A fingernail moon honors a new Oregon Shakespeare Festival season

White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) and Crane (Emily Sophia Knapp) at OSF /Photo: Jenny Graham.

By Suzi Steffen

With giant snakes popping out of nowhere, skies that change seamlessly with Shakespeare’s words and an Art Deco rowboat, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre proved last week that when it’s in fighting trim, it’s home to productions technically more impressive (and more subtly created) than many on Broadway.

As the festival’s long repertory season kicked off the last Friday in February, a fingernail moon hung in the clear sky near the bright planets of Jupiter and Venus, making the  Festival’s campus seem like an eerily poetic movie set. Inside, in the lobby of the Bowmer —whose structural integrity, after last year’s beam crack and fix, now probably surpasses that of any other beam-dependent building on the West Coast—cries of “happy opening” rang through the lobby. And then began the cascade of plays.

Before the lengthier discussions, I should advise that if you’re planning to go to Ashland this summer, you should get tickets to The White Snake before you worry about anything else open so far. That especially holds true if you’re taking your kids to see Romeo and Juliet – make sure you also see The White Snake, a piece of 100-minute no-intermission theatrical glory.

Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet
(Alejandra Escalante) at OSF/Photo: Jenny Graham.

Romeo and Juliet: Political naifs in an old/new America

Opening weekend began with Romeo and Juliet, that classic of sophomore year English class. The Festival last produced R&J outdoors in 2007 (not so long ago because it’s a fave of teachers figuring out what to see in Ashland, and students are 40 percent of the spring and fall audience for the Festival, according to the director of marketing and communications).

That 2007 production, directed by then-new artistic director Bill Rauch, emphasized the generation gap by putting the adult characters in Elizabethan gear and the kids in leather jackets. This one, directed by Laird Williamson, does something slightly different: It emphasizes both the political issues of warring families and the looming power of the state by placing the action in Alta California during the U.S. Army occupation of the territory between 1846 and 1849.

The production features a fair number of Latino actors, many of whom are new to the company this year. Both Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet (Alejandra Escalante) act like teenagers—needy, impulsive, randomly affectionate, hotheaded kids, which makes their terrible choices seem more realistic. Isabell Monk O’Connor, who frames the play as an old blind woman looking back on her mistakes, makes for a particularly excellent Nurse, and the young, sturdy Jason Rojas creates a goofy, charming Mercutio whose fate seems all the sadder for his clowning nature.

This R&J is not a grand romance, and it’s not an overaching love narrative; it’s a political clash between two families under the direct threat of a greater, recently foreign power. Mercutio doesn’t declaim his Queen Mab speech as if it were headed for the Greatest Hits of Shakespeare playlist, and Juliet messes around like a young teen through her balcony scene. Frankly, this makes it all the better.

*****

Williamson’s concept of Alta California makes it hard not to compare his R&J to last year’s Measure for Measure, the play that opened the 2011 season. That production, directed by Rauch, was set in a 1970s border town between the U.S. and Mexico, and it began with a song from the L.A. mariachi group Las Colibri.

In last year’s production, though, no one spoke with fake quasi-Mexican accents. That’s a weird choice in this year’s Romeo and Juliet, with the excellent actors Elijah Alexander and Vilma Silva as Juliet’s parents both speaking Spanish-inflected English and occasionally tossing in a word or a phrase of Spanish. An arts administrator friend texted me after the play, “As I watched, I kept thinking about hearing OSF talk about diversity and outreach and wondering if this was the strategy they are using to reach new audiences?!”

It happens that this friend was at last fall’s Oregon Arts Summit, in which we heard executive director Paul Nicholson and audience development manager Freda Casillas talk about the Festival’s recent, somewhat painful diversity discussion process. The Festival has been undergoing an internal evaluation around diversity—and as someone told at the Festival told me, it’s now far better than earlier years, when one artistic director referred to the then-lone actor of color as “my Black woman.” (How painful it is to consider that one of our state’s premiere arts groups ever acted like that—and yet how that underlines how much  the Festival has changed since. Or so I devoutly hope.)

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is often defined as what travel agents and marketing folks call “a destination vacation.” That is, people don’t head to Ashland for other reasons and happen onto a play. They go for a play, and maybe take in some hiking or rafting while they’re not on the OSF campus. During the opening weekend press conference, I asked Rauch and retiring Executive Director Paul Nicholson a question that an artistic director from Austin sent me over Twitter: How much locality or regionality does Rauch try to inject into what is essentially a national theatre festival, in terms of season planning?

