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In Ashland, a pair of winners at OSF

The intimate solo shows "Smote This" and "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender" dive compellingly into soulful matters – and they run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival only into May.

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Rodney Gardiner in his solo show “Smote This, A Comedy About God …and Other Serious $H*T” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has opened the first four of the ten shows it has planned for its 2024 season. All four are worthy of a visit to Ashland—and two especially wonderful solo shows will play only into May. 

Rodney Gardiner has been beloved by OSF audiences for ten seasons, displaying a remarkable range that made him a standout in everything from The Wiz (he was the Tin Man) and Guys and Dolls (he was Nathan Detroit) to Twelfth Night (where he danced the part of Feste) and the Henry IV and V plays.  What you didn’t know is that Rodney came to the United States in childhood as an undocumented immigrant from a tiny Caribbean island. He came by those dancing and code-switching skills in ways you did not imagine.

Gardiner’s solo show Smote This, A Comedy about God . . . and Other Serious $H*T is personal in every way.  He puts his entire body into offering a glimpse of some pieces of his own work of reckoning. It’s by turns comic, heart-breaking, buoyant, and spiritual, and Gardiner riffs on a life experience full of challenges of the kind most Americans don’t understand or even imagine. Watching the show with a friend who is undocumented and reflecting on my own experiences of oppression that people neither see nor care about, I was struck by the generosity of Gardiner’s offering. Though his story is unique and specific, the telling felt like a coming-out that somehow lifts up other experiences that live in the shadows.

I need to emphasize at the outset that this show is funny. Gardiner is a master of comic timing and has long displayed a genius for making work that he has honed with great skill and care appear somehow effortless. He is limber, physically demonstrating the hilarity of family and Black church and a practiced verbal agility that has served him like a superpower. This show can easily be experienced purely on the level of delight.

But make no mistake: Smote This is a feat of love and badassery. There are reasons why people tend not to share experiences this tender; it can’t be done without vulnerability, and is best done after some deep reflection and soul-searching. And if your story involves the loss of a parent, or the challenges of being Black and undocumented—experiences not shared by many, or any, in your audience—describing your experience to yourself and that audience involves an archeological dig of recognition and complex translation.

You might leave Smote This thinking you understand more than you do about Gardiner, given the apparent ease and humor of the offering. I’d encourage resisting that illusion in favor of nurturing the reverence that might arise if you are attending well.  When someone offers this generous and soulful a window into a backstory you didn’t imagine for them, the best response is to receive it with gratitude, and an intention to allow it to open your heart and your curiosity about the mysteries others are carrying.

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Lisa Wolpe in her solo show “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham

Lisa Wolpe’s work in Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is just as soulful, though employing a very different approach. Highly regarded for her work as a Shakespearean actor and director and as founding artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, Wolpe discovered as a young person that Shakespeare’s depths afforded her pathways for plunging her own depths and for exploring aspects of her family history that her family members were not available or willing to discuss. She applies that well-honed skill to this solo work, which she has honed and performed all over the world.

She stakes her ground in the opening: She is the daughter of Hans Max Joachim Wolpe and of Vera Angela Wendel, both of whom took their own lives during her childhood. She came to the understanding she has of both parents over the course of her life, with little guidance from adults who knew them—indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this skillful rendering is how Volpe moves in and out through various Shakespearean monologues and her own wresting to illuminate pieces of her revelations and how she arrived at them. 

With an array of loved ones who suffered horribly and took their own lives, how does one think of the consequences while living pieces of those consequences? How does one balance wit and will?  What causes suffering to become unbearable, and how do the impacts of such suffering radiate through generations?  What breadcrumbs—in Shakespeare and in life—point the way toward liberation?

A thread running through the work is how the cultural confines of gender can hinder and also be transcended. Wolpe has played more male Shakespearean roles than perhaps any other woman, and identifies how her childhood experiences of pretending to be a boy helped her “build a super-defiant defense” against her abusive stepfather. She plays with the awareness of a practiced insider/outsider, which offers some advantages over being purely an insider; perhaps a bit the way those who struggled with a skill often make better teachers than those for whom the skill came naturally. And as with her career of acting and directing, Wolpe balances acting with activism in wresting space for fem-identified folks to play roles across gender, countering the times when women were thought incapable of such work.

These male Shakespearean roles also offered her a way to inquire about her father, who she lost at age 4. She shares what she learned in adulthood of his bravery in challenging the Nazis as a young Jewish man, and wonders about the cost of the many battles he fought. The explorations she offers in a packed 55-minute performance reflect years of work and embodied wrestling with the boundaries of time, space, and intuitive ways of knowing. She imparts a sense of her father gained from communing with him.

Like the best work—like what Wolpe admires in the bard—Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender will burrow into the shallowest and deepest soil. As with any solo work and certainly as with Gardner’s, Wolpe’s performance is a gift of faith, vulnerability, and generosity, offered without hope of knowing very much about where it landed. Wolpe’s practice includes a 15-minute closing dialogue with the audience that offers some windows, a wise practice given the traumatic themes of the performance, and she finds that patrons often return multiple times and report deep resonance with the ideas she has surfaced. 

What a gift to Oregon audiences to have the opportunity to experience both of these works while they are playing at OSF. You may well feel like you’ve been to church—only in the best way that could appeal to some who would never set foot in one. The work of these artists models and inspires reverence and reckoning.

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  • Smote This continues in repertory through May 12 in the intimate Thomas Theatre.
  • Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender continues through May 4, also in the Thomas.
  • Two other current productions are on the boards at the festival: Macbeth, playing through October 12 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre; and Born with Teeth, playing through October 13, also in the Bowmer.
  • For information on plays coming later in the season, see the festival’s website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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