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Handler - Reviews
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New OSF theater opens with a dramatic flare
By Teri Albert, Art World
The World, Coos Bay, OR

During the second act of 'Handler,' one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's three plays to be staged in their new theater this season, the character of Terri takes the audience on a snake hunt.

Speaking in near darkness where she stands at the far edge of the theater's "avenue" style configuration, she describes the rough burlap bags carried by the hunters, and the cool, nearly black world of the reptiles that they discover. She speaks with a rural twang and a touch of fear about the writhing mass of poisonous snakes, disturbed from their slumbers by the members of her church.

April 6 opening night audience did not quail at the imagery of her words, because by that time we had experienced tragedies while watching this play, and we had witnessed miracles. We were . We were congregants.

'Handler' is a two act play by Robert Schenkkan, the writer who penned the award-winning two-part drama, 'The Kentucky Cycle.' This new script is a powerful story of faith and marriage, set within the slightly foreign world of a small group of Pentecostal Christians who find and celebrate their connection to God by speaking in tongues and handling poisonous snakes.

The basis of this sect's religion is the verse from the bible's Mark 16: 17-l8, "They shall take up serpents... and not be harmed." There is venom aplenty in the relationship between Terri and her husband, Geordi, but the play's plot is subservient, in my opinion, to the language and the imagery and the staging given to this production.

Schenkkan's words are poetry - Geordi, lost and wandering in the hills, delivers a speech wherein he becomes the serpent; he speaks for the snake. It is an extraordinary moment - actor Jonathan Haugen's performance is full throttle, and it is as though a storm of biblical proportions has cracked open the sky, revealing unimagined connections and universal truths.

The work by this cast is pure ensemble acting. Kenneth Albers leads the congregation as Brother Bob, father of Geordi's wife, Terri, played by Robynn Rodriguez. Half a dozen Ashland actors double as congregants and reporters, and a young Maya K. Nerenberg turns in a remarkably mature and touching performance as the Young Girl.

The audience is arranged on either side of a long, wide playing area. When director Bill Rauch sets husband and wife at opposite ends of this space, and each speaks a monologue in point and counterpoint, we are struck with the idea that these two might just as well be speaking in tongues for all of their separation and missed connections.

Setting by Richard L. Hay transforms variously from the simple church meeting hall, to a mountainside of dappled moonlight, to, most evocatively of all, the hillside lair of the Man In The Woods.

He is called Man In The Woods in the program, but as soon as he leaped five rows up into the audience to stand right next to my seat, I knew who was. He had one hand resting on the dirty neck of the cowering Young Girl, while the other hand cradled the open stock of a shotgun. He shouted at Geordi and tempted him to drink, and I knew he was the devil even before he fell into the liquor still and grew into a towering figure of red flames. Armando Duran's performance as Man In The Woods is not to be missed.

If you plan to see 'Handler,' don't be late. The assembly of the cast during the moments before curtain is a show in itself. Led by the talented composer, Michael "Hawkeye" Herman (six string, twelve string, and National slide guitar), musicians Mike Fitch and Bruce McKern set the mood from blues through gospel, contributing to a performance possessed of, and by, pure spirit.

This Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of 'Handler' is the West Coast premiere. Although some dates are sold out, tickets continue to be available for most performances which will continue through June 30. Check availability online at www.osfashland:org or by calling 4824331.


'Handler:' OSF's short-run masterpiece
By Lee Juillerat, H & N Regional Editor
Herald and News, Klamath Falls, Oregon

"Handler," a play by Robert Schenkkan, is making its West Coast premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in The New Theatre. Directed by Bill Rauch, the play will only be offered through June 30. Cast members include Robynn Rodriguez, Jonathan Haugen, Kenneth Albers and Armando Duran. It features live music by musicians, including composer Michael "Hawkeye" Herman.

Rare, wondrous times elements mesh together to create plays that are fascinating, illuminating and instructive.

"Handler" is a play that combines myriad elements, especially an absorbing script by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. His words are enhanced and elevated by a quality dynamic cast, an excellent trio of musicians, and eloquent use of The New Theatre.

In contrast to "Macbeth," the play that earlier this year launched the festival's newest stage, The New Theater's lighting and set designs significantly enhance "Handler." Director Bill Rauch also makes appropriate and creative use of the theater's avenue configuration.

