I first traveled to Ashland, Oregon in 1971 to report for work as a lighting technician. The very first person my wife, Sylvia, and I met after stepping onto the bricks was Mike Winters, who was coming out of the administration building. Warm and friendly, Mike was the perfect person to serve as an introduction to the company. After a few moments of conversation in which we spoke of trying to find a place to live, Mike volunteered that he was leaving his place and so it came that we got his former digs, a charming little place on Chestnut Street that was perfect for us.
The following year, I returned to Ashland, this time as an actor and, to my great joy, was asked to join the winter company along with seven other fine actors, including Mike. It was to be decades before Sylvia and I returned to Southern Oregon and it was the prospect of Mike as King Lear that lured us. We returned again this year chiefly to see Mike as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the foremost, true repertory company in the United States producing eleven shows in three theatres spanning ten months, we saw three other shows as well – Much Ado About Nothing, Guys and Dolls and the world premiere of Fingersmith. Comments below.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Every theatre student has at least read Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night, but many, including myself, may have never seen it. Why? It’s a tough show – tough to produce, tough to perform and, perhaps, tough to watch with its searing, emotional scenes of a family crumbling under the strain of decades of grinding internal conflict between volatile, deeply flawed characters. It is three and a half hours long with one intermission and it cannot be cut for length as Shakespeare often is.
So why see it, then? It is superb drama and in the hands of a superb cast, riveting. The Shakespeare Festival’s production has such a cast and a director, Christopher Liam Moore, who is savvy enough to know not to hasten the pace and rip through the play, but allows the moments to be richly, fully realized.
Set in the summer home of the Tyrone family in the hot August of 1912, the title tells the one day span of the play’s trajectory. James Tyrone (Michael Winters) was the handsomest man on Broadway and on the road to artistic greatness, but instead took a spur line, a commercial show that promised and delivered financial security at the cost of his higher ambitions. His wife, Mary (Judith-Marie Bergan), consumed by her appearance, brittle and insecure has just returned after a stint in treatment for an addiction to morphine, the painkiller foolishly prescribed by her doctor after a difficult childbirth. The oldest son, Jamie (Jonathan Haugen), handsome and feckless, followed in his father’s footsteps to a middling career in the theatre hampered by his reputation as a drunken womanizer. Younger son Edmund (Danforth Comins) has explored the world, worked as a sailor and lived rough. He is a sensitive young man in poor health with a nagging cough and socialist ideals that are anathema to his father. These characters slog through the day grating on each other, expressing affection and opening wounds that rub them raw as time pushes them toward midnight. And yet they convey tremendous love and affection for each other. It is fascinating to ponder the revelations in the play and puzzle over its autobiographical elements, which makes it easy to understand why O’Neill wanted the script kept from publication for twenty-five years after his death.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs through October 31 in the Thomas Theatre.
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is so delightful a play that it can be seen multiple times and each time a joy. The first time I saw it was in the Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan Theatre where I ran lights in the booth. It starred Ric Hamilton and Fredi Olster as Beatrice and Benedick. My wife and I loved the show so much that we decided on Benedick for our son’s middle name. We wore out two VHS tapes of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado when it became the default amusement for our kids. The show has such universal appeal that it can be successfully produced in any time frame or culture with as diverse a cast as one might like.
The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is simply delectable. The stories of clashing opposites falling for each other, of young love subverted by the evil machinations of a villain and all of it spiced by a troupe of ludicrous watchmen, is given a modern setting. Don Pedro and his soldiers return from victorious battle in combat fatigues and helmets. The remarkable Danforth Comins, who renders such a passionate performance as Edmund in Long Day’s Journey, crosses the street to play Benedick in the Bowmer a scant three hours later. Together with the acid-tongued Beatrice, (Cristiana Clark, wonderful in an uninhibited, go-for-broke, athletic performance), the two grope and gripe their way to love in the expected way. As the young lovers who fall instantly in love, Leah Anderson is demure and delightful as Hero and Carlo Albán is appropriately dense and gullible as Claudio. The villainous Don John, listed in the playbill as “Don Pedro’s illegitimate sister,” gets a wicked twist as played from a wheelchair by Regan Linton. Easing some of the darkness of the situation, comic relief, ironic in a comedy, is rendered by Rex Young as Dogberry, who gives garbled instructions to his credulous crew from the wheeled vantage point of a two-wheeled Segway.
