OSF 2018 Part 2: How Do You Solve A Problem Like White Men?

(part one)

None of the program notes or publicity materials for this season’s shows use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ but the concept saturates the season even so. Across the plays, the rage and resentment of white male characters is the corrosive force that causes communities to crumble. And always it is aimless, baseless violence, unmoored from any sense of proportion or logic– this season takes, in short, the opposite of Hollywood’s favored anti-hero tack, asking not what pain caused this anger, but instead whether there is any remedy for the free-floating rage of men who think the world should, by rights, be theirs.

Jud Fry (Michael Sharon), Oklahoma!‘s only true villain, is also the only (apparently) straight, white man amongst the named characters: the peddler Ali Hakim (here stripped of his clownishly racist trappings, not least through being played by Barzin Akhavan, who is actually Persian) is bisexual, Ado Andy’s father is now his mother, the local Federal Marshal and Will Parker are both black. His toxicity therefore becomes linked, just as it so often is today, with thwarted privilege: not merely that he cannot bear losing to or being thought less than Curly, but that he cannot bear losing to a black woman. He cannot conceive of the idea that he has caused Laurey’s fear of him by lurking outside her window at night. He is someone who has learned no outlet for his disappointment and frustration except violence– violence that will turn, as the noose he keeps in his shed implies, either against others or against himself. But by the end of his first full scene, it is clear he has chosen others. 

Oklahoma! ends with the frankly shocking implication that once they have made that decision– once they have decided that harming other people is the only way to soothe their own hurt– men like Jud must be permanently removed from the community one way or another if that community is to peacefully survive. It’s a radical and perhaps disturbing thought. Directors often want to resist the idea that Jud is irredeemable, and to see the ending as written as an awkward oversight in the rush to a happy ending. But it clearly seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended to suggest. Laurey’s kindness only made him feel entitled to her; Aunt Eller’s praise of his work can’t undo his past resentments. Curly mocks him, but mockery doesn’t justify threats of rape and violence. Recent productions (including, apparently, the one now bound for Broadway) have tried to play up sympathy for Jud and point a more skeptical finger at Curly and the eleventh-hour mock trial that acquits him. But that’s a reading Rauch’s production undercuts in part by casting Tatiana Wechsler as Curly. Just as contemporary political discourse makes Jud’s violent threat seem all the more urgent and frightening, who today (as I discussed in the previous post) is going to argue in favor of turning a black woman over to the police?

In Othello, it’s masculinity in all races that is, perhaps, too destructive to endure, which leaves the tragedy fittingly answerless. This production, also directed by Rauch, is not really one that has any answers for the suggestion that the play is racist and sexist as much as it is about those things, but set alongside Oklahoma!, it paints an intriguing picture of the ways the corrosive anger of white men eats away at communities that might otherwise remain whole. Unlike Oklahoma!, however, Iago’s power lies not only in his own toxicity, but in spreading it to others: Cassio (Derek Garza), drunk by Iago’s engineering, spews Islamophobic mumblings at Barzin Akhavan’s Muslim Montano and readily mocks Bianca (whom he otherwise seems to like) at Iago’s urging; Othello (Chris Butler), of course, murders his wife. The question that makes Othello so uneasy today is whether Iago is merely revealing the darkness that was already present in these men– in Othello’s case, a frankly racist implication, given the stereotypical associations between black men and violence– or if his power is to explode the niggling fears and petty weaknesses we all have into something strong and uncontrollable enough to destroy these men. But whether he engenders the spark of violence or only fans it, the seething envy and obsessive hatred of Danforth Comin’s disturbingly changeable Iago is the center from which the play’s darkness springs, the force that drags Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, and Emilia– all of them, in Rauch’s production, people of color– into a spiral of destruction, the women just collateral damage in a crusade whose true purpose he refuses, at the last, to reveal.

