If you haven’t experienced the flag being raised high above the hammerbeam roof of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre just before the show begins at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then you haven’t truly lived.
A man in a silly hat waves his hands wildly, determined to hang out of the window until he is satisfied with the level of enthusiasm from the mob below. Finally, he raises the flag, a hint at what’s to come.
I liken it to the slow ascend up Disney World’s Splash Mountain.
Repertory theater in general and OSF specifically offer a singular experience of the arts. The challenge to reinvent the wheel is an arbitrary game, one that delights and infuriates its audience. In an impressive hustle, the actors bouncing from one stage to the next. Is that Dodo bird Lady Macbeth from last night?
Ashland, the ever-bizarre host, is an enchanted town, seemingly absent of the middle class. The streets move with the speed of tourism, the righteous defenders of the offended filling up on espresso and trinkets before the matinee. The heroin hippie combs his hair on a curb. Not even the dogs notice him.
But hey, the show must go on.
Despite the whispers of chaos from last year’s wildfires and changes in both the artistic and executive direction of the festival, OSF’s opening summer weekend was none the wiser. Faithful patrons of the arts swarmed the Bricks Plaza for the opening June 7-9 of the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, with Macbeth, Alice in Wonderland and All’s Well That Ends Well running now through October.
(I also took in a new play, the inflammatory and hilarious Between Two Knees, which is stirring up fresh contention — art at its best.)
Finally, the crowd makes its way through the moss-covered walls. The smart ones carry ponchos and afghans; the outdoor theater does not promise comfort. The famed flag whips its tail against the Oregon sky. Wine-procured chatter gives way to watchful silence, and the stage comes alive.
Through Oct. 11 in the Elizabethan Theatre
Fortune on its side, OSF boldly chose to open the weekend with the heavy-hitting Macbeth — or, if you prefer, “The Scottish Play.”
Featuring the worst dinner party ever, witchcraft, artistry, a weird cross culture of costumes and a major claim from director José Luis Valenzuela that is not quite translated on the stage, Macbeth is a mixed bag.
Shakespeare’s tragedy about a Scottish general and his murderous, witch-inspired quest for power is a deep dive into the worst parts of us. Things don’t go well for anyone in this one.
Danforth Comins is a modern Macbeth. He moves and speaks with ease and coolness, delivering tempered lines through a baited insecurity, though his descent into wild-eyed paranoia feels and looks a little like a rogue Vietnam soldier.
Lady Macbeth, played by the talented Amy Kim Waschke, dominates the stage. Mistress of conspiracy, she parades in flowing silks as the dutiful host, the domineering hot wife. The PG-13 sex scene she shares with Comins is worthy of a lip bite. Her demise, though tragic, is also quite beautiful.
Both Comins and Waschke are at their best (and worst) during a dinner party that is painfully reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with more paranoid delusions. I’m fairly certain Elizabeth Taylor was a time traveler who studied Lady Macbeth during her days of origin… but I digress. The tension within and between these doomed lovers is felt throughout the theater. A collective sigh is breathed at the end of the scene after all of the guests have finally left. Only husband and wife remain, separated by their deeds and a very long, very empty table.
Chris Butler as Macduff is impassioned, boots stomping, and great at yelling “Macbeth!” and only Macbeth in a Scottish accent. The weird sisters, aka witches (Robin Goodrin Nordli, Miriam A. Laube and Erica Sullivan), play a larger role on the stage than in the text; their presence is an earthy, ethereal one. And praises to the Porter (Rex Young) for interrupting this downer with some snarky dick jokes.
The costumes (Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko), though stunning, are a bit of a mismatch, like something the witches conjured in a bathtub. Hecate (Michele Mais), backlit by flames, is the moonlit incarnation of the Heat Miser or The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula — a stunning scene on a cloudless night. Lady Macbeth also sports some pretty fierce digs. But the men alternate between Victorianesque suits, modern leather jackets, ripped jeans, guerilla warfare garb and Black Panther berets — and I think I spotted a kilt in there.
