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East Coast ‘Bardolator’ does Ashland

There’s a word for people like me: Bardolaters, people who worship Shakespeare. Which would explain my 3,000-mile pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia.

I fell in love with Shakespeare in 2008 when I decided on a whim to sit down and read all of the plays. From there I started volunteering with my local Shakespeare theater, and now 10 years later I work as a dramaturge and Shakespeare educator.

I love to travel and see how different companies perform Shakespeare, so I came up with the idea of doing a cross-country Shakespeare road trip, driving to the West Coast and back, stopping at theaters along the way. At the end of June, I rented a car and set out westward.

My destination, as any Shakespearean would easily guess, was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival here in Ashland. But a destination is only half the work; I spent days looking over maps of Shakespeare festivals around the U.S., planning my route around performance schedules.

Before arriving in Ashland, I saw 12 shows in six states, in venues as varied as city parks, college campuses, recreations of Renaissance playhouses, and an amphitheater on the shore of Lake Tahoe. The productions have ranged in style from the “original practices” of the American Shakespeare Center to the stripped-down, six-actor “Midsummer” I saw in Cincinnati. Some days I’ve spent 10 hours driving through the desert to see a production, only to hit the road right after to start on another eight-hour drive to get to another state for another show. I’ve slept on couches and in highway rest stops, all in the name of getting to the Mecca of American Shakespeare, Ashland.

I arrived in town Saturday, after a six-hour drive from Lake Tahoe, where I had seen “Macbeth” the night before (seeing Macbeth on Friday the 13th is an item that should be on every Bardolater’s bucket list.)

I saw “Love’s Labor’s Lost” Saturday evening at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre and “Henry V” Sunday evening in the Thomas Theatre. Although the two shows had different directors, were different genres, and were in different theaters, what they had in common is a powerful sense of creativity. In some theaters, simply putting actors in costumes that date from after 1650 would lead subscribers to revolt. Artistic directors have been sent to the guillotine for such offenses! But here in Ashland, directors take big risks in their big venues, and it pays off.

The “Love’s Labor’s” I saw Saturday night might be the best staging of any Shakespearean comedy I’ve ever seen. Using brightly colored paint and a live band, it created a multimedia experience. A purist might’ve been bothered by the contemporary music, or the actors’ ad-libs, or the one point where an actor broke the fourth wall to give a historical footnote about the scene. But the production not only stayed true to the spirit of Shakespeare even when it digressed from the text of the play, it managed to make one of the least accessible plays into an engaging and powerful show that had people screaming throughout and jumping to their feet at curtain call.

Similarly, “Henry V” in the Thomas Theatre is the most adventurous staging I’ve seen of a history play, and one of the best shows I’ve seen on this trip. Using the intimate black box theater and dozens of wooden crates, the show created a sparse conceptual landscape full of ingenious staging devices. This is exactly how Henry V should be staged, taking literally the chorus’ invitation to piece out their imperfections with our thoughts, rather than trying so hard and failing to create realism in a play that explicitly acknowledges that realism is impossible.

I’ll spend a couple more days in town, seeing shows and exploring before I head south to see shows in the Bay Area and Los Angeles before I turn east and head home. In San Francisco I’ll get a chance to see a rarely produced play starring an actor who began his career in a prison Shakespeare program, and in LA I’ll see Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most graphic tragedy for free in a park.

This trip has been an amazing experience so far, and while I’m sure I’ll see some impressive shows as I make my way south, it’s hard to imagine an experience that will top the time I’ve spent in Ashland. People here are so lucky to have such an amazing festival. Now that I’ve been here once, all I can think about is trying to plan my next trip back.

“I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.”

Mac MacDaniel lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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