Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019 Season, Part One

(We flew down to Medford on June 3, shuttled into Ashland, checked into our usual motel [Bard’s Inn], and saw seven plays in four days, but ever since we had first made our reservations last November, I had begun planning that as soon as I returned home I would post reviews of the plays that I saw, as usual. As usual! And it was only when I opened WordPress for the first time today, four days after we returned, that I realized I had forgotten/neglected/overlooked posting reviews of the 2018 season! What happened? I don’t know. I let a whole year go by. Well, this year I took notes after each play. This year I didn’t forget. So here goes, my report on the six plays we saw (we saw one twice) in June 2019, and hopefully when I see the next five in September I will complete the year’s review.)

First day: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND by Lauren Yee. A real winner! Sure to be the hottest ticket of the season this year. Political, historical, family drama/rock concert. Edge of the seat engaging. The audience was extremely enthusiastic, jumped up at the end, danced to the rock music  and applauded long and loud. (How soon the audience jumps up is one way I have of judging a play.) The play begins with a performance by The Cyclos, a rock band. The plot, briefly, not to spoil it for you: a young American woman of Cambodian parentage has gone to Cambodia to work on the first prosecution of an official of the Khmer Rouge, the vicious Communist group that terrorized the country from 1975 to 1979, murdering possibly 3 million people. The official was the director of the notorious S21 prison, from which only 7 people survived. Now the young woman has discovered the  existence of an 8th survivor–and her father returns to Cambodia for the first time since leaving to try to dissuade his daughter from pursuing this investigation. The young woman knows nothing of her father’s history in Cambodia, but as the play unfolds she discovers his background and his association with The Cyclos. The Playbill included the lyrics of the Cyclos songs, in Cambodian and English.

First night: MACBETH, by William Shakespeare.  Like no Macbeth that I had ever seen before, and I’ve seen lots of them. In the Playbill the director notes that every time we make a play we need to see it with “fresh eyes,” and there is much in this production that is “fresh.” The Playbill says that the Macbeths are a couple who love each other “immensely,” and many of their scenes together are set in their bed. The play opens with a long dumb show, the funeral of their child. A small white coffin is on stage and many mourners enter from the back of the theatre. Lady Macbeth weeps hysterically while Macbeth tries to comfort her. All this before the Three Weird Sisters finally speak, “When will we three meet again,” but they don’t leave, they remain on stage, a continued presence for most of  Act I. Their “Double, double” chant occurs in the second act, when they surround Macbeth in his bath. Hecate, queen of the witches, shows up in Act II–I don’t recall ever seeing her before. When the assassins murder Lady Macduff on stage they slash her abdomen and pull out a bloody baby, foreshadowing “not of woman born,” i.e., a C-section. (This happened so quickly that Don didn’t see it.) Lady Macbeth hangs herself on stage, legs through loops of scarf  like Cirque du Soleil. The audience must have approved of the  innovations of this production, for they jumped to their feet enthusiastically at the end.

Second day:  BETWEEN TWO KNEES, by 1491, a group of American Indians (the program calls them “five fearless storytellers”) who do comedy about their lives. (1491 is the year before 1492, the year Columbus “discovered” America. The two Knees are the massacre at Wounded Knee of 1890 and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.) The play follows Isaiah and Irma from when they are young Indians taken to a government sanctioned Catholic school to have their Indian names erased and their Indian culture beaten out of them, until they are grandparents. Two sets of actors play Young Irma/Isaiah and Older Irma/Isaiah. The play is a “comical journey through American history from a Native perspective” (from Illuminations, A guide to the 2019 plays). It follow the lives of Irma and Isaiah from the massacre, their mistreatment by the priests, finding each other, harassment by the FBI, losing a son in World War II and then finding a grandson who is sent to Vietnam–and it’s very funny! More from Illuminations: “Our (1491) mission has always been to make Indians laugh. If other people find us funny, then cool, but Indians are who we do this for.” I’m going to find more from 1491 on You Tube. And yes, the audience jumped up and cheered after the performance.

Second night:  ALICE IN WONDERLAND, adapted from Lewis Carroll by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus, on the outdoor stage.  A disappointment. Unless you know the stories well, lots of the action didn’t register. (And yes, it included Through the Looking Glass as well as Alice in Wonderland.) Alice on stage for the whole two acts found all the requisite tiny doorways and “Drink Me” bottles of Wonderland, but further into Looking Glass the references were harder to decifer. Alice following the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole was made visual by Alice going through a series of hoops. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee were labeled with their names, but who was the guy in gold armor with the Red Queen in the second act? In the cast list I found White Knight, but who was he in the book? There were lots and lots of people on stage in gorgeous costumes. It must have been expensive to produce, but in the crowd on the way out, I heard forms of “disappointment” several times. Me too! Prolonged applause at the end of the play, but no one–no one–stood up.

Third day: HAIRSPRAY, The Broadway Musical. Smash! Bang! Another loud rock musical–lots of singing and dancing. I couldn’t understand the words of the songs but the meanings were loud and clear. A fat kid who is rejected for being fat is sent to detention where she meets other rejects–black kids or those who are disabled physically or developmentally. Of course she organizes them and they win the dance contest. Along the way she (figuratively) flips off an overly protective mom, a bigoted ambitious mom, a clueless school principal, and she promotes her own mom and a black mom. Lots of moms, good and bad, in this play; one of them, the gifted singer Greta Oglesby, a favorite of mine from years past, so good to see her back at OSF. The inclusive cast included one performer in a wheel chair and a young woman possibly Down syndrome.  Did I forget to say it was funny? The audience loved it, cheers and yells, on their feet immediately. I didn’t expect to love it, but I did!

Third night, ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by William Shakespeare, on the outdoor stage. I have in previous years sat through plays all bundled up warmly against the cold or perfectly quiet inside a rattling plastic bag, but I can’t remember a night when I was this uncomfortably cold and totally unprepared for it. I was wearing the warmest clothes I had with me, and I had a rented blanket, but still I felt frozen. I didn’t stand up during the intermission because I didn’t want to unwrap. So maybe that’s why I left the theatre feeling that if happily ever after is what ending well requires, then no, all had not ended well tonight. The ending of the play was an enigma–did Helen wed Bertram or not? In the past when I saw All’s Well, there was no suggestion that it didn’t end well. Helen has cured the king of an incurable illness, and as a reward he promises her that she can marry any man of her choosing. She chooses Bertram but he will have none of her; he runs off. She follows him, finds him, and traps him in a situation where she had met all of his outrageous demands. In other productions, at this point they live happily ever after, but not in Ashland in 2019. At the end of this play, Helen has unburdened herself to Bertram, each accepts the other for the unique person that he/she is, and they walk off the stage, not hand in hand, but in opposite directions. Applause, of course, and people jumped up, but probably so they could go somewhere to get warm!

Fourth day, seventh play, we saw THE CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND a second time. The music was still great! This time I caught a few details that I missed the first time, e.g., I learned why the father was deaf in one ear. I understand that a Seattle theatre is bringing the play to Seattle, and if that happens I’ll see it at least one more time.

After the play, we were picked up by the shuttle, taken to the airport and flew home, but we’ll be back, next September, for the Daedalus Project to raise funds for HIV-Aids and to catch the other five plays.

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