“The Way the Mountain Moved” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Way the Mountain Moved

by Idris Goodwin
directed by May Adrales

Julian Remulla, Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner, Al Espinosa. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Julian Remulla, Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner, Al Espinosa. Photo by Jenny Graham.

This American Revolutions OSF commissioned play earns a star for its attempt at dealing with a complex subject and another for the quality of the acting; there’s nothing given for any actual quality of the play.

The Way’s major faults are glaring:

  • The theme of Bad, Insensitive Interlopers taking over the Native American/wild lands is hammered home without redeeming subtlety.
  • The play is embarrassingly unedited. There are several decent plots thrown uncomfortably together and either left hanging or suddenly and unsatisfying resolved by a deus ex machina character who appears only in the very last scene.

Here, according to the OSF website, is what the play is supposed to be about:

In a remote desert in the 1850s, four men—a U.S. Army lieutenant, a sharpshooter, a botanist and an artist—set out to survey a route for the new continent-spanning railroad. After being scattered on separate odysseys, they cross paths with lost pioneers, cautious Native Americans, and an African-American Mormon couple unsure whether to befriend, fight or flee the newcomers.

The story would have been better if it had been about the US Army lieutenant, the sharpshooter, the botanist, the artists, the lost pioneers, the cautious Native Americans, OR the African-American Mormon couple. Pick one to center on, cultivate that character, and build a story that makes us care.

Rodney Gardiner, Christiana Clark. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Rodney Gardiner, Christiana Clark. Photo by Jenny Graham.
It just looks like the actors are horrified to be on stage in this show!

As it was presented, The Way is more a display of character sketches, improbable scenarios, and the ever-popular symbolism-laden scenes that you know you should understand better but require a college-level literature course to appreciate.

I really need most of the play’s “artistry” decoded and put in Trumpian simple terms for me to understand. I admit, I don’t understand the title, The Way the Mountain Moved. I didn’t understand the mysterious, painfully loud groaning noises that disrupted the characters in an early scene. I didn’t understand who the women were who bring the play to its end — one of whom has appeared only in the scene. And, more!

I know I am stupid. But, I think the playwright really should have shared his drugs with the audience so we could have appreciated the depth of this work.

And, then there were actions that left us suddenly not understanding a character’s nature and motivation. For example, one character seemed increasingly reasonable, vulnerable, and likable as we learned more about his background. Then he suddenly kills a good guy, right in front of us, for no reason I could fathom. Did I miss something? Why did that happen when just 5 minutes ago the narrative had me warming up to him?

Many of my audience mates were intrigued with the possibilities of story development at intermission. They felt that there were so many good plotlines, the writer would weave things together in a wonderful prairie quilt by the end of the show. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.

The actors make many scenes excellent vignettes in a stand-alone way. Speeches by Rex Young (George Harris) were fun and well done, even if not memorable. Similarly, Al Espinosa (Luis Núñez Arista) owned the stage several times with his words and actions.  Rodney Gardiner’s Orson and Robert Vincent Frank’s Bart also were clear and commanding in their moments.

The other roles, played by truly wonderful actors, didn’t grab me. The awkward/improbably/unexplained/weird situations kept the fine onstage talent from convincing me that their character was genuine. In too many scenes, I felt like I was being thrown bits of history I should be learning while at the same time there was so much symbolism and unspoken Truth that I couldn’t keep up. Sara Bruner’s Phyllis Cooke, for example, was written way too enigmatic for the straight-forward (if awful) situation she was in. I found myself rejecting getting involved.  I simply, wrongly, maybe even in a white-supremacist way, decided I didn’t care.

Overall, The Way the Mountain Moved is a fine new play failure. Seriously. A commissioned play with (too many) interesting characters and (too much random) non-standard events is bold and laudable, even when not good theater or even particularly enjoyable. I appreciate seeing this play instead of another “update” of something dated and tired. I just hope for a subtlety-inducing, focusing rewrite.

Play rating:
Rating 2 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Trying to Get Comfortable – Day 2 at 1:45 pm

A day for vigilance, or how to act like nervous grandparents.

