Aug 6, 2010

Ashland Blogging IV: Sob Story

Those sitting next to me at the theater may have felt it--a late-in-the-show shudder as I suppress tears at some emotional turn in the play. It usually passes quickly, without any actual water (it would probably be easier, not to mention healthier, if I could just let the ducts flow, but alas, it seems I've been conditioned to the kind of public restraint that has the paradoxical consequence of increasing the violence of my reaction the more I hold back).

I can't recall, though, the last time I sobbed out loud in the theater, letting out a small, involuntary cry audible even to the actors onstage, as I did yesterday near the end of Liesl Tommy's production of Ruined, Lynn Nottage's wrenching, magisterial drama, Mother Courage-inflected about the ongoing war in the Congo, which ran for most of 2009 at MTC's City Center Stage, picking up a Pulitzer along the way. Staged in an avenue configuration in Oregon Shakes' New Theatre, this rendition has many advantages over the slightly cramped stage picture of the MTC production; the jungle trees to one side have a sense of depth and shadow that they lacked in New York, and the scenes of men carousing have more immediacy and dangerous intimacy.

Indeed, Tommy has spread the show out before us like a banquet and sharpened--some might say sweetened or simplified--the flavors. Kimberly Scott's Mama Nadi, the remorseless club owner/madam, is an earthier and more openly sympathetic figure than the cool customer played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona in New York; and there were times I felt the Oregon production edged near cutesiness or overemphasis. On the other hand, it felt more consistently alive, less presented than inhabited. And the emotional payoff of this more direct approach is enormous, as my sob attested, and ultimately redemptive. If Kate Whoriskey's premiere production mostly sobered us with its sense of social importance, and impressed on us an essentially despairing portrait of the seeming intractability of human suffering, Tommy's version moves us to feel both our complicity in its character's lives and those characters' universal connection to us. Brecht might not have approved, but I think Nottage would.

Fan as I am of OSF, there's usually at least one play in the season that bores me to distraction. This year it's Henry IV, Part One, which I took in last night on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Though this rip-roaring, roisterous history play was one of the first that sold me on the festival back in '98 (with Dan Donohue as Hal and John Pribyl, in a fat suit, as a hilarious Deadhead Falstaff), this current version feels pretty lifeless, apart from the climactic clatter of swordplay. This despite having one of Ashland's great clowns, David Kelley, as a perfectly acceptable fat-suit Falstaff, and direction by the estimable Penny Metropulos, whose work I've heartily enjoyed before. With an 11-show lineup, they can't all be winners.

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