I enjoyed my time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival so much last year that when I received an email this Spring offering discount early bird tickets, I pounced and bought five. It took me all summer to arrange a visit south, but I finally devised a quick trip with the assistance of a fellow blogger. I only had to drop a couple hints and Curtis extended the invitation as though I had not manipulated him at all! The end of August I made the 5 1/2 hour drive south to see some plays and to finally meet Curtis and Peggy Mekemson from Wandering Through Time and Place.
I met them at a Medford cafe for breakfast and they immediately put me at ease and made me feel welcomed. Curt is the third blogger I have met, and I must admit I have great luck and good taste. My blogger friends turn out to be truly wonderful people in real life. (Take note if you’re reading this, and pat yourself on the back for being so awesome.) We got through introductions and current events in no time, and then I followed them from the cafe to their rural home in some of the most beautiful country in Oregon. They live even farther out in the boonies than I do, so I wanted their help getting out there in case my GPS didn’t work. I got a tour of their beautiful home on their gorgeous property, which I will highlight in my next post.
Then I changed into play clothes, and zoomed back to Ashland.
Prior to my trip Curt and Peggy had raved about Hairspray, which they had already seen, so I saw that one first. They said to keep an eye out for something and that I might realize the truth about a character sooner than they did. I saw right away that the character of Tracy’s mom is played as a transgender woman (though I believe in real life the actor is not transgender), and I love that the relationship of Tracy’s parents was healthy and loving and supportive, and no one ever mentioned it was non-traditional, which helped me to invest more in it as a real relationship and not a gimmick. And then I realized it is the most inclusive cast I’ve ever seen. Jenna Bainbridge, for example, who was partially paralyzed as an infant, has an impressive acting career and plays Tracy’s best friend Penny. There are multiple characters with different abilities, such as Luke Hogan Laurenson who lives with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and Zahra Detweiler who lives with Down Syndrome. These actors played parts in direct support of the story and their inclusion helped enforce Hairspray’s main message of tolerance. It’s not enough to say we welcome everyone, but we also have to act on it. There is a confrontation of body-shaming, of racism, of classism. And somehow, despite all those painful topics, the show is a riot of laughs from beginning to end (in between tears), with dancing to knock your socks off (Katy Geraghty as Tracy dances like nobody’s business), songs that rip your heart out, genuine characters, real love, and so much joy.
After the show I had hours to kill and decided to spend it in town. While inside the theatre it had begun to rain and although warm, the world was soaked. I wandered around gaining my bearings and found a sign on the Thomas Theatre that warmed my heart, and continued the message I had just heard at Hairspray.
Though I had noticed no evidence of wildfire and though it was raining, the venue for the play was not at the magnificent Elizabethan Theatre that I am dying to attend. I have not yet seen a play in that outdoor theatre. For air quality safety, during fire season they moved the play to the high school – that part I understand. But when there were no fires and no detectable smoke, why was it still at the high school? My guess is that the fire situation was unstable, and it’s probably a lot of work to move a whole production between venues. Until they know for sure the air is clear, I’ll bet it’s smarter not to move it back. I should have guessed that the high school in Ashland would have a phenomenal theatre.
All’s Well That Ends Well was well-acted, as I have come to expect at Ashland. It’s a tough story and grapples with the human conditions we all recognize: unrequited love, children that aren’t what we expect, missteps of youth, aging, missteps of mentoring – that kind of fun stuff. But with the Bard telling the story and the massive talent drawn to Ashland every year, it’s a story I was intrigued with. I was consistently irritated with Helen for clearly being better than Bertram and yet not having the self-assurance to rid him from her heart. (Reminds me a little of my own failed attempts at finding a man. I hope I have all Helen’s wit, strategy, and ability, but I hope I spend it on a man who deserves me.)
I drove back through the dark night to my very comfortable bed at the Mekemson’s home.
The next morning I enjoyed much great conversation and coffee and scones until it was time for us all to get ready to go. Curt and Peggy had agreed to attend the next show with me. We had decided on seeing Alice in Wonderland.
Alice In Wonderland took me back in time, actually, to what this show must have felt like many decades ago when it first astounded audiences in the 1930s. Turns out, that’s exactly what director Sara Bruner had in mind. I noticed how well the story followed the books: Alice in the first half, and Through the Looking Glass in the second. The program noted that every single line was in Lewis Carroll’s own words. My brain somersaulted through scenes, trying to make sense of it all, trying to use the white rabbit as a common theme, trying to find some greater message. But I was bewildered.
