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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 5, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 27
Oregon Shakespeare Festival advances social justice
Arts & Entertainment
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Oregon Shakespeare Festival advances social justice

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
ASHLAND, OREGON
Through October 27


At the beginning of every Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) post-performance discussion, membership coordinator Whitney Reed points out that OSF isn't just a theater company; it's a social justice organization. The facts back up her claim. OSF, one of the first theaters to institute color-blind casting, now has the most diverse company in the country. In addition, OSF's offerings always include plays about the experience of racial and sexual minorities, written and directed by women and persons of color, with casts that include transgender actors and actors living with disabilities. And have I mentioned that the productions and performances are of the highest quality?

This season includes the beloved musical Hairspray, plays about Native American and Cambodian history, a new play about Blackness and queerness, an updated take on The Grapes of Wrath, a tribute to Yiddish theater, a revival of a 1932 version of Alice in Wonderland, a bilingual adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, and three other Shakespeare plays.

HAIRSPRAY - THE BROADWAY MUSICAL
ANGUS BOWMER THEATRE
Through October 27


It's impossible to think of this production of Hairspray without smiling. The stage musical version of John Waters' movie is upbeat, tuneful, and still socially relevant. Inspired by his son's involvement in the Project Up Club at Ashland High School, which brings students with disabilities into drama club projects, director Christopher Liam Moore decided to reinforce the show's message of inclusion by casting several of these students as dance-loving classmates of heroine Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty, in an enthusiastic, skilled performance). The kids' joy in performance is infectious and inspiring.

One of Waters' innovations in the original film of Hairspray was to cast a man, Divine, in the role of Tracy's mother Edna, in a completely matter-of-fact way, without comment by any of the characters. OSF continues this tradition by casting the wonderful Daniel T. Parker as Edna and the absolutely lovable David Kelly as her husband Wilbur, who still adores her after many years of marriage. These two are joined by some of the most accomplished comedic actors in the company - Brent Hinkley, Kate Mulligan, and K.T. Vogt - as well as relative newcomers Jenna Bainbridge, Christian Bufford, Jenna Bainbridge, Eddie Lopez, Kimberly Monks, Jonathan Luke Stevens, Tatem Beach, and others, who create stage magic together.

As Motormouth Maybelle, Greta Oglesby steals the show with her powerful performance of the gospel song 'I Know Where I've Been.' She is backed by all the other African American cast members, with the white actors standing silent behind them. It's a powerful moment that led to a spontaneous standing ovation in the performance I attended and, I'm told, in every other performance to date.

Choreographer Jaclyn Miller always does a great job, but she outdid herself this time, as did the talented dancers in the cast. Music director Gregg Coffin and offstage musicians provided first-rate accompaniment. The set designed by Nina Ball is effective and clever, and the costumes designed by Susan Tsu are simply fabulous.

CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND
THOMAS THEATRE
Through October 27


This stunning play was my favorite of the eight I attended. Written by Lauren Yee and directed by Chay Yew, it delves into one of the central traumas of Cambodia's complicated history: the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, which took power in 1975 and killed 25% of the country's population, including 90% of its artists, musicians, and scholars. The play's scenes alternate between the 1970s and the late 2000s, when some of the Khmer Rouge officials went on trial for their crimes. During and between the scenes, the actors jump onto a bandstand and perform Cambodian rock music.

Few Americans know much about Cambodian history, and even fewer know that there was a thriving rock music scene in Cambodia during the early 1970s. The contemporary California band Dengue Fever has revived some of this music and written more. Five of the play's actors (Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Moses Villarama, Jane Lui, and Abraham Kim) have made themselves expert rock musicians, completely convincing as an actual band, performing songs by Dengue Fever and by the classic Cambodian rock stars. As a band member, special praise is due lead singer Ishibashi, who learned Cambodian vocal and movement style for her role. Lui and Kim, who are musicians before actors, add authenticity and skill to the musical performances.

The central character, played by Ngo, is Chum, guitarist for the 1970s band and later the father of an American daughter who is working to gather evidence of the Khmer Rouge officials' crimes. Ngo's performance is one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed. With lightning speed, he turns from an old man to a young one and back again, and then leaps to the bandstand to perform with the band. He is onstage at all times, in an extraordinarily demanding role, and he never flags for an instant. I don't know how he does it. His performance is responsible for most of the pathos and humor in the play, making the audience laugh and cry simultaneously.

The role of the villain Duch, who is on trial for having prisoners tortured and killed, is played in some performances by Daisuke Tsuji and in others by James Ryen. In the performance I attended, it was Ryen, who did a fine job of combining menace with charm.

