Onward and `Up'

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Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

ASHLAND - Four new shows opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last weekend as the festival prepares to find a new artistic leader.

The most exciting play so far this season is `Up' by Bridget Carpenter. This odd little gem of a comedy, in its second production since its 2003 premiere in Alaska, tracks the ups and downs, you might say, of a Southern California man who tied 42 weather balloons to a lawn chair and allowed himself to float away. See it if you can.

But the sole William Shakespeare work to open this winter - `The Winter's Tale' - is so unremarkable it's practically a tragedy in itself. The production does nothing to rescue a flawed play from its problems, and you could see people checking their watches in the audience on opening night.

You might, though, check out the newly revised version of `Anne Frank,' which is intense and wonderfully tragic, or enjoy the perfectly well-crafted new production of Oscar Wilde's `The Importance of Being Earnest,' which - even if you've seen it a million times - is as taut and funny a show as you're going to find.

We have full reviews of "Up" and "The Winter's Tale" today and will run reviews of "Anne Frank" and "Earnest" in the Arts section in coming weeks.

Now in its 71st year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is at a crossroads as it faces the retirement, at the end of next season, of artistic director Libby Appel, who has run the show here since 1995.

The festival's board has appointed a search committee and will be conducting interviews this summer, executive director Paul Nicholson said.

"If things move very smoothly, we'll be appointing the new artistic director in September," he said.

Don't expect radical change. Though critics kvetch about its safe fare - such as this year's "Anne Frank" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" - audiences pen their reviews by showing up.

This year the festival expects to make 78 percent of its $22.5 million budget - an unheard of proportion for fine arts groups - through ticket sales.


Seven additional plays are on the bill for later in the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Bus Stop: In William Inge's story, passengers on a bus get to know each other as they take refuge from a snow storm at Grace's Diner. Directed by Libby Appel. New Theatre, March 29 to Oct. 29.

Intimate Apparel: A big award winner in New York in 2003-04, this play by Lynn Nottage looks at the life and loves of a black seamstress in Manhattan in 1905. Directed by Timothy Bond. Angus Bowmer Theatre, April 18 to Oct. 28.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Falstaff heads for Windsor in search of a good time, enmeshing himself instead in deep Shakespearean comedy. …