Tuesday 02 September 1997
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is one of the oldest and largest professional regional theatre companies in the USA. Founded in 1935 by Angus Bowmer, it opened with two performances of Twelfth Night and one of The Merchant of Venice, both given on a small open-air platform stage. They played to an audience of 500.
Today there are three theatres: an Elizabethan theatre, a modern theatre, and a studio. During the season, which begins in February and ends in October, the Festival presents a repertoire of 11 plays: four by Shakespeare and seven by classical and contemporary playwrights. There are 763 performances playing to an audience of 352,000.
The Elizabethan Theatre, seating 1,188, opened in 1959. It was designed by Richard L Hay, who has designed all three theatres. The stage has a huge and slightly daunting multi-level Tudor facade. The auditorium is steeply raked like a Greek amphitheatre. There are no groundlings.
In 1992, a pavilion was added which encircles the seating area and provides improved acoustics, sight-lines and technical capabilities. Entrances for the actors from under the seating area to the stage were added and several hundred of the original seats were raised on to a roofed balcony. The theatre itself remains open to the sky.
Sight-lines are excellent: there are no enormous pillars on stage to block the view, as there are in London and the theatre uses a formidable battery of modern electric lighting - unlike Shakespeare's Globe in London, which uses no stage lighting during the day and only "artificial daylight" in the evening. It is the actual width of the Oregon stage and the size of the auditorium that presents the directors and actors with problems. There is no intimacy and, in two out of the three productions that I saw this summer, there was no subtlety either. I am not certain that Oregon's audiences want subtlety, at least not in the comedies; certainly, the broader the performance the more they seemed to like it.
The massive Tudor facade casts a sombre shadow over the whole of As You Like It, court and country alike. The Forest of Arden is created by hanging up two drawings of a tree, one bare for winter, the other flowering for summer, and that's it. The lighting does not even provide a dappled effect. The production and performance are superficial.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is set in the rock 'n' roll 1950s. The director, evidently having no confidence in Shakespeare whatsoever, lets the cast jive around for far too long before the comedy begins, and then constantly interrupts the flow with mimed interludes between scenes which add absolutely nothing to one's understanding of either character or plot. When the action moves to Mantua, a neon sign lights up to suggest a mini-Las Vegas. The Mafia makes its heavy presence felt.
Much, much better in every respect is Penny Metropulos's production of Timon of Athens. The audience pay the company the highest compliment when they wonder why the play is not done more often. No doubt one of the reasons for its success is that the scenes of exile are less boring than usual; there has been some judicial tinkering in the last two acts and David Kelly in the title role makes the difficult rhetoric crystal clear.
Oregon solves the perennial problem of Shakespeare (too few roles for women) by giving some of the male parts to the actresses. Speed, one of the comic servants in Two Gents, is played by a girl, though still referred to as "boy". At least this is more acceptable than an actress dressed up as a man playing Le Beau in As You Like It. The reason for this unusual casting is presumably because the Festival cannot afford to pay an actress for the whole season and then have her appear in only one play.
The most striking cross-casting is Apemantus, in Timon of Athens, who is played by Tamu Gray, a black actress with dreadlocks. The audience has no problems with this, probably because the majority of them are unaware that Apemantus is not meant to be a woman. Gray is a formidable termagant, and the line "I wonder men trust themselves with man" takes on a whole new irony. Next year the Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors will be played by women.
The two outstanding productions are in the modern theatre and studio. Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Magic Fire has a fine ensemble cast, who have been excellently orchestrated by Libby Appel, the Festival's artistic director. The play is set in Buenos Aires in 1952 and deals with a Jewish family in exile from Nazism and their response to the Peron dictatorship. I am sure it will have a life beyond Oregon. Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, a taut drama set in Harlem in 1930, is also extremely well acted by a cast of five and the play is strongly recommended to black actors in Britain.
The Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City was founded in 1961 by Fred C Adams, who remains at the helm. He began with a cast of 21 drawn from the local community, acting on a platform stage that was backed by a partial replica of an Elizabethan stage house. He presented The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice for two weeks and drew an audience of 3,276. Today he has two theatres, an outdoor and indoor theatre, and the Festival plays to an audience of over 130,000 during a 10-week season.
In 1981, the BBC used the outdoor theatre in their television series on the history of theatre. It was the nearest equivalent to Shakespeare's Globe they could find, although Adams has never maintained that his theatre is a replica - he has always described the building as a modern adaptation of a Tudor Playhouse. The shape of the theatre is oval rather than circular and looks like it owes something to the famous drawing by Johannes de Witt of The Swan Theatre. There is a musician's gallery but it is no longer used - the musicians didn't like the sound the instruments made. The actual stage is lower than it would have been in Shakespeare's day and the sight lines are good, but then, fortunately, there are no massive pillars on stage to get in the way.
There are no groundlings.
The auditorium (where the groundlings would have stood) is steeply raked and there are tip-up seats with plenty of leg room. The theatre has a tier of three rows of seats which comes round to the side of the stage, though not past it. The third tier is for the lighting. The building has a surrounding wooden frame but the roof and the sides remain open. The only extraneous sounds are the sounds of crickets.
Twelfth Night is played for broadest farce. It would seem that outdoor theatres encourage directors and actors to mug and play down to the audience. There is no poetry, no subtlety, and certainly no reality. As in Oregon, so in Utah, the broader the acting the more the audience likes it. The final humiliation of Malvolio in Act 5 is greeted with hoots of laughter. No doubt, it will be said, they roared with laughter in Shakespeare's day.
Put on Pericles in Britain and you empty the theatre. But the play proves unexpectedly popular in Utah, doing excellent business - better than the modern-dress Hamlet, largely because audiences have never seen it performed. In the event, the actors play a supporting role to the costumes.
Paul Barnes's production of Henry V is better. "Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France?" asks the Chorus. "Yes!" roars the company and there is some fine hymn singing on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. One of the most effective and affecting moments is an interpolated scene which shows Bardolph being hung for stealing a crucifix.
The Utah theatre has a greater intimacy than the Oregon theatre but it does not have the intimacy of Shakespeare's Globe in London. Oregon prides itself in not being a museum theatre. Productions are hardly ever in Elizabethan costume, whereas at Utah, in the outdoor theatre, they always perform Shakespeare in the costume of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. In their modern theatre, they can and do update the period but many of their audience find this hard to take. Certainly, plenty of objections to the 20th-century court dresses and rifles in Hamlet are expressed during the daily seminars. The production everybody enjoys is a fast, inventive, and very funny Charley's Aunt.
The evening performances begin at 8.30 and sometimes, as in the case of Henry V, go on until midnight, which is more than a little touch of Harry in the night. This doesn't seem to worry anybody one bit. In Cedar City and Ashland there are no last trains to missn
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