The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is in the midst of its first full season since 2019, with five plays on the boards and two more opening in October. Shakespeare, a song-and-dance extravaganza, a brilliant monologue, a provocative contemporary work — all this and more make it worth it to make the trek from the Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, for the esteemed West Coast theater festival. Here are mini-reviews of four plays running now.
‘unseen’ (through July 31)
The most unusual play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is Mona Mansour’s 2017 “unseen,” a one-act drama that looks at the effects of violence on those who photograph wars and the difficult choices they make. American photographer Mia is recovering from an attack in the Middle East, where she is on assignment, that was so gruesome she can’t recall it. She has been trying to recover her mental stability in the company of her Turkish lover Derya and her mother Jane, who has come to take care of her.
Director Evren Odcikin handles the stop-start episodes with precision, and the morality of conflict reporting is the discussion: Should the public see the worst? Should the suffering be made public? The play’s most poignant moment comes when in a film clip of a bereaved mother asks Mia if she sees her subjects. “You see us and then you forget us.”
The brief scenes and flashbacks are prefaced by brilliant projections of battle, of destroyed buildings and victims of war, and the actors manage to steer clear of stereotypes: Mia (Helen Sadler) is more than a do-gooder with a high-minded mission, Jane (Caroline Shaffer) is more than just a ditzy mother and Derya (Nora el Samahy) is a caring, if rather glib, lover. The cast and creative team bring the play home with nuance and power.
‘The Tempest’ (through Oct. 15)
As for the single and very solid Shakespeare production, Nicolas C. Avila stages “The Tempest” in a lean and uncluttered manner, a staging Elizabethans would have readily understood. No trendy updates or tampering with the language to make it “more accessible.” The upshot of traditional staging is that audiences can better decipher not only what the Bard wrote but also the many common parallels between the playwright’s time and our own, in this case family dissension, betrayal, forgiveness.
Kevin Kenerly is excellent, a good-hearted Prospero, a duke who has been exiled to an island with his daughter after having his dukedom usurped by his brother. He plays the role with warmth and humor rather than the bitterness often shown, generous in forgiving, not overly rough with Caliban or Ariel, the spirit he has enslaved to do his bidding.
The play is the last wholly written by Shakespeare, who tells us that his work is substantially finished: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have is now mine own.” It is thought that the author decamped from London for Stratford after writing the epilogue to the play and collaborated on only two more works after that.
Outstanding in the cast are Geoffrey Warren Barnes II as an exceptionally high-spirited Ariel, James Ryen as a somewhat sympathetic Caliban and Grace Chan Ng and William Thomas Hodgson as daughter Miranda and her husband-to-be.
‘Once on This Island’ (through Oct. 30)
“Once on This Island” is a musical fantasy set in the Caribbean, with song and dance so exuberant it’s easy to miss the sadness of its narrative. What drives the plot of the show is the inequity between rich and poor, white and Black, and other racial and economic disasters leftover from colonialism, ostensibly in Haiti. Ti Moune (Ciera Dawn) and Daniel (Dominique Lawson) are in love, but as an aristocrat, he must marry within his circle, and she must remain on the wrong side of the island. The gods go crazy to sort things out, and there is gorgeous singing, especially by Ti Moune, her rival Andrea (Hannah Rose Honoré) and Erzulie (Camille Robinson).
Based on a novel, “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy, the music (composer Stephen Flaherty/lyricist Lynn Aherns) flashes from calypso to ballad to Vodou ritual, with an all-star cast that dances as if inspirited by the lwa/gods themselves. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is to the point, and Breon Arzell’s choreography is dazzling. This 90-minute, one-act show, which premiered on Broadway in 1990, won the 2018 Tony Award for best musical revival. The storytellers bring the play to a somber close, underscoring as they go the power of the oral tradition to fortify a community.
‘How I Learned What I Learned’ (through July 30)
In “How I Learned What I Learned,” August Wilson explores his life and times in a rapid-fire eponymous monologue, remembering the tough streets of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where he grew up and which he described in his American century cycle plays, among them “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Wilson performed the monologue in 2003, shortly before his death 2005.
Steven Anthony Jones owns the work entirely in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artist director Tim Bond’s fine staging: forceful, humorous, and challenging our ideas about race, sexuality and just about every other facet of American life.
As he enters and hangs up his hat and coat and settles into an armchair, he says his ancestors arrived early in the 17th century and, for the first 200 years, “never had a problem finding a job. But since 1853,” referring to the end of slavery, “it’s been hell.”
Jones is so completely engaged with Wilson’s stories — jobs aborted because of racism, an encounter with the husband of a woman he is involved with, a brief prison term — that it would appear that Wilson himself has taken the stage. The most poignant episode is about his discovery of John Coltrane and the power and passion of music. The entire monologue has a jazzy cadence to it. It is a masterful performance that shouldn’t be missed.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival takes place in the three theaters in the festival’s complex at 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.osfashland.org/.