“Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender

Created and performed by Lisa Wolpe
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 21 – May 4, 2024

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Lisa Wolpe’s one-person performance weaves together her work to have women perform the meaty (male) Shakespeare characters with revelations from her personal background in an incredibly strong, nuanced, and broad show. I walked away from the evening admiring her as a person for her socially important efforts while also deeply appreciative of her professional talent.

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender". Photo by Jenny Graham.

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Every moment on stage has a point. The speeches from Shakespeare or from her relatives or from herself are flawlessly curated to both engage, amuse, and enlighten.

She has definite points to make – a righteous agenda. However, the mixture and delivery of the messages are so well crafted that you’re easily taken in by the surface artistry so that the deeper meaning effortlessly seeps into your mind as that scenes move along.

Lisa grabs your attention initially by mixing lines from Hamlet (“To be, or not to be…”) with a horror list of her relatives, including her father, that chose suicide. 

The show itself she dedicates to her father, Hans Wolpe. Her mother initially told Lisa that dad died when his gun went off accidently. As a young girl a friend started laughing at the improbably accident story and Lisa realized that her father killed himself. Much later in life she learned what her father did during World War II and how his eventual suicide was the result of war-time trauma. She brings us along in her learning of her father’s heroic exploits, but the pathway to knowing more about Hans is appropriately littered with emotion and uncomfortableness.

She talks about how alchemy shifts heavy matters into magical ones. In her life she shifts a female presentation to male. 

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender"

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Early on she learns that being female disadvantages you. She learns to act more like her brother to escape an abusive, alcoholic step-father. Then as a professional actor she discovers how many more lines the men in Shakespeare have then do the women. She explores her gender shifting and gets the audience to ponder how universal pandering to men really is.

So much of her life has reality bending episodes, and she shares the details so well. The story of her father’s wartime work follows an out-of-the-blue phone call from a rabbi who invites Catholic Lisa to a reunion of her Jewish Wolpe family. How she gets so many bizarre details to strengthen her coherent story is its own alchemy.

Throughout the 90-minute show Lisa blends the delivery of Tony-worthy Shakespeare monologues with comments directly to you in the audience. One of my favorite shifts between character and conversationalist was after her delivery of a Richard III monologue. She gave a lengthy Richard speech about his intent to molest (mmmm…. marry) a 13-year-old. She walked around the stage with a limp and crippled arm and snarly tone. When the speech was done, she spent a moment on stage shaking herself, straightening her crippled limb and gradually starting to smile engagingly at the crowd.

Lisa Wolpe in "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender". Photo by Jenny Graham.

Lisa Wolpe in “Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender”. Photo by Jenny Graham.

You are entertained, you are educated, you are given STUFF to think about. The show is polished, professional, and complete. You honor her and her father and family with a standing ovation.

Then, if you stay, Lisa comes back onstage for a 15-minute Q&A session where you can ask her anything. Her consistency, honesty, and seeming spontaneity are terrific add-ons to the show.

This performance with personal details blended with gender truths is a remarkable event to experience.  Lisa definitely rates   5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Smote This” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Smote This,
A Comedy About God …and Other Serious $H*T

Created and performed by Rodney Gardiner
Directed by Raz Golden

Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 22 – May 12, 2024

SMOTE This masthead


This one-person show by OSF veteran Rodney Gardiner is intense, personal, real, and not to be missed (and like all of the one-person shows the run is too short, so go now).

I am struggling to figure out which level of the show I should tell about. On the top-level, the physical story starts out with Rodney at his father’s funeral which leads to a discussion of his family and how he came to the United States. That leads to dealing with his father’s long-term health issues, his mother’s life and how she parented. We learn about isolated events in young Rodney’s life, the “miracles” that touch him, and eventually his life with a wife and two Blewish children.

This show is billed as a comedy, and Rodney has very witty, fun lines. He is physically humorous, energetic, and a happy ball of energy on stage.

Except the jokey story is actually about the struggle of undocumented refugees living in a poor community among drug dealers and other distractions. The family has issues, and we spend a lot of time giggling at the “funny” lines about things like his father dying alone under the photograph of a blond white Jesus. Or, about how as a child he woke up from a dream because his mother started beating him and his two brothers while they were sound asleep in bed. Very funny scene, except …

Rodney Gardier in Smote This

Rodney Gardier in Smote This. Photo by Jenny Graham

The first time I saw the show I was very bothered by all the humor. I guess the second time I knew what was coming, and Rodney is a great comic. But, still, we are laughing at awful stuff.

