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.
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
Art (Music/Theater/Literature)’s Power to Heal
If this all sounds as fun as the second afternoon of a corporate training exercise, don’t forget that it’s theater. The three plays we viewed on this leg of our trip were funny, poignant, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. All three were in the same theater; each required a different arrangement of the seats, which was fascinating. One was a musical, the one that contained the most tragedy. One was staged in the round. One combined a man-in-his-polka-dot-underwear farce with the bitter lessons of massacres by colonizers.
These three plays we saw, Cambodian Rock Band, How to Catch Creation, and Between Two Knees, took us from emotional drama through romantic drama/comedy to zany satire. What all three had in common was the demonstration of how theater both represents and transforms.
The Soul of a Nation
Music is the soul of the nation.Former king of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk
It was probably no accident that the Khmer Rhouge targeted artists, musicians, and intellectuals for execution, early in a regime that managed to wipe out two million people in only four years. This story of Cambodia prominently featured a rip-roaring psychedelic rock band which amply demonstrates the power of music (oh, I just saw what I did there, hee-hee).
Curiously, the audience members behind me had a lengthy exchange pre-show about whether they had their ear plugs ready to go, even though the band was really no louder than a Coca Cola commercial in a movie theater. In this small theater with its wonderful acoustics, the musicians were just loud enough, only twenty feet away. Gloriously loud, with sinuous vocals and smoking guitar and bass solos loud enough to drive the demons away. There were a lot of demons.
As the character Duch says to the audience at the beginning of the gut-wrenching second half, the part that takes place in Cambodia’s infamous prison S-21, “you came back from the intermission.” You can’t expect to go to a play about Cambodia without hearing a story–or one story after another–that would break your heart. Another character laments that no one can meet a Cambodian anymore without thinking about that so brief but so terrible part of their history. In the same way that we think about the Armenians, African-Americans, Eastern European Jews, women from Afghanistan or conservative Muslim countries, Iranians, folks from northern Ireland, native Americans, Kurds–why is it that the list of people who have experienced oppression and genocide is so long?
What’s So Funny about Genocide?
The sketch-comedy group 1491 set out to answer that question with Between Two Knees, a Keystone Kops version of native American history. It’s zany, it’s sophisticated, and it pulls no punches in potraying the massacre of American Indians at the hands of white settlers and the American government.
Some of the harshest lampooning is for the Catholic boarding schools which were funded by the U.S. to force-assimilate Indian children into American culture. It’s one thing when parents send their children off for a boarding school education (in all its facets). It’s quite another when legislation–the Civilization Fund Act of 1819–legitimizes taking children from their parents. (The more things change…) The rendition of this boarding school isn’t unique among plays in portraying sadistic schoolmasters, if you’ve seen Matilda or Annie, but it’s the first time I heard them referred to as Nunjas. The battle between the Indian teenagers and the nuns is played out in perfect parody as a Japanese videogame battle, complete with Boss Battle, flashing lights and sounds, and slo-mo Matrix style roundhouse kicks.
Even funnier, though a little closer to the mark, is the skewering of the white appropriation of native culture. I was nearly on the floor in the scene where our heroic romantic couple attempts to experience a true Native American wedding by finding a practitioner through eBay (or Craigslist or Facebook, take your pick). The ceremony is a mishmash of yoga, meditation, and Grateful Dead references, with a little Traditional American Indian Dance sprinkled on like Morton’s salt. As I hail from northern California and used to live in Berkeley, I’ve met the woman who “presided” over the wedding (hilariously portrayed by Rachel Crowl) more than once.
Aristotle said that tragedy should take the audience through catharis, by invoking pity and fear, whereas comedy is about the imitation of action of men worse than ourselves. Yet, comedy is also about holding up a mirror. The best things about these plays is that they did all of the above. Between Two Knees is a send-up of white culture, particularly the way white culture tried to frame and exploit native American culture, and if it makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat, it lets you laugh about it.
How else to demonstrate how little we know about the history of massacres of natives but using a Wheel of Fortune style gameshow? In the same way, how else to experience what Cambodia must have been like if not to let the worst of the torturers narrate the play and return at the rock band’s encore to exhort members of the audience to dance? Catharsis can be achieved through laughter and music as well as being bathed with the white tears of a woman named Becky.
The surprise of the plays, in a way, was How to Catch Creation. It was not a surprise that it was well-acted, enthralling, or inventive. It’s just that the write-up in the Playbill, as well as many of the reviews, emphasized how wonderful it was to have an all-black cast where “queerness is normalized.” To be perfectly candid, I am a normal queer, so you would think I’d want to watch a play that includes black lesbians, but usually when you see the word “normalized,” you must prepare for the spoonful of anti-homophobia castor oil. Which is to say, prepare to be told how you should think which is Not Funny! Nothing could have been further from the experience of this play, and thank heaven for that.
Creation was about six people, experiencing romance, change, the thirst for knowledge, and the desire to express themselves through art and other acts of creation. One center of the action swirls around an unmarried black man who wants to raise a child. On the other end of the teeter totter is a prolific black lesbian writer whose influence will stretch for generations. In between are two people who experience a spark of desire, and the action moves back and forth between time and space, as the lives of these random characters become more intertwined. The only thing not to like about it was the summary in the Playbill.
Theater is Sometimes Disturbing, and that’s a Good Thing
Not all regular OSF patrons have been equally thrilled with the choices. I found it curious in reading reviews that so many were going to quit in a huff, after 35 years or 50 years or whatever of supporting the shows. Several criticisms said that the amount of Shakespeare is diminishing, although I went back to the 1990s and counted, and OSF has always been staging four or five Shakespearean plays compared to six or seven alternative authors for decades. It’s more that the other authors include less Chekhov and Tennessee Williams and more new playwrights who reflect broader backgrounds.
Others griped that the plays had “become so political.” Yet, if you choose to see plays about Cambodia, native American genocide, and the migrant farmworker camps, what do you expect? After all, they did put on Alice in Wonderland and Hairspray.
Actually, if you think of what John Waters was trying to do with Hairspray, and compare it to its current status as a long-running, Tony-winning, popular American musical, it exemplifies perfectly how theater can change minds which influence theater. This encapsulates exactly what OSF and Bill Rauch have accomplished. Use music, casts which reflect all of your potential audience, educate through satire and farce, and pull no punches in creating laughter and tears through your productions.
I’m already thumbing through the 2020 schedule.