We were invited to meet my sister and her partner in Ashland, OR and take in a few plays at the well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Jonathan found us a hotel room and I bought tickets to three of the pieces they were going to, without thinking too much about it. One night we’d see The Tempest, so there was Shakespeare involved, and we’d also see a musical that I’d heard of, Once on This Island, and a new play, Revenge Song. I had some doubts about this last one, but Paula was going and the festival is supposed to be full of interesting works, so I took the plunge.
The drive to Ashland was long (5 hrs including stops) but pretty, through the redwoods. After an hour at the hotel with our feet up, we headed off to an early dinner at Lark’s Home Kitchen in the Ashland Springs Hotel, the oldest and most elegant of local choices. We met Paula and Wayne, and their friends Nora and Oscar. Paula had brought two bottles of wine for us to sample, as her wine cellar at home in Portland is quite good and this was a festive occasion. The food was excellent, Jonathan’s spicy lamb spread (nduja), and my clams were delicious, as was the wine. We headed off to the play in good spirits.
The Elizabethan theater is largely in the open, a replica of the Shakespearean theaters of England. We were warned to wear warm clothing and bring rain gear, and we needed it. Our seats were under cover, but it had drizzled most of the day and I was glad to be dry. The play started with an ear-splitting crash of rock music, vastly over-amplified, and that set the tone of the evening. The story was vague, and the production values disappointingly low. It was as though we’d come to One Act night at the local high school. Painfully loud electric guitar chords punctuated some of the action, making us despise every looming, obvious plot twist. We wondered what the organizers of the festival were thinking when they added this work to the schedule. The strange thing about Revenge Song is that audience opinion was evenly divided. One half clapped loudly, cheered, and (I understand) gave it a standing ovation at the end. The other half of the audience, ourselves included, left at intermission, thoroughly fed up.
The next morning, we discovered Remix Coffee Shop and had delicious coffee and the crispiest croissants this side of Paris. We returned every morning that we stayed in Ashland. We whiled away the morning, then set out on the day’s adventure, a wine-tasting at Cowhorn Winery, where Paula has a subscription and would pick up her quarterly allotment of wine after our tastes. Paula’s membership provided two free tastings that Nora and I used, while Paula, Wayne, and Jonathan had what are called pairings, 3 oz pours of each of the four wines on the tasting list, and a wood-fired pizza into the bargain. Our tasting began at 1:30 pm, so the pizza was both well-timed and delicious. Cowhorn rosé is excellent, and we also tasted their Spiral white blend, a grenache, and a pinot noir. We chatted and sipped. This was not a serious ‘spit and dissect’ kind of wine tasting but a relaxed ‘sip and discuss’ that made a delightful afternoon.
We had another early dinner and 8 pm curtain time, getting back to the hotel for a short rest between events. Dinner at 5 pm was at another excellent local restaurant, Peerless, in the Peerless Hotel. Halibut and soba noodles, and buckwheat noodles with lamb were two of our favorite entrees, and we drank more delicious Oregon wine.
The play was The Tempest, again in the Elizabethan theater, and raining. The performance was not cancelled because the rain didn’t actually prevent the actors from working, though I imagine it made them very cold. Everyone in the audience cringed for poor Miranda, “unconscious” in a puddle on the stage, with rain coming down on her face. Once again, our seats were under the edge of the roof and we did not get wet. A contingent of die-hards in plastic ponchos sat out in the on-and-off rain for the entire performance. I think it’s a personal challenge to some.
Either the diction of the actors improved as they froze, or we became more accustomed to their speech patterns, but the second act seemed easier to understand than Act 1. It would have helped to have a synopsis of scenes in the program. All of us have read The Tempest at some point, but we did not recall all the twists and turns of the plot. Between that and hearing aids, it was often difficult to follow the action. Two nights in a row we returned home wondering whether we’d made a mistake. We’d heard so many good things about the festival.
