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DramaWatch: A new/old Ashland season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's just-announced 2025 season sounds like old times, with contemporary twists. In Portland, Third Rail hangs out at the mall; "She Persists" a bit longer.

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Miriam A. Laube tugs on Royer Bockus’s golden hair in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2014 production of "Into the Woods." The festival is bringing back the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical in its 2025 season. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Miriam A. Laube tugs on Royer Bockus’s golden hair in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of “Into the Woods.” The festival is bringing back the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical in its 2025 season. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

That news rumbling from the southern end of the state this week is the sound of a new season dropping at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And while the nine-play lineup for the 2025 season is fresh, it’s also familiar, in a good way.

The Ashland festival’s 90th-anniversary season and the first assembled fully by Tim Bond, who became the festival’s artistic director in the fall of 2023, has the feel of a season that might have been announced 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. It’s centered on Shakespeare, with three of its nine productions the Bard’s plays, a fourth a critically lauded updating of a Shakespeare classic, a fifth a fresh take on a Cervantes classic, a sixth a rethinking of a late 19th century English comedy classic, plus an American classic, a Wild West surprise, and a big popular musical to wrap things up.

Although it’s still two shows shy of the old standard of 11, the new season feels like a reemergence from the extremely difficult pandemic years, which combined with bad fire seasons severely curtailed travel to Ashland (the festival is a vacation attractor, drawing most of its visitors from along the I-5 corridor between Vancouver, B.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area).

The 2025 season is moving on from this season’s transitional lineup that includes several one-person shows, two of which — Smote This and Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender — Darleen Ortega reviewed positively for ArtsWatch here. As Bond told Holly Dillemuth of Ashland.news, “Next season is built very much to welcome folks from all ages and all backgrounds.”

The 2025 lineup:

Julius Caesar, March 7-Oct. 26. Shakespeare’s political tragedy will be produced in association with director (and recently appointed OSF associate artistic director) Rosa Joshi’s company upstart crow collective, which casts women and nonbinary performers in classic plays. Joshi’s Coriolanus has just wrapped up a run at Portland Center Stage and will reopen July 23, with several cast changes, on this year’s OSF season.

The Importance of Being Earnest, March 8-Oct. 25. Under Desdemona Chiang’s direction, Oscar Wilde’s brittle, language-besotted 1895 comedy will shift from England to the British Malay Peninsula, “a colonial melting pot of South Asian, Chinese, and English communities.”

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Jitney, March 9-July 20. Bond will direct his first show as the festival’s artistic director, renewing the festival’s commitment to the works of the late, great American writer August Wilson. This one, the festival’s seventh of Wilson’s 10-play cycle about life in Black America in each decade of the 20th century, is set among the workers at an unlicensed cab company that’s set up business because licensed cab companies refuse to serve Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black Hill District.

Shane, July 31-Oct. 25. The season’s surprise: the West Coast premiere of Karen Zacárias’s stage adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s 1940s Western novel, which was also turned into a classic 1953 Western movie starring Alan Ladd as the gunfighter Shane, who cleans up the town before riding off into the sunset.

Fat Ham, March 11-June 27. James Ijames’ “sizzling cookout comedy” is an audacious comic retelling of Hamlet, featuring Juicy, a queer Black kid in the South whose father’s ghost shows up at a family barbecue demanding revenge for his murder. Ijames’ play won the 2022 Pulizer Prize for drama, enjoyed a hit Broadway production in ’23, and has just completed a successful run at Seattle Rep.

As You Like It, April 16-Oct. 25. Shakespeare’s bright comedy of love lost and found in the Forest of Arden will get an intimate production in the festival’s small Thomas Theatre, in what the festival is calling a “song-filled, 1960s-infused production by director Lisa Peterson.”

Quixote Nuevo, July 9-Oct. 24. Octavio Solis’s very free contemporary adaptation of Cervantes’ great 17th century Spanish novel Don Quixote transports the windmill-tilting knight-errant’s adventures to a modern Texas town near the Mexican border. Portland Center Stage had a successful run of Solis’s play this March; see Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review here.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, May 30-Oct. 12. Shakespeare’s sly romp of a comedy, supposedly written at Queen Elizabeth I’s request because she wanted to see the slothful Sir John Falstaff of Henry IV Part I get a spotlight of his own (experts are divided on whether this is true are just a nicely told tale) will be directed by festival veteran Terri McMahon. Spoiler alert: The merry wives get the better of the hard-drinking and foolishly romanticizing knight.

Into the Woods, May 31-Oct. 11. The festival had a hit in 2014 with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical-comedy venture into the woods of Cinderella, Jack of beanstock fame, Little Red Riding Hood, and other heroes and heroines of Fairy Tale Land. It’ll be, once again, on the festival’s biggest stage, the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

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Meanwhile, the festival’s current, 2024 season rolls along. Robin Goodrin Nordli’s solo show Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women has just opened in the Thomas Theatre; the indie-rock musical Lizard Boy begins June 11; Behfarmaheen (If You Please) — another solo show, this one by Barzin Akhavan — starts performances July 31; Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing opens June 1 on the Elizabethan stage; and a stage adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre opens May 31, also on the Elizabethan stage.

