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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 6, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 27
Oregon Shakespeare Festival celebrates diversity
Arts & Entertainment
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Oregon Shakespeare Festival celebrates diversity

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

OREGON
SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
ASHLAND, OREGON
Through October 28

When Bill Rauch became artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in 2007, he inherited a company already committed to color-blind casting, thanks to the efforts of his predecessor, Libby Appel. Rauch has expanded and deepened the company's diversity in a number of ways: choosing plays written by women and playwrights of color; hiring actors of color (more than half of the company this year), deaf actors, actors with dwarfism, and transgender actors; and mitigating Shakespeare's preponderance of male characters by casting women in some roles traditionally performed by men.

Of the 11 plays offered this season, six were written by women and five are directed by women. The season includes a very gay production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a comedy that pays tribute to the telenovela genre, a modern version of a classical Chinese drama, and world premieres of plays about the clash of cultures in 17th-century New York and 19th-century Utah. And there's Shakespeare worth seeing and a wonderful play about the publication of his First Folio.

Oklahoma!
Angus Bowmer Theatre
Through October 27

In his program notes, Rauch wrote that he'd dreamed for many years of directing an Oklahoma! with same-sex couples at the center of the story. This season he got his wish, against all odds. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which exerts tight control over all musicals by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, is known for frowning upon any tampering of the original material. However, Rauch is so highly regarded in the theater world that representatives of the organization decided to trust him to treat Oklahoma! with respect, even while transforming its love story. The result is a lovely, heart-warming production that is nearly sold out to the end of its run.

All principals have good Broadway voices and acting chops, and the same-sex courtships add dramatic interest to the familiar story. Cowhand Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) awkwardly woos Laurey (Royer Bockus) under the stern but loving eye of Aunt Eller (Bobbi Charlton, who invests this character with great dignity). Sociopathic, homophobic farmhand Jud Fry (Michael Sharon) schemes to have his way with Laurey. Meanwhile, Will Parker (the supremely talented Jordan Barbour) only has eyes for Ado Andy (adorable Jonathan Luke Stevens), the 'boy who can't say no,' but Will's guileless generosity keeps him from holding onto the necessary cash for persuading Andy's mother (hilarious K.T. Vogt) to let Andy marry Will. The main rival for Andy's hand is the peddler Ali Hakim (Barzin Akhavan, whose enormous eyes tell us how little this guy wants to be tied down). Surrounding these characters is a fine chorus of singing, dancing farmers and cowhands of various ethnicities and gender identities.

The lush musical score is in good hands with conductor Daniel Gary Busby and a small ensemble of skilled musicians. Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer, costume designer Linda Roethke, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind join forces to evoke the old-timey atmosphere of pre-statehood Oklahoma. Choreographer Ann Yee deserves much credit for creating beautiful, appropriate dance numbers. The dream ballet at the end of Act 1 is particularly impressive, for it conveys both Laurey's wish to be united with Curly and her fear of Jud Fry, whose malevolent spirit forces the dancers to exchange clothing so that everyone conforms to gender stereotypes.

The performance I attended was marked by a delightful one-time occurrence: when Curly and Laurey finally kissed, a young child in the audience exclaimed 'Wow!' and made a happy moment even happier.

While leaving the theater after the performance, I overheard a teenager say to his friend, 'Will and Andy had better chemistry than Curly and Laurey.' Alas, I had to agree, but it was a small quibble about a generally outstanding production.

A few performances have been added to the schedule, because demand has been so high. If you intend to go to Ashland and want to attend a performance of Oklahoma! I recommend purchasing tickets as soon as possible.

Destiny of Desire
Angus Bowmer Theatre
Through July 12

Playwright Karen Zacarías got tired of reading reviews that called every play about Latinos a telenovela, so she wrote a clever, entertaining play that parodies the melodramatic conventions of real telenovelas: babies switched at birth, rich and powerful villains, unexpected pairings of characters, and plot twists galore. Directed at OSF by José Luis Valenzuela, with music by Rosino Serrano, Destiny of Desire is sheer delight.

The entire cast is first-rate, and all appear to be having as much fun as the audience. Vilma Silva and Armando Durán are fabulous as the rich villains, and Catherine Castellanos gives a powerhouse performance as a nun at the hospital where the babies were switched. Al Espinosa is also terrific as an unscrupulous doctor, a casino dealer, and a cop. At several points in the performance, the actors get to show off their virtuosity at physical comedy by rewinding a scene and then running it forward again.

