Through a glass, darkly or not

We're in the audience at the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Our Town."

"They're doing it again," a friend whispers.

"Doing what?"

"Going for the laughs."

Later, another friend is talking about the same performance.

"They didn't screw it up," he says. "They just went with the script."

Two viewpoints, different times, same play.

It is astonishing, if you think about it, that talented men and women put their heads together over words that Thornton Wilder put on paper 70 years ago and figure out ways for actors and other artists to present those words on a stage, and that people in the thousands pay good money to go and see how it all comes out when they could be home in bed.

And then they think about what they saw, and talk about it with each other.

Another year's worth of openings at the OSF's Elizabethan Stage is in the books. And not a bad production in the lot. Of course you'd like, as a critic, to be able to cut like a laser through the glitz and the hype and cry triumphantly that the emperor is naked. But if it's good it's good, and you can't say it's bad.

"Othello" is a straight, powerful take on Shakespeare's jealousy tragedy. "Our Town" plays with a certain darkness moved to the foreground. "The Comedy of Errors" is an adaptation, with music, that brilliantly plunks the Bard's silliest play down in the Old West.

"Comedy" gets the nod as the one you take visitors to see. It's so full of brilliant things I won't even begin, lest they eat up too much space here. Most of the kudos go to director Penny Metropulos and her creative team, but you get the feeling that a note here and a bit of business there may be due to actors being allowed to try stuff and hitting pay dirt.

But about my friends' reactions to "Our Town." I don't think there's a disagreement. It's more like the blind guy feeling different parts of the elephant.

There were a lot of laughs in the first two acts of "Our Town." In part, that's because they're there in the text. Not so much when you read it, but they're always going to come out more when spoken by live actors (who doesn't want to hear a laugh?) in front of a live audience.

And in part I believe it's because audiences on the West Coast laugh more readily than their New York counterparts. That's about being laid back. And about generosity. And sometimes it's just inappropriate. I've seen a West Coast audience chuckle its way through "King Lear." An actor told me that's the fault of the production, but I'll bet the same show gets fewer laughs in New York.

It's also because in "Our Town" the first two acts are sweetness and light about life and love and the third is about death. I didn't hear much laughing in the third act. I'm guessing director Chay Yew left the light touch in the first two acts to enhance the dynamics and contrast with the third, much as a symphony may be all pianissimo just before the fortissimo part.

The Romans had a saying, memento mori. It means remember your death. They probably took it as an excuse to party. Later, the Christians turned it around, into a reminder to think about eternity. Medieval art is full of it. Wilder wanted to remind us to live, every, every minute. "Our Town" is a piece of memento mori art, and as Emily dies, and the real stars shine in the sky above the theater, you get that.

My other friend, the guy who said they stayed with the text, was also right. I believe that Yew and dramaturg Judith Rosen looked as deeply into the text as they could, and what we saw reflected that. But I think that's usually true of any director looking at any play.

But there is no One True Script to see. We always see through our own glass. Does "Our Town" have a dark side? Yes. Is it sweet and simple and filled with myth and platitudes? Yes. Is Wilder trying to upset us or comfort us? That's the question the director faces, and the theater has been for a long time a director's medium.

You can even argue that something as far out as Metropulos & Co.'s adaptation of "Comedy" is an attempt to get truly at its heart. Remember, it didn't play in the 1590s as a museum piece.

Both my friends' points are well-taken. And I'm willing to give directors a very wide scope of leeway. Heck, I'd like to see an "Our Town" in which Grover's Corners becomes, say, the corner of Gibbs and Webb streets in 1950s Brooklyn, and George hopes to play for the Dodgers. Maybe an "Othello" with a white Moor amid the Gullah of the Low Country region of Georgia and South Carolina, and Cyprus out in the Sea Islands. I'd buy tickets to that.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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