- Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Sarah Bay-Cheng, Editor
What and how do we remember? How is the past envisioned to animate the concerns of the present? Theatre offers a uniquely dimensional lens through which to tussle with these questions, particularly when engaged in an act of commemoration. Thus, the 75th anniversary season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) wove a variegated tapestry of perspectives on memory, wrestling with the dilemmas of inheritance—what fealty we owe our ancestry—as we continuously remake the world we are heir to.
Eleven shows in repertory from February through October included two plays that inaugurated the festival in 1935 (Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice) and one world premiere launching OSF's United States History Cycle of commissioned plays—Richard Montoya and Culture Clash's collaboratively generated American Nights. Additionally, the season featured an Elizabethan-era history play (Henry IV, Part 1), a hip-hop-informed take on the most canonical of Shakespeare's works (Hamlet), a gripping revival of an American classic (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and two globally inflected contemporary adaptations: Lynn Nottage's Ruined, inspired by Brecht's Mother Courage, and Ping Chong's adaptation of Kurasawa's Throne of Blood.
The season most prominently remembered and re-envisioned its own past. While paying homage to OSF's signature playwright, the season also bore the fruits of several innovative seeds sown in artistic director Bill Rauch's first three years with the company: the integration of hip-hop "nexthetics," audience development and diversity initiatives, and the inauguration of the US history cycle guided by Alison Carey. These innovations stood alongside values shared across generations, such as the notion that reinterpretations of Shakespeare resonate with the playwright's own practice of reworking borrowed stories to speak to the concerns of the present. The two productions Rauch directed—Hamlet and Merchant—each distinctly animated negotiations between past and present.
Knotty questions of memory, inheritance, and ghostly presence drive Hamlet as play and character. Like Ophelia's open grave, housing bones of the previously interred, the play evokes a palimpsest of critical readings and theatrical renderings. The OSF production additionally conjured, for me, the ghost of another Hamlet directed by Rauch: The Marmarth Hamlet, with North Dakota townspeople in leading roles, which maintained the play's narrative while recasting Elizabethan verse into local dialect. The OSF production explored similar reverberations of the text over time while keeping Shakespeare's words intact.
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Through the thicket of past interpretations, the production team questioned assumptions about characters such as Polonius—a devoted father in this production—while digging deeply into motivational questions that drive the play's actions (and inactions). This Hamlet focused on the intertwining of the political—the heightened "warlike state" of Denmark—and psychological, with the mercurial behavior of Hamlet (Dan Donohue) tied to a depth [End Page 101] of mourning. Set in and around a stone-walled castle (designed by Chris Acebo) that appeared at once a thousand years old and Danish modern, the play opened with a preset Donohue in dark suit and sunglasses sitting before his father's coffin. He remained a silent, solitary presence as the audience entered and stage orderlies removed the chairs around him. This meditative preset established character and world while blurring the border between the fictional time of the play and our present tense.
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The production pierced through multiple realms of time and space. Security cameras set on the castle walls swiveled across the expanse of the audience, setting a tone of high alert resonant with our contemporary surveillance culture. Hamlet's father appeared clad in camouflage reminiscent of Desert Storm. The players burst onstage as a lively hiphop troupe. Claudius and Gertrude entered one scene in a swirl of snow, bearing skis and clad in Scandinavian sweaters. Following his declaration to proceed...