Story for the Pilot

by Betty Bezzerides

andquot;A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!andquot; Actor James Newcomb shouted the famous words as the battle raged in a recent production of andquot;Richard IIIandquot; at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Against a blood red backdrop and thundering kettle drums, the murderous King Richard's crutches morphed to gleaming silver swords. I nearly jumped out of my seat.

It was my husband Ted's and my first visit to Ashland. We knew about the 1983 Tony Award the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) received for andquot;outstanding achievement in regional theatreandquot; and had even signed up to receive the OSF brochure. We talked about attending every year but somehow just never found the time.

Toward the end of February it occurred to me the season was beginning anew and until early June ticket prices would be lower. The OSF brochure, also available online, contained everything necessary to plan a Festival outing. Tickets were the first priority.

I matched up the two days we could be in Ashland with OSF's master calendar and discovered we could see a Tuesday matinee of Shakespeare's villainous andquot;Richard IIIandquot; and a Tuesday evening performance of andquot;Room Service,andquot; a wacky 1930s comedy popularized by the Marx Brothers.

It seemed like a good combination for our first visit - heady drama followed by comic relief, plus mid-week, value season tickets were money savers.

Deciding where to sit was next. That can be hard to know if you've never visited the theatre in question. Both plays were indoors at the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre. (Outdoor performances on the Elizabethan stage run only during the summer and early fall.)

After studying the seating map in the brochure and asking an affable ticket agent about her preferences, I wavered between center seats farther back versus side seats closer in. We finally decided on some of each. andquot;There's really not a bad seat in the house,andquot; she reiterated, an opinion we would come to share.

Lodging was another item. The OSF brochure was helpful in this regard, too, with information on Ashland's wide variety of accommodations, including motels, hotels, RV parks, bed and breakfast inns, vacation houses, cottages and even a hostel.

Toll-free lodging referral services are also listed should visitors need help matching budgets with location and comfort requirements.

We wanted to stay someplace located centrally enough that we could walk to the Bowmer Theatre in Lithia Park as well as Ashland's many other attractions. On a whim I called the Ashland Springs Hotel, newly renovated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel was running an 80th anniversary special that fit our budget.

After two phone calls I had theatre tickets and a room with a view.

With such a full day planned for Tuesday, we decided to drive over the day before. We packed a picnic lunch, checked off errands in Medford along the way and arrived in Ashland in time to explore the hotel and downtown area before dark.

The Ashland Springs Hotel is a naturalist's delight filled with botanical art, shells, birds' nests and pressed flowers. The lobby is well worth a visit whether you're a guest or not.

I couldn't take my eyes off the case near the front door, a andquot;cabinet of wondersandquot; that includes giant clam shells and a stuffed parrot fish. A small framed sign reads andquot;Rarities and Exotic Curiosities Contained in the Cobbe Museum, Founded in 1756 and preserved in original case.andquot;

We began our afternoon stroll at the Lithia Fountain, eager to sip some local history. City fathers touted the rejuvenating qualities of lithium, sodium, calcium, iron, bicarbonate and other minerals in the spring water. There's no denying it's a taste sensation.

We meandered our way through galleries and shops, including Shakespeare andamp; Company, a combination book and antique shop where a book about Shakespeare's cats caught my eye. We also perused menus posted in restaurant windows. Over dinner at the second story Alex's, we enjoyed crabcakes and a window table by the fire.

On the way back to the hotel we studied a andquot;Street Sceneandquot; sculpture and listened to musicians play a Celtic tune. At the multi-screen Varsity Theater, every film was an academy award nominee.

Next morning, the hotel's generous continental breakfast provided ample time to discuss how to fill the few hours before curtain time for andquot;Richard III.andquot; We considered the highly recommended Backstage Tour, but with two theatre events in one day on the schedule, decided to save that for next time.

Instead, we spent time at the OSF Information Center, learning about festival beginnings. Professor Angus Bowmer of Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) thought the ruins of Ashland's former Chautauqua building resembled drawings he'd seen of Elizabethan theatres. In 1935 he inaugurated the festival, staging andquot;Twelfth Nightandquot; and andquot;The Merchant of Veniceandquot; with Chautauqua walls and a $400 grant from the city.

Ornate costumes and headgear from last year's productions are also on display at the information center and the Tudor Guild gift shop is irresistible. andquot;Hamlet's Dresser,andquot; Bob Smith's andquot;true story of a boy whose life was saved by literature,andquot; now tops my andquot;to readandquot; stack.

We also wandered through peaceful Lithia Park, named for the healthful mineral waters. Like some two-faced character of the bard's, the park's burbling Ashland Creek turned ugly in January 1997 when floodwaters churned a path of destruction through the city.

Enticing glimpses of the shuttered outdoor Elizabethan theatre whetted our appetites for the upcoming drama. There was time before the performance to share a tasty chicken wrap sandwich at Pangea's, a tiny cafe where andquot;Read, sing, listen to your childrenandquot; was chalked on the blackboard along with the menu.

andquot;Richard IIIandquot; exceeded all our expectations.

The play's appeal is timeless. Richard's insecurities and malignant lust for power are the stuff of modern headlines. The four women in the story, and especially King Henry VI's desperate widow Margaret, become the conscience Richard ignores at his peril. Weeks later I still can't get Margaret's anguished lament out of my head: andquot;I had a Henry 'til a Richard killed him.andquot;

We were fascinated to see the bare stage come to life with lights, sounds, colors and costumes, turning into a room in the castle, the Tower of London or a battlefield. King Richard's dramatic entrance in a ridiculously long coronation train inspired a welter of feelings including revulsion, pity and dark humor.

The bottom line? I was so moved by the quality of the production I wanted to stay in my seat and watch it all over again. But in three hours it'd be time for our next play and we needed to shift gears.

We squeezed in a late afternoon nap at the hotel (I'm sure I dreamed of poor Margaret), then headed out to begin the theatre experience all over again. Dinner was at Pasta Piatti, a andquot;new world Italianandquot; cafe where we feasted on minestrone soup and Dungeness crab ravioli.

Our second play, andquot;Room Service,andquot; couldn't have been more different from andquot;Richard III.andquot; The 1930s story about the pitfalls of producing a Broadway play was filled with one-liners, zany sight gags and so much door slamming I lost track of how many characters were hiding in the bathroom. No deconstructing tragic heroes here or pondering the nature of good and evil, just madcap entertainment.

Hamlet had it right. andquot;The play's the thing.andquot; Whether you drive over to Ashland for the day to catch a matinee or opt for a more extended visit, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an experience not to be missed.

For information, the OSF brochure is available locally at Chetco Community Public Library and area visitor centers or by phone from the OSF office at (541) 482-4331. The OSF Web site is http://www.