"Handler" generates fascination partly because of its subject - Pentecostals who practice snake handling as part of their religious beliefs. Literally interpreting the Bible - they "shall handle serpents ... and not be harmed" - is Brother Bob's congregation.

At times "Handler" plays like a documentary, other times like a Southern-fried hoedown. Schenkkan skillfully shifts moods, creating a disaster, and a miracle, that test the faith of Bob's flock. The play is often hilarious, frequently gritty, sometimes disturbing. Unusually, Schenkken devises a tale that is absorbing because of its lack of predictability.

The primary characters are Terri, played with layers of emotions by Robynn Rodriguez, and her troubled husband, Geordi, performed with slouchy insolence by Jonathan Haugen.

The deep, talented cast include Kenneth Albers as the frumpy dynamic Brother Bob, Armando Duran as a nerdy congregate and frightening Man in the Woods, Brad Whitmore as Samuel, U. Jonathan Toppo as Larry, Catherine E. Coulson as Alice, and Maya Nerenherg as two very different young girls.

Happily, Schenkken has created characters that avoid easy stereotyping. Likewise, the play avoids formulas. While elements of religious extremism are obvious, "Handler" is about Terri and Geordi's struggle to survive their fractured marriage.

Unfortunately, "Handler" will remain in rotation only through June 30.


Oregon Shakespeare Festival production does 'Handler' justice
by Beti Trauth
Times Standard, Humboldt County, CA

"Handler," the second play staged in the Oregon Shakespeare's brand new, multi-million dollar "New Theatre," is most likely the finest production that I've ever seen there (and I've seen a lot over the years).

As a matter of fact, there are very few that come to mind that have anywhere near the sheer artistic and dramatic impact that this overtly simple, but amazingly complex, script presents for the audience's involvement and contemplation.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for "The Kentucky Cycle"), skillfully and compassionately creates vivid characters - "ordinary" people - whose passionate religious beliefs make them capable of doing extraordinary things handling poisonous snakes as part of the ritual in their charismatic church service.

Schenkkan became fascinated with this dangerous, theologically-based practice (Mark 16:17-20 and Luke 10:19) during his research "Cycle," and explored it further by personally visiting several Southern churches who practice "handling" - staying with ministers, talking with congregants and attending services.

In an interview published in OSF's 2002 Playgoers Guide, "illuminations," he says, "However inappropriate or dangerous I may have considered what they were doing or however much I might have disagreed with the theology behind it - and that would be a literal biblical interpretation, which I certainly don't hold to - I had to acknowledge the power and passion of what these people were experiencing."

"Handler" delves into the very private lives and feelings of members of the fictional Holiness Way Church of the Living God, located somewhere in the present day rural South. You can feel the heat rising from the dirt roads that brought them to worship, and feel the flutter of the air moving from the paper fans they use to cool themselves as they sit down on the benches.

Directed by Bill Rauch, every character that we meet is perfectly cast. So much so that, as they casually enter the set, so brilliantly conceived by Richard Hay, we never doubt that they are exactly who they seem to be. This is also achieved by the wonderful costume design by Alex Jaeger.

The stage is set up "avenue style" (with audiences seated on either side, facing the actors' playing area, and each other). At one end, is a stage platform, where live original music composed by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman is performed by himself and fellow musicians, Mike Fitch and Bruce McKern.

Since grass-roots music has recently come back into the general consciousness due to the unexpected, staggering success of "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" this makes the authentic, bluegrass melodies and hymns of praise that Herman has created to greet the audience in "the church auditorium," feel as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The audience is encouraged to interact with the actors, and to clap and sing along.

Following a blackout that's filled with the ominous sound of an unseen rattlesnake, the music melts into an instrumental lead-in to preacher Bob's spotlighted welcome to the seated members of his congregation, "Welcome to the Land of the Dyin'!" And the congregants respond, "Amen!"

Living and dying and everything in between - that's what the playwright examines. There's an omnipresent, ominous latched wooden box that sits near the platform - a number of wooden benches that indicate the church interior are moved around throughout the play - reconfigured to become everything from a bed and a car to a coffin.

