by Alice Bloch -
SGN A&E Writer
OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Through October 29
It all began in 2009, when Bill Rauch, newly appointed Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), added a musical, The Music Man, to the roster of plays for the season. Since then, OSF has mounted at least one musical or operetta per year, and most actors hired for the festival are highly skilled dancers and singers. Smart directors take advantage of all the talents of their cast members, with the happy result that in this year's lineup of first-rate productions, some of the most memorable moments feature movement, rhythm, and song.
Through October 29
Brilliantly directed by Shana Cooper, this riveting production is by far the best I've ever seen of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. While most directors focus on the first half of the play, leading up to Caesar's assassination and Mark Antony's famous funeral oration, Cooper emphasizes the subsequent devolution into mob violence and civil war.
As Brutus, Danforth Comins presents an idealist whose political theories become meaningless once they lead to a killing, because that killing sets into motion a cycle of violence that can't be stopped. The stubbornness of Caesar (Armando Duran) causes him to disregard the wise counsel of his wife (exquisitely portrayed by Amy Kim Waschke) and the warnings of both the soothsayer (twelve-year-old Callan Skuratowicz) and the teacher of rhetoric (Cindy Im). His assassination in the Senate is portrayed in traditional, literal fashion, with lots of stage blood spurting about. Antony's speech (delivered magnificently by Jordan Barbour, whose big, deep voice could rouse any crowd) hijacks the sympathies of the people and turns them against Brutus and the other conspirators.
This is where the production goes from good to great. In the scene following the funeral, the mob attacks the poet Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing the name of the conspirator Cinna. This killing, presented figuratively, is more powerful and moving than the literal killing of Caesar. A member of the mob pours a bottle of red liquid onto a white sheet, and Cinna (Galen Molk) slowly and gracefully falls into it. The crowd then begins a slow, rhythmic stomping, and with each stomp, Cinna writhes on the floor until finally he is still. When the lights came up for intermission, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence.
The second half of the play shows the inevitable civil war that ensues, juxtaposing the brutality of battle with sweet moments between Brutus and his young, innocent servant Lucius (Julian Remulla). Ritual gestures, drumming, and movement combine to portray the endless cycle of violence. The effect is mesmerizing and terrifying; I can't stop thinking about it.
Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch, Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo, and Composer and Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast share credit with Cooper for creating an unforgettable theatrical experience.
The always-impressive ensemble work of OSF actors is here on full display, with particularly noteworthy performances by Rodney Gardiner as Cassius, Kate Hurster as Portia, and Stephen Michael Spencer, Barret O'Brien, Richard Howard, and Ted Deasy as conspirators.
Through October 28
The unpublished poetry of famed playwright August Wilson inspired this musical drama, created by UNIVERSES, an ensemble of writers and performers (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz), in association with Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero.
The Poet (Sapp) dies, leaving a trunk to his Apprentice (Asia Mark). When she opens the box, seven Terrors emerge and confront the Poet and Apprentice in song, dance, and spoken word, forcing the Poet to come to terms with his demons and the Apprentice to come to terms with her responsibility as an artist.
The world premiere of this exciting new play, directed by Robert O'Hara and choreographed by Byron Easley, offers a master class in ensemble work. The members of UNIVERSES and the other actors who portray the Terrors (Christiana Clark, Kevin Kenerly, Rodney Gardiner, Yvette Monique Clark, and Jonathan Luke Stevens) are all extraordinarily gifted performers whose singing, dancing, and acting merge seamlessly. The result is theatrical perfection.
OSF has used video projections for several years, and in the past, the projections tended to overwhelm other aspects of the production. This year, the festival seems to have found the right balance. The beautiful set designed by Christopher Acebo incorporates video (designed by Kaitlyn Pietras) effectively and subtly. Lighting designed by Alex Jainchill enhances the moody atmosphere of the piece, and music composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord and Toshi Reagon is dramatic and evocative.
