bill rauch

Living history: ‘Roe’ in Ashland

Watching Lisa Loomer's play about politics and abortion in an era of shifting restrictions and loyalties


If you don’t go see Lisa Loomer’s new play Roe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I predict that you’ll be seeing it soon elsewhere, perhaps many elsewheres.

That’s because the subject of Roe is topical (when will it not be?), and the play is mostly enjoyable as a piece of theater. It happens to have strong roles for several women, a rarity among plays old and new alike, along with a satisfyingly obvious source of conflict, embodied in the second act by a physical space shared by an abortion-providing women’s health clinic and an office of the anti-abortion direct action group Operation Rescue.

As I write this review, the Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled on Whole Woman’s Health et al. v. Hellerstadt (which does not trip off the tongue as does Roe v. Wade, of course), another case that got to the SCOTUS from Texas. Whole Woman concerns several Texas laws that attempted to curtail almost to nothing any possibility for health clinics to perform abortions for any women in that massive,  massively populated state.

A major Roe v. Wade anniversary puts Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) back in the public eye. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A major Roe v. Wade anniversary puts Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) back in the public eye. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A quick check of the Guttmacher Institute shows that all 50 states – Oregonians happen to live in the least restrictive state, but our state does allow individuals and private medical facilities to refuse to perform abortions – have policies and laws restricting abortion access in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons.


Oregon Shakespeare Festival expands its idea of ‘classic theater’

Stan Lai's comedy "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" spins storylines, romance and politics into a fine froth


Lingering scenes haunt me: The tears of a man who realizes he’s wasted time pining for an idealized woman while his wife waits for him to love her. A mythical fisherman once unhappy dances in delight catching butterflies as peach blossoms fall from above.

It would take little effort to heap praise on Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. Written and directed by Stan Lai, hailed as the most produced Chinese language playwright in the world, the play at Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a strong multiracial cast and beautiful production values. Much like the complexity of Taiwan’s history, the play has many layers and splits into three overlapping storylines. The first is set in 1949 when Nationalist Chinese fled their civil war and escaped to Taiwan. The second takes place in the heart of the mythical land of Peach Blossom. A contemporary narrative pits two production companies trying to produce their shows in the same stage space at OSF in 2015.

Lai deftly handles all three stories while at the same time making references to OSF, multiracial casting, the history of Taiwan and himself as a writer and director. As the most popular contemporary play in China with more than a thousand unauthorized productions, it’s a rare opportunity to view this first professional production in America of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.

When I learned that OSF was bringing Lai to Ashland to direct his work, I was eager to talk with Lai about his experience adapting this much-loved work for American audiences.


Welcome to the 3-dot…

Oregon art news about too many things to list in this space

I have always loved the old “three dot” column, a staple of the daily newspaper in olden times, which allowed the writer to jump from news item to news item quickly. We’re wondering if we can adapt it to modern digital times, so we’re going to do a little experimenting, starting today!

We know what Bag & Baggage does to the classics, how it twists them in creative, delicious and occasionally disturbing ways, which is why we like the looks of artistic director Scott Palmer’s 2015-16 season. This year’s targets: Richard III, The Best of Everything, Moby Dick and Emma, along with the Kristmas Karol…Speaking of B&B, the company’s managing director, Anne Mueller, has moved to Portland Ballet to become its co-artistic director. Mueller spent all of her career in dance (a principal at OBT then its interim artistic director, managing director of the Trey McIntyre Project, etc.) before joining Bag & Baggage two years ago. She joins founders Artistic Director Nancy Davis and Managing Director Jim Lane in the leadership positions at the rising company…Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director, has been named a visiting fellow for the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change initiative. Rauch will explore such issues as the effects of enabling more young directors of color to work with the classics, diversifying audiences for regional theater and fostering innovations in gender-blind casting, all things he has begun to do at OSF.

