Are you ready, Ashland? | SWEAT by Lynn Nottage is coming in HOT at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A new American play is coming for you.  SWEAT by Lynn Nottage.  Photo: Jenny Graham.
A new American play is coming for you. SWEAT by Lynn Nottage. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Y’all ready to sweat a little, Ashland, Oregon? I hope so. Because it’s going to be hotter than hell in the Rogue Valley on Wednesday. And I’m not talking about the weather.

That’s right. Even though the forecast is calling for 104, there’s going to be something even hotter than that going on beneath the glare of the mid day fire ball on the Bricks in downtown Ashland tomorrow. And that’s the first preview of the world premiere of SWEAT by Lynn Nottage in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at 1:30 PM.

Despite the temperature, just writing that last sentence there sends a cold sweat down my back. Hoo boy. If I could rub Aladdin’s lamp and be granted one wish to be anywhere on earth in any theatre there is seeing any show imaginable tomorrow – I’d be right here in Ashland. No question.

If you’re a theatre fan, and especially if you’re an Oregon theatre fan, there is simply nowhere else to be on Wednesday. Or Friday and Saturday for the next two previews. Or Sunday for the official opening. Or anytime during the next three months as SWEAT runs in rep at OSF.

A new play by one of America’s leading playwrights at one of America’s (and the world’s) great theatres – which just happens to be right here in Oregon? Hello?? That’s like a Ducks game in Autzen Stadium or Sleater-Kinney at the Crystal Ballroom or the Pendleton Roundup on Saturday night (including a bonus visit to the Let’Er Buck Room). It’s BIG stuff. The biggest. In the American theatre today, it doesn’t get much more exciting than a new play by Lynn Nottage.

Especially this play. In this place. At this time.

The latest from OSF’s flagship American Revolutions commissioning program, SWEAT is coming in hotter than a blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel. Written by Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey, the show features a galaxy of OSF talent. Here, feast those heat-dazed eyes of yours on this lineup:

Cast for SWEAT

Tracey >> Terri McMahon
Jason >> Stephen Michael Spencer
Cynthia >> Kimberly Scott
Chris >> Tramell Tillman
Brucie >> Kevin Kenerly
Evan >> Tyrone Wilson
Stan >> Jack Willis
Jessie >> K. T. Vogt
Oscar >> Carlo Albán

Whaaaaaaaaaat?? Yeah – see? You with me? If I didn’t have your attention before, surely I do now.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty happy to just sit in the audience and see that group walk out on stage and stand there and do nothing. But they’re going to do a lot more than that. It sounds like their task is nothing less than acting out a new story of and for our time.

If the past is prologue, look for this show to sell out once the news hits the wire. Remember what happened to ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY? While there will be other chances to see SWEAT at other theatres later on – no production is ever going to be better than this original one on the home field.

It’s only on for three months as it is. Only a few thousand people can see it.

And you definitely want to be one of them.

So buckle down, Ashland. And get ready. Maybe bring a fan or an ice cube or something.

Because the drama is coming. And it’s going to be hot stuff indeed.

Hot stuff.  SWEAT by Lynn Nottage runs July 29 - October 31 in the Bowmer Theatre at OSF.
Hot stuff. SWEAT by Lynn Nottage runs July 29 – October 31 in the Bowmer Theatre at OSF.

THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST by Quiara Alegría Hudes at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Very little rings true here. From mountain of sub plots, current day events and social/familial themes, nothing much of substance is milled. Many familiar pitfalls of new play dramaturgy on display: over use of technology, fascination with social media, too many cuts. Bonus: Implausible homeless guy with heart of gold.

Thru November 1

Lynn Nottage is coming for you | 2015 #AmRev commission SWEAT at Oregon Shakespeare Festival looks straight into the American abyss of de-industrialization

Are you ready, America?

Because it’s time for the show.

Ever since it was announced on March 14, 2014 that a new play by Lynn Nottage would be coming to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, I’ve been counting down the days. A new play by this savvy and supremely human writer is a cause for celebration – even when the material she may be dealing with is some of the toughest and heaviest there is.

If you saw RUINED at OSF in 2010, you know what I’m talking about – the kind of unbearable heightened intensity that a playwright like Nottage can imprint into your brain. Forever.

