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Hell Bound

The devil's in the details at Ashland

By David Templeton

In Will Shakespeare's day, scores of Elizabethans flocked to the London theaters to catch the latest comedies, histories and tragedies (and perhaps enjoy a bit of preshow bear-baiting). Meanwhile, the Puritans of the time actively organized their growing ranks against the thriving institution of theater, which they saw as a particularly viral form of ritualized sin. Everything from the plague to the deadly earthquake of 1580 was blamed on theater. In hand-printed tracts and street-corner sermons, 16th-century Puritans dubbed the theatrical stage a "sink of theft and whoredom, pride and prodigality, villainy and blasphemy," peopled by actors who were "apes, hellhounds, vipers and minotaurs . . . sent from their great captain Satan to deceive the world and to lead people with enticing shows to the Devil."

Amen to that.

Those looking for evidence of the devil and "enticing shows" need look no further than Ashland, Ore., where the 2005 Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has assembled an 11-play season that began in February and will run through the end of October. The first-rate festival annually draws hundreds of thousands of playgoers to the pretty little town of Ashland, about a third of whom travel from the Bay Area, eager to pick and choose from an assortment of productions. This season's plays were penned by George Bernard Shaw, August Wilson, Eduardo de Filippo, Octavio Solis, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, Shakespeare, represented this time out by three of his most popular: Twelfth Night, Love's Labor's Lost and Richard III.

As for the devil, well, God's favorite fallen angel gets at least a mention in several productions. He is employed metaphorically in August Wilson's excellent Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and actually appears, in all his fiery antiglory, in the festival's most daring and inventive production, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Written by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe and staged open-air, Faustus pulls out all the stops, using fire, fog, trapdoors, elevators, puffs of smoke and even a kind of pungent theatrical aromatherapy. Director James Edmondson has cast Brent Harris as a sexy David Bowie–esque Lucifer, whose various minions appear in flashy manifestations as a winged dragon, a pig-faced creepy-crawly and a Franciscan monk with a scary-ass smile. That last one is none other than Mephistopheles, the devil's capable assistant, astonishingly well-played by OSF veteran Ray Porter.

Over the years, there have been numerous variations on the Faustus legend, that cautionary tale about an ambitious guy who sells his soul to the devil. In Marlowe's version, John Faustus (Jonathan Haugen) is a studious, knowledge-thirsty man with numerous academic degrees. Having mastered medicine, history, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and theology, Faustus sets his sights on learning black magic, arrogantly exclaiming that he'd sell his soul for a little of the knowledge and power usually attached to God. In a flash, Mephistopheles appears for a closer look, and before long, Faustus has handed the deed to his soul over to Lucifer.

What follows is an entertaining, visually pleasing but somewhat plotless series of adventures and pageants, in which the dedicated Mephistopheles occupies and diverts Faustus with globe-trotting practical jokes and manifestations of Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy, the Seven Deadly Sins. Eventually, when the good/bad doctor runs out of time, we finally see the gaping mouth of Hell, and though Faustus might have a different view of the matter, from the audience's vantage, it's well worth the wait. And though the structure and pacing of the play may seem a bit hokey and old-fashioned (duh!), its pitch-perfect acting, dazzling visuals, awesome special effects and oh-my-God costuming (Lucifer's feathered codpiece is especially eye-catching) makes this Faustus one cool highway to hell.

The pros and cons of selling one's soul are also examined in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (playing at OSF's versatile indoor New Theater), as a group of African American musicians gather in a shabby Chicago recording studio in 1927 to make a blues record. Directed by Timothy Bond, the production is as rooted in gritty reality as Faustus is stylized and fanciful.

The cast is uniformly spot-on, with outstanding performances by Greta Oglesby as Ma "Mother of the Blues" Rainey, who has learned that she is worth something to the white establishment profiting from her success and demands to be treated as such. Kevin Kenerly plays the trumpet player Levee, who is desperate for respect and willing to sell his soul to anyone, white or black, who will help him achieve his dreams. The astoundingly good Abdul Salaam el Razzac plays the philosophical, self-educated pianist Toledo, a man who knows a thing or two about the cost of losing one's soul, and whose feisty verbal battles with Levee make up the play's moral and intellectual foundation.

The devil is a no-show in the pleasant but so-so Love's Labor's Lost (the high point of which is Faustus' Ray Porter portraying the goofy, word-drunk Costard) in a tale about a king who publicly swears off wine, women and song and then changes his mind. But in director Peter Amster's imaginative Twelfth Night, Puritanism itself gets a spanking, as the prudish head servant Malvolio (a transcendent Kenneth Albers) is tricked by his subordinates into revealing his inner heathen.

The entire production of Twelfth Night, like Faustus, is performed outside and clips along with the usual funny bits of Shakespearean business (identical twins separated by a shipwreck; a woman disguised as a man; much sexual confusion). It also boasts a capable cast, with the usually hypercontrolled Robin Goodrin Nordli letting gloriously loose as the lovestruck Olivia, and Christopher DuVal going the doofus distance as the clueless knight Andrew Aguecheek.

Hell is once again a frequent topic in Richard III, grandly staged by Libby Appel on the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. James Newcomb makes a convincingly evil, splendidly entertaining and remarkably physical hunchbacked villain, who venomously spews such taunts as "Down, down to Hell, and say I sent thee thither--I that have neither, pity, love nor fear." While Newcomb's Richard is the mesmerizing center of the play, director Appel highlights the emotional cost of murderous ambition by frequently bringing out the mothers and wives of Richard's numerous victims ("I had a Henry," the former Queen Margaret sings, "Till a Richard killed him").

Richard was not alone in his crimes, of course, and in Appel's staging, every time one of the conspirators meets his own messy end, a ghostly, white-haired Margaret appears, bathed in light, to watch the murderer die. Richard himself, crying for a horse, will ultimately be sent to the land of brimstone and fire, dispatched in one of the most spectacular hand-to-hand battles ever staged at OSF.

Damn, it's good.


For the full OSF schedule, visit www.orshakes.org.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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