Because we felt we were missing some great theatre, we now visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in two segments so that we don’t miss any plays; last week we returned from our first 2017 segment of five plays. Reviews follow:
Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR: We know this play so well. It was required reading in ninth grade in all Omaha high schools in 1946, when Don and I were students, and we have seen it many times since, set in various eras with different sets and costumes. I still know many of the speeches we had to memorize: “There is a tide in the affairs of men…” and “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” My favorite Caesar production is not this one, although Danforth Comins was an excellent Brutus and Armando Duran an excellent Caesar. Still, I prefer a more striking production some years ago in the Thomas Theater at OSF, a much smaller stage set in the round, with Vilma Silva as Julius Caesar warming up the audience before the play began by leading us in cheers, “Cae-sar, Cae-sar, Cae-sar.” We became the fervent Romans welcoming Caesar home–we were part of immersive theatre then and we didn’t even know it.
That said, I liked this production. Program notes speak of the “cycle of violence,” a lesson for our times. The set, un-adorned walls in abstract shapes, did not become meaningful until portions of the walls began to collapse, as the Republic itself collapses. The program notes state that the director, Shana Cooper, found inspiration “in contemporary dance theatre.” The two warring factions are not differentiated by costumes, so in the rhythmic stomping and jumping of the fight scenes, the two sides didn’t clash but blurred into one violent mass.
Second play we saw, HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO, I liked not at all. It is supposed to be a comedy. It’s set in Korea, as Hannah, American-born to Korean parents who have returned to Korea, goes there herself, responding to a mysterious package she has received from her grandmother, who has committed suicide by jumping from the roof of her retirement home on the border of the DMZ–the demilitarized zone. Because of the location, the family is unable to retrieve the body, so that is one of the problems of the play. Another is Hannah’s mother, a very depressed woman who is obsessed with acquiring a gazebo for the roof of their high-rise building. She too attempts to jump from the roof but trips and becomes unconscious; the figures wandering through her dreams–Kim Jong-il’s ghost, grandmother’s ghost, among others–are played by a character named Shapeshifter, and it’s not always clear who she is. Add to this the Korean creation myth, a tiger and a bear sharing a cave. It’s supposed to be funny, when Hannah can’t understand or speak Korean, or when her mother keeps a trellis in her living room. And about that title–it has to do with a role playing game, “The Tale of Eric and the Dread Gazebo.” It has nothing to do with this play.
Walking back to the Bard’s Inn, the conversations all around us were about trying to understand the play. At the red light, someone accosted Don: “Do you know what the play was about?” He answered, “Korea.”
I liked MOJADA: A MEDEA IN LOS ANGELES best of all the plays we saw. We had recently seen a production of Medea at the Seattle Shakespeare Theatre, starring the luminous Alexandra Tavares, so we knew the story well. Mojada, we learned, means “wetback.” Medea and Jason (he was called Ha-sohn) had been smuggled across the border to settle in Los Angeles, in Boyle Heights, which I knew as a Jewish ghetto but now is apparently Mexican. Jason is ambitious; Medea, who finds L.A. frightening, does not leave her home but cares for her son and sews beautifully from her yard. Armida, who emigrated years earlier, is a successful businesswoman who employs Jason. As Jason adjusts to their new world, Medea clings to the old. I found the play riveting; knowing the story and what the ending might be, I found myself thinking, no, no, don’t please, don’t. Telling you anymore would spoil it for you.
In a way, Mojada and Gazebo are both about the same thing: people, in these cases young women, cut off from the country and the culture of their ancestors, struggling to find their place in a strange new world. OFF THE RAILS, opening on July 27, sounds like the same theme, this time Native Americans in a school in Nebraska designed to obliterate their Indian culture. Sad to say for folks coming to OSF after July 6, Medea will have closed, but Hannah runs until October 28.
UNISON, the next play, is an intriguing blend of music, dance, rap, history, mystery. I can’t tell you what it is “about,” but I can explain the structure. The playwright August Wilson, before he died, instructed his assistant to destroy the contents of a chest after his death. Instead the assistant opened the chest, found a treasury of poems composed over the poet’s lifetime, and could not destroy them. The Universes, a group of three talented author/musicians at OSF, learned of the poems and, partly through the offices of well-known Seattle actor G. Val Thomas, gained access to August Wilson’s widow and the poems. The Universes have created a wonderful performance piece based on Wilson’s poetry but not a biography of Wilson. Thirty per cent of the play, I read somewhere, is new material created by the playwrights. In the play, a poet dies, his Apprentice opens the chest and releases seven Terrors, characters representing events and people from the poet’s past. The poet is recalled to this world to resolve the unfinished issues. (Much of this explanation I copied from the program.) The Terrors are Seamstress, Butcher, Boxer, Black Smith, Hunter, Momma, and Soldier.
After the play, full of questions, I went to the gift shop to buy a copy of the script. It isn’t available–yet. A woman working in the shop told me she had seen the play three times, and each time she discovered something she had not been aware of before. So I am hoping I can see this remarkable work again, maybe when we return to OSF in August.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, developed from the movie of the same name, was the fifth play that we saw–stay three nights, see five plays. (In the old days, early 1950s, there was a slogan in Ashland, “Stay two days, see three plays.”) We really enjoyed this play, it was well done, and there were no surprises.
Better than I can, here’s what the director, Christopher Liam Moore, says about this play: “I love this play because its heart is enormous and generous. It encompasses both divinely clever Shakespeare-insider wordplay and cheap puns. It has swashbuckling swordfights and a passionately delicate romance. It examines the gender politics of a decidedly sexist world whose monarch is one of the most powerful women in history. It honors and holds these contradictions in one container. It is wonderfully Shakespearean in its celebration of the turbulent complexity of human beings.” My favorite line, from both the movie and the play, is when Elizabeth comments that she knows how difficult it is for a woman making her way in a man’s world.
Moore goes on to describe how he loves the way it shows the writer struggling to write. As a very modestly able writer, let me add, we all do, all of us writers. I’m no Shakespeare, but still I struggle to get just the right word on the page, so that I can call myself a writer. (See my previous post on this blog, “Writer’s Block.”)
CONCLUSION: To the people who have commented on my blog that I need to post pictures. Sorry about that, but there’s no photography allowed during plays, you know that. Watch for further posts on down sizing. I can photograph that!