Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019, Part Two

Many, many years ago, when we first started to attend OSF productions, the motto was, “Stay three days, see three plays,” and all the plays were done in the outdoor theatre in the summer.  This year, and for several seasons gone by, there have been eleven different plays presented from March through October, with three plays in the outdoor theatre  opening in early summer, and two or sometimes three plays added late June or early July, all running through October. A few years ago we realized that we were missing some great late plays by attending the festival in early June so we began to return in September, to catch the new productions that had opened  in July. That scenario explains why there are now Part Two reviews. All of these plays run through October, so you still have time to catch them all, except for Hedwig.

The first day of our second stay was spent “celebrating” Daedalus Day, an annual event raising funds for HIV-Aids. All the OSF company gets involved. In the morning, there was a bake sale in the lobby of the Angus Bowmer Theatre and a craft and treasures sale in the Thomas Theatre (where I bought a wonderful quilt made of scraps of cloth from costumes of the 2018 season). In the afternoon in the Bowmer there was a benefit performance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Hedwig is a trans-female whose trans surgery was not complete, but left him/her with an inch, and a lot of questions: who is Hedwig, what is Hedwig–the director’s note says, “More than a Woman, more than a Man. Part punk-rock goddess, part Platonic scholar, A woman scorned.  A lost, little boy. A shaman. A slut.” Well, you get it. An appropriate production for a day raising funds for HIV- Aids.

The evening’s performance in the Elizabethan theatre again involved the whole OSF company, or at least it seemed that way, with a variety of acts, solos, groups, dancing and singing on stage and then wending their way out to the courtyard all in a parade–wearing their underwear! The underwear parade is an annual feature of Daedalus Day; I felt sorry for the performers in their skimpy skivvies and bare skin on this cold night, but they raised a lot of money for a good cause.

Now on to the plays!

The first new play we saw was “HOW TO CATCH CREATION” by Christina Anderson. This play had a most remarkable set. In the Thomas Theatre, with the audience organized in a round, there was an arrangement of four square “rooms,” each with a different drama going on with an African American lesbian at the center. (Speaking of centers, in the center of the rooms there was one more square that rose and fell with more drama.) The theme that coordinated all the drama? Creation? Motherhood!

There was a lot of confusion over timing of events on stage–the Playbill said, “Time: 2014, and 1966, 1967. There’s a brief moment in 1988.” At a talk-back after the play, there was a question about these Times. Christiana Clark, playing the college administrator in one of the dramas, told us that the cast had also questioned the playwright about that confusion, but she had answered only, “Whatever.” I’d like to see this play again with the years on a cheat-sheet in front of me.

At breakfast the morning after we had seen this play, we discussed it with four women seated at the next table. Their comment: “We are black women and we don’t know any black lesbians.”

That was a clue to the whole Part Two of the 2019 season. Every play had one or more LBGTQ character.

MOTHER ROAD by Octavio Solis was the next play. We actually saw this twice. At the end of the first performance, I commented to Don, “This is an epic.” The play takes up John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, generations later. Will Joad, the last remaining Joad in Oklahoma, is dying. He comes to California looking for a Joad descendant to occupy the Joad land, and finds a young Mexican man. That isn’t a spoiler–it’s the first five minutes of the play. The rest of the evening follows the two as they drive back to Oklahoma, getting to know each other and picking up new members of their “family.” Some of the people they encounter form a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Not a whole lot of suspense–you know from the beginning that eventually they will bond, but the journey is the destination.

I loved the way this play was staged– there is a pickup truck that is almost a character, and a steering wheel that passes from hand to hand, or I should say driver to driver. There was lots of Spanish spoken, which is why we wanted to see it a second time.

Next play: INDECENT, by Paula Vogel, is a history play, the history of  “God of Vengeance,” a play in Yiddish by the great Jewish author, Sholem Asch. The play opens with Asch reading his play in a salon in Warsaw in 1906, follows it as it is a hit in all the capitols of Europe, and finally comes to New York, where, translated from Yiddish into English, it is vilified, branded as “indecent,” and, led by charges from Rabbi Silverman (no relation), eventually closed down. The cast is scattered, many going back to Europe. Asch remained in the U.S., writing novels, until 1953, when he too returned.

What was so shocking about the play? A Jewish man operates a brothel on the lower level of his home, but on the upper level he has commissioned a sacred Torah scroll to try to attract a learned suitor for his daughter. The daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes from downstairs, and their lesbian affair drives the father mad.

In Illuminations, OSF’s guide to the plays each season, I read that in 1946 Asch officially banned further productions of The God of Vengeance in any language, but that must no longer be true. ACT Theatre in Seattle produced the play in April of 2000. One of the actors in that production was Naama Potok, daughter of the novelist Chaim Potok (The Chosen), who came to see the play one evening and stayed for Q and A afterwards (I was there).

In the Playbill entry for Indecent, the dramaturg for the play credits the current resurgence of interest in the Yiddish language to the rise of Klezmer music. I disagree. I believe that interest in Yiddish owes its existence to The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. See for yourself: yiddishbookcenter.org

Back to the plays.

We had just seen Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT two weeks before, at Seattle Rep’s Public Works program, bringing in a cast of a least one hundred persons, almost all volunteers. I don’t know how many times we had seen As You Like It  before, so why see it again? I can’t answer that. I only know that I almost always find something to like in each production. From Illuminations this description: “… a brilliant and evocative investigation into the performance of gender, the truth of love and the search for authenticity that lies at the center of us all.” Got that?

What do I look for? For one thing, the way Rosalind portrays Ganymede, the male disguise she has chosen to test Orlando. For another, the way Orlando’s love poems to Rosalind are hung on the trees (in Seattle, they fell from the ceiling). The melancholy Jaques is different in every production, as is the fool, Touchstone. The OSF version also brought out some questions about gender representation. In addition to Rosalind disguised as Ganymede, the traditionally male roles of Duke Senior (Rosalind’s parent), Jaques, Amiens, and Corin, the old shepherd, are all females, while Audrey, Touchstone’s beloved, has become the male Aubrey.

The director of this play for OSF, Rosa Joshi, is part of the upstart crow collective, a theatre company in Seattle that produces Shakespeare’s plays with all female casts. I have seen their Titus Andronicus and Bring Down the House, a mash-up of the three Henry plays condensed into two parts. OSF will produce Bring Down the House next season, a welcome reversal of good plays going from Ashland to Seattle.

Last play: LA COMEDIA OF ERRORS. I have to confess that this production was a little bit disappointing. It was billed as a “bilingual adaptation.” Doesn’t bilingual mean to you that it will be presented in two languages? That the two languages will be given equal time, and that the words in one language will be repeated in the other? Not in this play. This was Shakespeare in Spanish with a little English included. We have seen The Comedy of Errors often enough so that we knew what was going on, but it was very discouraging that we could not understand the Spanish words, especially those shouted out by the woman in the audience.

Last February we saw a truly bilingual production of Romeo and Juliet at ACT Theatre in Seattle. Romeo “spoke” in sign language, and other cast members uttered Shakespeare’s words. We didn’t miss a word.

If you have read this far, thank you. I welcome your comments and questions.



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