As I noted recently, I really regret not having made it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year. I hadn't been since maybe 2002 or '03, when it had become my one of my favorite theater destinations for maybe five years running. This year I had finally found the window and the write-off (a piece for American Theatre about Bill Cain's Equivocation, coming up in the September issue). I had the flight all booked for mid-June, and I was planning to see all nine shows then running in a mere five days. The day before the trip, though, my wife's ob/gyn advised bed rest, and the rest is history--history we'll recount to our son one day, preferably as we take him on his belated first trip to Oregon.
All of which is to say, I can't comment authoritatively on Charles McNulty's recent critical essay based on his first visit to OSF, nor am I in a position to dispute his takeaway from Oregon Shakes: great audiences, nice programming, crappy acting. OK, he calls it a "midlevel acting company," but you can tell he really, really didn't like the acting there; apart from Anthony Heald, he doesn't even name any of the actors. While he admits that the 92-member acting company, employed for the better part of a year, is the country's largest resident acting company, he finds enough mediocre acting that he recommends a total "overhaul" of the company.
Well, as I said, I haven't seen this year's roster, and haven't been back in a number of years. But I will say that the acting company was one of the main draws of OSF when I was regular visitor, and some of my favorite actors, and most indelible performances I've ever seen, were at Oregon Shakes, from Derrick Lee Weeden's Othello to Robynn Rodriguez and Ken Albers in Handler, from Demetra Pittman's Hecuba to BW Gonzalez's Good Woman of Setzuan, from Dan Donohue's Prince Hal to Tony DeBruno's Shylock, from John Pribyl's Caliban to Suzanne Irving's Hannah Jelkes to David Kelley's Bottom to Ray Porter's Puck to James Newcomb's Thersites to Richard Howard's Pericles*. I particularly relish having seen a handful of productions in their erstwhile small theatre, the Black Swan: Stop Kiss, Tongue of a Bird (better than the Cherry Jones/Diane Venora version at the Taper, gotta say), Trip to Bountiful (again, it spoiled me for the Signature Theatre rendition a few years back).
Did I see some subpar acting at OSF? Did I witness some actors stagnate over the years? Did I see some ridiculous, pretentious, overblown, bad-sci-fi, spear-carrier takes on the classics? Most definitely, yes. (Interested parties can click on these links to read my reviews over the years.) But have I ever had the comparable pleasure of getting to know a real repertory ensemble? Perhaps at Hollywood's Cast Theatre in the early 1990s, or at the Evidence Room and Actors' Gang and Cornerstone a few years later (some of those actors are up in Ashland now, actually); a little bit at A Noise Within.
Maybe McNulty, the first lead critic from the L.A. Times to cover Ashland in my memory, needed to catch more than four shows to "get it," but that's not necessarily easy to schedule; maybe the quality of the company has indeed plummeted, though I find that hard a little hard to believe; maybe, as the editor of an actor's trade paper for so long, my enthusiasm at discovering a real live resident acting company colored my judgment, and once I was smitten, I was smitten. Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, I'm hoping not only that I can get back to Ashland before long, but that national big-city critics, including McNulty, won't be kept away by the criticism (after all, as he graciously admits in a must-read column about how his opinions evolve, McNulty is often surprised to find how much he disagrees with himself).
*Corrected, thanks to a commenter--I originally wrote "Mark Murphey's Pericles."