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OSF: World class theater under the stars

King Henry, Don Quixote and Don John are all coming to Ashland this week, and the best news of all is you won't have to leave the fresh air to see them.

Tuesday marked a transition for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as the outdoor Elizabethan Stage opened for the warmer months.

The outdoor season started Tuesday, with a production of William Shakespeare's "Henry VIII." Two more shows follow, with "Don Quixote" premiering today, and "Much Ado About Nothing" on Thursday.

The stage's official opening is June 12. But the "preview shows" will run for a full week before then, starting with the premiere of "Henry VIII."

"We've been rehearsing these three outdoor productions since the end of March," said OSF Director Paul Nicholson.

OSF last produced Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" in 1984. This year's production features Shakespeare Festival newcomer Elijah Alexander in the title role, Anthony Heald as the power-hungry Cardinal Wolsey, direction from John Sipes and a compositional score by Todd Barton.

The festival draws tens of thousands of tourists and locals to the downtown theater each year.

"We've been working on the presentation, costumes, scenery, props, music and so on for two and a half months," Nicholson said. "We have extraordinary actors."

The outdoor season is a high point of the entire year, as it usually coincides with the start of the tourist season and brings the largest lines to the theater, Nicholson said.

"We've been tremendously gratified with the way audiences have responded," he said, referring to the festival's strong showing in recent years.

Ticket sales are down slightly in 2009. The recession may be denting sales slightly, Nicholson said, but he was quick to point out that 2008 was the second-best year in the theater's 74-year history.

"You have to look at the numbers in that perspective," he said.

The festival relies heavily on tourists to make a profit. Eighty percent of those who come through the OSF doors are from out of state — even during the fall and winter seasons.

"These are not casual tourists," Nicholson said. "These are people who have made a decision to come here."

All three shows will run through the first week of October. In addition to plays at the Elizabethan Stage, OSF continues long-running shows, including "Macbeth," "The Music Man," and "Equivocation," in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

"No other theater that I know of has this many performances," Nicholson said.

Tickets can be purchased at the OSF box office, located on Pioneer Street near the plaza, or online at osfashland.org. Some tickets for the preview shows are still available.