In one of the more intriguing cases of cross-play casting this season, Comins also plays Jakob, a 17th century Dutch fur trader in Manahatta, a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It’s not hard to imagine the destructive role white men play in a play partly about the Dutch settlement of New York and the native Lenape people who encounter them. Unlike The Way The Mountain Moved, the season’s other play to touch on interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Manahatta doesn’t believe in good intentions. Jakob, like Iago, comes to represent how the most brutal betrayals come from the people you thought you could trust– from the white men who were supposed to be different than the rest. The play’s parallel plot takes place in 21st century New York City, and Comins’ character there is altogether more open, and might provide a spark of hope for a more harmonious future: he expresses a willingness to learn to be better, and actually follows through with it. But then again, it’s 2008, and he’s an executive at Lehman Brothers. There are all kinds of ways to ruin lives.

OSF 2018 Part 1: The Promise of the West

This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.

This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).

This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.

Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?

Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?

And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.

Best OSF Doubles 2017

One of the greatest delights of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the repertory company, wherein actors play multiple roles in multiple plays across the season. As far as I know, dramaturgically engineering these roles for cross-show resonance is not really a priority. But sometimes it happens anyway. Here are some of my favorite pairs from the 2017 season:

Ned Alleyn (Shakespeare in Love)/Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) – James Ryen
James Ryen made his festival debut last year as Quang in Vietgone and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale. His roles this year are more similar, but also amazing: the scenery-chomping Ned Alleyn (played in the film version by Ben Affleck and a valiant attempt at an English accent) and the scenery-scaling GastonThere would not be a single line out of place if Ned Alleyn sang “Gaston” about himself (swapping out the names, of course) and that makes this the perfect double.

Mark Antony (Julius Caesar)/The Beast (Beauty and the Beast) – Jordan Barbour
As I said to my viewing companion at intermission of Beauty in the Beast, there’s just a slight, subtle difference between the temperamental Beast and Shakespeare’s scheming orator. It’s always exciting to see an actor traverse such a wide section of their range in a single season, something that doesn’t often happen quite so dramatically even at OSF. In this case, the contrast between Mark Antony’s consummate emotional control and the Beast’s inability to manage his temper (or any other feelings) is fantastic, and Barbour’s ability to shift from such opacity to such vulnerability (while wearing Beast prosthetics, no less) is really impressive.

I also got to see Barbour go on as an understudy for the preening Richard Burbage in Shakespeare in Love, which added another fun layer of rivalry with James Ryen/Alleyn/the Beast.

Will and Viola (Shakespeare in Love)/Fenton and Anne Page (The Merry Wives of Windsor)- William DeMeritt and Jamie Ann Romano
I didn’t realize this neat echoing of lovers until near the very end of The Merry Wives of Windsor. If you don’t like how Shakespeare in Love ends, you can just pop across the courtyard to see these two get together after all. Their situations are reversed in the two plays, to a certain extent: one of the Pages’ concerns about Fenton is that he’s too high-status to actually be interested in their daughter, in contrast to the wealthy Viola’s inability to match beneath her station.

Portia (Julius Caesar)/Penelope (The Odyssey) – Kate Hurster
There were quite a few actors who appeared in both of these shows, but these were the most resonant examples. Kate Hurster’s two waiting wives– the patient Penelope and the ultimately despairing Portia– paint contrasting images of idealized femininity, both in the eras of their source material and, perhaps, our own: a core of strength that is still defined by and ultimately subject to her relationship with her husband.

Octavius (Julius Caesar)/Telemachus (The Odyssey)- Benjamin Bonenfant
Benjamin Bonenfant’s two heirs likewise feel like echoes, two young men grappling with their father’s (or uncle’s) legacies, with the choices that will bring them from boy to man. Telemachus is sweet and loyal, Octavius bubbling with latent danger; both the emblem of an uncertain future.

 

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.

 

1 Henry IV (with the death of Lady Henry Hotspur)

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

She’s too much. She’s too blunt and too loud and she never stops talking. She knows what she’s worth, and she’s worked hard to prove it, but these days that isn’t enough anymore. Now everyone says she needs to be quieter, needs to be gentler, needs to not be the things– aggressive, impulsive, passionate, utterly wholly constantly sincere– that have helped her claw her way to where she is.