Although much of its subject matter is grim, the play is infused with humor and ends on a joyful note. If you plan to go to Ashland this year, don't miss Cambodian Rock Band.

BETWEEN TWO KNEES (World Premiere)
THOMAS THEATRE
Through October 27


Written by the 1491s, a Native American sketch comedy troupe, this gutsy, in-your-face play covers the period between the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. The writers and actors deliver irreverent scenes such as a 'Nunja' battle between nuns and students in an Indian boarding school, a hippie wedding awash in cultural appropriation, and a final number in which the cast members don space helmets and sing 'So long, white people.'

Justin Gauthier provides narration and some of the best humor. As Older Isaiah and Older Irma, Wotko Long and Sheila Tousey ground the action. Shyla Lefner and Derek Garza do well as all the young characters. Rounding out the ensemble and contributing to the performance's outrageousness are Rachel Crowl, James Ryen, and Shaun Taylor-Corbett.

As drama, the show is uneven. Some scenes work perfectly, while others could use more refining and better transitions. The play covers a great deal of historical material, so a stronger narrative thread would be helpful.

MOTHER ROAD (World Premiere)
ANGUS BOWMER THEATRE
Through October 26


Playwright Octavio Solis has a long connection with OSF; this is his fourth play to be performed at the festival, and in my opinion, his best yet. In Mother Road, he takes his characters on a Route 66 journey from California to Oklahoma, reversing the path taken by the Joad family in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In fact, the two main characters - William Joad (Mark Murphey, in a superb performance) and Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho) - are descendants of Tom Joad, the protagonist of Steinbeck's novel.

Bill Rauch, outgoing artistic director of OSF, can be counted on for beautiful, meaningful productions, and this one is no exception. Scenic designer Christopher Acebo ingeniously uses the actors as part of the set. Among his many roles in the play, Jeffrey King makes himself into a gas pump and a CD player. Other actors simulate a car by holding a disconnected steering wheel and headlights.

As Martin's cousin Mo, a big-hearted lesbian, Amy Lizardo gives a lovely, warm performance. Catherine Castellanos also shines in several roles. Cedric Lamar and Caro Zeller sing beautifully and act proficiently. Armando Durán, who has been acting in Solis's plays at OSF for 20 years, gives the piece an extra measure of soul.

The play contains gorgeous writing and an important social message: that we're all related, in all our splendid diversity.

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
ALLEN ELIZABETHAN THEATRE
Through October 13


Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well isn't performed terribly often. It's a confusing, discomfiting play, neither comedy nor tragedy, and as written, it doesn't end all that well: a loutish man is forced to marry the young woman who has been pursuing him throughout the play. Fortunately, director Tracy Young has created a delightful, inventive production, with a surprise twist that makes the ending much more satisfying than I'd imagined possible.

Royer Bockus plays Helen, the principal character, as a nerdy but lovable young woman who grows into mature independence in the course of the play. As her surrogate mother, Vilma Silva gives a performance of dignity and intelligence. In broad comic roles, Al Espinosa and K.T. Vogt are appropriately hilarious. Cristofer Jean contributes dry humor as the nobleman Lafew. Kevin Kenerly does a splendid job as the king cured of a heart ailment by Helen's tincture. The scene in which, restored to health, he begins to dance, is pure pleasure to watch.

Kudos to scenic designer Mariana Sanchez and costume designer Alex Jaeger, who combined 2019 fashion with Elizabethan touches, such as a ruff at the neck of every French character, even if paired with a T-shirt. The show is full of lively music, thanks to composer and sound designer Amy Altadonna and live score composer Jane Lui.

AS YOU LIKE IT
ANGUS BOWMER THEATRE
Through October 26


Seattle director Rosa Joshi took on this gender-bending Shakespeare comedy and made it even more gender-bending. Women play men, men play women, a man falls in love with a nonbinary man; the basic idea is that anyone can be anyone, and anyone can fall in love with anyone.

The production thus has a very nice feeling, but it lags in places. When Rosalind (Jessica Ko) disguises herself as a man and escapes from court to the Arden forest, she finds a sort of hippie commune run by her mother (Rachel Crowl). In Joshi's vision, a society run by women is a perpetual hootenanny, with women singing folk songs all day long. Those of us who survived the women's collectives of the Second Wave of feminism know that they were far from utopian, but never mind. The long musical interludes become boring and slow down the play, as well as causing severe cuts to Shakespeare's text.

The first act, which takes place in the restrictive, oppressive court of Rosalind's uncle, is the most interesting part of this production. In the beautiful set designed by Sarah Ryung Clement, the actors march in strict formation, making ritual gestures with their hands. Then there is an exciting wrestling match between James Ryen and Román Zaragoza, who plays Rosalind's love interest, Orlando. Zaragoza is absolutely charming, and he and Ko have a sweet chemistry.

