Ancient India Comes to Ashland, Oregon
Vasantasena (center, Miriam A. Laube) jests with her servant Madanika (Eileen DeSandre) and her confidant Libertine (Tyrone Wilson). Photo by David Cooper.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival first opened its doors in 1935, when English prof Angus Bowmer ran three performances in a "festival" over the Fourth of July weekend, two of Twelfth Night and one of The Merchant of Venice. WIth a hiatus for WWII, the festival has been running since then. Funny story about the first one, recounted at every Backstage Tour (the backstage tour is most tremendously fun; I've been on, I think, four so far and will go again this year): The city government worried that the Shakespeare plays wouldn't make any money and decided to run a boxing match during the day to make up for projected Shakespeare losses. Ennnh! (Buzzer sound.) The boxing match lost money; the plays made money -- and the plays bailed out the boxing losses.
The OSF runs 11 plays (four Shakespeare and seven by contemporary or "classic" playwrights) a season, in rep, on three stages, with 783 total performances during the February-November runs (not all plays run at all times). There aren't usually boxing matches although, of course, any production of As You Like It contains the Orlando v. Charles wrestling match. Ashland's just off of I-5, 3 hours south of Eugene and about 5-6 hours (your mileage may vary) north of the Bay Area. It's 19 miles from the California border, and most of the OSF's patrons come from Cali (something like 45 percent, with 35-40 percent from Oregon), so it's no surprise that many of the plays (last year's Tracy's Tiger and Distracted and this year's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, for instance) contain many, many California references. The audiences laugh a lot; Oregonians like me get annoyed but understand. You can see clips and listen to longer info pieces here.
In any case, info dump aside, the OSF has never produced a "non-Western" play. Not as in non-Gunsmoke or something, but as in non-Western-literature play. Until now.
Last weekend, I attended the OSF's production of Śūdraka's The Clay Cart (sometimes called The Little Clay Cart). Śūdraka was possibly a king and definitely a playwright who wrote this post-Vedic epic (called Mrichchakatika in Sanskrit) in the 2nd century BCE.
The show was glorious. Truly glorious. Now, I know little-to-nothing of Indian theatrical traditions -- though I'd be pretty happy to learn -- and I know little-to-nothing of the various classical dances referenced during the splendidly glittery production. But I thought new artistic director Bill Rauch, who directed Clay Cart, got together a superb production team and a mostly superb cast for this show. The plot, which seemed perfectly suited for a Shakespeare festival, concerns the love of a courtesan* for a Brahmin merchant who has fallen on hard times. There are thieves, identity switches, missed carriages, throttlings, returnings to life, last-minute stays of execution, honorable executioners, a wronged wife who yet honors her husband, a gorgeous love story and some extremely funny wise fools. Oh, and a deliciously greedy villain, whom the audience once remembered to hiss as if we were at a melodrama.
Which we sort of were. My freelancer, with whom I split four reviews of this early part of the season, couldn't abide it. She's not generous with her praise in the short review we'll publish Thursday. I wrote a disagreeing paragraph below her review since, well, I'm the performing arts editor -- and I'm giving her a chance to disagree with my reviews as well. Perhaps that's a weird practice, but I enjoyed myself too much not to interject an opposing opinion.
I rolled my eyes at the audience when the (straight, older) men guffawed, and I mean laughed loudly for several minutes, at one of those old-chestnutty quips about women's wisdom and men's wisdom. (It was mildly humorous. If one likes to think in essentialist ways, which I'll admit might have been a bit more prominent 2200 years ago -- or at least I hope they're less prominent now.)
But the play, and particularly several of the actors (Miriam A. Laube as courtesan Vasantasena; Michael J. Hume as best friend / wise fool Maitreya; Dee Maaske as the villain's mother), gave a solid afternoon of completely enjoyable entertainment. Sure, it was a bit longer than last year's On the Razzle, which is more of a farce but just as glittery and over-the-top enjoyable, but in terms of humorous narrative, Clay Cart dazzled and charmed me. Plus, hey, if the epics as performed in India can last four to five hours, we got off lightly at three (with intermission).
I also saw a fascinating performance of August Wilson's Fences at the festival. Last year, I thought the standout play of the later season was Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, with Greta Oglesby (who originated the role) playing Aunt Ester. Most of the OSF's African American actors (but not Oglesby, who's starring right now in an extended run of Wilson's The Piano Lesson at St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre) returned to play in Fences, and the Wilson play's again a strong point.
I had a lot of thoughts about how white Americans**, who have lost cultural identities except as "white" (class, ethnicity in terms of cultural identity, and even religion have definitely lost a lot of power in the world of being white), might wish for a playwright like Wilson. I so admire his ability to put together history and character in classically plotted plays. My partner pointed out that playwrights like Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets wrote about working class white experiences (and for Odets, of course, Jewish working class experiences). Interesting that when Fences leaves the OSF, Miller's A View from the Bridge opens -- directed by former OSF artistic director Libby Appel.
Of the plays I watched this weekend, these two were my favorites. I'm thrilled to have the OSF down the road from me -- and I'm utterly privileged to have a job in which I rarely pay for my own tickets. (Gas, sometimes; hostel bed, sometimes; scripts, yes, but hardly ever the plays themselves.) And hoo boy, was I glad to see the OSF's first non-Western production. Here's to many more!
*We've been catching up on Joss Whedon's Firefly, and at intermission we discussed how very much Vasantasena in Clay Cart was like Inara. I know this is old news, but it's a crime that Fox cancelled Firefly. Schmucks.
**Yes, I am white. Grew up with strong ethnic/religious identifications, but I think my nieces/potential nephews will not -- which is also OK with me, but that elision comes at a cost of missing links to history.
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