I walked into this play with a question: How do you make poetry into a play? It seemed an impossible challenge, but this team rose to the challenge with intelligence, courage, and imagination.
If you aren't able to get to Ashland this year, be on the lookout for a UniSon production in Seattle. It's bound to happen.
Through October 14
Adapter and director Mary Zimmerman has a long history with The Odyssey: she first encountered a children's version of Homer's epic when she was five years old, and she adapted it for theater and directed a performance when she was still in college, in the late 1980s. Christopher Donahue played Odysseus in the first production, and he is still playing that role at OSF this season.
Zimmerman's affection for this work comes through in a production full of delights, beginning with Christiana Clark as a high school student trying repeatedly to read the first lines of The Odyssey: 'Sing in me, muse &.' The sleeping muse (the wonderful Amy Newman) wakes up, grabs her, holds a hand over her eyes, and whispers the text into her ear as Clark simultaneously gives the words the delivery they deserve. Clark, one of the finest OSF actors, then turns into a fabulous Athena, who guides the rest of the action.
The pacing of this production is excellent; in a three-and-a-half-hour performance, there was only one slightly tedious scene, when Odysseus begins telling his tale and the narration goes on too long before the tale is acted out. My favorite scene, and that of my companions, portrays the Sirens as women in red dresses and seductive poses, stroking the male ego by cooing, 'Everything you say is so important' and 'Don't get up. I'll take care of it.'
The dramatic high points involve rhythm and dance: first, a comic pas de deux in which Odysseus attempts to free himself from Calypso (Newman), who twines herself around him and hangs from his shoulders. There's an adorable hip-hop dance performed by a cadre of giggly girls in the Nausicaa scene. And there's the smashing entrance of Penelope's suitors, who take over Odysseus's home in his absence: led by Danforth Comins and accompanied by taiko drums the phalanx of beefy men moves forward in a martial dance that is both hyper-masculine and gorgeous. (Both the Nausicaa dance and the suitors' dance are superbly choreographed by Kirstin Hara.)
Odysseus's eventual slaying of the suitors with the assistance of Athena is handled metaphorically: cloth bags full of sand are suspended over each suitor's head, and Athena slowly pierces each one with her spear, while the men below recall their earliest childhood memories. The sand draining onto the men as they fall to the ground is far more touching than a bloodbath would have been.
The highly rhythmic score composed by Andre J. Pluess adds to the dramatic tension, and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are striking and clever - particularly the see-through armor that shows off the suitors' muscles, the variety of red garments worn by the Sirens, and the funny but glamorous evening gown worn by Poseidon (Comins, who stamps around manfully in a flurry of chiffon).
The only weak link in the performance I attended was Donahue, who flubbed many lines, even though he's been playing Odysseus for 30 years. It's a testament to the strength of this production that the star's off-night did little to diminish the audience's enjoyment.
Like UniSon, this play is about battling demons, finding the way home, and transmitting legacy. The two plays couldn't be more different otherwise, but they're both terrific.
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo
Through October 28
Directed by Chay Yew, the world premiere of Jiehae Park's Hannah and the Dread Gazebo is mysterious, sad, and funny. Hannah (Cindy Im), a young Korean-American woman who is about to take her board certification exam in Pediatric Neurology, receives a package from her grandmother in South Korea. The package contains a stone in a bottle and a suicide note. Unable to get a straight answer from her parents, who have moved back to Seoul after raising their family in the U.S., Hannah travels to South Korea to try to find out what happened to her grandmother and what the meaning of the stone might be.
In a lovely feat of magic realism, Park draws her characters into the Korean creation myth and the history of the division between North and South Korea. The bear and tiger of the creation myth show up, as does Kim Jong-Il (all played by marvelous Shapeshifter Jessica Ko, who also plays the grandmother, a nurse, and a bureaucrat).
