Tuesday morning I got up early and went to ReMix coffee in Ashland to get coffee and do a bit of writing before my first show of the day. You may have noticed a pattern that any time I’m not seeing a show, driving, or sleeping, I’m generally trying to carve out a couple of hours to catch up on my writing. I am not a fast or efficient writer so it takes me almost as much time to document a day as it takes to live it.
My first show of the day Tuesday was a matinee of Othello in the Bowmer Theatre. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has three theatres, the large outdoor Allen Elizabethan, the intimate black box Thomas, and the medium sized proscenium theatre the Bowmer. Luckily I got a chance to check out all three while I was in town.
Truthfully, my early enthusiasm for this show was somewhat muted for a few reasons that almost nothing to do with the show itself. In a perfect world I would never see matinees because my brain badly wants to nap in the early afternoon everyday. Regardless of how exciting of an activity I’m engaged in or how well-rested I am, I get a little fuzzy around 2pm. Put me in a darkened theatre and even if I’m seeing Titus Andronicus with pyrotechnics I’m gonna have trouble paying attention. Additionally this was the third Othello that I’ve seen on this trip, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing. I also don’t love proscenium stages and this Othello had a run time of over three hours, which is about 40 minutes longer than I really want a show to run.
I enumerate all those points simply to make the point that this show in particular had the odds stacked against it, but was so good that I forgot all my reservations.
The show had a modern setting with a strong emphasis on the aesthetics of the Middle East. At one point Montano laid down his rug and faced Mecca to pray. It was a gorgeous show from start to finish that made impressive use of a retracting cyc and projectors to give us dramatic scene changes.
In particular, I loved this show’s Othello. He played the role with an accent that I had trouble placing geographically. As an American monoglot, I’m embarrassingly bad at identifying accents. I thought he sounded West Indian, but someone else who saw the show thought he sounded North African — which would certainly be more accurate to the text — but I honestly couldn’t tell. Regardless of where exactly the accent originated, giving Othello an accent helped to establish him as more of an alien, more of an other.
Although I had been skeptical of the longer runtime, the show was so tight and punchy that the time flew by. It certainly didn’t feel like a three hour show.
The other highlight of the show for me was Emilia, and in particular her relationship with Iago. She is only of favorite characters in Shakespeare and she rarely gets the love and respect she deserves. She’s often played as weak and stupid, berated into submission by Iago and too myopic to realize what he’s up to. This show toned down Iago’s abuse of Emilia and put Emilia in Othello’s military unit, making her a peer of the men, rather than simply Iago’s wife. I noted a similar result in the production I saw in Kentucky, that simply putting the women in military uniforms helps to equalize their status on stage.
What I love about Emilia is that she is so incredibly ordinary. She is not one of the larger than life characters like Othello or Desdemona or Iago. She’s an average woman, neither the angelic Desdemona nor the Satanic Iago, neither an idiot nor a genius. Emilia is most of us. But in the end, Emilia turns out to be possibly the bravest character in the canon — perhaps tied with Coriolanus — who stands up to Othello and her husband, two terrifying people that most of us would hesitate to cross. Emilia is a hero because she is an ordinary person who does something extraordinary. Put me in a room with an expert military general who has just snapped and murdered his wife, and the last thing I’m going to do is confront him and call him a fool. As a literary person, I sometimes have a perfect, archetypal version of a character in my mind from my experience reading the play by which I judge the stage versions of that character that I see. The Emilia in this show was probably the closest I’ve seen to the Emilia in my head.
Romeo and Juliet
The evening show that day was Romeo and Juliet back in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record in my praise for OSF shows but I’d be dishonest if I tried to downplay my praise to avoid sounding too one-note.
I have always enjoyed the religious themes in Romeo and Juliet, so the way that this shows staged their opening chorus was especially powerful to me. The actors all came out wearing white hooded cloaks, and broke the lines of the chorus up among individual actors, some of them speaking the lines and others signing them. It opened the show with a heavy, portentous fatalism that made it feel a bit more mature. Sometimes Romeo and Juliet can feel a bit trivial in spite of its pathos, the way this show was opened made it feel a bit more important than an adolescent love story.
Lady Montague was played by a deaf actor who signed all of her lines, and to whom the other Montagues signed their lines. Lady Montague is a relatively minor character so it didn’t affect the staging in a huge way, but it was beautiful to watch and was especially exciting for me. I have been thinking a lot about ASL adaptations of Shakespeare for the last few years ever since I found out that one of my favorite Star Trek guest stars was a deaf Shakespearean actor from OSF. I’ve always thought that ASL was beautiful and as someone who loves Shakespeare I’ve been fascinated by the idea of adapting that kind of language into sign. One of my projects for the fall is to start learning ASL again and to do some research and writing on the topic of Shakespeare in sign language.
I loved that the issue of Lady Montague’s deafness wasn’t dwelt upon; it was a basic fact of the Montague family life. Even when Lady Montague was off stage, Romeo and Benvolio would sometimes partially sign unconsciously while speaking to each other. This was a subtle touch that I appreciated, the idea that if you grow up in a household with a deaf person you may sometimes begin to sign while gesticulating as part of your everyday mannerisms.
The fights in this show were probably the best I’ve seen so far on the trip, especially the Tybalt/Mercutio fight in the third act, and those who die in those fights end up haunting the rest of the show as ghosts, taking literally Romeo’s line about Mercutio’s spirit being above their heads waiting for company. The image of the bloodied Mercutio and Tybalt, hooded and standing on the balcony in the end of the play is powerfully unsettling.
Two tragedies in one day was a lot to take, when I went back to park in the rest area and sleep that night, I was more tired than I’ve been in a long time.
Wednesday was my last full day in Ashland. More on that and my final show, The Book of Will in my next entry.