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Oh. And, about that never-ending debate over who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays: Yesterday, while looking for something entirely different, I stumbled across an opinion piece titled News flash: Famous actor also writes, by an odd fellow using the dubious pen name of “Mr. Scatter.” In it, he argues that only an actor could’ve written the plays — not some pseudonymous lord of the realm (we’re talking to you, Mr. de Vere) or, for heaven’s sake, Good Queen Bess herself — and that Mr. Shakspur, or Shagspur, or however you want to spell it, indeed knew the theater intimately, from the inside.

“No, Mr. Scatter has concluded that Wm Shkspr wrote Wm Shkspr because Shakespeare was an actor,” he declared. “The plays scream out this simple fact.”

Shag worked, of course, in a company of actors, and as these things happen, lines were written both for and sometimes by specific members of the acting company. There’s not much doubt that on some projects Shakspur collaborated with other writers, too. It’s just the way things were done.

But:

“Mr. Scatter concedes that proletarian politics play into his determination. If Wm Shagspere was a commoner, so is Mr. Scatter, and at least an ounce of class solidarity goes into his pound of persuasion. Mr. Scatter bristles at the notion that a commoner could not possibly have created the artistic astonishment that is the Shakspeherian canon: He believes that genius strikes where genius strikes, and like a cold bug, it will strike where it wants.

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“Of course, Mr. Scatter isn’t dogmatic on the subject, and he doesn’t hold a grudge. He believes the anti-Stratfordians are good people at heart (goodness, he even knows a few) and thinks they should feel free to wander happily in their conspiratorial woods.

“Pursued by a bear.”

Hey, there. Been to a mall lately?

From left: Emmanuel Davis, Darius Pierce, Alex Ramírez de Cruz, Treasure Lunan, and Kailey Rhodes in Lava Alapai's "Middletown Mall" at Third Rail Rep. Photo: Owen Carey
From left: Emmanuel Davis, Darius Pierce, Alex Ramírez de Cruz, Treasure Lunan, and Kailey Rhodes in Lava Alapai’s “Middletown Mall” at Third Rail Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

There was a time in America when a favorite pastime, especially among the young, was just hangin’ out at the mall. It was a heady combination of sociability, boredom, chance encounters, good old American capitalism and “just looking, thanks.”

Portland playwright Lava Alapai recalls those days in the 1990s in her new play Middletown Mall, which gets its premiere this week from Third Rail Rep, at CoHo Theatre. As Third Rail describes it, “(a) group of twenty-somethings navigate the everyday fun and tension of friendships, food courts, annoying bosses, family drama, and karaoke, while also facing the realities of economic disparity and social pressure—until a much bigger challenge suddenly interrupts their lives.” 

A good director, Isaac Lamb; and a promising cast including Kailey Rhodes, Treasure Lunan, Alex Ramírez de Cruz, Darius Pierce, and Emmanuel Davis suggest that it might be a good idea to head on over to the theatrical Orange Julius counter and take a sip.

“Precipice” at Vanport Mosaic

The ninth annual Vanport Mosaic Festival — remembering the late city of Vanport, which was swept away by floodwaters on Memorial Day 1948, and its continuing resonance in Portland and Oregon — continues through June 1, and one of its featured events is the solo show Precipice: re-membering, forgetting and claiming home, a “magical-realist, fluid poem” of a play conceived and performed by Damaris Webb and written by Christopher Gonzalez. Performances are Saturday and Sunday, May 25-26, at the Historic Alberta House. See ArtsWatch’s story on the festival here.

Catch ’em while you can

Oregon Children's Theatre's "She Persisted: The Musical" enters its final weekend at the Newmark Theatre. Photo courtesy of Oregon Children's Theatre.
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s “She Persisted: The Musical” enters its final weekend at the Newmark Theatre. Photo courtesy of Oregon Children’s Theatre.

We are entering last-chance territory for a few shows that are closing this weekend: Catch ’em while you can, or forever hold your peace.

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One show wrapping things up is Oregon Children’s Theatre’s She Persisted: The Musical, a show that surely must be antithetical to that football kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, who appears to believe the proper graduation present for a young woman is an iron or an apron or a bassinet. She Persisted celebrates instead the lives and considerable accomplishments of women such as Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges, Sally Ride, and Sonia Sotomayor.

This week is also the end for Stew’s coming-of-age rock musical Passing Strange, which has been getting an enthusiastic response at Portland Playhouse. See Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review here.

And 21ten Theatre’s also enthusiastically received production of Chekhov’s great and heartbreaking Uncle Vanya closes after this week’s performances, Thursday-Sunday, May 23-26.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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