JP’s Weekend of Shakespeare and Co. in the Pacific Northwest

There’s something about having to walk out on the tarmac to a small plane.  It immediately removes just a bit of the homogeneity from the commercial airline ways, It promises an adventure.  And this is how one must fly from Los Angeles to Ashland, Oregon, where I will be traveling to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The two hour flight is rather painless, and you can watch the flatlands of southern California give way to mountains speckled with firs and pines.  When I land at the airport in Medford (about 14 miles north), there are cabs or shuttle services that can take you into town.  The latter are mostly Mom & Pop operations with decals on the sides of SUVs; both will run you $35-$40 for the short trip. You can also ride in by bus for half the price, but only during the week.  On the drive to my guest house, I’m told that the Rogue River (setting for the film “The River Wild”) is just a short distance away, and well worth the trek.  But this weekend for me, is all about the plays.

I had been getting the season brochures for many years, constantly impressed with the marketing of this festival, which now spans nine months in a two-stoplight town in southern Oregon.  When I arrived here to witness four productions and a backstage tour over a period of 33 hours, I was immediately taken in by the charm of East Main Street, covered with book stores, adorable restaurants and shops with a plethora of things no one really needs, but we all buy nonetheless in places like this.  They have names like Paddington Station and a local paper called The Daily Tidings.

The festival’s three venues are within strolling distance of one another, including the Elizabethan Stage, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.  A babbling creek courses through the town, and you can have a bite alongside it.  I had my first lunch at a restaurant called Louie’s, where the fest’s artistic director, Bill Rauch was at the next table, having a meeting to discuss “The Music Man,” which he will be helming as part of next year’s season.

I checked into the place I had rented, which was a five-minute walk to the theatres, and proceeded directly to the first show, “Coriolanus.”  As I walk up East Main, I passed all the hotels that were fully booked when I made my reservations six weeks prior, and wondered just how crowded this town would be in mid-September.  The sidewalks were covered with seniors, more seniors and a surprising number of homeless men.  Or, perhaps they were not homeless, but rather teens who had seen “Into the Wild” a few too many times and were channeling Emile Hirsch.

I walked to the tiny Lithia Park, which was beautiful as promised, though it would hardly constitute a “park” in any other city, perhaps a quaint square in Savannah or Charleston, but not quite a park.  I meandered down Calle Guanajuato and remembered the odd Wikipedia tidbit I had seen, which is that Ashland’s sister city is the central Mexican mining city of Guanajuato.

And then it was off to “Coriolanus,” the first of my four plays – all classics – which would comprise my weekend here.  As the lights went down for that first time, I was a bit hesitant.  This is the nation’s “oldest and largest regional repertory company in the United States,” it has been around for 73 years and last year alone it pumped $163 million dollars in the local community as the result of its very presence.  With a nine-month span in repertory, however, this destination cannot invest in the over-the-top productions values we love to see (and sometimes loathe) on Broadway.  It does not have the sex appeal of film stars on the stage at Williamstown. And it has not (yet) made a strong name for itself in the new works department for edgy material. This had to be good.  And it had to be good without the pomp and circumstance.

Though it was off to a rough start (a few too many wink-wink, nudge-nudge correlations to the present state of the world), my first play-going experience at OSF came out on top.  I will tell you though that the highlight was certainly Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” I had not seen nor read it in the past, and the work of its cast and director (Libby Appel, former artistic director of this fest) could rival the best stage productions in the nation.

After and between shows, there are a few things to explore, but not a full days worth.  A coffee shop that attempts to evoke Paris by means of Pottery Barn, a bona fide small-town pharmacy, and some of the friendliest people you are likely to encounter.

On the Sunday morning of my departure, I took a little walk to town under a cloudless sky, inhaling as much of that clean, dry air as I could.  After sitting at a crosswalk for a good bit, I chose to make a go for it since the cars were moving at a glacial pace.  After I had reached the other side, a twenty-something male leaned out from the passenger seat and screamed: “Yo, watch the fucking light!”  So, even the comebacks are slow here.  Part of me wanted to applaud to aggressive comment (such remarks are uncoothe in L.A.) and part of me wanted to slap him and say, “This is a cute town, goddammit!  Don’t be a jerk-face!”

After passing by a jogger who I later recognize as René Millán, the funny and charming troubadour from Saturday night’s “A Comedy of Errors,” I got a warmed up croissant from Evo’s Coffee Shop.  It’s a dive-y little spot where they have the work of local artists for sale, “newspapers to share,” and the bottled juices are so organic that I’ve never even heard of the brand names.  So I strolled down the strip for the umpteenth time and nibbled.  It was quiet and serene until I came upon a man whose dog let out a little growl.  To discipline the pooch, the man hollered, “Jake, shut the fuck up!” right in front of me.  People seem very crabby here on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps two nights was a scootch too long.  Especially considering that you can conquer the town in less time than it takes to see the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays.  Hopefully by 2010, when OSF celebrates its 75th anniversary, we will see the beginnings of an effort to bring in some Gen Y-ers.  For the moment though, with its seniors and high schoolers, the festival faces a more imminent hurdle: it’s already too big for this town.  Time to build another theatre, methinks.

On the way home, it’s back to Medford and its two-terminal airport.  The flight attendants on Horizon sing to you, make jokes and offer strange generic sodas I’ve never heard of.  It’s all just a bit too much.  But as I am on my way back to the city of sunshine and traffic, I suppose I should not complain.  Culture always comes with a price.  As for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in its tiny town with no stars and over-priced hotels, I’m happy to pay for it.  Because the product is just that good.  Though I will probably bring a drinking buddy next time, so there will be at least two twenty-something non-actors out on the bricks at night.