Throughout the show there is a genuine tension between the organized religion Rodney’s been taught and the spirituality of his community and family. “What to believe” is a central issue which strengthens the story, but really isn’t reinforced as the dilemma to consider when seeing the performance.

This new show was a great 50 minutes. And like many new works of art, we spent a lot of time afterwards reflecting and considering how we would improve it. For one thing, we didn’t like “Smote This…” as a title. I object mainly because I am not sure Rodney comes down on the side smiting anything, certainly he’s not throwing away all of the religion he’s been exposed to.

A lot of the humor and emphasis compares feeling-rich, family-rich, religious-rich Black Caribbean community with the dominant white world. His perspective is revelatory and sharp. But, his struggles with what to believe, family, and religion are more widespread. When he rewrites the show for its second incarnation (not planned, that I know of), I hope he projects his personal experiences into a more universal dilemma. His perspective and insight are spectacular, but his observations apply to a wider scope of experiences.

Thank you, Rodney, for sharing so much of your background and life. Thank you for sharing your comedic talent. Now, let’s figure out how to get me released from my guilt at laughing at tragedy and also make your pointed themes apply more broadly.

This excellent performace rates Rating: 4 and 1/2 Syntaxes out of 5

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“Born with Teeth” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Born with Teeth

OSF Presents the Alley Theatre Production
By Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Rob Melrose

Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Born with Teeth masthead
This two-person show is good entertainment. Witty, quick, well-acted.

The plot has contemporary playwrights William Shakespeare (Bradley James Tejeda) and Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Alex Purcell) sparring over words, personal behavior, and sex. In talks the director has said that academics who have read the script say that nothing in the plot couldn’t have happened. However, warning! That doesn’t mean any of the interactions on stage actually happened.

The plot explores relatively recent research into Marlowe’s life. The current theory, I have been told, is that Marlowe didn’t die in a random bar fight as history has previously said. Instead, he was targeted and killed because he was involved in palace intrigue, spying and turning over innocent people to the authorities, and blatant homosexuality.

Marlowe was allowed to be known homosexual only because his lovers included powerful people but in the end powerful people were uncomfortable with what Marlowe knew and did. In the final scene Marlowe and Shakespeare say good-bye as Marlowe knows that assassins are waiting for him.

Alex Purcell Bradley and James Tejeda

Alex Purcell Bradley and James Tejeda. Photo by Jenny Graham

On stage we see Shakespeare and Marlowe flirt, a couple times very physically. Marlowe is also chronically trying to recruit Shakespeare into his spy ring, but Will refuses and insists on sticking to writing… until Shakespeare commits an out-of-character act at the end which helps end the play. (I am still shaking my head saying, “Tsk, tsk!” at Shakespeare’s uncharacteristic political deed which is best left unspecified but which makes the performance a short one-act.)

The dialogue is fast, fun, and full of the lovely feel of Shakespeare… probably because some of Shakespeare’s lines are used to illustrate the writing happening on stage.
Overall, the scenes fly by. There are a good number of good one-liners. There is sincere laughter from the audience. It’s fun. We were amused to watch the actors and we enjoyed the language, especially the words from the 17th Century.

Born with Teeth is especially engaging for Shakespeare fans who are up on the latest AI that shows which acts of which Shakespeare plays are more stylistically Marlowe and were probably written by Kit not Will.

On the whole this was simply fun to watch and hear. That’s not a bad thing, but we don’t really learn anything about their collaboration or how the possible flirtation influenced their writing or made anyone’s lives different in real life.

I am happy to have seen this theater-goers mental masturbation show which was well done but fails the “so what” test. Go see it if you’re in town.  It’s  a good    Play Rating 3 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Macbeth” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival


by William Shakespeare
Directed by Evren Odcikin 

Ashland, OR at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

MacbethIn decades of play going I had never seen even a “good” Macbeth. In great theaters with famous stars playing key roles we still have always gone away marveling at the words but disappointed in the story and characters.

We had come to believe that there was so much chaos, blood, and incoherent scheming written into the play that the best that you could expect from seeing Macbeth was a series of memorable soliloquies and audition moments.

SMACK! My head (and emotions) are still spinning from the two times (so far) that I have seen OSF’s Macbeth. This production has characters, nuance, coherence, and still the amazing language and events. It is not a good Macbeth, it is a spectacular Macbeth. It is a spectacular show.

Under the direction of Evren Odcikin, Macbeth (Kevin Kenerly) and Lady Macbeth (Erica Sullivan) clearly love each other and are trying to help one another achieve their dreams. They are not just yelling threats and evil plans, but are actually thoughtful, hesitant, and, well, human.

