Arts & Entertainment

Review: A look at three plays being staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Danforth Comins (Macbeth) and Amy Kim Waschke (Lady Macbeth) star in "Macbeth" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Photos by Jenny Graham)

The town of Ashland doesn’t change much. It continues to provide diverse and provocative theater, an unspoiled country setting for festival-going, attractive restaurants, and a spectacular garden-park for walking.

Artistic director Bill Rauch leaves the company this season after 12 years at the helm, during which his focus has been on contemporary plays, musicals and traditional theater from other-than-Western-cultures, including nine commissions in the American Revolutions series that have been produced widely and won the company Tony and Pulitzer awards.

Nataki Garrett takes over as Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s sixth artistic director next season. She comes from CalArts Center for New Performance.  Below are three reviews of shows seen earlier this month.

‘MACBETH’

There is much to like about the new “Macbeth’’ of the summer run.

Danforth Comins as the ruthless Scottish general who cannot stop killing until he takes the throne has the kind of physicality that is right for the role. Comins is equally convincing on the battlefield as he is in the devastating  scene when he sees the ghost of Banquo and unravels before our eyes, or when he embraces Lady Macbeth, his partner in crime.

The unusual measure of passion between the Macbeths, established in a literal show of  lust, is at the foundation of this production. Amy Kim Waschke’s Lady Macbeth is uneven; she is potent when fortifying Macbeth’s resolve, yet her performance wanes in her all-important sleepwalking scene.  There is no raging about the “damned spot,” rather she seems far gone into her own ruined imagination.

Exceptional performances by Chris Butler and Rex Young anchor the show in important ways. Butler’s breakdown as Macduff when he learns of the murder of his wife and children is chilling, a high moment in the show.

Director José Luis Valenzuela suggests in his program notes that the Macbeths are basically just a nice suburban couple gone awry, and he takes the brutality of the play to a new level by making a point of displaying the unborn fetus of the murdered Lady Macduff and raising the bloodied head of Macbeth after his decapitation. A novelty that works somewhat better is the cauldron scene, where the steaming pot over which the witches preside is a claw-footed bathtub in which Macbeth lies. The staging of the weird sisters is dazzling.

Wotko Long, left, Rachel Crowl, April Ortiz, Derek Garza and Shaun Taylor-Corbett in a scene from “Between Two Knees.”

‘BETWEEN TWO KNEES’

First and foremost this season, don’t miss “Between Two Knees.”

This American Revolution commission was written by a five-man comedy troupe that goes by the name “the 1491s,”  referring to the year before Columbus arrived in the new world. The narrative follows a native American family from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to the 1973 occupation there, a standoff to protest corrupt tribal leadership. Almost everything between  the two dates is referenced: the cruelty of Indian boarding schools and the church, the various World Wars, Native American traditions, Vietnam, and in general the U.S. oppression of generations of native people.

The extremely talented cast forces us to laugh from beginning to end, and if it seems odd to find genocide and repression hilarious, they make it happen, largely because no one is spared.

Justin Gauthier, the narrator, begins by asking how many in the audience remember various Native American massacres. He is not surprised that very few if any do, and to diminish any feelings of shame, he turns the exercise into a game show, which sets the tone of the entire play.

Eric Ting, who stages with a flawless hand, calls the 1491s “fearless storytellers,’’ and so they are. “Between Two Knees’’ delivers a punch with no-holds barred; perhaps there will be donations to Indian college scholarship funds as a result.

Emily Ota (Alice), Lauren Modica (Cheshire Cat) and Daniel T. Parker in a scene from “Alice in Wonderland.”

‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’

“Alice in Wonderland’’ has been enthralling and mystifying readers ever since the late 1800s, when English writer Lewis Carroll created the story of a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a world of magical creatures. The OSF show is an adaptation of the work by Eva Le Gallienne, created during the Depression as a way of saving Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre.

The show includes both “Alice in Wonderland’’ and “Through the Looking-Glass,’’  a wildly colorful mashup of queens and other characters who are jubilant and melancholy and just plain fun.

Over time readers have thought that “Alice’’ was about drug use, child abuse and even cannibalism. However it strikes you, you can’t not like Sara Bruner’s fantastical staging, and all the characters that inhabit it: the feuding queens, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Emily Ota’s Alice herself.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland continues until late October with 11 plays running in three theaters.