A World of Speculation

I wanted to recommend a couple of plays from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. For those who aren’t familiar with the festival, it happens from late February through October in Ashland, a town in the southwestern corner of the state. The 2004 season has 13 plays running in three theatres–large and small indoor theatres and a Globe-style Elizabethan stage that’s open only during the summer, between the spring and fall rainy seasons.

We saw The Comedy of Errors, which sets Shakespeare’s script in a 1950s Las Vegas-style Ephesus, with the Syracusians as Golleee! Texans. The juxtaposition of the modern settings with the old script, along with the fine acting and the few ad lib-style additions to the script, made the play more approachable for people not familiar with Shakespeare and his world–and uproariously funny.

Second was The Royal Family, based loosely on the Barrymores. It was a portrayal of the Theatre as religion–not as burnt offering to the God of the Footlights, but as an organizing principle of life that defines meaning, ethics, purpose in life. The characters may apostacize, but they all return to the true faith of the Theatre. Only the wise old matriarch never loses faith. She’s been kept away by illness, but she’s always planning a return to the stage, even to go on the road, which with its difficulties of frequent travel, uncomfortable hotels in uninteresting towns is like a theatre version of pilgrimage.

Third was A Raisin in the Sun. Peggy Noonan reviews the play, which opened in New York with Sean (“P. Diddy”) Combs playing the adult son. Noonan’s review places the play in a social-historical context, but there was a difference.

Noonan says that at the performance she saw:

But I must tell you of the small moment that was actually a big moment. (There’s a possible spoiler coming up, so if you don’t know the story and mean to see the play, stop here.) An important moment in the plot is when a character announces she is pregnant, and considering having an abortion. In fact, she tells her mother-in-law, she’s already put $5 down with the local abortionist. It is a dramatic moment. And you know as you watch it that when this play came out in 1960 it was received by the audience as a painful moment–a cry of pain from a woman who’s tired of hoping that life will turn out well.

But this is the thing: Our audience didn’t . . . understand it was tragic. They heard the young woman say she was about to end the life of her child, and they applauded. Some of them cheered. . . . They reacted as if abortion were a political question. They thought that the fact that the young woman was considering abortion was a sign of liberation. They thought this cry of pain was in fact a moment of self-actualizing growth.

That wasn’t our audience’s reaction. And this was Ashland, a town that makes Portland look as conservative as a suburb of Dallas. The matriarch stood there and said, “We’re not that kind of people. We don’t kill our children. We love them”; and the lights went down on the scene to dead silence, an appropriate silence, but they came up at the next scene to cheering. It was the only time the audience cheered the beginning of the scene, and they were cheering the performances of the scene before.

The other thing about that play is the young African’s view of the future. The daughter, despairing at having lost her college money to a rogue, asks where it’s all going to end. Mr Asagai says that she’s unrealistic to expect it to end. The task is the task at hand. She says that when the colonialists are kicked out of Africa, the new African leaders will be just as corrupt; it was a moment of prophecy on the part of Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright, but Mr. Asagai responds that it doesn’t matter. Every generation has to redress its own evils, and if he himself is the evil to be redressed by the next generation, so be it. He says it better than that, and without such danger of being misinterpreted as my summary, but it was a great point.

Wonderful theatre in a beautiful, but remote corner of the world. More than 300,000 people attend the festival every year–and maybe it’s enough–but a lot of peopple are missing out, too, because they just don’t know about it.