^ a #BlackLivesMatter tribute initiated by some members of UNIVERSES, resident company at OSF
This past weekend, I was in Ashland, a beautiful college town in southern Oregon. In the midst of the beautiful vistas of mountains & forests, Ashland is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which I was checking out for the very first time. I met some awesome folks [shout out to Mildred, Steven, & Lue] who also helped me get tickets to two shows, which I discuss below.
But before I get to that, I want to acknowledge OSF for doing diversity right. At least, in the two shows I saw this past weekend. Diversity is a pretty ambiguous term, and it's been thrown around in the theater world so often that it's in danger of losing its meaning. What I mean when I say that OSF is doing diversity right is that there's a wider variety of characters & performers onstage who [listen up, here's the key point] don't solely exist because of their identity.
The performers of color didn't exist solely in "best friend" roles or to fulfill a quota set out by the theater company. No, they cast a multi-racial group of talented performers [Gasp! OSF found talented performers! Asians who can sing! And rap! Maybe OSF took them all, and that's why nobody else can seem to find them...]. And make no mistake, this was color-conscious casting, rather than the mythical color-blind casting that like unicorns or dodo birds, some folks seem to believe exist.
I could go on & on about this topic for a while...so why don't I cut to the chase, to better explain why OSF gets an honorary diversity badge, at least from me.
The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare
irected by Desdemona Chiang
Shakespeare's greatest story about love can be found in Winter's Tale. If you're still gaga over Leo in R&J, then at least admit it's the most mature story about love. Because beyond young, puppy-like affection, love becomes jealous, complicated. Love becomes wholly imperfect. But love also becomes redemptive, for all our mortal foolishness.
If you couldn't tell, I love this play. And thankfully, I also loved Desdemona Chiang's production. Her approach to the play exploded the meaning of the piece for me, the redemptive quality of love, and she did that by setting Sicilia in dynastic China & Bohemia in the American Southwest.
The design was well-executed all around, and I absolutely loved the live, original music in Bohemia. But the execution of the play not what made the production exceptional, in my mind. Chiang's framework for the play illuminated this incredible critique of both the East & the West, without claiming one to be superior to the other. In Sicilia, Leontes' jealous hysteria around Hermione's loyalty exposed the downfalls of a rigid, patriarchal system. It makes a lot of sense. But Chiang's work with the actors made it extremely clear that there was this deep-seeded classism in Bohemia underlying a society that, on the surface, seemed more freely expressive than its Sicilian counterpart.
Now, this isn't to say that the patriarchy doesn't have a vice-like grip on the West, nor that classism doesn't exist in the East. But it was refreshing to watch a nuanced critique informed by the text that didn't purely exalt the West or mock the East. And since the flaws of both societies were played up, when Hermione's statue "revived" [which was some goosebumpy stage magic, btw], love never felt more powerful in its forgiveness.
by Qui Nguyen
Directed by May Adrales
Folks, you have to see Qui Nguyen's Vietgone when it comes to MTC next season. It's the hot ticket item at OSF this season & rightfully so. I've been a fan of Nguyen ever since I read She Kills Monsters a few years ago. He often gets credited for starting this subset of theater called "geek theater" with his company Vampire Cowboys. I'd say his work straddles the line between absurd, cartoonish theatricality & deeply sincere humanity.
I don't want to spoil the experience for anyone who is going to see the play in New York City, but I will say that this show did not disappoint one bit. Under May Adrales' leadership, it's clear that the entire team rallied behind Nguyen's important new piece. In short, Vietgone tells the story of his parents arriving, meeting, & falling for each other when they arrived in the USA after South Vietnam fell to the Viet Cong.
In every way, Nguyen subverts our expectations of immigrants' stories. His portrayal of his parents is not sentimental & demolishes Asian stereotypes. He's included hip hop soliloquies for them throughout the play. But in my opinion, the most brilliant element of the play [besides the final scene, which I won't spoil] comes with the play's language. All the Asian characters speak in perfect English, while the American characters speak in nonsensical gibberish. It keeps us on the side of the Vietnamese immigrants, while showing those of us who have never had to build a new life in a country where we don't speak the language how disorienting that experience can feel.
I can't stress this enough: anybody who gets the chance to see Vietgone HAS TO JUMP ON IT. I'm loathe to call it a breakthrough play for him [partially because he has such a substantial body of work behind him, and partially because I'm a playwright who doesn't want to acknowledge that it will take a long time for that "breakthrough" to come, if it does]. But if you're unfamiliar with Qui Nguyen's work, start with this brilliant piece.