Theater Reflects Humanity Reflects Theater (Day 16)

Author’s Note: No Shakespeares were viewed on this trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, even though Shakespeare is one of my superpowers. Hash tag Still Not About Shakespeare. See post: Queasy Endings if you want to read mostly about The Bard.

2019 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by kajmeister.

The Melting Pot of Theater

The giveaway about what kind of season was ahead at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is in the rainbow display of show posters on the wall from the parking lot to the box office. The plays reflect the span of multicultural America in subject matter–from Cambodian Rock Band to Alice in Wonderland–and theater tradition–from All’s Well that Ends Well to the world premiere Mother Road. There was cross-gender casting in As You Like It and a bilingual version of one of Shakespeare’s oldest farces, La Comedia of Errors. Some patrons didn’t like it, although arguably there was something for everybody in a schedule that included Hairspray and Macbeth.

We have been coming up to Ashland for a few years now, more frequently as our schedules have turned more flexible, and the breadth in casting has also broadened noticeably. As with many other aspects of American life, theater had attracted a certain type of actor and director, emphasizing a certain approach to how plays should be put on, which also meant the majority of the audience was a certain type of person. OSF started to break that mold a few decades ago, mostly due to outgoing Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s vision. In his final year in Oregon, Rauch pulled out all the stops to produce a season of forward-thinking plays, including pairing casts between plays with an explicit goal:

…[to] create a remarkable dialogue about cultural connectivity in our gorgeously diverse nation…

Artistic Director Bill Rauch in the Introduction to the OSF Playbill
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Historical Sights Around Portlandia (Day 14)

As a mirror image to the previous day’s travels around Mount Rainier and continuing our trip down the Cascade mountain range, we spent much of the day not seeing Mount Hood. However, we did soak up quite a bit of history looking at the Columbia Gorge, wandering around Timberline Lodge, perusing what might be the largest bookstore in the world, and listening to a grumpy old rock star.

Drizzling at the Columbia Gorge. Photo by kajmeister.

Columbia, the Gem of the West Coast

The Columbia gorge that runs like a sine wave along the border between southern Washington and northern Oregon is not to be missed if you come to the west coast. On a good day, you can look down the gorge to see bridge after bridge and even on a misery day like this one, the waterfalls gushing by the roadways were that much more impressive.

The gorge has been ruler to people for 13,000 years, with artifacts found from the early pioneers who crossed over the Bering Straits. Lewis and Clark traveled down the Columbia to get to the Pacific, so there are a number of historical markers. My friend Barb, who used to guide people down the Lewis and Clark Trail, would probably wish that we had stopped at all of them, but we voted to let her take us someday instead.

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The Curious Twists and Turns of Tango

Argentinian street dancers, photo at wikipedia

The room is dark, red, smoky. The sound of a violin or bandoleon rises and falls, sinuous and beckoning, or perhaps blunt staccato, like a heartbeat. A couple dances, close enough so that as their bodies bend together, they seem to be one line, two long legs and long arms, or with legs bent at the knees between and against each other. This is tango.

The marvelous show Tango del Cielo came to a nearby local theater last week, and I have been humming “Libertango” ever since. The show is the brainchild of Argentinian Anna Maria Mendieta, harpist for the Sacramento Symphony, who took us through the history and mystery of the dance. The group and staging was spare, only three musicians and only three dancers, but tango doesn’t need much to evoke all of its history and passion, just a pluck of the strings and a stamp of the feet.

Tango Histórico

As tango itself has evolved more than once, even spawning nuevo tango and more than a dozen dance variations, you would think it older than a century and a half. Compared to belly dancing or even opera, it’s a veritable toddler of a musical style. Yet, just as Americans might raise their voices over what constitutes classic rock versus metal versus emo, distinctions barely decades old, it’s not surprising that other people would argue over tango. Nothing starts fiercer fights than disagreements over art. Especially proper art.

Argentinians don’t hesitate to fight over what constitutes a proper tango. They created the music and the dance, so as with any creation, as it changes, there are growing pains. Tango was born in the late nineteenth century, at the border of Argentina and Uruguay, where immigrants and former slaves combined their cultures and music. The two countries have long argued about where it started and who owned it, finally coming together in 2008 to celebrate UNESCO granting the dance its “international cultural heritage.”

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The Hottest Ticket in Town

The Divine Sarah Bernhardt playing Cleopatra, the original transformational theater experience

Transformational! G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! You’ve never experienced anything like it!

Gobblyedook? Hyperbole? No, as you might guess, these were some of the Facebook comments about Hamilton, which we enjoyed seeing in San Francisco last week, despite the exaggeration and hoopla surrounding its existence. This is not a review of the show, about which you most likely already have an opinion, but it got me to thinking about the other It Performances and Artistic Experiences that also left long shadows from say fifty, a hundred, or even longer ago.

Contrary to some recently held beliefs, Hamilton is not the only theater experience that has ever been deemed life-changing. It was only about fifty years ago that musicals themselves were transformed by the introduction of contemporary music, young people, and irreverent ideas, in the first true rock musical, Hair. A century ago, there was a single person–and her rival–who changed all of theater. Still further back, there was a guy who changed how people wrote, what people read, and even how people think about Christmas. There are all sorts of ways to influence the arts.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House…

The musical Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967, before moving to Broadway for a very popular, if critically tepid, run. When it migrated to London’s West End in 1968, the start was delayed until changes were made to the Theatres Act in order to allow for the nudity and profanity. Then, it ran in London for nearly 2000 performances.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who also appeared in the show, the musical explored the controversial themes that exploded across headlines the late Sixties: the youth counterculture, opposition to the war, air pollution, racism, free love, and bureaucratic oppression. The songs are joyous and sarcastic, hummable tunes of subversion. We had the album at home when I was nine, and I loved it. Of course, there was no place to actually look up the words to the lyrics, so imagine my dismay at 23, when I finally realized some of the words I was singing in the tune “Sodomyyyyyy…..”

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Queasy Endings, Happy Endings in Shakespeare

As You Like It , 2019, an excellent musical version, free in the park by SF Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?

There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.

Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.

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