The kind of drama so real and powerful it caused an audience member to jump on stage to try to stop what was happening.

Well, she’s at it again and the project this time sounds about as relevant and important as it could possibly be. The countdown until opening night is rapidly dwindling toward 0. And the closer it gets, the better it sounds.

Here’s an interview with the Brooklynite from American Theatre. You REALLY want to read that.

Then get your tickets for one of this year’s highlights in the American theatre. Right here in Ore-gone.

And prepare to be reminded what theatre can be.

This woman.  Lynn Nottage has a new play for you. It all starts 7/29 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This woman. Lynn Nottage has a new play for you. It all starts 7/29 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Theater Review | SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Unwatchably dull. Stan Lai’s supposedly genius work of modern Chinese drama, rendered here in English, feels like a thrown together improv of extremely gentle, old-fashioned (and boring) commentary. Mystifyingly, the reign of terror in China that takes place during the play’s time period (1948-1988) passes entirely under the radar. While obviously safe and soft enough to attract the interest and approval of official Chinese media, as well as become one of the most popular plays in China today, the drama-free SECRET LOVE is going to teach American audiences not much about China. The program and educational materials for this show are filled with cultural, historical and literary references galore that the play supposedly draws on and engages, but the main problem here is that SECRET LOVE itself contains not a thing of consequence – at least for a non Chinese viewer not versed in all the source material and history.

3-stars

SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Thru October 31

For long time consumers of new plays, it’s a familiar syndrome that when a playwright is running short on material, they often go meta on us. You’ve seen these plays. One minute the play is on, the next minute characters are breaking the fourth wall and joking about the actual business of making theatre, rehearsing, dealing with the playwright, etc. For the mainstream audience, these moments can definitely draw a laugh. “Oh my god! Look the play has stopped!” But usually such throw away bits of silliness serve to distract us from the fact that the main event – the story on offer – is weak and the playwright is looking for something, anything, to pad the run time.

That is not to say that there are not many important plays throughout the ages that mess with the official play structure. But the best of those are often dealing centrally with some aspect of how narrative or reality are made. These plays are not breaking the fourth wall because there’s nothing else to do. They’re doing it because the nature of that fourth wall is itself a main concern of the play.

For playwrights with a real story to tell, there is no time for inside jokes about theatre or desire to break the frame and weaken the subject of their focus. There would be no reason for Lorraine Hansberry to weaken RAISIN by stopping the action to let us in on a rehearsal of the play, no reason for Ping Chong to halt the action of THRONE OF BLOOD to reveal a funny disagreement among actors about their personal lives or a fight with the director over what’s for lunch, no reason for August Wilson to show us the making of JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE – when the real JOE TURNER itself is all we need.

But for Stan Lai’s English version of SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND, now getting its American premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seemingly half the play or more is burned up with backstage funniness and Ashland-specific inside jokes about putting on the play. Given how thin the two main stories in the “real” play here are, it’s no wonder that something more was needed to fill out the slight and inconsequential script. Without the meta stream, the entire show would be about 35 minutes long and we’d turn to our neighbor afterwards wondering: “And…?”

The story such as it is concerns two different theatre troupes trying to rehearse two different plays in the actual Angus Bowmer Theatre – the very one we’re sitting in!!! Sometimes stage reality is so real, people. Somehow owing to a scheduling flub, both groups think they have the space today, and so they go back and forth trying to work in bits of the two plays while the fight for time becomes more acute. Eventually (in the single most enjoyable moment of the play for me) Tony “Harry the Horse” DeBruno arrives as an OSF operations manager to try to clear the melee from the theater. Anyone who has a problem can “call Susan in the office”.

Now, for Ashland devotees there is some fun in this real world setting. Local names and places are used. Arguing theatre people clamor to “call Bill” to straighten all this out. But such thrills of recognition soon pass, and none of this has any bearing on the actual story – other than to help disguise the fact that there isn’t much of a story.

As we’re in a straight up realer than real reality, you can’t help wondering about the gaping holes in the setup. How could two different Chinese-themed plays be scheduled for the same time to rehearse in the Bowmer? Who are these people and how did they get here? Do they not know each other? Are they part of the normal OSF acting company doing another show on the side? Outsider people? Are they traveling the earth looking for somewhere to put on a show? We don’t know.

