OSF play mixes Euripides, Shakespeare, Rodgers and Hammerstein

What would happen if Euripides, Shakespeare and Rodgers and Hammerstein all met on a single stage? It’s a question Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch answers with the experimental play “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.” The result, though a bit confusing at times, is brilliantly imaginative and definitely unforgettable.

The play is co-adapted and co-directed by Rauch and director Tracy Young. Rauch created the play as a college student, then mounted it professionally at Harvard University, and later in Los Angeles in 1998, and at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2002. Rauch says in a video posted on the festival’s website that he became interested in this project when he was in college and heard a reference to the three great populist movements in Western drama: Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama and the American musical.

“M/M/C” is a roiling witches’ cauldron, bubbling over with ambition, love, hatred, transformation and, of course, magic. In it, the three famous stories with their iconic characters are performed onstage simultaneously. Think three-ring circus, but with a big budget, beautiful costumes and a strong musical score. Yes, it’s a musical, too.

While the show sounds strange and confusing, it somehow works. For the most part, the tight staging keeps each story in its own space, but dialogue occasionally overlaps and main characters from one story will appear as extras in the other stories, such as when the chorus of Medea takes a momentary break to sing and dance in a musical number from “Cinderella,” or when Cinderella and her stepsisters attend Macbeth’s banquet and politely ignore his raving. Even then, the story lines don’t intersect. Cinderella does not get marriage advice from Medea, and Macbeth doesn’t chat with the wicked stepsisters.

Still, dialogue from one play often informs the other, and that is fascinating. Each character desires a higher position in life, they are all passionate about someone and they all turn to magic for help in achieving their goals. There are some funny parts in the show and often some surprisingly poignant moments, such as when Cinderella on her way to marrying the prince seems to actually see Medea, whose husband has humiliated her and left her for another woman.

“M/M/C” is not really a single play so much as a thoughtful exercise in juxtaposition. It explores the commonalities in three very different plays, and even contrasts theater against itself as many things audience members take for granted are turned upside down. The second act deconstructs the experience even more as actors discard their masks or costumes and appear in simple black outfits that still somehow evoke their characters. Then the audience can see for certain that all the Macbeth cast members are men and all the Medea cast members are women. Though who is whom is sometimes hard to tell, especially if one is not entirely familiar with the OSF company.

The entire play requires a fairly high degree of multitasking from the audience, a little work to go with your theater experience, and it is a bit too long. For some, this is great fun. Theater is flexible, and flexing theater muscles can feel good. But others may find the experience overwhelming.

If you are a playgoer who wants a linear theater experience, or who is expecting a comedic romp, then be prepared for a surprise, but see it anyway. Miriam A. Laube’s Medea is warmly human, Christopher Liam Moore is fantastic as the complicated Lady Macbeth, showing clearly her frustration at the limitations placed on her as a woman, while Laura Griffith is a sweetly strong Cinderella.

The costumes are beautiful and the clever staging and choreography help the multiple shows share the stage comfortably. “M/M/C,” however, is far from a traditional theater experience. It is a thoughtful study of dramatic traditions and a celebration of theater itself. The play may not be what every OSF theatergoer is looking for, but it is whip-smart, fun and creative, everything one would expect from an OSF production.

“Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” runs through Nov. 3. Ticket prices start from $21 to $75.50 and are available online at www.osfashland.org or by calling the box office at 541-482-4331 or 800-219-8161.

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