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Quills & Queues: Looking back on OSF’s almost-concluded season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will go dark at the end of October. Final performances on Oct. 28 will include “Othello,” “The Way the Mountain Moved” and “Sense and Sensibility.” The festival has been under some significant logistical challenges in 2018, which have included the laying off of 16 staffers due to financial losses of some $2 million as a result of the wildfire smoke that plagued Ashland and the surrounding areas for much of the company’s high season.

Artistic Director Bill Rauch — an important asset for the festival who has brought in strong, contemporary productions and significant new revenue — will be leaving in 2019 to assume artistic leadership of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts in Manhattan. In a one-two punch for the festival’s morale, Cynthia Rider, the executive director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 2013, also announced that she will be leaving the company as soon as a replacement is found.

In what may be remembered as OSF’s annus horribilis, yet another significant setback arrived when Paul Gardner Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and major OSF benefactor with an estimated net worth of $21.7 billion, died Monday in Seattle at the age of 65. His largess has long benefited many aspects of the organization, with the Allen Elizabethan Theatre — the crown jewel of the festival campus — being named after him following a $3 million gift in 2013. That theater space, the primary outdoor venue of the company, has been most hard hit by smoke cancellations during 2018. Suggestions for solutions have ranged from finding alternative indoor venues on “smoke days,” which have becoming something of a tradition in the Rogue Valley, hitting small businesses and major venues alike, to building a retractable roof over the Elizabethan, a project that would incur vast expense and would require significant financial backing from donors at Mr. Allen’s level in order for the project to gain momentum.

Still, the festival is extraordinarily resilient, with a budget of well over $30 million and attendance in excess of 400,000, many of whom include school groups and emerging audiences that should manage to keep OSF afloat for many years to come.

Particularly strong productions for the season were “Snow in Midsummer,” a brilliant production written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and based on the classical Chinese drama “The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth” by Guan Hanqing, as well as “Manahatta,” Mary Kathryn Nagle’s world premiere play about the commercial exploitation of the Lanape people at the hands of the Dutch. Seat-filling crowd pleasers were also on hand, with Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and the ribald and irreverent “Book of Will” by Lauren Gunderson taking center stage. Mr. Rauch’s direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” also proved enormously popular.

However, with the wildfire debate in California and Oregon continuing to rage and a consensus among fire specialists, forest service and most climate scientists that the West Coast will be in for similar smoky scenarios for perhaps two decades hence, it is unclear as to whether the festival, and the small Ashland community for which OSF is its life blood, will continue to thrive. For now, however, it is generally acknowledged that the trials being suffered due to circumstances beyond OSF’s control are caused less by personnel issues or a lack of production value and more by a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors that will decide for themselves if — and when — the air will be clear again over Bardway.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Daniel Jose Molina, foreground, in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2018 production of "Henry V." (Photo courtesy of OSF)