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OSF Opening: In Review

'Babylon' debut stirs gift of love

" the Waters of Babylon," this season's opening production — in OSF's New Theatre is a beautiful and rewarding collaboration between — playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Bill Rauch and actors Catherine — E. Coulson and Armando Duran. The title comes from Psalm 137, " the — waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." — It is a psalm - and a play - about exile, loneliness and hope.

OSF presented the West Coast premiere of Schenkkan's play, — "Handler" in 2002. Just as "Handler," was about love, death and redemption, — Schenkkan has limned similar themes on a more intimate canvas in " the — Waters of Babylon."

As the play opens, Catherine (Coulson) is showing Arturo — (Armand Duran) the garden she's hired him to reclaim. She chatters on, — a bit diffident but loquacious thanks to the booze hidden in her Coke — can.

Arturo is equally diffident, gruff and wary. We get enough — information from their initial exchange to realize that these two middle-aged — people are well educated, perfectly mannered and deeply wounded. Arturo — is Cuban, an exile in a hostile, unwelcoming land. (It strikes me as a — bit odd that he would end up in Austin, Texas.) Catherine reveals that — she's been "shunned" by her neighbors. "Shunned" - a strange, ancient — biblical word.

late afternoon, the garden has been tamed and Catherine — has asked Arturo to show her how to make a "mojito," a Cuban drink, beloved — by Papa Hemingway, concocted from mint, sugar, lime juice, ice and soda. — (The recipe is deliciously deadly enough that I warrant a good segment — of the audience will go out and try one.) As the mojitos go down, Arturo — and Catherine become comfortable enough to reveal the demons beneath the — surface.

Arturo was a writer in Cuba. He deeply loves his "patria," — despises Castro and what Cuba has become. Catherine is a witty, literate — woman who has always felt an outcast. When she was assiduously courted — by her graduate school professor, the romance was irresistible. But the — marriage proved to be a verbal and physical hell from which death seemed — the only escape. Slowly, as their pain is revealed, Arturo and Catherine — find common threads and become friends.

" the Waters of Babylon" was commissioned by the festival. — Schenkkan had just unexpectedly fallen in love motivating an idea for — a love story between two mature adults from widely different backgrounds. — Schenkkan took this vague schematic to Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF's Director — of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, and a received a commission to — write the play. Rauch was hired as the director. Schenkkan involved Rauch, — Coulson and Duran throughout the writing process. According to Schenkkan — and Rauch, it was a deeply satisfying collaboration.

Schenkkan's writing here has a musical structure. He has — given each character alternating soliloquies and then brings them together — for duets. The playwright steeped himself in Cuban cultural and political — history. Arturo's description of the genesis of Cuban music - the Cuban — soul - is glorious. The recounting of Arturo's "accidental" escape from — the island is harrowing and tragic but no less lyrical.

In contrast, Catherine's second act soliloquy spins and — weaves with hypnotic horror. the time we reach Schenkkan's passionate — finale, we are in love with these two awkward, lonely people and soar — with them as they find redemption.

Coulson and Duran are, indeed, truly well matched. These — are not your standard "beautiful people." They have lived, loved and, — perhaps, lost. Their characters are totally believable, totally engrossing — and as fantastical as Schenkkan's ending is, it works well in the context — of what we've learned about the characters as the action unfolds.

OSF veteran guest scenic designer Michael Ganio designed — the lush sets, opening with the brackish, strangled, weed-filled garden — that is an apt metaphor for Arturo and Catherine and then morphing into — an equally lush bedroom. James F. Ingalls provided the effective lighting — effects. Denise Damico's costumes subtly evoke not only Texas and the — South but also the emblematic colors of Arturo's Orishas - those all-too-human-like — gods and goddesses of Cuba's religion of Santeria that is as much a part — of Arturo's identity as his beloved salsa music. Sound design is by Jeremy — J. Lee.

