“Thy eternal summer shall not fade” — William Shakespeare

As summer approaches, many Puget Sound residents will head down to Ashland, Oregon, a town whose attractions never do seem to fade.

If you’re unfamiliar, Ashland is a picturesque — but not overly kitschy — town, a family-friendly gateway to outdoor adventures; boutique shopping; all the craft beers, espresso drinks, gourmet eats and bookstores one might crave; and — oh, yes — the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), a nationally respected, multistage theater complex that’s one of the largest and oldest theater companies in the country.

Travelers from the Seattle area are a big part of the OSF audience each year. And while summer is the busiest season, Ashland is also a pleasant destination into the autumn.

Meet Nataki Garrett, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's incoming artistic director

Where and what

With its welcoming main street of shops and cafes, many cozy hotels and B & B’s, lovely Lithia Park and its proximity to the Rogue River (a prime site for rafting), this small town in Southern Oregon welcomes tens of thousands of tourists annually.

A pedestrian walks across the bridge spanning Ashland Creek in Lithia Park in Ashland. (Mark Boster / TNS)
A pedestrian walks across the bridge spanning Ashland Creek in Lithia Park in Ashland. (Mark Boster / TNS)

But the biggest draw is OSF, a three-stage theater complex. Founded in 1935, it’s one of the oldest theater companies in North America. It’s also one of the largest, with a budget of $30 million-plus and a sizable company of resident actors and artisans. It’s presenting 11 plays and musicals in a 2019 season that runs from March through late October.

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Over the past 12 years, under the command of outgoing artistic director Bill Rauch, OSF has diversified its offerings, casts and directing pool substantially. And the stage fare extends well beyond Shakespeare to Broadway musicals, world-premiere plays and contemporary classics.

On the boards this season

Here’s a rundown of OSF’s 2019 shows. For details go to osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161. (Note that shows do sell out, especially in the smaller scaled Thomas Theatre, so it’s best to buy ahead of a visit.)

Emily Ota (Alice), Lauren Modica (Cheshire Cat), Daniel T. Parker (ensemble) are in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  (Jenny Graham)
Emily Ota (Alice), Lauren Modica (Cheshire Cat), Daniel T. Parker (ensemble) are in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Alice in Wonderland.” (Jenny Graham)

One of the hottest tickets is OSF’s version of the feel-good tuner “Hairspray.” But if you’d rather see something new, try “Mother Road,” a sprawling, heartfelt drama by Octavio Solis, conjured as a kind of sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” — but emphasizing intersecting communities and tensions in contemporary rural America.

Other fresh works: “Cambodian Rock Band,” Lauren Yee’s tunesome, informative and at times harrowing portrait of young musicians confronting the genocidal reign of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Also new, there’s “Between Two Knees,” a loose pastiche of irreverent historical satire from the perspective of the Native American sketch troupe The 1491s.

Shyla Lefner (Irma) and the ensemble in “Between Two Knees” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  (Jenny Graham)
Shyla Lefner (Irma) and the ensemble in “Between Two Knees” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Jenny Graham)

There’s also an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” directed by Sara Bruner, and opening later, “How to Catch Creation,” Christina Anderson’s recent play about four entwined black women friends, directed by incoming OSF artistic head Nataki Garrett; and Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated drama “Indecent,” which focuses on a stage drama that shocked New York in the early 1900s. (“Indecent” will also be part of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s 2019-20 season.)

Román Zaragoza (Orlando de Boys), Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederic, center), James Ryen (Charles),  and members of the ensemble in “As You Like It” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  (Jenny Graham)
Román Zaragoza (Orlando de Boys), Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederic, center), James Ryen (Charles), and members of the ensemble in “As You Like It” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Jenny Graham)

And yes, there’s some of Shakespeare’s work too on hand, including a gender-bending “As You Like It” staged by Seattle director Rosa Joshi; a new mounting of “Macbeth” by José Luis Valenzuela; and “La Comedia of Errors,” a bilingual adaptation of a rollicking Shakespeare farce that opens in late June, staged by artistic director Rauch.

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Smoke plans

Like much of the Northwest, southern Oregon has had to cope increasingly with unhealthy smoke from summer wildfires. Last year, Ashland was socked in by so much smoke from a July lightning storm and other blazes, there were 37 days when the air registered as unhealthy, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. That meant OSF had to cancel 26 of its evening shows in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre at a loss of nearly $2 million.

The company was able, however, to do an impromptu transfer of some outside performances to a nearby indoor venue, Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School.

This year, according to acting executive director Paul Christy, OSF is more prepared for potential smoke-outs. Through mid-July, the company expects to be operating the Elizabethan Theatre as normal, as well as the company’s two, air-controlled, indoor venues (the Thomas Theatre and the Bowmer Theatre).

From July 13-29, OSF will make a daily decision — based on fire, weather and health reports — about moving evening outdoor performances at the Elizabethan Theatre, inside to the Mountain Avenue Theatre. And from July 30-Sept. 8, which has been the height of fire season, OSF is only selling enough advance tickets to fill the Mountain Avenue venue, which may also be used for some added matinees, if needed. (It seats 400 patrons, compared to the Elizabethan’s 1,190).

Patrons should check the OSF website or call the box office for more information if smoke is an issue.

If you go

Getting there: Ashland is about 450 miles south of Seattle, off Interstate 5, a drive of roughly eight hours. Flights are available on major carriers from SeaTac to the municipal airport in Medford, Oregon (a 20-minute drive or cab ride from Ashland).

Where to stay: Lodging in Ashland ranges from fairly basic, but very adequate motels (like the recently refurbished M Ashland motel); to an assortment of bed-and-breakfast places in Victorian homes (like A Midsummer’s Dream B & B); to quaint, semi- luxury digs (like the Peerless Hotel). I often stay at the Plaza Inn and Suites, which offers free breakfast, comfortable rooms and is a few blocks from the theaters and close to many eateries.

Where to eat: There is plenty to choose from in Ashland. Some personal favorites are Larks Home Kitchen, a charming bistro in the historic Ashland Springs Hotel; and Macaroni’s, a casual Italian spot. Both are a two-minute walk to the theaters. Given the number of college kids in Ashland (attending Southern Oregon University), there also is no shortage of pizza places, coffee houses and takeout food.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival information: 800-219-8161, osfashland.org

 

This story has been updated with the correct name of the troupe — The 1491s — performing “Between Two Knees.”