Light Seeking Light. Ashland. Days 15-17.

Saturday morning I woke up in the Lake Honey rest stop and made coffee in my French press with my electric kettle and then set off north. After a beautiful drive through the mountains and a few more stops to sightsee, I arrived in the tiny mountain town of Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Love’s Labor’s Lost

I spent a little time wandering around, checking out the town before heading to the Allen Elizabethan Theatre to see their production of Love’s Labor’s Lost.

The Allen Theatre has the distinction of being the first Elizabethan theatre built in the US, and my god, it is a gorgeous space. Looking at the set before the show, I knew I was in for a treat. There was a live band set up at stage left, and small colored buckets along the front of the stage.

Love’s Labor’s isn’t staged frequently; it’s not in the greatest hits collection, as it were. The plot itself isn’t difficult, but the language and the humor is. It’s thought that Shakespeare may have written the play as a commission for a private audience and so was creating a play for an audience he knew to be exceptionally learned. As such, the play abounds in wordiness and academia. There are puns in Latin and a few extra allusions to the classics. It contains the longest word, the longest speech, and the longest scene in Shakespeare.

The plot is fairly simple, the king of Navarre and his friends have taken a vow to spend three years in a state of semi-monastic study. They want to become great scholars, and so they’ve sworn to fast and study and to abjure not only excessive sleep and food, but the company of women as well. Love is strictly forbidden. Of course, as soon as this vow is sworn the princess of France arrives with her ladies in waiting on important state business, forcing the king and his comrades to bend the rules slightly to accommodate political necessity, which then becomes outright love. Hijinks ensue; there’s a subplot involving a Spanish (in this production French instead) braggart who loves to speak in needlessly complicated language, and you have the makings of an extremely fun show. But because it lacks some of the low comedy charm of other plays, it’s not staged as often as it ought to be.

This production managed to be fun, engaging, accessible, and also powerful and heartbreaking at times. The band kept up a soundtrack of fun original pop songs, and the actors joined the band between their scenes, or picked up microphones to sing songs. The actors all started the show wearing white costumes, which they painted at various points with colorful paint from the buckets lining the front of the stage.

The paint, the costumes, and the use of colors were the most interesting elements of the staging. Not having spoken with the director or dramaturge yet, I can only provide you with my guesses about their use. As I said, the actors (both the king and his men and the princess and her ladies) begin the show in white costumes. The king and his men dip their right hands in the blue paint when they take their vows to study and mortify the flesh, and then slap a handprint across their hearts. Later in the play, as they each fall in love with a lady, they end up painting on themselves with other colors from the different buckets: red, purple, yellow. Similarly the ladies begin in all white and end up painting on themselves and each other. The whole painting business isn’t done in a consistent or systematic way, sometimes the actors are secretly painting on themselves, sometimes they’re playfully painting each other. But as I understood it, the white costumes represent some kind of purity or emotional innocence, stamped at first with a strong blue handprint of loyalty and promise, and then is muddied by other conflicting emotions and priorities. By the middle of the play, when the men have openly admitted to loving the ladies, the actors all change into red costumes. Red, the color of love and passion. Gone are the casual white costumes; gone is the paint. They are now properly garbed in open and ostentatious passionate love. At the end of the play, when the princess is informed by a messenger that her father has died and she must return to France without returning the love of the King or accepting his marriage proposal, the actors all change into all black and carry umbrellas.

In the final moments of the play, the characters are all dressed in black and someone comes out onto the balcony and sprays a hose over the stage, simulating rain, to which the actors open their umbrellas. It’s a beautiful final image, uncharacteristically poignant and powerful for the end of a comedy.

