Oklahoma!

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oklahoma

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the Play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Bill Rauch

Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been workshopping and mulling over this production of Oklahoma for five years, according to cast member Barzin Akhavan (playing Ali Hakim) when he spoke at a coffee in April.

OSF’s dream was to create an Oklahoma! with non-standard gender roles throughout the territory. Will Parker (Jordan Barbour) is hot for Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) and Curly (a definitely female Tatiana Wechsler) is aiming for Laurey (Royer Bockus). There are plenty of mixed-sex couples, yet gender non-conforming, cross-dressing farm hands round out the territory’s population. And, transgender actor Bobbi Charlton stands out as a compassionate and wise Aunt Eller.

Aunt Eller and Curley. OSF photo

Officially blessed by Rogers and Hammerstein, Inc. after a staged reading at the Daedalus show in August, 2016, the casting configuration clearly is making a Statement.

The company has been sending out frequent updates about the suitability of the show with its gender-bending casting decisions. Company members and in-town cognizanti have kept up a steady stream of comments about the progress, the readiness, the freshness of the show. When we walked in for the first performance after Sunday’s opening, I realized that I was expecting to attend an “historic” theater event.

There were not just great expectations for the show, there were extreme expectations.

Surprisingly, at the end of the performance, I felt underestimated the importance and impact of the evening. This Oklahoma! isn’t simply meaningful because of the way it demonstrates that “Love is Love is Love”. It’s good fun.

It entertains with an unbelievably talented seven-person “orchestra” that fills the theater with memorable sound. Thanks to music director Gary Busby! There’s  show-stopping choreography, truly emotion-grabbing excellent singing. And, thought-out and flawlessly acted performances by the cast.

The play is unquestionably deepened by the display of same-sex love and its unremarked-upon acceptance by all of the town. I found myself listening to the lyrics of “I Cain’t Say No”, initially to see how few words had to be changed to let it come out of Ado Andy’s mouth. Because I was listening I found myself reflecting how sexually open the 1931 play and 1943 musical was for what I thought were eras of Victorian prudness. If Ado Annie had been singing, I probably would have hummed along without really paying attention.

That hyper vigilance to the story, relationships, and character veracity stayed with me throughout the evening. I spent energy contemplating exactly what Laurey could do about the unwanted attentions of her psycho ranch hand, Jud (Michael Sharon). I also wondered if Jud’s behavior was more menacing because Laurey was a lesbian. I decided that he was plenty scary regardless of Laurey’s orientation.

The decision to make the population around Claremore diverse in their sexual interest is both brilliant and risky. Any hint of stereotyping or mucking with the basic character traits of the people in the play would have made Oklahoma! crash and burn.

Oklahoma masthead

Sean Jones, Michael McDonald, Al Espinosa, Jordan Barbour, Nemuna Ceesay and Robert Vincent Frank in OSF’s Daedalus Play Reading of Oklahoma! in August 2016. Photo by Jenny Graham.

This Oklahoma has fire, but the good kind! Romance, passion, and community keep the stage hot.

The variety of sexual expressions was never spotlighted or the focus. Instead we had brilliant performances of the traditional all-American musical. Truly brilliant performance, and the decision to let the actors be non-standard sexes without pointing it out was itself genius.

So many scenes stay with me. The dream “ballet” reportedly reprises the original Agnes de Mille choreography, and you understand why it’s a classic. The elaborate sung descriptions of the surrey with the fringe on top fit right into the scenes. And, Jud! Eeeek!  So many different scenes of creepy Eeeek!

Then there are also the moments where the forthright, gentle horniness of the peddler Hakim smack you in the face with their honesty, surprising openness about sex, and success in providing comic relief. And, how about the the happy, helpless sluttiness of Ado Andy bursting forth with hormone-fueled enthusiasm?

This is a performance where each actor deserves to be pointed to and praised. Sorry K.T. Vogt (Ma Carnes), Rodney Gardier (Cord Elam), Cedric Lamar (Ike Skidmore), and … and and… You deserve paragraphs of your own. Even actors with smaller parts like Will Wilhelm (Leslie) should get at least dedicated sentences of cheers.

