Ashland/OSF 2018

by Glenn on September 9, 2018

Ashland, Oregon is a college town, the home of Southern Oregon University. But it is also home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s difficult to imagine what this town of 20,000 located 16 miles above the California/Oregon border would be like without the latter. Perhaps OSF is not Ashland’s raison d’etre, but it’s fortunes seem to be thoroughly enmeshed.

Each year, from February through October, OSF presents a number of plays in repertory (eleven, this year), which means that actors in one play usually appear in another. During the summer months, three plays are performed on the outdoor Allen/Elizabethan stage. We were pretty faithful attenders beginning in 2003, often bringing along student groups, but Labor Day weekend was our first visit since 2014.

The smoke from forest fires has made this a rough year for OSF. Their struggles have been described in The New York Times. We had a bad week or so of poor air quality here in Portland this summer. What locals in Ashland talk about were the bad weeks—a “When will it end?” phenomena with serious health and economic consequences for all concerned. Thick plastic curtains like you see with large walk-in coolers have been hung over the doors inside the Angus Bowmer Theatre to preserve interior air quality. Many performances of the outdoor plays were cancelled or moved to smaller, but interior locations.

I feel fortunate that our trip this Labor Day weekend seemed to coincide with an improvement in air quality and a palpable sense of lifted spirits for locals.

1 | Three Plays

We saw three plays: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill, and The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson.

I didn’t enjoy the first two as much as I had hoped, though the production quality was wonderful. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival practices a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion which, as a member of the audience, I find both praiseworthy and confusing.

For example, in the production of Romeo and Juliet, the casting was intentionally balanced male/female, giving us a female Mercutio and Prince Escalus. You need to be careful about your high horse when criticizing a choice like that, though. After all, in the time of Shakespeare, you would have seen every role played by a man or boy. I thought both actors owned their roles. This wasn’t my favorite Mercutio, but this was a very fine Mercutio.

The diversity went further, though. In this production, one of the actors was deaf. Another was a little person. These latter two casting choices were challenging for me as an audience member. In the case of the deaf person, someone else says their lines for her as she signs, which makes me wonder why not just have a person who can say the lines, especially in a Shakespeare play which depends so much on being heard? The little person played Gregory and was part of the ensemble. Her appearance is distinctive and costume changes do little to disguise the fact that this is the same person. She also doesn’t seem to be able to move that well and so the opening fight scene, which symbolizes the vehemence and intractability of the inter-family violence between the Capulets and Montagues of Verona, looked more static than staged—almost a tableau.

The opening of Romeo and Juliet featured the entire cast reciting The Prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity …”) in unison. But they also signed these opening lines, so that the beginning of the play resembled a dance team performance. It was too much, I thought.

In Sense and Sensibility, the actors playing the three Dashwood sisters are Latina (Elinor, played by Nancy Rodriguez), Asian (Marianne, played by Emily Ota), and African-American (Margaret, played by Samantha Mille). Their mother is white (played by Kate Mulligan). Each actor was excellent. But when they were together on stage, it felt a little strange. Modern, in a period piece.

Elinor Dashwood (Nancy Rodriguez), Mrs. Dashwood (Kate Mulligan), Marianne Dashwood (Emily Ota), and Margaret Dashwood (Samantha Miller). The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2018. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Adapted by Kate Hamill. Directed by Hana S. Sharif. Scenic Design: Collette Pollard. Costume Design: Fabio Toblini. Lighting Design: Rui Rita. Composer and Sound Design: Justin Ellington. Dramaturg: Lydia G. Garcia. Voice and Text Director: Robert Ramirez. Choreographer: Jaclyn Miller. Assistant Choreographer: Valerie Rachelle. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Photo: Jenny Graham.

 

On the one hand, good for OSF being so inclusive, doing what we don’t seem to do very well in our nation and culture. Even (or, perhaps, especially) in the Church, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek … male and female” because we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) we remain stubbornly segregated. On the other hand, this is not how the world of Jane Austen looked. Should theatre be forward-thinking or representational of reality?

I’ve noticed that there have been performances on OSF stages that were decidedly (and appropriately) conscious of race. Two plays by August Wilson come to mind—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Gem of the Ocean. These were phenomenal, moving productions/performances. But they didn’t use color-blind casting.

Because this is repertory theatre, the little person who played Gregory et al on Saturday night, was in the production of Sense and Sensibility on Sunday afternoon playing, among other roles, Lady Middleton, who is described by Jane Austen this way:

“Lady Middleton was not more than six or seven and twenty; her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful.”

