Friday, September 19, 2014

Into The Woods—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR


Hopefully…Ever After

This Broadway musical about Fairy Tales by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, will soon be a major motion picture from Disney, starring Meryl Streep.  This production has musical and stage direction by Amanda Dehnert, choreography by Royer Bockus and plays through October 11th at the Elizabethan Theatre in downtown Ashland.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.

If you broke down the words, Fairy, a magical being, and Tale, a fabricated story, you might conclude that this is the stuff “that dreams are made on.”  And you would be right…sort of.  But we are all made up of stories…ours, and other peoples…and stories within stories.  And we all have magic…as we can create spells and cause things to happen just by our words.

When we are telling a story to our children, fanciful, or otherwise, we are setting things in motion that may have a profound effect on the little listener in future times.  So, the lesson here is, be so very careful what we tell them, for the future may resemble that offering.  And if we want the ending to be, “happily ever after,” we must, therefore, have the key beginning, “Once upon a time…”

And so it came to pass that Jack (Miles Fletcher), of that confounded beanstalk fame, and his mother (Robin Goodrin Nordli) also knew a feisty little kid named Red Riding Hood (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), who was having some problems with the neighborhood Wolf (Howie Seago).  Also, in this small, rural community there was this Baker (Javier Munoz) and his wife (Rachael Warren), who were willing to try anything to have a baby, even black magic.

Also, all good kingdoms in a storybook have a princess (in this case two), Cinderella ( Jennie Greenberry), Ms. rags-to-riches, with her father (Robert Vincent Frank), and two, repulsive step-sisters (Katie Bradley and Christina Clark), and the other, the long-haired lass, Rapunzel (Royer Bockus).  Of course they need their charming but snotty Princes, respectively, Jeremy Peter Johnson and John Tufts and a Steward (David Kelly) to confuse things even more.

And, of course, we must have a storyteller/narrator (Peter Frechette), a neutral element to keep the plot moving.  It seems to me I’m forgetting something important…oh, yes, the chief villain (in this case, again, two), the backbone of the piece.  There is the wicked old witch (Miriam A. Laube) and the towering Giant-ess (Catherine E. Coulson).  And, from all this mix-and-match, you will have to glean the rest of the story by seeing it.  Because, to reveal any more, would be giving away all the clever little plot twists that make this re-telling…unique.

But I will inform you of two things.  In order to have a baby, you must have a milky-white cow, a slipper, some beans and a red cape.  Didn’t know that, did ya?  And if you think the play is over at the end of Act I, as everything seems to fall neatly into place, remember (for all you musical lovers), The Fantasticks. After the romantic moon has set, the blazing sun must rise.  Paradise cannot come too easily, lest it not be fully appreciated.  There are many things one can like about this show but there is one special incident, perhaps magical in itself, that really defines why the live, performing arts are singularly set apart.  But I will save that observation for my concluding remarks.

Nevertheless, Sondheim has some extremely difficult music, both in performing and singing, so is not often nor easily done.  But these talented men and women have risen to the occasion and have graced us with quite an accomplished show.  They are the A-team and it probably couldn’t get any better than this!  And a movie version, with all its expensive special effects, of this, or any story, will never be more powerful than one’s own imagination.  So this production allows, thankfully, for plenty of that.

The Witch, Laube, is the focal point of the show and so it rests on her bony shoulders.  And, like Atlas, she holds it up with magnificent aplomb.  Her needs are what drives the plot forward and constantly challenges this rickety crew of malcontents to be on their toes at all times.  For, into the woods we go, and grow, and her woods are dark and deep.  Her renditions of her solos, Stay with Me, Lament, and Last Midnight couldn’t have been better.

The two Princes, Johnson and Tufts, are a scream in their song, Agony.  Jack seems very comfortable with his mantle and his song, Giants in the Sky, which is very appealing.  Warren shines in the complex role of The Baker’s wife and is in especially fine voice in Maybe Their Magic and Moments in the Woods.  And Greenberry certainly would be my ideal as my Princess and has an astounding voice in On the Steps of the Palace.  But probably my favorite song, sung by the Company, was Ever After.

The magic tricks, especially the re-appearing Cow and the transforming Witch, were wonderful.  The costumes in any fairy tale must be out of this world, and they are, in the hands of Linda Roethke.  The orchestra couldn’t be better and became part of the show.  And Dehnert’s handling of the music, timing, interpretation, casting and vision could not have been better.  Plays that go as deep into the imagination, as this one does, relies completely on the choices of the Master and Commander.  In this case, the ship is in expert hands, to sail us true to the “third star from the left and straight on till morning.”  Bravo to all concerned!

And, as promised, an example of the uniqueness of the Performing Arts from the production I saw.  It rained.  What, you say…and why is…?  It did not stop this outdoor show…or the audience.  It may have enhanced the experience for all involved.  (Not that I’d recommend this for all their shows.)  But that sense of…we’re all in the same boat…uncomfortable, of course…not planned…but let’s make the best of it and support each other.  And so, the final result, we applauded each other at the end of the show for…hanging in there, maybe.

Every live play that is done is the only time you’ll see it that way…and never again will it be duplicated.  It may be similar…but never exact.  The performance you will share with the actors (and all the other terrific artists behind the scenes) is unique and then, like a dream, dissolves.  We are one with it for those fleeting moments and then, branded only in our memories, it is gone.  And so, like sharing a story with a child, we must present ourselves in the best way we can, before they journey…into the woods.

I highly recommend this show but it is more a fractured fairy tale for adults than for very young children.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you. 


The Ashland Experience (part I)


The Tours:  This is definitely a very worthwhile experience.  In less than two hours you will explore the backstage areas of all three of their theatres—the Elizabethan (the original), the Bowmer (named for the Founder of OSF Dr. Angus (Gus) L. Bowmer and the Thomas, their “black box “ theatre.  Not only do you see some of the “hidden” parts of these performing spaces but you hear many of the whys and wherefores of how a show is produced.  And the tours are conducted by members of the actual company, which expound on their own experience in theatre, as well as at OSF which, to me (having been there myself at one time), is fascinating.  Go to their website for reservations.

And, one other observation, in my opinion there is not an honor high enough that Richard L. Hay should receive.  He has designed sets for OSF for well over 50 years (as well as ones in Portland) and has had that same influence on the actual theatres themselves.  He is a Master…an Artist…and a True Genius.  I salute him!  And, if you feel in a similar way, let he and OSF know it.