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Oregon Shakespeare Festival bounces back big-time

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Photo by Jenny Graham
Photo by Jenny Graham

Ashland, Oregon
Through October 30

For the first time since 2019, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is once again offering live performances on three stages. This alone is cause for celebration. That the quality of these productions is just as high as we'd come to expect pre-COVID is an unanticipated delight.

The five plays now in repertory include two musicals, two terrific new plays in which the main characters are Lesbians, a lovely production of The Tempest originally scheduled for 2020, and an outstanding one-man show by and about August Wilson. (That sounds like six plays, but one of the plays about a Lesbian is also one of the musicals.)

Revenge Song
Allen Elizabethan Theatre
through October 14

In the program notes for Revenge Song, director Robert Ross Parker describes the show as "a rollicking, swashbuckling, gut-busting musical-comedy-adventure spectacle." Oh, and it's about Julie d'Aubigny, an actual 17th-century Lesbian sword fighter and opera singer, who once freed her girlfriend from a convent by robbing a grave, putting the corpse in the girlfriend's bed, and setting the room on fire. (Although playwright Qui Nguyen took many liberties with d'Aubigny's life story and with the historical setting, apparently some of her most unrealistic escapades really did occur.)

Nguyen and Parker are co-founders of the Vampire Cowboys, a "geek theater" company devoted to pop culture and stories that feature gender-bending heroes played by people of color. For Revenge Song, they collaborated on the song lyrics (most memorable: "We Had Sex, Y'All" and "This Girl Breaks All the Rules"). Shane Rettig composed the pounding punk and hip-hop score.

The opening-night performance was too much fun, from beginning to end. Reina Guthrie was adorable and dynamic as d'Aubigny. In the dual roles of Madame de Senneterre (the show's narrator) and Marie (opera house owner and lover of d'Aubigny), Donna Simone Johnson was fabulously naughty. Julian Remullo gave a sweet, sympathetic portrayal of d'Aubigny's best friend Albert. In many roles, with many costume changes, James Ryen, Royer Bockus, Al Espinosa, David Anthony Lewis, and Phil Wong all threw themselves with abandon into the over-the-top action.

I didn't count how many sword fights took place in the course of the evening, but there were many, all performed splendidly by cast members under the direction of veteran fight director U. Jonathan Toppo, now in his 30th season at OSF.

Music director Elisa Money seemed to be everywhere at all times, playing a wide variety of instruments and keeping the other musicians on track.

Costumes designed by Ulises Alcala merged 17th-century fashion with the riot grrrl style of the 1990s. Lighting designed by Michael K. Maag and projections designed by Katherine Freer made the stage pulsate with energy. Although Sara Ryung Clement's set consisted of nothing more than graffiti on walls, there were plenty of props, including a carousel horse and a rubber chicken used to hilarious effect in Johnson and Ryen's demonstration of consent.

Photo by Jenny Graham  

In post-performance remarks, Associate Artistic Director Evren Odcikin spoke movingly of the importance of expanding the range of stories and audiences welcomed at OSF. He told about witnessing a middle-school class that attended a preview of Revenge Song. "One Queer kid came in waving a Pride flag," he said. "When I was a Queer kid, there were no shows like this for me to attend. Just think what that kid will grow up to create!"

Photo by Jenny Graham  

Thomas Theatre
through July 31

This play is the one I can't stop thinking about. Playwright Mona Mansour's unseen is beautifully written, staged, and acted. It's simple in structure yet complex in meaning. It's short but packed with human truths.

Like Revenge Song, unseen has a Lesbian main character, but that's about the only similarity. Where Revenge Song is raucous and celebratory, unseen is quietly devastating.

Mia, played with burning intensity by Helen Sadler, is a young American conflict photographer. Nora el Samahy imbued three roles with grace and dignity: Mia's more mature and stable Turkish ex-lover; a Syrian woman Mia encounters on the job, in two very different circumstances; and a Palestinian woman whose young son's death precipitates a mental health crisis for Mia. Caroline Shaffer also played three roles, primarily that of Mia's well-meaning but somewhat clueless mother.

The central theme is the emotional damage done both by and to conflict photographers. As the spouse of a former first responder, I can attest to the accuracy of the play's portrait of Mia as a person suffering from PTSD.

Director Evren Odcikin describes himself as "a Turkish Queer immigrant," and there's no doubt that his direction helped lend authenticity to the set (designed by Mariana Sanchez) of the Istanbul apartment where most of the action takes place. Avi Amon's sound design placed us in Turkey and the Near East while the audience was still arriving.

unseen offers a master class in dialogue, pacing, and character development. In the OSF production, it also offers a master class in acting and stagecraft. I want to see it again.

Photo by Jenny Graham  

The Tempest
Allen Elizabethan Theatre
through October 15

Shakespeare's late play The Tempest provided the first opening night in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre since 2019. This production was originally scheduled for 2020, but, as Artistic Director Nataki Garrett said with obvious emotion in her post-performance remarks, "On March 12, 2020, I was on the phone, telling actors not to get onto their flights to come and begin rehearsals, because we were canceling the season. I thought, 'We're never coming back from this.' It's a miracle that we're all here."

