By David Templeton
Well, despite the stormy weather and floods and torrents, it’s spring.
The proof lies a mere six-hour drive north, in Ashland, Oregon, where the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has just kicked off its 2017 season. Per tradition, the year begins with four new shows—out of an eventual total of 11—the majority of them playing for the next nine months. These ‘first four’ include a frisky stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love, and two plays by William Shakespeare—a bloody and visceral staging of Julius Caesar and a highly entertaining take on father-son history in Henry IV, Part One.
Taken together, they make for a strong opening salvo at OSF.
For me, the most impressive of the bunch, however, is the play Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles—playing through July 6 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre—written by the prolific Los Angeles-born writer Luis Alfaro, and presented with remarkable power and passion by director Juliette Carrillo.
Alfaro has adapted a number of classic Greek tragedies over the years, putting a Latino spin on such time-honored myths as Electra and Oedipus Rex, and now Medea. In Mojada (the Spanish word for ‘wet,’ as in ‘wetback’), Medea is an undocumented Mexican seamstress, living in L.A. with her husband Jason, her son Acan and her talkative, Greek Chorus-like storyteller Tita. They are all survivors of a brutal crossing from Mexico, which, we eventually learn, has cost Medea much more than mere money or blood.
Frail and fearful, she now confines herself to her small yard in L.A.’s Boyle Heights barrio, avoiding her neighbors and making beautiful dresses that she could never afford to buy with the meager wages she earns.
Played with ferocious fragility by a superb Sabina Zuniga Varela, Medea carries some very dark secrets—and a desperate fear of losing Jason (an excellent Lakin Valdez), a construction worker whose American dreams of money and influence have placed him in an uneasy alliance with the wealthy widow Armida (Vilma Silva, wonderful). Also an immigrant—though with a very different story of making her way to the States—Armida employs Jason as a contractor in her construction company, and may have her eye on more than just his house-building talents.
Medea’s neighbor, the over-effusive Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), is yet another version of the immigrant story. She’s a hard-working baker who rises early to make the bread she sells from a cart on the streets. Providing some easy comic relief, Josefina’s resourceful acceptance of America’s love-hate relationship with its immigrant population is a stark reminder of what Medea might become, if she could somehow find a sense of power and strength in her life, all of which this strange new land seems to want to deny her.
Anyone familiar with the Medea story, of course, will know where all of this is headed, and the machete occasionally wielded by Tita (wonderfully played by the excellent single-named actress VIVIS) just serves as a constant reminder of what’s to come.
Alfaro does much more with this marvelous, gorgeously constructed drama than just parrot the bloody plot turns of the original Medea myth. In retelling it through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant in America—with one stunning bit of beautifully queasy magical realism—the playwright reveals what happens when any human being is denied a sense of humanity, dignity and control over their own lives.
I should add that the set by Christopher Acebo is first-rate, a little marvel of architectural beauty and poetry. Within the Bowmer, Acebo has created a protective circle of chain-link and concrete. There’s a garden, of sorts, growing in old tires and tin cans, and there’s a tiny house that appears to almost float above the yard, with vast roots angling beneath it. It seems to underscore the sense of ‘uprootedness’ and ‘in-between-ness’ that constantly threatens to define Medea, just as it does, tragically, an entire generation of disenfranchised American dreamers.
Julius Caesar, also in the Bowmer (through October 29), is directed by Shana Cooper (of Washington, D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the Bay Area’s California Shakespeare Theater), who is widely acclaimed for her tightly stylized, occasionally off-putting, highly visual approach to classic and original plays. That style is certainly on display in her impressively visual Caesar, in which the war-and-violence themes of Shakespeare’s story are played out on a set built of actively crumbling drywall, the action scenes propelled by wildly aggressive, aerobically impressive fight choreography, all of it underscored by the rhythmic, chantlike shouts and vocalizations of the fully committed cast.
As Caesar, longtime OSF member Armando Durán is wonderful. His subtle physicality and quickly shifting emotions brilliantly suggest the kind of politician some would distrust while others would worship. Roman senator Marcus Brutus, often played as the dark, brooding opposite of the virtuous Mark Antony, here becomes the central figure of the play. Played by Danforth Comins as a man of high intellect who is caught between his love of Caesar and his suspicions of powerful people, Brutus is easily manipulated by the angry Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who despises Caesar for what he sees as the new leader’s deeply hidden weaknesses and frailty.
Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour), usually the moral axis of the play, is portrayed as an opportunistic hothead, further placing the central ethical weight of the story on Brutus’ shoulders.
When the inevitable slaying of Caesar takes place in the Capitol—simply suggested by rows of easily upended chairs—it is effectively bloody and horrific, and credit must be given to Duran for the emotional power that this much-played scene manages to evoke, even pulling fresh power from the line, “Et tu, Brute?”
There is an appealingly stripped down, industrial-decay vibe to every detail of the show, from the deceptive simplicity of Sibyl Wickersheimer’s construction-site set, to the plastic buckets used as stools and lanterns, to the flashlights used to illuminate actors’ faces during key meetings of the conspirators, to the sheets of plastic used to wrap about corpses, to the castoff hoodies and Army-surplus grunge of Raquel Barreto’s highly effective costumes.
There is a strong “indie theater” feel to the production, which sometimes feels lifted from some underground warehouse theater, where brilliant artists do impressive work for next-to-no money.
The observation is meant as high praise.
In the program’s Director’s Note, Cooper praises “the deep physical and emotional sacrifices that this fierce ensemble of actors contribute,” and one gets a sense of it from the opening moments, as bewigged celebrants pound on the theater doors, invading the auditorium with whoops and hollers, stomping and dancing across the stage. In the play’s second act—long accepted by scholars as a bit of a confusing mess compared to the play’s lean, tight first act—the consequences of Caesar’s murder play out in an escalating series of interchangeable skirmishes and bloody deaths.
It’s here that Cooper’s vision fully reveals itself. The battles, choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, are danced as much as they are fought, though these are no West Side Story rumbles. There is a true sense of terror and rage in these scenes, suggesting that the violence unleashed by the conspirators did not take much to set free. The easily manipulated populace—portrayed by the cast in eerie masks—commit compulsive acts of revenge every bit as savage as the murder of Caesar. Even after the final line has been spoken, the warriors’ vigorous, frightening fight-dance continues, and continues—till we in the audience ask ourselves, “When is this ever going to stop?”
And that, of course, is the whole point of Julius Caesar, and Cooper’s offbeat but stirring approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy, an examination of politics, manipulation, bloodshed and war, that ultimately demands to know, “When is this ever going to stop?”
Unlike Julius Caesar—which generally plays like a tragedy—Henry IV, Parts One and Two, have gradually lost much of the love Elizabethans felt for them. If they are performed today at all, it is for the benefit of Shakespeare completists, and because the twin plays feature the beloved character of Sir John Falstaff. Ironically, given that he first appeared in a pair of “histories,” the corpulent scoundrel is entirely fictional.
Rumor has it, by the way, that it was per Queen Elizabeth’s request that Shakespeare spun Falstaff off into the wholly invented The Merry Wives of Windsor—which OSF will be staging later this season.
Till then, in a vivid, energetic and cleverly contemporary production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Henry IV, Part One (running through October 28) is giving audiences a strong dose of what made people fall in love with Falstaff 400 years ago. Though only a supporting character, his mighty shadow looms large within the Thomas Theatre, reconfigured as theater-in-the-round. The play begins a year after King Henry (Jeffrey King, all steely nerves) violently usurped the throne of Richard II—then had him killed. Henry’s son, Hal (Daniel José Molina, first-rate) is a disappointment to his father, spending his time carousing at the Boar’s Head Inn, which is ruled, after a fashion, by the hard-drinking reprobate Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas, sensational), and his cadre of thieves, rascals and fallen women.
When King Henry’s claim to the throne is suddenly challenged by a dangerous collective of foreign and outcast warriors—on their way to England and hell-bent on splitting the island up between themselves—Hal finds himself torn between his two very different father figures, one bad but lovable, the other good (sort of), but hard as nails.
Director Blain-Cruz’s vision is a bold one. The action is set on a simple set of gleaming metal poles, which flash in neon colors for the Boar’s Head scenes, underscoring the inn’s depravity with an inflatable pool full of bubbles, and scantily clad dancers with animal heads. The poles instantly represent columns, trees or tent-poles whenever the action pivots to the throne room, or to the riveting battlefield conferences of the crazy Welsh warlord Glendower (Lauren Modica, delightfully off-the-wall in a role usually played by men) and the fierce Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante, magnificent). The latter is yet another gender-switching casting choice, a decision that takes on remarkable resonance here, largely due to Escalante’s uncanny understanding of the optimistic, single-minded zeal that makes Hotspur tick.
