Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2011 Ashland , OR
Shakespeare is everywhere in Ashland – on storefronts and street names and menus — and of course, at the deservedly renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This season (12 shows in repertory, from February through early November), in addition to four Shakespeare classics, Shakespeare’s work plays an important role in two contemporary creations: “The African Company Presents Richard III” and “Ghost Light.”
Both are historical dramas based in fact. Both are closely aligned with emerging civil rights. And in both cases, the action parallels the plot of a Shakespeare tragedy being produced within the context of the play. The Bard works – and is worked in – in wondrous ways.
But alas, both plays are overreaching, and while they feature poetic language and tell compelling stories, each falls short of a fully satisfying work of theater, despite outstanding performances and production values.
The African Company was the first known black theater troupe in America, based in New York City. Thanks to racist whites repeatedly trying to shut it down, the company only survived for three years (1821-1823); but that was still pretty impressive for that time in our history.
Playwright Carlyle Brown conflated several dates and incidents for his 1994 drama, which has the young black company going head-to-head with the City’s premier white Shakespeare theater, in competing and neighboring productions of ‘Richard III’ in 1821.
The white theater manager, Stephen Price (aptly villainous Michael Elich ), has brought in a headliner from London – Junius Brutus Booth, father of that more infamous Booth – to play King Richard, and has promised him full houses. Given the immense popularity of the African Company, among blacks and curious whites, Price is worried that he can’t deliver. So he’ll do anything to close down the show, invoking his wealth, power and connections with the police.
In the meantime, there are problems within the African Company, stemming from the different strata of blacks involved, and the fact that young Ann (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who is set to portray Lady Ann, is in love with James Hewlett, the accomplished but pompous and self-involved actor playing Richard (excellent Kevin Kenerly ). The go-between, a West African griot named Papa Shakespeare (riveting Charles Robinson), tries to make peace between them, while the ever-resourceful founder/manager of the Company, Billy Brown (imposing Peter Macon) tries to out-maneuver Price.
There are monologues and Shakespearean soliloquies, comings and goings within the company (the frustrated Ann leaves the show) and conflicts in every direction. But under the astute direction of Seret Scott, it all comes together. She manages to background the weaknesses in the script and highlight the characters and the history. It’s 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, this one for gay rights. Harvey Milk became a martyr on November 27, 1978, when he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated. But somehow, Moscone , whose long-term leadership forged the first gay rights legislation, opened City Hall to minorities, and helped make San Francisco a model of diversity and inclusion, has become a footnote of history.
His son, theater director Jonathan Moscone , wanted to set the record straight. But though “Ghost Light,” a world premiere, gives insight into the younger Moscone and his many demons (young and older Jon are the main characters in the play, which Moscone himself directs), it provides surprisingly little information about George Moscone — the man or the politician — and won’t do anything to elevate his profile, status or legacy.
The play is really about fathers and sons. In fact, playwright Tony Taccone has said it’s just as much about his relationship with his father as Jonathan Moscone’s . Mostly, though, it’s about ghosts. There are so many phantoms onstage, it’s mind-boggling. And it’s pretty hard to keep them all straight and in their place and figure out their importance to Jon or the story or the production of “Hamlet” he’s trying to direct (of course, he’s having the most trouble with the character of the Ghost).
So, let’s see, there’s The Boy, 14 year-old Jon was when his father was killed, clinging desperately to the coffin he refuses to let go. Then there’s the enigmatic Mister, some sort of authoritarian Spirit Guide; and the Prison Guard, who seems to be Jon’s rough-and-tumble, punitive, gun-slinging paternal grandfather; and there’s Loverboy , an avatar of Jon’s fantasy boyfriend, and the Ghost of George Moscone . Then there are all those Hamlet-Ghost wannabes: the Medieval Ghost, the Spandex Ghost and the Puppet Ghost, for example.
By the end of the first act, Jon has pretty much lost it, as anyone would, with all these spectral visitations. Still, he’s painfully alone, doesn’t have a flesh-and-blood mate, can’t deal with his parental loss, and can’t get on with the play, despite loving prods from his best friend and ace costumer, Louise (engaging Robynn Rodriguez).
The set (Todd Rosenthal) is malleable and magical, and everyone in the 11-member ensemble – except the marvelously manic Christopher Liam Moore, who plays Jon –morphs into many different forms and characters. But there really is just too much going on, too many points and parallels being made. The non-linear structure is fine, but it’s all excessively busy – even the up-and-down of the set. The head-spinning ride doesn’t leave a sufficient impression about the boy/man or his father.
But on the bigger (metaphorical) stage, what’s most striking in Ashland is how important theater is to the community, how residents follow the repertory actors, not only across plays, but over years. And how polished and perfect the productions are. It’s thrilling to see the range of plays, which requires acrobatic flexibility in the artistic, design and technical staff. And how, despite a minor setback this summer (a theater temporarily shut down by a structural collapse; a tent quickly erected), no matter what, the show does go on – in high style. Ashland should be an annual summer pilgrimage for any true theaterlover .
“Ghost Light ” (New Theatre) and “The African Company Presents Richard III” (Angus Bowmer Theatre) continue through November 5 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR.
Ticket prices range from $20-$93. 800-219-8161; www.osfashland.org