Ashland plays brings richness of Latinx experience
Darleen Ortega | 9/3/2019, 5:16 p.m.
Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho) and William Joad (Mark Murphy) find they are related, connected by Anglo and Latinx cultures in “Mother Road” (left) and Catherine Castellanos stars as Holy Mother Superior and Amy Lizardo as Adriana (right) in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “La Comedia of Errors.” Both plays show through October at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photos by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival
One diverse and largely Latin American cast performs two plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season, offering opportunities for them, and us, to explore the complexity and richness of Latinx experience. Both productions are world premieres with deep connections to classic work that did not originally seek to explore the experiences of people of color—and both productions, in their way, carry those classic stories into new and fertile territory. Most excitingly, one of them is a fully bilingual invitation to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences to be in community in a radical way.
“Mother Road” opened at the top of OSF’s long-running season, the first Latinx play to be programmed in a season-long spot. The inspiration for the play came during a road trip commissioned by the Steinbeck National Center in preparation for a celebration of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” In retracing the steps of the family in the novel along Route 66 from Oklahoma to California, playwright Octavio Solis began to notice the many connections between the white “Okie” migrants in Steinbeck’s story and Mexican farmworkers then and now.
In “Mother Road,” then, Solis conceives a journey from California back to Oklahoma. William Joad, an elderly cousin of Tom Joad (the protagonist of Steinbeck’s novel), comes to California looking for his only remaining kin, Tom Joad’s great-grandson, hoping to pass the family property in Oklahoma to him. It turns out that his last living relative, Martin Jodes, is a Mexican-American farmworker. Their road trip back to the family land in Oklahoma is filled with hardship and misunderstandings but ultimately helps them both see the many ways their experience and legacy are connected.
The play seeks to help audiences see these connections too. Although the final act solves the misunderstandings between the Anglo and Mexican characters a little too easily to be realistic, the metaphors of journey and solidarity still resonate. In the current environment of heightened racial antagonism and xenophobia, people are too often divided into literal and metaphorical camps that prevent us from seeing that we are related by blood and history. The play's journey along the "Mother Road" gives people of Mexican descent a place in American’s typically bleached iconography and invites audiences to reflect on the thin lines that separate those deemed dangerous from those whose anger and suffering we collectively treat as important and shared.
The same talented cast gets a real workout in the fully bilingual "La Comedia of Errors," which is one of my very favorite plays in this strong season at OSF. It's an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," a story of two sets of identical twins who are separated in childhood due to a storm and later encounter each other in an extended comedic depiction of mistaken identity. The production is being performed on one of OSF's stages, but also in a rehearsal space and out in the community. The community performances are part of an effort at relationship building, and are offered for free.
In this production, the Shakespearean language has been translated into modern English by playwright Christine Anderson--but the play then has been adapted by Lydia Garcia and director Bill Rauch to be about half in Spanish and transposed into a different and resonant cultural context. They reset the story as involving two Mexican families, with one set of twins growing up in the U.S. and the other growing up in Mexico. That reset allows for lots of humor around cultural and language differences between Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, and also Puerto Ricans and Salvadorans. On top of that, the same two actors play the twins, so there is lots of physical comedy as the two men (brilliantly played by Fidel Gomez and Tony Sancho) switch back and forth between the Mexican-American twins and their Mexican counterparts.
It's hard to capture just how much fun this production is. There is lots of physical comedy and also lots of language humor. Due to Garcia's amazingly facile linguistic work and the gameness of the cast, this production is far funnier and edgier than a more traditional production would be, and captures more of a sense of the way that Shakespeare's work was originally experienced. It can be enjoyed by someone who only speaks Spanish, or by someone who only speaks English--and though monolingual audience members will not catch every single word, they will follow the drift. Importantly, slight moments of confusion not only serve the story but also provide a very safe and rare way to English-speaking audience members to experience not being in a position of dominance.
Part of how this is achieved is by means of a role that Garcia and Rauch created: La Vecina. She sits in the audience and summarizes and comments on the action, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in English. As played with fervor by Meme Garcia, La Vecina is the comedic glue that holds the whole experience together, reveling in and dispelling confusion, illuminating the nuances that sometimes can be lost in translation, and driving home the ways this production may resonate for Latinx audience members. Besides the ways she assists the audience members, La Vecina functions to awaken curiosity about what may be lost in translation in interactions closer to home.
One of the things I especially love about this production is what it asks of its Latinx cast members, who sit at all different cultural and linguistic intersections themselves. Some are being pushed to express themselves in ways that are not familiar or are rarely sought, and that work is itself a metaphor for the challenges of being a member of the Latinx community. We sit at all different intersections and what is expected of us often does not invite us or make it easy for us to celebrate or even value or connect with our heritage--and then when we do, it may not be easy work. The variety among us gets buried or lost in translation given how rarely it is celebrated and how often it is diminished or even punished. What emerges from this production--thanks in large part to Lydia Garcia's brilliant work in adapting into Spanish (her original language) a master work in English, the language with which she primarily works as a theater maker--is a playful exploration of cultural dexterity and a radical invitation to solidarity and community. Both shows play until the end of October.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer.