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Reviewed by:
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • Sonja Arsham Kuftinec
Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ashland, Oregon, 1–3 May and 23–26 July 2009.

Under the visionary and collaborative artistic direction of Bill Rauch, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2009 season reflected a matrix of seemingly paradoxical creative tensions, including radical populism, cutting-edge history, and changing heritage. Indeed, long-term artisans like Richard Hay—who in fifty years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) designed all three of its theatres— worked alongside an artistic director in his second full season with the company. The resulting eleven-play repertoire, dedicated to Hay, featured contemporary takes on classics from Goldoni to Cervantes, world premieres of historical dramas, and a reexamination of the very idea of the “classic,” all grounded in seventy-five years of evolving tradition. Contextual lectures, an ensemble of actors cast across a rotating repertory, and a communal space prompting informal conversation all provided opportunities for productions and audiences to speak to each other. Ninety percent of these audience members traveled over 125 miles, and more than a quarter had been attending the festival for more than twenty years. The audience thus structured another productive duality for the company: OSF is both rooted in small-town Ashland, and serves as the pilgrimage site for a fiercely loyal, highly educated out-of-town member-base.

Ironically, this base made a seemingly “safe” seasonal choice like The Music Man a risky venture. Yet Rauch’s creative explorations transformed Meredith Willson’s high school musical standard into a rejuvenated contemporary classic. Rauch has frequently cited the musical as a uniquely American contribution to theatre history, one exemplary of populist aesthetics. The OSF production added several edges to this populism with design support from Shigeru Yahi (costumes) and Rachel Hauck (scenery). The Music Man was set in a highly theatrical 1912, one sprinkled with pop cultural allusions ranging from Grant Wood’s American Gothic (Willson’s original idea) to a top-hatted mayor reminiscent of Monopoly’s iconic mascot, rich Uncle Pennybags. The production team also rendered the mutual transformation of “Iowa Stubborn” River City and traveling conman Harold Hill in black and white punctuated by shots of color. Backed by two-dimensional scenic flats—self-consciously theatrical signifiers of Midwest Main Street—the townspeople appeared initially in shades of gray. Hill emerged from behind a newspaper (on a suitcase serving as a train seat) clad in a flamboyant red-checked suit. Scenic dimensions appeared when the Paroo family porch slid onto the stage. This multifaceted yet isolated scenery echoed the character of Marian Paroo, the town librarian. As the play progressed and the townspeople warmed to Hill and to each other, more dimensional scenery burst out alongside patches of color—popping up first on the youths’ costumes, then spreading through River City, and appearing at last on the mayor. Hill, in turn, stepped forth in the final scene in a white suit, having finally been convinced to cast aside his con.

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Derrick Lee Weeden (Elesin), Khatt Taylor, Krystel Lucas, and Arsene DeLay (the women of the marketplace) in Death and the King’s Horseman. (Photo: Jenny Graham.)

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Anthony Heald (Shag) in Equivocation. (Photo: Jenny Graham.)

The taming and settling of the traveling conman by the force of love, alongside the reformation through leadership and labor of “wild boy” Tommy Djilas (a part Rauch played in high school), reiterates American cultural tropes of settlement and civilization. At the same time, Willson’s 1957 musical expresses a nostalgic yearning for that wildness and for small-town America. Yet the story and Rauch’s casting choices make more visible what is often repressed in that nostalgia: the isolation, exclusion, and prejudice against difference woven into the intimacy of community.

Actors of a greater diversity than that of early twentieth-century Iowa populated OSF’s River City. The cast included two hearing-impaired actors signing their parts, local high school students of various recent immigrant origins, and a multiracial ensemble with the lead role of Marian played by African American actress Gwendolyn Mulamba. The production thus looked back on early and mid...


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