Which Shakespeare heroine? Why, Harry Percy.

Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur has no patience for arrogance (though she can be arrogant) or incompetence (though she is not, perhaps, an expert in her present profession of secret armed rebellion) or being thought of in any way as one of the girls. She’s a soldier, and in her chosen field, she commands the respect and open admiration even of her enemies: of the Douglas, of King Henry, of Sir Walter Blunt. But people who ask her to do things that fall outside her area of expertise– her aunt Worcester and brother-in-law’s hopes she’ll be politic, her father’s longing for her to be polite, her wife’s pleas that she be open and confiding– will be disappointed, and she mostly seems incredulous that anyone would bother to ask her to be anything but who she is. Don’t you know her? Don’t you know what to expect by now?

It seems inevitable such a Hotspur would have come to chafe against the confines of her society, a world where even as a nobleman’s daughter, she would always have to answer to someone else, to lead someone else’s soldiers. This is a Hotspur who would never really have believed in her King Henry V’s reformation– witness her incredulity in the moment of her death, the weight Escalante gives to the second lines of Hotspur’s final speech: dying isn’t as bad as being killed by you. 

And she has not played the game as wisely as the other women of her circle; she has made herself into something too violent, too angry for a woman to be permitted to remain: not smooth and silver-tongued like her aunt Worcester, not undercutting her self-assurance with cheerful eccentricity like Glendower, not thoughtful and pliable like Vernon. Once he throws Worcester out, there are no women in King Henry’s court.

There is a little something extra in King Henry and Prince Hal’s shock and envy. This Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior– what right does she have? How does she do it?

So it seems inevitable: she cannot only be defeated, she must be disgraced. She must lose to a party boy who’s barely wiped the coke off his face. She must be mutilated and dragged around like luggage by Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and he must have the credit for her killing. Her death, as is sometimes the case, is not choreographed to be attributable to her honor against Hal’s pragmatism, her arrogant confidence against his desperation, his luck against her skill. It just happens. They grapple, and he wins. She fumbles with her armor, with her coat, unwilling to believe what has happened until she reaches in and sees her own blood.

She’s betrayed, too, of course, though she never knows it. Harry will be forgiven, her aunt argues. There’s a ready-made excuse: A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen. Silly girl, she just got so upset, she didn’t know what she was doing.

The pendulum between the two Harrys of Henry IV, the two stars in one sphere, has swung back to a preference for leading men to play Prince Hal, the politician and the pragmatist, the one with the heaps of juicy textual ambiguity and the daddy issues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has used it as a traditional stepping stone for its brightest young actors: start as Romeo, then tackle the Henry cycle, then Hamlet, then Richard III. These days, we prefer to frame the play as reckless idealism colliding with the harsh necessities of performative politics, and this makes Hal the star, Hotspur his tragic foil.

But the preference was once for Hotspur, and surely will be again. Maybe this is how. Or maybe just for me. To feel how hard-won her place of esteem was, to watch her battering herself against the confines of every expectation– even those of gentility and grace– in her stark inability to be anything but herself. The willingness of those around her to use her for her good qualities and reject her for her bad.

OSF hasn’t rewritten the play, this is the function Hotspur has always played. The lines are the same. But that’s the power of creative casting. Their Hotspur’s a Shakespeare heroine, and just the one I needed.

Julius Caesar, A Ghost Story

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

It was a dark and stormy night. Two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They had a prophecy to fulfill. But once that was done, they didn’t know what would happen next.

Given the glut of productions of Julius Caesar with political undertones, performed in sharp suits and dress uniforms, it’s obviously a play that speaks to a contemporary political sensibility. Well, of course it does: it’s about a pack of schemers, filled with characters who are admirable in one scene and despicable in the next, one that refuses to declare its moral or political loyalties. Except Brutus, of course. That’s clear, at least: whether what he does is right or wrong, Brutus is a good guy at heart.

