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Photograph by Andrée Lanthier

The King and I: Dan Donohue (center) stars in Henry V at the OSF in Ashland.

Bard and Beyond

Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers much more than the Swan of Avon

By Daedalus Howell

"O! FOR A MUSE OF FIRE!" isn't just the opening line of Henry V, the flagship production of this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It's also the battle cry for a whole season of inspired productions that not only step outside the Bard but also are well worth a trip north of the border.

This year's opening bill features Tennessee Williams' seriocomic Night of the Iguana (a defrocked minister-gone-tour guide finds salvation in Mexico), Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's screwball comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson's cancer drama Wit.

Conducted annually in Ashland (a quaint Oregon burg, just above the California border), the festival was founded in 1935 and annually presents on three stages an eight-month season comprised of four plays by Shakespeare and seven by classic and contemporary playwrights.

Last year, the company's outdoor Elizabethan stage (modeled after that of the Renaissance era's Old Globe), along with the intimate Black Swan and the capacious Angus Bowmer Theatre, housed over 374, 000 theatergoers, for a total of 762 performances.

With 74 professional actors in the festival's stable, OSF's artistic director, Libby Appel, has dubbed this 65th year an "actor-oriented season."

"The core of this company live here, have children here, and are part of the community," Appel says. "Many of our actors have lived here for some 20 years. We really do keep a strong group together and are very proud of that. We think of them as an investment. When we think about bringing someone in, it's not just for a season but on a long-term basis."

To wit, critically acclaimed stage actor Dan Donohue (who recently did a cameo on The Drew Carey Show) returns as the title character in Shakespeare's famed historical drama Henry V. In OSF's past two seasons, Donohue played the character's pre-king incarnation as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II.

"That's only the second time in the history of our festival that one actor has played both Prince Hal and King Henry," says Appel, who calls the carrot-topped Donohue "one of the major up-and-coming actors of our time."

Indeed, Donohue is superb as the reformed monarch--his Henry is such a galvanizing presence that audiences will find it difficult to resist grabbing a longbow and joining the fray. Throughout, Donohue dispatches epic asides and speeches with a panache that would leave a lesser actor panting in the wings.

"My feeling is that somebody like Donohue gets you to understand the vulnerability of this king and truly what it's like for a new king to learn how to govern," Appel says. "His heart is in the fabric of this production and his performance is rather profound."

Another stand-out production at OSF this season is Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's The Man Who Came to Dinner--a rousing riff on the playwright's acerbic Algonquin Round Table crony Alexander Woollcott penned in 1939.

In it, real-life media darling Woollcott, famed for his eviscerating wit, is transformed into Sheridan Whiteside, a garrulous radio celebrity who rains terror down upon his hopelessly middle-brow hosts, the Stanleys, while convalescing in their Ohio home after slipping on their doorstep.

Brimming with comic nods to the playwright's numerous confreres (Noel Coward and Harpo Marx among them), The Man Who Came to Dinner is a well-wound Swiss watch crafted from the efforts of 24 players, who each enjoy a scene-stealing moment before the play's fast-paced three acts time out.

As director Warner Shook explains, "It's not about what's going to happen next, but who's going to happen next."

Ken Albers is exquisite as the dictatorial Whiteside, who is as lovable as he is contemptible. Likewise, Judith Marie-Bergan dazzles as the aging cigarette-voiced ingenue Loraine Sheldon, who unwittingly participates in one of Whiteside's ruses to keep his indispensable assistant, Maggie (a pitch-perfect Robynn Rodriguez), from marrying and leaving him bereft of an aide. Likewise, Michael J. Hume and Richard Elmore do hilarious turns as the Harpo facsimile Banjo and Noel Coward redux Beverly Carlton, respectively.

This production produces enough kinetic energy to power a small city--and actually does, in a way. The Man Who Came to Dinner will undoubtedly prove to be Ashland's major draw this year, and last year's festival generated more than $93 million for the region. What's more, in a rare bout of fairness in the trade, the city's actors actually benefit from that influx of cash.

"This is an awfully good place to work. Our actors get to do good work in good roles," says Appel. "They're supported. They get 10 months under contract. There aren't that many actors in Hollywood who are that well supported. Of course, our actors are ultimately doing this for the artistic satisfaction--and they like Ashland."

Theater lovers will too.

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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