I've spent the last couple of days in one of my favorite places on earth, Ashland, Oregon. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is home to some of the best theatre in the universe.
On Tuesday, we saw Don Quixote. It was great. They had some of the most creative art direction I've ever seen. We loved DQ's noble steed, the sheep and geese, and Sancho Panza's ass.
Wednesday night, we enjoyed The Music Man. Again, it was a given that the acting would be superb. But the set design was brilliant and really enhanced the production. It began with everything - and I do mean everything - in grey, black and white. As traveling salesman Harold Hill began to stir things up in River City, little bits of color were gradually added to costumes and set. The play's conclusion was vibrant and full of life. I'd known the lead, Michael Elich, would be fantastic, because I've seen him many times before. But I was really surprised by the beauty of the singing voice of the actress who played Marion the Librarian, Gwendolyn Mulamba. Let's face it, the movie version with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones is a tough act to follow. They were terrific. But this was really lovely too.
Today was a play I've been looking forward to for months, ever since I first read about the season's plays and bought our tickets; a world premiere of a new play about Shakespeare. Equivocation by Bill Cain explores some fascinating territory:
Truth-telling in dangerous times. What if the government commissioned you to write the definitive history (make that a self-serving lie) of a national crisis? What story would you tell? Welcome to London, 1605, and the world of King James, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Tower dungeons, as William Shakespeare and his theatre company struggle to create a play to please the king and not lose their hearts, souls, or heads in the process. In a world premiere, Bill Rauch directs Bill Cain’s high-stakes political thriller with ties to both Macbeth and Henry VIII.
This is one of those plays that only comes around every so often, where the script is so rich and thought-provoking, where the audience is rewarded handsomely for their cultural literacy, where the content is timeless, extraordinarily relevant to our current life despite the subject matter being 500 years old, where there are frequent bursts of humour that keep the corners of your mouth up and deep belly laughs emerge from your lips.
We four loved this play. Every smidgen. Up to now, I'd thought no one understood how to write about Shakespeare like Tom Stoppard. Bill Cain does.
After the play was over, and the cast was greeted by roars of approval and a standing ovation, I hustled the fam out of the theatre. We walked across the bricks to the Elizabethan Theatre, where Richard Elmore, one of the very fine actors, was to give a brief talk and engage in Q & A. It's one of my favorite parts of the Festival. We always learn something interesting and it enhances our experience so much. Elmore explained that the script for Equivocation changed over time as the small group of actors workshopped the piece (the cast of 5 men and 1 woman play an incredibly large number of characters) made suggestions to writer Cain, many of which he included in the final version. Elmore plays Father Henry Garnet, accused of being a conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, who explains his Treatise of Equivocation to Anthony Heald's Shagspeare (Shakespeare). Garnet tells the playwright, "Equivocation. Don't answer the question they're asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be honest answer." I could see the wheels turning in both kids' heads as they pondered this. Elmore also plays Shagspeare's friend and fellow theatre owner, Richard Burbage, a very different character. When asked by the post-play discussion audience if shifting from one role to the other in rapid succession was a challenge, Elmore's face lit up. "That's what acting is all about! That's why I love it so!" Okay, that's a paraphrase; I wasn't taking notes. But it captures the essence of this man's joy in his profession.
OSF also offers "Prefaces," short 30-40 minute talks before the plays which illuminate aspects of what we're going to see. We've heard from directors, costume designers, dramaturgs, composers and actors over the years. It's especially helpful when they explain some of the historical events in the plays, although I have to confess Professor X usually knows that aspect quite thoroughly. We did one for Quixote and one for Henry VIII, which we saw later this evening.
There is something so magical about live theatre. My kids really love going to plays, and this visit was no exception. Equivocation will be in Seattle later this fall/winter with the same cast. I think we'll go up and see it there again. And I heard that theatre companies in southern California and New York are going to be staging it as well. If you have a chance, get thee hence. It kicketh ass.