From the lighting and set design (Christopher Acebo), which is dark, sinister and raw, to the movement and frenetic energy between the players on stage, most everything you’d want is there. If you happen to read the director’s note, however, you might notice a bit of a hit-and-miss premise.
Director Valenzuela, in an effort to make Shakespeare more modern, claims Macbeth’s motivations and ultimately his self-destruction are driven by his fear of the “other.” Now it’s true that most of Macbeth’s counterparts are played by either people of color — or, in the case of Fleance (Will Wilhelm), gay — but their “otherness” compared to Macbeth’s own heteronormative, white privilege seems to be of unimportance, as it should be.
Sure, we live and have lived in times in which the “other” is feared, and with great consequences, but it’s a hard sell on the stage. We never see Macbeth as fearing the “other,” but rather fearing anyone who might undermine his power, especially anyone who might be considered an heir to the throne, because he himself cannot father children.
I suppose I don’t quite understand the necessity to reinvent Macbeth’s motivation. Power, deceit, love, murder, insanity — these are universal and ageless truths of human affairs, the very reason there is and always will be an annual Shakespeare festival.
Human beings are power-hungry shit-bags sometimes. Period.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Through Oct. 13 in the Elizabethan Theatre
The opening scene of Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well features a familiar stop-start synthesized beat. A procession of mournful characters files in through prayerful rhythm. Is that Pat Benatar? But the music ends without any words, and the wind lets out of our collective sails.
Introductions follow at a funeral. There’s the Countess of Rossillion (Vilma Silva), who is grieving the loss of her husband; her highborn jackass son, Bertram (Daisuke Tsuji); and Helen (Royer Bockus), the quirky, punk-rock admirer of said jackass son, all reminding us that the heart wants what it wants.
All’s Well has been dubbed one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays, but that’s only because literary scholars can’t bring themselves to use the word “dramedy.” It’s smart, it’s ugly, it’s funny, it’s — wait a minute, is that…?
“We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder…”
At the end of the opening scene, Bockus flips her pink hair and belts out the words we were all hoping for, with Pat Benatar reminding us that all is well. Mostly.
It’s still a messy story. Girl loves boy, boy prefers running away to war and a lot of terrible decisions are made in the name of desire.
All in all, director Tracy Young delivers the most modern of the Elizabethan plays in OSF’s current rotation. Bockus is painfully familiar as the lovesick misfit (who hasn’t marveled at the eyebrows of their beloved?). The Clown (K.T. Vogt) is a saucy lesbian snacking on Cheetos. The newly healed King of France (Kevin Kenerly) busts a move to “Uptown Funk,” and the ladies of Florence (Lauren Modica, Brooke Ishibashi and Jessica Ko) are a finger-snapping comic trio.
With the production simultaneously set in the 1600s and present day (interesting choice), costume designer Alex Jaeger plays with the old and the new — a favorite pastime of Shakespeare himself. T-shirts, hoodies, overalls and baseball caps are countered with Elizabethan accordion collars and puffy pants. Though the oversized heart-shaped and gold-plated crotch ornament sported by the rude and then redeemed Parolles (Al Espinosa) is a bit excessive.
Spring is in the air, and everything is all really French! Tiffany blue fixtures and bold floral patterns are the focus of the set design by Mariana Sanchez. The Italian landscape is shadowy and dark. A large orange tent reaches the highest tier, providing shelter for the soldiers in green — it’s a little Vietnam-like. Why do most war scenes, no matter the time or place, resemble Vietnam?
One source of contention is in the focus itself. All’s Well is full of deeply flawed characters, none more so than Helen, and yet she is the undisputed hero in OSF’s production. Granted, she is repeatedly rejected, and abused by Bertram and Parolles. Helen’s refusal to take Bertram’s “no” for what it is leads her to do awful things, but she’s never held accountable, whereas we have no problem hating on the men.
Helen’s rise to cunning and cool in both Bockus’s endearing portrayal and Young’s choice to flip the ending— a recognized surprise — push the problem over the edge. The audience has no choice but to cheer on Helen as she carefully kisses Bertram on the eye.
It’s fun, but I have my doubts if there is enough Pat Benatar for that level of sympathy.