Frank Boyden, 2003, "Uncle Skulky is accosted by a few of his demons" Drypoint, spitbite, hand colored, 16.75" x 14.25"

Frank Boyden, 2003, “Uncle Skulky is accosted by a few of his demons”
Drypoint, spitbite, hand colored, 16.75″ x 14.25″

A retrospective of Frank Boyden’s prints, Frank Boyden: Oregon Icon, opens on May 4 in Fairbanks Gallery on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. Best known for bringing his deft lines drawn from nature to ceramic work, Boyden easily developed a parallel practice in prints 30 years ago, which this show documents…One of the indispensable elements of The Art Gym at Marylhurst University is its extensive production of catalogues for its shows—I use them constantly in researching artists of all sorts. Right now you can support the publication of this vital resource via a Kickstarter campaign, and directly pay artists for their expenses associated with Art Gym shows. You’ll be keeping a crucial historical record of the arts in the state going in the process…The Portland Youth Philharmonic has appointed Dave Matthys as the conductor of its Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, effective June 1, 2015. Current Wind Ensemble Conductor Larry Johnson, who has led PYWE for 10 years, will focus solely on conducting the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra. Matthys has directed the band at Lake Oswego High School for the past 11 years and won the National Federation of High Schools Outstanding Music Educator Award for 2014-2015…Portland Opera scored a grant from Opera America for its “Opera a la Cart” project which, according to the press release, is “inspired by the mobility and ingenuity of the city’s food cart culture, which is internationally celebrated and a source of local pride. Portland Opera will create a traveling performance cart inspired by the food truck aesthetic.”

Don’t forget to take a look at Matt Stangel’s latest installment of Nice Work!—he takes a look at Doug McCune’s transformation of the infographic into art…This summer’s Astoria Music Festival schedule is up. Highlights include Mozart’s Magic Flute, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Israel Nebeker from one of Oregon’s finest indie rock bands, Blind Pilot…Vicente Guzman-Orozco interviews Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, whose play “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” opens next week at Milagro, on race, theater, history, and Portland hipsters.

Seattle Repertory Theatre review: Falling Victim to History

In Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society, drama gets diluted in historical explanation.

Not even the powerful figures enshrined on Mt. Rushmore could quite match Lyndon Johnson’s unsurpassed ability to impose his will on people and events. The 36th President’s vision and ambition equaled his political shrewdness. The Machiavellian knowledge accumulated over decades as master of Texas’s famously cutthroat politics and the Senate’s byzantine ways equipped him, he imagined, to literally change the world. Inasmuch as the character trait that made him powerful — his hubristic belief that he could through cunning and power politics bend anything to his will — is also the tragic flaw that leads him to overreach, Johnson boasts all the qualities of a tragic hero, and is the most Shakespearean of American leaders.

Like Shakespeare, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan strives to turn history into drama in his two-play LBJ cycle,  All the Way and The Great Society, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and 2014 and are running through January 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre (though the run is sold out). That’s the brief assigned by OSF’s noble American Revolutions project, one of the great achievements of 21st century Oregon arts, which “asks that each play be based in history and explore a moment [my italics] of change. Beyond that, the playwrights choose the content, form, and style of their work.” So LBJ offers an ideal dramatic opportunity for classic tragedy: a seemingly irresistible leader who confronts truly immovable historical forces — and loses.

Surrounded by supporting dramatis personae who would be protagonists in any other drama, ranging from Martin Luther King to the ghost of John F. Kennedy (embodied by his equally tragic brother) to the incarnations of evil Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson’s tragedy would have had the Bard himself licking his quill to thrust it onstage.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

But instead of exploring a moment, Schenkkan chose to explain an era. The battle over delegates at the 1964 Democratic convention during the Freedom Summer turmoil, Johnson’s desperate dance with the equally torn King, his confrontation with racist / opportunist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, his duel with the Kennedys, the passage of the landmark 1964  civil Right Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act (two of the greatest legislative triumphs in American history) and above all, his wrestling with the Vietnam War (and the larger geopolitical struggles it exemplified) … each of those and many others would make for more coherent dramas.

But trying to cram them all into the confines of a single, relatively conventional dramatic structure predictably produces a similar outcome to President Johnson’s attempt to handle them all at once in real life. As a result, Schenkkan’s cycle succeeds better as history than as theater.


Keller plunders ‘Pirates’

Portland Opera's transfer of Ashland's sprightly Gilbert & Sullivan gets lost in the 3,000-seat auditorium's cavernous translation

What a difference a house makes.

