“Mother Road” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

World Premiere

by Octavio Solis
directed by Bill Rauch

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mark Murphey (William Joad), Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Mark Murphey (William Joad), Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes)
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

My subconscious has delayed my writing comments about Ashland’s Mother Road. I saw it opening night in early March, but I haven’t felt like it was time to write about the play. Not when I first saw it. Not when I got back home and had a chance to think about it. Not ever.

The problem is that I want to construct an enthusiastic collection of comments that matches the applause the audience — including me — gave opening night. And, I can’t. The importance of the story, the crafts, and the acting are all wonderful. But, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The Ensemble of Mother Road. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Ensemble of Mother Road
Photo by Jenny Graham, OSF.
Click on the photo for a larger version

The play does a reverse trip across “Mother Road”, Route 66, from the one John Steinbeck wrote about in 1939. This 80-years-later family story migrates the last surviving Joad back from California to the homestead in Oklahoma.

The Last of the Joads is Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho) whose Oklahoma ancestors wound up marrying into a Hispanic family and changing the spelling of their surname.

The play starts off with the penultimate Joad, William, (Mark Murphey) arriving in California from Oklahoma to meet Martin who has been identified by William’s attorney (Jeffrey King) as the family’s only living heir. White, white William has to be reassured by his attorney that DNA itself has confirmed the certainty of brown Martin’s kinship.

William is old and ill, and had set his lawyer on the quest to find a relative so that William could fulfill his promise to his mother that he’d keep the now-considerable Oklahoma farm in the biological family. William and Martin don’t exactly hit it off, but William persuades Martin to come back to the farm so he can take it over when William dies.

Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) abd Mark Murphey (William Joad), Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) and Mark Murphey (William Joad)
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

William and Martin start driving back to Oklahoma. We spend the rest of 2 1/2+ hours learning more about our two principals, meeting important people in Martin’s and William’s lives, adding some/most of these people to the car trip, and journeying back to OK.

We are treated to some truly great scenes between Murphey and Sancho. Murphey’s cranky Okie fits, and reminded me that Murphey was also perfect as Cassius. And, as the story goes on, he mellows and deepens in front of our eyes. His flashback interaction with his mother was brilliant.

Sancho is even richer in his scenes. He not only plays off Murphey, but also shines in revelatory moments with his friends and when acting out against injustice.

Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes), Amy Lizardo (Mo), Mark Murphey (William Joad), Cedric Lamar (James). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes), Amy Lizardo (Mo), Mark Murphey (William Joad),
Cedric Lamar (James). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I feel like I should single out each actor for applause. In addition to the cast already mentioned, Cedric Lamar, Armando Durán, Catherine Castellanos, Amy Lizardo, Caro Zeller, and Fidel Gomez deserve raves. The actors were flawless.

Christopher Acebo’s set was simple, non-distracting, and appropriate. Perfect. The same kudos to Projection Designer Kaitlyn Pietras, Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago, and Composer and Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast.

All wonderful.

But, folks! There isn’t a moment when you even suspect an ending different from the one that shows up on stage.

The additional characters and stories are interesting and enriching, but not surprising or threatening or changing. If I was more literate, I suspect that some/all of them might mirror parts of Steinbeck. That would make them even more inventive/deep/something.

But, as good as the storytelling craft is — and it’s very good! — Mother Road doesn’t get me to connect. It feels a bit too structured, and a bit too pat.

Ozdachs rating:
4 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Day 189: Walkies!

Despite working seven days a week, Geoffrey has taken Auroara out on 23rd Street for her first two outside walks this past Sunday and the Sunday before. Her first excursion was on her six month birthday, and we took some pictures of that event.

Today, Auroara remembered that going out front was not the end of the world. She hung back a little at first, but after just one house, she was surveying the street and deciding that the front door world at least smelled interesting.

Auroara standing in a show pose as she looks downhill on 23rd Stree
Day 189 – Surveying the Street

She did quite well walking, sniffing, and exploring… until as we approached the corner, PEOPLE appeared! A gaggle of PEOPLE, with these strange-looking and acting small PEOPLE.

Auroara on 23rd St with young neighbor girls
Day 189 – Do I Trust Them?

The human girls were very patient and interested in Auroara. Unfortunately, our girl never gave in and decided it was okay to eat the treats the humans offered her.

Day 189 - Resisting Temptation
Day 189 – Resisting Temptation

As soon as the girls and their parents gave up, Auroara pulled on her leash to follow them stealthily, watching and making sure that their backs remained turned.

We hung back, though, and let the humans go up the hill unmolested.

Once home, Auroara showed no ill effects from the experience. She rejoined the pack and restarted her enjoyment of the day.

Auroara in the sun in the backyard.
Day 189 – Auroara in the Backyard Sun
(actually photographed before the walk)
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“Hairspray” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hairspray

created and written by John Waters
book by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell
music by Marc Shaiman
directed by Christopher Liam Moore

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hairspray production banner from OSF

Prepare to smile, laugh, feel good, applaud, and appreciate an uplifting story sung and danced into your heart by a strong, beautiful, coordinated cast. Get ready for a perfect production of a archetypal feel-good big musical.

