DeAnn Welker

 

Saving Shakespeare, word by word

Ashland's daring and delightful "The Book of Will" tells the tale of the Bard's company rescuing his plays (and themselves) after his death

ASHLAND — It’s no secret that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival loves Shakespeare’s plays. The company was created 83 years ago to perform his works, and has been doing so ever since. In the past decade, though, it’s also demonstrated a passion for stories about the most famous playwright who’s ever lived. In 2009 the festival staged the world premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation; then the movie-turned-play Shakespeare in Love last season; and now popular playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will — as much a tribute to the players who loved the Bard as a tribute to the Bard himself.

This production — one of three that opened in June on the stage of the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the largest of the festival’s three performance spaces — is perhaps the perfect play for OSF audiences, who geek out on their own love of the Bard and can wholly relate to characters like John Heminges (Jeffrey King), whose wife, Rebecca (Kate Mulligan) tells him, “Most people go to church. You went to the Globe.” And the cast is filled with OSF veterans (plus a couple of newer faces) who have a love of Shakespeare in common with their audiences.

Henry Condell (David Kelly) and John Heminges (Jeffrey King) are pleased by the reaction of Anne Hathaway (Kate Mulligan) to the newly completed folio of her late husband’s plays. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

King, David Kelly, and Kevin Kenerly — with 66 years at OSF among them — bring the last of The King’s Men (the acting company of which Will was a part) to life as The Book of Will opens. It will be King’s Heminges and Kelly’s Henry Condell who do the bulk of the work here. These are the two friends who ensured Will’s words would live on. But Kenerly gets to shine brightest in the opening scene: He portrays Richard Burbage, after all, the head of the King’s Men and the star of Shakespeare’s plays. Burbage is angry about how folks are performing Shakespeare since Will’s death, and he shows off to one young actor in a tavern, giving Kenerly opportunity to perform bits from some of the great plays of the canon. It’s glorious to see Kenerly — who’s played Romeo, Hotspur, Macduff, Orlando, Oberon, and many others — show off his own craft, and Burbage’s.

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Love’s Labor’s strikes up the band

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new musical version on the outdoor stage delightfully updates "LLL" for a modern age

ASHLAND – One of the great joys of seeing plays in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is seeing the same actors in multiple roles, showcasing the rare abilities of repertory company members.

This is on display nowhere more clearly than the Allen Elizabethan Theatre stage in this summer’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which continues through October 14. Many of the actors who take on major roles here are also in major roles in other plays.

Longaville (Jeremy Gallardo), Dumain (William Thomas Hodgson), Berowne( Stephen Michael Spencer) and Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) disguise themselves as Muscovites as they set out to woo the Princess of France and her ladies. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

There’s Vilma Silva as Boyet, who is the driver of so much dark action (and comedy) in this season’s sell-out hit, Destiny of Desire.

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Take a letter, kill a lumberjack

At Profile, just what the world needs right now: a comedy about a cult of chainsaw-wielding killer secretaries (social commentary included)

These are not your grandfather’s secretaries. Unless, of course your grandfather was a lumberjack in the fictional town of Big Bone, Oregon, in the 1990s. In that case, the women at the center of this latest Profile Theatre production very well could have known, worked with, and possibly murdered your grandfather.

Secretaries, the play, was born from the fruitful minds of the Five Lesbian Brothers playwright collective (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron, who is one of Profile’s featured playwrights this season and the reason this show is being mounted by Profile). There are so many reasons to put on a play like this one, right now, and director Dawn Monique Williams homes in on those reasons with her skillful focus and expert direction.

Profile Theatre’s “Secretaries”: the office dead pool. Photo: David Kinder

For starters, there is the #MeToo movement: Women are freer to stand up and speak out about mistreatment – at least more than lumber mill secretaries in an Oregon timber town in the ’90s. The women depicted here were not free to do much: they couldn’t have sex or even eat solid food (strictly SlimFast diets all around, of course). But they took matters into their own hands once a month by murdering a lumberjack. The play centers on new secretary Patty (Claire Rigsby, a newcomer to Portland stages, who exudes the youthful naivete and excitement the role needs). Patty is so happy to be welcomed by the other secretaries, but she slowly starts to realize there’s something strange going on here.

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A revolution on the stage

Alice Birch's "Revolt. She said. Revolt Again" is a fierce upending of patriarchal business as usual and a resounding call to action

Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She said. Revolt again. is impossibly difficult to put into words. And that’s sort of the point. Because words are inadequate to describe, let alone remedy, all of the injustices women face. At least the words we have in this society, dominated by white men, where we speak a language of patriarchy: “Make love to you.” “I want you to be my wife.” Where we still laugh at jokes about rape, assault, and violence against women.