All of the actors not only nailed their character, sang strongly, and moved flawlessly, but they were nuanced. The boisterous, show-stopping songs were made to serve the story and weren’t ends in themselves.

Director Bill Rauch has to be honored for creating this showcase of meaning and talent. In-your-face, rich subtitly is a neat trick. I’ve already applauded Music Director Daniel Gary Busby, but you really cannot cheer too much for what he’s done. Scenic Director Sibyl Wickersheimer created a set that gave us everything from a cramped bunk room to a wide-open territorial fairgrounds… all right in front of us. Ann Yee, choreographer, made the movements lively, showy, but natural. The costumes by Linda Roethke ranged from beautiful to appropriately scruffy, and they well reflected the gender expression of each character.  In short,  the crafts were excellent.

Oklahoma Ensemble

OSF’s Oklahoma is an artistic masterpiece. The creative team envisioned a very ambitious concept and devised a structure that honored the traditional show while living in the 2018 social landscape. Then they delivered the whole package excruciating well.

Play rating: 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Repeating Today’s Big Lie,
or Defending Sessions’ and Trump’s Policy Separating Families

This week’s uproar on separating children from their asylum-seeking parents unpleasantly confirms how far apart on basic morality we are in this country.

American Flag CagedTo me, my Trump-approving friends ignore the imperative of the urgent human needs of the asylum seekers and their young children. Instead, they cite instances where Democrats years ago may have broken up families of asylum seekers. They mention that the government imprisons criminals with young children, thereby breaking up those families, so Trump’s policies aren’t new.

It’s great misdirection. First, even if the statements were accurate, the comments simply make the argument that two (or three or 100) wrongs make a right. They don’t.

Second, the people Sessions and Trump are locking up are not “criminals” in any real-world definition of the word.

Calling families entering the United States “criminals” is a Big Lie. Repeat it often enough and your teammates will believe it. But it’s not true. At most these people fleeing to traditional safe haven of the US may have violated a misdemeanor entry provision by not following technical rules in presenting themselves for asylum at the right place. They are not dangerous or violent. Sessions and Trump are criminalizing ignorance of proper procedure. That tactic is immoral. Asylum seekers are not criminals.

And, the sudden separation of families along the border with no plan for reunification or visiting cannot be truthfully compared to the incarceration of criminals who are given due process. The children of those convicted of crime generally remain where they are, in a familiar location, in the care of other family members. And, they get a schedule of visits with their parents. All things Trump and Sessions are denying the already traumatized kids being taken from their parents.

Trump’s defenders have an arsenal of reassuring statements they throw against the wall of public opinion to see if they’ll stick. One of these non-fact assertions was the claim by the head of the Department of Homeland Security that the young detainees are being treated wonderfully by DHS. That happy assessment of the children’s situation fell apart when the Director couldn’t answer any questions about the details of the treatment of kids. She really didn’t know what she was talking about. She made up the reassurance. Her story of wonderful treatment was simply a Big Lie

This family separation issue has many Big Lies. For example, blaming Democrats for the separation even though Republicans control Congress and the separation policy was formulated by Sessions. Big Lie.

One friend’s posts spit out words like “liberal” and go into mind-numbing detail of “liberal” 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decisions from years ago. More rational-sounding stuff to throw against the wall. Will it stick?

The problem for Sessions, Trump, and those still loyal to whatever he says is that today the issue is separating kids from parents… parents whose worst crime would be trying to get their kids to safety.

Regardless of what Hillary did with her email and what mistakes Obama, Bill Clinton, or Lyndon Johnson made, we know that our Trump/Republican government TODAY is ripping apart scared, tired, frightened families. Separating husband and wife, mother and child, and father and baby.

What has this country come to stand for?

Statue of LibertyWhat happened to the America I was taught about in school? You know the one. The one that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

What has this country come to stand for?

Has “Trump Ueber Alles” become our morality? Are HIS pronouncements more important that core human values? More important that the instructions of the Hebrew prophets, the words of Jesus, and the convictions of ethical humanists?

Trump’s technique is to say falsehoods over and over. His opinions. Accusations. Repeating his Big Lies.

Then, when enough people tire of a particular Lie, he says he was only kidding and Liberals have no sense of humor. That Trump way of admitting that he’s telling untruths is itself another Big Lie.

