on the Elizabethan Stage
A sort of poor man's As You Like It, Two Gents covers the same terrain as many of the Bard's comedies. A couple of young men travel from Verona to Milan, where they fall in love (no, not with each other). Soon Proteus betrays Valentine, a heartbroken woman dresses up as a man, and the whole mess resolves itself in a forest. Oh yeah, and a fool tries to get his dog Crab to do neat tricks. Director Bill Rauch imagines Valentine and Proteus as young Amish men practicing the tradition of rumspringa, that is, leaving the land of wagons and bonnets to party with the outside world--Milan, in this case. No less sheltered, Milan is inspired by Brooks Brothers' catalogs, and in keeping with extremes, the banished men in the forest are hard-core Goths. In his director's note, Rauch explains that these contrasts mirror "extremes of religious faith and capitalist excess that tug at the heart of American society." Well, OK, but it's still a comedy, and what we really want to see is Crab's tricks. Alas, the terrier Terwilliger was off his mark a bit that night, but no less entertaining. Never act with animals, especially in a Shakespeare play, where miscues may force you to adlib in verse. In all, Two Gents is a sweet production, kind of like a sorbet. It's colorful, sugary and not very heavy.
Playing through October 8

King John in the New Theatre
The cool thing about the $11 million New Theatre is that it only has six rows, which means the actors can, gasp, actually act with nuance and not have to worry about playing to the balconies. Now, like most people, we approach Shakespeare's histories with skepticism--it's bound to be long show, kind of dry and you'll need to have a royal family tree on hand to figure out who's related to who and how. And Shakespeare companies carry just as much skepticism, but it mostly revolves around box office. Happily, this production of King John is terrific--and only two and a half hours. Set during World War I, it features video projections of battles (even on the stage floor) that bring a touch of horrific energy to the otherwise austere, stark set. Actor Michael Elich is a superb King John, accomplishing the tough task of making the usurping guy sympathetic. If you go to Ashland, make time for this production. We recommend a matinee. And, if you're a theater geek, catch the backstage tour to hear more about this cool modular theater.
Playing through October 29

The Merry Wives of Windsor on the Elizabethan Stage
Word of mouth on Merry Wives wasn't good, and unfortunately, it lived up to the hype. Really, on the whole, California Shakespeare Theater's shows were just as good, if not better (as in this case) than the comedies we saw in Ashland. This production of Merry Wives is a cartoon, and a tiresome one. Now, it's supposed to be fluffy: Shakespeare wrote it because the Queen wanted a play about Falstaff. Too bad the actor playing Falstaff couldn't fill the character's huge personality, even with the fat suit. You know something's off when you spend more time admiring the costumes than watching the actors in them. But the costumes were wonderfully imaginative and colorful. Really.
Playing through October 6

Cyrano de Bergerac on the Elizabethan Stage
Four days after seeing it, we're still marveling over this terrific production and Marco Barricelli's outstanding performance as Cyrano. We knew he rocked after seeing his performances as a core company member of American Conservatory Theater (he left last year), where he played mostly earthy characters steeped in realism. So we wondered how he would handle Cyrano, who's at once romantic and melancholy, heroic and swashbuckling, humorous and witty. The moment he stepped onstage, Barricelli filled the 1,200-seat theater, and during the heartbreaking balcony scene where he practically confesses his love to Roxane, the audience was dead silent, and the whole row in front of us was leaning forward in rapt attention. At the end of the three and a half hour show (two intermissions), the audience was on its feet. And it wasn't just about Barricelli; the entire cast is strong, and the production was dynamically directed by Laird Williamson--who, coincidentally, directed Barricelli's last play at ACT, Moon for the Misbegotten. Cyrano was the perfect end to our Oregon Shakespeare Festival visit, and is a play not to be missed.
Playing through October 7

Photo of Roxane (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and Cyrano (Marco Barricelli) by Jenny Graham.

The Two Gentleman of Verona