Pianist Juan Manuel Rivera Colón and choreographer Robert Barry Fleming keep the action going at a rapid pace. There's plenty of good dancing and singing, too. At one point Eduardo Enrikez breaks into a Mexican ballad and sings it expertly, with plenty of vibrato and rubato. Bravo!

Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture has created a versatile set, with all pieces on wheels. Between scenes, the actors twirl the pieces and move them about the stage. When it's time for the double wedding at the end of the play, curtains are pulled down to become bridal veils.

Oh, and did I mention that there's even a lesbian subplot?

Even while Destiny of Desire keeps the audience laughing, it doesn't let us become too comfortable. Judiciously placed public service announcements remind us of the class distinctions and prejudices at the heart of the play. Nonstop fun and food for thought are an unbeatable combination, making this production a total success.

Manahatta
Thomas Theatre
Through October 27

The small Thomas Theatre was built for plays like Manahatta, an intimate, powerful drama about a Native American woman trying to build a career on Wall Street and forced to confront the tragic history of her tribe. Director Laurie Woolery and a superb cast of seven actors playing 14 roles give Mary Kathryn Nagle's play a worthy world premiere.

Manahatta flips back and forth between the 17th and 21st centuries and between New York and Oklahoma. Doubling of the roles, with each actor playing both a 17th-century character and a 21st-century one, makes it possible to accomplish rapid time travel with a slight change in costumes. Toward the beginning of the play, for example, Steven Flores, playing the 17th-century character Se-ket-tu-may-qua, puts on a suit jacket to transform himself into the 21st-century character Luke, and a ripple of pain shoots through the audience. Kudos to scenic designer Mariana Sanchez, costume designer E.B. Brooks, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, and projection designer Mark Holthusen for making these transitions work so well dramatically.

Even though the main characters are 21st-century Jane and 17th-century Le-le-wa'-you (both played by Tanis Parenteau), this production's emotional core is the understated, devastating performance of Sheila Tousey as Jane's mother Bobbie, the last surviving native speaker of the Lenape language. Bobbie becomes a victim of the subprime mortgage scam and loses her Oklahoma home, while in New York, Jane and her boss try fruitlessly to control the damage of the economic meltdown of 2008.

As the villainous director of the 17th-century Dutch West India Company and the nearly as villainous CEO of Lehman Brothers in the 21st century, Jeffrey King gives a top-notch performance, as always. Danforth Comins and David Kelly also excel as less villainous but nonetheless culpable white guys in both centuries.

Othello
Angus Bowmer Theatre
Through October 28

You can't go wrong by attending any Shakespeare play directed by Bill Rauch. This is the best Othello I've ever seen, and when I think back to memorable performances of other Shakespeare plays, most of them were directed by Rauch. His productions are notable for their clarity and insight. In this season's Othello, everything makes sense - even Iago's famously opaque motivation for ruining Othello's life.

This contemporary production is set in the U.S. Navy, with Othello as a Sudanese 'lost boy' immigrant who has risen to the rank of admiral. The updated setting works well and helps the audience understand Othello's outsider status. In the crucial Act 3 scene in which Iago instills jealousy into Othello's mind, thus beginning his slide into madness, the two men are working out in a gym, with TV screens showing disturbing clips from today's news. The scene gave me shivers, because the setting was so effective and because I was witnessing Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago giving a veritable master class in acting.

Scenic designer Christopher Acebo, lighting designer Xavier Pierce, and projection designer Tom Ontiveros have created a visual production of rare beauty. Costumes designed by Dede M. Ayite are apt, with one exception: a single-strap evening gown worn by Alejandra Escalante as Desdemona, Othello's wife. The gown was constantly in danger of slipping down Escalante's torso and causing a 'wardrobe malfunction.' The unfortunate result was the distracting sight of Escalante repeatedly pulling up one side of the gown and pushing her breast down into it. A friend who attended a different performance reported the same problem, and even a press photo of the scene shows it. Plea to the costume department: give that dress another strap!

This play is all about the men, and Rauch's production emphasizes that by weakening the female characters. Desdemona and Emilia (Desdemona's attendant and Iago's wife, played by Amy Kim Waschke) come across as less assertive than in other productions I've seen. Even Sheila Tousey as Desdemona's aunt presented herself as so weak that the audience laughed at her one attempt to confront Iago in the final scene. Because I know Rauch to be aware of the implications of all his directorial choices, I have to think that he was operating not from unconscious misogyny but from a desire to show the effects of misogyny on the characters.

