A Same-Sex “Oklahoma” Shakes Up Oregon Shakespeare Festival

By Chris Narloch

You have until the end of October to catch the queer theatrical event of the year on the West Coast. That’s when Bill Rauch’s thrilling same-sex production of “Oklahoma” will close out the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) season in Ashland, OR.

I saw the daring, new queer “Oklahoma” the other weekend in Ashland and can report that it was one of the peak experiences I have had as a gay man in all of my years attending the theater. Below is my review of that amazing musical plus two other plays I saw at OSF.

 

Oklahoma

Broadway saw big box office earlier this year (and some Tony Awards too) with starry NYC revivals of the gay plays “Angels in America” and “The Boys in the Band,” but on the other coast, theater fans are crowing about a revolutionary new staging of this corn-fed classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which has been playing to wildly-enthusiastic, sold-out crowds inside OSF’s Bowmer Theatre since April 18, 2018.

We can thank OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch for having the radical vision to retool one of the most beloved of all American musicals; it turns out that giving “Oklahoma” a same-sex spin has been a dream project of his for decades.

Since Rauch is leaving OSF in 2019, it was now or never, and you can surf the net to find out more about how the director convinced a guardian of the Rodgers and Hammerstein theatrical empire to let him add transgender characters to his OSF “Oklahoma” and make its two central love stories gay rather than straight.

Such extreme artistic changes are rarely allowed in plays as iconic as “Oklahoma,” but I loved almost every aspect of the new production, which transforms Curly the cowboy hero into a cowgirl heroine (a superb Tatiana Wechsler) and turns Ado Annie into Ado Andy (the delightful Jonathan Luke Stevens).

Special mention must also go to Bobbi Charlton, a trans actor whose gender-fluid portrayal of the musical’s maternal, salt-of-the-earth Aunt Eller is nothing short of luminous.

Watching this transformed “Oklahoma” made me realize how many times I have watched the “classics” of opera and musical theater and had to put my self in the female lead’s place or imagine that the male lead was gay in order to enjoy the love stories in these famous works of art in the same way my (mostly) heterosexual neighbors in the theater experience them.

There is no imagination required for audiences at OSF’s “Oklahoma.” The gloriously transgressive “queerness” of the production is all right there on stage for everyone to see.

In fact, I am so crazy about this “Oklahoma” that I am considering making the five-hours drive up to Oregon to see it one more time before it closes on Oct. 27.

Snow in Midsummer

Although it too features a same-sex couple, this dark drama couldn’t be more different than “Oklahoma;” and yet I very much enjoyed “Snow in Midsummer,” playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s moving adaptation of a classical Chinese play from the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368).

The story concerns a young widow named Dou Yi who returns as a vengeful ghost to punish the people who executed her for a crime she did not commit. Past and present collide as old scores are settled and secrets are revealed in “Snow in Midsummer.”

Jessica Ko is magnetic as Dou Yi, and special mention must also go to Amy Kim Waschke who plays Tianyun, a self-made businesswoman who arrives in New Harmony to buy the town’s ailing factories from their young hero, Handsome Zhang.

Handsome, on the other hand, cannot wait to leave town and marry his lover, Rocket Wu. It’s rare to see a gay Asian couple portrayed on the stage, but director Justin Audibert and the playwright present Handsome and Rocket’s relationship with an admirable matter-of-factness.

The tragic love story between the two men is further illuminated by the fine performances of Daisuke Tsuji (Handsome) and Will Dao (Rocket).

The haunting “Snow in Midsummer” plays at OSF through Oct. 27.

The Book of Will

Obviously, there is much more to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival than productions of plays by William Shakespeare, although that is still the backbone of OSF, and there are always several plays by the Bard of Avon on stage there throughout their season, which runs from mid-February until late October.

“Romeo and Juliet” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” play through mid-Oct. this season, while “Henry V” and “Othello” perform until late Oct. at OSF. While this particular trip didn’t afford me the opportunity to see anything written by Shakespeare, I did enjoy a new play about the famous playwright that mixes fact and fiction.

At the start of “The Book of Will,” Shakespeare is dead, and his legacy depends on a circle of devoted writers, actors, and friends. When a wonky, inaccurate “Hamlet” plays nearby, the cohorts scramble to keep the playwright’s true words from fading into obscurity.

The solution is to create a definitive collection of Shakespeare’s plays, but in order to get it printed the group must overcome a ruthless publisher, an inebriated poet, and financial obstacles.

Set in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, England circa 1620, “The Book of Will” is Lauren Gunderson’s clever and very entertaining love letter to the memory and meaning of William Shakespeare’s work and to the importance of safeguarding all great art for posterity.

Director Christopher Liam Moore keeps his superb cast on the move throughout “The Book of Will,” which plays through Oct. 13.

Please visit http://osfashland.org for more information about these and other titles, playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Photo credits (top to bottom):

“Oklahoma” photo: Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens, left) and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Oklahoma” publicity photo: Laurey (Royer Bockus, left) and Curly (Tatiana Wechsler). Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Snow in Midsummer” photo: Dou Yi (Jessica Ko, left), Handsome Zhang (Daisuke Tsuji) and Tianyun (Amy Kim Waschke). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“The Book of Will” photo: Kevin Kenerly (left) and Jordan Barbour in the foreground; Cristofer Jean (seated) and Jonathan Luke Stevens in the back. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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