Ashland, Oregon, has its annual Shakespeare festival that features an occasional play by the “Bard of Avon,” but it also mixes other period pieces and more than a few modern works in its repertoire. The Davis Shakespeare Festival, now in its ninth year, is a bit more modest in its undertakings, but this year’s two plays that just completed a six week run at the Veterans Memorial Theatre were impressive productions, even if neither was penned by the famed poet/playwright.
DSF, as it is referred to locally, is the creation of its two young artistic directors, Gia Battista and Rob Salas. Each directed one of the two plays on this summer’s schedule. The two plays could not be more different, which made the roles played by some of the same actors in both all the more remarkable, since the plays were alternated daily, and even on the same day (on Saturday matinees and evenings). One was a historical drama from the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth; the other was a madcap musical farce from the 1930s.
“Mary Stuart” was originally penned by Friedrich Schiller. The version produced by DSF was prepared by Peter Oswald. The Davis production was directed by Mr. Salas. It starred Jamie Jones as Elizabeth and Sharon Rietkerk as Mary. Both were superb, as was the entire supporting cast, which featured Ian Hopps, Hans Eleveld, Gregg Koski, Gina Harrower, William Oberholtzer and Martin Lehman.
In Schiller’s telling, the story covers a short period preceding Mary’s execution during which she is imprisoned/confined by her first cousin (once removed) on charges of treason. The terms of her confinement are somewhat undefined – she is held at the estate of Paulet (Mr. Lehman) while Elizabeth contemplates her fate, is attended by a servant (Ms. Harrower), and is allowed some freedom of movement on the estate. The early scenes in the play feature her in dialogue with her servant as she contemplates the loss of her reign over Scotland and her fealty to her Catholic faith.
Meanwhile, also in the first half of the play, Elizabeth is counseled in a number of different directions by a bevy of male advisors, one of whom, Leicester (Mr. Eleveld), is also her paramour. But Leicester is really in love with Mary, and Elizabeth has consented to be married to the King of France, so you get the picture: it’s complicated.
In the second half of the play (the original script is in five acts; the performance was divided into two, with an intermission between them), Elizabeth and Mary meet so that the queen can see the woman whose fate she controls. Their climactic scene provides Ms. Rietkerk with an extended defense of her position that morphs into an attack on the queen that effectively seals her fate.
But, in the end, the play is as much about Elizabeth’s anguish as it is about Mary’s demise. As Mr. Salas noted in the printed program, “If one approaches leadership with an iron fist, one risks losing humanity. If one approaches leadership with an open heart, one risks heartbreak.” Elizabeth, in a gripping moment that closes the play, is left alone, having quite probably lost her humanity even as her heart is broken.
The production was enlivened by the acting, even if the blocking of some of the scenes was somewhat leaden and the scenic design (by Liz Hadden-McGuire) was perhaps deliberately devoid of atmosphere (barren might be the right word). Of the ensemble, Mr. Hopps stood out as Mortimer (who is secretly leading a rebellion to free Mary, whose fealty to Catholicism he shares) while falsely pledging loyalty to Elizabeth. Mr. Lehman, as the “custodian” of Mary, was also impressive as he gradually became convinced of the injustice of her imprisonment.
But the real acting accolades are shared by Ms. Jones and Ms. Rietkerk. Each dominated the scenes they were in and provided moments of great drama in the telling of their respective battles with their circumstances. And even as Ms. Rietkerk was tearing up the scenery in her confrontation with Elizabeth in the penultimate scene, Ms. Jones’ silent response was equally as telling in conveying the scene’s impact.
“Mary Stuart” was great theater, and the review of British history was a welcomed added benefit.
“On the Twentieth Century,” the second of the two plays, could not be more different than the first. For openers, it is a musical that had a successful run on Broadway when it opened there in 1978. It won five Tony awards then and was revived as recently as 2015.
The musical (music by Cy Coleman; book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) concerns a bankrupt theater producer trying to recover his former success by inducing an actress he once discovered to star in a new production he has yet to create. And the two (along with a dozen other characters) are travelling on the luxury train known as the Twentieth Century Limited. (The real train of that title ran from Chicago to New York City from 1902 to 1967 and was famous for carrying elite passengers between the two cities.)
The set design (again by Ms. Hadden-McGuire) was also markedly different from the one for “Mary Stuart.” It was an elaborate construction of three cars of the train. The middle car was frequently turned around to show the inside of the car when action took place on the train or to show the action on the station platform when the train was at a stop. Throughout the play, scenes moved quickly from one car to another. It’s all part of the madcap nature of the story, and the set design worked perfectly for those scenes.
The production was deftly directed by Ms. Battista, and the musical accompaniment was provided by an excellent nine-piece band that was conducted by musical directors Tom Abruzzo and Kate Janzen. The band played behind the set in the back of the stage and added greatly to the overall production. (The period costumes were designed by Caitlin Cisek; Sydney Rhiannon Smith designed the lighting and Richard Chowenhill handled the sound.)
The cast was led by Sharon Rietkerk as Lily Garland (the star actress) and Christopher Ryan (the bankrupt producer). Ms. Rietkerk was superb, displaying a beautiful soprano and a comic flair that bore no resemblance to the dramatic turn she gave to her role in “Mary Stuart.” Suffice it to say, this woman can do it all. Mr. Ryan was also excellent, both in his scenes with her and in his interactions with his sidekicks, his accountant Oliver (Kyle Stoner) and his press agent Owen (Martin Lehman, shining again in a strong supporting role).
Standing out among the rest of the strong ensemble cast were Ian Hopps as Ms. Garland’s current lover, Bruce Granit, and Robin Fisher as the apparent religious zealot, Letitia Primrose. Mr. Hopps had some hilarious slapstick scenes and otherwise convincingly played his role as the somewhat desperate actor who needs Ms. Garland a lot more than she needs him. Based on his performances in both plays and the work he has done on other local productions (most notably at Capital Stage), Mr. Hopps is a budding star. Ms. Fisher had a showstopper solo in the first act (“Repent”) that put her strong singing voice and comic acting skill on display. The revelation about her in the second act was only mildly surprising, but all the more fun as it played out.
Others in the cast included Andrea Love, Charlie Lavaroni, Nicole James and Sean O’Brien. All were excellent in multiple roles.
“Twentieth Century” is as light as “Stuart” is heavy. The musical doesn’t leave you singing any of its many songs, but it is a lot of fun and, coupled with the Elizabethan play, gave ample evidence that the Davis Shakespeare Festival is a summer theater stop well worth making.