DramaWatch: Fond farewell to an era in Ashland

Reflections on the end of Bill Rauch's tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; plus paranormal happening at CoHo and other Halloween theater treats.

At the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Mother Road, Octavio Solis’ 21st-century response to and continuation of The Grapes of Wrath, actors stand for a moment in a tableau vivant, swathed in dusky, murky light and harrowing sound — the swirling dirge, half howl half moan, of a dust storm. 

Mother Road by Octavio Solis stands as a highlight of the season just ending at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The facile, melodramatic critical response might be to liken the scene to the larger setting of the festival itself, where prosperous stability has looked threatened by environmental damage (encroaching smoke from summer wildfires in the region), economic hardship (losses in revenue due to cancelled shows and the uncertainty of tourists) and social change (a sudden, unrelated, spike in leadership turnover).

But much like Mother Road, which had its world premiere in this just-ending OSF season, faces down hard facts on a journey to joyful, if bittersweet, redemption, so OSF appears to have the heart and fortitude to navigate its ongoing transitions with grace.

When it comes to keeping tabs on Ashland, your humble DramaWatcher has been lax in recent seasons. But I felt compelled to make a last-minute trip — my first this year — to catch a few shows before the theaters shut their doors this Sunday. One reason to come was to see Cambodian Rock Band, in particular. That show — essentially the same production, from what I can gather, though perhaps with some cast changes — will be staged in late spring at Portland Center Stage. Portland theater-maker Adrienne Flagg saw it earlier this season and told me excitedly, “It’s everything I want theater to be.”

The main consideration, though, was that I didn’t want to miss a chance to say goodbye to the Bill Rauch era at OSF.

Bill Rauch has moved on to lead the new Ronald O. Perelman Performance Arts Center, which will open at the World Trade Center in New York. But he leaves a rich legacy in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

I have lasting regret that, although I grew up in Portland and had long read Shakespeare festival coverage by Bob Hicks and Barry Johnson, I never visited Ashland until 2007, after my beat at The Oregonian shifted from pop music to theater and dance. That season, Rauch was incoming artistic director, with his predecessor, Libby Appel, still overseeing the transition. For awhile, I saw everything; after leaving the paper, my visits became intermittent. By my count, I saw 98 out of 133 productions staged in Rauch’s seasons at the helm, 2008-2019. From the start, I felt great admiration for Rauch’s work and affection for him as a person, and feel indebted for the very large role he’s had in giving me a love for theater. 

Even before I’d been to Ashland, I’d seen that mixture of admiration and affection for Rauch in others. I’d been part of an NEA-sponsored program for theater critics at USC’s Annenberg School in the fall of ‘06, not long after Rauch’s OSF appointment. As we met and mingled with theater makers all around the Los Angeles area, I was struck by how, whenever anyone learned that one of our fellows, Richard Moeschl, was from Ashland, there followed an effusion of warm regard for Rauch, who had spent years in LA running Cornerstone Theater Company.

By then he’d already directed a handful of shows at OSF, reaching back to Robert Schenkkan’s Handler (about, er, snakes in a faith-based community) in 2002. In a transitional time like Rauch had in 2007, incoming artistic director Nataki Garrett is less of a known quantity in Ashland. This season’s How to Catch Creation was her first directing work here, opening after her succession was announced. I watched the show this week with pleasure, but without sussing a sense of her proclivities as a director.

Rauch’s directorial character revealed itself over time. He favored artistically ambitious, thematically complex projects. His approach was determinedly collaborative (I once observed a design-planning meeting in which actor Tony Heald, conscious of Rauch’s hectic schedule, declined to offer his input, only to have Rauch roar in friendly objection, “No!! We must have all ideas on the table!”), yet his shows always had a sense of wholeness, of a coherent vision. A particular strong suit was in the manipulation of theatrical time and space, the fluidity with which memory might weave through narrative, or the internal cohesion of an ancient story anachronistically told, its timeless ideas underlined with modern dress or settings or props. Most affecting of all was Rauch’s knack for bringing out the depth beneath shiny surfaces (for instance, the surprising emotional richness he found in a high-energy The Pirates of Penzance in 2011), and conversely, highlighting glints of light and wit amid the sober and foreboding (the abundant gallows humor of 2009’s masterly Equivocation comes to mind, but the astonishing and hilarious sight of Jeffrey King portraying a gurgling gasoline pump during Mother Road surely will stay with me.)

