Beleaguered by financial woes from last season’s wildfires, whose smoke caused cancellations of a couple dozen outdoor performances, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicked off its new season in early March with four plays — a Shakespeare standard to open the weekend, a revival of a popular musical, a drama making its world premiere and a searingly beautiful new show that’s sure to be an audience favorite.
Few signs on opening weekend betrayed the challenges the festival is facing. OSF opened a week late. Its popular booklet Illuminations, with essays on the shows, won’t be out until May. And no announcement had yet been made of a replacement for Bill Rauch, the festival’s artistic director, who is leaving in August. More than a week later on March 19 the festival announced the new artistic director will be Nataki Garrett.
But every show opened to a packed house in the festival’s two indoor theaters, and every show was worth the trip to Ashland to see.
As You Like It
Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 26
One of the backstage rock stars of the past couple seasons at OSF is Los Angeles theatrical designer Sara Ryung Clement. Who, you ask? It’s not usual for scenic and costume designers to get more than passing credit for their work, at least not outside the profession.
It was Clement who designed the costumes for last season’s incredible Henry V. Her costumes made it possible for a cast of a dozen to present this epic bloody tale in the tiny Thomas Theatre, swapping roles instantly with folds of cloth. Clement also designed sets and costumes for 2016’s amazing Vietgone.
And now Clement has designed one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever seen on a stage, to open the 2019 season on Friday, March 8, with As You Like It.
Constructed of angular, modernist elements — think Piet Mondrian with subdued colors — Clement’s simple but gorgeous set evolves organically into an abstract but magical Forest of Arden in which the young lovers Orlando (Román Zaragoza) and Rosalind (Jessica Ko) work out their romantic destiny.
One of the show’s best scenes is the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (James Ryen). Tightly choreographed, it comes across as graceful ballet — and, in the story, piques Rosalind’s interest in Orlando when he wins the bout.
Zaragoza is lithe and amiable as Orlando, easily commanding the stage with his tall presence.
Much like the show itself, Ko’s Rosalind starts slow but grows on you. She is best being sharp, witty and even irritable as she — disguised as a young man — tests the truth of Orlando’s affection. The two of them have a natural chemistry together that makes Shakespeare’s outlandish story believable.
Director Rosa Joshi, who directed last season’s Henry V, brings the cultural politics of As You Like It into sharp focus, beginning with the drab melancholy of the opening scenes, which find the people, at a time of political conflict, trapped in dark monotones reflecting an authoritarian regime, marching in lock-step formation like a scene out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
This works, to a degree, but Joshi’s production often tries too hard, losing some of Shakespeare’s magic and joy in the process. Numerous gender swaps in casting — a fine tradition at OSF — seem random here, and thus more confusing than illuminating.
But oh, that set. It remains captivating right to the end of the show, when — in an odd bit of shuffling the script — Jaques (Erica Sullivan) delivers the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech in a series of stop-action asides to end the play.
Cambodian Rock Band
Thomas Theatre through Oct. 27
When the lights — and music — come up on Lauren Yee’s new play Cambodian Rock Band, we’re at a club show in Phnom Penh in 2008 — or is it 1975? — where five young musicians are playing pretty good American rock ‘n’ roll, with a southeast Asian twist.
Then the slick emcee, played by Daisuke Tsuji on opening night, and sometimes during the run by James Ryen, leaps to the stage to challenge the audience. What are we seeing? American rock? Traditional Khmer music? Why is there a Sheraton sign in the background?
“Are you confused?” he shouts at last. “Welcome to Cambodia!”
This is an amazing show, combining excellent entertainment with deeply provocative themes. Yee’s play, which premiered last year at Southern California’s South Coast Rep, weaves together reflections on music, art, the world’s abandonment of Cambodia when the U.S. pulled out of the country in 1975, the guilt of the Holocaust, the difficulty of parental love and the possibility of redemption — and does all this without a dull or preachy moment.
The story centers on a Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) who suddenly gets a visit while working in Phnom Penh from her not-very-Americanized Cambodian-American father, Chum (Joe Ngo), who flies out from Massachusetts without warning to see her.
They immediately fight as only loving family members can; Neary later quips to her Cambodian boyfriend, Ted (Moses Villarama), that, as the only child of an only child, she is doomed to be “disappointment made flesh.”
Guest artist Chay Yew — who directed Cambodian Rock Band’s world premiere last year at South Coast Rep and Hannah and the Dread Gazebo at OSF in 2017 — directs with fast, fluid energy. The show never stops moving and never stops wowing.
On a fundamental level Cambodian Rock Band is about the weaponization of art — especially music, but also storytelling itself. We see the bleakness that happens when the Khmer Rouge take over in 1975 and begin exterminating artists and intellectuals.
In the real world, a strong tradition of Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll that flourished in Phnom Penh in the late ’60s and early ’70s was all but eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. An L.A. group, Dengue Fever, has used a small number of recordings that survived the purge to bring back that Southeast Asian rock, and their songs — performed on stage by the fictional band the Cyclos — form the soundtrack to Cambodian Rock Band.
The play doesn’t stop there. The show — a taut melodrama, with a fast-moving plot and plenty of coincidences — dances delicately through the murky issues of personal responsibility and redemption in a world filled with evil. In the end, it explores the secrets that parents inevitably keep from their children, even in our tell-all, truth-as-therapy age.
