Something for everyone at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is back with its first full season since the coronavirus pandemic. Five shows are currently on stage, including ‘Once On This Island,’ (above), a production that adds a particular mindfulness around Haitian culture. PHOTO BY JENNY GRAHAM/OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is open for its first full season since lockdown in 2020, the first under the direction of Artistic Director Nataki Garrett. Five shows are currently on stage; I’ll begin with the three I saw first, which rage widely in tone and may each have their own audience. That may well be the point; if theater really is for everyone, that may not mean that everyone likes each show but rather than there is something for everyone.
“Once On This Island” may have the most wide-ranging appeal of the three and runs all season. It is a buoyant one-act musical that can be experienced purely for dance and music and vibrant color—but to the particular delight of some of us, OSF’s production is built with particular mindfulness around Haitian culture. The show is usually set on an unnamed Caribbean island and, though its source material is a novel written by Rosa Guy, an immigrant to the U.S. from Trinidad, the show’s white creators (book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty) kept the cultural references generic, a feature commonly found in “ethnic” plays. Director Lili-Anne Brown sought to honor specificity by setting OSF’s production in Haiti, with particular attention to the rhythms of that country’s language, its history, its indigenous Vodou religion, and its swirl of colonized cultures.
For those who approach the work with curiosity about and admiration for Haitian culture, this production holds particular delights that hold the story well. During a storm, the village storytellers comfort a young girl with a tale about another peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with Daniel, a lighter-skinned man descended from a French colonizer who bore children with a dark-skinned native woman. The island is divided among the weathier lighter-skinned descendants of colonizers and darker-skinned peasants like Ti Moune, but when Daniel gets into an accident on the “wrong” side of the island, she nurses him back to health. The colorism and prejudice that follow colonization doom Ti Moune’s love for Daniel and her dreams of a better life in typically nonsensical and unyielding ways. Yet pure of heart, Ti Moune grasps for more than fate appears ready to allow her, and the gods respond in quixotic ways; her prayers, love, and efforts to push against the strictures of her circumstances are expressed in song and dance, as are the responses of her loved ones, the gods, Daniel, and his privileged relations.
Though most of us will miss many of the show’s cultural references, the production feels like a celebration of Haitian life, including the resilience, struggles, creativity, and joy that have persisted through centuries of colonization and exploitation. It strikes me that the source material itself reflects a colonization process that director Brown and her creative partners (including a talented and diverse cast of Black performers) have attempted to push back against—a worthy practice that may well contain clues about surmounting barriers to love evoked in fables like this one. “Once On This Island” plays in the Angus Bowmer Theater through Oct. 30.
“Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation” may be encountering a bit of rough water in finding its audience. Set on the venerated outdoor stage, the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, it is about as far from traditional as anything OSF has staged, which is exactly its object. It is the work of Qui Nguyen (who wrote “Vietgone,” which charmed OSF audiences in 2016), Robert Ross Parker (who directed and wrote the lyrics with Nguyen), and Shane Rettig (who wrote the music). All are collaborators in Vampire Cowboys, a self-styled geek theater company whose aesthetic has been to create and produce new work based in action/adventure and dark comedy with a comic book edge.
This musical fits within that aesthetic. It takes the story of Julie d’Aubigny--an actual woman from 17-century France who transgressed gender boundaries, had affairs with both men and women, was a practiced sword fighter and famous opera singer, and broke rules of all kinds—and turns it into a raunchy, action and comic-book-humor fest. Most of the story here is based on what is actually said to be true about d’Aubigny, but the language and aesthetic is more openly profane and current than a traditional period drama would be, the better to capture and celebrate how shocking d’Aubigny was in her day.
OSF’s typical audiences aren’t necessarily prepared for this level of irreverence, judging from some of the reaction the show has gotten. But it will delight those who can relax and receive the show on its own terms; it’s not making a case for anything but rather aims to be playful in the way a lot of comic-book art aims to be—wild, violent, profane, and pushing boundaries for the sake of doing so. The cast and crew are all the way in, and audiences willing to go with them will enjoy the ride. “Revenge Song” plays on the Allen Elizabethan stage through Oct. 14.
“Unseen” is the work of playwright Mona Mansour, and is enjoying its West Coast premiere under the direction of Evrin Odcikin. It’s an intimate drama about global concerns, centered on an American conflict photographer, Mia; her Turkish former lover, Derya; and her mother, Jane, who travels to Derya’s Istanbul apartment after Mia is found unconscious but otherwise unharmed at the site of a massacre in Syria where she’d been shooting photographs. In the play, Mia serves as an exemplar of the conflicted morality of the citizens of Western superpowers; Mia makes her living from documenting the pain of others in war zones whose suffering is often either inflamed or neglected by those very powers.
Is Mia doing good or an exploiter herself? Both? How is she impacted by the suffering she witnesses? How is she implicated? These questions animate the story, though I can’t say their resolution is wholly satisfying. In some ways, Derya (Nora el Samahy) would have been the more interesting focus, though a riskier subject for attracting American audiences. What attracts Derya to Mia (Helen Sadler), and what sort of relationship is possible with an apparently talented but in many ways insufferable American? We otherwise learn little about Derya’s story, since in the play she exists mainly in relationship to Mia. Meanwhile, Mia’s suffering feels mostly self-inflicted; the occasional cluelessness of her privileged mother (Caroline Shaffer) feels more honest, even while Mia would be viewed as more worldly.
The performances are solid, and the design artists bring us into Mia’s view of Istanbul and Syria via music and art and movement; yet the play offers only snippets of the worlds of Mia’s subjects and of Derya. Perhaps the best way to approach this play is to allow Mia to function as a mirror to ourselves as Americans; what is dissatisfying about her ought to dissatisfy us about ourselves. “Unseen” plays in the intimate Thomas Theater through July 31.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.
Photo by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival Reina Guthrie and Donna Simone Johnson give a comic book edge to ‘Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation,’ one of five new productions now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.