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Classics and more in classy Oregon Shakespeare fest

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Emily Ota, left, is excellent as Marianne and Nancy Rodriguez as Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility” in Ashland. (Courtesy Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Even a whirlwind trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland offers a sampling of the company’s enormous range.

For example, Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” (a West Coast premiere in the mid-sized Bowmer Theatre), meticulously staged and beautifully performed under Hana S. Sharif’s direction, is a topnotch production of the comedy of manners.

The societal challenges facing the play’s two late-18th-century heroines — the cool and collected Elinor (Nancy Rodriguez, representing “sense”) and her impetuous and passionate sister, Marianne (Emily Ota, “sensibility”) — as well as their very modern longings of the heart, register strongly. (K.T. Vogt is a standout in two comic roles.)

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, artistic director Bill Rauch’s “Othello,” also at the Bowmer, is agonizing. But it’s not without comic relief, particularly in the scenes between Iago and his slacker sidekick, Roderigo, played by Stephen Michael Spencer.

The artistically adventurous Rauch sets the tragedy in the digitized, televised modern era, mostly on Shakespeare’s island of Cyprus, in which Muslims in long robes live alongside soldiers in military uniforms.

A brilliantly bombastic Chris Butler portrays the African admiral Othello, an object of racist hatred, as a megalomaniac who’s ultimately, disastrously, vulnerable. The contemporary parallels are unsettling.

As his trusted ensign, Iago — surely Shakespeare’s ultimate unreconstructed villain — Danforth Comins is focused and downright chilling.

Danforth Comins, left, portrays Iago and Chris Butler plays the title character in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s modern-set production of “Othello.” (Courtesy Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

And the final scenes, with Alejandra Escalante’s Desdemona and Amy Kim Waschke’s anguished Emilya, are ineffably moving.

Somewhere in between is acclaimed San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s award-winning comedy-drama “The Book of Will,” directed by Christopher Liam Moore, in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

One of Gunderson’s historically based plays, it interweaves themes of death and grieving with a quest to leave something of value for posterity.

Set several years after Shakespeare’s death, it fictionalizes the real-life efforts of two actors of the King’s Men, John Heminges (Jeffrey King) and Henry Condell (David Kelly), to collect and edit his plays for the First Folio.

From left, Kate Hurster, David Kelly, Kevin Kenerly and Jeffrey King appear in “The Book of Will.” (Courtesy Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Their arguments over the project tend toward the repetitive, and are more instructive than entertaining, especially as compared to hilarious scenes in the local pub; depictions of characters like Ben Jonson (Daniel T. Parker) and the mysterious Dark Lady of the Sonnets (Catherine Castellanos); and King’s affecting monologue at the top of Act 2, as Heminges mourns the death of his beloved wife.

The popular destination theater is currently running 10 plays on three stages through October, plus a “Green Show” in the courtyard, and Karen Zacarías’ “Destiny of Desire” only through July 12.

Sense and Sensibility; Othello; The Book of Will
Presented by Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Where: Bowmer and Elizabethan theatres, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon
When: Tuesday to Sundays; closes Oct. 28
Tickets: $30 to $115
Contact: (800) 219-8161, www.osfashland.org

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