Our major concern at the moment is that Zenith ate only a breakfast of boiled chicken breast at about 7 and has refused more, refused more with rice, refused more with rice and chicken broth. She also has moments of whining and nervousness, moving the puppies further back in the whelping box, especially if both Geoffrey and I are in the room at the same time.

The puppies seem fine. The girl continues to nap on a nipple and wakes to nurishment. We worry that the boy stays on a nibble only a minute or so before climbing further or wandering around. He is neither whining nor lethargic. But isn’t as a steady sucker as his sister. We bought Esbilac (canine milk replacer) just in case we need to supplement his intake from Zenith.

Zenith's Puppies Together While Mom is Out

Zenith’s Puppies Together While Mom is Out

We have received a lot of advice and suggestions from friends — thank you!

I suspect that Zenith is in some pain, still from yesterday’s surgery. And this is all new and strange!

And, thanks to Geoffrey for his duty in the puppy room. He and Zenith are calmer together than she and I, but I worry about how little Geoffrey has slept.

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Zenith’s Puppies — Day One

Zenith’s C-Section at Bishop Ranch was on schedule and had happy results.  At 2:02 this afternoon a girl was born, followed about a minute later by a smaller, darker boy. Dr. Janice Cain and her team were reassuring, warm, professional, and kept us all healthy and sane.

Bringing the Puppy to her first Towel

Bringing the Puppy to her first Towelling

It’s now 10:15 at night and we are all home and settled down a bit.

Zenith and the girls are in with Geoffrey in the television room. The heat is on to a cozy 75 degrees. Zenith is in the whelping box, and most of the time the puppies are in with her.

The girl is definitely eating, sleeping on a teat so a snack is quickly available. We are somewhat worried about the boy’s milk consumption, but we think he’s feeding. He just seems to wander more than zeroing in on a food supply as his sister does. Zenith herself is only interested in boiled chicken since the surgery, but she is getting increasing alert and seems fine.

Geoffrey will be staying in the TV room overnight, making sure that food is offered every couple hours.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

We have been asked several times what the puppies names are. Here’s the deal:

Puppies are given litter names while they are with their birth family (that’s us). So, what we call them may be their name for only a couple months. And, right now, we haven’t firmly decided what we want to call them when they’re with us. We’re leaning to MUNI for the girl and Metro for the boy. What do you think?

Once they go to their permanent home, they are given a “call name”.  The permanent family selects the call name. Our dog’s call names are Paris, SeQuel, Apex, and Zenith. This is what they answer to when we call them. Or should answer to…

But, the official AKC name is a completely different name! That’s the name the judges see in the program. So, for example, Apex’s formal name is Ch. Ozdachs Royal Succession of Oz, and Zenith is Ozdachs Warrior Princess of Oz. Any puppies our girls have will have a formal name that starts with our kennel name, Ozdachs.

Make sense.

Baby Pictures

Finally, I have started a collection of puppy pictures, starting with today’s C-Section. Check out Zenith’s Puppies’ Pictures online.

https://ozdachs.smugmug.com/Dachshunds/Zeniths-Puppies/

The puppies about 30 minutes after birth.

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“The Book of Will” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Book of Will

by Lauren M. Gunderson
directed by Christopher Liam Moore 

“Masturbation is loads of fun,” sing Romanovsky and Phillips, and the Book of Will is loads of fun. It’s a truly enjoyable evening for theater aficionados and Shakespeare cognoscente. Excellent fun. Self-indulgent, self-centered, masturbatory theater fun.

The “play” is a cover to allow extremely fine actors to deliver some of the best lines of Shakespeare, one after another, from productions unrelated except that they share an author.

Kate Hurster, David Kelly, Kevin Kenerly, Jeffrey King. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Kate Hurster, David Kelly, Kevin Kenerly, Jeffrey King. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The Book of Will’s thin story that allows memorable speech to follow memorable speech — always superbly delivered, by the way — doesn’t really matter. If you need to track a plot, supposedly a bunch of actors from Shakespeare’s company are alarmed that the body of the Bard’s work hasn’t been preserved and they set out to gather the material for the First Folio.  They recite the great speeches and argue over the wording as they collect material for the folio. Or, something like that. Really, no one cares.