Other than these pieces, there is nothing else used to "dress the set." Although at the opposite end of the stage, there is a door that alternates as both the enhance to the church, and as the door leading from the front porch into a house. The abstraction must be filled in with where ever the action takes you.

Of course, one of the most important "illusions" that is central to the work is the "handling of snakes," and the reptiles that have been cleverly constructed for the purpose are frighteningly life-like as they writhe and coil in the actors hands. In the semi-darkness of lighting designer Robert Peterson, they are definitely real enough.

The central characters that draw us into the emotional whirlpool of their damaged marriage are Terri (Robynn Rodriguez) and Geordie (Jonathan Haugen). We see him just being released from prison (for what, we don't know, but eventually find out the sad truth). After an awkward reunion with his wife outside the gates, he finally gets in the car. She takes him home - but not really.

Their love has obviously been tested to the point where it is almost torn into shreds; but there is still an unbreakable connection that has survived. It's survived in spite of the accidental death of their young daughter, caused by Geordi's drinking and careless dnving. However, Terri's complete forgiveness may never happen - fueled by years of loneliness, hard work and bitterness.

She insists that Geordi accompany her to church, although he has never, ever felt comfortable there. "Handling was never for him. Even while we watch the "church services" swirl around this crumbling couple, we become so involved with them, that we subconsciously pray for them to come up from the bottom of their despair, together.

"Handler" tells the story of an unnerving "miracle" that occurs after Geordi "dies" from the bite of a snake he has suddenly decided to "handle" during one of those services. Days later, when he returns to land of the living through the strength and determination of Terri, he brings back secrets from beyond the grave, that he will not, or cannot, share.

The acting in this show is impeccable, starting with the two leads, Rodriguez and Haugen, and continuing throughout the casts' extraordinary performances in all of the major supporting roles and multiple "bit parts."

Kenneth Albers is preacher-Bob personified; Catherine Coulson is marvelous as the chronically "ill" Alice, and as a feisty reporter; and Brad Whitmore poignantly captures the stuttering congregant, Samuel, and also appears as a media gadfly.

U. Jonathan Toppo comes across equally strongly as both an enthusiastic congregant and as the obnoxious promoter, Larry. The character smacks of the devil-in-disguise as he tempts Terri and Geordi with fortune for the unwanted fame that hounds them after news of Geordi's "resurrection."

Armando Duran (in multiple roles), comes across most strongy as the threatening backwoods moon-shiner, who lives out there with his cowering, young daughter (touchingly played by Maya K. Nerenberg, who also appears as a church member).

The rest of the acting ensemble who play various small roles with focus and clarity are Kal Poole, Patrick Chew and Nancy Lee Painter. However, no matter what roles they played, all of the actors skillfully wove each, individual character into the brilliant tapestry of Schenkkan's script.

"Handler" forces you to examine your own spiritual life, and presents more questions than it answers. The characters we meet are treated with respect by the playwright (real people, not religious stereotypes), sincere in their seeking and doubts, believable in their fragile humanity, seeldng a safe haven through the power of love.

As Terri says, at the end of the play, "I tell myself there's nothing love cain't do but I know that ain't true. And even if it is, there's always such a terrible price to be paid. I figure I'm ready for it. As much as you can be in this world."

"Handler's" run at OSF will be over, long before all of the audiences it deserves get a chance to see this remarkable production. If you do miss the show, be sure and pick up a copy of the script at the Tudor Guild. It's as powerful to read as it is to see.


'Handler'
Skilled cast brings church's charisma to the New Theatre
by Fred Crafts,
The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR

ASHLAND - Goodness gracious, snakes alive - what in the name of God is going on in "Handler?"

Snakes, that's what. Poisonous serpents. Symbols of rejuvenation and tests of faith. Robert Schenkkan's drama dwells in the minds of certain Southern religions whose followers handle snakes to prove (or reaffirm) their piety.

Although snake-handling may seem more than a little creepy to many onlookers, it makes a thoroughly fascinating subject for a play - and the riveting West Coast premiere of Schenkkan's epic tale, in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre, takes advantage of all its possibilities.

For the most part, the action occurs amid the curious religious practices of the Holiness Way Church, headed by the gregarious preacher Bob (played with charismatic fervor by Kenneth Albers).

