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Oregon town is testament to Bard's staying power

Oscars prove, once again, Shakespeare can withstand the slings andarrows of high-tech, modern-day movies.

When "Shakespeare In Love" beat out "Saving Private Ryan" as Best Picture in Hollywood's Oscar extravaganza March 21, residents of this tiny town nestled in the Oregon mountains could only chuckle that history was repeating itself. It wasn't the first time classical art had triumphed over realistically staged violence.

Back in 1935, Angus Bowmer, a young English professor at Southern Oregon Normal School grandly (and hopefully) announced "The First Annual Shakespearean Festival." Amateur performances of "The Merchant of Venice" and "Twelfth Night" were to be presented as part of the town's Fourth of July festivities at an old Chautauqua site that once featured John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryant.

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City fathers approved the plan, but only on condition that boxing matches be held beforehand in order to cover the anticipated financial losses from the ancient, wordy plays. As it turned out, the Bard beat the pugilists at the box office - much the way "Shakespeare in Love" beat the favorite, Steven Spielberg's brawny war epic.

Today, Ashland, Ore., - a town of fewer than 20,000 people 300 miles from a major metropolitan area - is home to one of the largest and most successful repertory theater groups in North America, drawing an attendance of more than 350,000 for 11 plays over an eight-month season.

Long before Hollywood's recent discovery of Shakespeare, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) was showing that Elizabethan language and theatrical style - long monologues in rhymed couplets, stylized swordplay, blousy tunics - could pack 'em in.

It's not that OSF hasn't kept up with the times. In last year's "Henry IV, Part One," Prince Hal enters on a motorbike duded up like some Carnaby Street punk with his troublemaking mentor Sir John Falstaff looking vaguely reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the on-screen "Romeo and Juliet" were tame by comparison.

BUT this is serious theater. Four Shakespeare plays are staged each year (OSF has completed the full Shakespeare canon of 37 plays three times), plus the works of other classic and contemporary playwrights. This season, that includes Bertolt Brecht, Henrik Ibsen, and August Wilson. Last season, the festival's production of Lillian Garrett-Groag's "The Magic Fire" was invited to the Kennedy Center in Washington and was named one of the 10 best plays of the year by Time magazine.

Over time, the town itself has developed accordingly. Other professional and amateur theaters - "Off Bardway," they're called - have started. World-class musicians perform here. Last weekend it was the Takcs String Quartet with players from London and Budapest.

And it's not just for the tourists. Local folk from around the Rogue Valley are big supporters of the performing arts, albeit in their own relaxed fashion. Loggers don't show up in spiked boots and tin hats for "Othello," but nobody double-takes at suspendered work jeans on playgoers or concert outfits that might be more suitable at a square dance.

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To some extent, Ashland has become a one-industry town where one can stay at the All's Well or As You Like It guest houses, indulge oneself at Puck's Doughnuts, and find good deals on used books at the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore. And despite their transient lifestyle, many actors and other festival staff become full participants in civic life here, working to get school bonds passed, active in their churches, starting "day job" businesses.

In many ways, Ashland is unique. But this evolution is part of a broader economic and demographic trend across the West: moving from an economy based on logging, mining, and ranching to one more reliant on recreation and tourism.

That's a drama itself, full of poignancy and conflict as values shift, assumptions are questioned, and the nature of reality is probed. It's worthy of a Shakespeare, or of the best in Hollywood.

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