The performance is simply good, clean mental mastrubation for elite theater goers. I feel about The Book of Will the way I reacted to August, Osage Country. I felt privileged to experience a Master’s Class in acting as some of the best talent in theater take the spotlight for BIG scene after BIG scene.

The “playwright” for the Book of Will choose excellent scenes to showcase Will’s writing and the actors’ talent. And, make no mistake, the acting talent on stage is phenomenal.

Kevin Kenerly stands out for delivering the highest quality Shakespeare. He slipped most easily from his roles in the Book of Will (Burbage and Jaggard) into his Greatest Hits speeches. He managed to deliver the crowd-pleasing classics with restrained emotion that would have fit whatever play the excerpts were from. Really good scenes!

I also enjoyed Daniel T. Parker and his several characters (Barman 2, Dering, Bernardo). It was good to see him cast in parts where he was allowed to act and not just be the big fat guy on stage. He is talented!

Jonathan Luke Stevens was also given some real acting to do, even if in small roles (Marcus, Boy Hamlet, Crier, and Horatio). Good to see him is something other than comic relief.

Of course, being Ashland, almost all of the cast was terrific.

The play ends on a high note with an emotionally charged technical tour de force: a video montage that shows some of the actors on stage in their earlier Shakespeare performances at OSF. The video also highlights some deceased legendary Ashland stars in their best Shakespeare roles. The tug on the heartstrings is effective.

After a couple hours of hearing the great in great roles with great speeches, the First Folio is printed and the Book of Will is over. You will feel well entertained and happy to have seen the production.

Play rating:
Play Rating 3 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Snow in Midsummer

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Snow in Midsummer

By Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Based on the Play The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth
by Guan Hanqing

Directed by Justin Audibert

Snow in Midsummer may be the best production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season. It certainly is the best production most likely to be overlooked by old-chestnut-seeking, casual theater goers.

One reason Snow is a candidate for audience neglect is that it’s a new play that hasn’t been vetted by Broadway. Another reason is that the publicity for Snow makes it sound intellectual and good-for-you. You learn that it’s an adaptation of an ancient and traditional Chinese story, clearly on the OSF playlist to further diversity and expand the cultural horizons of the audience, and its all-Asian cast sets off my pandering alarm bells.

But even before the curtain goes up, you start to realize your assumptions were wrong. Snow is modern, engaging story. Instead of what I feared, stylized Chinese Theatre from the 1200’s (the time when the original playwright lived), we are dealing with people in a very modern setting,  magic, pollution, and, most importantly, an incredibly tight mystery complete with a important ghost and up-to-date social commentary.

Jessica Ko. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Jessica Ko. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The problem with talking about details of the story, even the general plot, is that the writing is incredibly, rewardingly tight. Not only does the gun shown in Act I get fired before the end of the play, a toothpick that is shown onstage in Act I is also used before the final curtain.

So, I cannot say too much about the characters or action without sharing the knowledge I had acquired by the end of the play.

It’s hard to banally mention the toothpick without calling it the mass-murdering implement it becomes in Act II.

Well, there are no toothpicks in Snow. But the complexity of the characters and plot are real. And, satisfying. Surprising. Obvious. Meaningful.

The simple story is of a factory town in modern China that is suffering from a three-year drought. The current factory owner, Handsome Zhang, (Daisuke Tsuji) plans on selling the factory to Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke) who arrives in town on an inspection trip with her young daughter, Fei-fei (Olivia Pham). Just before Tianyun makes her entrance at the village watering hole run by Mother Cai (Nastsuo Ohama), Handsome uses the venue to propose marriage to his long-time boyfriend, Rocket Wu (Will Dao). Plans are interrupted by Dou Yi (Jessica Ko), the ghost of a woman wronged by the town.

That description doesn’t sound engaging. It certainly does not match the captivating and exciting real-life two-plus hours of theater. The playwright, director, and cast have managed to take the drab-sounding outline and use it like a Russian doll with layers and layers of additional meaning and connection. Each scene goes deeper into the town and people. Revelation after revelation hits you, each feeling inevitable as soon as they are shown. The story deepens, characters add dimensions and change.

