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Raising the Bard toward a bigger act

If the Oregon Shakespeare Festival doesn't have the most enthusiastic audience of any regional theater in the country, there must be some performing arts center out there with a rabid cult.

Ashland, OSF's quaint home nestled in the foothills of mountain ranges and lined with arts-and-crafts boutiques and restaurants eager to pour local Pinot Noir, is a destination town for theatergoing.

Spectators come from across the Pacific Northwest for multiday outings of Shakespeare, other classic and demi-classic authors and contemporary writing.

It's not just about the Bard of Avon, though the festival's namesake sets the bar high in terms of dramatic scope and duration. Stemming the TV-influenced tide of much contemporary theater, OSF makes 90-minute intermissionless fare the exception rather than the rule.

The talk in 2009, the second full season of Cornerstone Theater Company co-founder Bill Rauch's tenure as artistic director, is all about "Equivocation," Bill Cain's drama about Shakespeare's struggle to dramatize the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I and the nation's Protestant power-brokers.

This play, receiving its world premiere under Rauch's direction, is a hot property, with a different production slated to open at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in November and another one at Manhattan Theatre Club in early 2010 in New York.

Some in the OSF crowd who had caught "Henry VIII" and "Macbeth," which both shed light on events Cain is dramatizing, were unusually prepared to appreciate the political nuances and theatrical quips of this work of historical fiction.

Rauch has brought to Ashland the same bold quality of communal idealism that distinguished his leadership of Cornerstone — extraordinary "ownership" of the audience, the sense of investment they have in the institution, as well as the need "to shake things up in the company," to bring in fresh directorial perspectives and to challenge artists to "keep the work vital."

Like others in President Barack Obama's America, Rauch is grappling with change and resistance to change. On the plus side, new play development is percolating with the commissioning of playwrights for a 37-play, 10-year series exploring epochal shifts in American life. Alison Carey, who co-founded Cornerstone with Rauch, is the director of the project, "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle."

Outreach to residents, less than 15 percent of ticket-buyers, has bumped up their attendance. Total ticket sales topped 400,000 for 2008, down a bit from the record set in 2007, the final season of Libby Appel's 12-year reign as artistic director.

No one could argue that this three-stage theatrical behemoth with an annual operating budget of more than $24 million isn't gleaming with renewed purpose. But a two-day splurge of theater, which also included "Henry VIII," "The Music Man" and "Paradise Lost," exposed a weakness that OSF must address to advance among major nonprofit theaters — its midlevel acting company needs an overhaul.

This observation was unavoidable at a matinee of Clifford Odets' Depression-Era drama "Paradise Lost," directed by Appel at Angus Bowmer Theatre, and Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," directed by John Spies at the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.

The good news about both productions is that the stories were lucidly conveyed, with the plot presented without directorial garnish. This isn't a bad strategy, and seems to be one that OSF audiences depend on. These folks would rather be spellbound by narratives than hypnotized by auteurs or superstars.

But the acting was disappointing. Undoubtedly, there are many able performers in the sizable resident company, but bad habits appear widespread.

For example, whenever the action grew intense, the performers became louder — with crisis points delivered in shrieks. There was also a good deal of "indicating" of characters' situations, often with generic emotions. Most annoying were the eye-bulging, brow-clenching, fist-raising theatrics.

There seemed a discrepancy between the level of institutional professionalism and polish and the unsubtle quality of the playing.

The choice of work was varied — popular ("Macbeth" and "Much Ado About Nothing") and less popular ("Henry VIII" and "All's Well That Ends Well") Shakespeare; spry world classics ("The Servant of Two Masters"); revamped masterpieces ("Don Quixote," adapted by Octavio Solis); American writing old and new; outdoor offerings billed as the "Green Show," and even a musical chestnut.

As Appel said, "People here are willing to listen to a play that's so obscure, and that energy goes from the audience to the actors in a way the almost spoils them."

As for two other productions, both directed by Rauch, the acting — especially by Anthony Heald as Shag (otherwise known as Shakespeare) in "Equivocation" — was stronger.

With 82 actors and 10 acting interns, OSF has the largest resident company in the country. The situation has dream potential not just for thespians craving steady work but also for audiences longing to see a seasoned ensemble.

Yet sought-after actors would have to be extremely devoted to their craft to accept an almost yearlong commitment in an area far from the media spotlight.

Still, Rauch has brought to OSF more than enthusiasm. He's come with a vision, aesthetic and political, to build on the achievements of Appel, who, talked of having "raised the profile of the festival among theater artists" expanded the operation and broadened the repertory.

Raising the level of acting — the most pressing order of business — is a top priority for Rauch. He wants performers to continually confront new directorial perspectives (recognizing that comfort can lead to complacency), and he's appointed Scott Kaiser as director of company development, a new position dedicated to "the long-term growth of each artist and the company as a whole."

There are also weekly ateliers for actors to work on their craft. And he's assigned one group of actors to serve as an acting resource for new play development — especially exciting when you look at the names of those commissioned for the History Cycle, including Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang and Culture Clash.

In short, there are reasons for artists to buy, so to speak, OSF stock. After all, there aren't many places in America where talent can be stretched in so many directions. Or where diversity in casting translates into finding the best actor for the role, regardless of race, type or physical challenge.

In "The Music Man," Marian the librarian was played by black actress Gwendolyn Mulamba, and Howie Seago, a hearing-impaired actor, took the role of Marcellus Washburn. Last season saw a multiracial "Our Town," directed by Chay Yew on the Elizabethan Stage, the first 20th-century play at the outdoor theater.

Rauch says he's trying to create an atmosphere in which "risk is rewarded rather than punished." But when asked if he finds it hard to make those end-of-year decisions about which actors will be invited back, he replied with a single word: "Yes."

But his ultimate concerns are the "mission of the theater and making the work stronger."

"The Music Man" and "Equivocation" were robustly staged and augur better things to come. With less deadwood in the company and more chemistry between the leads, the pared fluidity of Rauch's production of Meredith Willson's musical would be right at home at the first tier of regional theaters.

And Cain's drama, burgeoning with smart and snappy writing (too much perhaps for one play), signals that contemporary dramatists will be encouraged to imagine along the same grand lines of their classical predecessors, who will always be OSF's chief lure.