[A version of this review originally appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2016/apr/06/diversity-talent-unsurpassed/]
The first batch of plays in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2016 season have opened, and offer no shortage of reasons to make a spring trip to Ashland. For the first time in its history, the OSF acting company features a majority of actors of color (sadly, unusual for a theater of its size and type), and the company's diversity and talent, and its excellent programming, make for riches too good to miss.
My favorite of the first batch of shows does indeed require an early trip, as it only runs through July 7 -- but it is such a luminous story of love and risk that I hope to see it at least once more myself before it closes. "The River Bride," a world premiere written by Mexican-American poet and playwright Marisela Treviño Orta, is set in the Amazon and builds its story of love on Brazilian folklore about river dolphins who transform into men. Its six evenly-matched characters, all beautifully played, are the two daughters (Nancy Rodriguez and Jamie Ann Romero) of a fisherman and his wife (Triney Sandoval and Vilma Silva), the fiance' of one of the daughters (Carlo Albán), and a mysterious and well-dressed man (Armando McClain) whom they rescue from the river and who becomes a somewhat urgent suitor to the other daughter. Should she love or fear him?
Love is the concern of the play and its characters; one daughter is about to marry, and the other has lost the love of one man and is afraid to accept the love of another -- and indeed, all four of the younger characters are grappling with some aspect of the risk that always comes with love. The ways in which each of them gives in to fear taps into the deepest fears and longings of all of us; chances are, you will see yourself in at least one of these characters if you are courageous and honest enough to look.
The bravest of these six characters are the fisherman and his wife, but the play takes its time in revealing why. The ease of their relationship and the pleasure they take in each other after many years is the secret-in-plain-sight that the younger characters -- and most of us, I think -- miss; they embody a kind of hope and faith that is so rare that it is missed sometimes even by those who possess it.
Orta's use of folklore grounds the story, revealing the spiritual risk that holds each of the four younger characters back in some way. Like the best folklore, the play's mystical elements reveal truths that can't be captured any other way. The play offers a window into the vantage point of each of these four, floating back and forth among them, moving us deeper and deeper until we see more and still more ways that each grasps for a different kind of life and each lacks the simple faith it takes to achieve it. What a lovely, soulful gift these talented players are offering us--it resonated deeply with my own experience of the miracle of love and the dread that keeps so many people from finding it.
You'll have all season (till Oct. 30) to catch this year's excellent production of "Twelfth Night," which hummed with buoyant energy at opening and will just get better and better. Set in 1930s Hollywood, the production revels in the flamboyance of styles and emerging flexibility of gender roles (however incipient) that existed in that era, and turns the play's courtly kingdom into Hollywoodland, an apt casting choice.
The production delightfully casts two terrific black actors in significant roles, giving us a mixture of 1930s Hollywood as it was and might have been. Gina Daniels plays Olivia, the countess of Shakespeare's play, as a glamorous Hollywood starlet poised between reveling in her star power and feeling confined in its trap, which gives her attraction to the boyish Viola-as-Sebastian particular resonance. Daniels is delicious in the role, smooth and sly and determined and gorgeous as any good starlet should be. (Her costumes are particularly wonderful, too). And Rodney Gardiner plays the fool with just the right knowing air -- he glides through his scenes (quite literally at times) and captures how a person outside the social hierarchy often can class up the place and be the smartest person in the room.
The rest of the cast is also very fine, notably Sara Bruner as Viola/Sebastian, who moves between male and female with wonderfully jittery energy which seems to suggest that neither expression contains her wholly. A trio of comic characters (skillfully played by Daniel T. Parker, Danforth Comins, and Kate Mulligan) function to set various tops spinning throughout the play, and to torment Olivia's unctuous steward, Malvolio, who Ted Deasy manages to pitch at a delightful balance between annoying and sympathetic. A gorgeous set with a broad winding staircase a la Fred Astaire gives them wonderful spaces to dance and tousle. Director Christopher Liam Moore has once again choreographed a space that calls forth the best from the company and invites all of us to a first-class party.
Buoyed by the success of its 2011 production of "The Pirates of Penzance," OSF has enlisted director Sean Graney and his team of co-adapters to mount another Gilbert & Sullivan production -- "The Yeoman of the Guard" -- with Graney's characteristically playful style of updating and genre-bending. They have set this production in an eclectic country-and-western style, with a portion of the audience participating with the actors on stage. If all of that sounds intimidating -- it's really not. Whether or not you like Gilbert & Sullivan or country-and-Western music, there is good reason to hope that this production will keep you giggling and tapping your feet.
Finally, this season includes a staging of the beloved Dickens' novel, "Great Expectations," newly adapted by director Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper. I found this production a bit stolid and too much like a staged reading -- but nevertheless was quite touched by many of the performances, and expect that love of the source material will carry this production into the hearts of many audience members. Like "Yeomen" and "Twelfth Night," it also will run all season.