Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 12 June to Ashland   19 June Crescent City >

Ashland, Oregon 16 June 2011

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Cultural Capital of State of Jefferson

Tonight we see our first play. Ashland is an amazing little city -- Southern Oregon University, the best food coop I've ever seen, a cluster of great restaurants, wonderful parks ... how much of this is due to geography, and how much to the fact that this city has been the home of the best, longest running Shakespearian repertory company in the United States?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been producing great plays for seventy-five years. I went to my first one, Taming of the Shrew, on my birthday in 1960. Frankly, the Festival is so good, it spoils local productions for me. I look forward with almost obsessive zeal to my annual cultural fix, and so I am beside myself in anticipation.

Here below, spread out over several days, are my takes on this year's plays (that we saw), a completely great year! And also a little bit about the delights of Ashland.

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Cultural Capital of State of Jefferson

The Plays: The Imaginary Invalid

In the fabulous Bowmer, with all the bells and whistles. The audience was prepared to be delighted, and was completely surprised by this loud, adolescent, touching reading of the farce. An old man thinks he's dying; his daughters are courting, and he's trying to arrange the youngest's situation. In the best spirit of Molière's time, between each play, a short advertisement. The audience left all smiles after a rousing standing-O.

Increasingly, the OSF has been presenting plays in modern dress, and this production's emphasis on period music and psychedelic imagery was a great example of what it looks like when it works well. I usually resist the reflexive standing-O, but this time, I was among the first on my feet.


<p>Imaginary Invalid</p>

Imaginary Invalid

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<p>Julius Caesar</p>

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

This was an confusing disappointment. The New Theater specializes in "experimental" theater, and here we have a failed experiment. Before "curtain -- it's in the round, so there's no curtain -- the players enlist the audience in cheering for Julius, played by a woman. We comply. I think, okay, they're going to get us to be the mob, favoring JC, and then they'll "betray" us by killing her. Not. They become so involved with each other, lines spoken over lines; confusing casting, three or four parts per player, that the rich language goes away. 

Talking to others who saw the play, I conclude that my judgment is too harsh. Some liked it for its casting of a woman as Julius, and didn't see the turning inward of the cast. Of six plays, I guess it's okay that I really didn't like one.

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Loves Labors Lost

Willy the Shake's first comedy. Plenty of juicy language, and quite alot more rhyme than elsewhere. The usual byplay between royals and groundlings. Most memorable: the cop from the play requesting malapropishly that we turn off our "cellulite devices" before the play began. From the traditional trumpets and flag raising to the final call, this play was enjoyable. Sitting outdoors in the Oregon late spring, stars overhead, with 800 of your closest friends, is unforgettable and an experience to be sought over and over no matter the play. This one was a lot of fun.

Most memorable quote: "Abstinence engenders maladies." 

<p>Loves Labors Lost</p>

Loves Labors Lost

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<p>The Language Archive</p>

The Language Archive

The Language Archive

One of OSF's best plays ever. Five players playing with a wide-ranging topic in a delicious way. The theme was communication, taken from the perspective of vanishing languages -- there are nearly 8,000 globally, but every two weeks, the last remaining speaker of a language dies, and more than half are not being taught to children and so will soon disappear. Of course, a language represent much more than the words; it embodies wisdom about nature, weather, a way of living. So, too, with couples, of which there are two in this play: one couple the last known speakers of the "language of the people of the river," Ellawa; the other a "science man," a linguist, whose life work is the collection of vanishing languages, and the wife of many years he no longer knows how to talk to. And the lab assistant who is in love with him. Fertile ground for drama, and this play explores it inventively and poignantly – making us both cry.

At the end Rochelle said, "That is the most beautiful play I have ever seen!" Sadly, yesterday was this play's last performance in Ashland.  

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Henry IV Part 2

The Elizabethan is a player in its every production, and my heart beats faster as soon as the trumpets blare and the little man runs up the flag and waves his bonnet. I have seen bad plays here, but Shakespeare is reliably good.

H4p2 is not an easy play. It centers around the aging blow-hard Falstaff, a character we love despite himself. This Falstaff was good, as were all his supporters, and the denouement was satisfying and worth the time – it's a long play – spent. 

Shakespeare uses his histories to explore the business of government and the relationships between the governed and the governing, and the evolution of those relationships over time and through trial. H4p2 is a bridging play, covering necessary ground between H4 and H5, and so, for Shakespeare lovers, its a duty.

