“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

written by William Shakespeare
directed by Joseph Haj

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Jeremy Gallardo (Snug), K. T. Vogt (Robin Starveling), Cristofer Jean (Francis Flute), Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Jeremy Gallardo (Snug), K. T. Vogt (Robin Starveling), Cristofer Jean (Francis Flute), Ensemble.
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Oh dear! I really didn’t want my last comments on this COVID-19 affected season to be anything but positive. I had hoped that I would see more plays later in the year that I could sincerely applaud. Unfortunately the virus shut down all but two weeks of the season, and what I saw opening weekend is all that is written in the books for 2020.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fourth of the performances I saw during the two-week season and it, unfortunately, was a forgettable bit of onstage busyness.

Midsummer at worst is a fun romp. At best, the audience is unexpectedly engaged by evil fairies or some special vision offered by the director. This Midsummer was a fun romp.

Keeping track of who was who and whom they lusted after was too much work. I enjoyed the emotions and acts scene by scene. It’s a Shakespeare comedy, for God’s sake. Just sit back and watch misdirected love, magic, and pomposity. You know that it will all turn out all right in the end.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Ensemble (the Mechanicals). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Ensemble (the Mechanicals).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The set is simple, people wander through it as various characters, and I didn’t sense too much difference between the groups. The stage itself is bare and without energy. The costumes are overdone symbols of something. They didn’t feel like they were designed for this play.

The acting was excellent, no surprise. I thought Lauren Modica (Hippolyta and Titania) and Jonathan Luke Stevens (Lysander) stood out as lust objects worth fighting over (even if they weren’t for each other). In fact, most of the cast gave good scenes and deserve praise for their performances.

But, ultimately this Midsummer gives support to the jaded theater goers who haughtily say that, “I don’t need to see any of his comedies again.” It’s a well-acted fun romp but not a distinctive fun romp.

Ozdachs rating:
Play Rating 3 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Copper Children”

written by Karen Zacarias
directed by Shariffa Ali

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Copper Children (2020): Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Copper Children (2020): Ensemble.
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Copper Children has much going for it: an under-told, important story, a talented playwright who entertained and educated us with Destiny of Desire, and an experienced and immensely talented cast. Unfortunately, this world premiere wasted its assets and delivers an evening that is a moralistic plod which fails to create drama or feelings.

The play tells the story is of white Catholic orphans from New York who get sent out west for adoption by good Catholic families, good Mexican Catholic families. The families are already treated badly by the Protestant Anglo corporation bosses and other city residents. When the kids show up for distribution to the Mexican families, the authorities step in and give the children to white families.

The plot focuses on one Mexican family who has had several miscarriages and infant deaths caused by the pollution of the copper mine where everyone works. The wife is desperate for a child, and she and her husband are salt-of-the-earth good people. They’re perfect candidates to adopt a child. The Catholic adoption workers place a child with family only to have the girl forcibly removed and given to a powerful white family.

Along the way we learn about the terrible life orphans in New York have. We understand that matching these children to new families out west is a good thing. We see the New York nuns send the kids west.

For this play, the orphans are represented by a puppet girl. The use of the puppet and simple, but expressive set, by Scenic Designer Mariana Sanchez are creative highlights of the show.

Unfortunately the puppet is given more character than the human actors on stage. Most are cardboard cutouts of good or evil. Charles Mills (Rex Young) as the mining company manager is a one-dimensional waste of acting talent. The Mexicans and the nuns are all over-the-top good — or at least good without engaging depth.

One character, Lottie Mills (Kate Hurster) as the manager of the company store and wife of the mining manager starts to be written as a good Anglo. In an early scene she seems to be trying to give Margarita Chacon (Caro Zeller), our would-be mother, a break on something Margarita is buying the the store. Lottie hides the deal from her pure sociopath husband and treats Margarita as a fellow human. But, in later scenes Lottie inexplicably switches into being the leading racist, making sure that the white New York City orphans don’t get placed with Mexican families. We learn that Lottie has also had problems having a child and she winds up with our puppet girl, but the change in Lottie’s attitude really isn’t understandable.

Father Mandin (Eddie Lopez) is the one character who develops any depth.

Although not a major player, Lopez’s priest slows down the pace and deals with the people on stage as if they had complexity.

He himself seems to ponder, have concerns, and may even have internal conflict.

The Copper Children (2020): Caro Zeller (Margarita Chacón), Eddie Lopez (Father Mandin), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Gloria). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Copper Children (2020): Caro Zeller (Margarita Chacón), Eddie Lopez (Father Mandin), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Gloria).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Maybe that’s it. Aside from Father Mandin, The Copper Children is populated by walking/talking symbols and not people. The one-dimensional all good/all evil roles fit the Telenovela melodramatic format of Destiny of Desire. As a pointed comedy, Destiny made its statements with silly characters. We laughed while we also absorbed the social truths sprinkled in the script.

