Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ever wanted to sit outside under the stars, in temperatures that are just right, while world class actors recite Shakespeare in front of you on a stage just like the ones in Shakespeare’s time? Well want no more, as all of that exists, as well as within walking distance of great food and lodging.

In southern Oregon lies the small town of Ashland, there you will find one of the greatest celebrations of Shakespeare the world knows today. Every year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland runs four classic plays written by the Bard himself, augmented with six or so more non-Shakespeare plays or musicals to beef up the bill.

The plays typically run from February to October, with performances on roughly half the days of the calendar. This allows the centerpiece Shakespeare shows to be staggered throughout the week, and any visitor can pop in and view the festival’s yearly Shakespeare complement of plays in a matter of a weekend. It also means the entire canon of Shakespeare is covered over a ten year period, so there’s great incentive to come back in subsequent seasons.

The town of Ashland may be small and far from any large metropolitan area, but that doesn’t mean the theatrics scrimp on their budget. These plays are of the highest quality and scale. There’s nothing like seeing the original work in person, with actors on the stage right in front of you performing. Their presence and projection is under greater control to the actors, as opposed to a film, and the blocking can bring them into the audience, lending an even greater sense of being involved with the production.

Where to Stay in Ashland

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland Springs Hotel

We were provided a stay in the Ashland Springs Hotel, located in the heart of downtown and within a block away from the festival’s theaters. The hotel itself was built in the 1920’s and after an extensive restoration, looks nearly the same as it looked back then. The opening contains an ornate lobby with a full two story tall ceiling, and color and decor choices that evoke Egyptian hotels from a century ago. Stairs to the upper floors are available, but there is also a small elevator that also puts you right in the period.

Our room contained an ample bed, a small desk, and an armchair, with a small fridge and television tucked in the corner. The bathroom attached was white tiled and contained a hybrid bath/shower. It was a great use of a small space, and the enormous 1920’s style windows gave us a sweeping view of the valley. As the summer days in Ashland get hot, it was a great relief to use the air conditioning, which made sleeping very comfortable.

Behind the hotel is a large parking lot with a gate opened by your room key. There was always a spot available to park, and since the majority of our stops in town were just a few blocks away, it proved to be a valuable location to leave the car. Provided with the stay is a complimentary continental breakfast, including cold cereal, hot oatmeal, fruits, bread, eggs, muffins, and juice. Of particular highlight was the potatoes, seasoned to perfection and outdoing almost any restaurant potatoes we’ve ever tried before.

The Ashland Springs is owned by the Neuman Hotel Group, who has a handful of other properties in Ashland, if the Springs is sold out or you prefer something a little out of town. Both the Ashland Hills and Lithia Springs Resort are within a 10 minute drive from the festival and offer just as fabulous accommodations.

Where to Eat in Ashland

No trip guide is complete without food advisories, and fortunately there’s no shortage of sites to eat in Ashland.

Omar’s Restaurant

Omar’s is located right down the street from the festival on Siskiyou Boulevard, and has plenty to offer. The decor is a unique blend, and reminds one of the old diners often peppering the American highways, along with classic Italian restaurants from a big city downtown. The walls are filled with deep wine red and black and white photographs of old Ashland, emphasizing the town’s rich history.

We were greeted by Jennifer who accommodated us to a private corner and treated us very well. The restaurant’s full bar includes a full complement of specialty cocktails like the raspberry lemon drop, and the seasonal watermelon.

For dinner, we opened with some Butternut Squash as an appetizer. Included was a helping of Parmesan cheese, a winning combination. The main courses included a soup or salad, and we alternated on those sides. The clam chowder was hot and heavenly, while the salad was crisp and topped with our choice of delicious Thousand Island Dressing.

We dined on Parmesan Halibut and Jerk Chicken, which included creamy whipped potatoes, broccoli, and assorted vegetables. The chicken was smothered in a sweet sauce.

Taj of Ashland

The premiere place for Indian cuisine in Ashland can be found here, a couple blocks from the festival. Opened by Inder and staffed by chefs from India, ‘Taj’ comes from the word ‘crown,’ implying meals fit for regal people.

The beverages menu includes a full bar and typical soft drinks, but if you want a more genuine Indian drink there is Lassi, a yogurt style blend including fruit. Yet, what stood out to us was the Mango juice, a perfect confection on a hot day and with the spicy food of the restaurant.

Of course, we began with an order of Garlic Nan, as no Indian meal is complete without it. Then our main courses included a personal favorite, the fabulous butter chicken, and the shrimp marsala. Both dishes included curry sauce that wet the basmati rice perfectly and was a delicious dipping sauce for the Nan.