Don’t think too hard about any of these questions, because after about five seconds of scrutiny the entire framing conceit of the play makes little sense, and it’s hard to understand why so much effort was thus expended setting it up. You would think it could work better if the rehearsal room were, say, in Taiwan or China, where perhaps a more plausible reason for the scheduling error (one with some political context?) could have easily been manufactured. Dramatically, the idea of two different stories competing for dominance is extremely promising. But here it’s freighted with no larger consequence.

One of the stories follows a young couple about to be torn apart by the communist revolution in 1949 Shanghai, and the aftermath 40 years later as the man lies dying in a hospital bed in Taiwan, remembering his young love. The other is a traditional fairy tale about a fisherman whose wife is unfaithful. There are themes here (as we’re told exhaustively in related materials and coverage) of exile and the longing for home, love and loss, etc. But none of that gets dramatized very effectively.

There is some gorgeous pageantry, movement and sound, particularly for the older story. Eugene Ma as the enraged, befuddled fisherman is simply hilarious and an extremely gifted physical presence. But no amount of top notch ingredients, technical capability and scores of talented actors can disguise the fact there’s not much of a there there – er – here. If only all these resources could be marshaled to tell a clear story with something at stake. In SECRET LOVE, we’re told we’re witnessing some classic work of the Chinese stage, but many audience members may simply leave scratching their heads.

There seems to be an excess of respect for Lai and not enough critical appraisal. I’m not familiar with his earlier work, but certainly given how meager the play at hand is, it seems weird that his presence at OSF should be the cause of such reverence. Lai practically had minders sweeping the ground in front of him with palm fronds on the OSF campus. There’s a certain complacency in evidence here, where the audience is told over and over how important and revered Lai is, as if that should be good enough for us. What would serve everyone much better is some work on the stage that calls for actual reverence (like THRONE OF BLOOD a few years back, to recall another recent international work), instead of the cobbled together and highly forgettable piece we got.

Also, the complete absence of any mention of what went on during those 40 years of cheery communist rule that separated our young lovers (when however many gazillion people died) would seem to be a problem and a serious challenge to Lai’s stature as a critical, independent artist. I’m hardly a China expert, but I have to think that if your work is popular or tolerated by a regime whose M.O. is jailing dissident voices, it MIGHT mean your point of view isn’t very sharp.

I did find this comment by crack reviewer Lincoln Kaye who has known Lai and his work for 25 years, which gets at my hunch here: “Compared with his brilliant innovations back then [25 years ago], the current production — especially in English translation — seems the anodyne work of an established theatrical celebrity struggling to surf the treacherous shoals of China-Taiwan-U.S. cultural diplomacy.” Bingo.

All in all, worth seeing perhaps for the costumes and traditional styles used at times, but the show does not hang together as a coherent piece, and it’s hard to imagine it traveling very far beyond Ashland.

Theater Review | LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

ASHLAND, OREGON

9.3.2015 UPDATE I saw the show for a fourth time on August 15, 2015, and it has gotten much, much better since March/April, when I saw it three times in close succession. It appears a number of the issues I called out below have been addressed. I definitely recommend seeing it now.

Original review based on three viewings in March and April of 2015

Solid – but not without lots of small issues and a couple of big ones. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (LDJIN), Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece and family expiation, is hampered by age-inaccurate casting, non existent Irish context and a general lack of directorial vision and style.

Despite the limitations, as this ultra marathon of pain moves on toward its near four hour length in the second half, the sheer fascination of watching a literal reenactment of the psychic alchemy that made America’s first great playwright wins us over. Though he surely did not intend to, O’Neill has assured himself personal and artistic immortality by weaving his own life story deeply into the fabric of this late play, which becomes only more revealing and valuable to fans each year as we move farther away in time from O’Neill’s own era.

Even while the first half may drag a bit and the play ends with truly the worst directorial choice imaginable for O’Neill, the total experience on offer is still rewarding. It’s a good first viewing of the play for anyone coming to it new. Unfortunately it will not stand out for the devoted O’Neill scholars and enthusiasts who have seen the play many times before and travel the world ceaselessly (like ghosts in a Eugene O’Neill play), ever in search of great, defining performances of EON’s work.

