“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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“The Underpants Godot”

The Underpants Godot

By Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Alan Quismorio

Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.
Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.

San Francisco, CA
at Theatre Rhinoceros

What fun! Especially for a theater fan who still cringes when he remembers going to a production of Waiting for Godot when he was precocious senior in high school.

I was too young, too tired, or too something for the non-action on stage. I don’t remember the details of the play, but I remember the agonizing pacing, and I remember wondering if the plaudits for Beckett’s writing weren’t a giant hoax aimed at too trusting and too serious students who were trying to understand Culture.

Getting the references and riffs in Theatre Rhinoceros’ pop-up production of The Underpants Godot made that long night of theater 40-some years ago worthwhile.

Duncan Pflaster’s script is a masterpiece that often mirrors the cadence and character relationships of Beckett’s Godot. But Pflaster makes intelligent and understandable points about theater, people, and life. There are a lot of comments about theater, and they are both insightful and very, very funny.

The plot tells the story of a Waiting for Godot production where the characters are gay men wearing, at most, underpants. We watch as a rehearsal is stopped by the visit of a representative of the estate of Samuel Beckett. She has to determine if this underpants version violates the terms of the license which demand faithfulness to the text and to Beckett’s intent.

As the characters explore the legitimacy of the underpants concept, a lot of theater is discussed in a humorous, yet meaningful way.

The estate representative, for example, lists in rapid-fire the different concepts she’s seen used in producing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “One set in Greenwich Village where the Fairies were actually the Mafia? One set in a drive-in where the Fairies were B-movie Monsters from Beyond the Silver Screen? One set at Christmas with Oberon as Santa Claus and Puck as an elf? One set outdoors in a park, where the Fairies were the Homeless?”

Funny, yes. But, also on point in the discussion of how far can/should directors go in using a play for their own purposes.

If nothing else, Theatre Rhino gets applause for its play selection.

Fortunately, their pop-up production is excellently done. Truly.

First, the space they are using is a corner of the Sparks Art Gallery. The back exhibition room has 34 folding chairs set up to face the other wall. The stage is the floor from the far wall 20 feet toward the center of the room. This is a perfect set for Waiting for Godot where the only scenery is a rock and a scrawny tree. It works completely.

Director Alan Quismorio assembled a cast that ranges from very credible to absolutely wonderful. Four actors were standouts.

Andrew Calabrese (Kevin/Lucky) earned show-stopping applause for Kevin’s unexpected detailed oration that started with the exploration of the homoerotic nature Waiting for Godot. The lines are brilliant and an homage to a similar unexpected outburst by Lucky in Beckett’s work. Calabreses nailed the speech and his character.

Francisco Rodriguez (Tim/Vladamir) and Jordan Ong (Mark/Estragon) switch back and forth between their roles as actors and the characters in Beckett’s play with easy clarity. Director Quismorio has them swish and sashay as their characters in Waiting for Godot, and then be grumpier and butcher as gay actors. I loved that decision and the way the actors pulled it off. These men carry the play and they don’t falter.

Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir)  Photo by Joseph Tally.
Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and
Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.

The representative of the Becket estate is not consistent in her actions. Sometimes she bends and sometimes she is unyielding, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent motivation for either behavior. Yet, Elizabeth Finkler (Tara) is so big and certain in her portrayal of the representative that while the play was going on I didn’t question any of her rulings. Later, talking about the play with friends, I thought, “Wait! Why was x okay but y would be a showstopper? It should have been explained.”

Of course, to honor Beckett, nothing should be explained. And, Finkler’s Tara let us keep our questions unthought of past the wildly enthusiastic curtain call.

In a performance where everything works, it’s got to be the director’s fault. So, special applause to Quismorio who made a theater pop up in a small art gallery’s back room. He used, not just put up with, the location and give us an intimate performance of a tight play. The characters worked together and the action felt consistent and logical.

The Underpants Godot pop-up production is a terrifically enjoyable surprise. Theatre Rhino gives the audience a very witty and wise play delivered with style and spot-on acting. See it if you can!

The Underpants Godot has two more performances, Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23. Online tickets are sold out but a limited number of tickets are sold at the door for $10-30. Contact [email protected] for more information about attending.

