The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will open the 2008 season, under the new artistic direction of Bill Rauch, with four productions on two stages Friday through Sunday. The season offers a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit play, two new plays, the first modern play to be presented on the OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Theatre and six directors working at the festival for the first time.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will open the 2008 season, under the new artistic direction of Bill Rauch, with four productions on two stages Friday through Sunday. The season offers a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit play, two new plays, the first modern play to be presented on the OSF's outdoor Elizabethan Theatre and six directors working at the festival for the first time.

Kicking off the weekend is William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by guest artist Mark Rucker. The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Opening at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Bowmer is August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fences," directed by Leah C. Gardiner. At 8 p.m. that evening, Sudraka's Indian classic "The Clay Cart" will debut, directed by Rauch, in his first outing at the artistic helm of the OSF. Completing the weekend's openings is the world premiere production of Julie Marie Myatt's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," opening at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the New Theatre, directed by Jessica Thebus.

"You simply cannot come to two or more plays in a single Ashland visit and go away unaffected by the terrifying, beautiful fact of our human connection, across cultures and millennia as well as across the street," Rauch says in his notes on the season. "The kaleidoscope of our 2008 productions explores the essence of human relationship — the struggle to know one's self and to understand ourselves as part of an ever-changing canvas of history, politics and peoples.

"Of particular note this year, we present the world premiere of 'Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.' With humor and tenderness, this important play gives us emotional space to witness those returning from serving our country in war. It is a special honor that we will be touring this production to the Kennedy Center in our nation's capital."

Later this season OSF will open seven more plays on its three stages. Also playing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre are Tony Award-winning playwright Jeff Whitty's "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," directed by Rauch (opening April 19); and Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge," directed by OSF artistic director emeritus Libby Appel (July 26). Opening in the New Theatre on March 29 is Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," directed by Laird Williamson (14 seasons at OSF); and Luis Alfaro's "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner" will open July 5 under the direction of Tracy Young.

Productions on the Elizabethan Stage open the weekend of June 13, and for the first time ever, a 20th-century American classic, "Our Town," directed by Chay Yew will play under the stars. Also playing outside are Shakespeare's "Othello," directed by Lisa Peterson, and "The Comedy of Errors," directed by Penny Metropulos (former OSF associate artistic director). OSF's 2008 season runs from Feb. 15 through Nov. 2 and offers 783 performances of 11 productions.

Biographies of directors, designers and actors for the 2008 season can all be found at www.osfashland.org/about/people/company.aspx online.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" has been called Shakespeare's perfect play. It features memorable and engaging characters — Puck and Bottom — as well as royal fairies, desperate young lovers, "rude mechanicals" and attending fairies. Young lovers flee the Court in order to seek happiness and find their love strangely twisted by Puck's fairy madness. Making his directing debut at OSF, Mark Rucker, has infused the play with a 1970's mix of lighting, dance and music.

The cast of 23 includes Michael Elich as Theseus; Shona Tucker as Hippolyta; John Tufts as Puck; Christine Albright as Titania; Kevin Kenerly as Oberon; Ray Porter as Bottom; and Christopher Michael Rivera, Tasso Feldman, Kjerstine Anderson and Emily Sophia Knapp as the young lovers.

Scenic design is by guest artist Walt Spangler, costumes by guest designer Katherine Roth, lighting by resident designer Robert Peterson and music by resident composer Todd Barton.

August Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for "Fences," the story of a working class African-American in the decade before the civil rights movement. Troy Maxson believes prejudice kept him from playing major league baseball. Now he hauls garbage. Embittered by his past, Troy barricades his family against disappointment, and father and son are pitted against each other in a devastating struggle. Leah C. Gardiner directs for the first time on an OSF stage.

In his OSF debut, Charles Robinson will play Troy Maxson. Shona Tucker plays his wife Rose; Cameron Knight plays Cory, their son; Josiah Phillips plays Bono, Troy's best friend.

Scenic design is by guest artist Scott Bradley, who designed "Topdog/Underdog" and "The Piano Lesson;" costumes are by guest artist Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting by guest artist Dawn Chiang (nine seasons with OSF); composer is Michael Keck (five seasons at OSF).

"The Clay Cart," translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen, will mark Bill Rauch's directorial debut as artistic director at OSF. A play bursting with music, dance, color, action, romance and intrigue, it proves that great storytelling transcends the centuries as gamblers, holy men, courtesans, political fugitives and royal scoundrels meet — and good people triumph.

The cast of 25 features Cristofer Jean, Miriam A. Laube, Brent Hinkley, Michael J. Hume, Jeffrey King, Eileen DeSandre, Richard Howard, Neil Shah and Dee Maaske.

Scenic design is by Associate Artistic Director Christopher Acebo; costumes are by resident costume designer Deborah M. Dryden; lighting is by Christopher Akerlind; composition and sound design by Andre Pleuss; choreography by Anjani Ambegaokar.

"Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" focuses on U.S. Marine Jenny Sutter, who returns from Iraq but isn't ready to pick up her children. Buying some time, she takes a one-way trip to a desert community where misfit residents gently nurture her wounded spirit and nudge her back to her own humanity. Award-winning Chicago director Jessica Thebus premieres Myatt's tender-hearted tribute to those who serve and those who welcome them home. The play will move to the Kennedy Center in July.

The cast features Gwendolyn Mulamba as Jenny Sutter, OSF veterans David Kelly and Gregory Linington, as well as newcomers Kate Mulligan, Cameron Knight and K.T. Vogt.

Principal scenic designer Richard L. Hay has designed the set. Costumes are by Lynn Jeffries, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes and music by Paul James Pendergast.

Buy tickets or check availability at www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 541 482-4331 or 800 219-8161. OSF is offering two complimentary tickets to active duty military, reservists and veterans as a way of saying thank you and welcome home. Complimentary tickets are available throughout the run of the show (through June 20).

The festival is offering C section tickets are $20 for all performances of plays that are not sold out.

For more information about the productions, visit www.osfashland.org/plays/video/index.aspx online.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.