Snow in Midsummer masthead photo from OSF

Román Zaragoza, Jessica Ko, Olivia Pham, Amy Kim Waschke, Moses Villarama.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

World-class acting is one of the reasons Snow works so well. Five major roles are filled flawlessly.

Jessica Ko as Dou Yi flows between simple storytelling and fantasy scenes, sometimes mid sentence. She is contained and on track every moment. She is also delightful in the stage-setting, opening-curtain interaction with the audience. At that point we don’t know who she is, but the extra moments at the start with her reinforce the goodness of her character.

Will Dao has similar mastery over his this-life and next-life moments as Rocket Wu. In earlier moments, he makes believable the effects of a ghost on his terran-world physical body, all the while sharing with the audience his character’s nature and strengths. Later on stage, he is a perfect balance of eatherial and the practical, with some comedy thrown in. And, this leaves out his first moments as a focused, but somewhat shallow, enthusiastic fiancee.

The complementary dichotomies keep on coming!

Oxhead in the property shop

Head of Ox being repaired in the Production Shop

The riskiest writing in Snow was giving much of the action and revelatory dialog to the Fei-fei, a grade school student. Frankly, I would never have the guts to hand so much of my play to such a young person. How OSF found Olivia Pham for that role and integrated the first-time actor so well is a stroke of luck/skill/something wonderful.

Pham is perfect. Neither precocious nor silly, this kid plays a kid extremely well. Believable and clear. And, that is a good thing because she has critical dialogue and carries key scenes.

As the new factory owner and Fei-fei’s mother, Amy Kim Waschke, creates her own magic by masterfully revealing layers of her character. Her tightly wound portrayal righteously adds tension as her words also move the story along. An excellent performance.

The fifth major player, Daisuke Tsuji’s Handsome, is just as wonderful as the other top characters. Again, we are shown his outside doll early on and then learn more and more and more as the play goes on. Tsuji’s Handsome is a control monster throughout the play, and we keep learning through his final scene just how intent he is on controlling everything around him.

Although the parts are not as big as the Big Five, other cast members have created real gems of personality and importance. Two deserve special call-outs: Christopher Jean in dual roles as Dr. Lu and Judge Wu well exemplified a/im-moral authority. I also loved Moses Villarama’s worried officer who gave us some needed relief from personality-less bureaucracy.

Monique Holt’s appearance as a deaf Worker Chen caused the creation of a town-specific sign language that is used when she is in a scene. That’s a nice creative thought, and Holt’s presence and the signing helps us see the unfolding story in yet another way.

I am tempted to declare writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig the real hero of the play because all of the elements of an compelling story are present, deep, and taughtly delivered. The play was woven, not written. Director Justin Audibert had a clear and focused vision of the complex narrative which maximized the seamlessness of the action.

Crafts excelled, too. Especially Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek’s mood-setting dry open spaces that switched quickly to anxious paranormal spots or hot expanses of execution. The heaps of dead crickets, including loose ones sprinkled on the ground, were exquisite! I think we heard those crickets dying and lots of other truly mood-enhancing background noises created by Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast. You don’t want to invite him to DJ your next upbeat party, but you do want him to work on your next stage production.

The second time I saw Snow, I saw and understood more. Even more dolls were exposed than I saw my first watching. Over and over I heard details of the mystery that were pointed to up front but which I went right by me on my initial viewing. I kept smacking my head, asking, “You didn’t pick up on that? Why else would have THIS happened if it didn’t mean that THAT was going to happen in Act II?” Don’t you do smack your head yourself when you reread a superb mystery?

The real reason to see of Snow in Midsummer is that it is a deep story brilliantly constructed. The mystery and the ghost aspects make tale stronger than your average moralistic classic!  Snow benefits from all the its traditional high-brow lineage, the creative team’s diversity, and clear ethical teaching moment. And, Snow’s skilled storytelling executed so well by the onstage talent and crafts, overcomes its weighty pedigree.

Snow in Midsummer winds up being great fun.

Play rating: 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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