Rauch said that although the festival grew up in the Rogue Valley, most of the audience comes from far away (about 86 percent of the audience is from out of town, and nearly 90 percent of that group drives more than 125 miles to get to Ashland – that includes Portlanders, of course). But even that audience, mostly repeat customers, knows the Rogue Valley and the town of Ashland pretty well, Rauch added. For instance, in Animal Crackers, one actor makes topical jokes about things like Martino’s, the bar next door to the Bowmer Theatre where actors and starry-eyed tourists mingle after the shows.

A further part of the answer came from Mallory Pierce, who’s the director of marketing and communications – the Festival talks to the local Latino communities and “asks them if we’re doing stories that relate to them.” On the practical side, the Festival hosts Spanish-language backstage tours, Spanish-language meet-and-greets with some cast members after certain shows and, during a fall “Cultural Connections” festival, presents performances with Spanish captions. The festival also hosts workshops and playgoing opportunities for both migrant workers and ESL students, according to a 2011 story in El Hispanic News. So, whether or not this year’s Romeo and Juliet works on the accent level, the practical work continues throughout the large, multi-department Festival.

And that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, audiences will continue to flock to any R&J, and this one’s got a lovely set, smart actors and a political bent that opens a window into a part of history even most Californians don’t know about.

XuXian (Christopher Livingston) and White Snake
(Amy Kim Waschke) marry/Photo: Jenny Graham.

The White Snake: Wit, grace, love, betrayal – and a monumental storm

From beginning to end,  The White Snake is spectacular on a variety of levels. Any example will do – the props department’s puppets, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, the inspired projections by Shawn Sagady. The acting, especially that of the leads, seamlessly supports the script, which writer/director Mary Zimmerman created during rehearsal.

The play gently appreciates/makes fun of the texts Zimmerman consulted as she wrote, and, as in the original legend (though changed up a bit so that the women are the good guys and the Buddhist monk the bad guy), features two women figuring out how to counter the sexist, furious pushback of a monk who doesn’t mean them well. The play starts out and continues, with such an intelligent wittiness that the surprisingly serious end packs quite a wallop of emotional power.

The truly star-crossed lovers White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) and Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston) certainly have their challenges—the main one being that White Snake isn’t really human. White Snake’s friend Green Snake (the feisty sidekick, a role Tanya McBride plays to perfection) does her best to help White Snake counter the evil Buddhist monk Fa Hai (Jack Willis, who uses “Amitabha Buddha!” in the same way someone in a Christian society might say “Jesus Christ!” or “Goddamnit!”—a curse that makes no sense, but gets a lot of laughs).

Breathtaking? Yes, I mean it.  I heard people gasping throughout the audience—projections give each scene, from spring’s arrival to a terrifying flood, symbolic richness and grace. Those unfamiliar with Chinese fables may want to read as many as possible immediately after the play, if only to encounter elk (Cristofer Jean) and Stork (Emily Sophia Knapp) and the wonderful White Snake again.

White Snake would be well worth seeing a couple of times, and almost anyone from a (mature) 8-year-old to a 98-year-old can find a path in to appreciate this play.

*****

As much as I loved The White Snake, I admit to wondering what the deal is with a white writer/director rewriting a Chinese fable and whether the entire cast should be made up of Chinese- or at least Asian-American actors , rather than the “color-conscious” but mixed racial heritage casting that is now the norm at the festival.

In mid-February, a group of theatre folk gathered in New York to talk about why Asian-Americans weren’t cast more often in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. The New York Times wrote up the discussion here, and the salient numbers were these: “Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and 4 percent to Hispanic artists.”

Considering the problems in New York (the percentage of Asian-American actors onstage has actually dropped in the past few years in that most polyglot of U.S. cities), the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing something good by ensuring that Asian-American actors get some time on an Equity stage. And most of the actors in the play are Asian or Asian American.

I also don’t want to slam Bill Rauch for asking Mary Zimmerman to do the writing, or Zimmerman for taking the job and creating a piece that’s humorous, deeply thoughtful and lovely. What I want is more open conversations about power and race (perhaps the way conversations about war were after the Festival’s Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter), and for the Asian-American communities of Oregon and California to be involved in those conversations (and perhaps some communities are, or were—I asked about that, but haven’t heard back yet).

Festival audience members are unusually loyal, well-educated, theatre-loving people. And they (we) are mostly white. Over the years, I’ve often wondered how different it would be to watch August Wilson plays in the Bowmer with a predominantly African-American audience; to watch Culture Clash’s American Night in the New Theatre with a predominantly Latino audience—and now, what it would be like to watch The White Snake with a predominantly Chinese-American audience. (The February roundtable suggested that if more Asian Americans were involved in writing and producing plays, more Asian Americans might go to the theatre—but will that demographic shift happen at the OSF with this play as well? I suppose we’ll find out.)

