Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
September 9, 2011
Here’s a great way to grab the last gasp of summer: Get thee to Ashland, Oregon.
Shakespeare is everywhere – on storefronts and street names and menus — and of course, at the deservedly renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This 76th season, a whopping 12 shows running in repertory from February through early November, features four Shakespeare classics. But Shakespeare’s work also plays an important role in two contemporary creations: “The African Company Presents Richard III” and “Ghost Light.”
Both historical dramas, based in fact, concern emerging civil rights. And in both, the action parallels the plot of a Shakespeare tragedy being produced within the play. The Bard works – and is worked in – in wondrous ways.
Both compelling stories feature lush, sometimes humorous, language. Though both plays are flawed, the production values and performances are outstanding.
The African Company was the first black theater troupe in America, based in New York City in the 1820s. In the 1994 drama by Carlyle Brown, the young company goes head-to-head with the City’s premier white Shakespeare theater, in neighboring productions of ‘Richard III’.
The racist white theater manager will stop at nothing to close down his competition. In the meantime, there are problems within the African Company, stemming from the different strata of blacks involved, and a thwarted romance.
The emotional conflicts, searing dramatic monologues and Shakespearean soliloquies are marvelously conveyed under the astute direction of Seret Scott, who has displayed her artistry numerous times at the Old Globe. This is a wonderful but sadly forgotten story, effectively presented. And inspirational in its use of language– and Shakespeare — to assert equality, love and the power of art.
More than 150 years later, another civil rights battle was brewing in the U.S. — for gay rights. Harvey Milk became a martyr in 1978, when he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated. But Moscone, whose long-term leadership forged the first gay rights legislation and helped make San Francisco a model of diversity and inclusion, has become a footnote of history.
His son, director Jonathan Moscone, wants to set the record straight. But though “Ghost Light,” a world premiere by Tony Taccone, gives insight into the younger Moscone and his many demons, it provides surprisingly little insight into his influential dad.
The fictionalized story is really about fathers and sons, haunted by myriad ghosts, as Jon tries to direct a production of “Hamlet.” This world premiere, imaginatively directed by Moscone, is still a work in progress. But it provides an intriguingly non-linear journey inside a grieving, tortured mind.
On the bigger (metaphorical) stage, what’s most striking in Ashland is how important theater is to the community, and how polished and perfect the productions are. The small hippie-like enclave should be an annual summer pilgrimage for any true theaterlover.
“Ghost Light” and “The African Company Presents Richard III” continue through November 5 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR.
©2011 PAT LAUNER