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An Awakening of What You’ve Been Missing

Plays worth the journey to Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Darleen Ortega | 9/12/2017, 4:36 p.m.
Several shows are still playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that offer opportunities to experience theater in fresh ways.
Kevin Kenerly (left) and Steven Sapp are a boxer and poet with a shared past in “UniSon,” derived from the great African American Playwright August Wilson; And placed in an Indian school (right photo) where his culture is erased, a 19th Century Native American (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) is visited by the spirit of his Native American grandfather (Brent Florendo) in ‘Off the Rails.’ Both shows are now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

What this play lacks in clarity of vision the production makes up for in the beauty and joy of watching seven Native American actors generously lay their hearts out on the stage. They occupy several different intersections that will feel familiar to many mixed and marginalized people: What does cultural loyalty require? What are the reasons to compromise? How, if at all, should one accommodate the culture of white supremacy? Which reasons for doing so are justified? I was moved to watch these Native actors hold these questions with such love and grace, particularly in combination with Momaday's Irish love and two African American characters who convey similar lived wisdom.

One challenge of this production for me is that it locates virtually all white evil perpetrated against indigenous peoples in one character, even inviting the audience to boo him. OSF audiences are still mostly white, and that device lets them off far too easily, especially since oppression of indigenous people is hardly over. Indeed, the problematic choices of two other white characters are brushed off and even played for humor. I suspect that too few audience members will notice how problematic such choices are.

Still, the challenges of absorbing this production, like the challenges I imagine may exist for those playing in it, strike me as resonant with the experiences of indigenous and other oppressed peoples. How do we seize the spaces we can for our truth, and find our authentic voices, even when all the spaces we are allowed to enter involve some degree of accommodating the comfort of those with more power? The work of struggling with such questions, beautifully embodied here, may well account for the sort of evolved consciousness one often sees in indigenous leaders, and in many artists.

Three wonderful outdoor shows beautifully round out the season's offerings, all making use of deliciously diverse casts to enliven old stories. My favorite, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," sets Shakespeare's rather messy comedy in a fantasy world that melds Elizabethan and 1980s sensibilities (complete with hilarious use of '80s music, dance moves, and costume touches), and the result evokes nonstop delight. I found it surprisingly moving to watch a production of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" in which the princess and her evolving prince are played by two brilliant African American actors, assisted by a talented cast of enchanted servants. And a gorgeous production of "The Odyssey" offers a visual feast of movement and imagery; watch especially for what, for me, is now the definitive depiction of the sirens.

The outdoor shows play until mid-October, and "UniSon" and "Off the Rails" play until the season ends the final weekend of October. The productions are well worth the journey to Ashland.

Darleen Ortega, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity, serves on the board of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.