Although it takes a while to tell, it seems the town drunk, Geordi (Jonathan Haugen in a compelling performance), leaves prison to pick up the pieces of his tattered life. He has killed his young daughter by driving over her while in an alcoholic haze; his wife, Terri (Robynn Rodriguez in an haunting characterization), is understandably having a tough time accepting his return.

Church plays a pivotal role in holding the couple together. Terri is a devout Christian, but Geordi isn't. And he certainly isn't a snake-handler. But he loves her and goes to church with her, where one day, in a flash of religious frenzy, he picks up a snake and is killed by it.

Why did he do it? Terri's struggles to find out elevate the play from being just a peek behind the curtain at a religious cult to an unsettling investigation into the power of love between two people.

If God is, as some people say in the details, then Bill Rauch's first-rate production is to be worshipped. Its details even have details - including a box of fake but very lifelike snakes.

"Handler" is the second play to be produced in the New Theatre since it opened on March 1. The premiere production, "Macbeth," was done arena style (seating on four sides), on a raised circular dais. But that presentation scarcely showed what was possible in the state-of-the-art $11.8 million facility. "Handler" was far more exploratory.

The epic tale takes place in several locations - a church, a house, a front porch, the woods, a jail cell, a hilltop and so forth - and the action shifted seamlessly via pools of light, embellished with minimal props such as benches and chairs.

The audience was placed avenue style (on two sides, facing each other). A three-piece combo (guitar, bass and drums) played hot gospel tunes from a raised platform at one end of the room, and the house was imagined on a raised stage at the other end. In between was a long open area mostly occupied by the church congregation.

Underscoring the scenes were thunderclaps, snake-rattles and bird-songs emanating from the theater's superb sound system. All that - plus actors so close they were touchable - gave the show a rarely experienced you-are-there atmosphere.

It's too bad that "Handler" closes today because in taking the audience to church, it schools other productions on how to totally transform a performance space. Can I get an "amen" to that?


The epic 'Handler' gives audience music, emotion
By Ron Cowan
Statesman Journal, Salem, OR

If you haven't seen this play already, you probably won't; Robert Schenkkan's play ends today, having opened in April and played to slim spring audiences.

But this is another chance to see the flexibility of the New Theatre, which opened this spring with an arena-style "Macbeth."

"Handler," the story of a Pentecostal snake-handling sect, is presented avenue-style, giving the actors three different playing spaces in a corridor lined by seats on either side and putting the audience in the congregation.

"Handler" is one of those out of nowhere plays: You've never heard of it, but it is an experience that has the feel of an epic emotional, personal journey.

The characters may be simple country folk, but Schenkkan digs deepIy into questions of faith, guilt and forgiveness in this gritty, haunting drama.

The story focuses on a couple, Terri (Robynn Rodriguez), a willing member of the congregation, and Geordi (Jonathan Haugen), who have just been released from jail after serving time for manslaughter (his drunken driving cost their daughter's life).

There is a rift between husband and wife, and Geordi feels like the resident sinner in the congregation.

The story, which has an exultant if slightly dangerous feel (those snakes), spins off in a dramatic new direction when, for the first time, Geordi grabs a large snake, is bitten and dies.

Terri declines to embalm Geordi, and wouldn't you know, he springs to life during the services.

If this seems mythic, just wait until he starts showing stigmata, runs off into the woods after igniting a media frenzy and has a bizarre encounter with a wild-eyed moonshiner and his child bride.

Eventually, what feels like an epic ride with uncommon richness and sense of place, settles peacefully into a message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rodriguez and Haugen bring an impressive range of emotion to these physically, vocally demanding parts, and the rest of the cast, including Kenneth Albers as Bob the minister, fulfill Schenkkan's inventive concept, which makes us part of this impassioned flock of believers.

The musical ensemble that accompanies the story contributes to the sense of place.

The snakes aren't real, but everything else feels real in "Handler."


'Handler' is the sleeper at Shakespeare Festival
Religious fervor electrifies play's family turmoil
by Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
San Francisco Chronicle

ASHLAND, Ore.

It's awfully hard on a marriage when Dad kills the only child in a traffic accident. As uncommon as such a tragedy may be, it's part of the marital turmoil in two of the offerings at this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The famous death of the child in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is no less shocking for being imaginary, though its usually more dramatically effective than it is here. In Robert Schenkkan's new play, "Handler," the death is real, in the past and only one of the apocalyptic shocks to a marriage enduring an even rockier ride than that of Albee's George and Martha.

