Shakespeare Festival Experience

The Elizabethan Theatre set up for Revenge Song.

At some point in our trip to southern Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, someone asked us if we were going to dress up. The woman said she had heard of the festival, and imagined it to be like a Renaissance Faire, with everyone dressing like 16th Century theatre-goers. But no, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is not really a “festival.” I don’t know why it has that name. It is an annual, months-long celebration of the Bard as well as other playwrights. There are three OSF theatres co-located in downtown Ashland. To attend the “festival,” one merely purchases tickets to a show.

I went a little crazy last year and bought tickets to four plays in two days. All the performances are at 1:30pm and at 8:00pm. I read through all the available plays & events/experiences (13 total) in the 2022 lineup, and chose a weekend when the ones I most wanted to see would be playing. They don’t all run all season long, but festival organizers do a great job of stacking them somehow to give audiences a lot of choices. Pedro was too busy with work to review all the options and said he would watch whatever I wanted to see.

Three tickets.

Friday we saw King John and Revenge Song. Saturday we saw Once on this Island, and The Tempest. We ended up liking them in that order: King John was best, The Tempest was a snooze.

You’ll want to stay up late to see the evening show, which means you start the mornings off late, but the first show doesn’t start till afternoon. That’s enough time to have a lazy morning, find coffee and breakfast, walk around town a little, then get in line with plenty of time for seating. After the first show, you then get several hours to explore shops in town, walk through the park, eat an unhurried supper and still have time to dress and get in line for the evening show. This was exactly what we did.

King John was presented as a parallel universe to our current US political climate. No names were named, but King John is about an aging despot who realizes the people wish for different leadership. The King angrily and childishly clings to power no matter what, debasing himself to make deals under the table and hire assassins and go back on his word – whatever it takes – to stay in power. It’s an embarrassment and people are harmed along the way, both innocent and deserving of harm. It takes no stretch of the imagination to match John with Trump, especially when the King would throw himself into his throne and pout while one of his advisors tried to talk some sense into him.

While the audience took their seats, Brenda Joyner as Arthur, and Meme Garcia as Prince Henry, play a game of checkers.
The King of France tries to outmatch the wretched King John. {photo credit: OSF}

The cast of King John was 100% non-gender-binary and women actors. This nod to the all-male casts of Shakespeare’s time was appreciated. As I have noticed over the years of exceptional performances on Oregon stages, the physical identity of the actors is not relevant once the character emerges. A king is a king. Two of our favourites in this performance were Kate Wisniewski, who played King John in all his pompous arrogance, and Lisa Tejero, who played Cardinal Pandaulph and Chatillion with precision strikes. She could say a whole sentence with a flick of an eyebrow. I also appreciated Sheila Tousey, whom I have seen in previous years, notably in Manahatta. Jessica D. Williams knocked us out as the Bastard.

Standing in front of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, looking up the steps to the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

This year we did not attend any plays in the Thomas Theatre across the street, but we did attend two inside the Elizabethan, which was my first time. Pedro had attended performances there before. I only recently began coming to OSF, and the first year I was here with Margaret, the performances we chose were not playing in the Elizabethan. The year after that, the performances I chose that had been planned for the Elizabethan were instead performed at the local high school all season, because the wildfire smoke was so pervasive it was deemed a health hazard for people attending the outdoor theatre. Then there were no in-person performances due to the pandemic. So finally I got my chance.

Ashland’s first Elizabethan Theatre was built in 1935 and hosted the first plays for the new Shakespeare Festival. It was torn down in World War II. Its replacement was built in 1947, and then added onto haphazardly until the building was deemed a fire hazard and torn down. In 1959, the current theatre was built, patterned after the Fortune Playhouse in London. Most of the audience has no roof, but the seats in the very back and the balcony have a roof. All are open air.

Looking up at the BIPOC LGBT+ flag (designed by a Portland artist, Daniel Quasar) before Revenge Song.

It was a warm dry beautiful night for my first time in the Elizabethan. We had fabulous center front row tickets. I sat next to Laurel Nichols (I think) who was gushing excitement and that helped make the night amazing for us. The show was Revenge Song, and Nichols told me she was an Assistant Stage Manager. She said she had choregraphed one of the sword fighting scenes. During the show, cast members frequently winked down at her, and even exchanged words in one brief ad lib section of the play. For her part, Nichols was cheering and yelling her head off through the whole dang thing. She had apparently helped put the show together, then had to leave for work, and was – this night – back for the very first time to see the performance for an audience for the very first time. Being in the glow of that kind of excitement was unbeatable.

This disclaimer was emailed to me prior to the show. It made Pedro and I particularly interested in seeing it. It was apparently not taken seriously enough by others, who were rather offended and some walked out of the performance.
The battle scene when the two girls escaped from the nunnery {photo credit: OSF}

Revenge Song is based on the actual life of an actual person in France: “Julie d’Aubigny—a queer 17th-century rule-breaking, sword fighting, opera-singing transgressor of boundaries.” The show was a musical, with a live rock band playing all the songs from the stage balcony. And yep, it talked about how she fell in love with another teenage girl, who got sent to a nunnery for it. So Julie got herself into the nunnery also, and the two broke out! They went their separate ways and Julie got snatched up by a pimp, and then kidnapped by a lord who kept her for his sexual needs, but she finally escaped him too. She married her best friend, who was a man, and they tried to make that work but it really didn’t. She then fell in love with the female owner of a cabaret sort of place, and became the house’s favourite singing star, while she continued to perfect her swordfighting because a woman with her career and lifestyle choices had to defend herself. Eventually the lord found her again and she managed to kill him with the help of her lover and her husband. It’s a wild story! And the music was loud and fast and fun. And the action – swordfights, fisticuffs, chases, escapes – was nonstop. I was practically shrieking with delight at the rowdy irreverence. Too bad for the folks who couldn’t handle it because it was definitely a star show of the season. We loved Reina Guthrie as Julie.

