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 “Richard III.”
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 Shakespeare’s 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; 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?
Also particularly fun was the contrast of King John with his illegitimate nephew, Philip Falconbridge, aka the Bastard, played by Jessika D. Williams. The Bastard is an unrecognized son of Richard the Lionheart, and 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 a thoughtful and innovative Shakespearean comment on war, then “Revenge Song” is an innovative comment on swashbuckling and female roles in 17th France, wrapped up 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. The music blended a little French ska rap with punk femme from the 90s. It’s always a fun sign for a musical set in the Globe Theater when Juliet’s balcony is crammed full with a live band, which fulfilled its destiny and henceforth 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 while some respond in kind, none dares risk living as an unmarried woman. As Julie says, her life options included 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 not enough Shakespeare for you? If so, you can always check out the quality version of “The Tempest” that is OSF’s anchor Shakespearean epic of this season. Another advantage of this is that, being repertory, a lot of the actors in the “Tempest” were playing other roles in “Revenge Song.” Who wouldn’t want to see the fencing master double as Caliban?
Watch the show! Watch the movie! Yes, the price for the film tickets are more expensive than regular movies, 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. And if you’re a true Shakespearean scholar, you know the chicken bit would have have delighted everyone in the Pit.