The issue of assimilation is central to the play: Hannah and her brother Dang (Sean Jones) cannot speak Korean, so they wander around Seoul without understanding most of what they hear from others. The audience shares their plight, because no subtitles or translations are provided for the lines spoken in Korean. A stranger (also played by Ko) confers upon Dang the temporary ability to understand Korean and leaves him with a head of garlic. It's funny and sweet.
Amy Kim Waschke and Paul John as Hannah's parents are standouts, along with the supremely versatile Ko. Eunice Hong is charming as a girl who befriends Dang.
The play's playful, inventive spirit is enhanced by Collette Pollard's set design, which includes a cantilevered section of the stage that rises magically halfway through and becomes important to the rest of the drama.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Through October 13
This is the first production I've ever seen of Merry Wives that didn't bore me silly, and the reason is simple: 1980s music. Who can resist a Shakespeare comedy that begins with the cast singing 'I Want to Dance with Somebody' and ends with 'Let's Go Crazy,' with a little bit of 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' along the way?
Directed by Dawn Monique Williams, this production is too much fun. K.T. Vogt was born to play Falstaff, although she has to wear campy drag to do it. Speaking of drag, designer Ulises Alcala's costumes are a feast for the eyes: beautiful floral embroidery and floral prints, and hilarious codpieces that double as purses.
Vilma Silva has had a long, illustrious OSF career as a tragedian, but she turns out to have comedic chops and impeccable timing, too, as Mistress Page. Jamie Ann Romero and William DeMeritt give endearing performances as Anne Page and her swain Fenton. Amy Newman and Rex Young as Mistress and Master Ford are also a delight. Howie Seago's ASL performance as Host of the Garter is handled deftly.
The singing by Yvette Monique Clark, Jennie Greenberry, and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp is completely enjoyable, as is the dancing of Tatiana Lofton and ensemble. Kudos to composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast, vocal arranger Darcy Danielson, and choreographer Valerie Rachelle.
Henry IV, Part One
Through October 28
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has updated this history play to modern times, with automatic firearms, women in the military, women married to each other, and Reagan and Trump masks disguising highway robbers. The updating works, and the extremely loud gunfire noises and music (composed by Palmer Hefferan), as well as the blinding strobe lights (designed by Yi Zhao), though uncomfortable for the audience, convey the horror of modern warfare.
Jeffrey King has excelled in all of his many roles at OSF, and his Henry IV is no exception. As Prince Hal, Daniel José Molina is convincing and cute, and his transformation from dissolute denizen of the Boar's Head Tavern to military leader and loyal son is entirely believable. G. Valmont Thomas is a splendid Falstaff and provides a nice contrast with K.T. Vogt's interpretation in Merry Wives.
Lauren Modica is outstanding as the Welsh rebel leader Glendower, and Nemuna Ceesay shines as Lady Percy. Alejandra Escalante captures Hotspur's warrior nature, but she has a tendency to rush her lines, rendering them unintelligible.
Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
Closed July 6
I'm going to give this play short shrift, because it will have closed by press time - but if you have the opportunity, see it wherever you can. It's a devastating tragedy of the immigrant experience, playwright Luis Alfaro's contemporary adaptation of the ancient Greek play.
If you're familiar with the original Medea by Euripides, or with any of the films based on it, you know that it doesn't end well. In Alfaro's version, directed by Juliette Carrillo, Medea has immigrated to Los Angeles from Michoacán, Mexico, with her husband, young son, and longtime housekeeper. In a stroke of genius, Alfaro narrates the story from the point of view of Tita, the housekeeper (played by VIVIS with great warmth and humor), who functions as the chorus. Medea, in a heartbreaking performance by Sabina Zuniga Varela, is attached to the Mayan culture of Michoacán. Unlike her husband, Jason (Lakin Valdez), she does not want to assimilate into American culture, and she wants her son Acan (brave, talented eleven-year-old Jahnangel Jimenez) to learn Mayan rituals. In the course of the play, we see the crushing weight of sexism and American commercialism wear her down.