One reporter asked Rauch and Nicholson if they were taking The White Snake anywhere else in the country the way they’ve recently toured Equivocation to D.C.’s Arena Stage and Ghost Light  to the Berkeley Rep. Rauch said, “I think it should go everywhere,” but he added that there are no plans to open it elsewhere yet. Rauch and Nicholson both noted that Mary Zimmerman’s not exactly an unknown, and her plays usually keep on getting performed after the genesis with their original actors.

Indeed, I hope it travels widely. Artistic directors, audiences, actors—you’ll want this one in your theatres.

In "Animal Crackers," Chandler (Jonathan Haugen, center) tries to work a deal with The Professor (Brent Hinkley) and Ravelli (John Tufts)/Photo: Jenny Graham.

Animal Crackers: A Groucho to remember

If you come on the right day, you might be seeing The White Snake in the afternoon and the absurd, charming Animal Crackers at night.

Animal Crackers, if you’re wondering, is indeed the 1928 play that paired George Kaufman with the Marx Brothers (and that was turned into a 1930 movie, still rather popular). As director Alison Narver writes in her program notes, the heady wit of Kaufman here runs smack up against the physical comedy of Harpo and Chico, creating some tension, and those differences in comedy can make portions of the play feel longer than necessary, especially when Brent Hinkley as Harpo/The Professor hits his schticky, sexual harassment stride (the harassment is mild, but it’s absolutely there—The Professor’s an icky character despite Hinkley’s general charm).

But the play is otherwise chock full of goofy, amusing moments; madcap fun around words and around trickery; sweet romantic songs between Arabella (Mandie Jenson) and Wally (Jeremy Peter Johnson) or between John (Eddie Lopez) and Mary (Laura Griffith); and a generally high-spirited but controlled cast led by the splendid Jonathan Haugen as Hives, the energetic K.T. Vogt as Mrs. Rittenhouse and the weirdly perfect Mark Bedard as the incarnation of Groucho Marx. Bedard, who was maniacally fabulous in The Servant of Two Masters a few years ago and who won over every audience member in She Loves Me, maintains and perhaps tops his impressive OSF record this year.

The actors aren’t the only thing going for this play. Like the 2007 Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle, the set of Animal Crackers presents a rounded proscenium, this one in pure and colorfully gorgeous Art Deco style (scenic design by the deservedly legendary Richard L. Hay). Live musicians add to the atmosphere of the Long Island house party, and the farce winks at itself before heading in outrageously crazy directions to steal every laugh possible from audience members both willing and reluctant to appreciate its comedy.

Portland friends with children have asked me if they should go to Animal Crackers. If the kids have seen the movie, and they’re old enough to sit through the parts they’ll find boring, then sure. They may especially love the classic Harpo/Groucho fish sequence. The adult audience sure does.

Nina (Nell Geisslinger) questions Trigorin (Al Espinosa) about his life in "Seagull"/ Photo: Jenny Graham.

Seagull: Hell is other people, in their country houses

Finally, in the New Theatre, the Festival opened with the newly translated and adapted Seagull, directed by OSF artistic director emeritus Libby Appel. Some reviewers have made much of the fact that the productions  has updated the language of  older translations—which I suspect is not usually much of a problem at the Shakespeare Festival. But OK, I get it: It’s a new translation, by Allison Horsley, from Chekhov’s 19th-century Russian. The language is a bit more modern, and there’s extra material, cut from the original play after the Tsar’s censors got their grimy fingers on it.

Appel clearly has a vision, and her actors generally know what their characters are doing. What they’re doing is living lives of not-so-quiet despair, punctuated by a gunshot or two, as their system of social relationships starts to teeter and fail. What they’re also doing is talking endlessly about a new and vivid and naturalistic way of writing, whatever that means to people stuck in the ever-looming, grimly unpleasant present.

No one’s happy. The young people have no money and little hope. The middle-aged people need the young ones but treat them badly. Everyone’s in love with someone who’s not in love with them. And the artists—Irina (Kathryn Meisle), the actor; Konstantin (Tasso Feldman) and Tregorin (Al Espinosa), the writers, not to mention the aspiring actors and writers and would-be artists populating the rest of the play—can’t quite succeed in their art. This bleak existence can become draining after a couple of hours in the company of those living it.

But if you like to watch as family systems (and, out of sight of the main action, a social system) and interpersonal arrangements break down, this may well be the play for you. In her director’s notes, Appel talks about “traveling deep inside the human heart.” The human heart’s a hell of a sad place, according to Seagull.

Ashland isn’t often so melancholy (thankfully, it’s also not overflowing with kitsch like some other Shakespeare festival towns).

During opening weekend, snow fell on Saturday but melted as soon as it touched the ground, though the surrounding Siskyou Mountains were daubed in misty white. The planets hung around near the moon as it waxed. And so began the 77th season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with a well-patched theatre and a face full of hope for the future. Good opening. Now on to the seven play openings to follow.

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