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A season of Queer plays and weird sisters at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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Born with Teeth (2024): Alex Purcell, Bradley James Tejeda — Photo by Jenny Graham
Born with Teeth (2024): Alex Purcell, Bradley James Tejeda — Photo by Jenny Graham

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, Oregon
Through October 13

The 2020s have been rough at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). As a destination theater company far from urban centers, it suffered even more loss of audience during the COVID-19 pandemic than did the big-city theaters.

Just when OSF was reestablishing live performances, summer wildfires shut down its venues for weeks at a time and destroyed the homes of a number of company members. In addition, many donors and subscribers withdrew their support over programming disagreements with Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, who resigned a year ago, exhausted by those battles and by racist death threats that made her afraid to leave her house. It was an ugly situation, and only a last-minute emergency fund drive made the 2023 season possible.

Under the leadership of a new artistic director, Tim Bond, OSF appears to be getting back on track. Bond, who was associate artistic director from 1996 to 2007, has long cultivated a good relationship with the Ashland community (he has a home in the area) and with the OSF audience. He understands that many attendees come back year after year to see the same highly skilled actors play a variety of roles, so he brought back longtime favorite cast members.

Audience numbers still aren't up to pre-pandemic levels but have improved. Signs of necessary cost-cutting abound: minimalist sets, each shared by two plays; reduced educational offerings; several one-, two-, and three-person plays. But the productions are still top-notch, and the town of Ashland is still a delight.

Lizard Boy (2024): Kiki deLohr, Justin Huertas, William A. Williams — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Lizard Boy
Thomas Theatre

This adorable Gay musical has Seattle written all over it. It is set in Belltown and premiered at the Seattle Rep in 2015. Seattle-based Justin Huertas, who plays the main character (Trevor, the lizard boy), wrote the book, music, and lyrics, as well as creating art for the video projections.

Huertas and his buddies William A. Williams and Kiki deLohr have been performing and refining this play together for the past nine years, always under the direction of Brandon Ivie, and their opening performance at OSF demonstrated the many benefits of such a long-term collaboration. The three actors traded off musical instruments (I lost count of the number of different instruments they each played), backed one another up perfectly, and sang with the tight harmony that requires time to develop.

The premise (a childhood trauma turned Trevor green and scaly, making him so different from others that finding love seems impossible) and the plot (shy Trevor turns into a superhero, saves the world together with the "scary blonde" played by deLohr, and finds love with a wonderfully goofy guy played by Williams) sound far-fetched, but the play somehow works. Trevor's message to the audience — "Your difference is your power" — resonates with all of us humans.

Lizard Boy is creative, original, funny, and moving. My companion and I agreed that the hilarious slippers worn by Williams were the best costume detail of the entire festival. Well done, costume designer Erik Andor!

Macbeth (2024): Jennie Greenberry, Amy Lizardo, and Kate Hurster — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Angus Bowmer Theatre

Directed by Evren Odcikin, the new OSF production of Shakespeare's ever-popular Macbeth is quite fabulous. It's all about the three witches (Jennie Greenberry, Kate Hurster, and Amy Lizardo), who are nearly constantly onstage, accompanying the action with their expressive chants composed by T. Carlis Roberts and movement choreographed by Jon Rua. These "weird sisters" embody the eerie atmosphere of Northern European myth, combined with imagery from horror movies.

Now in his 27th season at OSF, Kevin Kenerly performed the title role with rare depth and subtlety. However, Erica Sullivan, usually one of my favorite actors, failed to develop her Lady Macbeth, who seemed unhinged from the very beginning, so her mad scene lacked emotional impact.

Several actors in smaller roles gave unusually memorable performances. David Kelly was excellent as the dignified King Duncan, then (after Macbeth murders Duncan) making a remarkable, dramatically effective transition (assisted by the witches) to the comic character of the Porter. Armando McClain was a splendid Banquo. All actors had admirably clear diction, so kudos to voice and text director Kate Wisniewski.

Born with Teeth (2024): Alex Purcell and Bradley James Tejeda — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Born with Teeth
Angus Bowmer Theatre

This delicious two-man play by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Rob Melrose, imagines how a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe might have gone. Adams got this idea when computer analysis of Shakespeare's texts led to the finding that the two might have collaborated on the Henry VI plays. Adams was off and running, and the result couldn't be more fun.

The back room of a tavern becomes the no-exit setting in which Will (Bradley James Tejeda) and Kit (Alex Purcell) bicker, flirt, and finally admit they love each other (right before Kit is killed as a result of his side hustle as a spy in the court of Queen Elizabeth I). Tejeda and Purcell delivered superb performances, juggling the play's rapid-fire dialogue without dropping a line.

