This weekend my dad and I went up to Ashland for their renowned Shakespeare festival – one of the oldest and most revered in the country. It was started during the Fourth of July celebration in 1935, when eager theatre teacher Angus L. Bowmer asked the city if he could put up a play festival in the boxing arena during the times when there were no matches. The city agreed reluctantly, worrying the plays would end up costing them money. But the shows ended up being more successful than the boxing matches.
Fast forward to 2016 and you have a robust, Tony Award-winning regional theatre district in a small town in Southern Oregon. (This season runs through November and you can learn more about the plays here.) Ashland is delightfully quaint, its downtown peppered with Bard-themed shops and bars and nestled comfortably in the pine-shrouded Rogue Valley. After experiencing the beautiful (if dizzying) drive through the mountains the last time we visited, we decided to opt for the quick hour-long flight. We told everyone we met this was our yearly sojourn to the theatre Mecca, a bit of hopeful manifestation on our parts as it was technically only our second time there. Natural beauty, friendly locals, and world-class theatre make for a perfect daddy-daughter getaway. They have great food too, so you know I’m sold.
We were a little sleepier than the last time we went (when we saw The Tempest and Comedy of Errors) but still made it through the three-hour runtimes with only a couple accidental naps. We fit in three shows this time around: a sweeping, romantic adaptation of Great Expectations, a sumptuous, 1940s era Hollywood Twelfth Night, and a bizarre, almost Brechtian Timon of Athens.
In lieu of a review, have a listicle:
Part 1 – Great Expectations
1. OSF clearly makes deliberate choices to both curate an artistically diverse season and to hire diverse casts
2. Seeing black and brown faces in traditional theatre spaces is quietly subversive
3. Resident Costume Designer Emerita Deborah M. Dryden made some STUNNING costumes for Estella (Neemuna Ceesay) in Great Expectations. I lowkey want to wear a bustle now.
4. The simplicity of a good old-fashioned Dickens drama still has a place in our modern theatre landscape
Part 2 – Twelfth Night
4. Perfectly choreographed physical comedy takes one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays to the next level
5. Playing two twins is hard, but Sara Bruner (Viola/Sebastien) nails it
6.Everyone in this play is so skilled and specific that it’s hard to single anyone out but the slapstick trio of Maria (Kate Mulligan), Toby Belch (Daniel T. Parker), and Andrew Aguecheek (Danforth Comins) had me in absolute stitches
7.The artistic freedom granted by lack of copyright allowed the director to add in extratextual 1940s slang and a full fledged musical finale that make the show over-the-top in the best way
8. Back at it again with the gorgeous costumes: Susan Tsu’s glamorous getups for Gina Daniels’ Olivia were nothing short of magnificent
Part 3 – Timon of Athens
8. Not all Shakespeare is created equal
9. When a play has a fairly loose plot, the director has a lot of room for invention
10. Room for invention can make for a very odd show
11. Odd is not always good
12. It is possible to appreciate artistic merit and risk-taking while finding a show disturbing and unlikeable
13. It is possible to be both fascinated and repulsed by vibrant and graphic visual aesthetics
14. Much to my chagrin, Timon is pronounced like Simon with a “T”, not like the name of Pumba’s meerkat companion
15. Anthony Heald was excellent, frightening, and disarmingly vulnerable as the shows’ lead. He is (maybe) worth the price of admission.
So, I had vastly different experiences at each of the shows. I felt joy, fear, disgust, and sadness. And isn’t that what art is meant to do? Not only delight and entertain, but challenge you? Not everything is for me, and that’s just fine. I hope OSF keeps making wonderful, funny, weird, and beautiful theatre for years to come.
All told, what I appreciated most about the whirlwind theatrical weekend was spending time with my dad. We’re both so busy (aren’t we all?), so uninterrupted time together is a gift. I can’t wait for our next trip up north, daddy ❤
Love and theatre,