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Monday, April 19, 2010

Of OSF, Rock'N'Roll Fairies, and a Hip Hop Hamlet

(photo, above: "Arriving at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, on a June evening" by John Evans. Althought the link is down right now, normally it can viewed in larger format, and purchased, at this site, where you'll also find a delightful photo essay on Ashland.

UPDATE at end of season: This was my lifetime Hamlet. Here's my last post on it: http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/09/americas-true-national-theater-hamlet.html

UPDATE 4/26 - well, I saw it last night. It really is a fabulous production of Hamlet. Not to be missed if you have any interest in the play at all. Here's a review that says it all - I agree with all of this! - http://ozdachs.livejournal.com/195703.html I didn't fall in love with this production at first, but maybe it was because I was sitting next to an annoying person who kept dozing off and snoring, and also I was really too far back to see all the facial expressions well. Even so, I was mightily impressed with this version, which seems totally new and fresh. I intend to see this one again at least once, and spring for a better ticket next time! It'll be worth it.

Original post:
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival beckons...

I can't wait to see this year's "hip hop Hamlet," especially. Here's a kind of fun thing that happened sometime last year, when they announced the names of the plays they'd be doing in the 2010 season. (I wish I could find the correspondence but it's lost.) In one of the OSF emails to members, they invited us to tell them about different film versions of Hamlet. For some reason they were collecting titles. I responded with some I'd seen, but said my favorite was a Soviet version (poster at left) that I'd seen only once, at the AFI theater in DC, back in the Seventies, but still remembered; I'd liked it for its political interpretation of the play. I'd especially liked that Ophelia was portrayed as a puppet of the state (with wonderful puppet music by Shostakovich to underscore the point). It all made a great deal of sense to me at the time, and that Ophelia was the only one I'd ever really believed. (It still makes sense to me as a feminist interpretation.)

It must have been an obnoxiously long email (much like this post, no doubt) because I remember adding that I'd seen a lot of Hamlets but would never forget my first, which I'd seen right here in Ashland at the OSF back in the early Sixties when I was a young teenager! In that one, Hamlet was very physical, portrayed by the actor as quite a lively, frenetic (today we'd maybe even say ADHD-afflicted) adolescent, at least that's how I remember it now, over 40 years later...). The adults in our party debated various Hamlets and universally disapproved this interpretation, preferring Olivier's cerebral, "psychological" version as the gold standard, but I thought this crazy, mixed-up Hamlet kid was terrific.  

I went on to say that in a similar vein, I'd loved 2008's OSF rock and roll/disco version of Midsummer Night's Dream - one of my favorite versions of that play, ever; the audience had been full of cheering teenagers who'd loved it too, and that was half the fun. I told him I hoped they'd keep up that kind of innovation because they'd keep hooking teenagers on Shakespeare - and I knew Shakespeare would have loved their rock and roll version; after all, it WAS a crazy play! 

Below, that production's Rude Mechanicals driving around in their psychedelic, mechanically-challenged VW bus: LOL! So glad I found an image of that.These were some of the only truly sidesplitting Mechanicals I've ever seen, too.

And here are Titania and Oberon, in that production. Fairies rock!

Back to the the correspondence on Hamlets... so the OSF guy emailed me back thanking me for the recommendation of the Soviet Hamlet and said he'd try to find it. Then he added that as for my other comments (on the OSF Hamlet I'd seen as a teenager, and last year's OSF rock and roll MND, and all that) he said something like "you'll never know how happy your comments have made me."

I thought that was nice, but it was only recently -- when they unveiled this new production, a hip hop production of Hamlet -- that the fervent tone of his response really made sense to me, if it was because he'd had this radical version up his sleeve. And as with the rock and roll MND, this Hamlet is engendering some controversy - but that's just as it should be. Why should theater be boring and predictable? I might hate this one myself, once I see it, but I'm certainly looking forward to finding out. The trailer on the OSF website makes it look kind of dank and dreary, but we'll see; that would make sense after all. Hamlet ain't Midsummer Night's Dream. In any case, I'll add a review later. This production will run throughout the season, into October, I think.

Our new (as of 2008? 2007?) artistic director, Bill Rauch, above - click on the link for fine article - directed both the 2008 MND and this year's Hamlet. The previous director, Libby Appel, was great too. OSF just can't seem to put a foot wrong, as far as I'm concerned. 
 Now in its 75th year!

P.S. For something totally different - and to polish off my memories of best Midsummer Night's Dreams ever - my other lifetime favorite version of that one was as different as it could possibly be from the OSF's wonderfully OTT rock production. It was at Barboursville, probably at least ten years ago. There, at the historic Virginia estate, an outdoor production of one Shakespeare play has for many years been mounted each summer, playing on August weekends. People come from all over for this; if you go once, you will make it an annual tradition thereafter, as my friends and I did. The Four County Players include people from UVA, local theatre groups, and many young students; they do four productions a year, but the most famous are the outdoor Shakespeare plays at Barboursville, known as Shakespeare in the Ruins.

Usually the ruins were used for the staging of the plays and that worked very well; but in the MND I remember so fondly, they staged the play facing away from the ruins and used the towering 200 year old boxwoods (so tall because they'd been left unpruned for the many years the estate was left in ruins) for backdrop, exits and entrances. After a picnic dinner on the grass, overlooking the vineyards sloping away in the distance, the play begins at Barboursville. That year, as twilight gave way to night, fireflies yielded to fairy lights strung through the greenery and bats swooped overhead, and it was the perfect setting for a fairy queen's bower and the gang of children playing her companions. It was truly magical in its simplicity and the amateur players made something wonderful happen that year.

PS - I just remembered this: later on, I happened to speak to the actor who played Bottom, and complimented him on his amazing comic yet sympathetic performance, which totally brought the house down. He told me he'd gotten his inspiration from a donkey in a field he passed on his daily walk; he asked the farmer for permission to spend some time with the animal and received it, and the two became good buddies in the following weeks. He concluded, "So I understudied a real ass!"
Above, vineyards at Barboursville. Funny thing how the same few things that made living in Orange County, VA just bearable for me --vineyards, scenery, organic farmers, and a little Shakespeare -- are here in Ashland as well, in abundance. Plus so much more. And now - looking up the FCP 2010 schedule, it doesn't appear that they're even doing a Shakespeare play this year! Tell me it isn't true. That would be a major loss and if it's true, I'm doubly glad I don't live there now. (NOTE: sorry, that was a little sour. I was happy to read that though they had to stop the Shakespeare in the Ruins productions, the Four County Players are still doing some Shakespeare.)

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