Times of Change at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019
By Sheila T. Cavanagh, Emory University
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 It. La 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.
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.
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