At intermission, Curt and Peggy and I gazed back and forth at each other in dumb astonishment for a few moments, finally saying something like, “Well, that was something!” Curt suggested that maybe it would be best viewed on LSD – none of us knowing anyone on LSD we could ask about that. We chatted until the second half began, all telling ourselves good advice on how best to approach the second half. I was unable to follow the advice (just like the story’s heroine), and found myself mouth-open in dumbfounded perplexity. It is a dazzling show! The adventure is undeniable, and I truly wish I could try again to watch it properly. I think one should watch this performance with the mind of a 8 year old child: open, curious, willing and wanting to believe – without cynicism or criticism or vetting. Nothing at all seemed to match, or tell a story, or relate to any other events. Sometimes characters showed up again, and it was not relevant. There was no message, no lesson, no caution, no celebration – just pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and it is wonderful. It is really the stuff of fantastical dreams from the mind of a child. The creativity, artistry, performance, and spectacle are worth every moment of sitting there. Just don’t waste your time trying to figure it out; you’ll only get a headache and probably miss something.
After the show we found a great Mexican restaurant and joked around with the proprietor when we weren’t rehashing Alice some more – reminding each other of all the incredible things we had just seen. Peggy and Curt went home and I stayed in town because I had one more show to see.
This is the one I drove to Ashland for. Between Two Knees is a production by Indian playwrights and about Indian topics, and also I had been waiting all year for a chance to see a new favourite actor, Rachel Crowl (who I talked about in my blog about Henry V last year). This production comes from The 1491s, a group of storytellers who challenge the history we’ve been taught, and provide an additional perspective: that of the indigenous, who have been actively erased from the story of our country. Oh, and it’s a comedy, as you may have guessed from the title that is easily a double entendre. One of my favourite things to discover in fellow human beings is when they poke irreverent fun and laugh. Bringing up the absolute worst and making a joke that is irresistible is such a great way to talk about trauma and pain. Laugh laugh laugh, people! Why not laugh? Crying won’t change what happened; laughing won’t change it either, but it’s so much more fun and laughing is transformative and releases pressure when stress has built up.
The opening scene is a game show, with actors tackily dressed as Indians, and obviously playing the parts that white people have had Natives play for a century. One Indian spins the colorful, blinking wheel of NAME THAT MASSACRE! And when the wheel lands on a massacre, the Emcee calls out to the audience: “We all know of the — massacre, of course!” The Emcee provides a brief summary of the deaths and destruction of Indians by white people. “Clap all of you who know this one!” No one claps. “No problem!” we are assured, “There are plenty more!” The wheel is spun, Wheel of Fortune style, and it lands on a new name. “The — massacre! Surely you’ve heard of this one!” Again, he describes a slaughter. No one claps, no one has heard of it. Again. Again. Sometimes a person somewhere in the audience claps.
And yes, this is how the story goes all the way through.
We are asked to laugh and cheer and clap as the play details horrendous abuse, murder, removals, rape, kidnap of Indian children and forcing them into religious schools to “Beat the Indian out of them!” Everything is ridiculed, no holds barred, no taboo left untouched, no shock left unexposed. I was dying with laughter. I could barely contain myself. It was ugly and raw and uncomfortable and hilarious. There was an evil priest who abused children. There was a hippie who pretended to know how to conduct an authentic Indian marriage ceremony, while sitting beneath Buddhist prayer flags. They talked about using Indians as sports mascots. They made fun of using white people to play Indians on TV when there were plenty of Indians to fill those roles, and an actor on stage pointed out that he is actually Chinese-Korean. The message being the 1491s were willing to poke fun at themselves too. There was an Indian in white face. HAAAAAA!!! Come on, that’s funny.
The audience fascinated me, in that some gave themselves up to the artists and let themselves be involved…but some remained stone-faced and never even cracked a smile. The audience was not attacked, but these topics are just topics that we are told we should take seriously. I could tell people were afraid to laugh. There was a couple next to me that were silent and still the whole time. I noticed them especially because I was cackling loudly with glee, sometimes the only person in our part of the theatre who was rolling around on the floor in laughter, so there was quite a disparity. I started up a conversation with them at intermission and found out they both really liked the show – so that was good. Maybe among the silent people there were admirers of what was going on. It must have been easier for me to laugh because I am Indian, or maybe because I love this form of activism so much.
They passed around a donation can, asking people to give to support their group. The host made a call out to different demographic groups in the audience, asking each to give differently based on what they might be able to afford. But at the end he called to white people, “Give as much as you can spare! And don’t feel bad about it, you’ll still own everything.” The final scene was a musical where the whole cast sang about a future when they got rid of the settlers and oppressors forever, and the chorus repeated over and over: “Goodbye White People!”
It was great. I think my description here makes it seem troubling, or maybe confrontational for some people in the audience, and it is not. The creators did a brilliant job and I did not think any portion of this production was inappropriate. I would love to see it again and again. But instead I left the theatre and made my way home through the dark to a little piece of paradise in the Applegate River Valley.