The character in the play named Duch — it’s pronounced “Doik” — is based on a real person. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was arrested in 1999 for his role in the murderous Khmer Rouge death camps, best known in the U.S. through the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. The former math teacher is now serving a life sentence for his role in killing some 15,000 people.
In the play, Duch, the commander of S21, a Khmer Rouge death camp, tells one of his prisoners that whoever tells the story is always telling the truth.
That, of course, is why dictators and authoritative regimes of all stripes want to ban or control art — an effort that, in the end, just gives art more power.
This is a beautiful, horrifying and exquisite play, performed to high-energy perfection. It might be the best show I’ve seen at OSF (my last favorite was Mary Zimmerman’s White Snake in 2012). It kept me in rapt attention for its entire two and a half hour run time before leaving me wrung out and gasping, near tears and laughing my head off. Get your seats now — they’ll certainly go fast, even though it runs for the full season.
Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 27
Who could not love Hairspray? The Broadway musical, based on the John Waters film of the same name, is a feel-good romp through the repressive shibboleths of the 1960s: racism, sexism and discrimination based on appearance among them, with a good dose of old-time Motownish rock ‘n’ rock for a soundtrack.
As the story opens, played out here on a wondrously versatile rotating set by Nina Ball, plus-sized Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad, played with zest by Katy Geraghty, is watching The Corny Collins Show on afternoon TV when Corny (Eddie Lopez) announces the show is looking for a new dancer.
Tracy wants to try out, but her plus-plus-sized mother, Edna (played wonderfully here by Daniel T. Parker, a physical comedy genius, in the role that was performed in the original film by Divine), forbids it, not wanting Tracy’s feelings to be hurt.
With that, the story is off and running, wending its way past the audition itself into Tracy’s determination to crash Baltimore’s strict color line and integrate Corny’s monthly Negro Day dance with the regular all-white show. This results in protests, cops and jail — much like the real-life events in Baltimore that inspired Waters’ film.
The music’s good, if rarely great; the best song is “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the show’s 11 o’clock number by Motormouth Maybelle (Greta Oglesby).
This is a fine show that feels a bit dated. Camp has long since lost the edge it had in the 1980s, and irony has been made irrelevant by the election of Donald Trump. Hairspray might once have been provocative; now it’s a sweet nostalgia piece — but for all that, a lot of fun. Go see it and enjoy.
Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 26
Playwright Octavio Solis, who lives outside Ashland, got the idea for this play — which made its world premiere in the Bowmer Theatre on March 10 — when he was invited by the National Steinbeck Center on a trip exploring the original Route 66.
That route — the “mother road” of the play’s title — is the blue highway followed by hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to California in the 1930s. It’s also the route followed by the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
In an interview last month, Solis said the idea for his play didn’t fully form until well after the trip.
“I knew it was going to do something, but I had no idea what it was going to be. I didn’t even imagine that it would be a play, because the National Steinbeck Center doesn’t have a stage.”
Sometime later he met a young Latino artist at the Arvin Migrant Center near Bakersfield, California. “And he said, the thing that really landed with me is, he said, ‘I am the new Tom Joad. And we are the new Okies.’”
At that moment Solis knew he had a play. “I had no idea it was going to be as big a play as it was as I wrote, but I should have realized it, because The Grapes of Wrath is an epic.”
At the end of Steinbeck’s novel, Tom Joad apparently kills a cop and disappears into the night, after giving a famous farewell to his mother, Ma Joad.
In Mother Road, Solis imagines what happens next: Joad flees to Mexico, where he settles in and raises a family.
As the play opens, the hardscrabble William Joad (Mark Murphey), a distant Joad cousin who still owns a 2,000-acre ranch in Oklahoma, is trying to track down a Joad descendant — any descendant — to whom he can leave his property when he dies, soon, of liver cancer.
To his surprise — OK, shock, actually — his lawyer finds an heir: Martin Tomas Jodes (Tony Sancho), a quick-tempered 30-something farmworker in California who is the only remaining descendant of the Joad line.
The two men, white cracker Okie and brown-skinned Mexican, meet, clash and finally agree to drive to Oklahoma in Martin’s battered Dodge pickup named Cesar, following the old Route 66, to get Martin installed in his new life as a land baron.
The journey is played out on a simple set by Christopher Acebo and relies heavily on video projections by Kaitlyn Pietras.
Solis’ play, directed by Rauch in his final season at OSF, is a great concept that falls a little flat in execution. Mother Road is very much a story with a moral, so much so that half the time you’re watching you feel like you’re in church. The ensemble opens the play with what can only be described as a liturgical tone, which is cemented when the traveling duo eventually encounters crazy James (Cedric Lamar), a reference to the Christ-like failed minister Jim Casy of the Steinbeck novel.
Somehow that underlying churchy tone causes everything to bog, as characters explain their own and each others’ motivations, in case you didn’t get it. All ends happily and a little too predictably, with a speech in which Martin says, essentially, that we are all Mexicans, obliquely echoing those eloquent last words from Tom Joad to his mother before he disappears.
“I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there….”
For dates, times and tickets of all plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit osfashland.org.