Even apart from the show’s he directed himself, Rauch’s tenure in Ashland was successful by any measure. Most significantly, he led the creation of what, his longtime friend and colleague Alison Carey points out in a program essay, count as two new canons of the American theater: the commissioning programs for American Revolutions (new plays about significant moments of change in U.S. history) and Play On! (contemporary American translations of Shakespeare’s plays). He also expanded OSF’s programming diet with musicals (both mid-century classics such as The Music Man and the too-often overlooked She Loves Me and fanciful new creations such as Jeff Whitty’s Go-Go’s-fueled confection Head Over Heels) and classics from other cultures (The Clay Cart, The White Snake). American Revolutions, in particular, has bolstered the OSF brand nationally, not least by sending Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about the eventful presidency of Lyndon Johnson, to Broadway. And though smoke from wildfires has caused the festival to take a financial hit more recently, in the years of the Great Recession, as theaters everywhere saw sharp declines, OSF kept topping its already healthy attendance records.

The festival was especially aggressive under Rauch’s watch in regard to EDI — that is, matters of equity, diversity and inclusion. I’ve heard complaints — from politically progressive theater people, not cultural reactionaries — that Rauch sometimes alienated audiences with too polemical interpretations of Shakespeare plays and allowed workplace tensions to grow by ceding too much power within the company to overzealous “social-justice warriors.” What’s incontrovertible, though, is that the past decade has seen the festival’s free summer Green Show turned into an eclectic ongoing celebration of community, and the OSF acting company transformed into a multi-ethnic powerhouse.

Rockin’ in the free world — for now: Cambodian Rock Band (from left, Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Moses Villarama and Jane Lui) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF.

Among the fruits of the latter development, count the Asian-American cast of Cambodian Rock Band, a probing look at social upheaval, personal accountability, love, loyalty and survival, all through the unlikely nexus of a psychedelic counterculture and the murderous Khmer Rouge. The play is by turns flamboyant and grim, its moments of energetic escapism leading us directly into frightful inevitabilities. It’s fantastic. 

Yet it made me think of times when I’d been yet more thrilled, reminders of when the Rauch era had best found that sweet spot of the theatrical Venn diagram, that meeting place of the visceral and the lyrical, the poetic and the political, the emotive and the intellectual, the witty and the wise. How I’d love another chance to see that 2008 A View From the Bridge starring an endearingly tragic Armando Duran. Or the improvisational mastery of Mark Bedard in 2009’s A Servant of Two Masters. I saw ‘09’s Equivocation, with Anthony Heald as Shakespeare under duress, a half-dozen times (including its remount a couple of years later at Arena Stage in D.C.); same with Dan Donohue as a sly, sarcastic Hamlet in 2010 — that’s not enough! In 2012, it was the comic mayhem of Animal Crackers (Bedard again, and others) and the heart-piercing romance and visual splendor of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake. 2014 brought Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, a vital production of a perfectly-written play. The year after that, came the overwhelming emotional power of a Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jonathan Haugen and Danforth Comins as the ill-fated sons, and a deeply moving Pericles (of all things) as a sweeping yet intimate epic. And so on.

Mark Murphey (center) delivers one of the finest performances in his long OSF career in Mother Road, alongside (clockwise from left) Cedric Lamar, Amy Lizardo and Tony Sancho. Photo: Jenny Graham.