Sometimes, if we're lucky, love finds us when we least — expect it and lifts us to places we never expected to see. Schenkkan's — play and OSF's production does both. " the Waters of Babylon" plays — in the New Theatre through June 24.

Richard III is the villain you love — to hate

Shakespeare wrote some really great villains. But his — Richard III really enjoys being a villain. Starting with his ironic opening — soliloquy, where he lays out exactly what he plans to do and how he's — going to do it, Richard positively relishes creating havoc on his way — to his brother's throne, using every weapon including outrageous flattery, — insidious character assassination and the trappings of ostentatious piety. —

"Richard III," the 2005 OSF season opener, is a fitting — and triumphant conclusion to Shakespeare's history cycle recounting of — England's Wars of the Roses. It ends with the first of the Tudors, Henry — VII, Earl of Richmond, deposing Richard III and marrying Edward IV's daughter, — finally uniting the Yorks and the Lancasters.

In this production, director Libby Appel definitely relishes — what she describes as Richard's "unparalleled mixture of glee and menace" — and she has found the right actor to portray him in James Newcomb.

Richard III can be played darkly and humorlessly evil. — I remember seeing Al Pacino do Richard on Broadway in the mid-70s. Poor — Al was not enjoying himself. He just wanted that damn throne. Laurence — Olivier's performance, captured on film, has the humor but his Richard — is sly. Newcomb, who has been with OSF for eleven seasons, is an incandescent — Richard. If he isn't beloved, by St. George, he's going to have fun getting — his revenge.

But Shakespeare's "Richard III" also has many levels, — many subtexts. The brutality of the politics is very real. So, too, is — the heart-wrenching pain of the royal women who see their husbands and — sons sacrificed to the gods of war and treachery. Appel uses all of these — themes - these major and minor key melodies, so to speak - and weaves — them together into a satisfying symphonic whole.

Some of Appel's ploys are subtle - the use of color and — the cut of the costumes, for instance. There is also Rachel Hauck's austere — and elegant set, the clever use of Todd Barton's score and Robert Peterson's — evocative lighting. Some of Appel's touches are blatant - Richard's deep — red coronation robe cascading like blood behind him as he descends a stairway. — Appel has the graceful and athletic Newcomb play the misshapen and crippled — Richard as deceptively handicapped, just as Richard's unctuous demeanor — belies his duplicitous character. Shriveled, twisted, dependent on crutches, — Newcomb's Richard positively flies across the stage and over obstacles, — using his posture as a ruse, those crutches as pivots and vaulting poles — to dominate the stage, the other characters and the action.

One of Appel's most successful inventions is to have the — play's women - the hapless queens - proceed onto the stage as a Greek — chorus in a prologue. Appel has taken a late scene in the play, where — Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI (Robin Goodrin Nordli), Queen Elizabeth, — the widow of Edward IV and mother to the two slain princes in the tower — (Suzanne Irving), the Duchess of York, mother to Edward IV, Clarence and — Richard (Linda Alper), bewail the killings in a what becomes a ritual — chant. From the very beginning, that chant is a counterpoint to Richard's — gleeful shenanigans, emphasizing that Richard's actions have dire consequences. —

The portrayal of the political jockeying is also well-crafted. — Michael Elich's Duke of Buckingham is a wonderfully companionable evil — accomplice to Richard, an effective balance to the na've Hastings (Jonathan — Haugen) and the forthright, loyal Stanley (Brad Whitmore). Appel uses — the OSF repertory effectively with the rest of the casting: Richard Elmore's — placating King Edward, Robert Vincent Frank's repentant Clarence, Laura — Morache's wretched Lady Anne and Danforth Comins' heroic Richmond, to — name a few.

Appel has also taken the figure of the deposed dowager, — Nordli's Queen Margaret, and transformed her into a mesmerizing bedraggled, — ragged prophetess, haunting the court with what had been and what will — come again.

