That last weekend of February was a great one: filled with treachery, valor, victory, murder, mixed identities, justice served, passion run amok, melodrama and even a little romance.
All, fortunately, on stage and not on CNN.
We were in Ashland for the 2018 opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
Four plays staged over three days herald the beginning of what promises to be another phenomenal season of classics interspersed with gate-crashing innovation, under the leadership of Bill Rauch, the artistic director who will leave OSF in August 2019 to become director of The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center in New York City.
Here’s what we saw, in order.
How many times in your life do you want to watch a play where, however much you wish Desdemona would just not go to bed that night, she will still do it, and therefore be strangled by her heroic but demented husband?
The answer is, when this 400-year old play is infused with such vibrancy and haunting relevance as this new production directed by Rauch, which opened the 2018 season.
“Othello” gets a modern setting here, and this provides a relentless illumination of an element sometimes downplayed this tale of love, marriage, mad jealousy and murder: racism.
Iago, passed over for a promotion by the naval hero and commander Othello, plots a course of revenge, but often one wonders: why did he concoct so evil a plot that results, not just in the downfall of Othello, but the death of three other innocents, including his own wife, the noble Cassio, and the loyal Desdemona, Othello’s wife?
The navy is happy enough to accept the service of the charismatic, confident Othello, (Chris Butler) the Moor, an immigrant, who has risen by his own brilliance from enslavement to hero. But when he marries Desdemona, daughter of a Senator, this is another matter.
One stroke of genius in this production is that Iago, who often is portrayed as a snakey, spidery obviously creepy person, here is played by a tall, clean-cut superb specimen of a white male (Danforth Comins) — he could be Barbie’s Ken, come to life and in the U.S. Navy — and he cannot say “Moor” without snarling. He lacked only a tiki torch, really.
Desdemona, (Alejandra Escalante) is bright, modern, independent, courageous, and doomed from the minute she runs away with the Moor.
The centuries-old play becomes enthralling again as Iago lays his traps — beginning in a conversation in a gym where Desdemona, Othello, and the others all work out.
This is underscored by the striking set, evoking Cyprus where most of the play unfolds (as Othello is sent, with his new wife, to rescue his country from an attack by the Turks). A long stone wall, at times appears to be only a barricade between the island and the sea. But in the pivotal gym scene, a row of television screens appear, on it, each running a different broadcast of talking heads and news. It’s a scene, made all the more chilling because the old words echo with such immediacy.
Still, one is left to ponder the other paradox of “Othello”: why does this smart man become so unhinged over Desdemona’s lost handkerchief as to accept it’s all the proof he needs of her infidelity? Perhaps it’s the illustration of the frailty of the ego of a powerful man when the primeval id is stirred — another timely story.
As mesmerizing as this new OSF “Othello” is, for me it took second place to the next show we saw, Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
The follow-up to last year’s double production of “Henry IV,” Parts 1 and 2. “Henry V” picks up when Henry IV is dead and his son, Hal, the wild guy, given to hanging out with Falstaff, is king.
Here, too, the casting is spectacular. Henry V, played by Daniel Jose Molina, (who played the young prince Hal last season). As he first appears, he looks like a kid sitting uneasily on his dad’s throne. The crown droops, too big for his head as clergy attempt to persuade the young king that he has a claim to the throne of France, their intent to distract him with a foreign war.
During the next two hours, we witness his transformation; indeed, in this staging in OSF’s smallest theater, the Thomas, you are all but part of it, as he leads his army to France and eventually to the astonishing victory at Agincourt.
The Thomas Theater is configured with seats on three sides and against the fourth, a pile of gray, wooden crates provides the only props. These are moved, at will, to become tables, chairs and thrones, and together they provide a hill, a barricade, and the setting for Henry to extol his men, “Once more into the breach, dear friends.”
The cast, clad in gray, slip in and out of other roles. Jessica Ko, for example, plays a French envoy, the boy who as Falstaff’s page, and the French Princess Katherine, whom Henry eventually will woo (after he has vanquished her father and brother and their fatuous French army.)
The action unfolds to a thundering soundtrack of drums that intensifies the sense that you are there on the battlefield, one of Henry’s “band of brothers.”
This all serves to focus the spotlight on Henry — and Molina is magnificent as he grows into a leader capable of fierce justice and dazzling courage, compassion, humor, and in equal share, humility.
It is a thrilling production, and a meditation on leadership.
Oh gosh, how did “Henry V” become timely too?