Fortunately, director Nicholas C. Avila and most original cast members were able to come to Ashland this year and begin those long-postponed rehearsals. The cast features several familiar OSF actors, all excellent: Kevin Kennerly as Prospero (magician and deposed Duke of Milan), Tyrone Wilson as Alonso the king, Al Espinosa as Prospero's villainous brother Antonio, Michael J. Hume as Prospero's ally Gonzalo, James Ryen as an exceptionally vulnerable Caliban, Amy Lizardo as the jester Trinculo, and William Thomas Hodgson as Ferdinand (the king's son and the love interest of Prospero's daughter Miranda, played by Grace Chan Ng).

Kennerly, now in his 24th season at OSF, just gets better and better. As my companion said, "He really commands the stage"— a necessity for an effective Prospero.

The character of Ferdinand is often bland and forgettable, but Hodgson used physical comedy and charm to make him memorable.
OSF excels at comedy, and this production is no exception. The comic interludes provided by Lizardo, Ryen, Jonathan Fisher as Stephano, and Tim Getman as Adrian were very funny indeed.

In his OSF debut as the sprite Ariel, Geoffrey Warren Barnes II sang well and conveyed a sweet androgyny. In one scene, he even managed to move gracefully while wearing a huge pair of wings reminiscent of Angels in America.

Sumptuous costumes designed by Helen Q. Huang featured gorgeous colors and textures. In this year of supply-chain problems, the OSF costume shop must have gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain those exquisite fabrics.

Lighting designer Dawn Chiang and projection designer Shawn Duan contributed drama and interest to Sara Ryung Clement's minimal set, which mostly consisted of leaves and moss hanging from railings.

In this time when many of us are reckoning with losses of loved ones, the grief of Ferdinand and his father Alonso, when both think the other has drowned was particularly touching. Their loving reunion in the final scene comes at the same time as Prospero's releasing Ariel from his service and forgiving those who have wronged him — a suitable valediction for this play in this time.

Photo by Jenny Graham  

How I Learned What I Learned
Angus Bowmer Theatre
through July 30

August Wilson, one of America's greatest playwrights, performed as an actor for the first and last time in his autobiographical one-man show How I Learned What I Learned, which had its world premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003. After Wilson's death in 2005, other actors took on the role in other productions. It's hard to imagine that any of them did a better job than Steven Anthony Jones in the current OSF production.

Jones brought Wilson back to life, pulling off a nearly two-hour monologue without ever boring the audience. It didn't hurt that Wilson was a master storyteller with a wealth of life experience, a keen sense of humor, and a brave approach to exposing racial inequity. Of the life lessons imparted in this show, my favorite was this one from Wilson's mother: "Something is not always better than nothing." There was even a nice little tribute to Fred Rogers, whom Wilson met in their native Pittsburgh.

Director Tim Bond has directed nearly all of Wilson's plays at OSF and elsewhere, and his and Jones' affection and respect for Wilson came across in every scene. Costume designer and dramaturge Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow, supplied the hats and jacket familiar to all who have seen photographs of Wilson (or the postage stamp that honors him).

Nina Ball designed the set: a desk and a couple of chairs in front of a series of brick walls, layered almost like a Jenga game. On those walls, Rasean Davonté Johnson's projections displayed words, photographs, and graphics to illustrate each of Wilson's tales. Lighting designed by Xavier Pierce created atmosphere and nimbly changed the mood from comedy to tragedy and back again.

Photo by Jenny Graham  

Once on This Island
Angus Bowmer Theatre
through October 30

Directed by Lili-Anne Brown, this revival of a 1990 musical written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is successful in several respects. Setting the show specifically in Haiti rather than in a generic Caribbean island was a good idea. The talented all-Black cast did full justice to the songs and dances, despite substitutions necessitated by breakthrough COVID cases. Exuberant choreography by Breon Arzell and colorful scenery (designed by Arnel Sancianco) and costumes (designed by Yvonne L. Miranda and Samantha C. Jones) made the stage a joy to behold. Patricia Jewel as Mama Euralie and Ciera Dawn as Ti Moune, the central character, sang superbly.

The plot is based on that of The Little Mermaid: a dark-skinned peasant girl falls in love with a rich, light-skinned boy and gives her life to save him. It would have been nice to see the ending changed for the revival, to make Ti Moune more self-respecting and less self-sacrificing, and to generate at least a little bit of character development. What OSF delivered, I think, is a good production of a deeply flawed show.

Unsurprisingly, the songs have a Disney-musical sound, and unsurprisingly, a Disney film adaptation is in the works.

Coming up at OSF
Two plays will open in August and run through October: Shakespeare's rarely performed King John (directed by Rosa Joshi) and Dominique Morisseau's Confederates (directed by Nataki Garrett).
Later this year, OSF will also make available a variety of digital offerings.

For information about these and other OSF events, see https://www.osfashland.org.