Dynamic Woman — Changing Times
Great Theater in Ashland, OR: Choose a play to challenge your thinking
Choosing to play
Every year we can count on seeing great theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Like good books, great theater has the capacity to engage individuals in conversation. It might be an internal dialogue between reader and author over the treatment of a theme. It might be a lively book discussion with a friend. In the case of a play, the playwright, the director, and the audience each bring a unique point of view.
Choosing to engage in a theater experience challenges us in three areas: Understanding what the playwright was trying to convey; appreciating the lens through which the director chooses to view the work; and responding to what we are seeing. This year we chose to engage with the themes of Twelfth Night, Great Expectations, and Vietgone.
Twelfth Night is also titled What You Will, and that is the direction Christopher Liam Moore chose to take Shakespeare’s play about the grief of loss and the joy of discovery. The 1930s Hollywood setting and the slapstick antics of the clowns whose hands were welded to martini glasses overpowered the anguish of grief. Funny stuff, but on top of that we had to sort out the gender issues the director added to the masquerade at the core of this play.
Girl disguises herself as a boy became a discourse on the sexual identity issues we grapple with today. An appropriate conversation, but the plays I’ve seen that explore these issues all seem to land the same place. It’s all good, giddily so. That gives short shrift to the suffering involved in the struggle. Shakespeare is the master of balancing points of view. Not what the director was going for, I understand. But while the production was entertaining I did not feel the joy.
Great Expectations is a world premiere adaptation of Dickens’ novel about Pip, a callow youth who grabs for the brass ring and ends up fiscally and morally bankrupt. The use of multiple narrators moved a long story forward. The development of long forgotten secondary characters gave the story depth.
Classicists will be happy that the directors maintained the Dickensian setting. The universality of this play was beautifully expressed by Wemmick, who dramatized the compartmentalization of business and social interests.
My social conscious began formation in my twelfth summer when I read all of Dickens novels. Charles pairs well with William for those who have a palate for memorable characters. Wemmick and other secondary characters made us laugh and wince in self-recognition.
Vietgone was written by Qui Nguyen, a highly acclaimed Vietnamese-American playwright. The script calls for a character in the playwright role who sets audience expectations upfront on the role of language in this play. Otherwise, I would have been leaning forward in my seat going “language!”
The play begins a barrage of profanity, but we were forewarned. What we would hear is a translation of what the Vietnamese-speaking characters heard, mostly from each other. Knowing that, we could all agree not to be offended by the profanity. These people have been through a f*#%ing war for G–sake! Cut them some slack. The stream of kindergarten-speak from an American soldier was at once hilarious and sobering when you realized the struggle immigrants have to understand meaning and nuance in a hopelessly foreign language. This is not a play about war, it is a play about the immigrant experience in America.
It is tempting to give a spoiler, but a disservice to the brilliance of the play. Suffice to say that the message is not what you expect. The audience sat in stunned silence at the end and then stood to their feet and thundered applause. This performance took us to the depths of grief and heights of the life-affirming joy that we missed in Twelfth Night. It destroyed our knee-jerk reactions to hindsight quarterbacking of an unpopular war.
“The play’s the thing…
…wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” This famous line from Hamlet explains why we might do better to switch off the nightly news and go see a play. These days, news produces nothing but outrage and a sense of helplessness. Good theater challenges our prejudices, refines our critical thinking, and, when done well, gives us hope.
© Sydney Avey