Adventures onstage and outdoors

Ashland offers Shakespeare and much more

By Molly Gilmore on April 20, 2017

Ashland, Oregon, the charming small town that's home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is quite likely the Shakespeare capital of the United States.

There are plenty of other reasons to visit - nature, culture and fine dining among them - but if you're going to drive almost to the California border, why not give the English-speaking world's most famous playwright another chance?

The festival, one of the nation's largest and oldest professional regional rotating repertory theaters, is the town's main tourist attraction, and Will's presence looms large on restaurant menus, in the names of hotels and inns and in the bookstores stocked with thematically appropriate gifts.

This year, four of the festival's 11 offerings spring from Shakespeare's pen, and he inspired two more - Shakespeare in Love, based on the 1998 film, and Off the Rails, a world-premiere retelling of Measure for Measure set in the 19th-century American West.

There's Shakespeare with relevance to modern politics (Julius Caesar) and with the famously bawdy and bacchanalian Falstaff played by a woman (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

In Henry IV Part One, battles are fought with guns and bombs by soldiers dressed in modern uniforms. Military hero Hotspur is a woman (and married to a woman), while the dissolute Prince Hal hangs out in a neon-lit nightclub where pink-haired women in hot pants frolic in an inflatable tub. It's classical tragedy meets action movie - not exactly the stuff of your high-school English class. (Part Two, opening in July, offers the same setting and much of the same cast.)

Non-Shakespeare selections also run the gamut. There's a version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast and two new plays about the immigrant experience, the world premiere Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, about a Korean and American family caught between two worlds, and Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, a contemporary retelling of the Greek tragedy.

Beyond the Bard, one of Ashland's most famous attractions is the lushly forested Lithia Park, whose 93 acres include a Japanese garden, a formal rose garden, hiking paths, duck ponds, tennis courts and a playground. A cellist can often be found providing impromptu music in the park, and a bandshell hosts concerts on summer evenings.

The park, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was named for the lithium-rich water that is piped to the park from a spring several miles away. You can taste the water in the park and at a large fountain downtown, but be prepared: The taste is such that some otherwise-friendly locals have been known to enjoy watching visitors' reactions to that first sip.

The park isn't the only reason to walk while you're in Ashland. Given the size of the town, you can leave your car parked much of the time and walk almost everywhere you want to go.

A few possible destinations, besides the theater, are Ashland's many shops - find gifts galore at Paddington Station and reading material at Bloomsbury Books - and restaurants. A few picks: Morning Glory for big breakfasts, Cucina Biazzi for four-course Italian feasts, and Lark's has sweet sidewalk seating any time of day.

For those looking for more intense exercise, Ashland and surroundings have abundant trails to explore. Grizzly Peak Trail's 5.4-mile loop offers stunning views of surrounding mountains, including Mt. Shasta, and has lovely wildflowers in spring and early summer. Other outdoor options: whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Klamath and Rogue rivers, with local outfitters offering trips, some as short as a half-day; and fishing on the Rogue.

Perhaps the most spectacular outdoor option is a visit to Crater Lake, less than two hours northeast of the town. The lake, fed only by rain and snow, is known for its cobalt blue water. It was formed after an eruption caused the collapse of Mt. Mazama's caldera.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, February to October, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon, $30 and up, 1.800.219.8161,