The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2008 season was the first under its new artistic director. So, how's he doing?

Patrick O'Connor saw all 11 of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's plays this year, as usual. His verdict on the season: "phenomenal."

"Except for the Indian play," he says. "I kept thinking, 'When will this freaking thing be over?' It was beautiful to look at — and astonishingly bad. I don't know what Bill Rauch was thinking."

That would be "The Clay Cart," a Rauch-directed play that has had a mixed reception. The empty seats after intermission at the opening testified to that. Other playgoers have returned to see it a second or third time.

As Rauch nears the end of OSF's 2008 season, the first bearing his artistic imprint, there is debate over this play and that one. But there is far less debate on Rauch's artistic leadership.

He gets almost uniformly high marks.

Rauch wears a couple of highly visible hats. As OSF's artistic director, he chooses plays, casts them, hires directors and sets the company's artistic course. He is also continuing his predecessor Libby Appel's practice of directing two plays a year.

This year there was the exotic "Clay Cart" and the contemporary comedy "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler."

A third, less visible hat, is that of spiritual leader of the festival. Herman Edel, 82, who saw his first Broadway play at 14, says people around the OSF love Rauch. Edel, who has directed all over the country, works as an audio describer at the festival, describing the on-stage action to blind playgoers.

"He's the most giving guy," Edel says. "So warm and gracious. He fights very hard to really make it a family."

It was a statement on Rauch's part to put a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit comedy in the season-opening weekend's Saturday night slot, where audiences have come to expect a classic British or American comedy. The choice was risky, and it spelled d-i-v-e-r-s-i-t-y.

A reviewer for the Sacramento Bee praised the production, as did the Oregonian's Marty Hughley, while the Eugene Weekly's Anna Grace called it insubstantial, and the Bay Area's bohemian.com found it about as deep as "a really great parade at Disneyland."

The show has filled 88 percent of its seats to date, just a tick under the festival's 89-percent mark for the season so far, in each case one percentage point behind the 2007 numbers.

Put three playgoers in a room and you'll have three opinions. Molly Best Tinsley, who reviews plays for Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, loved "The Clay Cart."

"You can't look at it like a Western play," she says. "It's very circular. It goes back to the idea that the Hindu god is present in his absence. It's more about the nature of the universe."

Tinsley was unmoved by Julie Marie Myatt's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," a play about a woman Iraq veteran coming home.

"But," she allows, "I think it's valuable to do new plays, and I admire that."

She didn't like Chay Yew's distilled take on "Our Town," the first American play produced on the OSF's Elizabethan Stage, or Tracy Young's direction in Luis Alfaro's eye-popping, new "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner."

"It's not about fat jokes, or a refrigerator opposite a mouth," she says. "It's about relationships."

She liked the revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," "Othello," "Coriolanus" and August Wilson's "Fences." She felt the alternative world of "Hedda Gabler" didn't hold together.

O'Connor, who has been seeing plays for 70 years, loved "A View From the Bridge," which Appel returned to direct.

"It's one of the best things I've seen in years," he says.

He, too, had mixed feelings about "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler."

"It has this air of hipness about it," he says. "It requires too much information."

The alternate-reality comedy follows its identity-seeking heroine on offbeat adventures with Medea from Greek mythology, Mammie from "Gone With the Wind" and a couple of stereotypical gay men from the late 1960s. It's filled 85 percent of its seats, placing eighth among the festival's 11 plays for attendance, one spot behind "The Clay Cart."

It has its fans. O'Neil Dillon, a retired psychiatrist from Berkeley, Calif., liked it very much indeed.

"It was extremely creative," he says. "Creating a space for these characters that was between reality and the theater. It was somewhere else."

Dillon says his group was impressed with the staging.

O'Connor pans "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which he calls "jocks and frocks." But he still give's Rauch's first season a B-plus.

"It would've been an A without the Indian play," he says.

Tinsley calls the season a mixed bag, albeit "more good than bad."

Earl Showerman, of near Jacksonville, a Shakespeare buff and a donor to OSF's educational Bowmer Society, says the 2008 season has been inventive and wonderfully diverse.

"Frankly, Libby (Appel) is a very hard act to follow," he says. "Bill stepped right up to the plate. He took some risks and succeeded."

Showerman liked "Clay Cart" so much he's seen it three times. He liked the disco-flavored "Midsummer," the intimate "Coriolanus" and the westernized "Comedy of Errors."

Showerman also points to the OSF's outreach and education efforts. He heard three different talks on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Tinsley appreciates the spirit of change Rauch has brought.

"I'm fine with seeing things shaken up," she says. "In terms of new blood and new ideas, it's been great."

She worries about Rauch's directorial choices, but notes that he's bringing back Kate Buckley, who directed the OSF's 2007 hit "The Taming of the Shrew."

"That's good," she says.

She thinks the OSF, with its elaborate sets, costumes and music, sometimes slights acting and directing for production values. On a recent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, she says she was struck by the simple sets.

"I'm not moved or impressed by fancy costumes or sets," she says.

O'Connor, too, has his concerns.

"I'm worried about this community diversity aspect of his (Bill Rauch's) head," he says. "Directors who want to do more than put on good plays, inevitably you find they think they have a larger mission, to educate the audience. That is not their mission. Their mission is to amuse and entertain us, recreate us, show us some insight and make us laugh, but don't preach to me.

"I hope he doesn't get carried away with doing good. Put the plays on, buster."

O'Connor isn't the only one with advice.

"I said to him, 'Never be afraid of failing,' " Edel says. "If theater doesn't take risks, it's nothing."

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