Nancy Rodriguez as Josefina, a neighbor, injects life into what would otherwise be an unbearably depressing story. As always, Vilma Silva does a great job, this time as Armida, Jason's villainous boss, who flounces around in short skirts and stiletto heels.
Christopher Acebo's scenic and costume design is flawless, evoking the neighborhood of Boyle Heights and the clash of cultures there.
Shakespeare in Love
Through October 29
Adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, this play is entertaining, with exceptionally beautiful costumes and good acting. But I still wonder why it seemed necessary to turn the movie into a play. The movie lacked nothing, and the play adds little. Anyway, it's a lot of fun, and I'll try not to be a stick in the mud about it.
Christopher Liam Moore's direction moves the action along at a good clip, with dizzying costume and scene changes. After attending a Festival Noon demonstration of one of the quick changes, I will never again take for granted a 39-second costume and wig change! (The Festival Noon and Park Talk presentations are worth attending, by the way; they're sure to increase your enjoyment of the performances. During my week in Ashland, these events included several interesting presentations by behind-the-scenes heroes: stage manager, housing manager, costume and wig specialists.)
Scenic designer Rachel Hauck, costume designer Susan Tsu, video designer Shawn Duan (fireworks!), choreographer Jaclyn Miller, and fight director U. Jonathan Toppo all show off their considerable skill. Jamie Ann Romero is an enchanting Viola, and William DeMeritt is a lovable Will Shakespeare. Notable performances include the hilarious Brent Hinkley as Henslowe, Kate Mulligan as a shrewd Queen Elizabeth, K.T. Vogt as Viola's nurse, Ted Deasy as Kit Marlowe, Tony DeBruno as Fennyman, Kevin Kenerly as Burbage, Christopher Jean and Michael J. Hume in many roles, Will Dao as Sam and Juliet - and El the dog, playing himself. Countertenor Austin Comfort has an exquisite voice, and musicians Mark Eliot Jacobs and Michal Palzewicz know their way around period instruments such as the hurdy gurdy, serpent, sackbut, and viola da gamba.
Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Through October 15
Disclaimer: I detest most things Disney, and I've never been a fan of Beauty and the Beast. However, I enjoyed the production now running in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre more than I expected to.
The show is ably directed by Eric Tucker, with music direction by J. Oconer Navarro, choreography by Erika Chong Shuch, and ingenious costumes designed by Ana Kuzmanic. Jennie Greenberry sings divinely as Belle, and the rest of the cast is admirable. On the day of the performance I attended, the temperature was 105 degrees. The cast members carried on as if ice packs under their costumes and sweat running in rivulets through their makeup were all in a day's work. Extra combat pay is surely due the actors saddled with stiff, heavy costumes: Jordan Barbour as the Beast, Daniel T. Parker as Cogsworth, David Kelly as Lumiere, Kate Mulligan as Mrs. Potts, Naiya Gardiner as Chip, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Babette, and Britney Simpson as Mme. de la Grande Bouche.
Simpson's soprano voice soars above the beautiful harmony of the other actors, Kate Mulligan delivers a winsome interpretation of the title song, and tenor Jeremy Peter Johnson sings well and clearly. James Ryen makes Gaston pathetic and funny, as well as villainous, and his songs are campy fun.
Barbour, who comes from an opera and musical theater background, probably could fill the theater with his voice without amplification. Unfortunately, the sound engineering at the performance I attended was poor and off-balance, painfully distorting his big voice and over-amplifying the otherwise fine performance of the small orchestra led by Matt Goodrich.
Coming up: Henry IV, Part Two and Off the Rails
Henry IV, Part Two, featuring most of the same actors as Part One, will have opened by press time and runs through October 29.
The world premiere of Randy Reinholz's Off the Rails, based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and set in an 1880s Indian Boarding School in Nebraska, will run July 27-October 28.
For information about these and other OSF events, see osfashland.org.
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