Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Yeomen of the Guard—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

“May the Farce Be With You”

This comic-musical by the ever-popular, Gilbert & Sullivan, is a World Premiere adaptation by Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler and directed by Graney, music direction by Simon and choreographed by Jaclyn Miller, at the Thomas in downtown Ashland, in repertory, through October 30th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 800-219-8161.

Would G&S recognize this C&W adaptation of their merry, melodramatic musical if they were alive today?  Probably not.  Next question, does it matter?  Again, probably not.  The test of any great author(s) is whether they can stand the rigors of time and, thus, become immortal.  Case in point, three of this year’s opening plays…Shakespeare’s, Twelfth Night, via a 1930’s Hollywood movie musical;  Dickens’s, Great Expectations, via storytelling theatre; and, as mentioned, G&S’s, The Yeomen of the Guard, via C&W style music.  It works for me.

And the reason it works is that they are universal, can be transposed and transformed into any language, genre and time and it is still relevant and effective.  It speaks to us in a words we understand, even though they have been written a few hundred years ago.  From cave paintings of early Man, to oral traditions of clans and tribes, to the written word from different countries, we have been exposed to common truths that resonate for all Ages.

I am almost reluctant to try to give a brief summary of the plot, as that is not the selling point of this production, but for those of you who need that, here it be.  It seems that a young man named Fairfax (Jeremy Peter Johnson) has been arrested and condemned to be executed for having relations with the devil.  But his pure-as-the-driven-snow sweetheart, Phoebe (Britney Simpson), and her pappy, Major Meryll (Joseph Anthony Foronda), believe that the scheming Warden Carruthers (K. T. Vogt), may have her own reasons for doing away with Fairfax.

So, it is up to father and daughter and an old soldier pal of Fairfax’s, Deputy Dick (Anthony Heald), to spring him and clear his name.  But things may not be quite that easy, as the dastardly Shadbolt, the jailer (Michael Sharon), has designs on Phoebe, too.  But help seems to arrive in the guise of the Point singing group consisting of Elsie (Kate Hurster), Jan (Leah Anderson) and Krazy Kate (Simpson, again).  And so the plot…thins…you see, if they could just disguise Fairfax, then somehow get him…ah, but that would be telling wouldn’t it.  Guess you just have to see it to find out how this melodrama works out.

As mentioned, the plot is not the heart of this amazing production, it is the style.  Not only successfully transposing G&S’s music to the Old West but staging it as the ultimate in an audience-participation play.  Picture, if you will, some of the audience being allowed to sit on the stage (horseshoe shaped) and the actors moving amongst them.  Well, it would seem you’d have a nightmare on your hands for the director, lighting designer (Heather Gilbert), the ensemble, not to mention an unpredictable (and unrehearsed) audience.  But, you know something, it works beautifully!

The musical numbers are rousing (sorry I can’t mention any of them, as they weren’t listed in the program).  The singing and dancing in gold ole western style, including yodeling, country twang and sweet ballads was authentic.  And even the plot, slight as it was, gave one a bit of a nostalgic feel for those old oaters and serials some of us grew up on, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (or Dudley Dooright, for a future audience), Nelson & Eddy musicals, and, going even further back, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show.  This production has elements of all of those and yet remains distinctly original.

Graney and Simon and their team of adapters has done a terrific job of adding another feather is OSF’s cap of something entirely unique.  And the audience, rather than being put off by this experience, seem to embrace it wholeheartedly.  OSF rarely falters in my eyes in the productions they present and when they do it is, of course, only my opinion.  You always should see and judge a show for yourself. 

And, here seems a good place to insert a few words about the unique companies of artists that OSF has forged over the years.  It becomes apparent in this production (as well as Twelfth Night) that the company of performers not only has to act and sing and dance but they also must play musical instruments, be acrobatic, good stage combaters (fencing, etc.), and must keep straight the many differing roles (from large to small) that they must inhabit over the Season.  And this goes for the astounding work of a team of artists, unseen, who labor tirelessly backstage to create, change and grease these underworlds of marvel so that it looks effortless and seamless to an audience.  My hat is off to you all!  BRAVO!

The cast is spot on in all the points mentioned above.  But I especially liked Simpson in her dual roles.  She was perfectly lovely as the heroine and then made an about-face when she played kooky, kinky, krazy Kate.  I wouldn’t have known it was the same actor had not the program mentioned it.  She’s a gem.  But I applaud them all, including the two background Yeomen (guards), Michael Caruso and Jesse Baldwin.  You’ll be sorry if you miss this play!

Obviously, I highly recommend this production.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

The Ashland Experience (part IV)

“AS I REMEMBER [BOWMER]:” I think it only fair to tell you a little bit of my history with the Festival and its Founder, Dr. Angus Bowmer.  I was accepted as an acting intern with OSF in the mid-1960’s, when there was only the outdoor theatre, and was in seven plays over two seasons.  But my real joy was when I enrolled in (what was then) Southern Oregon College and was taught and directed by this amazing visionary (perhaps akin to Walt Disney) who created an empire.  An acorn was planted by Bowmer some 80 years ago and a mighty oak has grown into OSF today.  But, remember, without the acorn, no oak.

Some things I remember:  He loved the supporting characters in Shakespeare, such as the ones he often played, Peter Quince in “…Dream,” Adam in “As You Like It,” and Shylock In “Merchant…” (yes, it is considered a “supporting” role in terms of stage time and amount of lines).  He was also not in favor of miking a show, feeling that actors should be trained to project their voices.

And he was a purist, feeling that Shakespeare’s shows should keep within his age.  But Time favors Evolution and, in evolving, change.  I think Disney, if he were alive today, would be astounded at what his dream had wrought, but also a little sad for what may have been left behind.  So, too, with Dr. Bowmer, I believe.  One memory that sticks with me, is watching him during a class, perform Hamlet’s monologue, “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh should melt….”  He enacted it as a spoiled, petulant teenager, scuffing his feet as he whined on, and I knew then that he had an insight into the mind of Shakespeare and the Truth he was trying to achieve with this character.  A unique soul who will be sorely missed.  One for the Ages!  But, “the beat goes on….”

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