That’s not to say the menu is small. There was plenty we wanted to try that we couldn’t get to out of sheer expanse of the offerings. Soups, Lamb, Chicken, Tandoori and Curry dishes, Seafood, and vegan options were offered all over and we felt bad we couldn’t try everything. We attended at dinner, but at lunch time there is a buffet from 11a-3p daily. We were offered the dessert menu, and we had our eye on the Kheer, a rice pudding type sweet with nuts, but unfortunately we were too full from dinner! Should we return that will be at the top of our list to try. 

Zoey’s Cafe and All Natural Ice Cream

The perfect place to cool down in during the frequent hot days in summer, Zoey’s is both a store for ice cream and gelato. If you prefer the vegan alternative, they have several flavors that can satisfy.

However, it is first and foremost an ice cream stand, and along with the typical flavors are some fabulous out of the box choices like cappuccino fudge, cookie dough, peppermint stick, and rainbow sherbet. Our choice was difficult but we ended up with Kahlua Oreo, and Peanut Butter Cup. I doubt there’s a bad choice here, and even if you don’t want just ice cream, there are sundaes, shakes, smoothies, frappes, and espressos.

Amazingly, the ice cream is only one of the shop’s menu items, as they also make sandwiches, calzones, wraps, melts, soups, and salads.

Martolli’s Pizza

As any pizza lover knows, you can’t go wrong with a good old fashioned slice of pepperoni. You can find that and more at Martolli’s, just down the street by a block from the festival. Pizza is available by the slice, with cheese, pepperoni, combo, and even vegan options available. The menu also includes several full pies to order of those flavors, as well as others, like the margherita, the meat, the tuscany, and the ‘build your own.’ However those aren’t available by the slice, so for them, you’ll need to buy a whole pizza. They do come in sizes small, medium,  and large, helpfully indicated by pans mounted on the wall.

We went with the meal deal, a slice with a salad and a drink for $8. The pizza was heavenly to taste and the salad a delightful complement. The drinks were various fountain Coke products, but there was also Unsweetened Tea for anyone trying to get away from soda.

If pizza isn’t your interest, the menu includes four types of salads from house to caesar, and additional items like sandwiches, calzones, and even wine and beer to wet your whistle.

The place was small, but comfy. It was usually filled with people as well, adding to the pub feel of the eatery. The walls included dozens of old posters of rock shows, particularly the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and Phish. The music on the loudspeaker reflected these tastes and made for a boisterous, fun atmosphere.

Star Sushi

For anyone with a preference to Asian food, Star Sushi has you covered. The typical varieties of sushi can be ordered, from the California Roll to the Avocado. However, there are several types they specially offer.

The meal started out with a bowl of edamame, perfectly seasoned. For the main meal we went with the bento box, a compilation of all our favorite items on the menu. It included a scoop of rice, a collection of sushi of our choice, salad, dumplings, and our choice of meat. For the sushi we liked the California roll, a variety filled with avocado and crab. Our meat was the spicy teriyaki, which went very well with the rice and dumplings.

The Main Event 

In viewing Shakespeare, one could easily get lost in the complicated sentence structures and older out of use words that are frequently found in his text. Fortunately, there is sparknotes.com, which has a feature called “No Fear Shakespeare.” It provides the original text of all his plays along with a side by side modern English translation, and reading these before we saw the plays payed massive dividends in helping us understand the speech and plots of the plays we saw. If you’ve ever disliked Shakespeare because you had trouble deciphering the language, look no further than sparknotes and give him another try. It’s absolutely worth it.

Romeo And Juliet

This play almost needs no introduction. Practically everybody’s read it or at the very least is familiar with the tale; two warring families at odds with each other produce a respective boy and girl who fall in love. In spite of their youth and their families’ enmity they forge ahead in their devotion, but their parents’ strife may prove fatal for their passions.

The classic tragedy of doomed young love takes center stage, and was the first play we had the pleasure of seeing. It’s creatively presented in the open air Elizabethan theater, so as the sun sets and the stage becomes dark, the action of the play gets dark too. If you’ve only ever seen the infamous Baz Luhrmann movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this should give you a new perspective on the material. Director

The lovers themselves are played well by William Thomas Hodgson and Emily Ota. There’s no moment when you’d confuse them with teenagers, yet their exuberance in their budding relationship is palpable. The innocence needed for both roles is there, and that’s what counts. Sara Bruner is particularly entertaining as she plays Romeo’s friend Mercutio, with great enthusiasm and gusto.

Robin Goodrin Nordli embodies the comedic yet kindly figure of Juliet’s Nurse, as does Michael J Hume for the paternal Friar Lawrence. It was not an accident that Shakespeare wrote these characters as better parental figures than Romeo and Juliet’s actual parents, and the actors deliver marvelously. Damaso Rodriguez’s direction brought this out with interesting stage direction and well choreographed fight scenes.

