A Commitment to Actors

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

To appreciate the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Guys & Dolls at the Wallis, I want you to start with the program.

Not with a song list or a director's note but with the actors' bios. They all begin with a variation of the same line: "In five seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival" or "In 22 seasons" or even "In 29 seasons." After that they list the roles they've played over the years.

That's wonderfully odd in the American Theater. Where else do you hear an actor say 'over the last 29 years with the same company I've done'? You just don't find that kind of stability, either from the company or the actor. We're used to seeing productions and ensembles with a longevity measured in weeks -- not in years or decades. Most plays you'll go see in LA or elsewhere, are an ad hoc assemblage of talent -- usually cast to type fairly pragmatically. It's the difference between picking what to wear today and what to pack for a trip.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival has made a commitment to actors for a journey -- not for a single play. So when you go see a production like Guys & Dolls, it helps to remember you're seeing one of many. In its natural habitat, you'd be able to see this musical then turn around and see the same cast in a tragedy or a comedy. It's a fundamentally different way of approaching theater and character.

How does this play out in Guys and Dolls?

Well, there's a certain folksy heart to the production. Part of that is the world of the play -- which even if you've never seen you probably have some sense of: the story of a tribe of gamblers and ne’er-do-wells who are seeking out the next crap game and desperately avoiding settling down. Then there are the dolls who, against their better judgement, can't help but love 'em.

Then there's Mary Zimmerman's direction. You'll recognize her name from Metamorphoses, the stunning ensemble take on Ovid's myths that was set in a swimming pool. She brings a simple and kinetic take to the world of the play: it's not flashy set changes and big production numbers but instead carefully chosen and well used icons. We make it to Cuba with a couple dozen beach balls being thrown onstage. Or we know the crap game's deep underground through a carefully placed ladder and lighting.

The acting follows the same pattern. This is a world made of characters -- not just from Damon Runyon's story, but from the actors themselves. It sounds strange to say that the actors are playing characters (isn't that always the case?) -- but character is an intrinsic part of this style, this world. Now, we could wish for a little more chemistry between our leads but before that thought really sinks in - we've moved on and the infectious lyrics of the next song have us.

This isn't the best production of Guys & Dolls you'll ever see but it is the most approachable and heartfelt. And that's perfect for a holiday show.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: Daniel T. Kelly and cast in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Guys & Dolls. (Kevin Parry/Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts)