Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016, Part I

It’s best to write a review when the thing you’re reviewing is still fresh in your mind. That said, I only do my book reviews monthly so it could be up to 30 days between finishing a book and writing about it, so I refuse to feel guilty about putting off my thoughts on the first round of OSF shows for a week.

Look at this face. Does this look like a guilty face?

OSF mounts 11 shows per year. Besides discovering from experience that seeing more than five (well, really four, but sometimes we all suffer for the sake of our art) in one trip is just an emotional and mental train wreck by the end, it’s actually impossible to do it all in one go – at least two shows a year have completely non-overlapping runs. So I present to you King OSF 2016, Part I, a joke that would I assure you would be funnier if they were doing any multi-part histories this year.

This review includes Great Expectations, the River Bride, and Yeomen of the Guard. SPOILERS FOLLOW. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU WANT TO SEE THESE SHOWS UNSPOILED. (Though let’s be fair here, Great Expectations is one of the most famous novels of the 19th century, so if you were serious about avoiding spoilers, you should have read it already. That said, I haven’t read it and had no idea of the plot going in.)

Last thought before the jump protects your unsullied eyes from spoilers: all three of these shows passed the Bechdel test (GE: Miss Havisham and Stella; RB: Helena and Belmira; YotG: Jan and Elsie, though Jan was actually Jack in the original, so no points for Gilbert and Sullivan) – steps 1 (2+ named female characters) and 2 (who talk to each other) with flying colors, but only very narrowly on step 3 (about something other than a man), though the men were also mainly talking to each other about the women, so I don’t think this is really a problem this time. Lest you think I’m disappointed in the slightest, OSF’s diversity efforts have been absolutely heroic – and successful – and should be sung to the highest rafters of the Tony Award for a Regional Theater Company nominating committee…

Great Expectations: I have to admit to never having read Dickens – I disliked A Tale of Two Cities so much that I didn’t even manage to finish the spark notes for it. So you might imagine that I went into this with, well, less than great expectations (sorry not sorry). But to my surprise and delight, it walked perfectly on the line between bleak and hopeful, and with every unknown twist I was completely enthralled. That’s even in the face of narration, which I didn’t totally hate (and that’s about as good as it’ll get for me with narration). In writing and performance, Pip’s progression from naive kid to horrible jerk teenager back to reasonable person adult was really the centerpiece of the night, but I also was impressed that Uncle Joe was completely static. Normally you don’t praise an actor’s performance for being completely unchanged over the course of a show since usually character development is the whole point, but Joe’s impeccable stability in his patience and kind-heartedness was exactly the role model Pip needed, the little snot. Besides all this to fawn over, I cried twice, which has to be worth something. I only wish that Miss Havisham and Stella’s relationship had gotten some more attention if not more explanation, since the fact that it’s unfathomable to our POV character Pip means it should be at least opaque to us. Just because he’s dense, though, doesn’t mean I don’t want more time to observe and try to understand their bizarre dynamic myself.

The River Bride: This (almost) new play was based on an Amazonian folk tale that the playwright spun out into a much deeper plot. I’m about to drop the biggest spoiler of this set of reviews: drawing from the folk tale, two of the three male characters are actually Amazonian pink river dolphins (yes, they really are pink), called botos, which are believed to be able to turn into human men and come to land for three days at the summer solstice. If they can convince a human woman to marry them in that time, they can stay. The two botos’ true nature isn’t revealed until much of the way through, one of them only indirectly, and the play doesn’t explicitly tell the folk tale until about ten minutes before the end. If I hadn’t gone into the theater knowing about that folk tale – which is not common knowledge among Americans – I think I would have been extremely lost. But going in having just learned of the tale’s existence in the context of the dramaturg’s (theatrical history/culture/language etc. research person) notes, I saw the reveal coming far sooner than I should have. Which would have been better? I can’t un-learn about the botos in advance of the show, so I’ll never know. As an avid consumer of media with an ambivalent stance on being spoilered, this is a constant question for me. Stepping off my philosophical soap box re: the nature of knowledge, another sparse set, but this time with very concrete projections to help fill out more of the details (unlike narration, I’ve gotten over most of my hatred of projections as the use of the technology matures), the sisters-and-mother relationships at the center of the family (for good or ill), and the raddest motorized canoe ever. While I worry how the river dolphin reveal will play with the majority of audience members unaware of the folk tale, the storytelling flowed (intentionally, I suspect) like the river it depends on, and its tropes were refreshingly unfamiliar.

The Yeomen of the Guard: Technically based on the classic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Actually waved to the original fading into the distance as it galloped off into the wild west where adult-sized rocking horses and about a third of the audience grace the stage and actors play their instruments, including accordion and banjo, themselves. While my knowledge of this particular show was more limited, I have seen Pirates of Penzance and was in Patience, so I’m familiar Gilbert and Sullivan. This bore very little resemblance to G&S, overwhelmingly positively so. (G&S’s reputation for being somewhat stilted is earned.) This production, about a third of the audience (including me and my dad, but not my mom, chicken) (hi mom!) (insert back to the future joke here) sat right on the country-western carnival stage in the round, where we were gently prodded out of the way by passing actors, so from my vantage point it was truly an experience. They absolutely shattered the “sit back and enjoy” model of theater, and that’s even before the bar in the corner of the stage that was actively serving through the entire show. I had to. I got a cider during a ballad near the beginning of the show after being kicked off the rocking horses to accommodate the staging of said ballad (which the assistant stage manager helping audience members on the horses informed me were custom made by the prop shop, as the market for such things is understandably limited). The ridiculous combinations of words I have been allowed to string together here don’t begin to capture the stellar performances by actors, who because their jobs aren’t already hard enough, have been asked to play their own instruments while also performing literally right on top of the audience. I was close enough to the action that I got blamed for stealing the chief guard’s keys to the prison cell. (I swear I’m innocent.) It’s a little misleading to call this immersive theatrical experience a show, let alone an adaptation of century-old operetta, and I fear that may be turning audience members off of what I predict will be the most original work of the season.

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