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Sunday, March 5, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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American plays open Shakespeare festival

Seattle Times theater critic

ASHLAND, Ore. - If you didn't see the word "Shakespeare" in the company's name, you could easily mistake the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the Oregon American Play Festival these days.

OSF kicked off its 11-play, 2000 repertory season last week with just one Elizabethan classic (Shakespeare's guts-and-glory saga "Henry V"), but three popular 20th-century American plays: "The Night of the Iguana" by Tennessee Williams, the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," and Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner, "Wit."

The roster is not all that adventuresome in contrast to last winter's OSF offerings (a new translation of Brecht's "The Good Person of Szechuan," the Octavio Solis sizzler, "El Paso Blue").

Things should get more intriguing later in the Ashland season, with the addition of a Greek tragedy, some less-familiar new plays - plus three additional Shakespeares (see accompanying story).

But OSF is one of very few regional theaters with pockets deep enough and a professional acting company ample enough to take on fully populated editions of big-cast American scripts, and a sprawling Bard history play, all at one go.

The sheer physical scale of the troupe's work, the polish and breadth it can muster on a $15.48 million budget, is one of the chief attractions to an audience that bought a record 374,246 tickets to the 1999 fest, filling OSF's three theaters to 93 percent capacity.

Despite its tremendous box-office appeal, however, OSF has challenges to meet.

One is to smooth a few ruffled feathers in the charming but not-so-sleepy touristic hamlet of Ashland - a community that prospers from, but sometimes openly resents the 900-pound goose laying the golden eggs.

(A flap over OSF's plan to move historic Carpenter Hall, in order to erect a new 260-350 seat theater venue on the site, was recently resolved after an adjacent site was chosen instead.)

The other ongoing challenge for the company is vaulting its artistic reputation beyond the current comfort zone to a higher level of interpretative resonance and directorial invention.

The most captivating show unveiled during last week's quartet of openings, was, ironically, the lightest: a frisky, note-perfect "Man Who Came to Dinner" staged by Seattleite and former Intiman Theatre head Warner Shook.

A tighter, funnier romp than "The Royal Family" (the Kaufman-Edna Ferber play Shook resuscitated last fall at Intiman), this 1939 comedy is like a box of elegant chocolate truffles washed down with an extra-dry martini.

Kaufman and Hart were in peak comic form mocking the well-fed ego, florid prose style and bullying bravado of their title figure, cultural gadfly Sheridan Whiteside (based on flamboyant critic and radio star Alexander Woollcott).

The farcical set-up is simple, and dandy: Whiteside injures his hip while in Ohio on a lecture tour. Forced to lie low, he tyrannizes the nice family with the dubious honor of hosting his convalescence, turning their home into his office, broadcast studio and VIP salon.

OSF has just the right designers (David Zinn for costumes, Michael Ganio on set) and 25 actors for this smart-aleck satire of idol worship and celebrity sadism.

And under Shook's precise, stylish direction, they do the script proud. The barking snobbery and canny manipulations of Ken Albers' imperial Whiteside, the warmth and smarts of Robynn Rodriguez as a gal Friday who falls for Michael Elich's genial journalist, the nimble stoicism of Eileen DeSandre's abused day nurse and clawing hauteur of Judith-Marie Bergan's star on the wane - half Gertrude Lawrence, half Tallulah Bankhead, but all diva - are tip-top.

"Night of the Iguana" also often gets ranked as an American classic, but the 1961 drama is too loosely paced and cranky to rate up there with "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "The Glass Menagerie," earlier Williams hits.

But with the reptile symbolism, dawdling first act, heavily caricatured lesbian schoolteachers and boorish Germans, Williams conjured several compelling misfits in "Iguana," all trying to get through a 1940 dark night of the soul in a rustic Mexican hotel.

Any actor playing Shannon, the dissolute, lapsed clergyman in the throes of a crackup, can't fully escape the memory of Richard Burton's epic disintegration in the 1964 film of "Iguana."

Directed by OSF associate artistic director Penny Metropulos, the pale and lanky Richard Howard captures the bitterly comic turmoil of Shannon's spiritual, sexual and psychic spiral. But he's impaired by a slippery (and unnecessary) Southern accent.

As the other members of an offbeat romantic triangle, Suzanne Irving is Hannah, the self-aware "spinster" who soothes Shannon's soul, and Andrea Frye is Maxine, the lusty widow eager to monopolize his affections.

Both are fine in these virgin-whore roles. And the whole shebang is diverting - though neater than a raging tropical fever dream oughta be.

Whether or not Margaret Edson's "Wit" endures as long as "Iguana," it's much in evidence today. This celebrated drama of a woman's brutal but redemptive bout with cancer is on view at many regional theaters this season, and a London version is slated.

Thanks to the gentler grace of Seattle artist John Dillon's thoughtful staging on a whisk-around set by William Bloodgood, "Wit" in the intimate Black Swan venue is a less grueling experience than it was at Seattle Repertory Theatre last fall.

But it still prompts a warning about the script's graphic medical details, and its unsparing account of the physical suffering of Vivian Bearing (well played by Linda Alper), a college English prof whose keen intellect and steely resolve are no match for advanced ovarian cancer.

Elegantly written, dappled with allusions to the paradoxical verse of John Donne, and the piercing gallows humor of Vivian (who archly narrates her own demise), "Wit" is a true tear-jerker - especially for those with intimate experience of terminal illness.

Edson's detailing of the ravages of cancer is not gratuitous: It's instrumental to her point that in matters of life and death, human intimacy trumps cerebral detachment any day.

But "Wit" is also as manipulative and psychologically reductive as it is affecting.

Vivian's near-total estrangement from family, colleagues, students is so extreme it rings false. Is her aloofness really a byproduct of her academic genius? Is the only route to self-awareness for eggheads the torment of disease and death? It would seem so in "Wit," which may move you deeply, or depress the heck out of you.

As for the one Shakespeare item on the OSF boards currently, it is artistic director Libby Appel's take on "Henry V," a sleek, artfully composed, but curiously bland charge across a celebrated chapter of British history.

This is the third play in the Bard's cycle tracing the transformation of Prince Hal, from his youth as the errant, rebellious heir to Henry IV ( in "Henry IV, Part I"), into a responsible prince (in "Henry IV, Part II"), and, finally, a successful warrior monarch ("Henry V").

In the last chapter, King Henry has his finest hour leading the battle against the French, at Agincourt. And in the end, he sweetly woos his victory prize: France's Princess Katherine (Susan Champion).

While displaying the man's courage and charm, Shakespeare also reveals the chinks in Henry's gleaming armor, and human cost of his rash empire-building. The toll isn't just the lavish waste of life on the battlefield, but also in the distrust between king and subjects, and the ugly scamming of war profiteers.

Though the dust-ups between squabbling clown-soldiers fall flat in this production, the plot marches right along, into the assured and stirring battle scenes Appel stages.

But, as Charles Boyce noted, the "play's essential ambivalence towards power depends entirely on the extraordinary dual nature of the protagonist." And though he cuts a vigorous figure as Henry, Dan Donohue gives a largely monolithic performance.

He and Appel offer us a calm, determined, capable young ruler, but a less ambiguous and conflicted character than Ray Porter's French emissary Montjoy or Robin Goodrin Nordli's ubiquitous chorus.

We do get all the incidents and oratory of the Bard's historic pageant, but not its more complex intimations. From a major classical theater, one longs for both.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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