King Cymbeline's ancient British kingdom holds both human and extra-human creatures in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of 'Cymbeline.' - Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham

Romance and adventure on the Elizabethan Stage

"Cymbeline," "The Heart of Robin Hood" and "A Midsummer's Night Dream" will turn the outdoor Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival into an enchanted forest, where wrongs are put right, long-lost siblings are reunited, a bandit develops a social conscience and young lovers are put under an awkwardly confusing spell. And, because summer is a time for fairy tales, all three plays have a happy ending.

The Elizabethan Stage opens Friday, June 14, with "Cymbeline." "The Heart of Robin Hood" premieres on Saturday, June 15, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens on Sunday, June 16. Previews of all three plays begin Monday, June 4.

The repertory productions use the same lush forest set designed by veteran OSF scenic designer Michael Ganio, artfully combining the Elizabethan Stage's unique permanent architecture with some surprises.

"All three plays have a strong nature setting for at least part of their stories, so we are sharing the same physical environment for all three plays," says OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, director of "Cymbeline." "For the first time, the set does not have to be changed for each play. Michael designed this wonderful playground."

"Cymbeline" is one of Shakespeare's later plays, those works that are described as tragic-comic romance. The story line weaves a tale of abducted princes, a fleeing princess, an evil queen, dastardly deeds, noble sacrifice and reunited lovers. "The story moves from the tragic to an improbably comic ending," says Rauch. "It is told with the energy and joy of a child telling a fairy tale."

Rauch describes the world of "Cymbeline" as filled with quicksilver changes in tone and genre. "It is a mixture of romance, tragedy, comedy and history."

The play has classic elements like the cruel stepmother, the mistreated princess lost in the woods and potions that simulate death. "Bill is emphasizing those fairy tale aspects, without being obvious or heavy-handed," adds assistant director Dawn Monique Williams.

"We've set the production in a medieval fairy tale world," adds Rauch. "Just as Shakespeare moves between ancient Britain, Rome and a stylized court, we've placed each setting in a different era — a deliberately anachronistic spirit."

In contrast, "The Heart of Robin Hood" is a contemporary creation written by David Farr for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. The production, directed by Minneapolis-based designer-director Joel Sass, takes a new look at the old folk tale while keeping a medieval-feeling setting.

"Farr has a very contemporary approach to the story," says the production's dramaturg, Philippa Kelly. "Robin Hood starts as a scoundrel but becomes worthy enough to win the hand of Maid Marion."

The play's Maid Marion — here just plain "Marion"— is no helpless damsel fleeing to the woods to escape the clutches of the evil Prince John. When Robin Hood won't let her join his outlaws, she becomes Martin of Sherwood, one-upping him on banditry by giving her loot to the poor. When Marion and Robin learn of two orphaned children who are to be hanged by John's henchman, they join forces to fight for truth, justice and the security of the realm.

"In spite of some scary stuff, this is a family show, with a tone that is fun and frolicsome. There are two strong child characters, and they have a real stake in the action," says director Sass.

For "A Midsummer Night's Dream," director Christopher Liam Moore sets the play in 1964, in a parochial high school right after the startling changes to the Catholic Church that emerged from Vatican II. The young lovers are students, the "mechanicals" are bumbling faculty, Theseus, the headmaster, is a former priest, and Hippolyta is a nun who has renounced her vows to marry him.

"I see this play as an exploration of the stages of love," says Moore. "There is young love, mature love, and love that learns to compromise."

Kelly, who also worked as dramaturg on this production, sees Moore's concept as an opportunity to consider "A Midsummer Night's Dream"— often described as a "nearly perfect play"— in a totally different environment.

"It's still about allegiances, passions, rebelling against conventions," says Kelly. "In the forest, this green world, human complexity is released, and the characters are able to transform themselves. This production takes the beautiful text and makes it speak to a contemporary social history and context."

"Cymbeline," "The Heart of Robin Hood" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" play in repertory Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Elizabethan Stage through Oct. 13. For more information, visit www.osfashland.org or call 541-482-4331.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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