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Restaging the Past

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 takes on tough social issues ranging from abortion rights to the Vietnam War

So often we accept the history served to us. We hold collective truths about our past to be self-evident: Jane Roe and her legal team were brave, honorable women fighting for reproductive rights. Vietnam was a worthless war the U.S. never should have been involved in. Classic theater works are important, but generally not very fun. 

Presently, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is in the business of shaking up our assumptions. The current lineup of 10 plays at OSF offers a cacophony of history and legend alongside classics reinterpreted for a modern audience. The season is smart, entertaining and worth the three-hour trek to Ashland.

 

Roe

 

Roe 

Norma McCorvey wants an abortion. Sarah Weddington needs a plaintiff to challenge Texas abortion law. Weddington is idealistic and ambitious. As one of very few female students in her graduating class in law school, she recounts professors who refused to call on a woman. McCorvey, for her part, is poor — a hard-living, free-loving lesbian. If she needs to sleep in the park, steal her dinner or sell drugs, she’ll do it.

The legacy of this unlikely pair is well known: 26-year-old Weddington argues for McCorvey in the landmark abortion case of Roe vs. Wade, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine judges wrestle with the difficult issue and ultimately affirm that women should have the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

But the story is just getting started. 

Weddington and McCorvey go on to lead dramatically different lives, and the outcome of Roe vs. Wade sparks a political storm that neither woman could have predicted. Roe, now playing at OSF, follows the aftermath of the Supreme Court battle in a plot so twisted an author couldn’t make it up.

Roe was written by Lisa Loomer (Distracted, The Waiting Room) as part of the American Revolutions cycle, in which OSF is commissioning up to 37 plays that highlight pivotal moments in U.S. history. Loomer’s style is irreverent and funny. With characters correcting each other’s historic details, fussing about how a scene should run and sharing their future obituaries with the audience, the script plays like a sassy history book that talks back.  

Sara Bruner brings passion to her role as McCorvey. And I never questioned Sarah Jane Agnew as Weddington. An ensemble rotates ably through the rest of the roles, with a particularly stirring performance by Catherine Castellanos as Connie.

This is the most interesting play of the OSF’s season. Loomer presents a balanced portrayal of the pro-choice and pro-life movements. The script portrays McCorvey and Weddington both as highly fallible individuals, and Loomer is particularly adept at showing how a poor, uneducated woman was used to promote a cause, and how that woman then used the system right back. 

 

Vietgone

 

Vietgone

Quang rides an old motorcycle across the American Southwest with his best friend hanging on the back. He smokes pot with hippies, fights rednecks and tries not to think about Tong. Back in the refugee camp, Tong is learning English, finding a new life for herself and breaking hearts like the villain in a Taylor Swift video.

These two refugees fled South Vietnam as it fell to communist forces in 1975. They are grateful to the U.S. military that helped fight their war against an invading army, but now feel lost in the extreme cultural reaction to that conflict.

Vietgone tells the love story of playwright Qui Nguyen’s parents. The journey is certainly play-worthy — funny, heartbreaking and fascinating in its historical context. But it is the fresh, experimental way Nguyen tells the story that makes Vietgone such a strong entry at this year’s OSF.

So often plays attempting to be modern and different do so at the expense of entertainment value for the audience. Every step Nguyen takes outside of the box, however, is purposeful, illuminating character and plot. 

Nguyen has his Vietnamese characters speaking modern street slang. Americans speak English that sounds stilted and nonsensical. Thus the immigrants are familiar, while the Americans come across as foreign, putting audiences squarely in the shoes of the lead characters.

Rap, a genre that can so effectively express power and hope in a tough situation, is a perfect outlet for characters who have lost so much in a war. A montage of famous pop culture love scenes shows how the giddy first flights of romance are universal.

Under the direction of May Adrales, Vietgone is a fast-paced and accessible play. James Ryen embodies the youth, anger and excitement of Quang. Jeena Yi is sharp as Tong. Will Dao, Amy Kim Waschke and Paco Tolson encircle the production as various characters with energy and purpose.