Besides, I don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to destroying the core values of America that I was brought up on. I don’t have a sense of humor about demonizing the weak and the powerless. I don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to another Big Lie.

I am not in the mood to play nice like Nancy Pelosi and intellectually and bloodlessly point out “discrepancies” between what Trump says and actual facts. It’s time to be as clear and direct as Mr. Trump.

Trump’s rational for separating families: a Big Lie. Trump’s assertion that winning a trade war is easy: a Big Lie. Trump’s declaration that we need not worry about a North Korean nuclear threat: a Big Lie. Trump’s claim that Iran was violating the multinational agreement: a Big Lie. Trump’s comments about the unfairness of the Mueller investigation: a Big Lie. Trump’s claim that the FBI probe cleared his campaign of colluding with the Russians: a Big Lie.

Big Lies are effective. They confuse people. They debase the power of facts.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to combat a White House that spins out lie after lie after lie. Some get retracted, but even so many Trump supporters always remember and believe the facts made up by Trump in a middle-of-the-night Twitter storm.

I respect my friends who have different policy views than I. I respect them as they honestly believe and repost the latest White House Big Lie. But, I worry. Are there limits to the what Trump and those in power around him will do?

Have they no decency? True traditional American decency?

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Vietgone

San Francisco, CA
at the American Conservatory Theater, Strand Theater
Extended through April 29, 2018

Vietgone

Vietgone Web Banner from the ACT site

by Qui Nguyen
directed by Jaime Castañeda

ACT advertising Vietgone as “The irreverent road-trip comedy” is almost sacrilegious. The categorization misses the depth, power, and cultural importance of this newish play.

Anyone selling Vietgone as a mindless-sounding comedy rode the momentary surface story, ignoring the characters, context, and important human issue that makes Vietgone truly memorable. The strength of Vietgone is its suburb writing which hits the mark in storytelling, characterization, pace, and perspective.

The playwright character (Jomar Tagatac) comes on stage in the opening scene to assure the audience that this show is not about his parents. Then we watch his mother and father flee Vietnam at the fall of Saigon, meet in a refugee camp, and adapt in their own, very different ways.

The excellence of Vietgone is how we learn about the people. Writing too much about the surface narrative would be as bad as passing the play off a “road-trip comedy” in an ad. But, let’s explain the “road trip”.

We meet the hero Quang (James Seol) in Saigon where he is a pilot for the South Vietnamese army. Quang and his sidekick, named only “Asian Guy” (Stephen Hu), fly a helicopter load of desperate people onto an American aircraft carrier as Saigon falls. Quang and Asian Guy think they will return to the mainland to find and evacuate Quang’s wife and children in a quick, follow-on rescue flight. That rescue doesn’t happen, and the men wind up being transported on the carrier to America and being sent to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Once there, Quang meets Tong (Jenelle Chu) and Tong’s mother (Cindy Im). There’s chemistry between Quang and Tong, but he is focused on the family he left behind. After some time Quang and the Asian Guy set out on a motorcycle for Camp Pendleton in California so that Quang can demand to be transported back to Vietnam and reunited with his wife and kids.

The play shifts back and forth in time and location a lot. We see Quang and the Asian Guy on the motorcycle heading from Arkansas to California fairly early in the play, and they have scenes which reflect on their refugee/new to America status. These road-trip moments are revelatory about the characters and about America.  They are important, insightful, and often very comedic.

But, the same categorization is true for all of the scenes, not just the ones on the motorcycle. There are tremendously funny, and simultaneously meaningful, moments at the refugee camp and earlier in Vietnam. Vietgone is not a road trip, it’s a people trip.

It’s particularly a refugee trip, a stranger-in-a-strange-land trip, a trip down Prejudice Lane… and not only from the perspective of our heros being discriminated against, but also letting the Vietnamese characters remember their own prejudices.

