July 8, 2002
Ashland - Oregon's cultural jewel
by Deborah Stone
Arts and Entertainment
Nestled deep in the picturesque Rogue Valley lies the charming city of Ashland, home of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). Although I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for over fifteen years and have visited many of its wonderful destinations, this well-known mecca for theatergoers, had managed to fall off my radar screen time and time again. I had talked about making a trip there for a number of years, but it wasn’t until this spring that my words finally translated into action. I flew into Medford (the closest airport) to meet a friend of mine from San Francisco, who had also longed to visit Ashland. We immediately fell in love with this cultural jewel; its pioneer vintage buildings and Victorian houses, attractive shops and marvelous restaurants, and of course, its vibrant theater scene. What made our stay complete, however, was our accommodations.
With over 60 inns in Ashland, the selection is extensive. I looked for mention of reviews in various well-known publications, did internet research and used my own personal intuition to choose the perfect inn. I definitely scored when I chose Cowslip's Belle Bed & Breakfast! Owned and run by Jon and Carmen Reinhardt, Cowslip's Belle is the third oldest inn in town and has been acclaimed as one of the 50 best Bed and Breakfasts in the U.S. by Inn Times. It has also been featured in "Northwest Best Places," "Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest," "McCall's Magazine," "America's Favorite Inns" and a host of other publications.
The inn is named in honor of the cowslip, a type of primrose often referred to in Shakespeare's plays and found in and around the Ashland area. From the moment you walk into Cowslip's Belle, Jon and Carmen set the tone for your visit. They offer old-fashioned hospitality in a down-to-earth homey atmosphere and make their guests immediately feel relaxed. Each of the five rooms in the inn is named for one of Shakespeare's flowers and is distinctively decorated. Antiques and vintage furnishings abound, along with rich woodwork and floral tones. Luxurious beds with European style linens and comforters, thick towels, English toiletries and a turn-down service complete with a melt-in-your mouth chocolate truffle and a resident teddy bear set a scene of true comfort and indulgence.
My room, called Cuckoo-Bud (named for the gold buttercup flower), was in the inn's adjacent carriage house and it had a unique hand-hewn, bent-willow, canopied twig bed that sat high off the floor. At night I felt like the princess, minus the pea, and slept oh so soundly. In the mornings, Carmen whipped up scrumptious breakfasts, serving such entrees as Dutch babies with warm peaches and Belgium waffles with maple pecan cream sauce, along with banana chocolate chip muffins, a variety of breakfast meats, fresh fruit and juices, coffee and tea.
When we weren't attending the theatre, checking out the shops and restaurants or strolling through Ashland's tranquil Lithia Park, we could be found relaxing on the inn's garden deck. Amid beautifully landscaped grounds, with the sounds of a waterfall and nearby koi pond, it was easy to be lulled into a state of utter contentment in this peaceful place.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the nation's oldest and largest theater in rotating repertory, presenting an eight-month season of 11 plays - five by Shakespeare and six by classic and contemporary playwrights - in three theaters: the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, the Angus Bowmer Theatre and the intimate New Theatre (just recently opened in March).
The Festival opens in late February and continues through early November. Peak months are from June-September, when the city attracts hoards of out-of-town visitors aiming to attend as many plays as they can during their stay in this idyllic town. The theater offerings this season include Shakespeare's "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar," "The Winter's Tale," "Titus Andronicus" and the Bard's beloved comedy, "As You Like It."
Contemporary fare includes the Robert Sherwood prophetic drama, "Idiot's Delight," Michael Frayn's wickedly entertaining comedy, "Noises Off," the American classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" the lighthearted Italian comedy "Saturday, Sunday, Monday," Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan's disturbing play, "Handler" and Mustapha Matura's "Playboy of the West Indies" (an adaptation of "The Playboy of the Western World").
During my stay in Ashland, I was able to see OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel's production of "Macbeth" and Director Peter Amster's presentation of "Idiot's Delight."
"Macbeth" is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies and an intense exploration into the dark side of man's ambition, lust and greed. Performed in the round at the New Theatre, the show's staging is innovative and inventive, allowing the actors to make complete use of the entrances and exits in all four corners of the stage. At the center of the circular stage stands a pool of fiery blood to represent the horrifying acts committed by Lord and Lady Macbeth as they murder their way to the throne and descend deeper into a spiral of madness that leads to their demise.
A cast of six talented actors, three of whom play multiple parts (at times this gets confusing and stretches the credulity of the audience), perform this tale with intensity and passion. Of particular note is BW Gonzalez's portrayal of Lady Macbeth, a woman consumed with lust and driven by power, who ultimately pays a heavy price for her actions. Gonzalez oozes sensuality and makes audiences squirm as she wraps herself around Macbeth and convinces him to commit the first of several murderous acts.
G. Valmont Thomas (a well-known Seattle area actor), as Macbeth, has his finest moments when he is plagued by the three witches and then haunted by the ghost of his friend Banquo, whom he has assassinated. Appel's production of "Macbeth" is riveting, raw drama, which leaves audiences gasping for breath long after its conclusion.
Across the street in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, one of the contemporary plays on tap this season, "Idiot's Delight," is currently running. The show is set in the mid 1930s and takes place in a hotel surrounded by the Italian-Swiss-Austrian Alps. Playwright Sherwood takes his audiences into a politically charged pre World War II world and fills it with a multitude of characters representing several different nationalities, each with his/her own motivations and personal struggles. At the opening, audiences discover a train has been stopped by the Italians at a nearby village, forcing the passengers to check in at the hotel while their passports are verified. There is the hotel owner and her employees, an Italian captain and his soldiers, a disenchanted German scientist, an unscrupulous arms dealer and his attractive Russian consort, an outspoken radical French Communist, an outrageous American entertainer with his bevy of four blonde bombshell dancers and a young, English couple on their honeymoon.This unlikely group is thrown together amid the impending horrors of war. Although "Idiot's Delight" has an underlying serious theme with tragic elements, it is balanced by occasional bits of laugh-out-loud humor and sharp wit.
However, despite a solid cast, a stunning set and terrific period costumes, I found this show lagging in parts and erratic in its ability to keep me focused. In addition, the large cast causes some confusion and prevents some of the characters from fully developing their personas. I would like to see a trimmer, more condensed version of this play, with fewer characters and less schmaltz, as the show has much merit in its messages about the horrors of war.
I came to Ashland for the theater, but I discovered that this is not the town's only draw. Art galleries dot the streets and opera, symphony and film offerings give it a more extensive cultural flavor. Then there is the whole outdoor recreational scene with fishing, rafting and hiking around the nearby Rogue and Klamath Rivers or skiing and snowshoeing at Mt. Ashland in the winter. It is the ideal destination for a long weekend or entire week and one that will leave you feeling invigorated and relaxed, yet itching to return soon!
For more information about OSF, access the Festival's web site at www.osfashland.org or call the box office at (541) 482-4331. For Cowslip Belle availability and information, call 1-800-888-6819 or access the inn's web site at www.cowslip.com.