‘Sense and Sensibility’
Forever a fan of Jane Austen, I was looking forward to this stage adaptation of her first novel and was, therefore, surprised when it turned out to be my least favorite of the four shows.
At the outset of the novel, the death of a gentleman, John Dashwood, catapults his widow and three daughters into a precarious situation. By law, his son by from first marriage inherits everything; Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne, Margaret, and Elinor, lose their home, their income and most of their prospects. They get to keep a set of China.
In a world where a woman has one choice to ensure her survival — marriage — how will the intelligent and educated but penniless group of women survive? Is love — a happy ending — even a remote possibility?
Kate Hamill’s is clearly an affectionate adaptation, but uneven, and, at times, strange, veering between farce and melodrama. And Austen wrote neither.
One choice Hamill makes is to create a chorus of Gossips — whose chattering serves, one supposes, advance the narrative but largely added a lot of noisy clutter.
The unchanging set is the interior of one, large mansion that looms over the stage and the characters, as their patriarchal structure of their society dominates their lives. This is effective, but the mansion has many doors, and at times, when the production veered toward face, eruptions in and out of the doors by Gossips and other characters, resulted in a Regency version of “Noises Off.”
Another production choice I have to take issue with, in this instance, is the multiple casting. Sometimes (see Henry V), it works. This time, with a complex plot, it didn’t.
K.T. Vogt, for instance, is quite funny, as the meddling mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, determined to marry off all young ladies in her orbit. But when she appeared again as the nasty Mrs. Ferrars, I was momentarily bewildered. Samantha Miller plays the youngest Dashwood daughter, Margaret, but also appears as Lucy Steele, the conniving woman engaged to the man Elinor secretly loves, and again as Miss Grey, possessor of 30,000 pounds, who walks off with Marianne’s love interest. Who? What?
Lest this be taken for the grumblings of a purist, when I asked a friend, also viewing it, what he thought. He, who had never read the book and never seen movie adaptations, said, “To be honest — and I know how much you like Jane Austen — I was confused most of the time.”
The death of John Dashwood, which drives the plot, is treated cavalierly. He is flopped onto a wooden bier-like thing, as Gossips crowd around him speculating; but, later in the work when Marianne walks in the rain pondering her lost love (and subsequently gets a life-threatening cold, a fate that afflicts many Austen heroines who walk in the rain), this scene evolves into a weirdly Gothic nightmare with the Gossips whirling around her and carrying her off.
I have to say: Austen fills her stories with silly people, but the works are not themselves, silly. There is rich wit and irony — because, as she said, for what do we live but to provide sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in turn — but they are not comic novels. And she dedicated one novel, “Northanger Abbey,” to making superb fun of the popular Gothics of her time.
This complaint being registered, the times where Hamill lets Austen be Austen, using dialogue from the novel (and from a couple of other ones too), the play does give a hint of the delights contained in the book.
But I have no idea why all the characters had to dance, Beyonce-like, at the end.
‘Destiny of Desire’
We went into the last play on a Sunday afternoon with no idea what to expect from this new work by Karen Zacarias.
It was fabulous — funny, fantastic and flawlessly entertaining.
Inspired by telenovelas, the television serial dramas, hugely popular in Latin America, Zacarias draws liberally on anything inspiring — a little Shakespeare, a few fairy tales — to create a extravaganza of marvels.
Presented as a play within a play, created by a troupe of Latino actors, the story focuses on two girls born on the same night, one to the Del Rios, a poor farming family, and the other to the Castillos, the wealthiest, casino-owing family in Bellarica.
While the farmer’s daughter is a healthy baby, the Castillo’s daughter has a weak heart and is not expected to live. Fabiola Castillo demands that the babies be switched: the farmers don’t need to know and they can always have another baby when this one dies, but she cannot disappoint her husband with a weakling. The doctor, eyeing donations to his hospital, is complicit.
Justice will be served, and 18 years later, it is, in a concoction of humor and heart. Complication is piled upon complication, nobody is what they seem — and in some cases this is a good thing. You can think of it as “Comedy of Errors” meets ‘Scrubs” meets “Cinderella” — and a whole lot more.
This is a play to be experienced more than described. The whole work has a polish of performance and timing; and it is filled with something often in short supply: not just laughter but joy.
Its sheer triumph had the audience on their feet roaring applause even before the last lines.
There will be more plays as the OSF season progresses, leading up to the opening of the outdoor season in June. For the entire schedule, tickets and other information visit osfashland.org.