It’s the “tall and striking” that I struggle with. As an audience member I engage in something called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” which is what allows you to be moved when Romeo, unaware of the Friar’s fraught and convoluted plan to fake Juliet’s death following Romeo’s banishment—What could possibly go wrong?—thinks Juliet is dead. She wakes up just as Romeo has killed himself and is so distraught that she, too takes her life.

It is this suspension of disbelief that allows us to take what we see before us as real. We know it’s a stage, but pretend it’s somewhere else in space and time. We know they are actors, but while the performance is going assume they are who they pretend to be.

We accept this. The effect is often surprisingly magical.

But I wonder to what extent the production must do its part? We will believe, but doesn’t the production have to be in some way believable? Or at least not throw significant barriers to belief.

The idea of color-blind casting is wonderful and I feel something like shame that I don’t always like how it “looks” on stage. There have been many times where I haven’t particularly cared, where the ethnicity of the actors has irrelevant to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. Those are wonderful experiences. I recall four productions of Romeo and Juliet at OSF. The first remains my favorite. Kevin Kenerly was Romeo; Nancy Rodriguez was Juliet. The costuming was modern, the staging minimalist, it had a hip-hop vibe to it that worked really well to highlight the youth culture of the play and the day. Kenerly and Rodriguez were fabulous. The fact that Kenerly is African-American and Rodriguez is Latina may have added a sort of two cultures West Side Story poignancy to the whole thing, but as I recall, Romeo’s parents were white. No matter. The point is that Kenerly and Rodriguez were the star-crossed lovers in those performances. So maybe it comes down to believability—the skill of the actors not to be in the way.

The little reading I’ve done suggests there has been a shift in recent years. At one point, the goal was “color-blind” casting, which I like because it means we’re trying to find the best actor for the role and we’re not going to get hung up on appearances. But more recently, some have seized upon the idea of “color-conscious” casting, which “intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world.” I’m not sure what’s fair or appropriate or just in terms of hiring practices in the theatre.

It’s a difficult subject to talk about. If you only imagine Hamlet as a white guy, then introducing a person of color or, as I’ve seen on one occasion, a woman, can be a little jarring. Surprising to me, I’ve read that the playwright August Wilson was actually against color-blind casting. What he wanted to see were more plays written about and roles created for African-Americans in the theatre. And there are times where color-blindness is a no go. Apparently, no one wants to see a white man play Martin Luther King, Jr. Last year, the estate of Edward Albee denied permission to perform Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf using an African-American in the lead. It’s complicated issue. I came across a blog post by Christine Albright Tufts, a terrific actor who we have seen at OSF in years past, that captures some of the heat and tension that comes up around this issue.

It seems like you can be trying to make a point with casting, though, which may be where I want to question, so that instead of serving the story with your production, you are using the story as a vehicle to carry an agenda. That may not be bad. But, if I’m honest, it’s not why I go to the theatre. The more the production lectures me (finger wag?) rather than conveys a story, the less I seem to enjoy it. The program notes for this production of Romeo and Juliet made this comment:

“For the director, setting the play in its original given circumstances while presenting it from a modern point of view through a consciously cast diverse and gender-balanced company of actors ensures that the reason for the feud is not interpreted as based on race or ethnicity.”

It’s an interesting statement, because there is nothing in the play to suggest that the feud is based on ethnicity. At the party, Tybalt makes a reference to the speech of Romeo, which could suggest that perhaps the two families had their own accents? I don’t know. Otherwise, it’s two families of, one assumes, the same Italian ethnicity. Mercutio, who is a friend of Romeo’s was invited to the Capulet party. He, somehow, was able to float between the families. The Friar is all too aware of the strife in the city, but he is apart from it. The rest of the characters are mired in the conflict which is about family loyalties, not race.

The third play was the most enjoyable and I regret that I likely will not get the chance to see this production again. Such is the ephemeral nature of live theatre. The Book of Will is the story of the Lord Chamberlain’s men after William Shakespeare has died. They are frustrated by performances of “Shakespeare” using bad texts, i.e. not Shakespeare, or at least adulterated Shakespeare. When Richard Burbage, who had done the big Shakespeare roles and knew the lines, also dies, John Heminges and Henry Condell decide they must create a definitive Shakespeare. The theme of the play is a What if …? After Shakespeare died, half of his plays had not been published and many of the others were bad editions. What if these men had not gathered the plays together? It’s also a celebration of theatre, Shakespeare’s plays, and, in this production, the actors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I was the most dubious of the premise of this play going in but it turned out to be the most deeply affecting of the productions we saw. There was a surprise at the end in which the stage wall became a screen to show a montage of videos of OSF actors portraying various Shakespeare roles. At times, the players on stage were seen on screen in roles they had played, some of which I’d seen: Jeffrey King as Hamlet’s father, Kate Hurster as Lady Anne in Richard III and David Kelly as (if I recall correctly) Richard II—all memorable productions. Kenerly reprised live some of his lines from the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The man knows how to talk.