There are so many flashes of revelation and memory. The characters’ pain of being cut off from their homeland and having to deal with American Supremacy hit me especially hard because of the LGBT refugees and asylum seekers I know from my church’s Guardian Group. The assumption of the wrongness of the US involvement in Vietnam re-immersed me in my high-school/college moral self righteousness. And, the unconscious homogeneity of white America into the 1970’s was striking to recall… and also made extremely funny when the Vietnamese characters talk among themselves about how Americans all think that they are Chinese because Americans think all Asians are Chinese. The kicker is that the Vietnamese characters admit that back home in Saigon they discriminated against people from China and now everyone they meet thinks that they are Chinese themselves.

I am afraid you need to see the play to understand how funny and human this scenario — and the rest of play — are.

The real-life playwright, Nguyen, reportedly loves rap music and fight scenes. He apparently also loves filthy language. These are all things that I generally don’t want to see or hear. Usually I find them cheap devices to appear young or cool, or ways to fill out the two-hours in the theater. Each of them is on target in Vietgone. They make the storytelling more authentic.

The final scene between the playwright and Quan, the helicopter pilot and NOT the playwright’s father, is a worth a trip to the theater on its own. You need the context of the previous two hours’ “road trip”, but the power of this set-in-the-modern-day coda is extreme. If you are close to my age, your college-age moral superiority will be reeling.

Vietgone the play is a complete 5-star, standing ovation, forcing-you-outside-your-comfort-zone, thinking outside-of-the-box piece of art.

ACT’s production is definitely an excellent theater experience. Unfortunately, the director’s and artistic team’s choices made the afternoon less moving than the version we saw in Ashland in 2016 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Here’s why:

  • Apparently each production develops the musical accompaniment for the rap scenes. At ACT, there is loudish, somewhat melodic music behind the words which distracted from their power. At OSF I don’t remember any music, although I have been assured that it was there. But, in Ashland, the rhythm and cadence of the words ruled, and the scenes were somehow, but definitely, more commanding.
  • All actors except for those playing Quang and Tong have multiple roles and the flawless switching among the identities made the five-person cast seem much larger in Ashland. But, at ACT it doesn’t work so seamlessly. The first multiple character, Jomar Tagatac as the Playwright, has a distinctive beard. That unique-looking fur reappears in all of his roles, forcing us to willingly suspend our disbelief.  If I were the director I would have picked another actor or made Tagatac cut the thing off!
  • One of my favorite scenes is a fight between the good guys (the Vietnamese) and the bad guys (American bikers). When I saw it originally it was beautifully, humorously, outrageously staged in stylized broadness. It was a wonderful moment of family lore made real in front of you. It was just another one-minute scene at ACT. All the parts and lines were there, but it was sped through. ACT really ran over a show stopping moment.
  • The actors at ACT were excellent. I especially liked James Seol’s Quang. But, except for Seol, I felt that the Ashland actors were clearly better. More energetic? More involved? Better looking? (I feel cheap saying this, but, yes. At least in a couple cases.)

Overall, ACT’s casting choices, sound design, and directing don’t let Vietgone be as perfect as it was in Ashland. It’s still very, very well worth seeing. But, ACT’s Vietgone is just excellent and not transformative.

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

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Henry V

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Henry V

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Ensemble as Chorus. Photo by Jenny Graham.

by William Shakespeare
directed by Rosa Joshi

Daniel José Molina (Henry V) and other cast members deliver many truly spectacular moments — especially in Act II — which make this Henry a must see. Unfortunately, Director Rosa Joshi’s choices diminish the impact of the play itself and leaves the audience to appreciate master-class acting set in a confusion of activity.

I think the audience is supposed to [endlessly] appreciate the turmoil and indiscriminate horrors of the machine of war. Toward that end, actors push stacks of boxes across the stage mimicking siege engines or walls or something. In fact, the before play opens members of the cast are twisting a changing pile of boxes around and around upstage. I’m sure it’s meaningful. But, the only thought these leaden-looking props give me is that the director has seen too many Transformer movies.

To add to the disorder, the actors play multiple roles, sometimes up to 6 or 7,  if you count “Chorus” and “Ensemble” separately. The differences among the actors’ personas seems deliberately vague as if to remind us how similar to each other all sides in a conflict are. The problem, of course, is that Shakespeare had a plot going, and it was hard for me at times to tell who/which person or which side was doing was doing what. If the actor had a hat on he was an English low-life, without it he might be a French noble. Grrr!