One thing "Handler" has going for it that Timothy Bond's disappointing staging of "Virginia Woolf does not is dramatic fervor. Frenzy, even. Not to mention Faith, with a capital F. And did I mention the snakes? What are most impressive about this ultimately disappointing West Coast premiere by the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Kentucky Cycle" are the depth and evenhandedness of Schenkkan's treatment of the Pentecostal Christians who "handle" rattlesnakes to test their faith.

"Handler," which opened in early April in the New Theatre, closes Sunday to make way for Mustapha Matura's "Playboy of the West Indies," a Caribbean adaptation of an Irish classic that opens July 13. Artistic Director Libby Appel's poorly received chamber version of "Macbeth" (reviewed by Steven Winn in March) alternates with "Playboy" through the end of the season.

"Virginia Woolf" opened April 27 in the spacious Angus Bowmer Theatre. It plays in repertory with Robert Sherwood's intriguing eve-of-World War II drama "Idiot's Delight" (closing July 14), Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Michael Frayn's backstage farce "Noises Off" (all reviewed by Winn in March) and Eduardo De Filippo's Italian family comedy "Saturday, Sunday, Monday" (opening Aug. 3) through Nov. 3. (The three outdoor offerings - "The Winter's Tale," "Titus Andronicus" and "As You Like It" - were reviewed Monday and Wednesday.)

Unfortunately, this "Virginia Woolf" looked as if it had already stayed up long past its bedtime less than halfway through its run. Not that Albee's 1962 all-night orgy of nasty psychological games and caustic recriminations has lost any of its bite or fierce humor. But Bond's overheated production has the effect of making it seem stale.

Andrea Frye plays Martha, the embittered middle-aged daughter of the president of a small college, so broadly that she's almost an Albee lampoon, three parts demented diva and brassy braying to one part wheedling baby talk. Richard Elmore's George, her ineffectual history professor husband, matches her with a weary but sinister fervor that approaches melodramatic overkill. Each delivers almost every key speech facing the audience, belying the realism of William Bloodgood's nicely detailed academic living room set with its real-time clock measuring the prolonged hours.

As the young faculty couple who witness and take part in the marital warfare, Jeff Cummings plays Nick on a suspiciously surly note, while Christine Williams' Honey slips into a giddy drunkenness that might be too broad for most productions but provides welcome comic relief here. Bond and his actors bring Albee's dark night of two souls to a touchingly compassionate resolution of new possibilities for the all-American named George and Martha, but they've been such overwrought caricatures for so long that it's hard to care.

An equally tentative reconciliation awaits the battle-weary couple in Schenkkan's "Handler," but it's less honestly earned. What starts out as a resolutely clear-eyed drama of rural mountain people struggling with faith, articulateness and the ability to love - within the context of a remarkably respectful look at a snake-handling sect - devolves into a fairly trite backwoods adventure story and drops its pursuit of faith in favor of love.

It's still an exciting ride for the better part of two hours. Schenkkan's script is rich in possibilities as he depicts a Pentecostal service and counterposes bracing looks at the beliefs and doubts of the congregants with the problems of a financially struggling couple trying to rebuild their marriage after the death of their child.

Director Bill Rauch seizes on the dramatic potential and builds upon it. Working with a dynamic, live bluegrass-gospel score by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman and his trio, Rauch and set designer Richard Hay turn the theater into a barn-style meeting house with the audience seated on two sides as Robert Peterson's and Jeremy Lee's explosive lighting and sound effects punctuate the action. A climactic snake-handling service is astonishing in its escalation to heights of religious fervor.

Exceptional performances add to the impact, particularly Robynn Rodriguez's stunning, tight-jawed portrait of a deeply torn mountain woman struggling with her feelings and Jonathan Haugen's gutwrenching torment as a man wrestling with his guilt and resentment. The very strong ensemble features outstanding work by Kenneth Albers as the preacher, Maya Nerenberg as an abused girl and U. Jonathan Toppo as a fast talking opportunist.

It isn't nearly as strong or consistent a script as "Virginia Woolf." But as a production, it's a shame "Handler" is the one that closes so soon.

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