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'Most daring, riskiest' season nears for OSF

Stories by BILL VARBLE

Libby Appel is gaga for Romeo and Juliet.

I've seen it 100 times, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's artistic director says. Every time I see it, I go, 'Wow.'

Appel's unabashed outburst of Bard-ophilia comes as she verbally lifts the curtain on the OSF's 2003 season at a brown-bag lunch for the hospitality community Wednesday at Carpenter Hall in Ashland.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet previews Friday and opens the season a week later in the festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre. The Shakespeare play at the Bowmer is sometimes thought of as the centerpiece of the festival's season.

The festival sells nearly 400,000 seats a year, and most of those playgoers at one time or another are the guests or customers of the folks in the room with Appel, so they like to be able to talk about the plays.

Appel tells innkeepers and restaurateurs that this is OSF's most daring, riskiest season, with three world premieres plus a new translation of a classic.

Also previewing over the weekend are Noel Coward's Present Laughter (Sunday) and the two plays of Continental Divide, a new cycle by the Pulitzer Prize-winning English playwright David Edgar that comprises Daughters of the Revolution and Mothers Against (Saturday).

The new translation, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, by the OSF's Jerry Turner, comes in April.

The last time Romeo and Juliet was at the Bowmer was in 1988. It's been presented in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre once since.

This time out it's directed by Loretta Greco of New York, who in her first guest stint with the festival directed Stop Kiss. She is the first woman to direct the play at the festival.

There is a balcony ' of sorts, Appel says to laughs, a reference to an OSF production without a balcony that sparked complaints from Shakespeare traditionalists.

Check your preconceptions, Appel instructs her listeners. There's no carry-on.

Questioners ask how realistic Romeo and Juliet is, how much sex and violence it has. Not very and quite a bit, are the answers.

It's informed by a contemporary sensibility, Appel says (translation: do NOT think 16th-century Verona).

Shakespeare had a deep interest in and understanding of the roles of sexuality and violence in human life, Appel says. She says the violence is highly theatrical. There is no nudity.

The two plays of Continental Divide each stand alone, but they enrich each other, she says.

You may need to go back and see No. — again after you see No. 2, Appel says.

The plays were written by Edgar for OSF and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to which they will travel in the fall. They are directed by Berkeley Rep's Tony Taccone. They are ostensibly about American politics, but about deeper issues as well.

The two plays are in very different styles. Mothers is realistic and domestic in the style of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Daughters is a journey play, in which a man's Odyssey is lit by a splashy, high-tech production with video, projections and elaborate sound.

It's large, deep, broad, Appel says. Shakespearean.

Noel Coward's Present Laughter, directed by Peter Amster, about a Coward-like character with big romantic entanglements and an ego to match, is neither bold nor contemporary nor political, Appel says. Just fun.

For openers, 'Romeo and Juliet' flexes its muscle Loretta Greco is the first one to tell you she's not an old Shakespeare hand. So don't look for her production of Romeo and Juliet to come off as familiar territory in the first Shakespeare play she has ever directed.

Think sleek, stylish and contemporary, she says.

Really dynamic.

As was the New York-based director's first effort at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Diana Son's Stop Kiss in the 2000 season.

It's simple, Greco says. There are not a lot of bells and whistles.

The production reportedly features a high-fashion, urban look with big billboards carrying upscale commercial messages that may or may not suggest ironies. The design is black and white and grays with a white set.

Unlike many directors, and many audiences, Greco says she did not grow up on Shakespeare.

It is not something I cannot live without, she says. I wanted to make something fresh. I want it to be sexy, but with muscle.

Some fans think there's only one way to do Shakespeare. I get very Italian about this. I don't believe there's only one way.

She wants audiences to feel the heat of Romeo's first sight of Juliet, the different sort of heat around the Montagues and Capulets on the streets.

The play relies quite a bit on the First Quarto, a so-called bad quarto made from the recollections of actors, along with the more popular Second Quarto and later Folio versions of the play about the star-crossed lovers, Greco says. A partial result is that it's short, under two-and-a-half hours with an intermission.

Greco says she loves the hybrid feel of the tale, which is part romance and part tragedy.

She doesn't buy the view that it's a tragedy of accident or fate.

It's a tragedy of the city, she says. A tragedy of hate.