OSF Is Ready To Wrap Up Another Sensational Season

by Chris Narloch

Some plays wrap up sooner, but you have until October 30th to enjoy a weekend of thrilling theatergoing in Ashland, OR. By Halloween of 2016, the final curtain will have come down on another sensational season, of Shakespeare and much more, at OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), the premier destination for theater on the West Coast.

Next season’s equally impressive roster of classics, musicals and new plays has already been announced, but it’s not too late to enjoy this season. Tickets are still available for most shows, and if you keep reading you’ll find out what I especially enjoyed on my recent trip to OSF, just a quick four-and-a-half-hour drive from Sacramento on highway 5.

The Wiz
When I heard that OSF was producing one of my favorite African-American musicals, I had to check it out.

“The Wiz” is an urbanized musical retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and it was a big Broadway hit in the ‘70s and then a starry big-screen movie featuring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

I have seen enough versions of the show to know that you need flashy costumes and a really talented cast to do “The Wiz” well, and on both those counts – indeed, on every count -- OSF’s production delivers.

Director Robert O’Hara obviously understood that the key to successfully mounting “The Wiz” is showcasing the musical numbers, including crowd-pleasing songs such as “Ease On Down the Road,” “Slide Some Oil to Me,” “I’m a Mean Ole Lion,” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” and “Home.”

The show’s score is filled with treasures, and not unlike in opera, every major character in “The Wiz” gets a big number, a solo that allows them to shine.

OSF is famous for color-blind casting, but this production of “The Wiz” wisely stays true to its African-American roots, with enormously talented actors of color commanding the stage.

I almost hate to single anyone out when the ensemble is this strong, but Britney Simpson, who had recently taken over the lead role the evening I saw the show, made a beautiful Dorothy, and I was very impressed by her Broadway-caliber pipes and poise.

Michele Mais and Yvette Monique Clark are similarly strong as Addaperle and Evillene, respectively.

The only surprise involving the show’s casting was a successful one that found a female actor, the excellent Christiana Clark, playing the Lion, a role usually given to a man.  

Dede M. Ayite’s incredibly colorful costumes also deserve special mention, as does the superb scenic design by Christopher Acebo.

“The Wiz” plays through Oct. 15 in OSF’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

It’s a thrill when you discover a great new play, and that’s exactly the experience I had watching “Vietgone,” an ambitious and fully realized work that charts the love story that produced its playwright.

Qui Nguyen is that playwright, and he is the son of Vietnamese parents who met and fell in love at a refugee camp in Arkansas, after escaping the fall of Saigon.

Two of more than 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who lost their homeland in 1975 and hoped to find a new one in America, Nguyen’s parents, Quang and Tong, are just two of the entertaining characters in “Vietgone,” which sounds like it would be preachy and serious but is instead incredibly alive and remarkably entertaining.

In its use of hip-hop and comedy to dramatize a slice of American history, “Vietgone” reminded me of “Hamilton,” another musical that successfully mixes different theatrical genres to tell a true story.

James Ryen, a striking young actor of Korean and German descent who is 6’ 4”, plays Quang as both a cocky young stud and, later, as a sly, older man recounting events from his life to his playwright son.

Jeena Yi, who looks to be about half her costar’s size, holds her own beside Ryen, playing his refugee camp crush, who ultimately persuades him to leave his life back in Vietnam behind.

Moses Villarama is so convincing as the character of the Playwright that I at first thought he actually was the real playwright, and the versatile Amy Kim Waschke steals almost every scene she’s in, playing six (!) different characters.

“Vietgone” will no doubt be popping up around the country over the next several years in different productions. If you can make it to OSF before their production closes on Oct. 29, I highly recommend director May Adrales’ fast-paced and very funny take on this moving play. In the Thomas Theatre.

The Winter’s Tale
Although Oregon Shakespeare Festival made its name and reputation on productions of Shakespeare plays, every OSF season now includes new works by contemporary playwrights as well as revivals of classic musicals.

Plays by “The Bard” still make up the majority of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s season, but I tend to go for the newer works and the musicals at OSF, since I studied Shakespeare in college and have already read and seen most of his plays multiple times over the years.

I decided on this trip to break with my tradition, however, and check out “The Winter’s Tale,” as I had never seen this particular Shakespeare play on stage before.

I know now why the play is performed less frequently than the playwright’s more famous works, and OSF’s current production only emphasizes the jarring differences in tone and setting between the play’s first and second acts.

As a result of those challenges, staging “The Winter’s Tale” is problematic -- it may be a play that is better read than watched.

Director Desdemona Chiang gives each act its own bold vision, and the two parts do ultimately come together movingly at the conclusion, but for most of the second half of the play I felt like I had wandered in to the wrong theater after intermission.

Nevertheless, the show’s scenic designer (Richard L. Hay) and, especially, its costume designer (Helen Q. Huang) do wonderful work in both acts, convincingly creating both a dynastic China-inspired first act and a bucolic and bohemian second act. Both halves pop in their own way, but they don’t necessarily gel in to a seamless whole.

“The Winter’s Tale” plays through Oct. 16 in OSF’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Great Expectations
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about OSF’s new production of this classic novel by Charles Dickens, but it unfortunately has little of the polish that I have come to expect from the ordinarily first-rate work at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The world premiere adaptation of “Great Expectations” features fatally uneven direction by Penny Metropulos, a colorless and unimaginative scenic design by Collette Pollard, intrusive and annoying music by Andre J. Pluess, and several key roles that are miscast.

On the plus side, Benjamin Bonenfant makes a very handsome, if too modern, Pip, and Derrick Lee Weeden is dynamite as both Narrator and Magwitch – the towering and terrific Weeden almost makes the play worth seeing.

I have no doubt that everyone involved with this disappointing production will go on to do fine work in the future, but I cannot recommend the depressing slog of a show they have created this time out.

“Great Expectations” plays through Oct. 30 in OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre.

For more information about these and other plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit www.osfashland.org.

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