But, Copper Children is advertised as a drama. There is no wink-and-nudge smirk at the stereotypes shown on stage that entertained in Destiny. Instead, we are bludgeoned with one-dimensional moralism delivered via incompletely written characters. The experience just isn’t fun, absorbing, or good theater.

The play educated me on on some evil bits of our American history. I learned about copper mining in the West and the corporate greed and white racism that devastated the Mexican workers and their families. Still, a few paragraphs in a history essay would have reached me more effectively.

The Copper Children should be so much better. Zacarias picked a moment with the action, people, and dilemma primed for exploration. But, as written on opening night, Copper Children piles on guilt without growth or involvement. My wild hope is that Zacarias will use the COVID-19 OSF shutdown to add dimension to the characters and either subtlety or humor to her moral imperatives.

Ozdachs rating:
2 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Peter and the Starcatcher”

story by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
adapted for theater by Rick Elice
music by Wayne Barkerr
directed by Matt Goodrich

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I didn’t grow up watching, reading, or otherwise being infused with Peter Pan lore. Sure, I knew that there was a kids’ story about him and fairy we clapped for named Tinkerbell. But, when I walked into the theater for Peter and the Starcatcher I didn’t remember anything about lost boys, Mrs. Darling, or any plot.

My ignorance ultimately didn’t keep me from applauding this very fast-paced comedic prequel. But, it took me a while to figure out who people were and why I cared. For much of the first act characters popped up and took roles that most of the audience apparently recognized from Peter and Wendy. Those in the know enjoyed the fresh take on the characters and appreciated the skill of the backstories. On the other hand, I was left a little dizzy at the rapid-fire, sometimes very broad or very obvious activities on stage.

The moments of juvenile humor didn’t help my struggle to get into the play. Fart jokes –even when executed with the supreme skill of K.T. Vogt — start me looking for the exit.

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly), Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly),
Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The second act was much better for me. There was more word play and no farts. Moreover, by then I’d figured out who was who and had some sense of their motivation. That let truly enjoy the comedic acting gems on stage.

Throughout the performance, even when I was dazed by the early comings and goings, the cast gave perfectly-timed, strong moments. Preston Mead (Boy) has a sense of presence that’s for days. He was innocent one moment and determined the next. I kept checking the program trying, in vain, to find the Equity* asterisk that would have explained his experience in developing character in a basically fluffy piece. Michael Hume (Captain Scott) was a sometimes stuffy, sometimes knowledgeable, caricature who was just believable enough to support the story. Very fun.

I was especially happy to see Brent Hinkley (Smee) be differently ridiculous than I have seen him before. And, wow! — James Ryen (Black Stache) was simply fun.

This is another OSF production where I feel that each actor should be separately praised. Molly, the boys, the crew members, the teacher, the other lords — everyone fit in and zinged the story along.

One of my favorite moments is a scene of mermaids, and the gaudy, but appropriate, outrageous by costume designer Melissa Torchia were a real treat. Those items of apparel doth definitely proclaimed the maids.

By the end of the second act I was hearing and understanding and immensely enjoying every moment. There’s so much inventiveness and witty words, I would like to see Peter and the Starcatcher a second time. It’s may be a romp, but it is a head-spinning romp.

I saw the play opening night, and some of the rushing and frenzy of the first act could be related to that excitement. After some performances, the timing and clarity may improve and draw in people not steeped in Peter and Wendy lore. For the show I saw Act I was 3 stars while Act II was 5… so

Ozdachs rating:
4 out of 5 Syntaxes

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“Bring Down the House, Part II”

by William Shakespeare
adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski
directed by Rosa Joshi

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Bring Down the House, Part One: Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Bring Down the House, Part One (no photos yet posted for Part Two)
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Through a scheduling snafu I missed the opening of Bring Down the House, Part I and took up the Henry VI story halfway through. Because co-adapters Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski have done such a good job of curating scenes and speeches, I fell right into the story, despite the potentially confusing rush of characters and battles.

I had a fun time watching the alliances among the red rose and white rose nobles. I enjoyed the progressive terminal weakness of Henry (Betsy Schwarz) and the frustration of his queen, Margaret (Vilma Silva). York (Catherine Castellanos), Edward (Brooke Parks), and Warwick (Kate Wisniewski) grab the story, move it forward — or switch it up — with decisiveness and clarity.

I confess that the crispness of the story line has gone from my mind in the two weeks since I saw the production, but at the time it was crystal clear who was doing what to whom and why. There was a terrible, logical march of activity. The characters and action were the cleanest I’ve seen in a Henry VI.

The set design by Sara Ryung Clement helped. Unlike the convoluted, endlessly plotting plot that only a contemporary of Shakespeare would instinctively understand, the stage for Henry VI is both simple and helpful. The design is mostly bare which allows the performers to describe the events, react, and act without distraction. There is way more than enough opportunity for confusion in the play without having competition from busy scenery.

Even more helpful, the family tree of the protagonists was written on the floor. Throughout the show you could glance and visually check the various relationships being discussed. At some points, the actors added more family boxes in chalk to emphasize the family complexities. The approach is novel and brilliant.

