Macbeth. Photo by Jenny Graham

Undoing the Curse

Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens the Scottish play — and begins to heal 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival seems to have been under a terrible curse since 2011, when a structural beam supporting the Angus Bowmer Theatre mysteriously snapped one night, closing the 600-seat theater down for nearly two months at the height of the summer season. Year by year things only got worse, as late-season wildfire smoke began to shut down the festival’s iconic outdoor Elizabethan Theatre in the summer. And then came COVID, the layoffs of 90 percent of the festival’s staff and some tone deaf programming by a new artistic director. By the end of 2022 audiences and donors were in short supply, and it seemed one of the state’s biggest arts nonprofits was as doomed as the protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Now enjoy the irony. Half way through a March 29 opening night production of Macbeth, the cursed Scottish play whose name, by tradition, cannot safely be spoken in the theater world, I realized that OSF is back. The Bowmer was packed for the show with an audience ready to applaud at the slightest provocation, even the pre-recorded welcome message. At intermission the lobby was loudly abuzz. Everyone was smiling, though the biggest smiles of all came from Tim Bond, the veteran OSF associate artistic director who answered the call from Ashland last year when the OSF board and that tone deaf artistic director finally parted ways.

Bond, who served with Artistic Director Libby Appel from 1996 to 2007, had plenty to smile about. The critically wounded festival was kicking off the new season with four shows, and rehearsals had just begun that same day, he said, for the summer season’s plays in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre next door. 

Here’s a quick look at the four plays that opened last weekend. And, yes, three of the four are short, one- or two-actor shows. Yes, OSF is on its way back, but that doesn’t mean the production budget has fully recovered just yet.

Macbeth. In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 12.

Macbeth recalls the old days of OSF at its best. Director Evren Odciken infuses Shakespeare’s tragedy of power, lust and betrayal with contemporary energy without the hip pandering that causes traditionalists’ teeth to grind. The actual play is all there, but it’s presented with the force and sensibility of a Hollywood horror film, perhaps one based on Stephen King. There’s music, there’s dance, there’s sword fighting and there’s comic relief. The three witches nearly steal the two-hour, forty-five-minute show, though Kevin Kennerly and Erica Sullivan do journeyman work as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

The three other productions that opened the new season are all shorter — one runs 90 minutes and two time out at 55 minutes each — with tiny casts, perfect for OSF’s tight budget.

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender. In the small Thomas Theatre through May 4.

Lisa Wolpe’s moving but disorganized tale, presented on an empty stage, lacks dramatic structure and comes across for much of its 55-minute run time as an unusually animated lecture on the Holocaust’s impact on her family, her abusive stepfather and gender roles in Shakespeare as well as in her own life.

Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the foundation story here is that of her late father, Hans Max Joachim Wolpe, a German Jew who fought, undercover, on the side of the Allies in World War II. He was decorated by the Canadian military, but went on to commit suicide — as many of her close relatives had done — when Wolpe herself was a child of four.

She’s been touring this show around the U.S. and internationally for a decade. It’s worth seeing, if only for Wolpe’s sad story of learning to present herself as male — she’s played just about every major male role in the Shakespeare canon — in order to escape her stepfather’s vile attentions.

Smote This: A Comedy About God… and Other Serious SH*T. In the Thomas Theatre through May 12.

The other 55-minute one-actor show is also about the death of a father. But Smote This is done with unflagging energy by Rodney Gardiner, a 10-season OSF veteran whose physical comedy accents his poignant but often hilarious autobiographical story of coming to terms with his Christian roots after growing up as an undocumented Black immigrant, from the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the Miami of Miami Vice. A typical gag: His sometimes scurrilous father kept, right in the family home, his treasured picture of a beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde-haired — Jesus! (rimshot).

From the play’s opening funereal moments  — where he learns firsthand, at his dad’s viewing, that you really don’t want to touch the body when you say goodbye — Gardiner owns his audience, ping-ponging it between laughter and tears. Go see this one for sure.

Born With Teeth. In the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 13.

Liz Duffy Adams’ two-actor play, which premiered at Alley Theatre in Houston in 2022, imagines the real life Elizabethan playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as they collaborate on Shakespeare’s history plays about Henry VI in the back room of a bar, where they trade barbs, hurl insults at each other and fall madly in love. Alex Purcell is perfect as the amoral, egotistical Marlowe, and sometimes overpowers Bradley James Tejeda’s more-sensitive but well-acted Shakespeare. Directed here by Rob Melrose, who also directed the Houston premiere, the story is fascinating, woven into the dangerous political landscape of the time (Marlowe was a spy and informer for the government). Shakespeare junkies will love this one, though I’d have been happy with another character or two to provide respite from a 90-minute non-stop conversation between the two geniuses.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs plays through mid-October in its three theaters in downtown Ashland. Six more plays are set to open later in the spring. Advance ticket sales and hotel reservations work far better than just showing up. For tickets and more info, go to