Sunday, July 29, 2007

Moliere Play Tartuffe Inspires Ashland Festival

Written from Ashland, Ore.--

Moliere's great comedy Tartuffe opened to standing ovations here this past week, and will be the spark of the last three months of the 11-play Shakespearean and non-Shakespearian festival in this town just over the Siskiyou summit from Northern California.

This has been another triumphal year for the festival, founded in 1935, and now selling 390,000 tickets a year -- the largest regional theatre in America.

Not many theatre companies could bring off the elaborate Tartuffe, a play about an aristocratic French family bamboozled -- until his final comeuppance -- by an unscrupulous priest. But, fortified by a new translation into colloquial American English, as distinguished from British English, the acting company had its audiences in continuing uproarious laughter this week.

As usual, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is putting on four Shakespearian plays and seven others this year. The plays appear in three separate theatres, the largest of which is the outdoor Elizabethan, which is only open from early June to early October. The indoor threatres put on plays from the end of February to the beginning of November.

Ashland tickets are not cheap, running up to $65 on weekends, with some discounts in the spring and fall, but the price of admission does not begin to cover the cost of producing the plays on elaborate sets and by a company that numbers 90. An elaborate membership structure gives playgoers early ordering rights, and there are many corporate sponsorships as well.

About 100 playgoers contribute $5,000 or more a year to the Festival. They get the earliest ordering rights, in the November before the year in which each season takes place, and there are special weekends for the highest contributors, although they are expected to pay their way to each of the events, such as the gala dinner that was held here Friday night.

The Festival is in another of its transitions, with Libby Appel, the artistic director for the last 11 years retiring, and her replacement, Bill Rauch, taking over. Rauch, who comes from his last job at UCLA, was selected as the new artistic director after an elaborate competition. He has already signaled that many changes are coming to the Festival, including a younger company. About a third of the present actors were told this past week that they will not be retained next year.

This year, the Shakespearian plays at Ashland are Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Tempest and Taming of the Shrew. Other plays have been the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Distracted (a comic drama about a hyper-active child, his parents, and the psychiatrists who advise them), Tracy's Tiger. a Tom Stoppard play, On The Razzle, an August Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, Chekhov's play Cherry Orchard, as well as Tartuffe. Cherry Orchard and Rabbit Hole played only in the first months of the season, Tartuffe and Distracted are playing only in the final months. The transition takes place in July.

The 2008 playbill has already been announced. It includes Shakespeare's Othello and Midsummer Night's Dream, an East Indian drama, Clay Pit, and an August Wilson play, Fences.

Ashland, a town now approaching 20,000 in population, has many bed and breakfasts, as well as conventional motels and hotels, plus excellent restaurants and nearby attractions. Yesterday, my guests and I drove up to Crater Lake. There are Rogue River and Klamath River rafting trips, and the early Oregon pioneer town of Jacksonville is not far off. The Redwood Highway in Northern California is a little farther. Most playgoers come for several days, and see several plays. The theatres are dark on Mondays. Accompanying the plays are an elaborate series of lectures by members of the companies and others, plus music events.

I began coming to Ashland in 1984 and have been back every year since 1986, often bringing members of my family and guests. I've stayed in the same small bed and breakfast, the Cowslip's Belle, for 21 years. Many children over the age of six come to Ashland plays and in the spring and fall many high school and junior high school groups are brought in under a Festival education program offering seats at discounts. The Festival also has an outreach program which takes plays to schools. For members, there are also playgoing trips to London, Scotland, Ireland and other theatres, one trip each year.

Early reservations in Ashland are a good idea. Yesterday, at 5 p.m., a couple came to the door of the Cowslip's Belle, asking for rooms. It had nothing available, and a check of the town showed not a single vacancy in a bed and breakfast.

The weather in Ashland, about 2,500 feet high, can be hot in the summer, although it is dry, and wet and cold in the winter. Last February, when I came to the opening of the season, I was startled by a four-inch snowfall, but that is uncommon.

The phone number of the Ashland box office is 800-219-8161 or 541-482-4331.

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