The Play is the Thing
Sacramento Magazine June 2007
by Antoinette May

In Ashland, Oregon:
The Play's The Thing Shakespeare is big business and lots of fun

By Antoinette May

You can see five plays in four days. I just did-for the fourth straight year-and loved every minute. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues to be a feast for all the senses. This year, with a thematic repertoire pervaded by high rollers, hard bargains and history, the theatrical smorgasbord is richer than ever.

Tiny Ashland, a town of some 20, 000, is host each year to the largest repertory theater in the country. Imagine 75 actors playing multiple roles in 11 different plays, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Three to four maintenance people support each actor in an eighth-month season budgeted at $23,500,000 million. Great theater meets big business.

Who would have thought it back in 1935 when the town's hard-pressed city fathers wracked their brains for something-anything-to bring in revenue. With the Depression at its height, no one thought much of Angus Bowmer's suggestion. That crazy kid professor, wanted to put on a weekend Shakespeare festival! A grudging town granted the young idealist $400 to mount the production-but only with the understanding that the stage would also be used for boxing. Bowmer's festival was not only an instant success, but subsidized the less popular afternoon boxing matches.

Today the mini resort of Ashland encircles an elaborate entertainment complex that includes three state-of-the-art theaters in the town center. This Mecca draws more than 100,000 people to the festival each year. What do they find? A lot more than Shakespeare. True the town's high cultural expression is exemplified in its world famous Elizabethan Stage. Covered in luxuriant ivy and open to the skies, this massive venue is the hub of both the festival and the town, but that's only the beginning. The immortal bard gets nightly competition from a variety of young, edgy, highly contemporary playwrights.

This year, the festival's 72nd, opened with previews in February and won't conclude until Oct. 28. Only four of the 11 plays are Shakespeare's.

Amy Richards, festival spokesperson, admitted to me, "Our name misleads some people who don't know yet what we are. If you're thinking two weeks of Shakespeare in the summer, think again. Ours is a real festival experience with backstage tours, lectures, classes, music and dance."

The lectures are invariably provocative, tied in some way to the production but still a surprise. My all time favorite was on love, the sacred and profane-inspired by A Winter's Tale. Each year I also make a special point of doing a backstage tour and always learn something new-possibly an insight, perhaps a new technique, invariably a telling anecdote. And, because of the egalitarian nature of the repertory company itself, the morning tour guide is very apt to be last night's leading man. Maureen Messier, a Sacramento English teacher who's been taking her Sheldon High School students to Ashland for 25 years, shares my enthusiasm for backstage camaraderie. Hearing the actors' "insider" perceptions has enabled her kids to profoundly understand what they see and to experience the world of theater up close and personal. "It's not easy in today's educational climate to take field trips," she says, "but Ashland is one that I will never give up on because of its impact on my students." Messier's favorite story is of a senior boy with reading challenges.

A production of Hamlet so enthralled this young man that he went out and bought the play to read on his own.

Tim Bond, as a high school student growing up in Sacramento during the 70s, was also inspired by theater. His start in school plays and community productions eventually lead him to his present position as the festival's associate art director. Today Bond travels about the country searching out new talent. He's proud that people of color comprise one third of the repertory company and looks for the same diversity in the audience.

To that end, he is active in promoting theater tours where groups of African Americans and Latinos travel from Sacramento to Ashland where they can see the shows and tour the town.

Bond directs one play each year. Currently he is the guiding force behind the smash hit Gem Of The Ocean. Bringing this mythical, magical play to life was a director's dream. Imagine descending beneath the sea to a field of bones-the resting place of slaves. Sound scary? Perhaps a little morbid? In reality, what Bond has created is a beautiful ritual of words and music, a positive, vital and joyous celebration of life and freedom.

David Kelly, another Sacramento boy, has been making good for 16 seasons at the OSF. This year he is again appearing in two productions simultaneously. See him as the rollicking Touchstone, the court clown, in As You Like It or in dual roles in Tracy's Tiger, one a policeman with a rich fantasy life, the other a coffee taster challenged by a curiously subverted palate. Challenge and versatility are what it's always been about for Kelly. He wouldn't have it any other way. Obviously the pace never lets up but that's what repertory and the OSF are all about.

Membership in the theater company is highly competitive. Actors are well paid but work under year-to-year contracts. It keeps all of them on their toes. Conceivably, an actor can work for 10 years and then not be rehired for the 11th. Graduate students are recruited for two or three year internships. At the end of that time they have the opportunity to audition for membership. Most try and try hard.