The lack of ambiguity surrounding Brutus’s role in the drama–  anguished moral center– makes it easiest to shape a production around him, to use him as the fulcrum for answering what has become the play’s central production question: why is Julius Caesar named after a character who dies in act three? And why does the play keep going after he dies?

Back to the dark and stormy night. Comets streak the sky, and wild animals roam the streets. The women, especially, are troubled with bad dreams. It’s a scene that can seem deeply strange. There’s a lion wandering the streets of the city? Isn’t Casca kind of a doofus? Are we meant to take him at his word?

But go back one scene, to the light and sunny festival day that begins Julius Caesar. In Shana Cooper’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we begin with a reminder that the first scene is not about an aimless mob, but a religious festival. The revelers are masked and clad in white (a stark constrast to the other characters’ contemporary dress) and they chant and dance. In the next scene, no one thinks it strange that a Soothsayer– or someone claiming to be one– should appear. They only take issue with what she has to say.

Superstition and ritual course through the play, and Cooper and choreographer Erica Chong Shuch highlight them with gestures, with prayers, with sequences of stylized movement between scenes, all of which combine to create a world where the descriptions of lions whelping in the streets of Rome, of slaves with hands consumed in magical flames, do not seem out of place. And where the appearance of a ghost seems almost inevitable.

Maybe Julius Caesar is a ghost story. The best ghost stories, after all, have two parts: how the ghost died, and what it did after. On a dark and stormy night, two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They gathered together their friends and made a plot: to kill the man they feared would make himself a king. All the signs seemed to point in their favor– the flaming heavens, the words of soothsayers, the dreams of women. So they did it, and thought they had done right.

But then they trust the wrong man, and he raises a mob that drives them from the city. They raise their armies, prepare to fight. But it’s all going wrong: their messages are misdelivered, their words are misconstrued. Their wives die. Their enemies grow strong. And floating above it all, the promise of a ghost: I’ll see you again.

Cooper’s soldiers paint their faces with clay, with careful, ritual movements. In the production’s language of rhythmic, repetitive movement, battle looks like prayer looks like prophecy. They are all one physical language– pieces of the same puzzle, stations on the same journey. The story’s momentum is not (just) towards assassination, but to the final battlefield at Philippi, to see what the ghost they have made will do.

 

Rejecting Romance

I sometimes mutter about this, but it’s time to confess it outright: I’m a romance denier. I don’t believe “romance” is a genre of Shakespeare play. And two plays I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped confirm this impression for me. One of them is a play we categorize unequivocally as a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The other, Pericles, is generally labelled a romance. But seeing them back-to-back drove home their similarities, and drew attention to the ways in which separating the early and late comedies into different generic categories warps our understanding of both.

So first, romances. A critic named Edward Dowden is to blame for using the word for the first time. While we have divested ourselves of most of the nonsense that Victorians made up, for some reason the genre Dowden proposed in his 1875 book has stuck around. Their tragicomic elements, their emphasis on mysticism and redemption, their deus ex machina endings… all of these are pointed to as reasons that romances deserve to be considered a separate genre from other comedies.

Pericles seems to offer proof of this in spades, particularly in OSF’s sublime production, directed by Joseph Haj. The elegant, sweeping production, interspersed with music and dance, neither mocks nor attempts to rationalize its inconsistent tone and improbable series of events, but allows the play to speak for itself. Accepting, as Haj writes in his program note, that “[t]he play is only troublesome if one insists on it behaving like other plays” allows Pericles’ s episodic structure, amazing coincidences, and heightened emotions to accumulate into a fantastical but cohesive world in which the miraculous culminating reunions seem both natural and essential.

The continuing insistence on romance as a genre seems to stem from an effort to explain precisely the strangeness that Haj chose to embrace in his Pericles. But this labeling has led, in my opinion, to a widespread neglect of the fact that all of the supposedly unique elements of a romance are also present in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies– romances just demonstrate them in a more extreme and concentrated form. And sometimes not even that much more extreme. This was emphasized for me by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw at OSF the night after I saw Pericles. 