The opening of the second act has a beautiful dialogue between John and Henry. John’s wife has died and Henry has come alongside to comfort him:

HENRY
When my first boy died, only months old, I couldn’t imagine a loving God that would have any part in such a thing. And I told Him so in my prayers, silent because I know I’d be the one in the ground if anyone heard what I thought of God and His taking and taking and taking. Then I realized the great weight of every grieving father’s prayers that must hit God every night, and must sound so much like my own. Sons who lost fathers, husbands without wives, mothers—oh God the mothers. All that grief on God’s ear constantly.
Then I felt bad for God.
Which made me laugh.
Which made me feel alive again. Funny how that worked out didn’t it.

JOHN
That’s a good story. Why do we bother?

HENRY
With what?

JOHN
With stories. Dramas. Especially the dramas. Isn’t that ridiculous? Grown men dressing up as kings and, even more ridiculously, queens. And the people come to see it. They weep with us. Why do they do it?

HENRY
Because stories are real in their own way

JOHN
No. Real life keeps going on and on, and the villains aren’t caught and the endings aren’t right, and it’s rough seas and dark days and we sit here in this barn playing fictions for willing dreamers. We tell it over and over and over again. And I sit through it and it’s false and it’s hot air and I need it. When I have nothing left to say I need it. When I hurt so much I can’t breathe, when I’ve got a horse for a heart and it won’t stop running and pounding and running me down, I need it…

HENRY
John.

JOHN
Am I godless? I look to fairies and false kings instead of holy people. Does that a heathen make?

HENRY
No. Of course not, no.

JOHN
I cannot breathe without her, I cannot breathe at home or in the street or in the yard where she now lies, I cannot breath in this world but here [the theatre]. Here I am come. And I am lulled into meaning. And that is the greatest fiction of all. Meaning anything. (Then with great ferocity.) And God and His angels mock us every ending we play but the tragic ones, for if they aren’t tragedies yet, they will soon enough be.
Story’s a forged life. Life’s a tempest of loss. Why do we bother with any of it?

HENRY
To feel again.

JOHN
I feel enough.

HENRY
I said to feel again. That’s the miracle of it. The fairies aren’t real but the feeling is. And it comes to us here, player and groundling alike, again and again here. Your favorite story just ended? Come back tomorrow, we’ll play it again. Don’t like the story you’re in? A different one starts in an hour. Come here, come again, feel here, feel again.
History walks here, love is lived here, loss is met and wept for and understood and survived here and not the first time but every time. We play love’s first look and life’s last here every day. And you will see yourself in it, or your fear, or your future before the play’s end. And you will test your heart against trouble and joy, and every time you’ll feel a flicker or a fountain of feeling that reminds you that, yes, you are yet living. And that is more than God give you in his ample silence. And then it ends. And we players stand up. And we look at the gathered crowd. And we bow. Because the story was told well enough, and it’s time for another.

That was quite a moment.

The acting business is difficult. If the national unemployment rate is something like 5%, the inverse, the actual employment rate for actors is the same, or perhaps less—5%. For every actor working as actors there are 19 or more who want to be. There are no guarantees. You may have an OSF role for one season and then you’re off to find work elsewhere. As an audience member, it’s somehow comforting to see something like a community of actors who have brought Shakespeare to life over the years and to see them on stage together working hard for and to an effect.

Of the three plays and casts that was saw last weekend, The Book of Will is the one that I’d want to see again. It’s also the one that makes me wonder what it would be like to be part of something like that—a great play, great actors with great camaraderie, a great venue.

A lovely interview of the playwright, Lauren Gunderson, about this play can be heard here. At one point Gunderson refers to the theatre as her “church.” I can say that the end of this play had a definite religious quality to it. It was quite emotional and my first thought when the play was over was, “I guess this is what it’s like to attend the Church of Will.”

