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Shakespeare and the Seven-Year Old

My piece about going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my daughter originally appeared in The Register Guard.  There’s still time to get to Ashland, Oregon to see a play before the season ends on November 2nd!

ASHLAND — The words “Shakespeare” and “7-year-old” seem at first mutually exclusive. But the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its current line-up that includes a musical fairy tale and a world premiere adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” inspired me to take my daughter, Maia, on a weekend theatrical extravaganza.

“We’ll call it your graduation present,” I told her, just a little worried that Ashland might not offer enough entertainment to occupy my soon-to-be second-­grader for two days.

How wrong I was; Fodor’s just named it one of America’s best small towns for good reason.

The festival runs between February and November with productions this season that range from “The Tempest” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” to Irving Berlin’s comedy “The Cocoanuts” and “Water by the Spoonful,” a drama about recovering addicts in an online chat­room.

Elizabethan Theater

Three theaters house the shows; the most exciting for kids is the outdoor, three-level Allen Elizabethan Theater. With its colorful banners and ivy-draped walls, it’s easy to picture it as home to Sleeping Beauty or those sisters from “Frozen.”

Ten months each year, visitors worldwide come to Ashland. They stroll past boutiques on Main Street smiling over ice cream cones and lattes. They browse in Bloomsbury Books. They eat on restaurant patios nestled up against Ashland Creek. Some people pack in as many plays as possible, along with backstage tours and lectures. Others bring their kids.

“Into the Woods”

Children under 6 aren’t permitted at performances. Though Maia is 7, she’s — shall we say — spirited. I worried that she might be unable to sit still for a full-length play. But director Amanda Dehnert knows her audience.

While we waited for other families to sit down, Maia and I watched actors in street clothing warming up and moving props and chatting on stage. Kjerstine Rose Anderson, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, trilled scales as she strode about in a black foot splint. Miles Fletcher as Jack (of beanstalk-fame) carried a cow mask across the stage while orchestra members tuned their instruments.

Maia sat mesmerized.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine collaborated on “Into the Woods” in 1986; within the musical, fairy tale characters “collide and intertwine,” as Sondheim once explained, “in a mutual meeting ground.” Though Maia didn’t walk out of the theater singing any one song (Sondheim’s dissonant melodies are tricky for a 7-year-old), she remained riveted on the high-energy first act which involves Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and his comic cow, Rapunzel and the witch who imprisons her.

There’s much for adults and children to chuckle over during the show. Thanks to ingenious staging, Red Riding Hood disappears into the belly of the Big Bad Wolf and then performs a hilarious — if garish — re-emergence. Cinderella’s stepsisters strut across the stage in fantastical ball gowns that grow increasingly bizarre, and two handsome princes vogue during a heartsick tête-à-tête in a parody of Disney action figures.

It’s a three-hour play with a second act darker and more sophisticated than the first. Maia fell asleep on my shoulder. Still, the next morning after waffles and omelets at Morning Glory Cafe, she chattered about the production as we wandered through Lithia Park.

Maia and Sculpture

Established in 1892, the 93-acre park offers trails under maples and pines, a duck pond, picnic areas, a playground and wide grassy areas perfect for picnics and Frisbee. Musicians play accordions, violins and guitars on the park benches. Squirrels skitter across boulders. It’s an idyllic location in which to discuss “Into the Woods.”

“What if,” I whispered to Maia as we wound our way down a dirt path, “Cinderella burst out of the woods right now and asked us to help her escape from that prince?”

“I’d hide her in a tree.” Maia turned and headed for the duck pond. “Can I feed the ducks?”

Signs say not to feed the pair floating in the tranquil pond. Instead, we walked to the playground full of innovative spinning and climbing structures including a 20-foot web created out of thick cable, which Maia immediately scaled.

“I’m Rapunzel in her tower,” she told me and pointed behind me. “Oh, look — there’s the real one.”

