- Oregon Shakespeare Festival
In one of twelve productions that played over the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s (OSF) 2011 season, The Language Archive, playwright Julia Cho evokes the shape of time. The dying fictional language of Elloway configures time as a “pool of water, big or small,” depending on experience (1.12). Cho’s theatrical language conjures time spatially, while designer Christopher Acebo’s backdrop of cardboard boxes, precariously stacked to the ceiling, suggested fraught attempts to catalog history. Theatre animates experience through temporal compression, fragmentation, and return—giving form to the ways we wrestle with the grain of memory, even as the past collapses into the performative present.
OSF productions this season took up this exploration through familial and literary legacies ( August: Osage County; To Kill a Mockingbird), a moment exhumed from theatre history (The African Company Presents Richard III), and in historical plays that grappled with the vexed nature of political authority ( Julius Caesar; Measure for Measure). The season additionally offered imaginative takes on Shakespeare’s lesser hits ( Love’s Labors Lost; Henry IV Part 2), while rejuvenating Molière ( The Imaginary Invalid,adapted by Tracy Young and Oded Gross )and Gilbert and Sullivan ( The Pirates of Penzance). The festival also staged two world premieres: Ghost Light(conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone) and the site-specific Willful(conceived by Michael Rohd and Shannon Scrofano). Often in conversation with one another, individual productions telescoped a host of temporal landscapes to speak to audiences in the here and now.
A few interlaced threads dominated late-summer 2011: revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, a burst of popular riots in England, and US presidential primaries infused with polarizing rhetoric around who or what constitutes “our country.” Although conceived prior to these events, two radically different yet equally vital productions of Shakespeare— Julius Caesarand Measure for Measure—offered insights into these happenings, and our place within them as a democratic populace.
The conundrums that infuse political authority confronted audience members even before they entered the New Theatre to attend Caesar. Banners picturing assassinated leaders ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Che Guevara to Patrice Lumumba lined the outdoor walkway, theatre lobby, and staircase. Oppositional quotes scrawled on both sides of the banners (Lincoln is an “emancipator” and “tyrant”) complicated easy attempts to fix the rationale of assassination. Thus the audience was primed to confront anew Shakespeare’s tale, which famously comments on its own potential for continuous theatrical reproduction: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” (3.1). While banners marked the building’s exterior as a theatricalized space, inside the sparse arena stage actors engaged audience members in chatty conversation. With the houselights still on, Vilma Silva (who played Caesar as a woman) entered in fashionable business attire to invite our participatory assistance. When she raised her hands above her head we were to rise, applauding and chanting “Caesar!” She coached us into a fictional-yet-experiential frenzy—a rehearsal we thought—until the play suddenly commenced with us on our feet. The production thus doubly interpolated us into the story as witnesses and participants, as cogitating individuals and as a feeling mass.
The resultant production was magnificent. Within a poor theatre aesthetic in which physically nimble, multi-cast actors sat with the audience when not onstage, we were continuously reminded of our own complicity, our own potential to be rebels or loyalists, active agents or passive populace. Fresh from viewing televised scenes in Cairo and London, we witnessed the seemingly unforeseen effects of [End Page 249]revolution replayed—of frenzied rebels with baseball bats beating the unarmed. Director Amanda Dehnert punctuated key moments with Brechtian effects: a chain dropped from the ceiling, while illuminating flashes exposed the theatre’s foundation and actors beat on metal lighting instruments. Together, these effects conjured the earthquake that shakes Rome. In Caesar’s dream, a white sheet of paper rolled out by Japanese-trained actor Ako (the Soothsayer) appeared as a canvas to be blotted with the red-painted handprints of...