Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The road continues

Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

“Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.”

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

This describes a wide swath of American theater right now, too. At its fringes, American theater since the 1970s (at least) has harbored the voices of gay, feminist, African American, Hispanic, Asian and other non-white, non-hetero playwrights. And then through a sort of cultural osmosis, mainstream American theater started to absorb some of them. August Wilson plays (beginning with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1984), for example, started to appear on the stages of major regional companies in the 1980s. Flash forward to 2019, and American theater has changed more profoundly than I ever would have guessed it could back in the ‘70s. Those major regional companies now make a concerted effort to include playwrights like the ones OSF has been commissioning and producing with more determination and success than just about anyone else.

Which lands us at this season’s productions. My short review: Like last year, this year’s productions are thought-provoking, poignant and hilarious (often within the same play), musical (even when they aren’t musicals, per se), and well-acted, directed, costumed and designed. And when you look on stage, you think that this is getting very close to being an American theater company. “I hear America singing,” Whitman started his great poem about the American multiplicity, concluding, “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”

*****

“Hairspray”

In the John Waters camp, alternate reimagining of America, a teen rock’n’roll dance show changes the history of race in Baltimore, led by a robust teen with a serious hair-do, who, despite the best designs of a glamorous and socially cunning competitor (and her mom), manages to win the love of an Elvis/James Dean kind of guy as she fights and wins the battle for integration in the city Waters loved. And presumably, in this fairy tale, they all lived happily ever after, because teens never grow up and the dance party never stops.

The original film version of Waters’ “Hairspray” dates to 1988, and it starred Ricki Lake as the teen, Tracy Turnblad, and drag film pioneer Divine, a Waters regular, as her mother, Edna. And the film soundtrack included a double dose of pop greatness (or vapidity, depending on your point of view), including “Duke of Earl,” “Let’s Twist Again,” “The Bird,” “You Don’t Own Me.” Everybody knows about the bird, right? What year is this again?

Anyway, the musical theater version hit Broadway in 1998 after a successful tryout at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and it won eight Tony Awards, with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein played Tracy and Edna, and the show ran for six years and 2,642 performances. I like the music, especially “I Know Where I’ve Been,” though it doesn’t give me the nostalgic shivers that “The Bird” does or even Dee Dee Sharp singing “Mashed Potato Time,” but then I always had a mostly benign weakness for varieties of the yakety sax.

Hey, kids,
Katy Geraghty as Tracy can dance (and she can sing, too) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Hairspray,” 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Back to “I know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Motormouth Maybelle, who runs a record shop in the black section of Baltimore.

There’s a dream in the future

There’s a struggle that we have yet to win

And there’s pride in my heart

‘Cause I know where I’m going, yes, I do

And I know where I’ve been.

Greta Oglesby plays Maybelle for OSF, and like everyone else who hops onstage in this production, she sings the song with care, commitment and a terrific voice, piercing the jolly camp for a moment with a message from the American past that still applies: There’s a struggle that we have yet to win.

The show depends mostly on Katy Geraghty, who has played Tracy once before, and she’s a dynamo. Even if you’re lukewarm about the idea of “Hairspray” (hey, I see you out there, because I thought I was one of you!), I think she has a good chance of winning you over. But then, OSF has gotten good at settling those bus-and-trucker musicals in for a long spell in the Bowmer Theatre, so much more accessible than the barns they usually inhabit. I got a big kick out of Daniel T. Parker’s Edna and Eddie Lopez as Corny Collins, but I could go down the list of actor/singers and suggest that they all sang well and had fun (or appeared to—hey, they’re actors!).

So, right, Baltimore didn’t turn into paradise in real life, but that dream can still be pretty powerful.

*****

“Cambodian Rock Band”

The festival imported the title rock band from the South Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Cambodian Rock Band.” This was an excellent decision. Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim and Jane Lui play the songs, based on Western-inflected Cambodian pop music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by the band Dengue Fever, as a real rock band would, and Ishibashi has a terrific lead voice. They also clearly know their way around Lauren Yee’s script, especially Ngo and Ishibashi, who are in nearly every scene as the story shifts from the present Cambodia to Cambodia before the triumph of the Khmer Rouge and back to the present, with a terrifying stop in a Khmer Rouge prison/death camp.