Erica Sullivan as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Jenny Graham

Erica Sullivan as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Jenny Graham

Kevin Kenerly as Macbeth

Kevin Kenerly as Macbeth. Photo by Jenny Graham

Kenerly and Sullivan are perfect. You can watch and feel them think, worry, make bad decisions, worry, and try to achieve their dreams. Too often Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are shown to be absolute, unmitigated evil, plotting without hesitation. Not this OSF couple.


They hug and support each other as they contemplate actions they know are fraught but which will help them achieve goals they both want.

The Macbeths are so good, it is tempting to comment endlessly about them. But, there are so many other excellent touches and characters and moments.

The play focuses on people and their interactions. The performance begins with most of the company presenting ready for battle in a well choreographed and well snarled opening. The beginning  introduces the theme felt throughout the play. What the Macbeths and others do affect the whole community/country.

Sure, there are some quiet scenes like the impactful mad scenes of Lady Macbeth. But at other times characters on center stage are flanked quietly by watchers so that you feel that the whole of Scotland is involved. I particularly liked the circle of witches that watched the later battle scenes. They watched the unfolding of what they prophesized which made it feel more powerful and mystic.

The three witches in Macbeth.

The three witches in Macbeth. Photo by Jenny Graham

Speaking of witches (Kate Hurstler, Amy Lizardo, Jennie Greenberry and Auston Henderson as Hecate) … wow! The costumes, movement, and rhythmic chanting are indeed magic. Not necessarily happy magic, but full of powerful import. Revelatory, sometimes eerily musical, and truly spooky, these witches and their scenes are completely integrated into the story we are experiencing. Sometimes I had to strain to understand what they were foretelling, especially when Hecate was broadcasting. But, I felt as a human it was appropriate for me to have to work to understand what I was hearing. (Still, clearer audio for Hecate would be appreciated.)

Damn, I feel compelled to return to how this Macbeth is different from all others. Yes, there are many speeches about blood and plotting deaths and more blood. But, in this OSF show the characters say the famous lines with pauses and reflection. They aren’t just words from “The Best of Shakespeare” or other dry source. These reflect feelings of the characters that they are compelled to share.

Macduff and Lady Macduff

Macduff and Lady Macduff. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Never, never, never have I had any real emotion at a Macbeth. So, I found myself almost annoyed as I teared up listening to the heartbreak of Macduff (Jaysen Wright) as he talked about the murder of his wife (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and children. I know the speech about the horrible murders we witnessed in a previous scene. It’s powerful and reinforces how evil Macbeth is. But, Wright’s phrasing, spacing, and physical look just reached out and got me. I felt like I should have known better, but this performance was too good to keep out of my heart. Intense humanness kept enriching scenes throughout the afternoon.

David Kelly as Duncan

David Kelly as Duncan. Photo by Jenny Graham

Looking over the cast I feel like I have to give a shout out to everyone. How can I not mention the straight-forward goodness of old King Duncan (David Kelly) and how Kelly pulled off being the Porter (and Siward) with great fun and without any feel of his previous role hanging on?

Admirable Banquo (Armando McClain) was a careful and believable cohort of Macbeth. He was played as a fully present and loyal man, a perfect person to show the audience how Macbeth had gone bad and to torment Macbeth as a ghost. (Two nits to pick: I am not sure about the horns/branches/whatever on the ghost’s head at the banquet. I am sure they were well thought out, but I need education. Secondly, McClain also played the doctor in Lady Macbeth’s mad scenes. He was too important as Banquo not to be recognizable as the doctor. A different actor should have been used.)

Malcom (Dane Troy) was weak in the opening but commanded the stage as the new king the second performance I saw. Meanwhile, in both performances Nicole Villavicencio Gonzalez was terrific as the endangered children of Banquo and McDuff and Lady McDuff (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) was excellent as a overcome, doomed, worried parent.

Overall this performance is unreasonably, unexpectedly great. The direction and acting gave characters character and the storyline a true story. This is another OSF show that makes me think I never need to see this play again because I have seen the best possible version. (Of course, I always hope that some other production will prove me wrong!)

Macbeth ensemble

Macbeth ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

My intellectual and emotional judgement is that his Macbeth is a must-see, must-experience artistic event. I rate it 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“My Home on the Moon” at San Francisco Playhouse

written by Minna Lee
directed by Mei Ann Teo

San Francisco, CA
at San Francisco Playhouse

The surface story is straight-forward: a failing Vietnamese pho noodle restaurant owner  applies to a corporation’s community support program for help. Her application is selected and she and the shop’s cook are completely supported. They achieve financial and critical success, and there’s some positive emotional experiences thrown in, too.