Young is most successful by simply playing on what is already there. The characters are inherently relatable. Give Helen a diary and Misfits T-shirt and I’m looking at my own experience with rejection. You can make the clown a lesbian, the soldier a woman, the son a fuck boy. All of that works just fine. But you can’t claim it’s not a fairy tale and then give the audience a nice, pink haired bow. The mile long walk back to the hotel is ample time for you to question your devotions.
Alice in Wonderland
Through Oct. 12 in the Elizabethan Theatre
Fair warning to those of sound mind and body who prefer the realm of logic and reason: Alice in Wonderland, though pulsing and engaging, is nonetheless a nonsensical, lexical and rather erratical tumble down the rabbit hole.
With no real plotline and only a vague hint of a beginning and end, director Sara Bruner instead fixes her attention on the wordiness of Lewis Carroll’s original texts, as well as some unconventional special effects — or, as Alice prefers, “pictures and conversation.”
Adapted in 1932 by Florida Friebus and Eva Le Gallienne, founder of the famed Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, Alice draws from both of Carroll’s classic books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Purists and devotees of Carroll’s work will appreciate the ways in which the page is played out on stage. Every word in the show is straight from the books. But remember, faithful patrons of the arts: Just because you can recite the “Jabberwocky” poem from your seat doesn’t mean you should.
Heavily dialectic, Alice follows Alice (Emily Ota) as she gets into and out of weird encounters with curious creatures. Ota is a patchwork Alice in overalls. Flailing and clomping around the stage, frustrated by her strange companions. She’s a bit more like a bratty seventh-grader than a baffled 7-year-old.
Amy Kim Waschke shrieks and scowls as the hot-tempered Queen of Hearts. What the White Queen (Robin Goodrin Nordli) lacks in enthusiasm, she gains in the physical. Her hair is like white cotton candy, her dress travels north when she goes south. Danforth Comins is underwhelming as a cookie-cutter Mad Hatter, while Daniel T. Parker is the unexpected ringer as the doughy and sensitive Mock Turtle. The audience can hardly keep it together as he sings, flippers twitching, “Beautiful Soup.”
Surprisingly absent of any grand spectacle, Alice relies on the imagination of the audience to complete the whole picture. Only a lone powder-blue velvet high-backed chair sets the stage, leaving you to ponder: What wonders are to come?
Kudos to movement director Jaclyn Miller for her incredible choreography, which brings the pictures to life. Stagehands and actors maneuver simple dollar store props to convey size and action as Alice grows smaller and then larger. With nothing more than a single hula-hoop, an entire ocean of tears is lapping the stage.
The Caterpillar (Brent Hinkley), along with a handful of stagehands, dangles his legs over the center balcony while puffing on an L-shaped beam “pipe.” The Cheshire Cat (Lauren Modica) also incorporates hula-hoops captained by a neon sinister grin.
Vibrant and often mechanical, the costumes (Helen Q. Huang) are a whimsical blend of the tie-dye ’60s and futuristic steampunk, with a few Elizabethan puffy sleeves thrown in for good measure. Day-Glo feathered birds wield wire heads. The White Rabbit (Shyla Lefner) wears a sleek, long-eared mask just creepy enough to remind you of Frank from Donnie Darko. The Mock Turtle sports the clunky shell of a playground structure, and the Gryphon (Vilma Silva) is the goggled culmination of a desert aviator and a winged Sherpa.
In a bit of rebellion from the more refined and high-collared Elizabethan plays, Alice is a party. The production plays on the longstanding psychedelic lore surrounding Alice’s mushroomed adventures. In the second act, strobe lights accompany the “galumphing” bad acid trip of a train ride with a terrifying, auto-tuned Goat. White balloons rain down on the crowd in a frantic game of croquet. Most of the audience complies, careful not to spill their plastic cups of red wine, with the unmistakable smell of a Grateful Dead show in the air.
The Caterpillar abides! The whole thing feels like a weird homage to the literary stoners of the world.