“Cambodian Rock Band” isn’t a fairytale musical. At its most abstract, perhaps, it asks us how we should deal with extreme situations, when our usual technique of a quiet walk through the neighborhood to think things over won’t really work. In extreme situations—and what’s more extreme than the arrival of an army dedicated to burning Cambodian society down to the ashes—our rules of thumb for solving problems, moral or otherwise, don’t seem to apply. Decisions have chaotic consequences, life becomes a fluid nightmare, friends become enemies, guilt undermines every relationship. For those hankering for an “extreme situation” in America, please hanker for something else.

The rock band in the middle of Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” includes
Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim and Jane Lui at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2019. Photographer: Jenny Graham.

But I digress.

The music in “Cambodian Rock Band” is hard to categorize but immediately accessible—Lauren Yee herself calls it a combination of “traditional Cambodian music, French New Wave, some of the Vietnam War-era radio.” It can be sad and languorous one moment and hard-driving the next. The subject matter is genocide (estimates of the number of Cambodians slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge range up to 2,000,000, roughly a quarter of the total population of Cambodia at the time), but the play has many funny moments, a father-daughter relationship to dissect, friendships to follow into the deadly chaos. It’s not a “killing fields” play, though that’s the subtext.

Like “Hairspray” (and “Between Two Knees”) “Cambodian Rock Band” has an emcee, a narrator to keep us in the know as the history of the time is revealed. But this emcee turns out to be far more complicated: He’s the villain of the play, based (and named after) a real Cambodian war criminal. OSF veteran Daisuke Tsuji, who also starred in the South Coast Rep production, starts him off in, oh, maybe Joel Gray in “Cabaret” territory, and then divides him into different strands of personality and personal history, a performance that I found haunting.

So, yes, put “Cambodian Rock Band” on your list if you’re heading to the festival this summer, and why wouldn’t you?

*****

“Mother Road”

Bill Rauch himself took the directorial assignment to bring the new Solis play to the boards for the first time, and I didn’t resist the impulse to take that metaphorically.

“Mother Road” is an updating and a sequel to John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” which tracks a family of refugees, the Joads, on their journey from Dust Bowl-blasted Oklahoma to Depression-blasted California, where they find no comfort and less mercy. In 2003, as Rauch says in his Director’s Notes, Solis followed the road the Joads took, mostly along Route 66, on a trip organized by the National Steinbeck Center. In response to the conditions he observed, he wrote “Mother Road,”  which jumps the story to the present, locates a Mexican-American grandson of Tom Joad working as a laborer in California, mixes him with an ailing, elderly Joad who had stayed behind in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, and follows them back on “the mother road” from California to the ancestral farm in Sallisaw.

Along the way, the elderly Joad (played with flinty crackle by longtime OSF vet Mark Murphey) and Martin Jodes (the winning Tony Sancho as Joad’s grandson) rub each other the wrong way, keep patching it up, and add a colorful collection of fellow travelers. Martin’s pal Mo (Amy Lizardo), a young, lesbian contemporary, jumps aboard first to provide some comic relief and a bit of necessary explanation of what’s going on. Then James (Cedric Lamar), an African American of a spiritual bent, joins the crew, and then at the end the company adds a Native American (Fidel Gomez).

Mark Murphey and Tony Sancho in the world premiere of Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photographer: Jenny Graham.

Where are they headed? Well, “just a place with less pain,” as Solis writes, but something more like Arden (and yes, “As You Like It” is on the bill, too), a place where the identities that divide us become identities that complete us. And though you may doubt that place could possibly be found in Sallisaw, a little town near the Arkansas border, by this time you understand it’s a dream state, imaginary, but maybe a work-in-progress, too.

The narrative isn’t really the point. Something more poetic is going on—how we understand each other, how we understand ourselves as we understand each other, the temptations of despair and acceptance of defeat, the residue of anger through generations—via Solis’s text, the music (it’s not a musical but it does sing, especially Lamar) and the projections on the large screen at the back of the stage. We’re not on an actual road trip. This is something much more formless, allusive, digressive, than a trip from Point A to Point B. Rauch’s strength as a director keeps the enterprise moving while highlighting the moments of poetry and allowing the layers to accumulate.

For his final directorial shot, Rauch took a new play by a Mexican-American playwright that updated an American classic, which in the way of a certain class of American classics is almost all-white, and played it back from an entirely different perspective, allowing it to reflect our demographic reality, while preserving its bite against a system that is static and unjust. It represents in microcosm what Rauch has done with the festival as a whole, something we might talk about at great length, but maybe not here.

*****

“Between Two Knees”

“If you didn’t feel a little guilty, you wouldn’t be at the Indian play in the first place,” says the narrator of this sketch comedy pastiche situated between two historical massacres. Played by Justin Gauthier, this emcee is crucial to maintaining the narrative coherence (such as it is) and thematics, and Gauthier is its perfect embodiment—sardonic, off-the-cuff, letting us in on the joke one moment and turning the tables on us the next.

That’s the MO of the 1491s, an activist, Native American comedy collective comprising Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn and Bobby Wilson. Look them up on YouTube and you’ll get a good idea of the sense of humor and politics at work in “Between Two Knees.” The guilt of white people about the treatment of the tribes that their ancestors dealt out is an opportunity to increase their understanding of this history and its effects. And humor, which so often includes a big dollop of discomfort, is the vehicle the 1491s use to seize the opportunity.

Justin Gauthier in “Between Two Knees” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Sketch comedy as all we know can be hit or miss, and that bottom-of-the-barrel “Saturday Night Live” bit leaves me groaning as you laugh uproariously. What makes SNL watchable is the laugh-to-groan ratio, the determination of the cast to power through regardless, and the certain knowledge that any given skit will shortly dissolve into another one. “Between Two Knees” is just like that. Its cast squeezes each sketch (and some are more dramatic than comic) for both the laughs and the insights. Does the “Wheel of Indian Massacres” bit work for you? Don’t worry, something else is coming up. And by the end of the show, if you’re like me, the laugh-to-groan ratio is solid. Not that I’m against groans, which bring their own insights.

Just to set the parameters, the two “Knees” have to do with Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The first (1890) was a massacre of some 300 Lakota Sioux by the U.S. Cavalry and the second (1973), a standoff between the U.S. government and Native activists, who objected to the tribal government on the reservation, during which more blood was shed. How do we get past historical event such as these? Well, if we ever do, it may be because the 1491s show us a way to engage with them a little more openly.

*****

“As You Like It”

Director Rosa Joshi delivered a smashing “Henry V” last season in the Thomas Theatre,  the smallest of the festival’s three stages. She focused on the human, psychological dimensions of the play and used Richard Hay’s ingenious set design, a collection of moving, interlocking boxes, to project the geographical dimension (among other things).

This time Joshi has the Bowmer Theatre at her disposal and one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays as her text. She trimmed and moved that text around a little bit, expanding the songs while creating a tighter focus. What does she magnify? Gender, power and powerlessness, the search for self, and maybe, indirectly, the fervent wish for a place we can reconstitute our society and ourselves.

Stripped down like that—abstracted—this may sound static and ideological. In practice, Joshi has created a theater of startling images and fluid, amniotic spaces, where the rebirth of Rosalind, our favorite heroine, can occur. Many of Shakespeare’s best heroes are women who must pretend to be male (I’m thinking mostly of Rosalind and Viola, but also Portia and Imogen). Joshi and Jessica Ko (as Rosalind) project Rosalind’s transformation into the young man Ganymede as a crucial step toward becoming the person she wants to be.

Joshi has flipped the genders of several of the characters—the exiled Duke Senior, her attendant Amiens, the realist Jaques, and the shepherd Corin. The first three constitute a sort of government-in-exile in Arden, one that favors free expression, justice, compassion and lots of group singing. (When I become President, I will encourage lots of group singing in my administration…that might even be the first bullet-point of my platform.) Arden is also full of desire; sexual desire, sure, and something more, which I’ll just label “love” here.

The love bug connects Jessica Ko as Rosalind and Roman Zaragoza as Orlando while Kate Hurster’s Celia looks on in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “As You Like It,” 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

There’s no love in the patriarchal court back home, ruled by the very scary Kevin Kenerly as Duke Frederick, where desire is all about power and revenge, and its instruments are deceit and violence. Joshi’s representation of this Act I hellhole made me shiver (and I’m bound to say that the wrestling between Orlando and Charles, the Duke Frederick’s wrestler, is the most convincing I’ve seen in any production of “As You Like It”—and I’ve seen a few of these).

For those worrying about the extent to which OSF may be losing contact with that middle S, Roshi’s interpretation is also well-acted, well-spoken, clear as a bell, and quite lovely (scenic design, Sara Ryung Clement; costumes, Christine Tschirgi) to look at.  