Productions of Much Ado often seem at a loss as to how to handle the scene where Claudio and the soldiers, as ordered by Leonato, go to Hero’s (fake) tomb to sing a song of mourning and apology to her (not actually) dead body. As my parentheses imply, it’s hard to know what to make of such a long scene of mourning for someone who isn’t actually dead by characters who contemporary audiences aren’t particularly inclined to trust. But Blain-Cruz’s staging of the scene, with Hero herself draped in fabric standing in for her own burial monument, transformed and elevated the scene and song into something just about as mystical as the revelations in Pericles.

Hero behaving as her own statue called to mind at once Shakespeare’s most famous living statue: Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, a character to whom Hero is frequently linked in scholarly criticism. And with good reason. Both are apparently killed by their lover’s irrational jealousy and apparently reborn to renew the union and forgive. Hero’s choice to forgive Claudio is too often dismissed by contemporary artists as not a choice at all, sexist and a bit pathetic, Shakespeare ignoring the complexities he himself has created in favor of a tidy ending.

But the critical and artistic insistence on the difference between comedy and romance has erased the highly mystical transformation that Hero undergoes, one that Blain-Cruz’s staging highlights and the text itself clearly supports. Hero’s response to Claudio’s exclamation that there is “Another Hero!” is not “No, I’m the same Hero,” but “Nothing certainer.” To paraphrase Haj again, by expecting Much Ado About Nothing to act like other comedies (and I think a similar argument can be made about the endings of almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies), Hero’s power to be reborn and forgive, and the agency implied by such a choice– in fact as radical and transformative as Prospero, Hermione, and Imogen’s ability to do the same– is underrated and ignored.

It is easier for Shakespeare’s early comedies and middle tragedies to masquerade as something like naturalistic, but that doesn’t mean that they are. In cordoning off Shakespeare’s most bizarre and mystical plays into a genre of their own, we have ignored the mysticism of the rest of his canon. So many plays hinge on the power of forgiveness, and whether or not such redemption is permitted or even seems possible can often be the biggest difference between comedy and tragedy. By allowing the magical potential of the romance to seep back into the rest of the canon, as these OSF productions do, the familiarity of these plays can be shaken, the easy answers of sharp genre designations rejected.

Oregon ArtsWatch

I wrote a series of reviews for Oregon ArtsWatch about shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Check them out!

Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Perhaps the most stirring realization of the evening was the depth of talent evident in the cast. Even minor characters felt fully realized (Celeste Den’s ridiculous Thurio deserves mention), and not a line of verse was out of place. Both Gomez and Clark’s skill interpreting and delivering text places them with some of the best actors I’ve seen at the festival. It’s sobering to realize how little opportunity these women have to display their abilities within Shakespeare’s canon, and exciting that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was willing to become one of very few professional theatres interested in producing an all-female Shakespeare play. Far more than a gimmick or a superficial gesture towards equality, this production offers ample proof that all-female casts can transform and illuminate the familiar texts—and in this case, perhaps even improve them (at least to the modern eye).”

Richard III.
Dan Donohue takes the [title] role, in his first appearance at OSF since he played Hamlet in 2010. His Richard is great. I will risk hyperbole and say that it approaches the perfect. He strikes all of the contrasts that make Richard so endlessly compelling and so unlike any version that had come before: the hilarious charm with which he courts the audience from his first moment and the blithe, remorseless recourse to murdering his own family; the fantastic confidence and profound self-loathing.”

Into the Woods. 
Like a good fairy tale, Into the Woods is deceptively simple. The morals of the story are easy to find, when the characters don’t state them outright. But much of their power is in this simplicity. As the show itself reminds us, fairy tales are used to teach lessons to children, so the point is not to bury the message too deeply. When it’s well done, Into the Woods, similarly, is less revelation than reminder of difficult truths. The actors and director here succeed beautifully not because they reinterpret, but because they inhabit what is written fully and truthfully.”