Arden Forest comes to Yamhill County

And just to the south, you'll find Elsinore, as a Bard-filled weekend offers outdoor productions of "As You Like It" and "Hamlet"

Before we get to this week’s most exciting theater opening — an open-air production of As You Like It — let’s quickly cast our gaze just south of Yamhill County, where an intriguing Hamlet will be found. 

Western Oregon University keeps Shakespeare alive in the summer with free outdoor productions by its Valley Shakespeare Company. This year, WOU’s David Janoviak is directing Hamlet on the campus’s outdoor Leinwand stage. Valley Shakespeare shows offer a mix of student, faculty, community, and professional guest artists.

Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell
Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell, courtesy Valley Shakespeare Company

This is Janoviak’s fifth Hamlet. He’s played the Prince of Denmark twice, both in school and professionally, and he’s played Laertes twice, for professional companies in Utah and Texas. For this Hamlet, he’s going with a 2017 WOU graduate in the lead, Janelle Rae, who uses the pronouns they/them.

“Someone once said that you don’t simply decide to do Hamlet and then hold auditions to cast the title role,” he said. “You discover the actor first and then take on the project.  That was the case with Janelle.” The fact that Rae is female, he said, didn’t really cross his mind.

“Gender-blind casting has become a common practice for our program at Western in recent years,” he continued. “I had worked with Janelle as a student, and as their career began to take shape post-graduation and their talent was maturing, I just had a thought one day that theirs was a Hamlet I would really like to see. They possesses a complexity, an emotional depth, and an intelligence that I believed would make a dynamic Dane.  So I made it happen and started crafting a vision for the show.”

Had Rae been unwilling or unavailable, he added, “I probably would have done another show this season.”

“I am thrilled to be given this chance to unpack and lay out the haunting duality between revenge and the power of an individual’s moral compass,” Rae told me in an email. “It’s an honor to be asked to portray a character that holds up a glass into the workings of a cardinal fragment of the human soul. Which, fairly, this is the biggest challenge of this character: to truthfully illustrate a rudimental piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is one’s spirit.”

Janoviak also speaks of “spirit” in relation to the play.

“I have always believed that Hamlet is a story of a spiritual journey, as much as anything,” he said.  “Some of those ideas are expressed in my director’s notes and have informed my sound design (Zen Buddhist chants); some costume choices (Zen Buddhist priest rather than Christian), and the overall look of the show (modern Asian fashion and American Craftsman, which has a slightly Asian flavor).”

At more than 4,000 lines, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, one that can easily top three hours without cuts. Janoviak said he cut substantially, getting the tragedy down to less than two-and-a- half hours. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. and end shortly before 10 p.m. Final performances are Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 1-3. Admission is free.

BACK IN YAMHILL COUNTY, two promising choices for theater fans loom. Gallery Theater in McMinnville heads into its second of three weekends of The Graduate, based in part on the iconic film with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. There’s a Facebook buzz going, so get those tickets while they last. Here’s my interview with the director from last week.

Which brings us to Dayton, where Willamette Shakespeare Company will return to its roots this weekend with Rosalind, Orlando, Jacques, and all the rest in a free production of As You Like It. I saw the company’s 2009 production of the play and can tell you that, other than perhaps actually being in a forest, there’s no better outdoor venue for Arden Forest than a hilltop in the Willamette Valley. Stoller Family Estate, which was instrumental in launching Willamette Shakespeare in 2009, continues to host these affairs at its Dayton winery.

Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7 p.m., and Sunday shows start at 6 p.m. The show, which is produced in collaboration with Portland Actors Ensemble, continues at other wineries in the area for most of August, so check the schedule, gather those blankets, lawn chairs, and picnic baskets, and plan to show up early enough to get set up for the show. Wine will be available for purchase.

ARTS JOURNAL: I was in Eastern Oregon last week with my family. We stopped at the La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant & Lounge in La Grande for lunch on the way to Baker City from Pendleton, and our waitress noticed my 10-year-old son was engrossed in a Percy Jackson novel. She slapped him a high five, and that was followed by several minutes of discussion revealing that she was very knowledgeable about all things Rick Riordan. Meanwhile, those long, bare stretches of I-84 afforded an opportunity to plow into the home stretch of Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge In Hell. Two hundred more pages to go … and more to say, at some point, about the cultural offerings on the east side. 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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