This is the world that Birch was taking on when she was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write a play responding to “the provocation that well-behaved women seldom make history.” She took her commission seriously. The stage directions in her play — which are generally sparse — include one bold-faced sentence: “Most importantly, this play should not be well-behaved.”

Pushing the limits: Third Rail’s “Revolt. She said. Revolt Again.” Photo: Owen Carey

Where words are inadequate, though, Third Rail Rep’s company and cast are up to the task. Director Rebecca Lingafelter has taken Birch’s brilliant words and sparse stage direction and brought the play fully to life in the intimate Coho Theatre space. The pacing is tight and breakneck, whether the scene seems tightly staged or like a free-for-all. Scenic designer Jenny Ampersand’s black wall and stage are interrupted by a patch of finished wall and linoleum (the backstage you will walk through to get to your seat is far more elaborate than the on-stage stage). Ampersand is also the costume designer, so you might wonder if a pair of discarded shoes is scenic or costume design. But, of course, it’s both.

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Frog & Toad, together again

Five years later, Oregon Children's Theatre's Drammy-winning hit picks up where it left off, charming audiences young and old again

Oregon Children’s Theatre knows something about what it takes to put on a hit show: the company has been creating magical theater experiences for kids for 30 years. So, no wonder OCT decided to revive its 2013 hit musical A Year with Frog & Toad this year to close OCT’s 30th season.

In 2013 the show won seven Drammy awards, including for outstanding musical. This year’s production could repeat that feat. After all, James Sharinghousen returns as Toad from that original production; the sets and numbers are reminiscent of that 2013 show; and the additions only add to the magic.

Charles Grant and James Sharinghousen in OCT’s “A Year with Frog and Toad.” Photo: Owen Carey

Charles Grant takes over the other title role as Frog— and don’t for a moment think his serious role as Eddie in And in This Corner, Cassius Clay has him typecast. Where he brought emotional weight to the role of Cassius Clay’s best friend in that OCT play from earlier this season, he brings comedy, musical, and dancing talent to the role of Frog. He’s a triple threat, and reveling in it. Grant and Sharinghousen are a perfect pair. I’d be delighted to see them together again: a modern-day Abbot and Costello. They play off each other well, and both excel at physical comedy. The pratfalls are at an all-time high here, especially in the silly sledding number, “Down the Hill.” And the mistaken intentions — secretly raking each other’s leaves only to have the squirrels (Lauren Burton and Katie McClanan) — ruin it so they’ll never know what their friend did.

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‘Manahatta’: Twice-told tale

Mary Kathryn Nagle's world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets to the roots of Wall Street and a centuries-old culture clash

ASHLAND — Manahatta playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, somewhat surprisingly, is an attorney. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. These identities inform her writing, as evidenced in Manahatta, a world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened in late March and continues through October 27.

Manahatta is a play set in two worlds — the modern-day (Oklahoma and Wall Street) and hundreds of years earlier in Manahatta (what is now Manhattan) — about a woman set in two worlds. Jane (Tanis Parenteau) is a contemporary Lenape woman living in Manhattan and returning as often as her success on Wall Street will allow to visit her family in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Parenteau also portrays a character named Le-le-wa’-you in the past Manahatta.

Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson, right) tells Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) that Manahatta is no longer a safe place for the Lenape.Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jane’s Wall Street success is juxtaposed to the life of her sister, Debra (Rainbow Dickerson, a welcome addition to the OSF company, who brings such magic to this role that you will hardly believe she is the same woman who portrays Bianca in Othello), who has stayed at home and is fighting to keep the Lenape language alive. Their mother, Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) knows the language, but refused to speak it for many years, so the daughters aren’t fluent. And, as the story and reality go, the language is at risk of being forgotten.

The Lenape people existed peacefully for centuries in the Northeastern United States, including what is now New York City. Europeans did not understand the Lenape, and the Lenape didn’t understand these new people, so the “purchase” of Manhattan was much more like a robbery. Jane comes face to face with these stark realizations while living in New York. She is mostly glued to her office, but manages to learn how Wall Street got its name (the Dutch traders built a wall to keep out the people they stole the land from).

Everyone — particularly her boss, Joe (Danforth Comins), and his boss, Dick (Jeffrey King) — keeps telling Jane how amazing it is that she is having such success here: her, a Native American, successful on Wall Street and paving a path for others to follow? The irony, of course, is not lost on the audience that Jane’s path started here and that, in fact, her ancestors literally carved the path (Broadway was the original trail carved through the brush of Manahatta by her people).

Every actor in this play shows great range, portraying someone in the earlier time period, too (and transitioning from one character to the other onstage, before our eyes): Parenteau becomes Le-le-wa’-you, in love with Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores, who plays Jane’s Lenape friend, Luke, in Anadarko, who has been adopted by the town banker/church choir director, played by David Kelly). There are no clear-cut transitions, and often the past starts crawling in while those in the present continue their story. This is especially poignant when Jane is experiencing a crisis on Wall Street and her ancestors join her, recalling the real tragedy that occurred here so long ago.