Adams's text is extremely dense, full of allusions to the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the history of their time, and their life stories. Her use of language is exciting and nearly impossible to grasp completely in one sitting. Both my companion and I felt that we would have liked to see this play twice and that we wanted to read it. Fortunately, copies are available in the newly reopened OSF gift shop.

Much Ado About Nothing (2024): Ensemble — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Much Ado About Nothing
Allen Elizabethan Theatre

This Shakespeare romantic comedy that almost becomes a tragedy is a feast for the ears, with much witty repartee between the principal characters, Beatrice (Amy Kim Waschke) and Benedick (John Tufts). These two pretend to dislike each other, but they are clearly in love; scheming by their friends finally forces them to admit it.

The second love story, between Beatrice's cousin Hero (Ava Mingo) and Count Claudio (Bradley James Tejeda), is problematic: the villainous Don John (Christian Denzel Bufford) sets up a scene that convinces Claudio of Hero's infidelity. Innocent Hero is spurned at the altar, and both Claudio and Hero's father (Leontes, ably played by Al Espinosa) heap insults and threats upon her. She faints and is thought dead. Deputies of Constable Dogberry (played by the comic genius Rex Young) discover the truth. Hero is exonerated and immediately marries Claudio and forgives Leontes.

In every previous production I've seen, the Hero-and-Claudius story is played as written, and the audience is left troubled and unsatisfied. How can Hero marry someone who has treated her so horribly? How can she instantly forgive her father for joining forces with Claudio?

Director Miriam Laube came up with an ingenious solution to this problem: she wrote lyrics for Hero to sing at the end of the play. This song restores Hero's dignity and makes the plot open-ended.

Laube also increases the audience's enjoyment by adding a number of other songs and several dance sequences. The result is an unusually physical production of this wordy play. Bufford and Lopez were revealed to have beautiful singing voices, and Lopez and Espinoza excelled in a graceful dance number.

Both Tufts and Waschke have a long history at OSF, and watching them play smart characters matching wits was a treat. That Tufts has an exceptional gift for physical comedy is no surprise to anyone who has seen him in other shows. In the midst of the mostly serious second half of the play, he and Young delivered welcome laughter.

Jane Eyre (2024): Armando McClain, Jennie Greenberry — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Jane Eyre
Allen Elizabethan Theatre

Elizabeth Williamson's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel is faithful to the original, and director Dawn Monique Williams has created an equally faithful production and cast it well. Jennie Greenberry conveys the title character's vulnerability and strength. Armando McClain makes Mr. Rochester gentler and funnier than you might expect if you've seen Orson Welles's interpretation of the role.

Scenes between Jane and Rochester crackle with energy, as does the ensemble work by other cast members who have shared the OSF stage many times: Kate Hurster, Al Espinosa, Caroline Shaffer, Tyrone Wilson, and Amy Lizardo. On opening night, their pleasure in working together was evident. Newcomer Thilini Dissanayake gave a charming performance as Jane's pupil Adele.

If the enthusiastic audience I witnessed was any indication, this show will sell out many times over the season. The applause and shouts of approval that erupted when Jane spoke up for herself made me think that many in the audience hadn't read Brontë's novel. I bet this production will change that.

Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare's Women (2024): Robin Goodrin Nordli — Photo by Jenny Graham  

Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare's Women
Thomas Theatre

This one-woman show, created and performed by Robin Goodrin Nordli and directed by Penny Metropulos, tells the story of Nordli's life and career, and of the many roles she has played (in Shakespeare plays alone, "51 female roles, 29 male roles, and two...airy spirits," and at OSF alone, 76 roles). I have yet to see her take on a role she couldn't perform brilliantly, and her performance as herself is as good as any. What I found most impressive was her ability to jump into and out of character in an instant. Her narrative is appealing and might well inspire audience members to "go for the car," in the lingo Nordli remembers from her very first role: as a contestant on the TV show The Price Is Right.

Coming up next: Coriolanus and Behfarmaheen (If You Please)
Thomas Theatre

OSF Associate Artistic Director Rosa Joshi, co-founder of the Seattle-based Upstart Crow Collective, will direct an all-women production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. It will use a modern verse translation by Sean San José, commissioned by the OSF Play On program. Coriolanus opens on July 23.

Behfarmaheen (If You Please), opening on July 31, is a one-man show created and performed by Barzin Akhavan and directed by Desdemona Chang. An autobiographical account of immigration from Iran to the United States, the play uses theatrical techniques from ancient Iran to tell a modern story.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://osfashland.org