The six words hit Ashland like a toad in the punch bowl. L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its "lucidly conveyed" productions and its "indefatigable" audience, then dropped the bomb: "But the acting standard was disappointing."

The six words hit Ashland like a toad in the punch bowl. L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its "lucidly conveyed" productions and its "indefatigable" audience, then dropped the bomb: "But the acting standard was disappointing."

In an Aug. 23 review, he called the OSF "a midlevel acting company that could use a substantial overhaul." He wrote that "some bad habits appeared fairly widespread." And that he saw "eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics."

Things were baleful around the OSF for a few days. In a follow-up story, OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch underscored the festival's commitment to language and pointed to positive reviews. Director Tracy Young praised OSF actors. Patrons pronounced themselves shocked. Old theater pro Doug Rowe wrote a letter calling McNulty "McNutty" and his criticism "unadulterated rubbish."

I'm no booster, and the OSF can be a bit, er, tetchy. But when you see the festival's every play, and as many plays at theaters up and down the West Coast and elsewhere as you can find the time and money for, you should probably put in your two cents.

McNulty's comments don't reflect what I see at the festival season after season. They are not something one typically hears. It's like dissing the Pittsburgh Steelers for having a soft defense. People question sets, designs, directorial choices. Generally not the acting.

McNulty has great credentials (Yale Drama grad, working dramaturg, head of a graduate criticism program, Village Voice theater editor), and his piece was written with clarity, so I figure he said what he meant. So what happened?

In two days he saw "Paradise Lost," "Henry VIII," "The Music Man" and "Equivocation." He praised them, faintly, as meat and potatoes without a lot of garnish. He listed these complaints: 1. actors shrieking at crisis points, 2. "indicating," and 3. driving home points by overacting.

Indicating is showing by pretending. Good actors don't play results to depict an action. They simply do. Complaints one and three are about what's called scenery chewing. Scenery chewers ham it up to suck your attention. Many chewers are also indicators (think Mel Gibson).

I don't see more chewing and indicating at OSF than at other top theaters.

Let's look closer. McNulty said Rauch got better performances out of actors in "Equivocation" than he'd seen the previous day in "Paradise Lost" and "Henry VIII" by the same actors.

Well, "Equivocation" is a brainy, emotionally riveting world premiere, and "Henry VIII" and "Paradise Lost" are, not to pull punches, among the season's relative snoozers. The virtues of "Henry VIII" are great costumes and a few fine speeches; the only justification for doing it is a commitment to completing the canon. "Paradise" was Clifford Odets' first stumble after a hot run. It puts points of view on the stage and dresses them up in actors' clothes. To see it is to know why it's seldom revived.

The cast of "Equivocation" featured Anthony Heald, Richard Elmore, Jonathan Haugen and Gregory Linington. McNulty saw them in that play after seeing Elmore in "Paradise Lost," and Heald, Haugen and Linington in "Henry VIII."

Those are A list actors, not a chewer or a signifier in the lot. It is not a matter of a director getting better performances out of them, it's about being in a better play.

"Some of the actors are superb and some are OK," said Lee Hood, a playgoer from Seattle.

Bingo. The truth is, most actors are competent. I assume professional playing and seldom single out performances in a review unless there's a compelling reason.

There is the bell curve. It isn't something a professor made up, it's a fact of life. For actors, directors, doctors, cops, plumbers, football players, play reviewers.

There are bells within bells. There's the curve of the OSF, and those of South Coast Rep and Berkeley Rep and so on. All those curves would be to the high end of the all-the-actors-in-all-U.S.-theaters curve.

McNulty raised the specter of chemistry, which is a bit like pornography in that you can't define it, but you know it when you see it. The chemistry in "Equivocation" is electric, that of "Henry VIII" and "Paradise Lost" not so much, despite the presence of some fine actors.

There will be miscasting here and there in all theaters. You can't pull the perfect actor out of the air for every role, although it's remarkable how often the OSF seems to with 82 actors doing 11 plays a season, many of them overlapping.

I'll put OSF's actors up there with any company. McNulty came for two days and took a wobbly wheel or two for the whole apple cart.

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