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On The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland's Elizabethan Stage, John O'Keeffe's "Wild Oats" is a charming play about the opposing forces of kindness vs. meanness, love, friendship, and loyalty. The play dates from 1791 and takes place in Hampshire, England in the mid-18th century. The facade of the second story has a scroll on it that rolls and sets the action. It begins with the Prologue, then rolls to Lady Amaranth's house, etc.

In the Prologue, John Dory tells of the fake marriage of Sir George Thunder, a retired naval officer. Dory, Thunder's former boatswain played a trick, though, and got a real preacher, so it was a real marriage. These two salty dogs are tremendous as they completely overact their parts, Dory even having a little hitch and kick in his step. Thunder fears his trip through life will be attended by heavy squalls and stormy weather. Lady Amaranth is Thunder's niece. She's a Quaker, and a genuinely kind person. She uses her wealth to help the poor, and that's her chief form of entertainment, helping those less fortunate. Her steward, Ephraim Smooth is a stern man, and he wants her. Thunder plots to have her marry his wayward son Harry, so that she gets the title, and his family gets her money.

We move to "In front of an Inn" where Muz imparts his wisdom, "Evil communications corrupt good manners." He is really Harry's servant, but since Harry has assumed the name Dick Buskin and joined the acting company, they have been on equal terms. Harry upbraids him for it, now that he's going to leave the country. He and Jack Rover, the leader of the company are best friends, but now will part. Harry tells him, "You go down this road and I'll go down that." When it's finalized, they act the farewell scene between Cassius and Brutus from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

"Wild Oats" is full of quotes from and tributes to Shakespeare. Indeed, O'Keeffe was originally trained as a painter, but became an actor after seeing David Garrick perform "King Lear" in the 1760's. He wrote more than sixty plays. This play has quotes and references from "Hamlet," "Richard II," and the entire household of Lady Amaranth performing "As You Like It." Jack Rover is always acting and totally theatrical in his every movement. At one point he even says "You must be content to murder Shakespeare without making me an accomplice." When Smooth tramples the script of "As You Like It" Rover screams, picks it up, and kisses it, while upbraiding Smooth.

Farmer Gammon is in love with his neighbor Bank's sister, Amelia. She was abandoned by her husband, and still considers herself married. Gammon gets his revenge by getting the bailiff Twitch to evict them from their cottage. Banks owes him £30 , and demands payment, or Banks will go to jail. Rover happens to be there with some of his troupe. He gives Twitch £20, and gets very aggressive about he rest. We see how Twitch got his name when confronted. His whole body goes into contortions. Gammon growls and snarls. He's meanness personified, in a very comical way. Lady Amaranth has come to get Gammon's daughter for her handmaid, and when she sees what's going on, gives all the money to free Banks.

Rover immediately falls in love with her, saying, "That face is a prologue to a kind heart." He hands her a copy of "As You Like It." She's captivated by him, but after she leaves he laments that she's rich and he's just an actor. He can't think of ever having her. Alone, she muses that her heart is possessed by a wandering youth, but he's poor. Is that a crime? She is in love with Rover. John Dory and Rover drink and talk. Dory thinks that Rover is Harry Thunder, and is going to set him up with Lady Amaranth. Dory spits, bounces, and snarls as he describes her beauty and stateliness. At the Lady's house, Smooth says a title is vanity, the scroll rolls from "Lady Amaranth's House" to "Mary's House" as Dory delivers Rover. They are both enchanted when they see each other. Rover tells her "I do love thee, and when I love thee not, let chaos come again."

Part 2 is the rehearsal for "As You Like It." Rover has made all the servants actors, and as we all know, there are no small parts. The real Harry is found and makes his way there. He warns Rover of Thunder, and will make Mary think that Rover's Harry. He tells Rover that Thunder's an actor in another company he was with, and Rover and Harry claim to not know each other. Mary is told they will act that way and thinks it's quite comical when Thunder continually refers to Rover as "Puppy Unknown." Thunder is set upon by some deserters whom he has hunted, but forgiven, and is trying to help. Rover defends and rescues him.

Amelia pleads for her brother to Mary. Gammon is trying to sell all they own. We find out that she is really the lost wife of Thunder, and Rover is really their son. All ends well as Harry loses his inheritance, which Rover gains, but gains a brother who has already been his best friend. In the end kindness wins out all around, and meanness is won over as Gammon gives a potted plant to Banks, with a smile. Rover and Mary marry in this thoroughly witty comedy. "Wild Oats" is immensely entertaining, with nothing particularly profound, unless it's that kindness is it's own reward and will ultimately attract kindness. It continues outdoors in The Elizabethan Theatre at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland through October 11.

 

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