As an American touchtone, this long journey into O’Neill’s soul could be (should be) so much more than this.  Especially when done on a prominent national stage like OSF.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

3-stars

Thru Oct 31

The Tyrone family gathers after breakfast (from left, Michael Winters, Danforth Comins, Judith-Marie Bergan, Jonathan Haugen). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Eugene O’Neill’s original repertory company: his family. Michael Winters, Danforth Comins, Judith-Marie Bergan, Jonathan Haugen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Continue reading “Theater Review | LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival”

Theater Review | GUYS AND DOLLS at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Forget a man on the moon – how about GUYS AND DOLLS on the stage?

High atop the list of America’s all time inter galactic achievements, right up there with space travel and skyscrapers and all that computer gadgetry, one somewhat less technical but ultimately longer lasting creation deserves a place: the musical play of the mid 20th century.

And what show could better embody the living large upswing of post war America (and especially New York) than GUYS AND DOLLS (1950), now setting fire to the Bowmer Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival several times a week.

If you’re in need of some quality time with New York’s finest, take a tip from a wise guy and hop the next plane or train to Ashland, Ore-gone. Do it now before Big Jule gets mad. Or General Cartwright gets stern. Or the show sells out and there are no more seats left – which would make Big Jule happy. Or as happy as Big Jule gets…

It’s like this, see: Finding a version of Frank Loesser’s eternal hit better than Mary Zimmerman’s super saturated, pinstriped, technicolor, slicked back, dolled up and doubled down freight train of pure joy now on at OSF may prove harder than locating a free space for Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game.

The Greek’s in town, the gang’s all here (even if a few of the crew ain’t all there – if you know what I mean) and the music, lyrics and choreography are unforgettable.

Thru Nov 1

4-stars

Three reasons why resistance is futile: Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly).  Photo by Jenny Graham.
Three reasons the Bowmer is on fire: Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Continue reading “Theater Review | GUYS AND DOLLS at Oregon Shakespeare Festival”

PERICLES by Bill Shakes at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hollywood ending. Bill keeps body count low and turns on the tears (good kind). Gorgeous production values. Bonus: Michael J. Hume in heels. A little too much focus on “plowing” virgins. Wayne T. Carr gives exceptional performance. Just goes to show, when you’re in a pinch, count on some pirates.

Thru Nov 1

A call out to Chinese Americans to come to Ashland to see SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai

Something interesting is afoot down south in Ashland, Oregon. Then again, something usually is in this major US and world theatre center.

But this time it involves a reworking of one of the most popular plays in modern China, which includes the legend of a “Peach Blossom Land”. What does that entail? Aha. We’d tell you but – we’re in the drama business. Actually, the real answer is, we don’t know ourselves yet! But tomorrow starting at 1:30 PM more will be revealed…

The play is SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai.

It’s a big moment for Chinese culture in the US, and a very smart move by OSF to bring a world theatre piece like this to our shores.

To learn more, here’s a series of interviews about the production.

No translation needed for that point.  Director Stan Lai.
No translation needed for that point. Director Stan Lai.

SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai opens today at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Show number six of the 2015 season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens today down in Ashland.

How big of a deal is SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai in modern Chinese drama?

Big enough that there are multiple news crews from China and Taiwan in Ashland covering the American premiere.

Sounds like if you have yet to point the chariot southwards this season it’s now officially time.

Coming next – the outdoor stage opens June 12-14. Ze piece de resistance there? It’s gotta be Jeff Whitty’s world premiere HEAD OVER HEELS, featuring music by the Go-Go’s.

Master Yuan (Paul Juhn, center) and Blossom (Leah Anderson) have some fun behind the blanket, unbeknownst to Blossom's husband Tao (Eugene Ma, left). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Master Yuan (Paul Juhn, center) and Blossom (Leah Anderson) have some fun behind the blanket, unbeknownst to Blossom’s husband Tao (Eugene Ma, left). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Outside, blossom season in Ashland is already past.  But inside it's just getting started.
Outside, blossom season in Ashland is already past. But inside it’s just getting started.