The standout performance in the second act was that of Rex Young as Touchstone, the fool. Young was funny and then tender in his courtship of Aubrey (Will Wilhelm); he brought a stock character to life.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
ALLEN ELIZABETHAN THEATRE
Through October 12


In the sole non-Shakespeare offering on the outdoor Elizabethan stage, OSF has revived Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus's 1932 adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The result is a beautiful production in search of a play.

Director Sara Bruner and her supremely talented cast and creative team have made this production a master class in stagecraft and comic virtuosity, but the narrative drive of Carroll's tale is lacking. Scenes flit by with no connection to each other, and Alice (Emily Ota) wanders through without seeming to learn anything.

Ota, who isn't quite convincing as a little girl, is surrounded by excellent actors giving terrific performances: Brent Hinkley as the Caterpillar, David Kelly as Humpty Dumpty, Miriam A. Laube and Robin Goodrin Nordli as the Red and White Queens, Daniel T. Parker as the Mock Turtle, Amy Kim Waschke as the Queen of Hearts, Cristofer Jean as the Dormouse and the White Knight, Danforth Comins as the Mad Hatter, Eddie Lopez as the March Hare, Lauren Modica as the Cheshire Cat, Vilma Silva as the Gryphon, and Shyla Lefner as the White Rabbit.

Movement director Jaclyn Miller and costume designer Helen Q. Huang deserve praise for the visual splendor of the production.

MACBETH
ALLEN ELIZABETHAN THEATRE
Through October 11


This brutal, gory production thrills some audience members and horrifies others. I was in the latter camp, as were my companions. When I commented, 'The production lost me at the bloody fetus,' one of my friends said, 'It lost me earlier, when Macbeth yanked off the bird's head and smeared his wife's cheek with the blood.' It is telling that I'd already forgotten about the bloody bird; there were too many horrors to track.

Director José Luis Valenzuela impressed me last year with a delightful production of the comedy The Destiny of Desire, so I certainly haven't given up on him. To his credit, he came up with a fascinating interpretation of the Macbeth witches, who were portrayed as snakelike women, constantly onstage, sometimes disguised as servants in Macbeth's household, sometimes observing the action from cages on both sides of the stage, sometimes reacting or commenting in the manner of a Greek chorus. It didn't hurt that the witches were portrayed by three of the best actors in the company: Robin Goodrin Nordli, Miriam A. Laube, and Erica Sullivan.

Also to Valenzuela's credit, Lady Macbeth's death, which usually occurs offstage, was presented beautifully onstage. It didn't hurt that Lady Macbeth was portrayed by the marvelous Amy Kim Waschke.

Unfortunately, Danforth Comins, who plays Macbeth, had an off-night during the performance I attended. He flubbed several of his lines and nearly dropped Waschke while lifting her from the floor. An off-night can happen to anyone, and I wager it doesn't happen often to Comins.

Chris Butler gave a spine-tingling performance as Macduff. His long, ferocious battle with Macbeth was one of the best fight scenes I've ever witnessed. Bravo to fight director U. Jonathan Toppo, as well as to the two actors.

Scenic designer Christopher Acebo, costume designer Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, and lighting designer Pablo Santiago teamed up to create a highly evocative visual design. Lady Macbeth's costumes were particularly attractive.

COMING UP:
INDECENT, HOW TO CATCH CREATION, LA COMEDIA OF ERRORS, OSF DAEDALUS PROJECT


Three plays will open in July and run through October. Indecent, written by lesbian playwright Paula Vogel, is a 'love letter to Yiddish theater' that garnered rave reviews and Tony Awards for its run on Broadway. The OSF production is directed by Shana Cooper. Incoming artistic director Nataki Garrett directs the West Coast premiere of Christina Anderson's How to Catch Creation, starring the always outstanding Greta Oglesby, Chris Butler, Christiana Clark, and Kimberly Monks. Bill Rauch is directing the world premiere of La Comedia of Errors, a bilingual adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy.

The all-day OSF Daedalus Project on September 16 might also interest you. This annual event raises money to end the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to remember and celebrate those who have died from the disease. Activities include an afternoon play reading and an uproarious evening variety show.

For information about these and other OSF events, see osfashland.org.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival advances social justice
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July theater openings
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Agreeably quirky Spider-Man: Far from Home a superheroic home run
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Pugh's magnificence helps keep Midsommar from being a complete pagan bore
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Tragically heartfelt Euphoria a journey of sisterly reconciliation
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