Shakespeare and a Walk in the Park
A Summertime Stroll Through Ashland’s Beautiful Lithia Park Rivals Macbeth as a Pull for Visitors,
By Hank Mattimore
Every two years or so I am drawn to go on a kind of pilgrimage, just over the California border, to the town of Ashland, Oregon. Like other lovers of live theater, I am drawn to Ashland to see Shakespeare and modern theatrical productions performed with a professional flair rarely seen outside of New York or London. But on my more recent visits I have found myself becoming almost equally enamored with Ashland’s second wonder, its gorgeous Lithia Park.
Designed by John McLaren, the same landscape architect who designed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Lithia Park is a gem. The old Scot took full advantage of Ashland Creek, which tumbles and splashes through the heart of the park from its source high in the Siskiyou Mountains. Family-friendly trails run along both sides of the creek, assuring hikers that they are always within sight (and sound) of the rushing waters. McClaren had a thing for trees and both Golden Gate Park and Lithia Park are a testimony to his motto “Trees, trees and more trees.” From the ancient twisted Japanese maple that stands at the entrance to the park to the groves of sycamore, coastal redwoods and giant sequoias, visitors are enveloped in the silent beauty of McClaren’s trees.
While the abundance of trees and the meandering creek give Lithia Park its distinctive character, the park also boasts a profusion of rhododendrons, colorful azaleas, dogwoods and a variety of other flowering plants. If you hurry, you may be able to catch the rhodies at their late springtime best. There are picnic grounds, too and plenty of delis and bakeries just outside the park entrance where you can pick up food and drinks for a picnic by the duck pond or in a shady sycamore grove by the side of the creek. Hey, life doesn’t offer much better than a picnic with a friend in a setting this beautiful.
Of course, it’s Shakespeare and the theater that still draws most tourists to Ashland but many visitors like to combine the best of both worlds, enjoying the park during the day and taking in the theater in the evening. My friend and I made reservations for two eight o’clock performances. We saw Macbeth in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theater and a modern play, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” in the more intimate setting of the New Theater.
There is something personal about live theater, when it is done well, that grabs me. We the audience sit so close to the actors and actresses. They have no place to hide if they flub a line or miss a cue. It’s just us and them, audience and performers. No retakes allowed. (During the performance of “Cell Phone”a woman in the audience sneezed. She automatically said aloud “excuse” me only to hear the leading actor on stage, without missing a beat, say “That’s okay.”) You simply don’t get that kind of interaction between audience and actors in a movie theater or in front of our home television set.
On this visit to Ashland, I was fortunate enough to catch the player’s production of Macbeth, my favorite Shakespearean tragedy. I was not disappointed at the performance. The man who played Macbeth performed with strength and passion, showing for all to see, both the magnificence and the fatal weakness of his character. Some of you may remember studying this play in English class and perhaps memorizing some of its immortal lines.
“Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
And who can forget the croaking voices of the three witches? “Double,double toil and trouble. Fire burns and cauldron bubble.”
Macbeth displays the gamut of human emotions, from courage and heroism to ambition gone wild, to greed and lust for power. The best and the worst in our human nature are played out upon the stage. Great theater.
While seeing Shakespeare performed indoors at the Angus Bowmer Theater was more than satisfying, I missed experiencing Macbeth on the outdoor Elizabethan stage. Somehow, Shakespeare under the stars on a warm summer’s night is special. Alas!
We were just a few weeks too early in the season. Outdoor performances of Shakespearean plays run from early June through October, on a stage modeled on the original 1599 Fortune Theater stage of Shakespeare’s time.
I didn’t mention that the Ashland area has quite a bit to offer besides Shakespeare and Lithia Park. If you’re a browser, you will delight in the boutiques lining the main street. There are also an abundance of restaurants in the downtown area. I tend to favor soup and sandwich places rather than fine dining emporiums so I’d recommend Munchies Restaurant, right on the creek, noted for their scrumptious homemade berry pies. Another neat place is “Grilla Bites” which offers wholesome vegetarian faire for under $10.
As for accommodations, we stayed at “The Bard’s Inn,” a Great Western Inn, located within a five-minute walk of downtown and the theaters. With a AAA or AARP discount the room set us back only $80 per night and included a more than adequate breakfast.
If you are looking for a Shakespeare fix and a walk in the park just goggle the Ashland Shakespeare Festival or call toll free 800-219-8161 for the schedule of performances.