Ashland, Oregon 2/23-24/2001 | The
best production of a Shakespearean romance I've ever seenor
am ever likely to seeis now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare
Festival. Hie thee to Ashland in 2001 to see it yourself,
and after experiencing its awesome emotional power, you'll
finally begin to understand why the romances Shakespeare penned
late in his career were so overwhelmingly popular with their
The romance in question isn't The Tempest, however,
which the powers that be at Ashland have put forwardsomewhat
lamelyto anchor their 2001 season.
And it's not even by Shakespeare, though as adapted by director
Laird Williamson it's been brought as close to Shakespeare
as is humanly possible at this date.
No, the play in question is Pedro Calderón de la Barca's
Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), an
enigmatic masterpiece from Spain's Golden Age (circa 1635)
that I last encountered in a more literal, if not quite so
successful, 1990 American Repertory Theatre production. That
production was impressive, and piqued a brief intellectual
interest in the psychedelic and existentialist precursors
running through the play, together with the oddly political
twist of its ending.
lost Shakespeare romance found?
Williamson's adaptation risks the ire of purists by changing
the ending to be more like Shakespeare himself would have
made itJack gets his Jill here, instead of satisfying
honor and gaining a political alliance by marrying her to
her ravishervastly increasing the emotional resonance
for an audience weaned on the Bard. He also recasts a literal
translation of Calderón de la Barca's original in alliterative
pentameters that profess Shakespeare as their master throughout.
What results seems like a lost Shakespeare romance, with
Calderón de la Barca and Williamson as the coauthors
or transcribers who rescued it from oblivionnot quite
the Bard, but you feel he must have touched it.
the best director for romance
This recasting of Life is a Dream as a romance attributable
to Shakespeare allows Williamson to do what he does bestdirect
a Shakespeare romance. At that, he has no peer. Williamson
directed the best production of a romance I've ever seenthe
Pericles that shone so brightly, if briefly, at the
end of Ashland's 1999 season (see
my review of the Shakespeare Santa Cruz Cymbeline
for more particulars). This is the second bestor the
best production of a Shakespearean romance not actually by
Shakespeare, which is what I meant when I declared it "the
best...Shakespearean romance" above.
What makes a Williamson production so good? Well, to start
with he knows how to get just the right kinds of performancesfor
a romancefrom his actors: intensely, quirkily human,
yet left somewhat schematic and stereotypical, incompletely
made up or determinedand as such capable of changing
their character radically right before our eyes.
The audience doesn't admire the characters as individuals
of a particular kind so much, but as mutable actors in a profoundly
personal and socio-political transformation whose parameters
slowly become clearer as the performance winds on. And in
the end, when everything that we could hope might happen,
finally does, they know how to push just the right buttons
with the deftest of touches, so that all the cognitive tension
they've developed onstage for us finds release in an irresistible
emotional crescendo that breaks like a wave beyond it.
an excellent cast
Special notice goes to Kevin Kenerlywhose Boult was
a revelation in the '99 Periclesas Segismundo,
a role whose incredible range and energy this actor seems
uniquely capable of bringing to life. Richard Howardwhose
turn as the title character in the '99 Pericles was
a piece of such perfection that I doubt another actor can
match itbrings his immense gift for romance to the character
of Segismundo's familialindeed, literally Oedipalnemesis
King Basilio. Howard has an incredible knack for articulating
a growing sense of wonder at his own befuddlement, as fortune
slowly turns its wheel and reveals to him what a fool he's
beenand continues to bedespite, and because of,
his excessive knowledge and wisdom. Howard's nuanced line
readings are marvels of pacing and intelligence as well.
Another standout is Tyler Layton, who turns on a dime between
arch manipulator and seductive politician as one contender
to the retiring Basilio's throne, Estrella. Astolfo, the other,
comes alive as a dashing and potent rhetorical presence in
the person of Jonathan Adams (alas, only through February
27, according to my Playbillwhat's the story here?).
And these are just the highlightsthe entire cast, with
but one or two exceptions (mainly a Bocazas who was too annoyingly
Disney for my taste, in a role that demands even better than
a Falstaff), was of the highest standard.
part 2: the
meaning of life