Not every detail of this production is perfection. While — Robin Goodrin Nordli's Queen Margaret is a hypnotic figure, you wonder — how she can hang around the court and not be better dressed. Equally disconcerting — are what appear to be gardener's kneepads on the uniforms of Richmond's — conquering army or the quick gesture of a zipper on Richmond's vaguely — 15th century battle dress, or the defiant modernity of Richard's crutches. — But these are quibbles.

Henry VII, by the way, was actually a lot like the Richard — III of this play and Richard III was much maligned by his successors. — But then, as we all know, the victors get to write their version of history. — Shakespeare probably thoroughly enjoyed writing his crafty, unabashed — villain. And I would bet that Libby Appel and her OSF team had equally — as much fun artfully bringing Richard to life this time around.

"Richard III" plays in the Bowmer Theatre through October — 30.

Old wine should be as sparkling 'Philanderer'

Robert H.Miller

George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, was just 37 — years old when, in 1893, he penned "The Philanderer," though it was not — staged until 1902. It has been rarely performed since. Now, as part of — its 2005 repertory, Oregon Shakespeare Festival rescues it from obscurity — in a production that graces the Bowmer Theatre. Old wine should be this — sparkling.

Shaw, by this time, had earned a reputation as a discerning — and incisive critic of art, music, and drama. If he had an idol other — than himself, it probably was Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist whose — plays - such as "A Doll's House," "Ghosts," "Hedda Gabler," and "The Master — Builder," all dealing with the status of women - had a powerful influence — on Shaw. It is little wonder that "The Philanderer" became a tribute to — Ibsenism and the New Woman, with Shaw conceiving the mythical Ibsen Club — in London whose membership was denied to "womanly women" and "manly men," — the sexes here being treated as equals.

When the play opens, a lady and gentleman are making love — to one another in the drawing-room of a flat in the Victoria district — of London. It is past ten at night. The gentleman is Leonard Charteris — (Derrick Lee Weeden), the philanderer, making advances to an Advanced — Woman and widow, Grace Tranfield (Vilma Silva). Others involved in the — not-too-cozy coterie are Colonel Craven (Mark Murphey) and his two daughters, — Julia (Miriam A. Laube) and Sylvia (Aisha Kabia); Joseph Cuthbertson (James — Edmondson), Grace's father; and Doctor Paramore (Jeff Cummings), the Colonel's — dubious, lovelorn physician. With three women to handle, one of whom obtained — membership in the club under false pretenses, the philanderer finds himself — bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.

Penny Metropulos directs splendidly and, since music is — the food of love, interpolates musical interludes - the work of music — director, Sterling Tinsley - that are both refreshing and revealing. Consider — the opening diversion, before the play begins, when the pageboy (John — Tufts) cuts a Cockney caper with Aisha Kabia, the theme being "Would You — Like to Spoon with Me?" Tufts is again on hand when Colonel Craven and — Joseph Cuthbertson sing a paean to a wonderful world for men. And Tufts — does a solo song and dance later to a phonograph record. This young actor — absolutely twinkles right down to his toes.

William Bloodgood's scenic design is superb. The huge — white-framed picture of a couple holding hands over a chessboard cleverly — splits apart as the play opens, setting the mood of separateness and period, — with a row of old-time footlights. When the action moves to the library — of the Ibsen Club in London, he uses another impressive painting as a — backdrop, this time of the Norwegian dramatist. The lighting design by — Michael Chybowski is highly effective.

To my ears, the English spoken here is exceptionally clean — and clear, and much of the credit must surely go to voice and text director, — David Carey, voice tutor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. — It adds so much to our enjoyment, enabling us to appreciate Shaw's lively — dialogue and the frequent Shavian shafts against Victorianism, vivisection, — medicine, and even fox hunting (banned in Britain last November).

The actors delight with scintillating performances. Ladies — first: Vilma Silva, who imparts cool assurance to Grace Tranfield; Miriam — A. Laube, passionate and petulant as Julia Craven; and Aisha Kabia, the — very self-assured teenage Sylvia Craven.

