I have to admit it: It took me a full 16 years of being an Oregonian to finally experience the many delights that a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can bring. Discussions about what constitutes a "local" aside, whether you've been in Oregon only six months or 60 years, I'm here to make sure you don't make the same mistake. While Central Oregon has its fair share of wonderful theatre, our state as a whole possesses a national treasure in Oregon Shakespeare.
Before you go too far down the road of "I don't like Shakespeare" or "I just can't understand that iambic pentameter crap," know this: not all of the festival involves Shakespeare—and the works that do are often modern depictions that blend contemporary music and sets with a diverse cast.
In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare's casts were far from diverse, to say the least. Women were not permitted to act in plays, so all the parts were played by men. (Why yes, that was Juliet, shaving "her" mustache before the performance!)
In OSF's versions of Shakespeare, women take the women's roles, but can also be seen in more traditional men's roles. Women play men as well as women, and sometimes even marry them. (Gasp!) This year's version of "Henry IV, Part One" sees a woman playing the character Hotspur (Henry Percy), who led rebellions against King Henry both in the play and in real life.
In "Henry IV Part One," we're also introduced to the king's party boy of a son with a scene that involves a plastic pool, bubbles and a gang of modern ne'er-do-wells sipping shots. The next time we see young Henry (Hal), the scene opens with a blast of R&B artist Drake's "Fake Love." The cast itself, as is the case across the company's productions, is like a cross-section of a diverse America, filled with faces of many colors, ages, orientations and sizes.
With choices such as those, OSF departs far from Elizabethan Shakespeare in favor of something to which far more people can relate.
Then again, those looking for those more traditional stylings can also find something to their liking. The 2017 season includes "Shakespeare in Love," featuring costumes and characters so true to Elizabethan times that the characters include the red-headed Queen Elizabeth herself. Originally written as a screenplay (you might have seen it back in 1998 when it was in all the movie theaters), the play is making its U.S. premiere at OSF. In "Shakespeare in Love," a young William Shakespeare falls in love with forbidden fruit—which, as is the case for many artists—serves as the muse that fuels his passion and creativity. Yes, he may have "borrowed" a few ideas from his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, but even that is met with humor in this light-hearted play.
Opening weekend, at the end of February, also included a version of the Greek tragedy Medea, titled "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," and "Julius Caesar." In "Mojada," OSF resident playwright Luis Alfaro tackles the challenging, timely themes of immigration, integration, family ties and material success through the story of a family who crossed the U.S. border illegally. In "Julius Caesar," the actor playing Caesar, Armando Durán, devilishly executes a "yank and pull" handshake reminiscent of the 45th president's.
It's through those juxtapositions between the modern and the traditional—R&B songs alongside a heavy war theme; lighthearted biography alongside grand Elizabethan costumery—that the brilliance of Oregon Shakespeare becomes apparent. This is not the stuffy foray into "traditional theatre" that you may have had to suffer through in high school drama class. Neither is it a free-form expression of something unattainably esoteric that you might have seen in a modern theatre production. It's still largely Shakespeare, but there's something for everyone.
The above-mentioned plays are what's currently open at OSF, but wait a few weeks and the season's repertoire will include "UniSon," a musical inspired by the poetry of little-known poet and playwright August Wilson, opening April 19, and "Hannah and the Dread Gazebo," a play that takes place in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, opening March 29. In addition, the summer's offerings include "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Odyssey," "Beauty and the Beast," "Henry IV, Part Two" and "Off the Rails," the company's first-ever play focusing on Native Americans.
It's a lineup packed full of variety, as well as images and themes that are universal across ages, times and political landscapes. If you can't find something worth making the three-and-a-half- hour drive for, then perhaps another round of mindless cable TV is for you after all. For the rest of you, road trip, anyone?
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Feb 17-Oct 29.
15 South Pioneer, Ashland, OR
Box office: 800-219-8161
Local school visits and school group discounts available.
OSF School Visit program: OSFAshland.org/school-visit-program
Want your Shakespeare more local?
Tickets for Shakespeare in the Park in Bend, featuring "Titus Andronicus," on sale now.
Aug 18-19, 7pm