THEATER

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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‘Watsonville’: What’s old is new

Milagro's revival of Cherríe Moraga's 1990s play about a volatile strike in a California cannery feels like it's lifted from today's headlines

Let’s do the time warp again. Cherríe Moraga’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which opened Friday night at Milagro Theatre, premiered in 1996 and is based loosely on events that took place in the mid-to-late 1980s. But you’ll be excused if you think it’s ripped from today’s headlines or incendiary tweets. This is no warm-and-fuzzy trip down Nostalgia Lane. It’s more Good Lord, here we go again.

Moraga’s play, a stand-alone drama that is also the final chapter in a trilogy including Heroes and Saints and Circle in the Dark, is a messy, sprawling thing that overcomes its structural problems with an overriding passion and declaration of ugly truths (and a few redeeming ones). Its greatest achievement is to create believable and sympathetic characters who are swept up in situations that are usually viewed in political terms – as “problems,” not as people. For the characters in Watsonville the great social drama of a sharp cultural clash is both political and the everyday stuff they have to deal with as they lead their lives.

Bunnie Rivera as Dolores, reluctant radical. Photo: Russell J Young

Set amid a two-year-long strike by cannery workers in the Pajaro Valley farm town of Watsonville in California’s Santa Cruz County, the play ripples with issues that have gained more and more urgency since the right-wing ascendancy that culminated in the national elections of 2016 and has been flexing its muscles ever since. Among them:

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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Backstage chat: What Shaw takes

Three actors in Portland Center Stage’s "Major Barbara" detail the challenges of performing the loquacious and provocative playwright

George Bernard Shaw, a quintessential man of the theater, had a very high regard for himself and only occasionally for his actors. (He did fall in love with a couple of his leading ladies, but to no particular delight to either them or him.) As a playwright/producer, he worked as the de facto director of many of his original productions, and was a rigorous taskmaster. His plays required smart actors with fine elocution, realistic craft, and impeccable comic ability.

Shaw, demanding.

And he could be scalding of actors who let him down, as witnessed by this note to the actor Louis Calvert, the original Frank Undershaft in Major Barbara: “I have taken a box for Friday and had a hundredweight of cabbages, dead cats, eggs and gingerbeer bottles stacked in it. Every word you fluff, every speech you unact, I will shy something at you. … You are an imposter, a sluggard, a blockhead, a shirk, a malingerer, and the worst actor that ever lived or ever will live. I will apologize to the public for engaging you: I will tell your mother of you.”

Any actor who performs Shaw has sympathy for Calvert, because the plays contain some of the wordiest dialogue that’s ever taken to the stage. (His prefaces to the plays are often even longer.) Written at a time when both comedies and dramas were five-act, two-intermission affairs, Shaw’s plays, uncut, can easily tip into four- and five-hour long evenings. Thanks to edits, the current production at Portland Center Stage of Major Barbara, his 1905 play about a young female officer in the Salvation Army, runs a trim two and a half hours.

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The Fighter, unleashed

Defunkt Theatre's "Girl in the Red Corner" is a rousing feminist anthem

“I want to fight someone so bad!”

That’s what I heard one audience member say after the end of defunkt theatre’s fearsome production of Girl in the Red Corner, Stephen Spotswood’s play about the rise of a rookie mixed-martial-arts fighter. I felt the same way, but I also understood that while Girl in the Red Corner is about fighting, it is specifically about women fighting. The true victory is not that the play’s protagonist, Halo (Elizabeth Jackson), becomes a winner, but that she defies abusive men and cynical women by molding her body and spirit into taut, unassailable fighting form.

It’s a long way from where she starts out. Girl in the Red Corner, which was directed by Paul Angelo, begins with Halo divorced, unemployed, and living with her Bud Light-loving mother, Terry (Diane Kondrat), who is about to be fired from her job at Safeway. Halo eventually finds work as a telemarketer, but that defines her less than her lessons with the ruthless Gina (Mamie Colombero) at an MMA gym.

Going with the punches. Photo courtesy defunkt theatre

MMA is the only way Halo can release the rage that has been building inside her ever since she was forced to quit her previous job after being sexually harassed by her boss (the sound of her leg kicking an Everlast pad is like a sonic boom). The only question is whether that will be enough to keep her from falling into the canyons of hopelessness that have consumed her mother and her sister Brinn (Paige Rogers), both of whom have been demeaned by powerful men for so long that they have all but given up resisting.

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SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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Growing up, up, and away

With its fresh book and music, NW Children's Theater's "Peter Pan" flies into a happy place for young audiences and their grownups, too

This is probably not the first time you have heard of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. It might not be the first time you will see his tale on stage. In fact, it might not be the first Northwest Children’s Theatre production of it, since it’s somewhat of a flagship for the 25-year-old theater company.

In fact, this is the seventh time the company’s mounted Peter Pan over the years, including this same adaptation – a NWCT commission – in 2012 and its followup in 2013. The good news is that the children in your life have likely not seen as many productions of Peter Pan as you have, and the universal story’s magic and wonder will win them over. The other boon for the grownups in the audience is that even if you have seen another Peter Pan (or several), this one has plenty to offer.

Grace Malloy as Wendy and Peter Thompson as Peter Pan. Photo © David Kinder 2018

For starters, it’s a new adaptation – both book (Milo Mowery) and music (Rodolfo Ortega) – that you haven’t seen if you didn’t catch the 2013 production. The songs are catchy and performed well by all in this cast. And the script is terrific, ratcheting up the preposterousness of Captain Hook and his pirates so kids are still a little scared – but most of the squeals are from delight.

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