Beyond the summary above, everything else is just dreary supporting detail.

The story has a socially marginalized fat girl scoring a position on a TV dance show that is a bastion of white privilege and teenage snottiness. She and her black friends break barriers and win the hearts of the hottest boys… and of the audience.

Hairspray Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This OSF musical entertains, explains, and engages flawlessly. Director Christopher Liam Moore has created a unified, lively show that is excellent fun. Friends who have seen many productions, including on Broadway, said that this production was the best they’ve seen.

Everyone in the cast shines. I am especially happy to see veteran and returning Ashland actors sing and dance so well. Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) is back!… in a moving, show-stopping way. We know the strong talent of Jonathan Luke Stevens (Link Larkin) and Eddy Lopez (Corny Collins) from large musical roles in prior years. And, K.T. Vogt (Prudy Pingleton), Daniel Parker (Edna Turnblad), Brent Hinckley (Harriman F. Spritzer), Chritian Bufford (Seaweed Stubbs), and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad) have been characters in earlier OSF musical productions — some of them meaty. Did I know that Kate Mulligan (Velma) has so much musical talent? I do now.

Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The new-to-OSF performers are also incredibly talented. My favorite, no surprise, is Katy Geraghty (Tracy Turnblad) who amazes with her hot, heavy moves. She amply fills the starring role!

The crafts supporting the cast created a coherent, comfortable, over-the-top collage of activity. The set is simple, but happily garish. It complements the too-much (but just right for this show) costumes. Just look (and click on the picture to see a larger version… if your eyes can handle it):

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

All-in-all Hairspray is a flawless, feel-good musical romp. I have no suggestions for improvement — I believe OSF’s production delivers everything possible from the show!

Now, I don’t think you leave the theater changed. The “everyone’s included in our dance party” feels uplifting, but it’s mainstream snowflake propaganda that doesn’t deliver any revelations. Hairspray is a musical version of Green Book — a white-written, cross-racial, happy buddy story.

Still, the OSF production fulfills all the promises of the show. The writing, music, and execution are definitely on the top of the happy-musical genre. Everyone leaves the theater cherry, signing, and smiling. Hairspray deserves its standing ovation.

Ozdachs rating:
5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Day 182 – The Sixth Month Birthday

Happy Six Month Birthday to Auroara!

We celebrated with lots of affection in the backyard.

Click on any picture for a larger version.

We neglected to weigh her, so we’ll have to go with 11 pounds, 11 ounces… what she was at the vet’s last Monday. We’ll have to check, but this may make her our heaviest girl. But, she’s perfect, says, Dr. Chase!

After Geoffrey did her nails, he put a harness on her. The three of us went out the front door, and Auroara went for her first walk outside!

Auroara initially didn’t know what to do on the sidewalk. She hunkered down and wanted to get her bearings.

Auroara on a leash with a hang dog expression
Day 182 – The First Walk: This is Supposed to be Fun?

She really didn’t want to leave home… or the driveway!

Auroara on a leash being held by Geoffrey. She's laying down in the driveway looking stubborn
Day 182 – The First Walk: Auroara is NOT Enthused

We walked down a few houses and turned back. She was beginning to enjoy the smells and the experience. But we didn’t want to push too much!

Geoffrey Giving Auroara a Treat
Day 182 – The First Walk: Auroara Likes this Part Best

As we were about to go in, we saw a young woman coming up the street. So, we stopped and waited.

We she passed us, the woman complemented Auroara on her cuteness.

We decided to declare victory. Geoffrey carried Auroara up the stairs, and we relaxed the rest of the afternoon.

On her first outside walk, Auroara stops to wait and watch a woman walking by.
On her first outside walk, Auroara stops to wait and watch a woman walking by.

Happy Six Month Birthday, Auroara!

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“Cambodian Rock Band” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Cambodian Rock Band

by Lauren Yee
directed by Chay Yew

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Cambodian Rock Band (2019): Daisuke Tsuji (Duch). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

Understanding your parents and their motivations is a difficult and uncomfortable act for most of us humans. In Cambodian Rock Band it’s an impossible task for first-generation American Neary (played by Brooke Ishibashi) whose Cambodian-born parents don’t talk much about the pre-USA times. Neary, a thoroughly American young adult, has decided to go to Phnom Penh and work with NGOs to bring to justice people who helped the Khmer Rouge. She’s gathering evidence against the superintendent of S21, a notorious killing prison, when her father (Chum, played by Joe Ngo) suddenly arrives at her door. The father has not returned to Cambodia since immigrating to America, Neary cannot admit to her father that she has a boyfriend much less talk to him about her work, he cannot clearly explain his presence, and soon we go back to 1975 before the Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and an American style rock band is rehearsing and recording.

We’re accompanied/sent into our adventure by Duch (Daisuke Tsuji), a hyper-friendly, hyper-athletic, hyper-active tour guide.

Our initial moments of time traveling don’t reveal too much. I am not even sure we understand which actor is playing a 1975 version of themselves and which actor is playing a completely different character.

