Times of Change at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019Festivals

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Times of Change at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019

By Sheila T. Cavanagh, Emory University

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2019. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by José Luis Valenzuela. Scenic Design: Christopher Acebo. Costume Design: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko. Lighting Design: Pablo Santiago. Projection Design: Micah Stieglitz. Composer/Sound Design: John Zalewski. Dramaturg: Amrita Ramanan. Voice and Text Director: Rebecca Clark Carey. Phil Killian Directing Fellow: Kareem Fahmy. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Stage Manager: Jeremy Eisen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2019. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by José Luis Valenzuela. Scenic Design: Christopher Acebo. Costume Design: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko. Lighting Design: Pablo Santiago. Projection Design: Micah Stieglitz. Composer/Sound Design: John Zalewski. Dramaturg: Amrita Ramanan. Voice and Text Director: Rebecca Clark Carey. Phil Killian Directing Fellow: Kareem Fahmy. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Stage Manager: Jeremy Eisen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

2019 marked a transition in leadership at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) from Bill Rauch to Nataki Garrett. This final season of Rauch’s tenure as Artistic Director presented a host of remarkable productions, although the strongest plays suggest that OSF might currently be more aptly named the Oregon Theater Festival, since the Shakespeare productions were generally the weakest shows on offer.  Rauch’s time at OSF has marked him as a visionary leader, whose commitment to “Access for All” and his initiation of the multi-award-winning American Revolution initiative  have brought great acclaim, even as the controversial “Play On” series of Shakespearean re-imaginings and the strategic and economic burdens generated by recent wildfire seasons have prompted innumerable  artistic and financial  issues at this renowned Southern Oregon venue. Since Garrett’s well-regarded directorial background has not focused on Shakespeare, it remains to be seen how the Festival’s signature playwright will fare under this new regime.  In 2019, Shakespeare did not appear to generate much conversation among patrons, who were dazzled, however, by newer plays such as Octavio Solis’ Mother Road, Laureen Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation and Paula Vogel’s Indecent. The bilingual La Comedia of Errors, adapted by Lydia G. Garcia and Bill Rauch, was derived from one of the “Play On” texts. While that program has instigated significant criticism as well as positive attention, La Comedia seems to have engaged audiences far more visibly than the other Shakespearean offerings of Macbeth, All’s Well that Ends Well and As You Like ItLa Comedia was timely and lively, drawing upon current immigration issues as it told a poignant story of loss, separation, misunderstanding, and redemption.

