Three years after the start of the pandemic, still beset by wildfire smoke, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is back. Facing deep losses at the box office, the OSF board did a leadership housecleaning last spring, with the result that skeptical donors are opening their wallets again, even after chipping in some $2.5 million in April to keep the 2023 season alive. On Sept. 1, OSF announced another $2 million donation, this one from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, to support the 2024 season.
I headed down to Ashland to catch four of the five current shows on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 1 and 2. The bad news is that the performance of Rent I was scheduled to see in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre was canceled due to an outbreak of COVID in the cast. The good news is, I was able instead to take in Where We Belong, a wonderful one-woman jewel that just opened Aug. 24.
It’s clearly going to take some time for OSF — and Ashland, which depends on the playgoers for a good piece of its economy — to recover from the pandemic. But it looks like the audience is returning. While one show, Romeo & Juliet, had a dismal turnout Friday afternoon, filling only about a third of the seats in the Bowmer, the other shows I saw brought in respectable crowds.
In the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 13
Drop everything now and make plans to see Twelfth Night. It’s a terrific show, Shakespearean comedy as good as it gets. It rained the night we saw it in the outdoor theater and I hardly noticed, so caught up was I in the beautiful set (by Edward E. Haynes Jr.), the energy of the production and a veritable orgy of John Cleese-class physical comedy, Shakespearean wordplay and amazing music.
Director Dawn Monique Williams has set the Bard’s classic tale of confused romance and gender-bending misidentification against a musical background of classic American blues, so that Feste the Fool (in real life, singer Arielle Crosby) bursts into songs evoking Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
The cast is solid across the board, but I especially enjoyed Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Sam Jackson as Viola, a woman pretending to be a man for much of the play.
Romeo and Juliet
In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 15
Directed by Nataki Garrett, OSF’s now-former artistic director, this production of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy has the erratic energy of a very ambitious show put on by an elite high school. When it works, the youthful energy, driven by music from rock to hip hop, is gripping, but too much of the play feels like the cast is reciting words they’ve memorized, turning a heartbreaking love story into a romance with little heat.
The indisputable star is the intriguing set by Nina Ball that turns the Bowmer stage into a contemporary homeless camp in urban California, where two gangs, the Capulets and Montagues, collide.
Garrett’s choice to set the story among the poor rather than the elite has been done successfully before — West Side Story, anyone? — but seems tacked on here in an effort to increase relevance. The best performances come from Caroline Shaffer, who’s been at OSF for 13 seasons, as Juliet’s nurse; Catherine Castellanos, a veteran of six seasons, as Capulet, the head of the clan; and from Tyrone Wilson, who is in his 28th season, as Friar Lawrence. Despite its flaws, the show is worth seeing for its energy. Your high school kids will adore it.
The Three Musketeers
In the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 14
How many times can you shout “motherfucker” in a three-minute scene? Directed by Kent Gash, the characters in this very self-conscious adaptation by Kirsten Childs of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling adventure poke fun at the language of the play, but they’re not funny enough to redeem the tedium of much of the dialogue. In this telling, Dumas himself is a player (Jamyl Dobson), fighting to control his own fictional characters as they come to life and work out the masculine challenges of becoming and remaining a hero.
There’s plenty of sword-fight action, but the plot is too thin to sustain a three-hour run time, even though Haynes’ set and Jason Lynch’s lighting are gorgeous. This one’s at the bottom of my list for the season.
Where We Belong
In the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 15
Achokayis, the sole character in this fascinating one-woman show written by Madeline Sayet, is a contemporary young woman of the Mohegan nation — a Native American tribe originally living in what is now Connecticut — who leaves home and flies to England to study Shakespeare, overcoming both her fear of airplanes and her mother’s objections (“What, you want to be white?”), but bumping into borders, both political and cultural, at every turn.
Presented in OSF’s intimate Thomas Theatre, Jessica Ranville’s compelling performance of the play’s hour and a half monologue is framed by a simple grid of tube lights that complement the story perfectly.
An hour and a half talk on colonialism and Indigenous culture might not sound like a perfect diversion for a beautiful summer evening. Never fear. Where We Belong, directed by Mei Ann Teo, doesn’t harangue. Instead, it offers a deliciously challenging blend of uncomfortable truths, tragic history, the love of literature and warm-hearted humor, all presented with the polished showmanship that OSF has long been known for. Go see it.