ASHLAND, Ore. - Many a Shakespeare lover wishing for theatrical immersion dreams of this small town in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains 15 miles from the California border. This is where Puck spreads romantic havoc and Othello descends into a jealous boil. They are this season's leading personages in what for decades has been America's most extensive Shakespeare festival.
Attending plays naturally takes center stage on a visit to this artsy community of 20,000, but Ashland works a fuller enchantment when the visitor moves from spectator to imaginative participant. Initiate a conversation on Main Street with one of the many actors in the company, or stroll inside Lithia Park at dusk envisioning a forest fairy silently slipping behind the trees.
When I walked down the hill from the outdoor Elizabethan Theater into the park after a matinee performance of "Coriolanus," I detected the cadence of rhyme. Approaching the playground, I discovered a father pushing his daughter on a swing while reciting Robert W. Service's whimsical "Rhymes of a Red Cross Man" in rhythm with her downward swoops.
In just a day one can feel a part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival community, in large part because many actors like to connect with visitors. They lead backstage tours, participate in conversational prologues before performances, and, because of the village lifestyle, have time to hang out.
"I remember seeing Mercutio in the market last year the day after attending a performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' and chatting with him in the checkout line," said Stacy Buckley of Danville, Calif. "I don't think that's going to happen on Broadway."
Many actors lead workshops for student groups. Kjerstine Anderson, who plays Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," hurls herself to the floor one afternoon in front of 40 high school students, demonstrating a move for embodying passion that students will be able to compare that night with her onstage theatrics.
"Theater is about the dialogue," said John Tufts, who plays Puck, explaining his interest in meeting with visitors at bed-and-breakfasts. "It's good for me as an artist because I get to see what they see, and it's good for them to know the theatrical process that can seem so mysterious. This morning they wanted to learn the concept behind putting the fairies in tutus under a disco ball and also who's dating who in the company."
Though only four of the 11 plays performed each February through November season are by Shakespeare, they form an energetic center, and the playgoer dedicated enough to attend a wide sampling is likely to notice subtle Shakespearean echoes in the modern dramas. August Wilson's "Fences" portrays a bitter father-child power struggle that recalls "King Lear," while the world premiere "Welcome Home Jenny Sutter" parallels "Coriolanus," tracing the mental devastation endured by a soldier returned from war. This year's Shakespeare plays also include "Othello" and "The Comedy of Errors." The modern favorite "Our Town" will this summer become the first 20th-century play to be performed in the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Theater, built in 1935 and the oldest full-scale model in the Western Hemisphere.
Public performance in Ashland dates to the late-19th-century Chautauqua movement when the town was a prominent stop on the cultural circuit. The festival officially began in 1935 with a production of "Twelfth Night" and has presented the Shakespeare canon of 37 plays three times.
A rotating repertory structure involving about 80 actors allows audiences to witness interesting theatrical juxtapositions. Fifteen hours after crossing the stage as the rarefied Queen Hippolyta in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shona Tucker exchanges her royal robe for an apron in "Fences" to become Rose, the deep-hearted preserver of family integrity in a Pittsburgh working-class home.
Ashland may be a modest community in a pastoral setting with only one main avenue cutting through town, but expect ambitious and provocative theater from productions that stake out new ground. The stark tragedy of "Coriolanus" casts imperial Rome in the garb of a contemporary hyper-militarized America, while the fairies of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" upend the Tinker Bell stereotype as edgy figures inhabiting an industrial nightclub underworld under neon stars. Puck, wearing red velvet tights and leather pump boots, presides as dark diva.
After the curtain falls or a beautiful afternoon invites a theatrical break, explore the town's quaint center. From the festival complex off Pioneer and Main streets, walk past the Tudor-style Elizabethan Theater and down the steps to discover terraced trails and a Japanese garden inside 93-acre Lithia Park, so named for the lithium in its spring waters.
Following the creek that runs along the edge of the park and passing over a footbridge brings one to the central plaza filled with a ragtag cast of busking musicians and jugglers. Over the course of a warm Saturday I listened to guitar, xylophone, and didgeridoo players as well as a bellbottomed and dreadlocked monologuist whose iambic pentameter failed to persuade me she belonged up the hill on the Elizabethan thrust stage.
Music seems to be Ashland's competing performance medium. Around the plaza and along a four-block stretch of Main Street, several bars and restaurants present live music in the evening. The recently opened T's Restaurant + Bar has flamenco, jazz, folk, and acoustic rock. Alex's Plaza Restaurant, more of a local joint, has a weekly bluegrass band. Within walking distance are a variety of bookstores, offbeat boutiques, and more than 20 art galleries. Diverging from the art scene is the interactive ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum.
And take advantage of the beautiful mountain setting with a wine tour through the Applegate Valley. Pack a picnic and follow Main Street north as it becomes Route 99 through Talent, Phoenix, and the historic village of Jacksonville, then cut over onto Route 238. Outside the tasting room at Valley View Winery is a patio where you can take in a view of the Siskiyou Mountains while sampling a chardonnay. If your theater schedule does not begin until evening, take a rafting excursion on the Rogue River or climb the 80 miles (from Medford) to Crater Lake, the deepest body of water in the United States.
To sustain the spirit of the play, look for opportunities to extend the Shakespearean motif beyond waking hours. I hoped to serve thematic unity by staying at A Midsummer's Dream bed-and-breakfast, wishing to discover what airy visions might visit my sleep. But romance and tragedy crossed when I found myself assigned the Othello suite. Would inexplicable jealousy now unsettle my dreams? Maybe the woman occupying the Desdemona suite downstairs could offer reassurance. She seemed comfortable enough in that room despite knowing the terrible fate that befalls Othello's wife in her boudoir.
In Ashland, Shakespeare can never be put to rest.
Erik Gleibermann can be reached at email@example.com.