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“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare
directed by Rosa Joshi

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

As You Like It covershot
As You Like It (2019): Román Zaragoza (Orlando), Jessica Ko (Rosalind). Photo by Jenny Graham.

At the very least yet another romp through Arden Forest should be enjoyable fun. Done with artistry, a director can use this comedy to make Shakespeare seem like a feminist. After all, the freedom to love will win out and the women’s decisions share the shaping of action in Arden Forest. At least I think they do.

On the other hand, the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s offering didn’t even amuse me. The show is both scattered and heavy handed; it’s a supreme waste of obvious acting talent. A week after seeing it I remember some of the characters’ actions, but I never fell into the story and I never felt the production came together.

Director Rosa Joshi made some curious decisions.

The quirk that hits you from the start is the too-long, too-stylized, fascist marching in a maze pattern that the cast does in the initial scenes. Whenever it starts, the movement goes on for relatively forever. Unfortunately I was too stupid to appreciate the significance of the torturous walks that keep the play from having any momentum. So, I just watched the onstage drilling with, ahhh… bewildered patience. (I was later informed that the militaristic procession showed how rigid court life was under the new duke and could be contrasted with the life leaping in Arden Forest. Silly me for not picking this up.)

 

I assume that Christine Tschirgi, the costume designer, was just following orders when she created the ugly upholstery that the court characters had to wear. The shapes of the clothes the actors wore had nothing to do with the people in them. In any event they had the visual appeal of your grandmother’s heavy, sun-blocking curtains.

As You Like It (2019): Rex Young (Touchstone), Hannah Fawcett (Lady to Rosalind), Kate Hurster (Celia), Jessica Ko (Rosalind). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Rex Young (Touchstone), Hannah Fawcett (Lady to Rosalind), Kate Hurster (Celia), Jessica Ko (Rosalind). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But, it goes beyond symbolic touches that didn’t work. The casting was confusing, and not in fun, new-twist-on-an-old-play way. Rachel Crowl (Duke Senior) , the good guy that is banished to Arden Forest by Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederick) , is played by a woman who is made up to look — and acts — younger than the usurper. I truly had a hard time getting my mind around the fact that the younger-appearing actor on stage was the senior character in the play.

Next, Crowl is a woman and the director honored her sex by altering the lines to use the construction, “The Duke, she…” when referring to her character. Maybe this was supposed to be extra good fun in a play about a female dressing as a male, but, ugh. It didn’t feel fun to me.

I am an advocate of Love is Love is Love. But, when the play itself keys off the confusion of sexual identity and resolves when the natural (sic) order is restored, adding a layer of in-your-face sexual ambiguity that is not resolved at curtain time is unhelpful. It stands in virtual opposition to the plot of Shakespeare’s play. It’s a bad directorial choice.

Basically, I don’t like trying to figure out what part of the identities we are supposed to notice and what part we should ignore as “color-blind casting”. That goes for skin color-blind casting and sex color-blind casting. Confusion has its limits as an artistic tactic.

The distracting marching, the off-putting clothes, the muddled casting, and general disarray is a failure of direction. It’s a hot mess.

On the other hand, all of the actors are excellent. There are many wonderful moments between characters, or scenes where the actors do it just right.

Crowl’s singing is wonderful. The bare-chested flexing of James Ryen was downright artistic, and I liked the contrasting scale of the flexing of the bare-chested Román Zaragoza.

As You Like It (2019): Román Zaragoza (Orlando de Boys), Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederic, center), James Ryen (Charles), Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Román Zaragoza (Orlando de Boys), Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederic, center), James Ryen (Charles), Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Jessica Ko’s Roslind is excellent. Kenerly is perfect, and Rex Young (Touchstone) delivers some very, very fine scenes. Still the play fails.

One of my theater companions chronically suggests that I shouldn’t judge a performance on opening night. She says that the actors are nervous and more prone to errors. The company will develop more chemistry as the run goes on, she explains. And, that’s what she says about the opening night production we saw of As You Like It. She’s too kind.

The actors give us some quality moments. Unfortunately, the moments don’t work together. There isn’t a vision for the production that’s clear, and certainly not one that’s compelling.

This year’s As You Like It is a miss that earns its 3 stars for actors’ individual performances.

Ozdachs rating:
Ozdachs Rating: 3 Syntaxes

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