murals on the walls. $20-$30 for breakfast for two.

TO LEARN MORE:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival begins Feb. 17. The first shows in repertory are “The Winter’s Tale,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Request information from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, OR 97520; brochures@osf ashland.org. Full schedule, tickets at (541) 482-4331 or www.osfashland.org.

-- Curt Hopkins


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