We learn that western rock is very popular in Cambodia and watch a tape being made. The band members are aware of the communist uprising and the rebels’ hatred for western trappings. But, the band confident that the Khmer Rouge will not take the capital because America is defending it.

Daisuke Tsuji (Duch).
Photo by Jenny Graham

In the same scene, Phnom Penh radio reports that USA troops have abruptly left the country. The Khmer Rouge take over and quickly begin killing anyone with a college degree, intellectuals, … and musicians.

Joe Ngo (Chum), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Jane Lui (Pou), Abraham Kim (Rom), Moses Villarama (Leng). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Cambodian Rock Band Learns the Americans Have Left
Joe Ngo (Chum), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Jane Lui (Pou), Abraham Kim (Rom), Moses Villarama (Leng). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The main course begins: we start watching members of the Cambodian rock band in the years of the Khmer Rouge terror.

Spoiler alert (but, how else could it be?): Chum/Dad was a member of the rock band, and part of his reluctance to talk to Neary about the old days stems from the fall of Phnom Penh and time spent in Prison S21, the institution run by the man she is building a case against.

The centering on the rock band to tell the story of immigrant Cambodian parents and their first-generation daughter is a brilliant way to get at the culture and chaos of the pre- and post-Khmer times.

We learn so much — too much — about the horror that Pol Pot’s regime brought to the people. When I am reminded that the Khmer Rouge killed 2 or 3 million people, I am appalled. But, when I see what happened to individual people — and the action happens 20 feet away from where I am sitting — I feel the fear, anger, and grief. The trite truism is made real: there are more victims than those who were killed.

CRB is rich with involved, impossible, inevitable, implausible contradictions. An insidious, captivating aspect of this play is its sudden reversals. One moment you watch a character you know being tortured — pretty graphically. The next moment you’re celebrating an relationship breakthrough. You find yourself up and dancing with the resurrected rock band with tears still in your eyes.

You are happy about a reunion of characters, and then you find yourself wanting one of them to die. You don’t feel good about this, either.

Brooke Ishibashi (Neary), Joe Ngo (Chum). Photo by Jenny Graham.

The action is painful, but you find yourself wanting for the audience — and the daughter — to see more. You’re repulsed by the action and yet you’re indefensibly emotionally satisfied by learning additional details about a character.

And, unlike some other fine plays I saw opening weekend, I was never comfortable that I knew what the ending was going to be before it arrived. I didn’t feel the inevitability of either happiness or sadness as the play progressed.

All of which is to say that Lauren Yee has created an excellent story and has delivered it skillfully.

The impact of the show is increased because of the flawless cast. Most of the actors are musicians, so the Cambodian rock band’s Dengue Fever music is preformed live, on stage, right there.

More importantly, each cast member delivers an inspired, completely right, nuanced performance. Applause to Director Chay Yew: whenever all players are perfect, there is damn fine director sharing his or her vision. Yew created a seamless production and he got his actors to on board.

I still don’t understand how Ngo consistently made his character lose 30 years when he left a 2019-based scene with his daughter and went back and took his youthful place in the rock band. I swear I saw gray in his hair when he was dad, standing just 20 feet from my seat. But, when he walked another 20 feet to take his place with the youthful band, there was no gray visible. How did he do that? Was it a trick by lighting designer David Weiner? Some magic happened.

Equally impossible was the gymnastic flexibility of Tsuji. His jumping and taunting clears a path for the audience to immerse itself in the story. But, then he looks slight and unimposing in other scenes. Another chameleon.

Moses Villarama plays both a modern Ted and an historical Leng so differently that you don’t remember him from the other role. As Leng he brings complete conflicted depth to the character. I am not sure many actors could make Leng so right.

Speaking of just right, that’s also the set in the three-sided configuration in the Thomas Theater. Thanks to Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata and Assistant Scenic Designer Se Hyun Oh. Most of the action occurs on ground level which expands and contracts depending how far out the step-up rock band stage comes out. A few pieces of furniture set the scenes and the background blends the stage together. But, the design is minimal, rightfully allowing the audience to watch the characters and action without visual distractions.

Joe Ngo (Chum), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Abraham Kim (Rom), Jane Lui (Pou), Moses Villarama (Leng). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Joe Ngo (Chum), Brooke Ishibashi (Sothea), Abraham Kim (Rom), Jane Lui (Pou), Moses Villarama (Leng). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Sara Ryung Clement, Costume Designer, created appropriate looks for very different people and times, and the actors changed clothing often on stage without disrupting the mood or pace. And, her 1970’s band costumes were a kick, especially the scarf thing that winds up in S21.

Just everything in and about CRB is quality, and it was my favorite of opening weekend. Yee acknowledges intergenerational differences and highlights how daughter and dad don’t communicate. She lets old country/new country mores clash in her characters. But, the clashing is done with love, if sometimes frustrated love. The audience is drawn into the lives of every character: the young, the old, the well meaning, and the moral horror. All are honored. Excellent!

Ozdachs rating:
5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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