When director Bill Rauch’s spritzed-up production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance played at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011, it was daring not just for its latter-day musical insertions (from the Beatles to Michael Jackson) but also for its setting: it played on the Elizabethan Stage, the festival’s 1,200-seat open-air theater, a space open to birds and bees and rain and the ambient buzz of motorcycles and monster trucks rumbling through town. The production mostly triumphed over those odds, thanks in part to miking that added a slight metallic undercurrent to the actors’ voices but also allowed the music and lyrics to come across crystal-clear. The show was a deserved hit.

Justice will be served: the constables of "Pirates." Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Justice will be served: the constables of “Pirates.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

So when Rauch and Portland Opera struck a deal to recreate the production in Portland, with the same design and production team but a new cast of acting singers rather than singing actors, hopes were high: what might this charming production be like in the enclosed and more soundproof setting of Portland’s Keller Auditorium?


The very model of a modern major musical

Preview: Ashland director Bill Rauch takes Portland Opera's 'Pirates of Penzance' for a Victorian spin with modern 'grace notes'

At the moment, Frederic doesn’t much look like a pirate. For one thing, he sports a handsome gray top hat; but, after all, this is his wedding. Rather it’s the striped sweatshirt, jeans and Converse that say “modern everyday guy,” not “high-seas scalawag.”

But the fellow’s sartorial anachronisms make sense. He’s not upon Atlantic waves but in a large, black-and-maroon-walled rehearsal room at Portland Opera. It’s an afternoon rehearsal in late April, so he’s partly Frederic, the idealistic 19th-century romantic lead of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, yet mostly Ryan MacPherson, a 21st-century performer preparing for Friday night’s opening at the Keller Auditorium. Meanwhile: as she at once embodies and examines Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, Talise Trevigne twirls about in an old-fashioned, cream-colored silk skirt — with the neon spatter of multi-colored running shoes peeking from underneath.

I get a kick out of you. A G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

I get a kick out of you: a G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Along with several other members of the cast and creative team, they’re working on the show’s celebratory closing scene, calibrating choreography, gesture and timing.

“I’d like to put this all together before we move on,” director Bill Rauch says, after an hour or so of worrying over diverse details in small groups. “Can we do it with music and at tempo?”


The mysterious case of the missing Bard

Ashland's 2015 season will include only one Shakespeare on the outdoor stage. Shall we all panic now?

In one of those inexplicable zombie moments that strike the social-media world with déjà vu-ish regularity, a column from 2008 by Brendan Kiley in Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger came back to life a couple of weeks ago with a, well, vengeance. Theater peeps were posting it all over Facebook, sometimes cheering, sometimes jeering. Ten Things Theaters Need To Do Right Now To Save Themselves, the headline blared, and at the top of the list, nailed Martin Luther-style to the virtual church door, was this demand to the papists of the holy stage: Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.

Ashland's "Comedy of Errors" this spring: too popular for my own good? Photo: Jenny Graham

Ashland’s “Comedy of Errors” this spring: too popular for my own good? Photo: Jenny Graham

In Portland, where we have dueling Lears onstage right now and an ingrained cultural certainty that bardliness is next to godliness, it’s not bloody likely. Actors like to act Shakespeare. Audiences like to see it. Around here, people know the difference between Richard II and Richard III. They speak knowingly of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and they can unknot a Problem Play like nobody’s Gordian business. They don’t blink an eye at the thought of goofy-but-fun Original Practice Shakespeare in a city park, or The Tempest with a woman Prospero (the excellent Linda Alper, this summer at Portland Shakespeare Project), or in-your-face Shakespeare at the 36-seat Shoebox Theatre or grand-scale Shakespeare in the big main space at Portland Center Stage. Oxfordians and Stratfordians duke it out companionably over copious craft beers. And at places like Post5, which is getting ready to take a stab at that great Dane of a drama, Hamlet, the audiences are far from blue-haired and doddery: some of these kids hooting and hollering over the Elizabethan action are barely out of swaddling clothes. Maybe counterintuitively, all of this is taking place at the same time the city’s awash in new plays, many from the keyboards of a resident covey of playwrights more numerous than the population of some of the state’s towns.

So, no: Oregon’s pretty firmly Shakespeare Territory, from stem to stern, at least partly because of the presence of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where the state’s eager tykes drink deeply from the mothers-milk and grow up to be strapping classicists – if, often, classicists with a free-and-rowdy contemporary twist.

So what’s up with the 2015 season the Shakespeare festival’s just announced?


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