It seemed fortunate that our final event, the musical Once On This Island, was in the Bowman Theater, indoors and climate controlled. The play is a New World version of The Little Mermaid, set in Haiti. The plot paralleled the traditional Hans Christian Anderson story until the end, when the woman dies and the gods take her into the sea. That much is in keeping with the original tale, but Once on This Island has her come back from the ocean as a tree, which makes a new plot twist, “and the tree grew up right where the gates joined so they could never be closed against anyone ever again,” a successful tearjerker, it defied all logic as a plot. (As a tree, she watches over the lover that spurned her, his wife, and their descendants. Why would she want to do that?)
For us, the high points of the weekend were the company, food and drink, singing and dancing. We had a bit of time to stroll the main street of Ashland and look in some of the stores. There are bookstores, a nature shop, and a store with native art including some nice southwestern silver and turquoise jewelry. I bought yet another ring and am quite content.
About Attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Travel to the Festival: There are easier ways to get to the festival than the one we took. It’s about a five hour trip from Eureka to Ashland, three hours of driving on winding roads through gorgeous redwood forests, an hour of high speed highway, two pit stops, and a number of waits at road construction in far northern California, including the notorious Last Chance Grade. Last Chance is a spot where the highway has fallen into the ocean too many times, and the highway department is faced with trying to rebuild a roadway between a vertical rock face and the sea. A bit like Big Sur, popular sentiment wants the road rebuilt in its current location despite logic that points inland to safer and more durable routes. There are four or five places where construction creates single lane traffic. A relaxed attitude and flexible timetable are essential to enjoying this route.
Lodging at the Festival: Many people make a vacation of the festival, staying several days, seeing one or even two performances each day, and book the most elegant, charming, or distinctive accommodations well in advance. Those of us who decide to visit two weeks beforehand end up in the adequate but uninspired Holiday Inn. It was reasonably comfortable, but with post-Covid amenities such as daily housekeeping by request only, and boxed breakfast items. Paula and Wayne waited downstairs for us between events one afternoon and assured me that it was the most uncomfortable lobby in existence, along with no cell or wifi service they could detect.
Paula and Wayne stayed in their RV at the Ashland Creekside RV park. They have a beautiful Airstream motorhome, and Airstreams often receive favorable treatment in such places. A number were in evidence at their stop in Ashland, on their way to some Airstream roundup elsewhere. Many had the nicer spots, and in frustration at their cramped location, Paula asked them how long ago they had booked their spot. After all, she made her reservation back in March. The others–booked their June spots last November.
If you want to make the Oregon Shakespeare Festival an unforgettable experience, book carefully, and ideally, months in advance. For a spontaneous visit, I recommend a day trip and a single performance.
Booking your Tickets: It was easy to purchase seats on line, and the theaters are not large; I believe the largest seats 600. That means that even when you purchase seats in the last row on the side, you will still have a good view. We did need both a photo ID and proof of vaccination including booster in order to enter.
It is obvious that I should have considered the shows on offer more carefully, and done some reading prior to booking. I suggest you don’t repeat my mistake. Even for Shakespeare, unless you are quite familiar with the play, a scene by scene synopsis to read before, during, and at intermission, might be handy. Read reviews of the plays, if there are any.
Attending the Performance: Assuming one of the plays you plan to see will be held in the open air theater, think about how you’d feel in the cold and rain, or in high heat and humidity. When you book your tickets, you have the option to select seats that are under the various overhangs, which helps in case of rain. We didn’t have significant wind, which might change that.
I was surprised by Paula’s counsel to forget about dressing up, and dress for warmth, and to have both something to sit on and wrap up in. I was glad I paid attention to her advice. I was comfortable both nights, even the rainy night, in my hiking boots and wool socks, jeans, various layers, raincoat, hat, hood, shawl and fuzzy throw blanket. Not exactly a LBD and pearls, but effective.
Last year at this time, Ashland was under the Heat Dome, and theatergoers had to cope with temperatures over 100 F. Which would bother you more, outdoor theater in stifling heat, or drizzling cold rain? I decided I was fine with the cool weather and rain. I might even visit again.