Twists of diversity
BOSTON — The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is well-known for diversity in play selection and in acting company and artistic staff. So much so that it's no big deal to see an outstanding lead actor like Derrick Lee Weeden, an African-American, play Coriolanus and Pericles as he has in recent years, as well as Othello this season.
This year "Seven Guitars," by August Wilson (two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize), features an all-black cast. Each of Mr. Wilson's plays addresses African-American history during one decade of this century. Here, it's Pittsburgh just after World War II when racism was a stark fact of life.
In "Tongue of a Bird," by Ellen McLaughlin, four women explore dark memories about mother-daughter relationships while one of them - a search-and-rescue pilot with extraordinary flying skills and eerie perception - looks for a girl abducted in the Adirondack Mountains. Given the recent news of John F. Kennedy Jr., the scenes of aviator Maxine navigating through bad weather at night are extremely unsettling.
Octavio Solis's "El Paso Blue" takes place along the US-Mexican border, with classic Greek-tragedy overtones set against a background of live roadhouse music. Hispanic and Anglo characters navigate what the playwright calls "the cusp between two worlds...."
There's another twist on diversity at Ashland this summer. Anyone who's seen "Shakespeare in Love" knows that Elizabethan England did not allow women to perform. Thus did boys and men take the roles of Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and all the other female parts. Also in Shakespeare's day, a relatively small company of actors - usually about 15 - played all the parts.
In a departure for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (or any other theater company), OSF this year presents "Henry IV, Part 2" with an all-male cast of 15 playing 43 speaking parts, including four female characters.
It's an interesting experiment, and with disbelief suspended, some exchanges between men and "women" are tender and touching. But to modern eyes it still seems more like Robin Williams as "Mrs. Doubtfire" - men in drag playing for laughs.
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