Jessica Ko, Kimberly Scott, Robert Vincent Frank, Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Chaos on Stage: Jessica Ko, Kimberly Scott, Robert Vincent Frank, Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The effect of the chaos is distraction, not drama. I was horrified to hear the rousing, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” go by like a throw-away line, losing the competition for attention to some random movement, yelling, or flash bang device going off.

Act I starts off well with an interesting delivery of Chorus’ “O for a Muse of fire…” I also appreciated the early court scene where Henry tries to ensure the righteousness of his going to war. Very nice, deliberate acting. But, then the plot becomes secondary to the motion on stage for the remainder of the act, save for one show-stopping moment.

G Valmont Thomas

G Valmont Thomas

The actors and audience take a collective breath when Pistol (Kimberly Scott) announces, “Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead.”

Last year’s Falstaff, well known and well liked actor, G. Valmont Thomas, died last December. This Festival season is dedicated to his memory, and many of the Henry V cast worked with him as Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Pistol’s line stopped hearts throughout the theater for it was too true.

Act II cruised along uneventfully until Molina started interacting with individual characters. My daydreaming was first interrupted when Henry confronts his old friend Bardolph, played by Robert Vincent Frank. Bardolph has been caught misbehaving and was brought to his buddy Hal for adjudication. The lines stopped and the two men looked into each other’s eyes, the damning transaction completed wordlessly. Henry follows through with Shakespeare’s narration, but the sentence, appeal, and rejection were all done by the eyes. Both men communicated completely without a sound.

From that scene on, we are treated to excellent vignettes, usually involving Molina. Henry’s wandering in disguise among his troops, picking up their mood, works well. The battle scenes blur but Henry’s humanity away from the overwrought staging is mesmerizing. Even the courtship scene with the French princess (Jessica Ko) gives a tenderness that avoids any disempowering smirk of politics.

As littered with scene gems as Act II is, the power of Shakespeare never reigns. There is always too much activity and too much “who is that again?”

This Henry V showcases Daniel José Molina. His acting has improved from flawed in his first OSF seasons to artistry in this starring role. It’s very worth seeing.

Daniel José Molina as Henry V

Daniel José Molina as Henry V. OSF photo.

I am glad the director allowed Molina and the other actors time and space to deliver their performances. I just wish she had given Shakespeare and his story the same courtesy.

Play rating: Play Rating: 4 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Sense and Sensibility

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Sense and Sensibility

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

by Jane Austen
adapted by Kate Hamill

directed by Hana S. Sharif

This “updated adaption” is, in fact, a completely uninspired snoozefest of outdated manners humor unworthy of the acting talent and craft workers it wastes.

We went into the performance expecting that S&S would be a frothy comedy. But, maybe our expectations were raised too high by the thought that it had been adapted to be more modern.

But, whatever. It was not amusing enough to create a bubble of happiness, much less froth.

If you get off on zingers skewing the social scene of 207 years ago, this play is for you. Otherwise, go see Destiny of Desire instead.

Trite, self-importantly funny, endlessly overwrought and over exposed. If I didn’t keep nodding off during the performance I would come up with a longer list of pejoratives to describe the show.

The actors did well. They played their stereotypes with bravado. Go archetypical twerps! The costumes were over-the-top costumes. Perfect. The set the same. I will refrain from naming any the wasted artists — I don’t want them to Google their names and find this comments — they have to perform in this underwhelming lump through October.

There just is nothing to recommend this S&S. It isn’t even bad enough to walk out on. It’s just blah.

I am especially disappointed because I very much like what Director Hana S. Sharif said about her approach to theater and her craft when she talked on a panel opening weekend. She was all about the importance of people and having theater relate to the audience. I just wish I’d seen some of that connection in the play.

Still, I unhappily predict that S&S will be a popular, money-making crowd pleaser. It offends no one. White Bread audiences will find it a comfortable, non-challenging relief to the complex shows that plague OSF’s theaters. The only sex on stage is the stylized romantic courting of 1811, something that even conservative school groups can mmmm… embrace.

For me, although I wouldn’t walk out on it, I’d recommend that you turn back your tickets.

Play rating: Rating 2 out of 5 Syntaxes

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