Experiencing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland

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All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” – William Shakespeare

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Shakespeare is a writer I’ve always loved and quoted. People may say his plays are antiquated and irrelevant, but I find the opposite to be true. I find his plays to be some of the few that do translate well to modern times, especially when you have productions like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, updating and revamping Shakespeare and his contemporaries constantly.

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From the moment I was first introduced to my local Shakespeare Santa Cruz  production of King Lear when I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I always imagined Ashland to be this beautiful place with constant Fall foliage, and a Shakespeare Festival that’s world-renonwned and captivating.

When I recently made it to Ashland for the first time at the age of 25, I was not disappointed by my childhood dreams of attending an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production (or two!).

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Photo by Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival began in 1935 by Angus L. Bowmer, and it has only continued to produce phenomenal actors, plays, and has won Tony Awards as proof of its caliber.

The first Elizabethan stage in America was constructed where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival now takes place, and its first production was on July 2nd, 1935, showing the classic, Twelfth Night. Throughout the course of its existence the OSF has put on all 37 Shakespeare plays, as well as original productions and other famous plays.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

I was lucky enough to attend two plays while I was in town: Guys and Dolls and the new favorite, Head over Heels.

My first night I went to see the riveting Guys and Dolls at the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. I had seen Guys and Dolls once before at a school production at UC San Diego, but the one I saw put on by the OSF blew me away.

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Kate Hurster as Sarah Brown. Photo by Jenny Graham.
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Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

I’ve always been enamored with early 20th century New York City, and Guys and Dolls is seriously the perfect production to go see if you’re fond of that time period.

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Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker). Photo by Jenny Graham.
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Miss Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Even when it’s not a Shakespeare play, the OSF knows how to put on a bawdy and fun show that Shakespeare would’ve definitely approved of if he was still alive today.

Originally based on the short stories from the American author Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls is a musical adapted by Frank Loesser and created into a Broadway hit that won the Tony Award in 1950. It’s set in the streets of New York City, with the play centered around the notorious Nathan Detroit trying to find a spot for his crap game. It’s a whirlwind of great music, whimsical plots, and two love stories intertwined.

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Miss Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordlie) astonishes the Hot Box Girls (from left, Briawna Jackson, Alyssa Birrer, Britney Simpson) with her news, as Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) looks on. Photo by Jenny Graham.

My favorite scenes of the night were to the soundtrack of “Crapshooters Dance”, “Luck be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat”.

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Guys and Dolls Ensemble, directed by Mary Zimmerman. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Even with OSF’s production running a grand total of 2 hours and 25 minutes with an intermission, I was left wanting more when the curtains went down and the deafening whistles went up from the audience.

With how much I enjoyed my first night of OSF, I was in for even more of a treat the second night with Head Over Heels. Also a musical, the premise behind this one is inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century romance, Arcadia, and written by Jeff Whitty, with music by the Go-Gos.

And yes, if you’re wondering, it was a marvelous combination.

The Guys and Dolls ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham
The Head Over Heels ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.
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Gynecia (Miriam A. Laube) and Philoclea (Tala Ashe). Photo by Jenny Graham.

This one was performed in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, and I couldn’t believe how much energy from start to finish all of the actors had, using every inch of the stage, interacting with audience members, and singing their hearts out. One of the leads, Bonnie Milligan, has such an incredible voice I almost fell out of my seat.

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Philanax (John Tufts) and Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). Photo by Jenny Graham.
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Basilius (Michael Sharon) and The Oracle (Michele Mais). Photo by Jenny Graham.

It consisted of fun, irrelevant Elizabethan humor, and a laid-back but professional and confident attitude you often don’t see in the world of theater. Even though the play was set in Elizabethan times, used music from the 1980s rock band, The Go-Gos, and brought up modern-day romances in the LGBTQ realm, it somehow worked really well.

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Basilius (Michael Sharon), Gynecia (Miriam A. Laube) and family (Ensemble). Photo by Jenny Graham.
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Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), Philanax (John Tufts), Philoclea (Tala Ashe), and Mopsa (Britney Simpson). Photo by Jenny Graham.

There were multiple times during the night I was laughing out loud and clapping along to the beat of the music. The fool was the best part of the whole show, he was hilarious.

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Musidorus (Dylan Paul). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Overall, I had a really good time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the best part is that it’s affordable no matter what you’re financial situation. Seats range from a variety of prices, and obviously the better seats the higher the price, but you can find seats for as low as $30. There were people before every show that had a sign asking for free tickets, so that could work as well depending on whether you’re not too worried about guaranteed tickets.

The OSF also offers the Green Show during the day, set up outside of the theaters. The Green Show has a stage and puts on free entertainment throughout the summer and fall from Tuesday through Sunday. When I was there, The Wild Zappers and National Deaf Dance Theater were performing.

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Photo by Jenny Graham.

As you can see, there are a lot of options depending on your time in the area and your budget. And there is honestly a play genre for everyone, unless you absolutely hate theater. During this season alone there were 11 different productions, and there are always at least a few Shakespeare plays or humor references thrown into the mix.

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Photo by David Cooper.

If you’re in the Ashland or Southern Oregon area, I would highly recommend going to at least one Oregon Shakespeare Festival play. If you’re able to see a show at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, even better, it was a magical experience.

Regardless of where you see the performance, you will not be disappointed with the quality. It’s the thing to do in town and very much intertwined in Ashland culture.

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As Shakespeare once said, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival generously hosted me for the two plays I attended, but, as always, all opinions are my own. 

Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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