Sets were brought in and out with smoothness and ingenuity. Every entrance by Friar Francis in his church was executed by a rising platform, as if he was midway through his rise to the heavens. The balcony atop the stage was used to appropriate effect in the famous balcony scene (“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”), along with Juliet’s bed being brought in and out silently as the lovers wish to keep their affair silent

The use of the Elizabethan stage for the production only makes it more authentic to the experience of what it would have been like to see the original thing onstage in England in the fifteen hundreds. The costumes are faithful to that time period, but are infused with colors and prints that reflect vivid outlandish styles of modern fashion designers. Combined with the deliberately diverse cast, it results in a bright, exaggerated version of the original play that will both surprise those familiar with it and engage those new to it.

Romeo and Juliet plays in the Allen Elizabethan Theater 1-3 days per week until October 12.

Sense And Sensibility

In the sole non-Shakespeare production we saw at the festival, Sense and Sensibility draws instead from Jane Austen. The story is set in the early 1800’s and concerns how society valued women according to social status and marriage ability. It perhaps is a deliberate show to put on stage in light of the #MeToo movement, the recent wave in calling for accountability on men in Hollywood on sexual harassment. Since most of the men in the story are portrayed as selfish, deceitful, or never focused on real love, one could look at the text as an attack on men. But then again, it really is only reflecting the limited abilities women had in that time, and that they could only make the best of the situation they were dealt with. Austen herself was a woman born into a world where she wasn’t encouraged to be a writer, yet became one of the most celebrated authors of her time.

Nancy Rodriguez is the eldest daughter, Elinore. Emily Ota, playing Marienne, was familiar to us as Juliet from ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Indeed, several characters we noticed were carryovers from that production, and it was a pleasure to see familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. They also mesh together perfectly and you always believe they are sisters; loving but concerned for each other, with opposing personalities constantly butting heads. Occasionally some actors played multiple roles, and it took some extra attention to ensure we were caught up with who was who.

This is definitely the funniest play we saw. Not only are characters given funny dialogue or characteristics, such as Edward’s absolutely terrible attempts to, ironically enough, recite Shakespeare, but also the performances from each actor are exaggerated just enough to add extra punch and make laughs where there may have been none on the page. The comic presences of Brent Hinkley and K.T. Vogt are particular highlights, but everyone does their parts well.

One theme of the play is the gossip occurring in high society generated by the romance between the characters, and is presented as all supporting members of the company. They transition between scenes with their funny commentary on the goings on, ranging from the typical caricatured gossipers we’re all familiar with to almost outright parody of it, going as far as to spout outright falsehoods. It’s both frustrating in your sympathy for the characters, and hilarious.

It also works at emphasizing the dramatic low points of the story. For example, when Marienne discovers her love toward Willoughby to be for nothing, you are as legitimately heartbroken as she is and grow to resent the character for his actions. Likewise, when Elinore’s romance with Edward is restricted by his mother, you begin to grow despondent to the hopes of the family since neither of the elder girls have found a man with money to marry, and their future looks bleak.

This adaptation of the classic novel was by Kate Hamill, and she conveys all the sentiment, emotion, and comedy extraordinarily well, especially since she condensed four hundred pages into a 2 ½ hour show. Hanna S. Sharif directs with wit and, pun intended, sensibility. Combined with luxurious period accurate costumes and the grandiose set that acts as the interior of a grand mansion, interior of a cottage, bedrooms, dining rooms, and even outdoor parks, it makes for a majestic experience of both anguish and happiness. Don’t miss it just because it’s not Shakespeare, it stands alongside those productions proudly.

Sense and Sensibility plays in the Angus Bowman Theater 2-4 days per week until October 28.

Othello

After the comedic happenings of Jane Austen, we were shown the other spectrum of theater with the Shakespearean tragedy ‘Othello.’ It not only was it an extraordinary juxtaposition in tone between the two shows, it may have been the dramatic highlight of our weekend.

Othello is a general in the Venetian army and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman. When Othello promotes Cassio to be his top lieutenant instead of his ensign Iago, Iago swears revenge and plots to create a rift of jealousy between Othello and his new bride.

One of the great tragedies of Shakespeare, Othello not only tells a great tale of the fall of a figure of nobility, but also a prescient commentary on racism. It can be interpreted that Shakespeare meant to belittle people of color and Africans in particular, but I say otherwise. Othello is a man of noble reputation and commands great respect in the Venetian army, in spite of the racial obstacles he no doubt faced in his journey to that point. His marriage to Desdemona is contested by her father clearly due to his race, and Iago’s hate for Othello partially stems from his racial attitude toward him.

