Scouting behind the lines; a theatrical sally to Ashland, Oregon

Premiere U.S. rep company serves up Shakespeare +++

"Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" Movie still: RKO Radio Pictures

Fraught time, this, for touristic forays to the U.S.

But for Vancouverites venturing south of the border anyway, one defense against in-your-face America Firstism might be to stick to the archipelago of “sanctuary cities” that have officially pledged to resist Trumpian xenophobia.

Luckily for us, there’s a convenient chain of such enclaves strung along the length of U.S. Interstate Route 5 (I-5) running from the Washington line all the way down to the Mexican border. One of the shiniest jewels in this diadem is Ashland, Oregon, (pop. 20,000) about 900 km down the road.

Think: lush public parks and campgrounds, variegated fine dining options, daunting property prices, boutiquey retailers, buskers, backpackers, patchouli-scented spas, street-legal cannabis, organic grocers, hot and cold running cappuccino, trans-friendly washrooms and unchallenged pedestrian right-of-way at every crosswalk.

In other words, an errant shard of gentrified Vancouver, so alien to its host country that it’s incurred a boycott by its more mainstream neighbours in the surrounding American “heartland.”

But – for sheer audience size, eclectic repertoire and snazzy production values – nothing in Vancouver can match Ashland’s main claim to fame: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. From a mostly amateur summertime pop-up production on a borrowed stage, the OSF has evolved, over the course of its 82-year history, into North America’s première repertory theatre company.

Nowadays, in its eight-month annual season, the Festival mounts a dozen plays – ancient and modern, edgy experiments and grandiose extravaganzas – in its three state-of-the-art theatres.

OSF still manages to wring new nuance out of its namesake; it’s now two years into its ambitious target of recapping The Bard’s entire stage opus. Yet, in any given season, less than half the Ashland repertoire is Shakespeare anymore.

The company is equally committed to multiculturalism, serving up a potpourri of theatrical vernaculars from all over the world. And it continues to commission new plays, such as decade-long (2008-2018) ‘American Revolutions’ cycle of 37 historically acute scripts that have won prestigious prizes.   

Performers come back year after year, both for the job security (rare in the acting biz) and for the chance to appear in such a wide range of classy roles. To be cast in an OSF season is a bit like a tenure-track faculty appointment; to star repeatedly is like an endowed professorship.

But these players earn their perks. Almost all of them appear in multiple shows, which means conning lengthy lines and juggling disparate rehearsal and performance schedules. And in the decade since current artistic director Bill Rauch took over the OSF helm, Ashland productions incorporate more and more musical and “physical theatre” elements, which puts the Festival’s multi-talented performers through their singing, dancing and martial arts paces.

Mercifully, for actors and audiences alike, the annual repertoire comes in three bursts. The season starts with a flurry of indoor productions from February onwards in the 600-seat thrust-stage Angus Bowmer Theatre and the more intimate and flexible “black box” venue of the Thomas Theatre.

With the onset of summer in June, three more expansive shows open in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. New plays rotate into some of the indoor theatre slots around mid-summer to carry the Festival through the end of October.

In a three-day marathon, we managed to take in most of OSF’s starting spring line-up for 2017. This binge provided not only a banner weekend of absolutely world-class theatre, but also a sense of the play-going public’s white-knuckled angst at the edge of our current historical precipice.

The Festival’s spring roster includes a couple of intensely political Shakespearian plays – Henry IV (Part One) and Julius Caesar – that explore such themes as leadership legitimation, the fickleness of crowds, class status gaps and the perils of fake news.

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