The actors, the characterizaitons, THE SET!, all are top quality and make My Home on the Moon feel comfortable. It’s a worthwhile story to enjoy. It never presents at all as a new effort by a virgin playwright… which this production is.

The plot develops smoothly, quickly, and with intense humor. An example: at one point a restaurant critic (Will Dao) appears to talk about the food with his camera operator recording every twitch and bit of wisdom he spews. The critic is hammily all about his looks and voice on the video being made of his comments. It’s a quick amusing scene that both tells about the positive progress of the restuarnt while at the same time zinging the social influencer phenomenon so powerful in the world of 2024.

L-R) A food critic (Will Dao) samples cuisine, watched by Lan (Sharon Omi), Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and a camera person (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) in San Francisco Playhouse's World Premiere Play "My Home on the Moon," performing January 25 - February 24.

(L-R) A food critic (Will Dao) samples cuisine, watched by Lan (Sharon Omi), Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and a camera person (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) in San Francisco Playhouse’s World Premiere Play “My Home on the Moon,” performing January 25 – February 24.
SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli.

That’s the power and focus of this production. There’s a story progressing nicely while we deal with more and more complex aspects of today’s world and technology.

Most of the onstage activity concerns the interaction between restaurant ower Lan (Sharon Omi), the cook Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson), and the corporation’s helpful consultant Vera (Rinabeth Apostol). As Vera listens to what the other two want and dream of, she marshals the resources to make things perfect. 

An early accomplishment of Vera was to make the interior walls orange, something Lan thought would improve the atmosphere. Vera then took on publicty with textbook techniques like giving the food dishes punny names. Her actions are great successes!

Lan (Sharon Omi - center) celebrates the new year with lion dancers (left - Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, right- Will Dao). SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Lan (Sharon Omi – center) celebrates the new year with lion dancers (left – Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, right- Will Dao)
SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli..

The popularity of the shop grows and the culinary variety and entertainment accoutrements dazzle.

The description of some of the custom dishes that Mai creates bothered one of my Vietnamese friends because, he says, you’d never put those ingredients together in Vietname. But, that’s the inventiveness of this newly successful pho spot.  And, its focus is making the characters happy. Happy with the financial success, happy with the culinary innovation and recognition… my friend’s traditional taste be damned.

Vera, too, is benefiting from the experience. Her focus initially is on the objective actions to take to improve the finances and occupancy of the restaurant. She has knowledge but not hands-on experience. But as the relationships progress she finds herself looking to learn and enjoy new things.

Like any substantial play, there is a considerable, “Yes, but…!” to the uplifting story of incredible accomplishement of the turnaround. 

Other reviews go into detail of what they think the issue the characters face is. I am not going to do that because you should come to your own realization when you’re ready.

Surfice to say that by the time a former restaurant employe (also played by Will Dao) disrupts the corporation’s shareholding meeting to complain about what they’ve done to the restaurant, most of us in the audience understand his point and probably agree with him.

CEO Gigi (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) leads an investor's report protested by Beau (Will Dao)

CEO Gigi (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) leads an investor’s report protested by Beau (Will Dao)
SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli.

The whole show is comic, clear, fun, but with a huge point to think about on the way home and the next day and … 

The show deals with issues we are hearing about in the news. Still, this production is witty, enjoyable, terrifically acted, clever, and on target.

Many moments deserve special shout-outs. Will Dao has some excellent shakes in physical comedy for two of his roles. The restaurant set changes and grows as its own character. Vera is a perfect learner at times and a perfect planner at others. Lan and Mai each are focused, different, and spectacular.

The writing is extremely careful, too. You know the saying that if they show a gun at the beginning of the play it better be used by the final curtain? Even small things that My Home on the Moon presents to the audience have meaning and deepen the story… even if it takes a day or two for the revelation about the relevancy to get into your consciousness. I’m thinking of contents of gift baskets, salmon, and strawberries among other objects that pistol whipped us.

There were a few new-play moments that need to be worked out. The most noticable was that at the end of the final scene the lights go out, but the audience isn’t sure they should clap until the actors come back on stage for the curtain call. No one I talked to thought that there could have been another scene in the play. It was complete! Still folks weren’t sure it was over. Maybe a sound effect or someting needs to queue the applause.

Overall My Home on the Moon is an excellent new play, brilliantly produced and performed. 

Now I’m off to eat a biscotti and think about seeing it again with the inevitable revisions. I am also looking to see what Minna Lee does next!

Ozdachs rating:  Rating: 4 and 1/2 Syntaxes out of 5


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