Thursday, May 22, 2014

OSF REVIEW: "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" (1)

Photos from the OSF production of "A Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window"

It is my great privilege to review four of the eleven 2014 shows staged by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Of the seven currently running, I am reviewing:

This is our second year reviewing OSF productions. Last year we covered "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Unfortunates" and "Two Trains Running." I do regret that I didn't start sooner. Since I was in high school drama I have had an interest in attending an OSF production. I just didn't have a real drive to see Shakespeare, I guess. My bad.

First of all, over time, I have come to enjoy the Bard's plays (some of them) and appreciate the artistry of the writer and the directors who stage his work. Secondly, I, like many of you perhaps, was not aware that the OSF did anything but Shakespeare. Only about one third of their offerings are Elizabethan plays. About a third are new works (world premieres) and the final third are classics.

This year we were able to mix it up a bit and see a work from each category (last year we didn't see anything by good William). We are especially excited about seeing a Shakespearean comedy this time around and to see a show particularly appealing to children.

Also you'll find our addition of supplemental information to help you plan your own OSF visit. Each play review will also offer an OSF Trip Tips section to help you better enjoy your visit as well as brief restaurant reviews.

I should also note that I regret not coming sooner and more often. I highly recommend the wonderful experience and that YOU not put it off like I did.

A Sign of the Times

Iris Parodus Brustein (Sofia Jean Gomez) spars with her husband,
Sidney (Ron Menzel). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Lorraine Hansberry is most famous for her play "A Raisin in the Sun" a story about a black family's experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. The play was revolutionary for its time (1959) in that it featured an all black cast and addressed social issues of the period. It was made into a movie (1961) and later adapted as a musical (1973).

Like "Raisin," "A Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" (1964) deals with social issues. Ahead of its time, it encompasses themes of race, suicide, homosexuality, politics, economics and even "hipsters," focusing on various dysfunctional characters learning to cope with life.

The work seems to be more message driven than by plot. The characters are somewhat archetypes created to encapsulate certain social forms and then, therein, to breakdown expectations. The play further examines the idea of commitment.

A Window into the Show

Alton Scales (Armando McClain) is interested in the news in Iris'
(Sofia Jean Gomez) sister's letter. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Honestly, I had trouble following and enjoying the production as an entertainment piece. Much of the play, more thematic than plot driven, rambles on without a direct line of sight. It is not until the second act that you really get where the playwright is going and then the concept seems to be more to make a point than tell a story.

Also the characters and themes of the play are ones I tend to try and run away from in real life. In other words, the play reflects aspects of life (certain types of people, certain situations, etc.) that I am uncomfortable with and try to avoid. In many ways, this play looks at the underbelly of society--a society that existed in 1964 and still exists today. It examines the darker parts of human existence.

In so doing, it (uncomfortably) reminds us of our own darkness and responsibilities, but also comforts us, possibly into the false sense, that we are "at least not that bad after all." It doesn't really offer much hope either, ending on a gloomy note. I, personally, enjoy uplifting theater for entertainment and I like to exit the theater feeling good and inspired, not depressed and scolded.

None-the-less there are many good things to say about this production. The direction, by Juliette Carrillo, was excellent and the acting good overall, with only one slight weak point. Two players stood out for me Danforth Comins as Wally O'Hara and Ron Menzel as Sidney Brustein.

Comins was strong and convincing in his role. He makes a very smooth and sometimes naive politician, seemingly wanting to do good, but selling-out in compromise, in order to do what he can. He also gave a genuine performance of warmth in friendship and sincerity in delivery.

Pre-election at the Brustein house (Ron Menzel, Sofia Jean Gomez,
Danforth Comins, Armando McClain). Photo: Jenny Graham.
However, it was Menzel who gave one of the most outstanding performances I have ever seen. The fire, tension and passion of the performance and the nuances of the character, mixed with the intense energy and finely-detailed performance (voice, face, motion) of the actor made this character real and deeply felt.

The production was well-conceived with an interesting set (laden with detailed dressing) and fantastic lighting design. The costumes were serviceable, but not necessarily iconic of the times--perhaps in an effort to show the play's timeless themes (?).

Note that the play runs a long two and a half hours, plus intermission. Curtain call clocked in at 10:45! And then I had to go to bed with the play on my mind. It was not a comfortable night. However, if you like strong performances and a lot of angst in your theatrical experiences this play is definitely for you.

More photos can be seen here.
For another perspective of this play by Dennis Sparks click here.

CAUTION: I would strongly recommend that you not bring the kids to this one. The themes are difficult (race, gender, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse) and coarse language is prevalent (especially the Lord's name used in vain) including racial and sexual orientation slurs.

OSF Trip Tips

Our fare at Thai Pepper. Photo: Ruth Zschomler
It takes about five hours to get to Ashland from the Portland area and with a trip like that, and many plays beginning at 8 p.m., you'll want to plan for an overnight stay. Since you've made the investment you might as well see three plays (or more). If you launch out in the wee hours of the morning (say 7 a.m.) you can make it down at about noon. You can see a play at 1:30 p.m. and another at 8 p.m. with dinner at one of the fine local restaurants in between. The next morning you can enjoy the area (more on that to come) and see a third show at 1:30 before heading home.

We stayed at the nearby La Quinta and enjoyed our first evening's dinner at Thai Pepper on Ashland Creek that runs through the OSF part of town. The service was very good and our waiter prompt, attentive and helpful. The food was delicious and of good quality, even if a tad pricey. The ambiance was also a delight as we sat outside along the Asland Creek, enjoying the sounds of nature.

The view from our table. Photo: Ruth Zschomler.
Ruth had Red Curry Chicken with Bamboo Shoots and Spinach and I had Garlic Pork with Coriander, Cilantro and Roasted Peppers, Tomatoes and Onions. It was fabulous! Both came with steamed rice and mine was accompanied by a delightful cucumber salad.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler
All production photos provided; dining photos by Ruth Zschomler.

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