Into The Woods

Oct 1, 2013

The Elizabethan Stage set by designer Michael Ganio and lighted by Mary Louise Geiger, with video projections by Alexander Nichols serves for three productions this season.

Two heroes of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer are scenic designer Michael Ganio and projection designer Alexander Nichols, who manage with a single set to turn the ornery Elizabethan Stage into a space that splendidly serves all three outdoor productions.  In Cymbeline, the rocky, wooded terrain supports a primitive ancient Britain and the wilderness of Wales.  In David Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, the scaffold of trees hovers over scenes of palace and town like an ironic reminder.  Enhanced by projections, the forest settings evoke the depths and mystery of Nature—the forces disruptive of civilized society and rational systems. 

In Nature, we are beyond the rule of law, but we are also beyond the rule of law.  Robin Hood, gives a twist to the traditional legend and finds life in the woods as nasty, brutish, and short as life at court.  Trapped within palace walls, the Duke of York’s daughter Marion (a fiery Kate Hurster) is defenseless against the aggressive suit of Prince John (a feral Michael Elich).   When she escapes to Sherwood Forest in search of the noble outlaw of her imagination, she detects little difference between the unscrupulous, greedy John and Robin Hood (the perennially ingenuous John Tufts) except that the former hunts women while the latter bans them from his presence.

Marion dons male disguise, and with the dubious aid of her sidekick servant Pierre (the winning Daniel Parker), sets about correcting the situation--robbing the rich and serving the poor.  Though she manages to convert Robin to helping rescue two peasant children from the Prince, she finally must agree to marry the villain to guarantee the kids’ safety.  Now it will take a bizarrely brilliant subterfuge by Robin and his band to enter the palace and rescue her.

Joel Sass’s direction propels the countless scenes forward at a fast clip.  We must absorb the story in snatches, yet by the second act, we’ve been captured by its jaunty world—what began as a double-time parade of eye-catching floats starts to feel like a family reunion.  Responsible in part for this effect is Parker’s Pierre, who chats us up and catalyzes the action, which is actually his flashback, the story of his personal journey from hating the rural life to relishing it.

Tufts and Hurster generate a charming electricity:  Robin denies then succumbs to attraction, while the forthright, high-minded Marion flexes the crusader spirit in her genes.  With Robin, she’s looking for heroic adventure, not the flirtatious games that might stir “storms in his heart.” In Marion, he finds a kindred spirit, more than happy to throw off the foolish constraints of society to be married by the trees.

In converting Robin’s license to liberty, Marion transforms the forest.  Once an extension of the rapacious palace, it settles into the comfy sanctuary extolled by Pierre at the start.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, the forest remains untamed.  Ruled by Oberon (Ted Deasy) and Titania (Terri McMahon), a pair of self-serving, unpredictable fairies, it asserts an irresistible pressure to regress on all who enter.  In surrendering to its mischief, it’s the humans who are transformed.

Young lovers Hermia (the headstrong Tanya Thai McBride) and Lysander (the slippery Joe Wegner) must pass through the forest to escape her father, who has ordered her marriage to Demetrius (the solid Wayne T. Carr).  Hermia’s pal Helena (the transparent Christiana Clark) loves Demetrius, and when this second pair trails the first into the woods, the stage is set for the emotional flip-flops and their acrobatic manifestations that this beloved comedy is known for.  The social protocols of courtship devolve into impulses of need and aggression, as the lovers, resonating with the primitive energy enveloping them, let it all hang out. 

Under Christopher Moore’s respectful direction, this production’s fairy world is stunning, garbed in designer Linda Cho’s rich Renaissance raiments, complete with fluttering wings. The ritual they enact to raise and lower the moon is pure marvel. The majestic Deasy and McMahon never really seem to lose their self-possessed other-worldliness, even in the throes of anger, desire, or the eruption of glorious projections all around. 

It’s the mechanicals, however, who steal the show, as they always will, blessed with the last word on the action.  The fairies have receded, and the lovers have been zipped and buttoned into prescribed social roles as brides and grooms, when Quince (Catherine Coulson) and company take the stage to perform the comical tragedy, Pyramus and Thisbe.  That Moore has made them the well-wishing staff of a high school rather than working class folk makes their shenanigans the more hilarious.  Coulson’s Quince is the quintessential drama teacher—her life depends upon the play going on. 

Brent Hinckley amazes as Bottom, the gung-ho P.E. teacher.  Changed by Puck into a donkey, this Bottom conjures the creature with uncanny accuracy.  His irrepressible life force compels him to volunteer for every role in the play, man, woman, or beast; at the end he invents not one death for Pyramus, but an inspired chain of them.

The sweetest moment of the finale belongs to Jon Beavers’ Flute, the science teacher.  Geeky, gawky, and dismayed at first to be assigned the woman’s role, as the performance unfolds, so does his confidence.  In the midst of his clumsy rendering of Thisbe’s grief over the (finally) slain Pyramus, something happens.  He pulls off his wig and gives in to real tears.  His acting has opened a channel to genuine sorrow—pure, ungendered, human.  And there we glimpse the depth and mystery of theatre—the power of a so-called illusion to plumb our human condition and transfigure us.