The matinee show the following day was Once on This Island, a very creative, family-friendly show that tells the legend of Carribean Islanders. The show begins with an earthquake in the night, and frightened villagers coming out into the square, and a small girl who is terrified. Members of the Red Cross show up and begin treating the injured as the sun slowly rises and reveals the night’s destruction. The people of the community distract the girl from her fear by telling the legend of when a small girl was lost at sea and four gods decided to save her and then to continue to interfere in her life till her untimely death. The villagers act out the different roles of the legend. It was a painful and sad story, as many are when they involve capricious gods, and I’m not sure it was the best choice to cheer up a frightened child. Ha! But they explained, “Then the gods turned her into a tree so she got to look after her loved ones after all.” Um, in my happy ending, I’d rather stay alive.

The set for Once on This Island was colorful and creative and well-done. Here you see the rubble from the earthquake.
Actors dressed in clothes from a colonial era, as they tell the legend for the child. {Photo credit: OSF}

Once on This Island is not just a musical, it is non-stop singing. There are no talking sections, only a series of songs. All the songs are traditional Caribbean tunes and all the actors were people of colour. The dancing, the costumes, the architecture, the story, the gods, and every bit of it were elements of traditional Caribbean culture. It’s billed as a Black Story told from a Black Perspective, and it talks about the pain of colonization. I especially loved the main character of Ti Moune, played by Ciera Dawn, because her singing voice was freaking incredible! What a dynamic, vivacious, powerful voice.

Both Pedro and I found the play challenging because both of us have a hard time following dialogue when it is in songs, and this entire performance was songs. Also, the volume of the background music was turned up so loud that it almost completely drowned out the people’s voices. We could hardly pick out the voices through much of it (except Dawn’s voice, because she’s a human amplifier). Thus, we spent most of the play having no idea what was going on, and trying to watch the acting to figure it out. By the end of the play, we had sort of pieced it together. The music was great though, so we did enjoy ourselves, bopping around in our seats to the music and wondering what was happening.

Our break on Saturday was longer than Friday’s had been which allowed us to go back to our Airbnb and swim in their pool. The days had been hot and we expected the pool to be a little warmer since it was small, but it was colder than our swim in the mountain lake in British Columbia had been a few weeks earlier. Ah well. After we dried off we went and explored Lithia Park, a truly beautiful downtown park in Ashland.

Lithia water fountain in a plaza near Lithia Park.

In the 1880s, it was discovered that Ashland was sitting on one of the most lithium-rich springs in the country. Natural lithium oxide deposits in the spring resulted in its use as a health tonic since the 1880s (though actual health benefits are dubious at best). Ashland decided to build a lithium spa in time for the health craze of the time, and set aside some land for that, but the craze died away and the land is now Lithia Park. This drinking fountain remains. The water is salty, carbonated, and smells and tastes of sulphur and iron. Blech.

Bark and leaves of Madrone trees in the park.
Flags fly from the Elizabethan Theatre

It was finally time for our final play, The Tempest. We had seen so many plays already, and it was evening on our third day, and we had shared a bottle of wine at the pool. So we were already at a disadvantage. Then the play just was not very interesting. Or maybe it would be interesting but we were confused and thus weren’t following it very well. Anyhow, it was everything I could do to stay awake. I felt terribly guilty because again we were in the front row and I didn’t want the actors to see me closing my eyes. They work so hard and I respect it. But try as I might, I could not make sense of events. I saw that the Beast Caliban was changing sides, but why did Prospero allow it? And I saw that Stephano was mounting an assault, but why? I knew that Prospero had intentionally caused the ship of his enemies crash onto his island, intending to get vengeance after 12 long years of banishment, but then almost immediately he forgave them; why? There did not appear to be a build up to a climax, so it was a surprise to me when the play was suddenly over. Ah well. Geoffrey Warren Barnes II as Ariel was the one consistently engaging character. Whenever Barnes appeared, the energy was electrified.

Prospero torments Caliban. {Photo credit: OSF}

Possibly next year I’ll choose fewer plays. We will see. I have an arts addiction problem and I never know what tickets I’ll end up buying out of a sudden conviction that I must do it. Maybe I’ll skip a year in Ashland. I guess you’ll find out.

Love you all. Go see a play if you get the chance. Actors are out in the world again and they would love to have audiences back at capacity.

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare Festival Experience

  1. I’ve heard quite a bit about the OSF but haven’t been yet. I’ve been to the Utah Shakespeare Festival many times though. It’s funny both are named “festival”. Maybe people should start dressing up in time-period costumes, haha! You look beautiful in your theatre dress!

    1. Thank you Lenore! I love that dress. It’s usually too cool where I live to be able to wear it, because there are no sleeves, but it was nice and warm in southern Oregon. I agree with you that it would be fun to attend in period costumes. It seems like that’s a business idea for the costume department at OSF: rent out the costumes to people who really want to get into the mood of the festival. They must have old costumes they could spare, since the festival has been going since 1935. If your life ever does take you to Ashland from June-October, I think you would like attending a play there. They are really the best of the best. (Then go up the road to Gold Hill and go ziplining!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s