Wherefore Art Thou, Ashland?

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A Comic-Con for Shakespeare freaks. People out in the street dressed up as their favorite characters — Hamlet, Othello, Juliet, Puck — verbally jousting with lines from their respective plays.

That’s what I expected to find when I arrived at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

I quickly learned that I had underestimated the operation. This was no amateur hour, but a group of serious thespians creating high-quality theater (with a little help from a $26 million annual operating budget) for one of the largest and longest-running Shakespeare festivals in the world.

Not only that, but it isn’t just a weekend-long affair. The festival runs eight months of the year, and I had hit it during its peak season.

My first order of business was a behind-the-scenes tour that the festival offers. Kate Mulligan, an actress in two of this year’s plays who warned “I’m an Irish girl, and I can talk a blue streak,” was our guide.

First, Kate took us to the traditional open-air Elizabethan theater — the type of theater Shakespeare’s plays were intended to be performed in, with minimal background sets, to let the audience’s imagination fill in the scene.

“A wonderful thing called the Chautauqua Circuit used to run right through here in the late 1800s and stop at the Elizabethan for several days each year, “ Kate explained.

The storied traveling theater group — what Theodore Roosevelt called “the most American thing in America” — would begin in New York and end in southern Oregon each year. “The current festival owes its existence to the Chautauqua Circuit,” Kate said.

But the most interesting part of the tour was the costume and make-up area.

“This is where we all hang out between shows. It’s always buzzing with energy,” Kate explained. “I’ll be in my funereal dress playing Bananagrams with a Pirate of Penzance,” she said as she walked us by a lounge area with black leather sofas.

During the course of the tour, Kate talked about the two plays she was in, George Kaufman’s Animal Crackers and Medea Macbeth Cinderella. Her infectious enthusiasm convinced me to buy tickets (I had originally only gotten a ticket for Henry V.)
I was so glad I did.

Animal Crackers was a riot and Medea Macbeth Cinderella was possibly the best play I’ve ever seen. In it, the three classics are being performed simultaneously, and the clever script reveal the similarities between the main characters’ struggles.
To complete my Shakespearian experience, I stayed at a historically registered bed and breakfast called the McCall House, built in 1883, and just a block from the theaters. Each room is themed, and mine was the Phyllis Courtney, a famous Shakespearian actress.

I was worried the Victorian inn would be stuffy, but it provided a fresh minimalist take on the era, not the typical overdone and frilly one. Nola, the innkeeper, and Kerry at the front desk were most gracious hosts, and dining-room breakfast each morning with the other guests was delectable.

Baked croissant French toast with butterscotch roasted pears; Mediterranean soufflé with sundried tomato, feta, and herbs; baked cheese blintz with reduced mixed berry sauce — all included in the nightly charge.

Lithia Park is another gem in Ashland and central to the original Chautauqua Circuit as well. I went for a long run along Ashland Creek and the famed “healing waters” that have a faint rotten-egg smell to them, then up theBandersnatch Trail behind the park, where I took in views of the town below and snowy mountains in the opposite direction.

While I never came across any crazily-costumed thespians performing in the streets, I did visit the Renaissance Rose, which has costumes and wigs galore. I tried to convince the other patrons in the store to don their best costumes and join me for some rogue Shakespeare in the park!

Okay, no I didn’t, but the thought did cross my mind.