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A Veritable Feast at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

It may be too late for you to see the wonderful plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, but the eight-hour drive or 90-minute flight is worth the trip. (I saw eight of the eleven plays but did not see Merry Wives of Windsor and Unison which I expect to come to Seattle soon because its subject is the late August Wilson.) All the plays end October 28th or 29th. This year, like each of the forty-seven seasons I have attended, has much to say to us despite the dates the plays were written

The oldest play is The Odyssey, written by Homer somewhere between 750 and 800 BC—that’s almost 3,000 years ago! In Odysseus’s attempt to return to his wife and son after fighting in the Trojan War, he leads us from one adventure to another in his ten-year journey where he must wage yet another battle to claim his home. Throughout history men, and more recently women, have made journeys but without so many deterrents as Odysseus who is indeed clever but does not always tell the truth.

In addition to the Greek play, OSF continues its promise to present all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in a ten-year span. The histories Henry IV, Part I (1597), and Henry IV, Part II (between1596 and 1599) and Julius Caesar (1599) are three of the four plays this year. (I missed the comedy Merry Wives of Windsor but would love to have seen Falstaff played by a woman dressed as a man.) Not one of the histories is on the Elizabethan stage! As is with so much of Shakespeare, murder, intrigue, mendacity, and hypocrisy are at the forefront. Julius Caesar, says Cassius, is a threat to the republic. In little time, a group of men who supposedly care for the state conclude that Caesar must die. Only after the deed does the noble Brutus realize his conclusion may be wrong. Despite the divine right of kings, Henry IV knows he did not fairly get the crown; therefore, he is in a never-ending battle to keep it so that he can pass it to his son Hal. Hanging out with friends not the least bit courtly, Hal in no sense acts like a prince in Part I. However, in Henry IV, Part II, Prince Hal makes it clear that he is responsible when he needs to be. In all of the plays, especially Caesar, listeners can’t help recognizing actions and lines that are permanent stays in the English language.

Almost 500 years lapse before we get to the next three plays. Though Beast is a fairy tale written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the Disney version is “a tale as old as time” filmed in animation in 1991 and live action in 2017 is probably most familiar because millions saw and purchased it. Since the coming of artistic director Bill Rauch in 2007, festival-goers can usually count on a musical in the repertoire. Playgoers should not be surprised that Walt Disney and OSF founder Angus Bowmer, two visionaries primarily responsible for contributing forever-gifts to the public, finally meet. With little prodding, most of us can point out those we see as beauty-and-beast couples. The mismatch is not always physical but may be spiritual or mental.

Shakespeare in Love (movie 1998), screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, is almost as fanciful as Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps Shakespeare could have had such an affair, not telling his beloved soul mate that he is married. However, the idea for this play could have originated from Shakespeare’s will bequeathing his “second best bed” to his wife. In the play, Shakespeare has writer’s block, can’t complete his play Romeo and Ethel. His new love provides all the inspiration he needs as audiences see the cleverness of the writers’ use of many lines in Romeo and Juliet.

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo (2012) by Jiehae Park, set in New York City and Korea, covers far more territory: family and culture, the one members know and the one members do not know; understanding/misunderstanding each other, perhaps an inability to understand each other; a Korean American and Koreans, thus immigration; suicide and its effects on the living, those who choose to endure despite the pain; the results of war—and its ever-present collateral damage; a gamut of the emotions that “normal” humans endure; success and how the successful seem never able to wholly enjoy this hard-earned success; love. Perusal of Seattle Times reporter Ellen Banner’s article of the Tacoma Korean Women’s Association (September 28, 2017) is reminiscent of the play.

You can always see classics and world premieres in Ashland. You can always count on seeing Shakespeare at its best. Julius Caesar or Casca may be a woman; real twins may be the Antipholuses; women may play male roles. Now you can expect a musical. The backgrounds of company members span the gamut. OSF is for the novice and the veteran theatergoer, teacher and student. A sample of visitors makes plain that most of us go to Ashland for Shakespeare.

After seeing a drawing of the Elizabethan Theater anytime I was exposed to a Shakespeare play, I never imagined that I would one day see plays performed on an Elizabethan stage. But thanks to theater and scenic designer Richard L. Hay who has worked at the Festival for 60 seasons, this is the case!

Members have received information about ordering next year’s plays: Othello, Sense and Sensibility, Destiny of Desire, Oklahoma, Snow in Midsummer, Manahatta, Henry V, The Way the Mountain Moved, Romeo and Juliet, The Book of Will, and Love’s Labor’s Lost.

Next season runs February 23 – October 28, 2018.

~Georgia S. McDade, Ph. D.

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