All Classical Radio James Depreist

DramaWatch: Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new season: Back to the future?

The festival's just-announced 2024 season suggests a return to the kind of lineup that's excited audiences in the past. Plus: Fats Waller and the joint are jumpin' at Broadway Rose.

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Catherine Castellanos and Jaysen Wright in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Twelfth Night,” whic continues in Ashland through Oct. 13. Photo: Jenny Graham

A few weeks ago, Timothy Bond – a beloved Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran recently returned to the fold as just the seventh artistic director in the company’s long history – spoke with Dave Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud.” Despite the plague of troubles that have beset OSF in recent years, from the disruptions of wildfire smoke and the pandemic to uncharacteristic volatility in company leadership, Bond sounded notes of optimism, citing an uptick in tickets sales from 2022 to this year. About next year, he suggested that OSF fans could expect a welcome return to normal.

“They’re gonna see at least 30 percent Shakespeare out of a mix of that and some new work and some other classical work,” he told Miller. “And some of our long-time favorite actors and directors are coming back to do work with us. I think they’re gonna feel a homecoming in many, many ways.”

So one simple way to take the temperature of festival fans, following Wednesday’s announcement of the 2024 OSF season, is to look at one of our modern facsimiles of the public square, Facebook.

“Fantastic!!!!!”

“Woohoo! OSF is on the mend.”

“Yay! We are back!!!!”

“Reading through the titles and descriptions, I realized I was getting CHILLS as I went down the list! What a smart, provocative and very Shakespearian season!” 

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“…breathtakingly smart, exciting, and hopeful.”

“I have never been happier to hear about a new season!”

“Beyond excited to see this play out!”

That’s a smattering of responses culled from OSF’s Facebook page as well as a page called “Friends of OSF,” administered by longtime festival actor Tyrone Wilson.

And who are we ArtsWatchers to disagree? Admittedly, this same lineup of nine plays running, collectively, from mid-March to mid-September, if announced five or ten years ago might have struck us as a bit underwhelming. In the current climate of American regional theater, it’s like sunbeams and trumpets bursting through the clouds.

Alright, so the most persnickety of purists might sniff that only two plays by Shakespeare are on the menu. And if you look carefully you can notice a certain amount of risk management in the season’s construction: It’s several weeks shorter overall than the standard season in the 2010s. And it leans more heavily on the smallest of the festival’s three main venues, the Thomas Theatre, with only two shows in the Bowmer Theatre and two as summer showcases on the open-air Elizabethan Stage.

Yet there are times to applaud prudence.

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And to my mind, one of the most at once prudent and exciting aspects of the 2024 OSF season is the way it restores some semblance of the pre-pandemic rhythm to the year. For many years, OSF fans could rely on the season starting in late winter, opening with a Shakespeare play in the Bowmer, and a few other productions kicking off that same weekend. Then at intervals of several weeks, a new play would be introduced in one of the indoor theaters, followed by the addition of the Elizabethan shows for what I thought of as the high season. Along the way, a couple of shows would fade away, but whatever time of year you visited, you could have a nice variety of options. Bond – and, I suspect, primarily interim artistic director Evren Odcikin – have for the most part followed this comforting template.

New Artistic Director Tim Bond (left; Hillary Jeanne Photography) and Interim Artistic Director Evren Odcikin (photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

As for the season having just two plays by Shakespeare, well, yes and no. I’ll admit that I’ve never seen anything that Odcikin has directed. But I was so impressed by him in a meeting over coffee a few years ago (shortly after he started at OSF, he was in Portland directing a show for Center Stage that wound up being an early casualty of the Covid shutdowns) that I’m excited by the prospect of what he’ll do with Macbeth. Similarly, the season’s other tentpole, Much Ado About Nothing, will be helmed by one of my all-time favorite OSF performers, Miriam Laube, whose depth and deftness in anything from wrenching tragedy to wry comedy to buoyant musical should bode well for directing Shakespeare.

The season also offers plenty of another OSF specialty, what you could call Shakespeare-adjacent plays such as Born With Teeth (a “dramatization of history” featuring William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe) and two different theatrical examinations through gendered lenses, Lisa Wolpe’s Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender and Robin Goodrin Nordli’s Virgins to Villains.

Like Laube, Goodrin Nordli is a much-loved OSF veteran. But they won’t be the only ones who’ll provide the sense of homecoming that Bond promised. Smote This, a cultural comedy about a Black man’s crisis of faith, brings back the potent performer Rodney Gardiner (whose 2014 turn in a Harlem-set Comedy of Errors was a stitch), and Behfarmaheen (If You Please)is the Iranian/American cross-cultural story of Barzin Akhavan, who performed in such memorable OSF productions as Water by the Spoonful. 