Though deeply imaginative, puns abound, and true to the creator himself, the lack of linear storytelling does have its consequences. Remiss of those consequences, Wonderland asks you to leave your sensibilities behind, and to accept the nonsense as reality — an easier task for some than others.
You can embrace the dreamlike, disorienting storytelling, or you can refuse to hit the white balloon. Either way, it’s a vibrant show of silly wonders, reminding us that “We’re all mad here.”
Between Two Knees
Through Oct. 27 in the Thomas Theatre
I’ll never forget the college history class that exposed my negligible high school education.
“I’m sorry, did you say the colonists gave out smallpox blankets in an effort to extirpate the indigenous population?”
Ah, yes, the old high school textbooks are useless bit. But even the revelations of history that come after our youth tend to be general, whitewashed interpretations, more myth than living history — a blip on the smokescreen.
Commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions initiative, a program dedicated to the development of historical plays, and created by the intertribal sketch comedy troupe the 1491s, Between Two Knees is a laugh-out-loud punch in the gut by natives and for natives, and also anyone who appreciates a good neo-shamanism joke.
The intimate Thomas Theatre, where the show has been running since its April opening, is the perfect stage for the truly three-dimensional experience of this play. The opening scenes, crafted by designer Regina García, are something out of a carnival: a lit-up Wild West cardboard cutout backdrop, a certain Land-O-Lakes spokeswoman, and the wheel of native massacres spinning round and round to the sound of crickets until it finally lands on a familiar knee, Wounded Knee.
In recognition, the audience cheers, urging on the less-than-stoic narrator, Larry (Justin Gauthier), and we are off to the prairies.
The story follows central characters Irma Jean Snake (Shyla Lefner) and Isaiah (Derek Garza) from the aftermath of the battle at Wounded Knee in 1890 all the way up to the occupation of Pine Ridge (the other knee) in 1973, hence the title (so get your mind out of the gutter).
Irma and Isaiah form a deep connection when they meet at a conversion convent aimed at civilizing, fraternizing and molestersizing. Grim stuff! A Mortal Combat spoof complete with Nunjas should lighten things up. Strobe lights, slow-motion high kicks — it’s the most cinematic fight scene I’ve ever witnessed on the live stage (featuring light direction by Elizabeth Harper and fight direction by Rod Kinter).
It’s also the scene that seems to bring up the most contention from the one-percenter fanny packers. Despite the praise the show has received, many have walked out since it first opened in April, criticizing the humor as being mean-spirited. I suppose they believe child molesters deserve our sympathies as well.
At one point Lefner baptizes her baby in a “traditional” Native American ceremony with the tears of white women. It’s funny, and yet Lefner needs to take a minute to remind us that it’s OK to laugh, and that laughter is especially healing for the people who are telling the story.
A little Monty Python, a little Mad TV, and with a dollop of Drunk History, the cast and crew run through a marathon of skits. Lefner and Garza head the pack during the first half, while Sheila Tousey and Wotko Long take over as the post-World War I incarnations of Irma and Isaiah. Rachel Crowl is fantastic, running on and off stage from all angles as a jazz singing priest, and a tone deaf and long winded tie-dyed priestess plucked from the streets of Ashland.
The hyper use of props — including a very high-tech explosion, pulsating lights, projections and shadows — speaks to the creators’ original YouTube platform. Director Eric Ting does a masterful job of maintaining the rough edges that make the writing team of the 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn and Bobby Wilson) so charmingly crass.
I laughed till I cried, and then I just cried. Between Two Knees is as heartfelt and sobering as it is subversive. Some of the funniest jokes are followed with piercing silence when yet another tragedy hits you upside the head. Every joke has a point, and every point hits home.
Even as you swing your arms to the musical finale, you’ll shift in your seat a little as Gauthier sings “Goodbye White People” in an electric tribal space suit.
The lesson you’ll leave with is far more effective than white guilt. It’s a lesson in the power of artful storytelling, the kind that spans the range of human emotions instead of pinpointing just the ones that hit the politically correct bone.
So if you’re not sensitive to explosions or criticism, and you happen to like funny stuff, then get thee down to Ashland to see Between Two Knees. You might learn what’s in between the left and the right.