As for the men, Derrick Lee Weeden, with his sly brilliance, — is the philanderer to perfection; Mark Murphey, as Colonel Craven, querulously — mooches around at death's door, vexed and perplexed, until he brings everyone — to order as their commanding officer. It's a great scene. James Edmondson — as Joseph Cuthbertson affects an honorable earnestness; after all, he's — a drama critic and a man of some consequence. Jeff Cummings as Doctor — Paramore melts down marvelously when the British Medical Journal disclaims — the disease he supposedly discovered. Quite a contrast is his perkiness — when he pitches his woo to Julia.

Christina Poddubiuk, the costume designer dresses the — cast, men and women alike, with flair, infinite detail, and strong colors. — The gowns are gorgeous, and I specially liked the fetching trousered suit — worn by Sylvia.

In the Preface to his "Plays, Pleasant and Unpleasant, — Vol.1 (1913)," which include "The Philanderer," Shaw wrote: "There is — an old saying that if a man has not fallen in love before 40, he had better — not fall in love after. I long ago perceived that this rule applied to — many other matters as well: For example to the writing of plays, and I — made a rough memorandum for my own guidance that unless I could produce — at least half-a-dozen plays before I was 40, I had better let playwriting — alone." How fortunate for the playgoer that he met his goal.

Reality of the mule is brilliant

Chris Honor?

Consider the accolades earned by "Maria Full of Grace": — Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival; winner — of six awards at the Cartagena Film Festival; Catalina Sandino Moreno, — nominated for an Academy Award as best actress in a lead role.

This debut film, written and directed by Joshua Marston, — is electrifying, an astonishingly powerful story told with a confident — deliberateness that compels as the tension is ratcheted up, and the narrative — string pulled ever so tight.

From the opening frames, when the audience is introduced — to Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno), it becomes clear that this young woman, — working at a flower plantation stripping thorns from roses, is trapped — in a cycle that skirts poverty and offers no hope of any future other — than the one that stretches before her.

However, we quickly see that Maria is bright, gutsy and — strong-willed. When she is mistreated at work she abruptly quits and though — pressured by her family to return and apologize to her boss, she refuses. — But, like so many young women living in Colombia, she has few options — and compounding her already precarious situation, she discovers that she — is pregnant.

Knowing that she will not marry her boyfriend, that he — has no wish to marry her, she is seduced into being a "mule" by a recruiter. — This suave young man from Bogota' introduces her to a world about which — she has only the barest understanding. But the money is more than she — could ever imagine, and represents a door to her own salvation. Or so — she believes.

Giving the film a grainy, documentary texture, which enhances — the verisimilitude of the story, Marston introduces Maria and the audience — to a world that is certainly foreign and filled with unimaginable risk. —

She comes to understand that what she must do is not just — "carry" drugs to New York. She must swallow some 60 pellet-size balloons — of heroine, and when she arrives in New York, must take a laxative and — then pass them into a bathtub while the dealers wait. The dangers are — enormous: If a balloon breaks, she will die from an overdose; if she is — caught by Customs, she will be arrested and put in jail; if she tries — to escape, her family in Colombia will be killed.

To Marston's credit, Maria's journey, while gripping, — never slides into the melodramatic. None of the characters are exaggerated — or become caricatures, tempting to be sure, which only heightens the impact — of the film.

And it is impossible not to care about this young woman — who finds herself in harm's way. Because Moreno lives the role, inhabiting — her character, she turns in a performance that is not only convincing — but harrowing. The flight from Bogota' to New York alone is astonishing — for its sustained uncertainty.

Admiration for Maria, for her grit and courage, only increases — as she is repeatedly tested by one crisis after another, not only upon — her arrival at JFK but during the days that follow.

"Body packing" or smuggling ingested drugs is a reality — that is ever with us. More than 14,512 "mules" were intercepted at JFK — in 2003. The estimated amount spent annually by Americans for heroine — and cocaine is $46 billion. The average per capita income in Colombia — is $1,830. Eighty percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. For one — "mule run" a courier is paid $8,000. That is the context for this truly — astonishing film.