‘Frankie and Johnny’ first of four productions featuring OSF actors
By Julia Sommer for Ashland.news
Chock-full of favorite actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rogue Theater Company’s 2022 season kicks off Thursday, March 3, at Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland with Terrence McNally’s classic, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” featuring Kate Hurster and Al Espinosa and directed by Michael Hume.
Eager for a production of her play “Fragments,” Artistic Director Jessica Sage founded RTC in 2019 as a way to do just that. Presented at the Bellview Grange, the next production was “’night Mother” at the Black Swan. Since then, despite the pandemic, RTC has presented sold-out plays at the winery to enthusiastic audiences.
“RTC is evolving into an ensemble,” notes Sage. “Michael Hume, Robin Goodrin Nordli, and Caroline Shaffer are back this season. The artists work collaboratively, everyone has a voice. It’s rare in theater, and actors really appreciate it.”
RTC’s May production, “Chapatti,” features Goodrin Nordli and her husband, Michael Elich, playing animal lovers more comfortable with their pets than people. Robynn Rodriguez directs.
In June, Bard expert Barry Kraft will lead six Shakespeare sessions on the comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Much Ado about Nothing,” and “The Tempest.”
The season rounds out in November with the one-man, “Every Brilliant Thing,” featuring Danforth Comins, which explores how to stay hopeful by focusing on the simple joys of life. Caroline Shaffer directs.
Details on these three RTC productions will be forthcoming in Ashland.news. Sage has decided to skip a summer production due to the likelihood and unpredictability of smoke.
An arc filled with connections
Connection is the theme of this season, says Sage – between couples (“Frankie and Johnny”), people and their pets (“Chapatti”), and people with themselves (“Every Brilliant Thing”). “This is intimate theater with a direct link between actors and audience,” she says.
“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” director Hume calls the 1987 play, set in a one-room Manhattan apartment, “an experimental kitchen-sink drama — damaged souls meeting in the night, trying to reach out to each other, will they end up together or not?” Johnny is a short-order cook, Frankie a waitress. Johnny calls a classical radio station to request “the most beautiful music ever written”: Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
Rather than pre-recorded music, RTC’s production will use Grizzly Peak Winery’s grand piano, which, in any case, cannot be moved from the stage. Enter Joel Wizansky, internationally acclaimed pianist on the Yale School of Music faculty, who will play piano versions of the works called for in the script and for half an hour before the show starts. (Wizansky is in Ashland also to visit his father, who lives at Mountain Meadows.)
Hume directed “Tiny Beautiful Things” for RTC last year and has directed for OSF, Southern Oregon University, Ashland High School, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, and the Ashland New Plays Festival. Also a playwright, Hume is collaborating on an Irish musical, “Parcel from America,” to play in Dublin in May. He will play Gonzalo in “The Tempest” this summer at OSF.
For a play as intimate as “Frankie and Johnny” (it opens with a lovemaking scene), it’s very helpful to have a married couple playing the roles. Says Kate about husband Al, “I’m so glad it’s Al doing this with me; I trust him implicitly, he’s so talented, so skilled.”
“There’s a lot of intimacy in the play,” says Al. “It helps that we know each other very well, otherwise it would require an intimacy director. It’s a complete pleasure to have my wife as acting partner. We don’t have to pretend.”
Hurster and Espinosa met at OSF 10 years ago in company housing when they were in “The Pirates of Penzance” together. “He was my pirate,” Kate recalls with a smile. They have a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Espinosa notes that the COVID-19 shut-down has been a blessing in terms of having quality parenting time, and that Ashland is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.
Born in Cuba, Espinosa recently appeared in Cabaret’s “Christmas Contigo,” about a Cuban-American family celebrating Noche Buena (the night before Christmas). Espinosa played a dramatic Papi. “It was a natural for me,” he says, “just like the family I grew up in.”
At OSF this season, Espinosa will be in “The Tempest” and “Revenge Song”; Hurster will be in “King John” as Robert/Lady Faulconbridge and others.
A vintage venue
RTC productions thus far have been held outdoors in Grizzly Peak Winery’s beautiful gardens; “Frankie and Johnny” will be indoors in Grizzly’s spacious barrel room, sans barrels.Capacity is 150; vaccination, boosters, and masks will be required. “Chapatti” will be outdoors; “Every Brilliant Thing” will move back indoors.
Grizzly Peak Winery owners Al and Virginia Silbowitz say, “we’re delighted and proud to be able to host these performances. We were especially grateful and happy to host Rogue Theater Company’s outdoor performances under the oak trees throughout the most trying part of the plague. We’re very pleased to be a community center for the arts to continue, both outside and inside.” Grizzly Peak wine will, of course, be for sale at the RTC performances.
Before moving to Ashland seven years ago with husband Barry Kraft, Sage, the ATC artistic director, was an actor, teacher, and director in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her movie and TV credits include “Who Shot Patakango?”(with Sandra Bullock), “If Tomorrow Comes,” “General Hospital” and PBS productions of “Getting Out” and “Blithe Spirit.” She has directed nearly 40 theatrical productions, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Ashland High School.
At 62, Sage says the birth of RTC is “an incredible fluke. I’ve never felt more fulfilled professionally. It’s extraordinary to be a part of this community experience.”
Each RTC opening benefits a local nonprofit organization. The Friday, March 4, opening of “Frankie and Johnny” will benefit Ashland Food Project and will be followed by wine and a talk-back with the actors and director. Tickets are $40.
Previous opening night beneficiaries have included Planned Parenthood SW Oregon, the Maslow Project, Community Works, Almeda Fire Relief efforts, Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, and Project De La Raíz. “Chapatti” beneficiary is FOTAS (Friends of the Animal Shelter), and “Every Brilliant Thing,” CASA of Jackson County.
Sage’s RTC team is filled with local pros: Richard Hay, resident set designer; Chris Sackett, resident light designer; Claudia Everett, costume consultant; and Stephany Smith-Pearson, literary manager, among others.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Sage. “I’m having the time of my life!”
Email freelance writer Julia Sommer of Ashland at email@example.com.
Show dates and additional information
RTC plays start at 2 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays at Grizzly Peak Winery. The Shakespeare sessions will take place at a private home in Ashland, and can be viewed in person, live stream, or on video. More information and tickets for the entire season are on sale now at roguetheatercompany.com, or call 541-205-9190.
“Frankie and Johnny” plays March 3-13. Tickets are $30 (March 3 preview, $25; March 4 opening benefit, $40).
“Chapatti” runs May 5-15.
Barry Kraft’s Shakespeare weekends are June 4-5, 11-12, and 18-19.
“Every Brilliant Thing” runs Nov. 3-13.