The other fun thing about the staging that I’m sure would drive a purist mad, was the tendency for the actors to ad-lib and interact with the audience. At one point the audience winced when someone got hit with some of the paint from the buckets and the king yelled “it’s washable!” At another point, when the idea of doing a pageant of the Nine Worthies, Dull broke the fourth wall, announcing to the audience “Footnote: The Nine Worthies were nine historical or mythological characters performed in plays and representing the archetypal chivalric virtues.” I love it when actors interact with the audience, and as long as it’s not overdone or doesn’t replace the text, I don’t mind a bit of ad-libbing. Perhaps it would’ve reminded Shakespeare of Will Kemp and his “speaking more than was set down for him,” but the audience loved it — perhaps why Shakespeare hated it so much in Kemp.

All in all, the production was an almost multimedia experience that was one of the best stagings of a comedy I’ve ever seen.

Henry V

I’d found a nice highway rest stop about ten minutes north of Ashland that served as my home for the time I was in town, so I headed there after the show and got a good night’s sleep before heading back into town Sunday for their production of Henry V.

Henry V was equally inventive as Love’s Labor’s, but in different ways. It was set in the smaller, more intimate black box Thomas Theatre with riser seating on three sides. With a sparse set made up of stacks of wooden crates and four ropes hung at the corners of the playing area, it took most literally Shakespeare’s invitation to piece out their imperfections with our thoughts.

I knew I was in for a treat when, as we were all taking our seats, actors planted in the top rows of the risers began to speak the opening chorus as they meandered through the aisles. Three actors, one in each section of seating, started at the top level and slowly made their way down to the playing area speaking “O for a muse of fire…”

When the show started and the opening chorus began in earnest, it was spoken by the whole cast in plain grey costumes. These plain grey underclothes for the chorus became blank canvases over which they could place and replace more specific costumes denoting soldiers, Dukes, thieves, traitors.

The costumes, like the entire show, were conceptual, stylized, versatile, and fascinating. The armor for the soldiers was double-breasted, displaying an English crest on one breast and a French on the other, enabling the actors to open the outer breast, pull out the inner breast, and then re-close it with the other side out, changing an Englishman to a Frenchman in less than a second. Some of the robes included decorative patterns on the insides, allowing them to be opened and placed over stacks of crates to create a throne.

Clothes also served as creative proxies for characters in painfully effective ways. When Pistol is hanged for robbing a church on the English march, he steps onto a stack of crates, takes off his coat and hangs it on one of the ropes. He then kicked over one of the wooden crates which banged loudly against the floor at the same time as a bright red light shined on the coat hanging from the rope. I’ve seen a Henry V that featured an actor with a harness mock-hanged on stage, complete with writhing and screaming and it wasn’t nearly as effective or chilling as this stylized hanging.

Later, during one of the larger battles, actors took off their armor and left it on the floor, and others came along to mourn over their “bodies” or to carry them tenderly off the battlefield. Later, to represent the carnage as Henry orders the slaughter of their French prisoners or the French’s attack on the young boys guarding the luggage, the actors brought out red longjohns as proxies for bodies. They were torn, twisted, pulled, thrown around in a horrifying representation of the bloody bodies alluded to by Henry’s soldiers the night before the battle of Agincourt.

Henry himself was the standout performance in the show. He was a Henry unlike any other I’ve ever seen. Henry was young, and while he was heroic, he was also conflicted and human. This Henry played perfectly the internal struggle, coming almost to tears at times. Of course those famous monologues and action scenes were powerful — especially when Henry swung into action from one of the ropes during the battle of Harfleur — but the moment that moved me was when Henry confronted the traitors, Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. The way he manhandled them and seemed angry enough to cry while trying to remain calm, it felt familiar, like a lot of angry and powerful young men I’ve known in my life.

This Henry V might be the most adventurous staging I’ve ever ever seen of a history, it was inventive and powerful, but it took all of its cues for invention from the text, trying to create a world of conceptual imagination rather than struggling for realism in a play that explicitly states that realism is impossible.

OSF doesn’t do shows on Mondays, so after Henry V I was able to sleep in the next morning and spend the day drinking coffee and exploring Ashland a little bit while trying to catch up on writing. It seems no matter how quickly I try to work, I’m always about three shows behind on my blogging.

Tuesday was a two-show day, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. More on that in my next entry.