2 | Three random observations

1. One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years is the post-matinee discussions, where an actor from a play will come out and answer audience questions. I don’t remember this in the past, but OSF now has a poster board up front that spells out some guidelines for the discussion:

Listen to understand.
Share your own views and experience by using “I” statements.
Don’t speak for others or as others to speak for their community/communities.
Critique ideas, not people.
Maintain respectful engagement by:
• not monopolizing the conversation.
• not participating in side conversations.
• silencing cell phones/no talking or texting.
Enjoy!

The question I have: Was this proactive or reactive? I don’t remember anything happening at one of these discussions in the past that warranted posted rules like these. We also noted that the format of the discussion was changed slightly. Iris, a volunteer who has been hosting these events as long as we’ve been attending them, still serves as host (she read the rules aloud), but now there is a facilitator that accompanies and introduces the actor. I wonder what the story is there? Did something happen?

2. Romeo refers to himself a couple of times as a “desperate” man.

5.1 (aside)
Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means. O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men.

5.3 (to Paris)
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desp’rate man;

I know I’ve heard the word before, but this time there was an association. It made me think of that line from John Donne’s, “Death, Be Not Proud”:

“Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men …”

Donne wrote the “Holy Sonnets” in which Death, Be Not Proud is included in the early 1600’s. I wonder if this idea of “desperate men” came to Donne from Shakespeare or elsewhere? Not high on the list, but a question to research at some point.

3. One other thing from R&J. It dawned on me that Romeo and Juliet have done a little role reversal in the manner of their deaths. Romeo took poison and Juliet took the more violent and painful (one imagines) method of knife to the gut.

3 | Three Restaurants

I can’t say these are the three “best” restaurants in Ashland, but we certainly have enjoyed these and will happily go back:

1. There have been few trips to Ashland where we haven’t had dinner at Beasey’s on the Creek. In the summer it is delightful to sit out on the patio. It’s upscale, but it’s remarkable to see a restaurant maintain a sense of identity and quality over so many years.

2. Pie + Vine is in the location formerly known as Pasta Piatti. There has been some form of transition (ownership, one assumes), but many items from the previous restaurant have carried over into this new enterprise, the Mista salad, for example, which has a phenomenal dressing, organic, weedy greens, and loads of texture and flavors from a collection of tomatoes, grilled asparagus, red onions, roasted chickpeas and more.

3. We stayed in an Airbnd for the first time in Ashland. This came without breakfast included, which gave us the great excuse to walk a half mile North to the Breadboard. Breakfast was phenomenal. Amazing to me how you can get something as simple as steak and eggs and it tastes so different from place to place, in this case really great. The top sirloin was seasoned well and “over hard” eggs cooked perfectly. I think they make their own blackberry jam which was great on sourdough toast.

 

4 | Three New Things

We tried an Airbnd for the first time. Our place was delightful. We stayed in the Edward Gorey Room at Wood Hamlet. The room was clean, quiet, and comfortable. In the past, we’ve stayed in hotels that have had breakfast included. Those breakfasts don’t compare to the Breadboard (see above). As a bonus, the cost of our Air BnB and breakfast out was much less than the hotels where breakfast is included. I can see why the hotel industry would be upset about something like this. The Wood Hamlet is an easy, half-mile walk to downtown and OSF.

It was great to discover that Case Coffee Roasters has opened a second location in Ashland. Their primary location, where they do their roasting, is located on the Southern end of town, by SOU. Their second location is just a couple of blocks from OSF in the heart of downtown. My test for a coffee place is to order a cappuccino. It’s hard to describe how a great cappuccino, like they do at Case Coffee, tastes. The essence is there is a kind of sweetness to it that comes from a beautifully roasted espresso and a milk that hasn’t been overheated. It’s a hot drink, but not scorching. The contrast, for me, is something like Starbucks, where the espresso is bitter and the milk overheated so that it loses its sweetness.

We knew that In-N-Out burger crossed the Oregon border into Medford a few years back. On our way to Ashland, we noticed there is a new location in Grants Pass that we visited on our way home. In-N-Out Burger never disappoints. It was pleasing to see that the call for a boycott appeared not to be working . (Or how fortunate that we chose to visit In-N-Out burger during a boycott. Imagine how much more busy it would have been.) There’s some irony (that’s the kindest word—perhaps more like hypocrisy) in that a Democrat group called for the boycott because the burger chain—I would argue the premiere burger chain in the country—had donated to a Republican cause. But it turns out they had also donated to a Democrat cause. Their indignation might be cured with some self-examination.

I often find the sanctimony of right-wing fundamentalists tiresome. Is there a sanctimony from the left that is equally tiresome? Do we really have to politicize food?

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