Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Great Expectations—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

The Nature of Storytelling

This classic, epic novel by Charles Dickens is World Premiere adaption for the stage by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper and directed by Metropulos.  It is playing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, downtown Ashland, in repertory, through October 30th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 800-219-8161.

In the purest terms of storytelling, outside of reading the book itself, is like the parent, sitting on the bed at night and relating to his child, a fairy tale or bedtime story, not unlike Peter Falk at the beginning of the film, The Princess Bride.  The parent plays all the characters in slightly different voices, plus relating the narrative.  And the child is enthralled, gearing up his imagination to fill in the blanks.

Now, imagine us as that child, listening to Dickens’, “Great Expectations,” and watching a group of talented actors portraying those characters on the stage, in costume, with minimum of props and set, allowing our own imaginations to be set free to roam the “windmills of our mind,” giving space and breath to the exotic lands and colorful times of this classic story.  And so, they present this epic tale, in which a whole new world will magically unfold, encompassing, transforming, your finite senses…! 

And so, it seems that Pip (Benjamin Bonenfant), orphaned at an early age, has been raised by his shrewish sister, Mrs. Joe (Erica Sullivan), and her patient husband, Joe (Al Espinosa), a blacksmith.  Pip’s lot in life, too, seems to be training for that profession, as well.  But, as fate would have it, a chance encounter with a murderous, escaped prisoner, Magwitch (Derrick Lee Weeden), would change his life forever.

He also has the good fortune to meet up with the eccentric, reclusive, the rich, Miss Havisham (Judith-Marie Bergan), and her beautiful but proud ward, Estella (Nemuna Ceesay).  He is immediately smitten by her but is treated in distain by both of them, for no apparent reason.  Out of the blue, a strange lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Michael Elich), makes Pip an offer he can’t refuse, to come to London and be tutored as a “gentleman,” all expenses paid, which he does, but soon starts behaving, because of this, “bigger than his britches.”

Jaggers explains that the monies is coming from a mysterious source and best not to question it.  His clerk, Wemmick (Richard Howard), feels for the boy so tries to help him as best he can.  His roommate, Herbert Pocket (Dylan Paul), is a cheery sort and a good pal in teaching him the refinements of being a “gentleman” but a fellow student, Drummle (Daniel Duque-Estrada), also seems to have designs on Pip’s girl, Estella.  It all comes to a head when…but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?!  Just have to see it to find out how it all unfolds.

Anyway, that is a thumbnail sketch of this very involved and complicated saga.  And who is the real hero when all is said and done?  Dickens, of course, and we, as the audience.  “A tale well told is a tale worth telling.”  One cannot help but compare it to the Portland Center Stage production earlier this Winter, as they are both about the same length and employ the storytelling technique.  Both of them tell essentially the same story 90% of the time, and the other 10% are only different because of what is or is not included from his novel.  OSF’s show uses separate narrators and PCS’s uses the actors as their own narrators.  Both interpretations work.  They compliment each other beautifully.

And so, too, the tellers of this tale.  Metropulos and Alper have done an admiral job of condensing his novel and making it pliable for the stage.  The director’s choice of using an essentially bare stage for this epic drama is wise, as the action flows smoother and quicker that way.  The costumes, by Deborah M. Dryden, set the period, and the lighting, by Jaymi Lee Smith, aids greatly in the ebb and flow of the moods and settings of the story. 

The actors are all well suited for their parts.  But a standout was Weeden as Magwitch, one of the most classic characters in all of literature and one of the most complicated.  In his hands you sense a simple soul trying very hard to make sense of the complexities of Life, which is beyond his comprehension.

I recommend this production.  Keep in mind that parking can be a challenge, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Ashland Experience (part I)

THE BLACK SHEEP:  If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know my favorite spot to eat is this establishment.  Since Shakespeare (and I’m being a purist now) was English, you’d think there would be more than one place in town that has food and drink celebrating his home heritage, but there isn’t.  The food is quite authentic (my friend Christine, who was with us, was born and bred there, so she should know), as are the libations, including the classic Black & Tan; their prices are reasonable; and they are one of the few places open after the plays let out.

I had the fish sandwich, which was quite filling; my friend Dave had the meat pasty, in which he thought the crust was especially good (in fact, had to order one to go, as he was quite take by this morsel); and our food “expert,” his wife, Christine, had the vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie and “licked the platter clean.”  And for dessert, the very tasty and light, Spotted Dick.
The staff is friendly and the decorations straight from the British Isles.  I quite liked the old-fashioned phone booth they had in one corner but, beware of making a call from it, as you just might meet Dr. Who on his travels.  All and all, a very appetizing experience.

They are located on the Plaza, 51 N. Main St. (look for the red door), a short walk from OSF.  For more information, go to their site at or call 541-482-6414.  I highly recommend this place and, as always, if you choose to visit it, please tell them Dennis sent you.  

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