The buzz in Ashland last weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s season openings should, by all rights, have been about Bill Rauch.
The popular and influential artistic director of the 83-year-old festival announced in February that he was leaving in 2019 to take over the still-unbuilt Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, which is to be built at Ground Zero in New York City.
That’s an amazing honor — and a loss — for OSF, over which Rauch has exerted a profound influence since he started there 12 years ago.
But by the time thousands of theater lovers had assembled in Ashland for the weekend’s shows, the startling news had been absorbed, chewed over and discounted to the point that when I found myself sitting at the next table over from Rauch for lunch on Saturday at the Ashland Springs Hotel, there was little to say or ask besides “Congratulations” and “We’ll miss you.”
The real buzz over the weekend, as it turned out, was about a play — Karen Zacarias’ Destiny of Desire, which made its West Coast premiere Sunday afternoon, Feb. 26, in OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre. Everyone from avid theater-goers to the staff at restaurants were talking about it.
Destiny is clearly the one to see this season — the show everyone will be talking about, the one you’d better buy your tickets for early because, by all rights, it’s going to sell out soon.
I’ll get back to Destiny in a moment. But first let’s look at the rest of opening weekend, starting with the show that kicked off the season Friday night, Feb. 23.
In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 28
Rauch himself directed Othello, which opened to a near-sellout Friday night. He set the classic tragedy in contemporary America, complete with U.S. Navy uniforms, text messages arriving via cell phone and CNN looping endlessly on listless monitors in the palace exercise center. He cast the play as a meditation on racism, sexism and misogynistic violence — not a bad call at this #MeToo moment.
Othello is also a reflection on jealousy, trust and faithfulness.
Rauch’s storytelling is mostly straightforward, moving from event to event on a spare and elegant set by Christopher Acebo.
A powerful turning point comes when Othello’s wife, Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante), retires to her bedchamber — the place where we, and she, know that she is soon to be murdered by her husband.
In preparation, and perhaps as a ceremonial divide in the play’s straight narrative, the rest of the cast assembles around the bed and slowly rotates it — arranging the set more coherently for the action to follow but also marking, in a funereal way, a chilling point of no return for Desdemona. We know, by their gestures, that she is doomed.
Chris Butler’s Othello was the most engaging character on the stage for all three-plus hours of this ultimately wrenching show.
Butler played the admiral as a refined, somewhat aloof leader, a Muslim immigrant to the Christian country that he now serves as an officer, and a man who is so desperately in love with Desdemona that he is an easy mark for the evil machinations of his scheming lieutenant Iago.
Danforth Comins, one of my favorite members among OSF’s company of actors, brings Iago into dismaying focus with a wonderfully understated interpretation. Comins’ brand of evil doesn’t come at you with Shakespearean force and majesty; instead, it’s fresh-faced and engaging, making it all too comprehensible that Othello succumbs to Iago’s wild stories linking Desdemona and Cassio (Derek Garza) in an illicit affair.
Othello is one long, hard slog of a play. Rauch explained at a Sunday morning panel discussion that, after casting Butler as Othello, he asked the actor to also join the cast of Romeo and Juliet in a summer production on the outdoor stage.
Butler begged off — two such intense tragedies at the same time would be too emotionally wrenching — and will appear instead in Love’s Labor’s Lost to fulfill his repertory duties at the festival.
This Othello starts a bit slow but picks up an unstoppable and deadly momentum after intermission; by the end, with Desdemona’s slow and graphic murder in the marital bed, the audience — me included — were totally absorbed in tragedy and despair.
In the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 27
Regulars at OSF have been following Shakespeare’s history plays in order since 2016, when Rauch directed Richard II to kick off a four-play chronicle. Last year’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2 documented the uncertain rise of the immature Prince Hal from the tavern to the throne.
This season brings us the concluding play of the cycle, as young Hal at last takes the English crown and plunges into war with France in Henry V.
Guest director Rosa Joshi, a founding member of Seattle’s upstart crow collective, directs this show in the small Thomas Theatre using an ensemble cast and an unusually fluid style of storytelling that keeps everyone and everything in motion for the entire two and a half hour show.
