Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Summer Season Highlights
Darleen Ortega | 8/11/2015, 4:41 p.m.
The height of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season is underway, which means three outdoor shows and two new shows inside. I've yet to see Sweat, Lynn Nottage's new play exploring life as experienced by those on the losing end of the decline of American industry; I'll see it in September and expect to be inspired to write about it, given the buzz I am hearing. There is some delightful variety among the other four shows, though I can't quite recommend all of them.
The Happiest Song Plays Last completes Quiara Alegria Hudes' trilogy of plays exploring the experiences of Puerto Rican cousins Elliott and Yaz. (Water By the Spoonful moved me last year, as I expressed in my review earlier last year). In this play, set later in time, Iraq war veteran Elliott, still struggling with the physical and psychic wounds of his military service, spends some time in Jordan working as an actor on a film that stirs up some of those wartime memories. His timing coincides with the Arab spring protests, and the connections he makes on this return visit to the Middle East deepen his thinking about how to carry his own pain and the pain he has inflicted on others. Meanwhile, his cousin Yaz has become a leader in their home Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia, and is engaged in her own struggle over how to manage the fury and hope of activism and the limits of her own resources.
This play, like Water, stands on its own, though experience with others in the trilogy enriches the action. These are characters to savor; their dilemmas will resonate especially among communities of color, where activists like Yaz may struggle with similar quandaries and where many young people have found that military service promised them opportunities but left them with scars and trauma they could not have anticipated. This production features an extremely gifted cast--notably, Armando Duran brings music and soul to his portrayal of a heroic voice denied recognition that he deserved in both life and death; Nancy Rodriguez captures the depth of Yaz's hopes and disappointments; and Barzin Akhavan's portrayal of an Iraqi man with whom Elliott shares a connection feels especially reverent and rich. One senses the work of soul and community that director Shishir Kurup and his talented cast and design team have nurtured in creating this production; their invitation into the lives of these characters feels like a call to dialogue with deeper questions, for those who can hear that invitation.
My hands-on favorite of the outdoor shows is Head Over Heels, a bawdy mash-up of story, song, and themes that one could not have imagined would work together so brilliantly. It is the brainchild of Coos Bay native Jeff Whitty, who won a Tony Award for his book for the witty and irreverent Avenue Q. This time he has combined an Elizabethan story that captured his imagination while he was a student at the University of Oregon, with the music of the Go-Go’s--and then further tweaked the story in ways that are truly inspired.