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It's the Year of Risks At Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The successful theater stages world premire by Rita Dove and modern twists on Bard classics

Imagine "Romeo and Juliet" in drab costumes and with no balcony for their famous "wherefore art thou" scene. Or Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" assaulting the senses like some enemy out of Hollywood's "Die Hard" series. How about the Oedipus story set among slaves and their masters on an antebellum plantation in the American South? Or discussions of chaos theory and Newtonian physics in a 19th-century English garden.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) - founded in 1935 and one of the most successful regional theaters in the United States - continues to push onto new artistic ground. In choice of plays (both by the Bard and by other classic and contemporary playwrights), casting, and treatment of some classics, it is challenging audiences and stretching its own traditions.

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In all these areas, OSF's risk-taking has been well worth it. The 11 plays in repertory in three theaters this season, which began in February, add up to one of the strongest combinations in recent years.

It's a toss-up as to which Shakespeare play - "Coriolanus" or "Romeo and Juliet" - is better in the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

Derrick Lee Weeden in "Coriolanus" masters the role of the Roman military hero. His strong baritone and physicality fill the space - and then some. At the end of the first act, he grapples his way several stories up the side of the theater by rope, disappearing over the roof, only to appear at the beginning of the next act by rappelling down the opposite wall.

And yet in the presence of his iron-willed and honor-obsessed mother, he shrinks to the little boy brought up without a father in the home.

This play is very political, pitting patricians against plebeians with the tribunes - played like manipulative union leaders - forcing their own cynical agenda.

"My work is formed by politics in the broadest sense," director Tony Taccone says. He sees today's growing gap between rich and poor as parallel with the class warfare in "Coriolanus," and he pushes this production with a sense of believable urgency.

It's so easy to turn "Romeo and Juliet" into a familiar cliche, but director Rene Buch will have none of that.

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"Shakespeare has more to do with Anna Magnani and [Bernardo] Bertolucci than it does with Claire Bloom and what I call the English tea-party style," says the Cuban-born director, who learned English so he could read Shakespeare in the original and then got a graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Conn. "I try to conceive the play as if it were written yesterday and nobody had seen it."

In all respects, this production works: the spare set design (long, thin pipes hanging at the back clang jarringly during the action), the plain modern garb ("I don't want costumes, I want clothes," says Buch), and above all, the strong casting in both lead and supporting roles.

There are equally impressive productions in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, the larger of the two indoor theaters here.

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" - a mind-bending tale that moves between this century and the last - leaves one satisfied, yet wanting to see it again the next day. It's impossible to adequately describe the plot in a paragraph or two. Let's just say it's as if the 1991 film "Mindwalk" - a philosophical discussion among a physicist, a poet, and a politician - had been rolled into a mystery involving the poet Lord Byron and a battle between the sexes.

"Moliere Plays Paris," "translated and contrived" by Nagle Jackson, as the author puts it, involves the financial freedom and artistic servitude that can come with royal patronage. Within the play are two of Moliere's early farces, "The Love Doctor" and "The Forced Marriage."

Also indoors here is the world premiere of "The Darker Face of the Earth" by Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate of the United States.

Dove began work on this new play in the 1980s. It was published and some readings were held, but it was never produced. Two years ago, OSF's play-development staff held a three-week workshop in which the playwright collaborated with actors and directors to produce a new version.

The result is a brooding and in some ways shocking piece that mixes Greek and African mythology and dramatic communication (chorus role) to reveal the tragedy of slavery.

Directing the work here is Ricardo Khan, founder and artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J. Kahn's organization will produce "The Darker Face of the Earth" next year in its home theater, then take it to the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Dove's work is an ambitious undertaking, both for her and for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "This is a huge risk," acknowledges Khan. But in large measure it succeeds.

Also playing on the Elizabethan stage is Shakespeare's "Love's Labor's Lost." And in the indoor Bowmer theater are "Awake and Sing!" by Clifford Odets and Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." In the Black Swan (the 140-seat smaller indoor theater) are Jeremy Lawrence's "Cabaret Verboten" and "A Pair of Threes." This latter work combines two short plays, each composed of three monologues: Jon Robin Baitz's "Three Hotels" and Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings."

The outdoor plays close in early October; indoor plays run through October. For ticket information, call (541) 482-4331.

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