“The Pirates of Penzance”. Major-General Stanley (David Kelly) and his daughters. Photo: T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

BY ROBERT DIGITALE

These don’t seem like your typical theater-goers.

It’s not just that they’ve come with sleeping bags and ski parkas, blankets and camouflaged field jackets – anything to ward off the night’s chill.

It’s also that they have come so far, descending on this small Oregon city whose name has become inextricably linked to that of William Shakespeare. These are pilgrims, and they have come to Ashland and scored tickets for the final performance of the season at the outdoor Elizabethan theater. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s indoor theaters will continue into early November, but on this night, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” closes out the outdoor shows for the year.

So after the play ends and the actors have taken their final bows, members of the company come forth. Scores of them take their places in the aisles, each holding a lighted candle. James Edmondson, who has directed 34 productions there, gives a brief soliloquy, which includes this line: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” When he finishes, all the candles go out and the theater gives way to darkness.

Montgomery High math teacher John Quintrell, who with his wife Joanna graciously played our hosts for the weekend, knew that speech had come from “The Tempest.” Over the past 20-plus years, the Quintrells have viewed in Ashland at least one performance of every one of Shakespeare’s plays. That is one factoid about the power of this southern Oregon city to draw more than 100,000 people a year, and to sell more than 400,000 tickets last year during its 75th anniversary.

Ashland offers the chance to binge on plays (and to see company members perform in one play in the afternoon and another that evening). We watched three shows in two days: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” plus two Shakespeare comedies, “Measure for Measure” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Those who wanted more modern fare could choose from such offerings as “August: Osage County,” “The African Company Presents Richard III,” and “Ghost Light.”

Even with the old plays, the company works to make things new. “Pirates,” the festival’s first-ever production of “classic music theatre,” certainly gave the audience the chance to hear precisely about “the very model of a modern major general.” But amid the traditional light opera sounds, the cast repeatedly tossed brief, zany riffs of modern musical genres to spice things up – flavors of rap, rock, crooner ballads, etc. Many of the departures would have blended right in at San Francisco’s own ode to wackiness, “Beach Blanket Babylon.”

And Shakespeare’s somewhat heavy comedy, “Measure for Measure,” was set in 1970s America, with many of its key actors cast as Hispanics. Three fantastic female musicians – the Marichi group Las Colibri – sang songs in Spanish as they played guitar, violin and guitarrón. Their plaintive ballads carried the audience along through this story of corrupted power, the death penalty and one woman’s fight to rise above injustice, even to forgive.

On a backstage tour, an assistant producer reminded us that at it’s most basic, a play is one person, an actor, telling a story to another person, the audience. In Ashland, those stories remind us of the human capacity to love, to hate, to desire, to hurt, to forgive.

“Measure for Measure”. Hidden, the Duke (Anthony Heald) observes Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz) and her brother Claudio (Frankie J. Alvarez). Photo: Jenny Graham. Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Love’s Labor’s Lost”. Berowne (Gregory Linington), Ferdinand (Mark Bedard), Longaville (Ramiz Monsef) and Dumaine (John Tufts) can only watch as their ladies depart for France. Photo: T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“The Pirates of Penzance”. Michael Elich. Concept and Illustrations by Owen Jones and Partners, Ltd. Photography by Jenny Graham. Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.