It’s time to go back and see some live theater! Even if it’s on film.
We took a long weekend to trek up to Ashland for three plays, so if you’re thinking this is like free advertising for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, you’re probably right. But the performances were excellent, and all three have been filmed. If you can’t make the trek up to the rolling hills of the Rogue River Valley before the seasons ends, then you can watch the films live next weekend or on demand. Check out the options here.
My particular goal was to get my bingo card punched, which is to say that I had seen 36 of the 37 plays of Shakespeare and was only missing “King John.” (You’re going to point out that “The Two Noble Kinsmen” makes it 38 plays, and I’ll counter that it’s never staged and besides, John Fletcher co-wrote it. If you find a version of it somewhere, send me a link, and I’ll watch it. Meanwhile, I’m calling B-I-N-G-O. And Shakespeare was his name-o!
Who Wants to Play a Weenie?
We were speculating as to why “King John” is almost never staged, when the history play that precedes it, “Richard III,” is done all the time It may be the nature of villainy in the central character. Even though Richard is one of the worst scoundrels that ever walked a stage, he controls his own destiny. He pillages, rapes, and murders with glee. A good actor will get the audience laughing at his roguish charm, while Richard woos his enemy’s widow or plans the assassination of the princes in the tower. Don’t believe me? Watch the Ian McKellen 1995 film.
In comparison, King John is a coward and a blusterer. He and King Philip of France get into these nonstop pissing matches about territory, where they shake their fists and send in foot soldiers to move back and forth across the chessboard, dying as they move forward and backward a few feet . John alternately barks orders, assigns executioners, then refuses to take responsibility for the consequences that ensue. He may be the least likable eponymous character of all the plays.
The story also circles around the claims of Arthur, John’s young nephew, who thinks he ought to have been king. Or at least his mother Constance, who is a piece of work, thinks so, and she tries to persuade France’s Philip to use her claim as an excuse to fight England. Constance is the FOX News of the piece. No matter what happens, she’s complaining, whining, and stirring up trouble, and when tragedy happens, she blames everyone else.
War happens, on and off, like a dance. Luckily, John has an unmarried niece who can save the day through a dynastic marriage. But just when a truce can be called and England and France can clasp hands in friendship, the pope’s envoy shows up. Cardinal Pandolph, the snake in the grass, creates a new snafu, and the fighting begins again.
The version that OSF put on is co-produced with an all-woman/ non-binary troupe called Upstart Crow: Rosa Joshi, Kate Wisniewski, and Betsy Schwartz. Wisniewski is a brilliant John. Perhaps it takes a woman to be willing to play such an unlikable man? Particularly fun was the contrast of John with the character of the Philip Falconbridge, aka the Bastard, played by Jessika D. Williams. The Bastard turns out to be the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, and s/he has more courage, political sense, and strength of character than Uncle John has in his little finger. The directing and performances put them in strong comparison to each other, a perfect illustration of what leadership can be but often isn’t. It left me wondering why others don’t put this play on more.
Mayhem, Swordplay, and an Unforgettable Rubber Chicken
If “John” was thoughtful and innovative Shakespeare, then “Revenge Song”was a swashbuckling innovation in a punk rock musical. It’s about Julie D’Aubigny, a real person who I’d heard called the female D’Artagnan. There was hip hop; mayhem in a convent; fountains of artificial blood; and a dancing dominatrix. Kind of like a Rocky Horror Picture Show from 1685.
This musical was brought to OSF by a group called Vampire Cowboys, the creative duo of writer Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker. Their music blended a little French ska rap combined with punk femme from the 90s. It’s always a good sign in the Globe Theater when the top balcony is crammed full with a live band, which fulfilled its destiny and rocked the house.
Star Reina Guthrie was a magnetic Julie, fending off the multiple villains while navigating the strict sexual mores of the 17th century. She likes girls, and some like her back, but none dare risk living as an unmarried woman. As Julie says, her life options include becoming …. a wife. Pretty much it. Well, there’s being a nun, too, but that turns out to involve body snatching and arson, not to mention a knockdown battle with the nun posse.
Is it too little Shakespeare for you? You can always check out the quality version of “The Tempest” that is OSF’s anchor show for this season. The best part for me was that this is repertory, which means that a lot of the actors in the Shakespearean “Tempest” were playing other roles in “Revenge Song.” Who wouldn’t want to see the fencing master also double as Caliban?
Watch the show! Watch the movie! The movie tickets are more expensive than regular films, but you can invite over the neighbors and your brother-in-law for a watch party. The more the merrier. Just make sure your neighbors and in-laws don’t mind a few F-bombs and some naughtiness involving a rubber chicken.