If you’re following along, the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival is “in crisis,” as its own signage proclaimed as I wandered the campus between performances during my June visit. One may well question the placement and packaging of that messaging, as I did, even while sympathetic to the challenges facing the entire theater world as we emerge from a global pandemic.
OSF faces some specific challenges, too, including wildfires and global warming, which have injected risk and uncertainty into the viability of tourism and outdoor theater in southern Oregon. There is always more to the story, and there are other concerning signs regarding how OSF is weathering these challenges, including the departures of members of its leadership team.
Whatever is happening, OSF’s current slate of four shows (reduced from its pre-pandemic 11-show format) is strong, and each evokes enthusiastic audience response. Whatever one has the capacity to do to support theaters during this time of flux, there are still plenty of reasons to travel to southern Oregon for live theater.
THE STRONGEST OF THE FOUR SHOWS currently playing, in my view, is Rent—and I say that as someone who is not among those with a sentimental attachment to Jonathan Larson’s iconic musical. Having seen this show several times now, I was especially impressed with the energy of this production, which features a fantastic cast of strong and charismatic performers who navigate a challenging but effective set designed by Arnel Sancianco with remarkable agility.
This play about life during the AIDS crisis is about young artists surviving in dangerous and arguably uninhabitable spaces, finding ways to create and love and thrive, and the set and the show’s design require this of the capable cast in real time—there are feats of physicality here that will make you catch your breath.
So too with the vocal work—virtually every cast member has a moment that will blow you away. Director Tiffany Nichole Greene and her team have outdone themselves; there isn’t a false note or unintentional movement here. Indeed, these artists have some moves that people in leadership could learn from.
ROMEO AND JULIET, directed by now-departed OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett (she has since been replaced as artistic leader by a returning OSF veteran, Tim Bond), is also very strong. The familiar story is set, in her words, against a “backdrop of desperation rather than abundance,” in which the doomed lovers spring not from ruling families in the usual sense but from families atop the hierarchies inside a current-day West Coast encampment of unhoused people. The context affords a different sort of urgency to the conflicts between especially the younger characters; the risks they take seem in some ways more organic to a setting where people are always fighting over scraps and where living regularly requires defying both the rules and the odds.
This production also benefits from a uniformly strong cast. Jeremy Gallardo holds Romeo’s impetuousness and love in a way that somehow makes you believe both, and Jada Alston Owens’s Juliet is somehow both childish and worldly wise. Catherine Castellanos is an unusually memorable Capulet and, in a second season at OSF, Donna Simone Johnson has established herself as someone to watch for; Johnson’s riveting Mercutio has the power to command and to break your heart.
THE TWO OUTDOOR SHOWS also teem with energy and intention. Director Dawn Monique Williams has envisioned Twelfth Night as a vehicle for the blues—blues music and culture, that is. In a story where family members are separated and believed dead and love is misdirected and unrequited, Feste the Fool is embodied as a blues singer (Arielle Crosby), her songs undergirding the griefs of the story with notes of irony and earthiness. It’s a delicious design choice that jives well with Shakespeare’s conception of a story where sorrow and love and humor intermingle.
The center of the story of Twelfth Night involves Viola dressing as a man to survive alone in a new context after a shipwreck. This production pursues that idea with more than the usual playful curiosity. The malleability of gender is not confined to Viola/Cesareo (a winning Sam Jackson); several cast members play across or outside gender norms.
Here again, Catherine Castellanos is especially good as the libertine Sir Toby Belch, and the playfulness with gender expression serves a sense of possibility in this production, facilitates a sense of disrupted expectations that aids better seeing and moves the characters past their failures of imagination. Viola isn’t put back in the gender box at the play’s resolution, which feels right. There’s a lightness here that seems to ease the characters’ struggles and soothe their confusion, not unlike the blues.
THE FINAL SHOW is playwright, composer, and lyricist Kirsten Childs’ re-visioning of The Three Musketeers, which builds off what has been hiding in plain sight: that Alexandre Dumas, who originated the beloved story, was a Black man of Haitian heritage. Director Kent Gash notes that he grew up knowing this fact; I wonder if, like so many things, Dumas’s heritage was much less a secret to Black people than to those who are not Black and who did not think to wonder, as Gash did, why all the characters we see in adaptations of the story are generally white. Gash was a force behind commissioning Childs to adapt the story in a way that centers Dumas’ heritage, and unmistakably flavors the story as a product of Black imagination.
In that light, the story feels different than audiences may have yet experienced and, at times, disorienting; for me, having Dumas as a character felt distracting and did not lift or illuminate the material, though I leave room for the idea that what one brings impacts what one sees. I had the sense that some audience members did not come prepared for what felt to them like a different story, though I did not have that experience.
Whatever I did not connect to, I still found much to admire. The performances were so strong and the energy so lively that audience members who were open responded with enthusiasm. The show is set in all times, and its agile, mostly Black cast members employ a variety of tools of the African diaspora, including verse, contemporary vernacular language, and the movement and language of hip hop and rap, along with swordplay.
The swagger here evinces a joy in Black culture and influence across time. Given the origins of this material, there is some irony in the likelihood that some people will feel this version strays from its source; Childs and Gash and this talented cast and crew would beg to differ.
For most of us, the best way to support live theater is to show up and honor good work with an open heart. The four shows playing at OSF are worth the journey, and all will play until mid-October.