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Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens the 2012 season with four plays

Overview of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's opening plays.

“Romeo and Juliet” — Angus Bowmer Theatre, Feb. 24-Nov. 4

Perhaps you’ve heard of this one. It’s sad. Also romantic, passionate, thrilling, tense, dangerous, violent, implausible, inevitable and, when done well, glorious. There’s a reason it’s possibly the best-known play of all time.

And if it seems as if it was only a few minutes ago that OSF last presented the play, well, time flies when you’re an adult. For the young folk, “R&J” is the preferred gateway into the wondrous realm of the Bard. But that gate hasn’t been opened since Bill Rauch directed a version at OSF on the Elizabethan Stage in 2007, the season before he took over as artistic director. The play last appeared in the enveloping Bowmer Theatre in 2003.

“Wanting to share it with student audiences is a big consideration,” Rauch says about the impetus to stage it again. “But Laird’s idea for it was what really had me excited.”

Laird Williamson, a frequent guest director at the festival, has chosen to set the classic tale of star-crossed lovers along the fault lines of Anglo and Hispanic cultures in 1840s Alta California, when what is now our neighboring state still was Mexican territory. To Rauch, the social divisions of that time and place have a very contemporary resonance in Oregon and elsewhere. Williamson deftly brings together the topical threads, Rauch says, without sacrificing the feel of a classic treatment of the story.

“Often I think there’s a false dichotomy drawn between productions that are culturally relevant and those that transport us to another, more lush time and place,” Rauch says.

Alejandra Escalante, who had the smaller role of Juliet in “Measure for Measure” last season, stars alongside newcomer Daniel José Molina.

“The White Snake” — Angus Bowmer Theatre, Feb. 25-July 8

The story is ancient, a Chinese folk tale about a snake spirit who, disguised as a beautiful woman, falls in love with a young scholar but must keep her true identity secret despite the efforts of a disapproving monk. This version, however, couldn’t be more up-to-the-minute: Adapter/director Mary Zimmerman, an acclaimed veteran of such Chicago theater companies as Lookingglass and the Goodman, has created her version with the OSF cast over the past several weeks. A recipient of a Tony Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, Zimmerman has plenty of experience in stage adaptations of literary classics, including “Metamorphoses” and “The Arabian Nights.”

“It’s a very nontraditional process,” Rauch says. “But Mary was so very clear with me from the beginning: ‘Look in my eyes. There will be not a single page of script before we go into rehearsal.’ So everyone was prepared for that, and it’s been really exciting. It’s a process marked by a lot of joy and laughter, and it’s been one of the happiest rehearsal rooms I’ve ever been in.”

“Animal Crackers” — Angus Bowmer Theatre, Feb. 25-Nov. 4

When it comes to comedy, the illusion of chaos is a potent device and one of the hardest to pull off effectively. Even the Marx Brothers weren’t good at it — they excelled in actual chaos.

A compelling illusion will be essential to OSF’s staging of this antic 1928 musical, written for the Marx Brothers, who also turned it into a memorably hilarious film. “It’s a vaudeville musical; it’s not really driven by a plot,” Rauch says. “It’s a set of sketches and gags and songs, and it’s held together by the loosest of threads.”

That looseness makes it complicated, and tricky to get just right. Seattle director Allison Narver, though, has some terrific comic actors at her service here, led by Mark Bedard, whose way with the anarchic arts was a key to OSF’s marvelous “The Servant of Two Masters” in 2009.

“The Seagull” — New Theatre, Feb. 26-June 22

“You love her, but she loves him/And he loves somebody else — you just can’t win!” So the J. Geils Band put it in the 1980 hit “Love Stinks.”

Anton Chekhov was a bit more subtle.

And yet, the gist of “The Seagull,” the first of the Russian dramatist’s masterpieces, is at least partly described by that rock ‘n’ roll couplet. Masha pines for Kostya, who longs for Nina, who melts for Trigorin. And so on.

Libby Appel, who holds the title of artistic director emerita at OSF, directs her own adaptation of “The Seagull,” which the festival brochure describes as a “sexy, full-blooded” version. “It’s very clean and sounds very natural coming out of the actors’ mouths,” Rauch says. “She understands the rhythms of Chekhov and the economy of how his characters express themselves. She loves this man’s work so deeply, and it shows.”

— Marty Hughley

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