I spun around to see Royer Bockus, who portrays Rapunzel in the play, walking through the park with two men, laughing and singing. Rather than ruin our willing suspension of disbelief, the celebrity sighting added to it — Lithia Park’s woods now seemed truly magical.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

The playground provides a fine intermission between a matinee and evening play. It’s also a good place to get the wiggles out before a single performance. By the time Maia had romped and we’d picnicked on the lawn outside the Elizabethan Theater (more sightings of actors on their way to prepare for matinees), she was ready to sit and watch “A Wrinkle in Time.”

One of the most thrilling things about OSF performances is the innovative staging. Last year’s production of “King Lear” had my mother and me on the edge of our seats thanks to stellar acting and a fresh, contemporary treatment. For the world premiere of the adaptation of “Wrinkle” (the novel won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1963) director and adaptor Tracy Young brainstormed with the cast and creative team.

Once again, as Maia and I waited for the lights to go down in the Angus Bowmer Theater, we watched the actors walking about informally on stage. Joe Wegner as Calvin O’Keefe reclined with an old radio. An actor set up a projector to show footage of Fidel Castro and protestors during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I read to Maia about how L’Engle wrote the novel during the Cold War, while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed in a race to launch spacecraft into orbit. The author integrated political issues of the era into her science fiction novel which plays (in a most unfunny way) with the concepts of time and space travel. As one character observes to another in the book, it’s a dangerous game.

The lights went down and the production began, centered around a misfit adolescent math genius in trouble with the school principal and grieving her physicist father who’s gone astray. “Wrinkle,” the novel, scared me when my fifth-grade teacher read it in class. Creatures shape-shift, shadows cover the Earth, planets prove inhospitable or — if they are welcoming — they’re populated by giant hairy beasts with weird tubes sticking out of their fur.

And then there’s the brain, “IT,” the mastermind that holds the protagonist’s father hostage and assumes mental control over her precocious baby brother. I had aisle seats in case Maia became frightened and we had to make a quick getaway.

But this director, too, knows her audience and downplays elements of the novel that might give the under-10 crowd nightmares. “IT” is two people undulating under a cloth with an image of a brain projected upon it. Charles Wallace, the baby brother portrayed by Sara Bruner, disappears into a trunk after IT gains control; he’s replaced by a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s elegantly rendered, and no one runs out crying.

As we left the theater after a standing ovation, I overheard conversations from the people who’d been sitting around us: “I read it over and over as a kid.” … “My favorite book.” … “That was remarkable.”

My own daughter wore an inscrutable expression. “What did you think?” I asked.

“Good.” She nodded. “Can we get some ice cream?”

An annual tradition

We procured a cone from Zoey’s Cafe and stopped to pet the orange cat, “Athos,” who lives in the shoe store near the theaters. Back in Lithia Park, I asked Maia what she’d learned from “Wrinkle.”

She licked at her ice cream. “I learned,” she said, “that even if you go to the principal’s office, you can save your baby brother with love. May I please have a cup for tadpoles?”

Satisfied, I gave her my empty coffee cup. That afternoon, I saw that Ashland’s main charm for a 7-year-old lies in wading through the creek in pursuit of minnows. Kids ranging from toddler to pre-teen communed in the water, splashing and comparing their finds while parents and grandparents relaxed at picnic tables or chatted on the creek bank.

Maia in Ashland Creek

Despite the long drive back to Eugene ahead, I let Maia wade, happy to sit under a pine and reflect on all we’d experienced. At last, I rounded her up and we walked past the display of last year’s opulent costumes at the visitor’s center, past the bronze sculpture portraying kings and cowboys and children and Shakespeare’s Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head. We stopped once more to admire the orange cat and bemoaned the lack of time to delve into the toy store.

“We’ll come back,” I promised. “Let’s make this an annual tradition — what do you think of that?”

She grinned up at me, dress sodden and face smeared with chocolate ice cream. “Good,” she said.

Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family. She teaches travel writing at the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication.