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Something for Every Taste

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Oregon Shakespeare Festival season near complete

Darleen Ortega | 9/17/2019, 4:46 p.m.

William Thomas Hodgson (Malcom), Russell Lloyd (Ross) and Chris Butler (Macduff) are part of a stellar cast in Mexican-born director Jose Luis Valenzuela’s production of “Macbeth,” now playing through Oct. 11 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

As the long season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival nears it close, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to offer five more reasons to head to Ashland, along with my previous take on the other six shows. There is something for every taste, and also plenty of opportunities to stretch your mind and broaden your tastes.

Photo by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Lauren Modica (Duck), Amy Kim Waschke (Dodo), Emily Ota (Alice), Katy Geraghty (Eaglet) and Robin Goodrin Nordli (Lory) star as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents a loving take on the classic play “Alice in Wonderland.”

Three shows run on the outdoor stage through the second weekend in October. Smoke from local fires has complicated programming in the outdoor stage in recent years, and for part of this summer performances have been moved to a smaller indoor theater—but for the rest of the season you should be able to catch the outdoor shows on the stage under the stars where they were meant to be seen.

My favorite of the three is “Alice in Wonderland,” director Sara Bruner’s loving take on the classic tale of confusion and delightful nonsense. Bruner, in her first turn as an OSF director after four brilliant seasons in the acting company, has found a particularly resonant way into this material that has stuck with me since I saw it back in June. She has located in Alice the important quality of curiosity—and as played by the fierce and resolute Emily Ota, this Alice embodies curiosity as a superpower. As her path takes her on the most confusing of journeys, Alice greets each moment of disorientation with a genuine impulse toward inquiry. As gamely played by a host of talented OSF veterans who know how to communicate through not just words but inventive movement (assisted by the clever movement direction of Jaclyn Miller and the music of Cedric Lamar), the trippy characters Alice encounters challenge her with everything from intimidation to whimsy to dizzying illogic, yet she remains relentlessly inquisitive. I have reflected on Ota’s portrayal often in the past few months; she and Bruner’s buoyant production have helped me to see Alice as an inspiring hero, and to give curiosity its due as the superpower that it is. This production plays through Oct. 12.

Mexican-born director Jose Luis Valenzuela has been a treasure of American theater and a leader among Latinx theater artists for decades—and he is a director who inspires loyalty and admiration from actors. His unmistakable touch shows in the visual beauty and artistic intention evident in OSF’s production of “Macbeth,” which scrimps on neither violence nor gorgeousness. Aided by a stellar cast, Valenzuela envisions a back story for the famous Scottish conspirators which, though not excusing their hard turn toward extreme lethal ambition, makes some sense of it. The chemistry and talent of Amy Kim Waschke and Danforth Comins as the lead couple grip your attention even as their characters descend into the despicable carnage of their ambition, and the witches in this production (the amazing Erica Sullivan, Miriam Lauren, and Robin Goodrin-Nordli) are especially interesting; although I have not seen this view echoed elsewhere, their arresting energy struck me as less clearly malevolent than caught in the tragic tendency of ambitious humans to attempt to leverage prophetic insight in directions it was never meant to go. This production plays through Oct. 11.

“All’s Well That Ends Well” generally strikes me as a play that doesn’t stand up very well to scrutiny—but OSF’s production mines it for delicious moments of movement, humor, and poignant recognition of how regularly what passes for love is really ill-advised magical thinking. Helen (an arresting Royer Bockus) inspires affection as the determined young woman who contrives a way to win the otherwise unattainable man she believes she loves without quite having thought through what will happen next. Daisuke Tsuji’s performance as the object of her affection contains a complexity that holds the tension of how the callow Bertram could nevertheless inspire such desire—and the two together illuminate the ways in which their respective blindness is related. I especially appreciated the way that director Tracy Young employed music to bring a certain lightness to this production, especially in an early and memorable moment between Helen and a grateful King of France (the brilliant Kevin Kenerly) that flavors the play with appropriate whimsy. That lightness allows the production to glide over some of the play’s trouble spots and helped me to see the resemblance between the mistakes these characters make and the typical ones that I might see in real life, including in myself. The production plays through Oct. 13.

Rosa Joshi is a classical director to watch for; her take on Shakespeare's "Henry V" last year at OSF took audiences by storm, and next year she will be back to direct "Bring Down the House," a two-part adaption of "Henry VI." I can't say that her "As You Like it" is as exciting as her work on the history plays (I was also amazed by the production of "Richard III" that she recently directed in Seattle), but there is still much to admire in this production. Joshi has a compelling design aesthetic and, like in the other productions I have seen, this one has an unusually keen visual and aural

Photo by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents “Hairspray—The Broadway Musical.” Pictured are Kimberly Monk, Safiya Fredericks and Johnique Mitchell as members of the ‘Dynamite’ ensemble

sensibility, imparting through costumes, set, sound, and lighting a compelling contrast between the restrictive, male-dominated world of the court and the relative freedom of the Forest of Arden where women are in charge. This production also employed all female designers, in keeping with Joshi's commitment to making space for female sensibilities in the male-dominated world of classical theater. The play deals with love and identity--how love changes us, how we try to change it, how the identity we adopt affects how we are able to express and receive love-- and this production benefits from a buoyant cast who approaches the material with joy and playfulness, and experiments with casting many roles with women and with trans and non-binary actors. Like the heroine, Rosalind (a luminous Jessica Ko), this production experiments with gender presentation to discover a new kind of freedom and authenticity. The production plays through Oct. 26.

Finally, a popular production of "Hairspray" pops with energy and enthusiasm, and fans of this particular musical will likely leave very happy. It's meant to be a celebration of inclusivity, and director Christopher Liam Moore has underlined that point by casting several roles with people with disabilities. For me, the musical's nod toward racial equality left me dissatisfied; its analysis feels dated, white-centered, and oblivious to ways in which the talented black performers are being upstaged. That said, I can't fault any of the performances; everyone is showing up with joy, enthusiasm, and their hearts fully engaged. The production plays through Oct. 27.

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.



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