The Book of Will
Allen Elizabethan Theatre
Through October 13

This outstanding play by Lauren Gunderson is the first by a woman playwright to be performed at 'the Lizzie,' the outdoor Elizabethan theatre. This was my personal favorite of the nine performances I attended. The play is marvelous, with humor and pathos galore. The direction by Christopher Liam Moore and scenic design by Christopher Acebo couldn't be better, and the A-team of actors are uniformly superb and tremendously skilled at ensemble work.

A play about the effort to publish the First Folio of Shakespeare's work sounds far from dramatic, but Gunderson has made it into exciting theatre. Furthermore, she shows the crucial role of women in artistic endeavors attributed to men. At one point Rebecca Heminges (Kate Mulligan) reminds her actor husband, John, that her work is just as important as his, even if it doesn't generate applause. That line generated plenty of applause in the audience!

Loss of beloved friends and family members is perhaps the real subject of the play. Shakespeare himself is three years dead, and his friends from his acting company keenly feel his loss and want to preserve his plays. The most famous of those actors, Richard Burbage (Kevin Kenerly), dies early on. And Rebecca dies midway, leaving her husband and daughter bereft. As John Heminges, Jeffrey King gave a performance of rare vulnerability. During the scene in which John expresses his grief to his friend and colleague Henry Condell (David Kelly), many in the OSF audience were weeping openly.

The doubling of roles, however, gives a comforting sense that the dead are somehow still with us. When Kate Mulligan reappears as Shakespeare's widow Anne in the final scene, and Jeffrey King as John shows her the first copy of the book of her husband's plays, it is as though he is also showing it to his own wife.

As John and Henry begin to read the book to Anne and her daughter Susannah (Kate Hurster, who also plays John and Rebecca's daughter), we see and hear some of what the world would have lost if the First Folio had not been published. A video montage designed by Shawn Duan shows cast members in key moments of past years' OSF performances of Shakespeare's plays, and then other OSF actors (including the recently deceased and much-mourned G. Valmont Thomas, Catherine Coulson, and Judith-Marie Bergan), and then children reading Shakespeare aloud in many languages.

Gunderson is currently the most produced playwright in the U.S., so there are sure to be many future productions of The Book of Will. But I doubt there will ever be a production that means more to the acting company and the audience than this one at OSF.

Henry V
Thomas Theatre
Through October 27

Seeing a young actor mature is one of the special pleasures of attending OSF year after year. During the past few seasons, I've gotten to see Daniel José Molina's transformation from Romeo to Prince Hal to King Henry V, with an increase in acting skill each year.

Seattle's own Rosa Joshi directs this admirable production of Henry V, with Molina in the title role. His expressive mien and flawless diction make Henry's long, intricate speeches completely understandable. Molina has definitely grown into the role of Shakespeare's favorite king.

The production boasts several other exceptionally fine actors, notably Rex Young, Jessica Ko, and Michele Mais in three roles each. Special mention is due Rachel Crowl, the understudy called in to substitute for Kimberly Scott; Crowl was absolutely brilliant in the key roles of Pistol and Sir Thomas Grey.

The minimalist set designed by Richard L. Hay consists of gray boxes stacked upon each other to form a wall. The actors remove boxes from the wall and stack them in different arrangements to provide seating, and some boxes are opened when the actors need to retrieve props from them. At first I thought the monotone set was too, well, monotonous, but then the vibrant colors of the costumes (designed by Sara Ryung Clement) really stood out. For example, red costumes piled on the floor came to represent dead soldiers after battle.

At the performance I attended, the audience included a large group of seventh-graders, who were amazingly attentive and quiet throughout. The battle scenes seemed to engage them most, along with the charmingly clumsy courtship scene between Henry and his future wife, the princess of France (played by Ko). Middle-schoolers are easily bored, so their interest had to be - and was - earned by this exciting production.

Love's Labor's Lost
Allen Elizabethan Theatre
Through October 14

Directed by Amanda Dehnert, this production of Shakespeare's early, strange comedy is great fun, if sometimes incoherent. In recent OSF seasons, Dehnert directed highly successful productions of the musicals Into the Woods and My Fair Lady. Her Love's Labor's Lost is a zany rock musical, with clever songs composed by Dehnert and sound designer Andre J. Pluess.