Director Laurie Woolery has managed the transitions impeccably — with a strong assist from lighting designer James F. Ingalls, who can shift our attention even when the action on stage doesn’t change. Woolery is respectful of and attentive to the playwright’s script and the Lenape history. “So respectfully,” writes Woolery, who lives in New York, “we have been excavating this history out of the soil, rocks and roots of this sacred island despite [it] being buried beneath cement, steel and glass.”

Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores)gives Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) a wampum necklace that belonged to his mother. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dickerson is also Le-le-wa’-you’s sister and Tousey once again her mother in the Lenape world. Jane’s bosses are traders who help, each in his own way, rip this precious land from the Lenape people. Kelly is a pastor in Manahatta. In both worlds, Kelly sees himself as the “savior” of the Lenape: He goes so far in Anadarko as to tell his adopted Lenape son, Luke, that he saved him. The savior complex is hard to watch — as the church choir director who also works at the bank effectively takes Bobbie’s lifelong home away from her. It’s not Manahatta, but it serves as an effective symbol, bringing up fresh for Bobbie all she has lost: her husband, her language, her people’s culture, and now her home.

Comins, King, and Kelly all portray characters that must be difficult to embrace—uttering words like “savage” and continually treating the Lenape as less than people (“You speak!” they exclaim, delighted and surprised as if a baby had spoken its first words, when a Lenape person speaks their language). Each of these actors does a fine job (and Comins deserves extra credit for bringing something completely different to this stage within a day, or hours, of portraying Iago in Othello). But they leave the emotional resonance and most powerful moments to the Native characters.

The actors make their transitions from one time period to another brilliantly, not only due to strong performances and shifts in language and mannerisms, but also with the help of costumes (designed by E.B. Brooks) that transfer from one period to another, and of the set (by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez) that looks so simple at first glance — a table, some rocks, a chair — but contains so much: centuries, even.

This play points out what should be obvious: Our successes in America are built on the backs and lives of the Native people who occupied this land before our ancestors took it from them and relegated them to reservations, where they were ignored at best or gravely mistreated at worst. There is no clearer indication or symbol of what we have built this country on than in Manhattan in general and Wall Street in particular. The Dutch traders were able to steal Manhattan easily without guilt, because the Lenape people did not understand the concept of “owning” a place. So, they were driven out, violently and permanently (or so Jane’s “rare” success would seem to indicate), and the Europeans were able to make millions and build skyscrapers as symbols of their wealth.

Luke (Steven Flores) has doubts about the mortgage loan his adoptive father Michael (David Kelly) has encouraged a friend to take out to pay off her family’s medical bills. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

But if you build your life and hopes and dreams around monetary successes, Nagle warns, you are bound to lose it all. Destroying the ways and lives and homes of the Native people whose land this truly is will not lead to redemption — no, I gather, not even if you’re a pastor or a church choir director. Manahatta may leave you shattered, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. Debra’s work preserving the Lenape language, Jane learning about Manhattan’s history, and this world-premiere play in the Thomas Theatre are all reasons to believe that all is not yet lost.

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Ashland: ‘Oklahoma!’ for today

Bill Rauch's gender-fluid revival of the classic musical at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival breaks into fresh new territory for a new age

ASHLAND — Oklahoma! broke new ground when it debuted in 1943: It was the first time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II paired up to create a musical, for starters. If you’re skeptical that it could still break new ground in 2018, you are not alone. It’s hard to imagine a musical about finding love in the Oklahoma Territory as very relevant, let alone earth-shattering, in today’s world.

But before you write it off, take a peek at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version, which opened last month and continues through October 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. This new production is directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the visionary who has led the festival since 2007 and will depart in August 2019 to lead the Perelman Center in New York’s World Trade Center. Rauch has pushed OSF further into embracing inclusion, diversity, and equity —and that is nowhere clearer than in his Oklahoma!

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is inclusive rethinking and casting at its most innovative. Rauch’s production reimagines Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) as a woman and Ado Annie becomes Ado Andy, a flirtatious boy torn between his affections for Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler (Barzin Akhavan makes this character more than the stereotype you might recall from previous versions), and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour), the not-that-bright-but-in-love cowboy. Jonathan Luke Stevens is pitch-perfect as this reimagined Ado Andy. When he explains to Laurey that no “fellers” gave him the time of day until he “rounded up a little,” he shoves his rear end out for emphasis. This is a (hilarious) breath of fresh air for women, who have suffered our whole lives at the stereotype of men desiring nothing more than a buxom bombshell. Stevens’ entire performance is made funnier because he is a man at the “butt” of these far-overdone female stereotypes (for example, when Will calls him the “sweetest sugar in the territory” or says he is going to “make an honest woman out of him”).

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