This is the kind of Shakespeare production in which swords are frequently replaced with guns and rifles, and during the inevitable battle scenes at the end, the noise (augmented by the distant sounds of helicopters and mortar fire) is intense. Beautifully balancing bloodshed is the occasional appearance of Falstaff, whose battlefield cowardice eventually borders on a kind of heroic pragmatic, anti-war self-expression.
Though one or two favorite characters do not survive Henry IV, Part One, audiences willing to drive to Ashland again in July are guaranteed to see a bit more of Falstaff when OSF unveils Henry IV, Part Two, with the same cast continuing the story.
By then, of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor will be playing on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, so Falstaff lovers will get a triple-dose of their favorite character—with a twist. In Wives, the famous fat man will be played by OSF regular K.T. Vogt, which should be a hoot. She’s hilarious.
Ironically, OSF’s biggest hit of the spring is likely to be a show that is not by William Shakespeare, but about him. Certain to delight audiences and fill the Bowmer with movie-loving theatergoers is the extravagantly entertaining Shakespeare in Love (now through October 29), the American premiere of playwright Lee Hall’s mostly successful, if perplexingly overlong, London adaptation of the superb Oscar-winning 1998 movie. That movie, co-authored by the great Tom Stoppard, played like a witty, mirthful, somewhat Mel-Brooksian spoof of age-old theatrical conventions, joyfully disguised as an anachronistic mishmash of Elizabethan history and Shakespeare-centric fiction.
The play is relatively faithful to the movie’s plot line, though frequent liberties are taken, which seem unwise to quibble about given that the film took its own share of liberties with the life of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare (William DeMeritt, all-around excellent) is struggling with writer’s block, having promised a new play—tentatively titled Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter—to Mr. Henslowe (a hilarious Brent Hinkley), owner of the struggling theater, The Rose. Alternately goaded on by and in competition with rival playwright Kit Marlowe (Ted Deasy), Shakespeare finds unexpected inspiration after auditioning the spirited Thomas Kent, who, unbeknownst to him, is really the theater-loving Viola deLesseps (a marvelous Jamie Ann Romero) in disguise, hoping for a chance as an actor despite it being illegal to put a woman on stage.
The primary deviations from the movie include Marlowe having much more to do. The script essentially turns him into Cyrano de Bergerac for the scene in which Shakespeare—smitten with Viola yet not guessing she’s also Thomas Kent—woos her beneath her balcony, with Marlowe feeding him lines from the shadows. Later, Marlow appears again as a ghost to offer Shakespeare additional wisdom and advice.
Also somewhat expanded in size is the role of young John Webster (Preston Mead, pitch-perfect), the creepy, vengeful, blood-loving actor who figures out Viola’s secret identity. What Mead does with his face, a mix of gothic leer and bug-eyed pout, is well worth the price of admission.
Well-directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who has an eye for spectacle and a knack for staging broad physical comedy, the play is a frothy delight for most of its two-hour-and-45-minute running time (with one 15-minute intermission), but seriously bogs down, pace-wise, just when it should be turning up the mph as it plummets toward the climax. The stage version layers on additional stuff during the big Romeo and Juliet performance, and on opening weekend, the actors slowed down their pace, including interminable pauses between lines. One can only hope that the pace will pick up as the cast grows more confident with the material, which is certainly not easy.
I should also add a few words about the live music, performed by a masterful trio of musicians (Michael Palzewicz on strings, Mark Eliot Jacobs on lute, hurdy-gurdy and sackbut, and Austin Comfort on vocals). On stage throughout, the musicians are as much a part of the show as the actors, and are occasionally spoken to, especially by Lord Wessex (Al Espinosa), Viola’s would-be suitor, who keeps telling the musicians to shut up.
The cast is immense, with marvelous turns throughout—Kate Mulligan’s Queen Elizabeth is also worth the price of admission—and the sprawling set (Rachel Hauck) and stunning costumes (Susan Tsu) are frequently dazzling. Slow pace or not, aided by the familiarity of the movie version, this lovingly crafted bauble is certain to have audiences falling in love with Shakespeare all over again.
For information on tickets and the full Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017 season, visit osfashland.org.