The worst aspect of Bring Down the House, Parts I and II is the unfathomable decision to change the title from Henry VI. Changing the title falsely conveys the idea that this production changes Shakespeare’s language or story. It doesn’t.

It’s common for directors to “adapt” Henry VI‘s three parts into just two. Moreover, productions of Shakespeare nearly always have cuts and maybe even some reordering of scenes. Cutting and reordering is what was done by Joshi and Wisniewski for Bring Down the House. They did it extremely well. BUT, the words and plot are pure Will.

I have heard some people wonder if they could count Bring Down the House as part of the canon. I hesitated buying a ticket myself because I am not sure I want to see Shakespeare rewritten. All of this worry is unnecessary. Bring Down the House IS Henry VI.

The other concern for traditionalists is the casting. All of the actors are female or non-binary.

“That decision had a double purpose: to serve the social justice mission of [the adaptors’] company, upstart crow collective, which is to open up opportunities on the stage for non-binary and women actors; and, simultaneously, to underscore the plays’ depictions of gender in ways that would resonate with a modern audience,” explains OSF’s blog post “Adapting to Change“.

Regardless of their gender, the actors play their parts strongly and traditionally.

My quibble is that the public deliberateness of a gender-bending cast violates Checkhov’s gun rule: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

But, ultimately, traditionalists can again relax. The cast is superior, Shakespeare’s text and intent is unmolested, and the Yorks and the Lancasters tear down their houses quite thoroughly.

My one wish is that Joshi had shortened the choreographed battle scenes. They are over-styled and go on too long. Her Henry V had the same problem. We don’t need to see the horrors of war so slowly and eloquently displayed.

But overall, Bring Down the House, Part II is an engrossing study of flawed characters unable to stop themselves from destroying their families. This OSF production is powerful and memorable.

Ozdachs rating:
4 1/2 out of 5 Syntaxes

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I’m Undecided

Donkeys Looking at you

The California Democratic primary is only a week away, and I haven’t decided who to vote for. I cannot remember ever not having settled on a candidate so close to an election.

And, you know what? I am happy about my indecision.

My Facebook feed is crowded with memes and links for one candidate or another. There are a lot of positive reasons going around to vote for each contender. Posts about their good proposals to improve the country, their high ratings on environmental issues, their high rankings on justice issues, their character, and just about every aspect of their life.

I like seeing the many reasons so many of the candidates have ardent supporters.

Of course, I have also seen negative slams and cautions about candidates who are not the favorite of the author. Some of these fail fact-checking and seem straight out of Russia. Others fault the targeted candidate by bringing up their 25-year-old recanted position on an issue or attack with regretful-sounding, supposedly intellectual, analysis the flaws of their victim… and seem straight out of Russia. I am definitely not happy seeing these anxious and holier-than-thou buzz kills.

But, I am truly happy about the praise for all the good characteristics, positions, and statements of so many of the candidates still in the race. I see unique positive points that argue I should cast my vote for (in no order) Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, or Michael Bloomberg.


Kicking Donkey

I watched last week’s debate, and the TiVo is set up to record tomorrow’s. I want to see what remains consistent in each candidate, what evolves, what ideas are stressed, and how each person deals with the stress! Make no mistake, these are good humans working very hard to do what they think needs to be done for the country.

I know we are supposed to hate politicians, but look at the Democratic candidates. They are working very, very hard to come up with effective solutions and sell those solutions to a wary public. The candidates are living pretty disgusting lives right now, trying to kiss enough babies to seem likable, eat in coffee shops to show that they are as regular as you and me, and simultaneously come up with detailed, bullet-proof plans to solve the nation’s problems.

Wow. We don’t ask much.

And, frankly, the candidates I mentioned all seem to show the desired behavior.

So, yeah. I don’t know today what I’ll decide on election day. Or possibly I’ll choose earlier. Maybe I’ll have a break-through vision after the next debate or later in the week while on the elliptical at the gym.

But I want everyone to know that I am happy that there is no one obvious candidate to support this week. Moreover, I have not delayed my decision because every candidate has too many flaws and I am trying to divine who is the least bad one. No!

Blue Donkey

All are more moral, patriotic, and progressive than the current President. Each gives rational arguments and cites that facts I recognize as actual facts. And, each of the candidates has unique strengths which makes it difficult for me to choose among them.

I see the moderate group as being most likely to be able to end the vicious divide in the country. But, maybe not!

I see the progressive group as being most likely to rally younger and non-traditional voters. But, maybe not!

I like some of the progressive policies a lot. I like the successful background of some of the moderates a lot. I also like the moments of the Mid-West niceness a lot.

This is truly a happy dilemma. In some years it seemed there were no really fine people running. In 2020 we have a choice among talented, sincere, and White-House ready Americans.

And, y’all who have made up your mind are invited to tell me the positive reasons I should vote for your choice. Really!

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