The plot is relatively simple: the young King of Navarre (Daniel José Molina) and his friends vow to study, fast, sleep little, and avoid women for three years. Enter the visiting Princess of France (Alejandra Escalante) and her ladies, who are sent away from court and are soon followed by the libidinous young men. Disguises and mistaken identities ensue, and all is hilarity until in the final moments of the play, the princess learns that her father has died. Grief-stricken and chastened, she and her ladies sentence their suitors to a year of penitence before the men's marriage proposals will be considered.

As in the later comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, subplots involve the commoners of Navarre, some of whom put on an unintentionally funny show-within-the-show. The nobles are taken to task for mocking the efforts of the commoners, and we are left wondering who is truly 'noble.'

This production is heavy on slapstick, complete with Three Stooges routines, finger paints, and food fights. As the king's friend Berowne, Stephen Michael Spencer proves himself the king of slapstick, as well as serving as an able front man for the band. Richard Howard, who has specialized in stodgy roles, here shines in physical comedy as the naughty Frenchman Sir Adrian D'Armadeux. Cedric Lamar as the rustic Costard and Royer Bockus as the dairymaid Jaquenetta (whom Costard loves but Sir Adrian seduces) are both terrific actors, singers, and musicians. Armando Durán as a deadpan constable, Robin Goodrin Nordli as a scholar, and Chris Butler as a curate made my head spin with wordplay in the setting of a diner, although I was left wondering why the scholar and curate would be throwing food at each other. During the pageant, Nordli also does a star turn as a flutist.

Costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld are attractive and colorful, and Japhy Weideman's lighting accentuates the comic and serious moments.

Romeo and Juliet
Allen Elizabethan Theatre
Through October 12

One of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays at OSF, Romeo and Juliet can usually be relied upon to introduce spectacularly talented newcomers in the title roles. While beautiful esthetically, with notably fine acting in all the secondary roles, the current production directed by Dámaso Rodríguez suffers from a regrettable emptiness at the center. On the night I attended, William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo and Emily Ota as Juliet had no chemistry and gave unconvincing, amateurish performances.

All other aspects of the production are splendid: scenic design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., costumes designed by Leah Piehl, music composed by sound designer Rodolfo Ortega, and lighting designed by Tom Ontiveros. Sara Bruner gives a fearless performance as Romeo's friend Mercutio, Michael J. Hume injects humor and warmth into the character of Friar Laurence, and Christiana Clark commands the stage as Prince Escalus.

Parts of the play are eloquently signed in ASL as well as spoken. For that we can thank Monique Holt, who plays Lady Montague and the apothecary, and who has served as the company's ASL coach for several years.

Sense and Sensibility
Angus Bowmer Theatre
Through October 28

I've never seen a satisfactory theatrical adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, and this one by Kate Hamill is no exception. Film adaptations of Austen's fiction seem to work better, perhaps because they can show actors on horseback, riding through the lovely English countryside. The current OSF production, directed by Hana S. Sharif, deploys a very good cast in a not very good play. The humor is too broad for Austen and sometimes veers into silly slapstick.

Nancy Rodriguez does well in any role she takes on, and her sensitive performance as Elinor Dashwood, the central character, is a pleasure to watch. As several characters, notably the doddering servant Thomas, Brent Hinkley steals every scene he is in. Samantha Miller, still an undergraduate at Southern Oregon University, is first-rate in several roles. Amy Newman as the scheming Fanny Dashwood is marvelous.

COMING UP:
The Way the Mountain Moved and Snow in Midsummer

July 10 will mark the world premiere of Idris Goodwin's The Way the Mountain Moved, commissioned by OSF through its American Revolutions program. Directed by May Adrales, the play is set in Utah in the mid-1850s. The director's notes describe the 19th-century West as 'a collision of people from vastly different backgrounds, who to survive often had to work together, rather than reach for the gun.'

The U.S. premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's Snow in Midsummer will be on August 2. Based on a 14th-century play by Guan Hanqing (known as 'China's Shakespeare'), Snow in Midsummer was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Justin Audibert, who directed the world premiere production, will also direct the play at OSF.

Both The Way the Mountain Moved and Snow in Midsummer will run until the end of October. For information about these and other OSF events, see osfashland.org.

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