Party atmosphere sets a Go-Go’s pace for ‘Head Over Heels’

Equal parts Elizabethan comedy and psychedelic rock concert, show works in spite of rough patches

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Head Over Heels” is a nonstop party. Come as you are, bring in a drink from the concession stand in the courtyard, settle into your seat and share in the fun.
“Head Over Heels,” by Tony Award-winning playwright Jeff Whitty, had its world premiere Saturday night in OSF’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Whitty fashioned an adaptation of Philip Sidney’s classic Elizabethan pastoral poem, “Arcadia,” and then punctuated it with the ’80s music of the Go-Go’s. The result is equal parts Elizabethan comedy and psychedelic rock concert.
Whitty and director Ed Sylvanus Iskander start the party when you trade your ticket for a chocolate bar at the entrance gate to the Elizabethan’s courtyard. The pre-play traditional trumpet fanfare is performed live. The required cellphone admonition is some witty patter sung by John Tufts, in character as the fool, Philanax. Tufts then proceeds to generously introduce the cast members and their characters.
And then the story begins.
Basilius, the Duke of Arcadia (Michael Sharon), seeks to foil the uncomfortable predictions of an Oracle by taking his family and entourage on a road trip.
The group includes Basilius’ disaffected wife, Gynecia (Miriam A. Laube), his elder daughter, Pamela, a famed beauty known for rejecting her suitors, and his younger daughter, Philoclea, who is deemed plain and unmarriageable.
Whitty’s joke here is that the spoiled and petulant Pamela is played by a pretty but decidedly “zaftig” actress, Bonnie Milligan. Philoclea is played by an equally pretty but slender Tala Ashe.
Off they go, into the woods, where they are rescued from ferocious beasts by an Amazon warrior. It is the shepherd Musidorus, Philoclea’s true love, decked out in drag.
Each family member sees in the Amazon the solution to his or her problem. Basilius tries to seduce her. So does Pamela, who is only now discerning why her male suitors all seem uninteresting. Gynecia discovers that the Amazon is really a strapping young man. Philoclea, of course, recognizes Musidorus under the disguise.
And that’s just the first act.
This is a cast that can really belt out the onstage band’s ’80s power rock rhythms while the large ensemble effortlessly romps through Sonya Tayeh’s delightfully complex choreography.
Christopher Acebo’s minimalist set positively throbs thanks to lighting by Jane Cox and video projections by Mark Holthusen. The Elizabethan costumes and elaborate wigs come in psychedelic colors, courtesy of costume designer Loren Shaw.
The Go-Go’s were the first female rock band to write their own music and lyrics, perform live on stage and make it to No. 1 on the “Billboard” charts. Whitty uses music from the group’s four albums as well as solo songs written and recorded by band members Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle.
The band gave Whitty and orchestrator/arranger Carmen Dean carte blanche to change lyrics and arrangements to fit the play. The result is that when the Go-Go’s music is taken out of a hard-driving concert setting, the complexity of the melodies and the poignancy of the lyrics have a chance to shine.
Cheers went up from the audience as Go-Go’s favorites made their appearance: “Get Up and Go,” “My Life is Beautiful,” “Good Girl,” “This Old Feeling,” “The Unforgiven,” “We Got the Beat” and, especially, “Mad About You” and “Head Over Heels.” It was audience participation of the best kind.
There are some rough patches. “Head Over Heels” is still a work-in-progress. The second act begins to drag as plot device is loaded onto plot device, seemingly into infinity. The “deus ex machina” is bewildering, if funny. And the coda goes on too long. But this is the purpose of world premieres, to see where any revisions or pruning might be needed.
But it’s all joyful, contagious and outrageously funny. Whitty and Iskander said in prefatory notes and pre-production videos that they want the audience to feel like they are entering a party when they walk into the theater.
It may not feel like a party when you enter but you will know you’ve been to one outrageously good party when you leave.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland

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