<p>Henry IV Part 2</p>

Henry IV Part 2

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<p>Pirates of Penzance</p>

Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance

Elizabethan stage, Gilbert and Sullivan's wonderfully wordy, lyrical play, damsels, pirates, timid policemen? An altogether wonderful production. Bill Rauch, the Festival's artistic director, directed this one, and it's this year's flagship. The singers are all good, the stage business engaging, the orchestra accomplished, costumes and props spectacular. Again, the audience was out of their chairs – rare for an Elizabethan audience – before the lights had gone down on the final delicious scene (in which there was even a nod to gay marriage!) No G & S next year, but I imagine there'll be some again some year soon. 

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Ashland the Character

There are three Ashlands, and first-time OSF visitors may never see the others. Around the festival one finds wonderful stores – the best travel store anywhere, good bookstores, fine art – and a number of restaurants, mostly average. Two of the nearby restaurants are worth mentioning (Dragonfly, Sesame) and others comfortingly familiar (Grilla Bites, Geppettos); on any given night, several of the others will provide good meals. For a splurge, Cucina Biazzi is reliably fabulous. 

The people are Ashland's treasure: a melange of Southern Oregon's timbermen and ranchers, University people, students and teachers, and the large and various players, managers, directors, and stagehands that make the festival. You have to go to Eugene or Chico to find an equally interesting mix. Together, they have managed to support the growth of possibly the best Coop in the US: the Ashland Coop. Even if you don't need anything, this is a store worth visiting.

Ashland is also a city of parks, well beyond its size. Lithia, right next to the Festival grounds, winds up the stream for miles. Down by Bear Creek there's another lovely park with a nature center and playing fields. Scattered elsewhere in this very livable little city there are other well-used, child-friendly parks. Get a lunch at the Coop and go sit in a park. 


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The Bear Creek Greenway is a narrow corridor of public-owned land that follows the lush Bear Creek streambed from Ashland to Central Point, and a model for bike- and hiking-trails anywhere. Not yet finished, but on its way to being a beautiful, vehicle free, 25-mile joyride from Ashland through Medford.

We rented bikes on the flats just below Ashland and rode a few miles to Talent and back. Bear Creek is a rushing mountain stream here, and Oregon's amazing greenery was full of springtime. A beautiful ride. 

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Breakfast is usually at our favorite B&B on the face of the planet, Morical House, but on this trip we were here too many days to survive Alicia's scrumptious breakfasts, and so after two days we moved up the street to the low-key 1940s style Manor Motel where we happily holed up and sought our breakfast elsewhere.

Luckily, our Rogue River friends told us about a breakfast place – "The Best Breakfast in Ashland" they said: Morning Glory Restaurant. I'd say, the best breakfast in Oregon, on a par with Beaujolais breakfasts back in the day. The servings are huge, and so we shared. Yum. We immediately started plotting how to go back ... but there is so much good food here, we'll wait until next year. Busy place, so plan to wait if you arrive at 9am.

Morning Glory serves lunch, too. It's located across from Southern Oregon University about a mile up (southeast) Siskiyou Avenue from the Festival center.

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Last year's discovery, thanks to Yelp, is Wiley's World, a wonderfully quirky little hole in the wall well outside the normal Festival circuit, on Ashland Avenue. Home-made pasta, and specials that you'll remember for days ...and plan to try to recreate when you get home. If to-go is on your menu, this is a great place (along with the Coop) to gather provender. Mostly students and locals eat here, and there are only about ten tables, so get here early. (You'll want to do that anyway, because the wonderful free Green Show starts at 7:15 and to get a good seat you'll want to arrive no later than 6:30 and watch the people.)

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<p>Lest I forget: the Green Show,...

Lest I forget: the Green Show, summer evenings at 7:15 "on the green" in the very center of the Festival grounds, is a free delight, and a window into what makes Ashland so different from every other little city in the west. The evenings here tend to be warm, gentle, perfect. The crowds are also mild and hungry for delight. Last night, a group from Hillsboro, in the north of the state, presented colorful, heartful regional dances of Mexico in the way that only amateur lovers of an art form can do. The Green Show is different every night. (It and the plays are dark on Mondays.) 

Here's the schedule.

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