Though the 2007 season is in full swing, plays have already been selected for 2008. Designs are on the drawing board for sets and costumes. Ashland, where the play is always the thing is gearing up for its 73rd season.

What's Playing in Ashland's Angus Bowman Theater:
As You Like It-Can a woman pretending to be a man makes the man she's in love with fall out of love with her? And does she really want to? Miriam Laube as Rosalind aces this Shakespearian farce. Through Oct. 28. The Cherry Orchard-in this darkly comic family saga flawed yet touching characters play at life while the real thing passes them by. The production is a love affair with Chekhov. Through July 8. On the Razzle-if you only see one OSF play, make it this one! Tom Stoppard's joyous mayhem is truly dazzling. Through Oct. 28 Gem of the Ocean-In the wake of Emancipation, social turbulence swirls about a black mystic who can unlock the secret of true freedom. Through Oct. 27. Tartuffe-Moliere's classic farce of 17th century Parisian life opens July 25, closing Oct. 27.

New Theatre Rabbit Hole
a family tragedy handled with subtlety and even humor. Superb acting that never falters. Through June 22. Tracy's Tale-a tender story of a man, a woman and a tiger plays against the beat world of San Francisco jazz scene in this world premier musical. Through Oct. 28. Distracted-Fast!

Forward! Instant play! But what does it all mean? A young mother's struggle to discover the reality behind the seeming catch word, "Attention Deficit Disorder," opens July 3, closing Oct. 28.

Elizabethan Stage
The Tempest-elemental spirits lurk and the air shimmers with enchantment in this Shakespearean masterpiece. Prospero's inevitable storm opens June 5 transforming ancient enemies, innocent lovers and magician self. Concludes Oct. 6.

Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare's immortal battle of the sexes comes alive again June 6 on the Elizabethan Stage. Watch the sparks fly! Runs through Oct. 7. Romeo and Juliet-Shakespeare's greatest tragedy opens June 7. Who can miss this immortal tale of ill-fated love? Closes Oct. 5.

The bookish town of Ashland is in some danger of morphing into another Napa or Carmel. See it now, see it this summer, and allow yourself plenty of time to savor all of its charms. Besides play-going and checking out the truly charming and distinctive shops (beads, books, boutiques) along the downtown plaza, be certain to explore Lithia Park. The 93-acre woodland stretches along Ashland Creek all the way up into the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains.

The months of June, July and August are when the festival kicks into high gear, but plays are mounted from February to late October. For more information, view the website at or call (541) 482-2111 for a brochure.

Located about 300 miles north of Sacramento, Ashland nestles in the foothills of the Siskiyou mountain range. Its still a delightfully distinctive town that strongly reflects a pioneer history though the logging camp has evolved into a full-fledged resort.

Today there are some 40 inns and B & Bs clustered in the immediate area. My personal favorite continues to be the Ashland Springs Hotel (1-888-795-7650) because of its convenience, turn-of-the-century touches and fabulous restaurant, Larks.

Three other goodies, because of their charm and location, are the Iris Inn (800) 460-7650); Wolfe Manor Inn (800) 801-3677; and the Winchester Inn (541) 488-1113.

As for dining, the Monet Restaurant (541) 482-1339) is a perennial favorite that never disappoints-a feast for all the senses. Standing Stone Brewing Company (541) 482-2448 serves their own hand crafted ales as well as excellent food.

For a low-keyed breakfast, lunch or dinner with creek view seating, try Greenleaf, 49 North Main, on the plaza. And don't leave Ashland without a homemade ice cream cone from Zoen's Café, corner of 1st and main.

CAPTIONS: As You Like It: 1) Duke Frederick (Brad Whitmore, right, tells Rosalind (Miriam A. Laube, left) that she is banished from court as his daughter Celia (Julie Oda) looks on. Photo Jenny Graham.

2) Rosalind (Miriam A Laube, right) and her cousin, Celia (Julie Oda) observe the love games in the Forest of Arden. Photo: David Cooper.

On the Razzle

3) "What did I say?" Bodelheimer (Michael Elich) holds the faint Lisette (Emily Sophia Knapp). Photo: David Cooper.

4) Christopher (left, Tasso Feldman) and Weinberl (Rex Young) toast the absence of their boss. Photo: David Cooper.

5) Open to the sky, the outdoor Elizabethan Stage seats 1,200 people. For the 2007 season the festival will present Shakespeare's Tempest, Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet on the outdoor stage. Featured in the photo is the 2005 set and ensemble of Love's Labor Lost. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Copyright © 2002-2010 Antoinette May