In this lineage, Mother Road stands as a fine swan song for the Rauch era, the last world premiere of an original play he directed here. Fitting it into my schedule meant an extra day to the trip and I almost skipped it, but midway through the first act I began to have that feeling — of thoroughgoing absorption in the story and in the lives of the characters playing out in front of me; of awe at the strength and commitment in the performances (“Mark Murphey is the land and sky,” reads one of my scribbled notes); of an intellectual delight at how deftly the show balanced its themes of familial love and resentment, environmental disruption and human adaptation,  the misguidedness of racial division, the tricky dance between love and anger in the pursuit of justice; of sadness and joy in an emotional brew suddenly so volatile I thought it would break me into open sobbing as I sat.

This is what theater at its best can do. And no storm can sweep that away.

Opening

The Brothers Paranormal, by Thai-American playwright Prince Gomolvilas, had its world premiere only this spring, yet already gets its fifth production at CoHo Theater. The play’s premise that there’s an increase in sightings of “Asian-looking ghosts” might be self-fulfilling prophecy. As Gomolvilas has it, two Thai brothers see a business opportunity in investigating these paranormal activities, and though business isn’t good, they eventually sell their services to an African-American couple displaced by Hurricane Katrina and haunted by something more than a natural disaster. 

“(T)he play’s really much more interested in the human connections that underlie ghost stories,” wrote the website Exeunt NYC, “the loneliness of the living and the dead; the exhausting burdens of grief and depression; the grasp the dead still have on us.”

Reed College’s Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly directs.


Actor, director and ArtsWatcher extraordinaire Bobby Bermea has just published a fine profile of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Dani Baldwin, artistic director of the company’s Young Professionals program. Fittingly, the YP kids have a new production, a psychological thriller called DNA that, if the group’s track record is anything to go by, should be a great look at what teens with creativity and training can do. 

Quick hits

The storied sketch-comedy and improv company the Second City has been plying its laughable trade for nearly 60 years, so no doubt there’s plenty of material available for a touring show such as The Second City’s Greatest Hits, popping into the Newmark Theatre on Friday night.


NT Live, the rewarding series of shows from the National Theatre in London presented here as “live-captured” high-definition video, takes us next to the forested dreamworld of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a production starring Gwendoline Christie (of Game of Thrones fame) and directed by Nicholas Hytner.


Willamette Radio Workshop, led by the veteran voice actor Sam Mowry, specializes in stage performances in the style of what’s known as the Golden Age of Radio (read: long before Clear Channel) — voice dramatizations augmented with live sound effects, with a few nods to audience visual interest. For Halloween, the troupe presents an adaptation of Frankenstein in a pair of free afternoon/early-evening performances at Kennedy School, allowing you time to see the show and still get home in time to undermine the dental health of the neighborhood.

Closing

Fuse Theatre Ensemble stages Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” in Northwest Portland’s Northwest Marine Artworks. Photo: Rusty Tennant.

It’s almost time to say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye to several shows on Portland-area stages. But rather than heave a sigh, heave a credit card onto the counter (virtually, if need be) and go make the sweet parting in person. Among your choices: Chapel Theatre Collective’s appraisal of art and authenticity, Bakersfield Mist; the dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange staged by Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage; Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s bracing, site-specific (read: “cold warehouse”) take on Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge; the latest immersive theatrical haunting by the Reformers (a.k.a. Charmian Creagle, Sean Doran and Caitlin Nolan), cheeringly titled We’re All Gonna Die; Stumptown Stages’ strut through West Side Story; and Theatre Vertigo’s view on alienation and apartment living, complex.
The hit musical Once at Broadway Rose has been sold out for weeks. But if you’re tenacious enough to keep checking for the chance of returned seats coming available at the last minute, the last minutes are upon you.

The flattened stage 

It’s World Series time — this despite the unlikely if not actually counterfactual presence of the Washington Nationals. To get you up to speed on the lineups, here are sporting commentators discussing who doth inhabit the primary position:

Best line I read this week

“Human frailty forms a system…and faults in the past have their endless spreading network of results…All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world.”

— from the novel The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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