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Anyone seriously interested in experiencing live theater just about as good as it gets - whether comedy or drama, classic or contemporary - surely ought to make a trip sometime to the delightful town of Ashland, nestled away in the southern Oregon hills.

Now in its 59th year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers a great variety of plays, new and old, with as many as 11 different productions running in repertoire during the season (mid-February to the end of October), as many as nine of them playing during any given week during the summer months.The plays are performed in three very different theaters - the Elizabethan theater out-of-doors, the comfortable Angus Bowmer Theater indoors, and a smaller, more intimate, experimental indoor theater called The Black Swan. About one third of the total repertoire is Shakespeare - this season's offerings included "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Tempest," and the little-seen "Two Noble Kinsmen" written by Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher.

In addition to the Shakespeare is a wide selection of plays drawn from any country or period where good drama is found, with this season featuring Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July," Jean Anouilh's "The Rehearsal," David Mamet's "Oleanna," Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It with You," George C. Wolfe's "The Colored Museum, " Alan Cubitt's "The Pool of Bethesda" and Constance L. Congdon's "Tales of the Lost Formicans."

Having had a very positive and memorable experience at Ashland several years ago, I have been restless to get back ever since, and was delighted to be able to see three fine productions in this present season. If time had permitted, I would readily have stayed until I had seen them all.

The current "Hamlet" is a rather unusual but intriguing and eclectic interpretation of this most famous of all dramas. For one thing, it is tied to no specific time or country, though it is set in a vast storage room filled with unused paintings, statues and furniture, hinting of an Eastern European atmosphere.

This experimentation with Shakespeare's masterpiece carries over into the casting: both Marcellus and Rosencrantz are played by women (the latter, I might add, surprisingly successfully); the Lead Player is black; and Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, appears as a kind of Pat Nixon look-alike.

Much is done with the company of players to delight the eye as well as the ear: dressed in rag-bag clothing covered with a thin layer of powder or dust, they appear at one time - all six of them - from six separate trapdoors (eerily lighted from below) in the floor. At another point, they move startlingly onto the stage humming in unison "The Hall of the Mountain King."

It's a rather striking production, with enough fresh ideas and new slants on this old warhorse, that it's almost like encountering it for the first time.

Equally theatrical and just as exciting to watch is the American premiere of the 1990 British play, "The Pool of Bethesda."

The title comes from a large Biblical painting by William Hogarth - a striking departure for this otherwise painter of social satires - depicting Christ's healing the afflicted near the Bethesda pool. The play itself jumps back and forth from the time of the painter - the early 18th century - to our own century and to the hospital where the painting now hangs, with most of the actors playing double and sometimes parallel roles, one in each time period.

Frank and unsparing in its probing of the human condition, it's an intelligent and thought-provoking play dealing with, among other things, health and healing, life and death, meaningful relationships with others and - above all - one's own self. The cast is excellent, and the production values are high with remarkable imagery and intriguingly symbolic slide-projections (upon the background) abounding.

A definite treat was the Black Swan production of Congdon's "Tales of the Lost Formicans." The initial premise is not unlike the popular tongue-in-cheek coffee-table book. "Motel of the Mysteries" (in which a future civilization tries to decipher our own by examining the strange "ceremonial" objects - such as a commode or a toilet plunger - found in the ruins of a motel).

"Tales of the Lost Formicans" begins with a voice (belonging to, we later learn, an alien) examining a chrome-and-vinyl kitchen chair from the early '60s and guessing its possible uses. We then begin a hilarious yet acute and eye-opening peek-through-the-keyhole at a modem American family, as the play, throughout dozens of short but uncomfortably on-target scenes, examines our pop culture, alienation, dysfunctional families, the generation gap, Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Ruth - you name it.

Clever, experimental, provocative, unsettling yet amusing, "Formicans" becomes one of those theater experiences that, though maybe not quite on the same level literarily, is still as much a record of our own time as plays like "Waiting for Godot," "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey into Night" were of theirs. The cast - especially Dennis Robertson as the father experiencing the first disorientations of senility - is very good and the writing both witty and wise.

I wish I could have seen all of the other plays and look forward to the next time I can see as many offerings Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival as possible. And the nice thing about Ashland is that the city itself is charming, set, as it is, in the pines and boasting a number of restored Victorian homes. In additon, the long, rambling and beautiful Lithia Park right outside the back of the theaters offers shady and wonderful walks through leafy trees and luxurious rhodedendrons. There are also plenty of other sights within a short distance - like the restored village of Jacksonville, Crater Lake and the incomparable Oregon coast.