This utterly delightful Much Ado About Nothing runs through November 1 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Guys and Dolls
Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is a most infectious musical. All the songs rumbled through my head for days after I saw the Shakespeare Festival’s lively revival. “Guys and Dolls is a romantic comedy based on Damon Runyon’s stories of Manhattan’s “midtown demi-monde” with a cast of characters that include gangsters, gamblers, cabaret dancers and Salvation Army do-gooders. As Nathan Detroit (a slick Rodney Gardiner) scrambles to organize a big crap game. Still reluctant to set a date after fourteen years of engagement, he dodges and promises to keeps his fiancée, Miss Adelaide (adorable Robin Goodrin Nordli) at bay. High roller Sky Masterson (charismatic Jeremy Peter Johnson in a refreshingly sensitive performance) breezes into town flush with cash. Detroit needs to come up with the dough to rent the Biltmore Garage for his game, so he bets Masterson a thousand smackers that he can’t get Salvation Army looker, Sister Sarah (sweet singing Kate Hurster), to fly by plane to Havana for a dinner date…and we are off to the romantic races.
This production of the brilliant classic that Bob Fosse called “the greatest American musical of all time,” is as fresh as this morning. Under the direction of Mary Zimmerman, the Runyonesque characters are sharply defined and the singing and dancing (music direction by Doug Peck, choreography by Daniel Pelzig) is superb.
Guys and Dolls run through November 1 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Fingersmith (World Premiere)
Based on the novel by Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and others), Fingersmith, adapted by Alexa Junge, is a Victorian thriller in three acts filled with vivid characters, plenty of twists and turns, as well as two act-ending cliffhangers. The plot is complex and it would be a disservice to recount the details. Scoundrel conman Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Elijah Alexander) undertakes to seduce a young heiress and make off with her fortune through deceit and fraud. He joins with amoral baby farmer* Mrs. Suckby (Kate Mulligan) in a scheme to place the young, talented pickpocket (or “fingersmith”), Sue Trinder (Sara Bruner), as lady’s maid to rich young Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan), the marked target, and persuade her to see Rivers as a lover and husband.
The play, directed by Bill Rauch, is fast paced and exhilarating. The cast is excellent throughout with most playing multiple roles. The key relationship between the heiress and the pickpocket develops in a fascinating way and all the main characters have much to hide and therefore much to reveal. It is a rich, satisfying stew for those who love shows of crime and passion.
Fingersmith is stupendously produced with a chameleon set by Christopher Acebo, cunningly lit by Alan C. Edwards, with video and projections by Shawn Sagady. Deborah M. Dryden’s costumes are authentic and wonderfully practical as dressing and undressing quickly on stage is essential to the fast progress of the show.
Fingersmith, which opened on February 21, has a relatively short run and closes on July 9 to make way for the world premiere of Sweat by acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage.
*A baby farmer is a Victorian-era woman who earned a living by taking in unwanted, inconvenient or orphaned infants.
A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and an Equity actor for over forty years, Paul Myrvold has performed on Broadway, off Broadway, off-off Broadway, in regional theatres, summer stock and as a guest artist at colleges and universities from coast to coast. He has appeared many times in Bay Area theatres and in 2008 was given a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for “Outstanding Performance” in supporting roles in the musical Grey Gardens at TheatreWorks (2008). He trained at ACT and holds a BA and MA in Theatre Arts from San Jose Stage University. Mr. Myrvold has been writing theatre commentary in the Bay Area for over twenty-five years, first with the Gilroy Dispatch and for the last fifteen years as Arts and Entertainment Editor for Out & About Magazine.