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In a small Oregon town, the play's the thing

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If, in the middle of a warm summer day, you see a couple in casual garb peering at photos in the window of a real estate office here, you can be pretty sure they're fantasizing about how they could possibly move their lives to this mountain town 300 miles from the nearest big city. It happens all the time.

Nestled in the mountains just north of the California-Oregon border, Ashland is a small Western town (population 21,000) with a progressive outlook and a strong sense of neighborliness and community, home to a state university, and surrounded by one of the most ecologically diverse areas in North America - just right for scientific exploring and wilderness adventures. And at the center of it all is a major theater organization that is fast developing an international reputation.

Ashland is a place where one can spend the afternoon clearing the senses with a raft trip on the aptly named Rogue River (where some of the scenes in "The River Wild" were filmed), eat a fine French or Thai or Italian meal, then watch King Lear descend into madness under the stars on an outdoor Elizabethan stage. Or if that's too much of a downer, go next door and catch a version of "The Comedy of Errors" that's Marx Brothers hilarious.

The town's main attraction is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Each season, OSF typically presents five works by the Bard plus a variety of classical and modern plays ranging from the popular and well-known to the obscure and challenging. Over the years, that has meant running through the full Shakespeare canon - every one of the 37 comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances - at least three times.

This year, that includes "King Lear," "Comedy," "Much Ado About Nothing," and a particularly accessible and illuminating version of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays adapted and cut down to two plays with a smaller cast.

Think of the War of the Roses in terms of the US political climate today - "red states versus blue states" - and you're reminded of how relevant these 400-year-old works can be.

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