I recently went to Ashland, Oregon to catch the award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ashland is a pretty town just across the California border, in a valley ringed by picturesque mountains. There were both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays featured, and I had time to catch two of the five shows currently running: Hamlet and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Having seen Cat in a couple of excellent incarnations, most notably at the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival, I was pretty surprised that this version could possibly top them. But it did. One notable innovation was the set design, which remains typically static throughout the play, with all the action taking place in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom. In this production, the room switched perspective for each of the three acts, with furniture and props repositioned to demonstrate the different points of view of the main characters. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is nothing without a magnetic performance of Maggie the Cat, and Stephanie Beatriz absolutely did not disappoint in that area. Watching Maggie trying in vain to seduce her alcoholic, likely gay husband was at once mesmerizing, amusing and heartbreaking.
That said, I have to put Hamlet a bit higher on my personal scorecard. Dan Donohue makes a riveting Hamlet — I’m talking lean-forward-in-your-seat, hold-your-breath riveting — and the rest of the cast also killed, pun fully intended. (I don’t think I’ve seen an Ophelia go insane quite so compellingly as Susannah Flood.) Casting the brilliant actor Howie Seago, who is deaf, as Hamlet’s ghost father brought a layer of human poignancy to the show that I haven’t seen in any other production of Hamlet, ever.
In this show, Hamlet’s father was deaf, and so naturally, everyone close to him — his son, his wife, his brother — spoke sign language. The characters would break into sign language at key points when they were talking or thinking about the king, and in this way it brought the murdered man fully into the scene without him being present. It also added incredible depth to the relationship between father and son. At one point, Hamlet and his ghost father speak to each other entirely in sign language, and you don’t need to understand the signs to know what they are saying. The silent communication was an intimate, powerful way to convey Hamlet’s closeness to his father.
I also liked the decision to make Hamlet’s soliloquies happen in stop-motion — the actors would freeze and the stage would go dark while Hamlet spoke his thoughts aloud. It’s a cinematic treatment of the soliloquies that transferred really well to stage.
[Side note: I spotted Hamlet’s Dan Donohue and Cat’s Stephanie Beatriz walking hand-in-hand up an Ashland side street, and after doing some asking around, found out they're engaged — how cool! That's a whole lot of drama for one couple.]
Anyway. I highly recommend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to everyone. Here are a few snaps from Oregon Shakes.