*****

The rapid evolution of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s culture hasn’t all been smooth, either on the stage or behind the scenes, from what I’ve gathered. When the emphasis changes from fine-tuning the theater machine to inclusively fine-tuning the theater machine, resistance will follow, even when it’s more a matter of speeding up the inclusivity part than instituting it from scratch. “Inclusivity” is a word that requires explanation and interpretation, after all. You and I may differ both about where on the inclusivity spectrum we are at any given moment and what we should do from here.

The incoming artistic director of OSF, Nataki Garrett, discussed this in an interview with American Theatre magazine. Where I’ve simply been using the word “diversity,” she employs the acronym EDI—Equity, Diversity, Inclusion:

“Any kind of change is going to be tumultuous. People make that sound, ‘EDI,’ those three letters, and they think they’re doing whatever that sound evokes. But they’ve only scratched the surface of the changes that need to happen. I have not yet been in an organization where, even in the brave act of taking on EDI and social justice work, there was not a sort of reflective tumult, where the change is not met with difficulty.”

One of the dynamic parts of that discussion has to do with the financial side of things: How will the festival’s donors and audiences react to the changes already in place? How about the ones to come? Audience reaction based on attendance numbers has become more difficult to assess lately because of climate change (another dynamic)—the festival says it lost $2 million in revenue last year because smoke from wildfires forced the cancellation of many outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre performances.

The possibility of smoke in 2019 led the festival to reserve Ashland High School’s indoor 400-seat Mountain Avenue Theatre as an alternate venue if smoke shuts down performances at the Elizabethan Theatre (this summer’s productions are “Macbeth,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”). From July 30 through September 8, OSF will sell only 400 advance tickets for Elizabethan performances in case productions have to move to the high school due to smoke. The Elizabethan seats around 1,200, so those extra seats will open up to the public when the smoke forecast allows it.

So, yes, it’s hard to gauge from attendance the enthusiasm of audiences for the theater OSF is making these days. My own sense, last year and this, is that the audience in the theater has responded enthusiastically; I have no idea about the potential audience outside the theater. On the other hand, we know that the festival received a rather large vote of confidence from philanthropist Roberta “Bertie” Bialek Elliott, a co-founder of the Berkshire Foundation and sister of billionaire Warren Buffett. Elliott, a former board member and donor to the festival, recently gave an unrestricted gift of $4.5 million to OSF.

One of the paradoxes to me, at least, is that Rauch has developed this very progressive and very large theater company in southern Oregon. Ashland is in Jackson County, which gave President Trump a 10 point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the surrounding counties, the Trump victories were far larger: 45 points in Klamath County, for example, 31 points in Josephine and 39 in Douglas counties. We can argue about what Trump’s victories meant, but maybe we could agree at least that his voters didn’t have “inclusivity” at the top of their list of reasons they voted for him. Although a significant chunk of OSF’s attendance and donor base comes from local communities, a much larger percentage arrives from the Willamette Valley, San Francisco and Seattle. How this all works out going forward will be interesting to follow.

Rauch’s successor Garrett will be the one to figure this all out. She comes to Ashland after serving as the interim artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and before that as associate dean and the co-head of the undergraduate acting program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) School of Theater. I’m going to close here with last words from her, from that same American Theatre magazine interview, which convince me that OSF is in good hands going forward:

“The impact of being the flagship theatre for EDI, as OSF has been, is that you’re the first—you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know why this thing is so hard, or that thing came easy. All you know is you’re in the process of doing it. Bill really had to do that work. He brought some amazing voices of color into the organization, and provided a space for them to live in their full dynamic complexity, to make it okay to be in that community, far from the big city, in a small town of relative homogeneity, and to be vocal about their experiences and give them a space to talk about that. That’s the launching of artEquity and the work of EDI. The need is connected to the means.

“Now that that has been established, there has to be a re-stoking of that energy and a look at the impact of that work, at how to deepen it and really ask: Who is not empowered? Whose voices are not being heard? Humility and empathy have to be the primary drivers of the work that we’re doing, and we have to bring everybody into that. Transition always makes people feel uneasy. But I believe you can really only change an organization that’s in the process of changing, and OSF has been.”

I for one am fully prepared to be re-stoked.

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