Simply seeing Daniel José Molina’s Henry is, all by itself, worth the price of admission. Molina, young and charismatic, is absolutely right in the role of the young king, tortured but not slowed by his awareness of the heavy responsibility of leadership. I saw him last year as Hal, the callow, younger version of Henry, in Henry IV, Part One. He was appealing then; he’s perfect now as the not-quite-grown-up king.
At the opening on Saturday, Feb. 24, Molina pushed himself to clear emotional exhaustion (I later heard he had been feeling ill) and real tears onstage; the tears returned, this time as tears of relief, in the curtain call. Well done.
In the Henry IV plays last year, OSF veteran G. Valmont Thomas played a marvelous Falstaff, the larger-than-life drunken wastrel and charmer who leads young Hal astray. Thomas died in December, so the death of Falstaff, which takes place offstage in Henry V, hit both the cast and OSF regulars with a special poignancy.
Finally, let me note that the set, basically a pile of large gray building blocks by Richard Hay, contributes hugely to the unique flow of this production. Without any spoilers, I’ve never seen an abstract set used so effectively.
Sense & Sensibility
In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 28
Jane Austen fans are legion, and her novel Sense and Sensibility is one of their touchstones. The story, set in England in the late 18th century, is about three daughters whose father dies, leaving his entire estate, as the law requires, to their henpecked brother — meaning their only recourse is to find financially feasible marriages.
This adaptation of the novel was done by Kate Hamill, who explains in the program notes that her stage version of the story is 60 percent her and only 40 percent Austen. That’s a good thing, because forcing a 300- to 400-page novel into a two and a half hour performance usually doesn’t work.
This story works very well. Director Hana S. Sharif stages it in period costume on an elegant set by Collette Pollard. There, the story is hung on the love and competition between sisters Elinor Dashwood (Nancy Rodriguez) and Marianne Dashwood (Emily Ota), who are under the thumb of their mother, Mrs. Dashwood (Kate Mulligan).
I’m not, myself, a huge Austen fan, but the play does offer a fine evening’s entertainment — even for those of us not enthralled by Regency gowns and tea parties. Austen fans will love it even more.
Destiny of Desire
In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 12
The most popular television programming in the world today is not, as you might expect, pro football or Disney-animated musicals. It is, in fact, the telenovela, the extended Latin American soap opera that has swept the globe since its beginnings in radio nearly a century ago.
With their fast-moving plots wrapped around issues of class and race, and featuring plenty of sex, telenovelas now captivate an estimated 2 billion viewers worldwide.
Karen Zacarias’ Destiny of Desire, directed here by José Luis Valenzuela, both spoofs and honors the telenovela with its own fast-paced melodrama of two young women switched at birth in a Mexican hospital.
The daughter of a wealthy casino owner is born sickly and dying of a bad heart; the pale baby is swapped by hospital staff with the healthy daughter of peasants, so as not to offend the rich man.
Our story really begins 18 years later, when Victoria Maria del Rio (Ella Saldana North) has grown up to work as a maid to the rich girl, Pilar Esperanza Castillo (Esperanza America). This Dickensian plot turns rapidly into pure farce, as insanely complicated love affairs (at one point near the end, the piano player accompanying the show throws up his hands in exasperation) and revelations ensue.
That pale plot summary does little justice, though, to the immense and funny energy of this play, which is at once a successful melodrama, whose plot moves faster than a speeding bullet; a great musical comedy, with lots of triple-threat singing, dancing and acting; and a sophisticated reflection on the increasing prominence of Latin culture in the United States.
The latter is brought in, a bit awkwardly in places, by the device of having characters suddenly stop and narrate odd facts and statistics about everything from the life expectancy of Latinos in the U.S. (better than you probably thought) to how many married American women say they would have an affair if they knew they wouldn’t get caught.
Program notes explain this as giving the audience a “Brechtian” distance from the overwhelming involvement of the telenovela-style plot. OK. It works, but too often it feels like a puritanical attempt to turn great fun into education.
Never mind. This is a hilarious, uplifting and engaging show, start to finish, and you’d better buy tickets now if you plan to see it anytime soon. ■
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produces 11 plays on its three stages in downtown Ashland during a season that runs through the end of October. For tickets and more information, visit osfashland.org.