We are told from the start that this play is a love story, but it’s more than just the tale of displaced-fiery-Vietnamese-woman-meets-married-helicopter-pilot-who-can-never-step-foot-in-South-Vietnam-again. It’s about the messy love between parents and children. It’s about love for a country left behind, and the romance of adapting to a new one. It’s about love for burritos and the love for the Americans who helped fight a war that has turned out to be wildly unpopular.

The production is beautiful. Nguyen weaves so much into this short and unpredictable play. If you don’t mind raw language and extremely casual sex, this is a bracing modern play.

 

The Yeomen of the Guard

 

The Yeomen of the Guard

The theater is a swarming pit of activity. Audience members fill the stage, throwing horseshoes, shooting pool, drinking at the open bar. Actors with a variety of instruments wander the stage, singing classic Johnny Cash songs or a countrified version of Prince’s “Kiss.” By the time the play starts, a good chunk of the audience is still on stage, where they are encouraged to join in the fun as they see fit.

The Yeomen of the Guard is insane — a crazy, noisy, funny interpretation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1888 operetta. If the original 19th-century authors are rolling in their graves, it’s because they’re laughing hilariously at this re-imagining of their work.

Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler’s adaptation retains the smarts of the original while opening up the script to modern nuances. The music is mostly fun and silly, though a couple numbers are achingly beautiful.

Britney Simpson shines in the dual roles of Phoebe and crazy Kate. The antics, voice and expressive face grab and keep a tight hold in this mad setting. Michael Sharon is as endearing as he is revolting in the part of Shadbolt the Jailor. Kate Hurster and Leah Anderson are charming as the Point Sisters.

Know your limits for goofiness before you buy your tickets. Proscenium seating means that audience members who have dreamt of shining onstage finally get their chance, and the folks in the seats can’t help but watch them.

This play can feel like observing a smashed anthill, where all the ants are aspiring vaudeville actors.

The Yeomen of the Guard is really fun, and proscenium seating would be a great gift for the ham in your life. It exceeded my goofy tolerance, but was so well done it was a pleasure regardless.

 

 

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is this year’s crowd-pleasing Shakespeare offering. Busloads of students wash up on the bricks at Ashland every year, along with erudite 80-year-olds who have invested considerable thought and money into their weeklong trip.

Although it’s not exactly fair to call the students groundlings (I have never seen a middle-schooler pelt any one with a piece of rotten fruit) and not every adult who attends OSF is a theater scholar, the festival finds itself in much the same predicament as Shakespeare. How does it stage an intellectually stimulating production for learned patrons while at the same time keeping things engaging and fun enough for those who might not get every last classical allusion?

Shakespeare, like OSF, had to pack the house, and if that meant allowing Will Kemp to run amok in the middle of history for longer than was strictly necessary, so be it. At OSF, if a character needs to dab to keep it fresh, he goes for it.

Director Christopher Liam Moore is no stranger to bending Shakespeare to a particular vision. This time he sets Twelfth Night in 1930s Hollywood. He adds a prologue to clarify the situation, and then assigns characters a job in Illyria Studios (Toby Belch is a former silent film star, Orsino becomes the German immigrant head of Illyria Studios.) 

The gender fluidity and homosexual themes of Twelfth Night have always been there, though played in the new light of today’s expanding LGBTQA awareness, the work feels completely of the moment. 

In most productions of Twelfth Night, the twins Sebastian and Viola look somewhat alike and are dressed alike, and we all agree to pretend we can’t tell the difference. Moore gave Sara Bruner the challenge of both roles. It was a pleasure to watch her delve into the complexity of Viola and also to portray the open ease of Sebastian. Gina Daniels channels a 1930s film star to perfection as Olivia. Ted Deasy turns in a satisfying Malvolio.

This comedy, at times excruciatingly sad, is my favorite Shakespeare play. Twelfth Night reveals something new with every production. I recommend OSF’s current production for anyone, save the most extreme purist. 

 

The 2016 OSF season is in full swing. As summer comes to an end, audiences can also check out Hamlet, The Wiz, The Winter’s Tale, Richard II and Timon of Athens, along with the continued run of Great Expectations.

From reexamined history to reimagined classics, the parallels among the plays are noteworthy. Look for characters left lonely at the end and for a world shifted in a moment, and enjoy coming to your own conclusions about this year’s work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland runs through October; $30-$120-plus. For times, locations and tickets, visit osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.