Guide to Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014

Ashland's OSF hits its zenith in July with nine shows, ranging from Bard classics to world premieres.

By Aaron Scott and Peter Holmstrom July 1, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

The Cocoanuts

The Cocoanuts

The Story: Like most Marx Brother’s stories, the plot is almost completely beside the point. It has something to do with the owner of a hotel, Mr. Hammer, i.e. Groucho Marx, who must…really, it doesn’t matter.

The Approach: OSF had audiences roaring with its adaptation of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers in 2012. Much of the same cast returns for an adaptation of the brothers’ 1924 hit Broadway play and first full-length movie, with music by Irving Berlin, spearheaded by Mark Bedard, who plays Groucho. The story is inter-spliced with vaudeville routines, musical numbers, improvisation, and audience interaction: calling out a birthday, making fun of a guy’s ugly shirt, or generally climbing and running around the auditorium.

The Review: Quite simply, The Cocoanuts is a rip-roaring comedy from start to finish. Directed by David Ivers and choreographed by Jaclyn Miller, the play flows seamlessly from one scene to the next. The performances of Bedard and John Tufts, especially, outright channel the long-dead brothers. Running at two and a half hours, the play may be just a tad long, but it is none the less a great gateway drug to the theatre world.

See it: Thru Nov 2 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Family Album

The Story: When a middle-aged band stops at the home of a former member who swapped in the touring life for a family, questions about the choices we make to follow our dreams crack open like MGD tallboys in the back of the van.

The Anticipation: The creative duo Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Tony-winning Passing Strange remains one of the most electrifying, rocking, and intelligent Broadway shows we’ve seen. Whereas Strange was a coming-of-age tale based loosely on Stew’s own flight from the ennui of middle-class black LA for “enlightened” Europe, Family Album picks up decades later, when youthful artistic dreams collide with adult practicalities.

See it: July 1–Aug 31 at the Thomas Theatre

The Great Society

The Story: Commissioned as part of OSF’s history-focused American Revolutions series, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society starts where his 2012 All the Way left off: Lyndon Baines Johnson, having passed civil rights legislation and won a presidential election, struggles with Vietnam and the growing antiwar movement.

The Anticipation: All the Way, which went on to a Broadway run starring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, has been an outright phenomenon, racking up award after award, including two Tonys for best script and best lead actor. Just like for LBJ’s second term, expectations are sky high for The Great Society.

See it: July 23–Nov 1 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre 

Richard III

The Story: One of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays follows the vicious but oh-so-eloquent King Richard III as he murders his way to the throne.

The Anticipation: Sure, OSF favorite Dan Donohue has the Shakespeare chops to play the deformed king, having played the likes of Hamlet and Iago. But he also played one of the most famous tragic, family-killing villains of contemporary culture: Scar, in the Broadway production of The Lion King

See it: June 3–Oct 10 at the Elizabethan Theatre

The Comedy of Errors

The Story: One of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts, this comedy ups the ante on the old story of two estranged twins reconnecting through a series of misadventures by making it two sets of twins, one master and one servant. And to even make things more confusing for the audience, they’re all wearing the same clothes!

The Approach: When the swing music first starts up and you see the Duke Solinus strut down the audience staircase in colorful 1920’s flair, you know you’re about to go for a ride. With a primarily African American cast, this modernization transplants the setting from Ephesus to Harlem in the 1920’s, where following the Reconstruction and the Great Migration, families have become disjointed and connections lost.

The Review: Stars Rodney Gardiner and Tobie Windham carry much of the comedy—leaping off the stage, hanging from the sets, interacting with the audience. Director Kent Gash’s heavy use of slapstick comedy is more reminiscent of Monty Python than Macbeth, adding an approachability to Shakespeare that will please the entire family.

See it: Thru Nov 2 at the Thomas Theatre

The Tempest

The Story: In one of Shakespeare's final plays, the royal duke and sorcerer Prospero gets stranded on a deserted island with his daughter Miranda, their monster-like slave Caliban, and an ethereal spirit-like entity named Ariel. Prospero firmly rule his vagabond domain—until a chance shipwreck brings the very people who marooned him to his door.

The Approach: Director Tony Taccone draws upon the slow, hyper-controlled movement of Japanese Butoh dance to inject an additional element of surrealism into the play. The four bald dancers move slowly throughout the minimal stage doing Prospero’s bidding and acting as set pieces. Magic, mysticism, stylistic Japanese dancing: the word “strange” is often applied to The Tempest (in fact, the play itself uses it almost 30 times), but for this production “16th century LSD trip” might be more appropriate—helped further by the wonderful opening storm sequence.

The Review: The standout performances of the play come from the four dancers and from Wayne Carr as Caliban, who slithers and slinks across the stage in green full-body makeup. Denis Arndt, however, plays Prospero with a soft-spoken, casual demeanor that reduces what should be the play’s strongest character—a powerful and angry sorcerer—into a lackluster, well-meaning grandpa of a man who is overwhelmed by all the other elements (indeed, those in back rows might have trouble hearing him).

See it: Thru Nov 2 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre


Other OSF shows to see: the original adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time; Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods on the outdoor stage; and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with women playing the gentlemen (the first all-female Shakespeare cast in OSF’s 79-year history). Explore them all at!

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