Wrapped Up in Humanity

Oregon Shakespeare Festival works stir heart and soul

Darleen Ortega | 5/14/2015, 12:27 p.m.
Love. Loss. Longing. Hope. Treachery. Resilience. All are the stuff of human existence -- and also the stuff of theater.
Master Yuan (Paul Juhn, center) and Blossom (Leah Anderson) have some fun behind the blanket, unbeknownst to Blossom's husband Tao (Eugene Ma, left) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of ‘Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.’ In the second picture, Pericles (Wayne T. Carr, left) washes ashore from a shipwreck and is met by a group of fishermen (Michael J. Hume, U. Jonathan Toppo, Cedric Lamar) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of a classic tale of love, betrayal, loss and recovery. Jenny Graham

Love. Loss. Longing. Hope. Treachery. Resilience. All are the stuff of human existence -- and also the stuff of theater. In real life, even as we suffer and struggle, it can be hard to sit with the depth of our experience. The feelings, even the good ones, may be too profound, too painful. Two shows now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, by different methods, plunge us there, offering the chance to feel what we may often only have the courage to give a sidelong glance.

"Pericles"--Shakespeare's tale of love, betrayal, loss, and recovery -- offers the way of poetry and song. "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" -- a beloved Taiwanese play that sprang from the seeds of a tragic episode in Chinese history -- offers interlocking pathways of humor and pathos.

"Pericles" isn't performed often, though it was quite popular in Shakespeare's day. Perhaps back then people were more receptive to a story that doesn't try to answer why bad things happen to good people, or why good things might just happen again. We expect answers to such questions now -- but in reality, life doesn't always offer them.

The protagonist is a young prince who embarks confidently on a journey to find a wife. He does, but only after having to run for his life when he stumbles into a nest of incest and treachery. Then, having righted his path and found love and family, he loses both for many years. He lives in exile, separated from the wife and daughter he believes are dead. His daughter then also encounters peril and treachery, before all are finally united.

There is no rhyme or reason for any of this. Neither Pericles nor his wife and daughter deserve the perils that befall them. They are buffeted about, shipwrecked, used, enslaved. Life is unfair -- yet without warning, things can be set right too.

Director Joe Haj, the son of Palestinian immigrants, brings to the play an enthusiasm for the mysteries embedded in life's unfairness. This is not a play that reinforces our wish to believe that everything happens for a reason, but that is territory immigrants know well. And among a uniformly wonderful cast, Pericles and his daughter Marina are beautifully played by African-American actors Wayne T. Carr and Jennie Greenberry; their heritage especially qualifies them to play characters whose family members are lost to them and whose control of their destinies is taken from them by brutal circumstances.

Father and daughter offer contrasting responses to the whims of fortune. Pericles begins his life with beauty and wealth and naively embarks on his life's voyage assuming that all will be well. When his fortunes are dashed, he is stripped of hope, and lives for many years isolated and defeated. Marina, never having tasted the bright truth of her heritage and with no more reason to hope, nevertheless approaches her life with unflagging determination, as though convinced that she is master of her destiny in the face of all evidence to the contrary.