And if anything stakes out the range of the 2024 season, it might be the two shows I haven’t previously mentioned: an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre on the Elizabethan Stage, and a rock musical called Lizard Boy that brings a world of dragons and superheroes and awkward dates into the Thomas. 

Of course, we’ll have yet more to look forward to once the casts and design teams for these shows are announced later in the year. But clearly, it’s time to mark your calendars for a trip (or several) to Ashland.

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Opening

Charles Grant, William Knowles, and Antonía Darlene in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Fletcher Wold.

“The only thing that he had time for was partying and music. And basically, it all came from the music – because my father would only stop partying for the music. Which meant that the music came first.”

So said one of Fats Waller’s sons in a documentary called This Joint Is Jumpin’, about one of the most popular and influential pianists and songwriters in jazz history. An important link between the stride and boogie-woogie styles of the early 20th century and the big-band swing era (especially the likes of Count Basie), Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was a prodigious pianistic talent, but also an irrepressible showman. In Swing It!: an Annotated History of Jive, the critic Bill Milkowski quotes the pianist Butch Thompson: “Fats’ sustained high level of musicianship throughout his huge body of work is nothing short of astonishing, and the constant (and often brilliant) barrage of ‘jive’ just insures that things don’t get too precious.”

Waller wrote hundreds of tunes (often working with the lyricist Andy Razaf, stocking the American songbook with such classics as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The last of those also provided the title for a Tony-winning 1978 musical revue 

Ain’t Misbehavin’, which celebrates Waller’s larger-than-life persona and the raucous Harlem nightlife of an era that critic Frank Rich described as a “between-the-wars dream world.” Broadway Rose stages this enduring crowd pleaser, here directed and choreographed by Eugene Ware-Hill.

***

Ted Rooney’s 21ten Theatre just had a hit with a show called 52 Pick-up, the second in a series of simple productions conceived to be able to be mounted easily at other theaters. With such resounding proof of concept accomplished, Rooney is going back to the first of these BareBones Productions, as he calls them, reviving a play by the Galway writer Christian O’Reilly (whose touching little play Chapatti Portland theater fans might recall from a fine 2016 Corrib production that starred Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux).

For Here We Are Again Still, commissioned as a public art project tied to the renovation of a suburban Galway housing development, O’Reilly interviewed residents and extracted a story about a man who, grieving the death of his wife, sits on a bench outside the apartments every night. In this humble setting, an elderly neighbor concerned about him, and a troubled young man who takes to the same bench provide a conversational view into the life of their community.

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Rooney stars alongside Carla Grant and Ben Lawrence, directed this time (as was 52 Pick-up) by Gavin Hoffman.

Weekenders

Although a week later than originally scheduled, Milagro stages a new play by Maya Malan-Gonzalez, Worry Dolls, inspired by a Guatemalan custom of putting small dolls under one’s pillow at night “to hopefully carry away stress and fears of the day.” 

***

Hoping to carry away the stress and fears that can exist between the people and the police, the Red Door Project continues to present The Evolve Experience, an “arts-based workshop built around first-person narratives from police officers, judges, and Black community members describing their lived experiences at the intersection of race and the justice system.” And an experience it is, potent both as a theatrical performance and as a spur to constructive public dialogue.

Closing

Though it feels as if they’ve all just arrived, departure times already are near for Home/Land, the revival of Hand2Mouth’s “walk-thru live performance installation”; Sweet Charity, the Shedd Institute production of the classic musical; and Macbeth, about some king or other, at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theatre. 

The flattened stage

The best line I read this week

“Myth: Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, so modern climate change must also be a natural process.

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Fact: Modern climate change is caused by human activity. For evidence, look at all that footage of smokestacks spewing methane, which then cuts to a time-lapse of a big traffic jam and over to a lush tree in a field rapidly desiccating as a lonesome elk walks by, and then a polar bear tumbles off a melting ice floe and is surrounded by plastic piranhas from a kids’ game that ended up in a landfill, and the child who owned it is sitting bereft in a sandbox, and the angle widens to show that the sand is actually a desert where an old-growth forest once stood, and we zoom in on a determined ant struggling across sun-baked rocks, and what’s he carrying? A scrap of paper that says ‘Al Gore.’”

– Jay Katsir, from a humor piece in The New Yorker, “Myths and Facts About Climate Change”

***

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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