by MOLLY GILMOREPhoto from Alchemy Restaurant at The Winchester Inn
In Ashland, Oregon, the plays are the thing — with apologies to William Shakespeare — but they’re not the only thing.
The small Southern Oregon town is best known as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation’s largest and oldest professional regional rotating repertory theater.
The abundance of theater — which extends beyond the bard to include both contemporary and classic productions — is certainly the main reason to visit. The festival runs for nine months of the year and produces 11 plays on three stages.
You can’t see all of them in one visit, because most don’t run for the full season, but since the plays rotate, you can catch many of them if you stay long enough. And once you start hearing the buzz — you’re likely to find yourself dining near actors as well as enthusiastic theatergoers — you’re likely to wish you were seeing more than you’d planned to.
Catch at least one in the 1,190-seat Elizabethan Theatre, an outdoor theater inspired by London’s 1599 Fortune Theatre. The experience of being in the theater under the open sky, hearing the trumpet sound and watching the flag go up to mark the start of the show, is not to be missed.
And if theater ever becomes too much of a good thing (another phrase Will coined), there are lots of other adventures to be had.
Forthwith, here’s The Olympian’s handy guide to the top pastimes in the town where all the world’s a stage:
See a Shakespeare play: The festival has been putting these on since 1935, when founder Angus Bowmer came up with the idea to put on a couple of plays in conjunction with the city’s Fourth of July festivities. Fearing the plays would lose money, the city decided to put on boxing matches, too. But in fact, ticket sales for the plays covered not only the expenses of the festival, but also the losses incurred by the boxing.
This season, choices are “Twelfth Night” (through Oct. 30), “Hamlet” (June 7-Oct. 14), “The Winter’s Tale” (June 9-Oct. 16), “Richard III” (July 5-Oct. 30) and “Timon of Athens” (July 28-Oct. 29).
“Twelfth Night,” set in 1930s Hollywood, becomes a grand musical comedy, complete with elaborate song-and-dance numbers. But what sets this play apart is Sara Bruner’s androgynous take on the roles of Viola (who spends most of the play disguised as a boy, Cesario) and her twin, Sebastian. The play, written around 1600, here manages to be both a perfect 1930s period piece and a thoroughly modern tale about living life without disguises.
If that’s not reason enough to see it, “Twelfth Night” was the first play to be performed at the festival, making its debut July 2, 1935.
See a play by someone else: The range is broad, from “The Wiz” in the Elizabethan Theatre (June 8-Oct. 15) to the world premiere of “Roe” (April 20-Oct. 29), Lisa Loomer’s play about Roe v. Wade.
Marisela Treviño Orta’s “The River Bride” (through July 7) is another world premiere. This modern fable about two sisters and a mysterious stranger pulled from the Amazon during a storm is simply enchanting. At once magical and realistic, it celebrates courage and the power of love, and shows the tragic consequences of a failure to take risks. As director Laurie Woolery wrote in the playbill, “ ‘The River Bride,” is a cautionary tale for adults on how to navigate matters of the heart.”
With a cast of just six, a run time short enough that there’s no intermission and a spare set that calls to mind illustrations in a book of fairy tales, “The River Bride” is in some ways as far from Shakespeare as you could get. Yet the story itself feels timeless. While magic realism isn’t a term often applied to the Bard, it does fit many of the comedies.
See a Green Show — or several: The Green Shows, which happen in a green space set among the festival’s theaters, offer an array of free entertainment. Among this year’s offerings are a choir from Uganda, flamenco dancers, folksingers, a Native American storyteller, Chinese acrobats and Cornflower, Ashland’s own one-man a cappella jam band. It happens at 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (June 7-Oct. 16). osfashland.org/greenshow.
Walk: One of Ashland’s big charms is that pretty much everything is within walking distance. It’s easy to fall into a leisurely rhythm of walking to lunch, walking back to your lodging for a siesta, and then walking back downtown for dinner and a show.
And the town is full of historic homes and lovely flower gardens, so the walk will be a pleasant one.
The best place to walk, though, is Lithia Park, a 93-acre jewel that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park boasts duck ponds, a playground, tennis courts and performances by cellist Daniel Sperry, who began playing in the park at his son’s request and discovered to his surprise that passersby had left money in his cello case.
The park was named for the lithium-rich mineral water that is piped to the park (and to a large fountain downtown) from a spring several miles away. At one time, there were even plans to make Ashland into a mineral springs resort. Although the water has been said to have health benefits, the fountains dispensing it were shut off in January after health officials found high levels of barium in the water.
If you want to spend more time on your feet, Ashland and environs offer lots of hiking options. alltrails.com/us/oregon/ashland.
Visit Crater Lake National Park: The lake, about a two-hour drive from Ashland, formed after a violent eruption caused the collapse of Mount Mazama’s caldera. Fed only by rain and snow, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and is known for its stunning cobalt-blue water. Hiking, swimming, touring the lake by boat and scenic drives are among the options at Crater Lake, Oregon’s only national park. nps.gov/crla.
Go rafting or kayaking: Both the Klamath and Rogue rivers are popular whitewater destinations, and area outfitters offer trips as short as a half day on the Rogue.
Taste wine: In 2016, Wine Enthusiast chose Ashland as one of the top 10 wine-travel destinations in the country. It’s in the Rogue Valley American Viticultural Area, which boasts a varied climate where a range of grapes can thrive. winesnw.com/rogue.html,southernoregonwines.org/rogue-valley.
If you want to taste without getting back in the car, Ashland can accommodate that, too. EdenVale Winery’s Enoteca, 17 N. Main St., offers tastings and wine by the glass and bottle along with small plates; and Liquid Assets, 96 N. Main St., has an array of wines, a complete bar and a full dinner menu.
OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVALWhat:
The festival — which produces world premieres as well as Shakespearean classics and shows that fall somewhere between — is the reason Ashland, Ore., has become an internationally known tourist destination.When:
February through October.Where:
15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon.Tickets:
WHERE TO EATAlchemy Restaurant and Bar
: 35 S. Second St. Has memorable dishes. Favorite from last summer was a sweet and savory blueberry soup with bacon and garlic. alchemyashland.com, 541-488-1115.The Ashland Food Co-op:
237 N. First St. Serves salads, soups, sandwiches and an array of hot dishes. There are more choices than at a restaurant, and it’s a great deal for high-quality food.ashlandfoodcoop.com, 541-482-2237.Morning Glory:
1149 Siskiyou Blvd. This is the breakfast favorite of Ashland residents and serves lunch, too. Notable dishes include banana-bread French toast and a salmon scramble. 541-488-8636.NW Raw:
370 E. Main St. Has organic juices and raw foods, and on warm days, it’s open to the street. Try it even if you prefer standard fare. Smoothies, salads and a delicious chocolate pudding made mostly from avocado are highlights. nwraw.com, 541-708-6363.
WHERE TO STAYThe Ashland Creek Inn:
70 Water St. Gets great reviews in the media and from visitors. It boasts elaborately furnished rooms, each themed around an international city. Has a beautiful and convenient setting along Lithia Creek. Includes a multicourse breakfast prepared by a full-time chef. Rates are $140-$450 per night. ashlandcreekinn.com, 541-482-3315.Read the original report on TheOlympian.com.