Ashland’s season to shake it up

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival meets the times with a hybrid season of new and old: video now, maybe onstage later.

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Seasons change, as one of nature’s great truisms holds. In a sense, seasons also are about change, shaped by, yet also initiating, cycles of piecemeal progression and eternal return. 

So it all is, so to speak, for the recently announced 2021 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Attempting a nimble and multifaceted response to the ongoing crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the public gatherings that help define theater, OSF will roll out a slate of productions – both on stage and on digital video – that marks big changes from Ashland traditions and also is very much subject to change.

“Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!” cries Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) over the slain Julius Caesar (Armando Durán). The 2017 Ashland production returns via video in 2021. Photo: Jenny Graham

The new season, OSF’s first to combine its expanding digital platform, called O!, with live performances on the Ashland campus, begins March 1 with, well, a re-run. A video capture of the powerful 2017 production of Julius Caesar – directed by Shana Cooper and starring Armando Duran, Danforth Comins and Rodney Gardiner — does keep with the tradition of starting each season with the festival’s namesake playwright. Two other recent hits, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, which contrasts Native American lives across centuries, and Snow in Midsummer, a modern ghost story based on a classical Chinese drama, complete the spring offerings. The streaming schedule, however, essentially serves up one show per month from March through May; you won’t be able to binge watch them all in an attempt to replicate an Ashland opening weekend.

The festival’s 2018 production of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke, also returns via video. Photo: Jenny Graham

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FROM THAT POINT, this season’s timeline becomes vague, if hopeful.

A conventional OSF season has (had?) a reassuringly predictable rhythm. Things opened around this time of year with three shows in the Angus Bowmer Theatre and one in the smaller Thomas Theatre. Over the spring, two more shows would be tucked into the rotating repertory schedule. June saw three productions open on the flagship open-air Elizabethan Stage. Soon thereafter, a couple of the early shows would end, to be replaced by fresh, shorter-run productions. You’d get 11 plays in all (most years), with a frequently shifting combination of available choices.

The pandemic forced the shutdown of OSF’s 2020 season mere days after it had begun, and nearly a year later there remains no clarity about when or how live theater at the festival’s customary scale – the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland’s workhorse venue, seats about 600 – will be safe or permissible to resume. But, with what we can assume is both necessary and well-researched optimism, the recent announcement declares plans to return to the stage sometime this fall. 

A slate of four stage productions is in the works, though no performance dates have been set and last week’s announcement doesn’t even indicate which venues are expected to be used. Under the circumstances, the old programming proclivities, the ratios of classical to contemporary material or intellectual heft to crowd-pleasing froth, can’t apply.

Of course, OSF’s onstage return in any form is welcome news, and the four shows planned do offer an appealing mix of styles and subjects, albeit leaning toward what we might call cultural politics. And amid all the changes, they bring back some very welcome OSF favorites from years past. 

Timothy Bond, associate artistic director at OSF from 1996 to 2007 during Libby Appel’s leadership tenure, returns to direct actor Steven Anthony Jones in How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s potent autobiographical monologue. Bond, who also has directed for Portland Center Stage, has deep experience with Wilson’s work, and Jones has performed this role previously at Marin Theatre Company in 2019. Portlanders also might recall How I Learned… from a 2016 Portland Playhouse production that starred Victor Mack.

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Playwright Dominique Morisseau has served up stellar work on Northwest stages with the industrial-workplace drama Skeleton Crew at Artists Rep in 2018 and Pipeline, an examination of race and punishment in American schools, at Portland Playhouse in early 2020. Her play Confederates, which was to have its world premiere at OSF last April, should get that honor sometime this fall. Like the aforementioned Manahatta, Confederates skips between centuries, in this case to look at historical legacies of institutional racism and gender bias through the experiences of an enslaved woman turned Union spy and a modern-day university professor.  A part of OSF’s grand history-play project “American Revolutions,” it will be directed by artistic director Nataki Garrett. 

OSF associate artistic director Evren Odcikin was to have his directing debut in the state last year with a Portland Center Stage production of Nine Parts of Desire. That show became an early Covid casualty, but he’ll be back in a Middle Eastern milieu with Unseen, Mona Mansour’s play about an American war photographer in Syria.

Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) in OSF’s 2014 production of “The Cocoanuts.” The trio return in 2021 to star in their own new play, “It’s Christmas, Carol.” Photo: Jenny Graham.

If such serious subject matter leaves you in need of a little levity, no doubt that’ll be on offer with It’s Christmas, Carol. Yes, it’s yet another take on the Scrooge-and-Three-Ghosts formula, this time with a theater-themed twist. What twists it toward the very promising is that it’s written by and starring returning OSF vets Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts, who (along with Daisuke Tsuji) delivered some of the most memorable comedic work in OSF history as the Marx Brothers in 2012’s Animal Crackers and 2014’s The Cocoanuts. Here’s hoping they plan to keep things loose and improvisational, a style in which Bedard showed his preternatural mastery way back in 2009’s The Servant of Two Masters.

Plans also include a return of the Green Show, a variety of family-friendly entertainments outdoors on the festival campus’s central plaza, at an unspecified date. Further streaming programming is in the works, too, including a multi-episode deep dive into Shakespeare’s difficult but rewarding Romance Cymbeline; digital-art shorts “in response to themes drawn from the acronym of C.O.V.I.D.: Community, Offering, Vitality, Identity, Determination”; and a curated project focused on visual expressions of the “sovereignty — tribal and personal” of Indigenous artists.

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ALL IN ALL, the 2021 OSF season looks like an admirable attempt to keep the festival’s flame alive through the storm of the pandemic while at the same time continuing to push hard for progress on the company’s goals around cultural diversity and inclusion in its programming. No doubt the work to bring things this far, amid such continuing loss and uncertainty, has been Herculean. Here’s hoping it all pays off.

But change, however necessary, can be hard. I suspect I’m not the only OSF fan who has perused this season announcement and noticed a change that verges on apostasy: There’s no plan for a live production of a play by Shakespeare.

About the author
Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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