Artistically and interpretively, the other Shakespearean productions offered a mixed bag.  Macbeth opened with a child-sized coffin on the stage, immediately presenting a non-textual rationale for the mayhem following.  The many references to children within the play often lead directors to fashion backstories involving deceased offspring in order to frame the narrative.  Justin Kurzel, for instance, opens his 2015 cinematic version of the play with Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) attending their young child’s funeral. It’s not typically clear how such additions enhance these productions, however and José Luis Valenzuela’s direction does not adequately answer that question.  In the program’s director’s notes he identifies the couple’s childlessness as the key to their transition from “heroes” to murderers, but the issue does not resonate as strongly as he suggests.  Neither does his assertion that Macbeth is struggling with “the other.”  The question of how people interact with those unlike themselves reverberates throughout many of the plays this season, but not in this Macbeth. Amy Kim Waschke’s Lady Macbeth largely carries the production, especially in her visually striking death scene.  The other actors perform well and the design team present an appealing set and costumes, but the prominence of the child’s coffin and of Macbeth’s (Danforth Comins) interactions with the witches while in the bathtub suggest that paying more attention to the text and less emphasis on unnecessary additions could have led to a more powerful Scottish play.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2019. Alls Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tracy Young. Scenic Design: Mariana Sánchez. Costume Design: Alex Jaeger. Lighting Design: Carolina Ortiz Herrera. Composer/Sound Design: Amy Altadonna. Live Score Compositions: Jane Lui. Movement Director and Assistant Director: Kjerstine Rose Anderson. Production Dramaturg: Lydia G. Garcia. Voice and Text Director: Ursula Meyer. Associate Dramaturg: Wiley Basho Gorn. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Stage Manager: Mandy Younger. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2019. Alls Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tracy Young. Scenic Design: Mariana Sánchez. Costume Design: Alex Jaeger. Lighting Design: Carolina Ortiz Herrera. Composer/Sound Design: Amy Altadonna. Live Score Compositions: Jane Lui. Movement Director and Assistant Director: Kjerstine Rose Anderson. Production Dramaturg: Lydia G. Garcia. Voice and Text Director: Ursula Meyer. Associate Dramaturg: Wiley Basho Gorn. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Stage Manager: Mandy Younger. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Rosa Joshi’s As You Like It similarly downplays pertinent issues that OSF’s non-Shakespearean offerings present more effectively.  Despite changing the gender identity typically associated with Duke Senior and Audrey (here presented as Aubrey), this production largely suppresses the play’s emphasis upon the relationship between gender, sexual identity, and sexual desire. Kate Hurster’s Celia, for instance, seems largely indifferent to Jessica Ko’s Rosalind, so that those unfamiliar with the play would likely not realize that the relationship between these two characters is often homoerotically charged.  In addition, the play’s epilogue, where the actor/Rosalind ambiguously states “if I were a woman,” is exchanged for the “Seven Stages of Man” speech, thereby erasing one of the moments where Shakespeare’s drama explicitly addresses the gendered metanarratives imbedded in the text. Since OSF dedicates significant attention to diversity of many kinds, this production’s suppression of gender fluidity and related issues remains surprising, particularly since some of the casting decisions suggest that these concerns were meant to be emphasized.  Regular patrons may well have wished that the spirit of Bill Rauch’s remarkable and unconventional 2018 production of Oklahoma! had taken over this As You Like It. That production emphasized more of the anxieties associated with sexuality and gender in this comedy than Joshi’s rendition introduces.

Macbeth and As You Like It are typically far more accessible plays than All’s Well That Ends Well, and that proves true here also.  Tracy Young offers a modernized, energetic production, but the challenges inherent in this “problem” play prove insurmountable.  In the director’s notes Young indicates that this “play is centered from the heart,” but the narrative consistently resists this interpretation.  Shakespeare’s Bertram (Daisuke Tsuji) does not project a likeable personality and Helena (here Helen, Royer Bockus) does little to ingratiate audiences who frequently struggle with how to respond to this story.  This production does little to offset the inherent difficulties associated with this play.  Presenting Helen as a “misfit,” fails to explain why these characters consistently make questionable life choices. Contorting the ending merely emphasizes how complicated Shakespeare’s narrative remains in modern times.

OSF’s non-Shakespearean productions in 2019 regularly offered more successful and profound examinations of the concerns resonating across this repertoire.  The artists associated with this company are imaginative, energetic, and bursting with talent.  One can only hope that Nataki Garrett can find ways to reinvigorate the Shakespearean portions of the OSF season.  Their execution of these newer plays makes it clear that the company can soar.  Here’s hoping that 2020 will be a year of noteworthy Shakespeare also in Southern Oregon.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.

Reviewing Shakespeare

Author: Reviewing Shakespeare

Reviewing Shakespeare is the first website devoted to scholarly reviews of and writing about worldwide Shakespearian performance (theatre, film, TV) for a general audience. Expert reviews of global Shakespearian performance will be produced and commissioned by an extraordinary team of international Associate Editors. Following in the footsteps of our 2012 Year of Shakespeare project, reader reviews, comments, audio boos and videos will be solicited and published on this site. The site will be fully searchable and, as the archive grows, will offer an invaluable (and free) resource to theatregoers, practitioners, historians and general Shakespeare enthusiasts.
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