Arts & Theater

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is more than Shakespeare on stage

Young Pip (Bodhi Johnson) and escaped convict Mag witch (Derrick Lee Weeden) are in “Great Expectations.”
Young Pip (Bodhi Johnson) and escaped convict Mag witch (Derrick Lee Weeden) are in “Great Expectations.” The Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is now in full swing with all three of its theaters in operation and a total of 10 plays running in repertory six days a week. I went up to Ashland for a long weekend, saw four plays, spent part of a day wandering through the town and then drove out into the southern Oregon countryside. As always, I wanted more time to spend in the spectacular outdoors there, particularly at the nearby Rogue River, but maybe next time. Here are my reviews of the plays I saw.

The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare

(through Oct. 16 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre)

Director Desdemona Chiang has created an elegant production that purposefully delineates the two worlds of “A Winter’s Tale.” The first half of the play takes place in a cool, controlled dynastic China-inspired Sicilia. The second half transports us to a psychedelic steampunk Bohemia 16 years later. The moods similarly divide with the tense paranoia of false accusations giving way to the euphoria of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The comedy-drama comes from Shakespeare’s late period when he conspicuously blended genres in the plays he wrote or co-wrote. Eric Steinberg’s stately Leontes, the king of Sicilia, conjures up a consuming jealousy over the chaste relationship between his loyal wife, Hermione, and his boyhood friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, alleging infidelity between them. While Leontes’ seething rage doesn’t reach Othello’s level of tragic fury, the king does imprison his pregnant wife, disavowing the child she bears in prison. The child, Perdita (a radiant Cindy Im), who escaped death as an infant, ends up being raised by shepherds in Bohemia where she is wooed by naive Prince Florizel (Moses Villarama) much to the dismay of his father, the king.

Miriam Laube’s Paulina, a lady to Hermione and confidant of the king, maintains a passionate, compelling voice of reason, as does Christopher Jean’s stately Camillo. Amy Kim Waschke makes a strong case as the innocent queen. Helen Q. Huang designed the representative costumes, which are both immaculate and absurd. As much as anything, the play and Chiang’s production illustrate how absolute power creates isolation and myopia.

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

adapted by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper

(through Oct. 20 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre)

 1/2

The commissioned world premiere adaptation by OSF veterans Linda Alper and Penny Metropulos (who also directed) skillfully scales Charles Dickens’ 1861 intimate epic for the stage. Pip’s surprising journey from adopted young loner to seasoned gentleman yields a taut melancholic tale that remains entrenched in the dark Kent marshlands where it starts. The understated story maintains a moody impressionistic tinge due to scene designer Collette Pollard’s open, multi-leveled, gray-toned set. Pip’s graveyard encounter with the escaped convict Magwitch (the impressive Derrick Lee Weeden) sets in motion a course of events in which “great expectations” are continually derailed. Sensitive Pip clearly sees the limitations of the country blacksmith’s life he is pointed to. And his aspirations of a more genteel life are realized though mysterious good providence. Along the way young Pip (Bodhi Johnson) and adult Pip (Benjamin Bonenfant) both experience equal measures of fortune and misfortune due to their honesty, loyalty and sense of morality. There are fine performances from Al Espinosa as Pip’s stepfather and friend Joe Gargery, Michael Elich as the brusque attorney Mr. Jaggers, Richard Howard as Jaggers’ assistant Mr. Wemmick, and Nemuna Ceesay as the remote Estella.

Vietgone

by Qui Nguyen

(through Oct. 29 in the Thomas Theatre)

Playwright Qui Nguyen’s somewhat autobiographical story has been this season’s buzzy must-see play. Based on conversations with his parents about how they met at a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Ark., Nguyen gives a fascinating new perspective to the Vietnam War. Often seen as a political and cultural disaster from the Western perspective, Nguyen frames the conflict as a matter of survival for South Vietnamese caught up in the war with the Communist north. The playwright’s parents both left Saigon during its chaotic fall in late April 1975. The comedy-drama toggles between the events in Saigon, the awkward relocation of refugees in the United States, and a motorcycle road trip across the Southwest. A lusty romance between Quang (James Ryen), a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot, and Tong (Jeena Yi), an American Embassy worker, unfolds as the play’s centerpiece. Ryen and Yi are never less than compelling in any of the production’s aspects, which include intentionally cartoonish “fight” scenes and simplistic but effective rap segments. These two are the only characters who aren’t superficial caricatures, though. Circling the lovers are an ensemble of comic setups including Tong’s mother, Quang’s best friend and an American named Bobby who wants to marry Tong. Amy Kim Waschke, Will Dao and Paco Tolson are the fluid shifting ensemble. Ultimately the fascinating story is rendered in earnest melodramatic tones that alternate with simplistic, bawdy comedy. The author’s awkward physical presence (played by an actor) as a meta-theater frame only adds to the play’s unnecessary contrivances. Still, director May Adrales’ uneven production is often sassy and bright even in its flattened dimensions.

The Wiz

(through Oct. 15 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre)

The 1971 African American re-imagining of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” here staged in an Elizabethan theater, certainly ranks as out-of-the-proscenium thinking. This show’s uneven energy and designer Dede Ayite’s glitzy costuming suggest more of a pageant than an actual story, but “The Wiz” has always traded on the audience’s familiarity with the classic plot. There’s a definite 1970s party vibe to songwriter Charlie Smalls’ R&B-based score, and the tunes receive strong vocal performances from the entire cast, particularly Ashley D. Kelley’s Dorothy, Rodney Gardiner’s Tin Man and Christina Clark’s Lion. Director Robert O’Hara moves the action all around the space, but the production chugs from one musical number to the next. Several lift off nicely.

Also playing in repertory are “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet,” “Roe,” “The Yeoman of the Guard,” “Richard II” and “Timon of Athens.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

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