DramaWatch Weekly: Summer Shakes into view

Summer arrives on the wings of Shakespeare and lands in Ashland

In a recent TV ad, pretty young folks in swimwear cluster on a beach while one of their ilk thrusts a hand into a cooler. They look on expectantly, until he fishes a beer from amid the ice, then rejoice at the news he offers: “Summer is here!” The tell-tale sign, we’re told, is that the beer is in its “summer can.”

This, apparently, is how morons recognize the change of seasons.

Summer starts when summer starts—that is, at the solstice (3:07 a.m., next Thursday, should you have some pagan ritual to plan). But there are other markers in the popular imagination, such as Memorial Day (for the truly anxious), the last day of school, or, in Portland, the end of the rains of Rose Festering.

“You kiss by the book.” Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But if we orient ourselves around what really matters, we know that summer starts this weekend with the opening of three plays in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Arguably the crown jewel of the Northwest’s performing arts scene, OSF, in beautiful Ashland, runs mid-February to late-October, but it kicks into high gear when the weather permits a return to its origins under the stars.

And though the festival’s namesake playwright is on offer all season, with productions of Othello and Henry V, the summer is especially Bard-centric, adding two more of Shakespeare’s plays and a contemporary play about Shakespeare’s plays.

First up for an official opening night is Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps you’ve heard of it—feuding families, star-crossed lovers, a priest who recommends poisons like they’re Hail Marys. Damaso Rodriguez, artistic director of Portland’s Artists Rep, makes his OSF directing debut, with his ART cohort Rodolfo Ortega along as sound designer. Portland theater fans in particular also will cheer the sight of Amy Newman as Lady Capulet and Lauren Modica as Gregory. William Thomas Hodgson and Emily Ota take the title roles, and Sara Bruner provides a little gender twist to the role of Romeo’s pal Mercutio.

Dumain(William Thomas Hodgson), Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) and Longaville (Jeremy Gallardo) have pledged an oath to forgo the company of women as they study and fast, and must now convince their friend Berowne to do the same./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Ashland weekend concludes with Love’s Labor’s Lost, which pits desire against discipline to comedic and romantic ends. Daniel Jose Molina and Alejandra Escalante, who made their OSF debuts several years ago as the stars of another Romeo and Juliet, are featured here, under the direction of OSF vet Amanda Dehnert.

The fresh centerpiece of these openings, though, is The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. Like Gunderson’s I & You, currently on the boards at Artists Rep, The Book of Will won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which honors scripts that premier outside of New York City, on the regional theater circuit. (In this case, that world premier was at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which recently lured artistic director Chris Coleman away from Portland Center Stage.)

The story here is about the actors who worked with the Bard himself, then after his death, recognized that his work was in danger of being lost to neglect and/or sloppy reproduction and so took on the work of assembling what we now call the First Folio.

“It is part love story to Shakespeare’s language and plays, part passionate statement of the value of theatre, and part story of deep friendship,” says an artist’s statement on the Theatre Communications Group website.

It has seemed to get mostly enthusiastic notices, though a review at newcitystage.com of a Chicago production began thus: In “The Book of Will,” the Midwest premiere currently at Northlight Theatre, Shakespeare’s friends, in their old age and reminiscence, decide to gather his plays into folio for publishing. They face no real conflict and then two hours later the play ends.”

Still, I’m inclined to trust the OSF talent, including director Christopher Liam Moore, David Kelly as Henry Condell, Jeffrey King as John Heminges, Kevin Kenerly as Richard Burbage, as well as Kate Hurster, Kate Mulligan and others.

Great work if you can get it

Seen anything really, really good lately—like, in the past quarter century?

The theater critics of The New York Times see a lot, of course, and recently—inspired by the Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s epochal drama Angels in America, 25 years after Part 1 of the play premiered—decided to make a list of the best of it.

Andrea Vernae (left) and Josie Seid in “an Octoroon.” Photo: Russell J Young

Atop their list: Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. In second place: An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, still vivid in my memory from last fall’s Artists Rep production (including an uncomfortably audacious and hilarious performance by John San Nicolas as an Uncle Tom caricature called Nigger Pete). A choice that both surprised and delighted me: At No. 24, The Apple Family Plays by Richard Nelson, a series of four domestic dramas steeped in contemporary politics (very contemporary: Each play premiered on the actual date in which its action was set). Third Rail Rep set out to produce all four here in Portland, but, sadly, only made it halfway, and presented the final two only as staged readings.

One key question left unaddressed in the intro by Ben Brantley and Jesse Green: Were these evaluated/debated/ranked purely as texts or as full (and therefore particular?) productions?

Having seen/read less than half the Times list, I’m not sure what plays I’d argue ought to be added or subtracted. Right off the top of my head, I’d at least consider the inclusion of Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), Bill Cain’s Equivocation, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the Chinese folk tale The White Snake

So, anyway: Please read and discuss.

Opening

Committee work gets a bad rap. Sometimes it’s the only way to get things done. It’s not usually the way to write plays, though, so The Secretaries, opening Saturday in a production from Profile Theatre, is something of an anomaly. Credited to Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healy and Lisa Kron, a.k.a. the Five Lesbian Brothers, who wrote the play for their own performing ensemble, it’s a horror-themed dark comedy about femininity, conformity and group dynamics, set in the offices of a small-town Oregon lumber mill. Dawn Monique Williams directs a promising cast: Andrea White, Jamie M. Rea, Jen Rowe, Claire Rigsby and Kelly Godell.

We all know that love can make you crazy. But what if you’re already crazy (pardon the terminology) and love is kind of in the way? The Johnna Adams play World Builders examines the predicament of two patients in a psychiatric clinical trial as they try to reconcile their budding romance with their elaborate schizoid delusions. Antonio Sonera directs Jessica Tidd and Nathan Dunkin for Badass Theatre Company.

It’s one of the most popular musicals ever, it’s won Tony Awards, it’s thrilled audiences around the world. It’s a show I’ve seen a time or two and never, ever will subject myself to again. Les Miserables is back in the Broadway in Portland series, if that’s your thing.

Closing

ArtsWatch reviewer DeAnn Welker called Third Rail Rep’s provocative, feminist-themed Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again “must-see Portland theater for all the reasons you can think of.” So hop to it.

I reviewed Lauren Gunderson’s Walt Whitman-inspired I & You at Artists Rep, and was charmed by it. And then was annoyed by it. And finally was really impressed by it, but still a little irked. In any case, it’s well worth seeing how it strikes you.

And I’ll come clean about not having made it to catch Broken Bone Bathtub, New York actor Siobhan O’Loughlin’s hygienic experiment in immersive theater. But it still will be coming to a few more bathrooms near you.

OK, that’s all I have for this week. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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