Today in Ashland I saw two productions. One, a classical and polished production of a Shakespearean romance, the other a rowdy and boisterous production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Both were very high quality and absolutely worth seeing, continuing Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s excellent reputation for interesting and high-quality productions.
Those looking for a bit of a break from Shakespeare in Ashland will do well by The Yeomen of the Guard. An adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1888 operetta, the show is simply nonstop anarchic fun, and is a spectacular demonstration of the variability of the art of stagecraft.
Though the original operetta in its uncut form lasts over three hours, this production is a short and sweet 90 minutes. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has done a number on this old chestnut, producing the operetta with only 10 actors (who also serve as the show’s musicians) and re-setting it to the wild west. The audience sits in-the-round, with many members actually sitting onstage and interacting with the actors as they perform the material. The final product is quite messy, but highly entertaining and unmistakably modern.
The most notable change about this production is the score, which is performed not by a symphony orchestra, but by a 10-person band that features mostly guitars and other string instruments. It’s almost astonishing how close the original operatic score sounds to genuine country music without changing a note, but it works perfectly for the production.
The show’s plot is centered around Fairfax, a man who is mistakenly sentenced to death for dealing with the devil, who is broken out of prison by the man who he saved twice in “the battles” as well as his daughter Phoebe, who is madly in love with him. The warden who sentenced him to death does so because she is next of kin to him and wants his inheritance, so Fairfax blindly weds a stranger to avoid giving his money to her once he dies, but has to deal with the consequences when he does not die as planned. That’s just the setup for the show’s enormously complex storyline, but the plot is rendered rather irrelevant by this production, which serves mostly as an exercise in sustained lunacy. You won’t really be invested in the story, but you’ll have so much fun you won’t care even slightly.
The 10-member ensemble is excellent all-around, with standout performances from Britney Simpson and Jeremy Peter John, who play Phoebe and Fairfax respectively, as well as K.T. Vogt, who plays the character of the Warren with enormous panache. The production design, most notably Regina Garcia’s technicolor set, is absolutely perfect as well.
If there’s one qualification to this production, it’s the sound design, which renders much of the lyrics incomprehensible if you sit onstage (which I did, and highly recommend). It doesn’t matter much because the show’s pleasures are mostly visual, but it’s still rather disappointing to miss W.S. Gilbert’s brilliant lyrical wit.
With this production, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has unequivocally brought operetta into the modern era. It’s highly impressive to experience, and a roaringly good time.
While The Yeomen of the Guard is tight and compact, The Winter’s Tale sits at a full three hours, though the time passes much quicker than you would imagine thanks to a very fine, if not quite perfect, production.
The Winter’s Tale has an interesting place among the canon. One of Shakespeare’s last plays, it much more closely follows a modern story setup than a typical Shakespearean comedy or tragedy. The play follows King Leontes, who comes to believe that his wife Hermione is not faithful and is driven mad by this belief. It is eventually revealed that his suspicions were unwarranted, but his life is already struck with tragedy and he must spend a long period of time making amends for the wrongs he has done. While the first three acts are a work of high tragedy, the final two acts are comedic and the play ends happily. For this reason, it has been considered a “problem play” for many centuries, but the play works because of its tonal shift, not in spite of it. In The Winter’s Tale, characters are allowed redemption and happiness in the face of adversity, and the results are quite powerful.
Director Desdemona Chiang has reset the action in this production to dynastic China, an artistic decision that allows for a beautiful production design and does not hamper the artistic purpose of the play in any way, which is as much as any concept production can ever hope for.
The cast here is mostly excellent, with Amy Kim Waschke as Hermione and Miriam A. Laube as Paulina, Hermione’s trusted servant, providing the strongest of the evening’s performances. The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre does require actors to perform their lines slightly too loudly in order to be heard, however, so some strain is apparent on the cast. The fourth act, too, suffers slightly from misguided direction and is played far more broadly than necessary, resulting in a slight sense of tedium. It is all worth it, though, for the stellar final act, which features an absolutely gorgeous finale.
You would be remiss to skip this production of The Winter’s Tale, which showcases the best of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s ability to present the canon with an unerring sense of quality and a fresh eye towards the works.
The Yeomen of the Guard plays through October 30th. Information and tickets available here.
The Winter’s Tale plays through October 16th. Information and tickets available here.