Though the show is titled after Othello and it is Othello’s downfall that the story entails, this is very much Iago’s play. He frequently addresses the audience in monologue or asides during onstage events, and even when not speaking he frequently is lurking somewhere onstage, overseeing events and manipulating the players like puppets. He is not just a silky operator, he’s an embodiment of pure jealousy and completely single focused on selfish revenge. He really proves himself as one of the great villains of the stage, and Danforth Comins embodies the role extraordinarily. Chris Butler is too, entrancing as Othello. He makes the transition from confident lover to embittered jealous husband convincingly, and his rage in his suspected jealousy is felt even from the back row.

In terms of its direction it’s also inventive. Bill Rauch twists the familiar text by costuming the characters as members of the modern American military rather than ancient Venice. In addition, to emphasize the otherness Othello feels as an outsider to the military he’s become a part of, actor Butler has adopted a Sudan accent in reference to the lost boys of Africa, drawing real inspiration for his performance.

The blocking is well thought out, too. In a pivotal scene where Iago plants the seeds of jealousy into Othello’s mind, director Rauch has it take place in a weight room. As the scene progresses, Othello slowly and unknowingly loses his strength and control in the very place people go to strengthen themselves. The irony is deliberate and reinforced by beginning the scene with Othello standing above Iago on an inclined ledge, and ending with their places, and positions of power, switched. These kinds of inventive displays are frequent in the play, and even if you have trouble with the old style of speech, these actions help you follow along tremendously.

Featuring powerhouse performances and an interesting twist in the setting to the modern day US navy, this turned out to be my favorite play of the weekend. It was energetic, impressive, and emotionally moving. If you can only see one play, see this one.

Othello plays in the Angus Bowman Theater 1-4 days per week until October 28.

Henry V

Daniel Jose Molina stars in this gripping retelling of the lead up to the Battle of Agincourt, the fight that decided the Hundred Years’ War between the English and French.

The newly crowned king of England, Henry V, decides to expand his rule by laying claim to the crown of France as well. When the French monarchy refutes his claim, the country prepares for war. In the meantime, Henry must adjust to his new role of king, and must make important decisions that affect not just his life, but the lives of his old friends, soldiers, and newly made enemies.

The cast is condensed to a mere twelve actors to play over twenty roles. For a first time viewer this could make the play confusing, since it is not uncommon to see one actor portraying three roles in this one show. Fortunately they frequently don different accents depending on their character being French, English, or Welsh, so that can mitigate the confusion. Actors playing the soldiers wear leather chest pieces that are ingeniously built to flip between two fronts, one red to represent the English and one blue to represent the French.

The set and costume design is given a deliberately stripped down look. With basic grey blocks standing in for barricade walls, seats, tables, bridges, and even horses, in addition substituting blood with pieces of red clothing, as an audience member you are required to see more than what is presented. Combined with simple costumes it creates itself a unique atmosphere. It also matches with the opening narration Shakespeare wrote, where the chorus implores the audience to use their imagination to place the characters into the actual battlefields of France.

Rosa Joshi is the director, and her production encompasses a dark tone to match the warlike atmosphere of the events onstage. The costumes and blocks used for the sets are grey, dour drums of war frequently underscore the scene transitions, and the plot itself does concern a war. Conspirators plot to kill the king, traitors are hung, battles are fought and lives are lost.

Molina’s portrayal is emotionally bare, with monologues presented in gutsy fashion and tears shed upon the victorious yet costly battle. Moses Villarama shows off an impressive range by encompassing three important roles, including the deliciously villainous Dauphin. Rex Young also takes on three roles, both the French king and the hilariously energetic Welsh soldier, Fluellen. Really though, the small cast allows for all the cast to shine. This ensemble doesn’t make a single bad performance, and in conjunction with the simultaneously patriotic and pessimistic view of war, makes for a play that’s relevant to today and thought provoking after you leave the theater.

Henry V plays in the Thomas Theater 2-5 days every week until October 27.

Backstage Tour

On the final day of our weekend we had the special treat of being a part of the backstage tour of the festival. Our guide began with a description of the history of the festival and the timeline of the theaters that were built on the site. Afterward another guide showed us through most of the places behind the stages, of both the Elizabethan and Angus Bowmer theater, which are both built to be connected underground. We got to look at the Green room where the actors relax, the dressing rooms, and even the costume manufacturing space. It was informative, entertaining, and neat to get a glimpse at the actors’ perspectives of all these great shows.

Conclusion

For any Shakespeare fan on the west coast of the US, or even any theater fan for that matter, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the go to event of the year. The variety of shows they offer are unmatched by any other collection of theaters, and the ease of access of the town is equally top notch. There’s even so many plays offered that there’s value in returning again for another weekend. We couldn’t have asked for a greater time, and we hope to return later in the year to see more of this year’s complement of shows. Until then, “may our oaths well kept and prosperous be!”

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Written and managed by Chloe and Andrew of Seattle.

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