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Road Trips of Cultural Connections

Ashland plays brings richness of Latinx experience

Darleen Ortega | 9/3/2019, 5:16 p.m.
One diverse and largely Latin American cast performs two plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season, offering opportunities for ...
Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho) and William Joad (Mark Murphy) find they are related, connected by Anglo and Latinx cultures in “Mother Road” (left) and Catherine Castellanos stars as Holy Mother Superior and Amy Lizardo as Adriana (right) in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “La Comedia of Errors.” Both plays show through October at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photos by Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

In this production, the Shakespearean language has been translated into modern English by playwright Christine Anderson--but the play then has been adapted by Lydia Garcia and director Bill Rauch to be about half in Spanish and transposed into a different and resonant cultural context. They reset the story as involving two Mexican families, with one set of twins growing up in the U.S. and the other growing up in Mexico. That reset allows for lots of humor around cultural and language differences between Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, and also Puerto Ricans and Salvadorans. On top of that, the same two actors play the twins, so there is lots of physical comedy as the two men (brilliantly played by Fidel Gomez and Tony Sancho) switch back and forth between the Mexican-American twins and their Mexican counterparts.

It's hard to capture just how much fun this production is. There is lots of physical comedy and also lots of language humor. Due to Garcia's amazingly facile linguistic work and the gameness of the cast, this production is far funnier and edgier than a more traditional production would be, and captures more of a sense of the way that Shakespeare's work was originally experienced. It can be enjoyed by someone who only speaks Spanish, or by someone who only speaks English--and though monolingual audience members will not catch every single word, they will follow the drift. Importantly, slight moments of confusion not only serve the story but also provide a very safe and rare way to English-speaking audience members to experience not being in a position of dominance.

Part of how this is achieved is by means of a role that Garcia and Rauch created: La Vecina. She sits in the audience and summarizes and comments on the action, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in English. As played with fervor by Meme Garcia, La Vecina is the comedic glue that holds the whole experience together, reveling in and dispelling confusion, illuminating the nuances that sometimes can be lost in translation, and driving home the ways this production may resonate for Latinx audience members. Besides the ways she assists the audience members, La Vecina functions to awaken curiosity about what may be lost in translation in interactions closer to home.

One of the things I especially love about this production is what it asks of its Latinx cast members, who sit at all different cultural and linguistic intersections themselves. Some are being pushed to express themselves in ways that are not familiar or are rarely sought, and that work is itself a metaphor for the challenges of being a member of the Latinx community. We sit at all different intersections and what is expected of us often does not invite us or make it easy for us to celebrate or even value or connect with our heritage--and then when we do, it may not be easy work. The variety among us gets buried or lost in translation given how rarely it is celebrated and how often it is diminished or even punished. What emerges from this production--thanks in large part to Lydia Garcia's brilliant work in adapting into Spanish (her original language) a master work in English, the language with which she primarily works as a theater maker--is a playful exploration of cultural dexterity and a radical invitation to solidarity and community. Both shows play until the end of October.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer.