Tuesday, January 30, 2018

City Lights: Alabama Story

Left to right: Karen DeHart, Steve Lambert, Erik Gandolfi. Photo courtesy Taylor Sanders and CLTC.

Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story is in many ways the second coming of the classic play Inherit The Wind: A heartwarming narrative, based on a true story, about reason and togetherness emerging victorious over the evils of hate in a Deep South town. City Lights’ San Jose production, a West Coast premiere, is a play as uplifting as the children’s book about which it is written.

Alabama Story’s most overt theme is racial integration and the fight over a children’s book that – at least according to Alabama’s white supremacist element – implicitly supported interracial marriage. The burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the actions of early protesters like Rosa Parks drives much of the action of the play. However, existing alongside the play’s message of tolerance is a subtler theme of the power of literature to touch anyone’s heart. The main character, veteran librarian Emily Reed (Karen DeHart), defends The Rabbits’ Wedding on the basis that books shouldn’t be censored. Even the antagonist, segregationist senator E.W. Higgins (Erik Gandolfi), continues to fund the library during the fight out of a childhood love of Tom Sawyer. Books in Alabama Story are the most important ideological boundary, and nobody in the play disrespects the boundary enough to truly step over it.

City Lights’ cast brings the play to life. Gandolfi’s E.W. Higgins is the very picture of a Southern politician, employing a stentorian voice, Sunday morning delivery, and a passive-aggressive method of enforcing his will. DeHart’s Reed, on the other hand, stands opposite in every way: She displays a powerful inner strength while remaining humble and neutral. This emphasizes the clash not only between these characters’ values, but how they fight for them. Steve Lambert takes on a variety of roles, but the best is the elderly politician Bobby Crone, which he portrays with a mix of practicality and force of will. Jeremy Ryan plays Reed’s charming assistant Thomas Franklin with innocence, charm, and well-meaning righteous anger. Meanwhile, Bezachin Jifar and Maria Giere Marquis portray star-crossed lovers Joshua and Lily; their chemistry is evident whether they’re sharing small talk or reckoning the reality of a Jim Crow South.   

While some plays benefit from a wild technical approach, the design team of Alabama Story wisely knew when to experiment and when not to. Standing out most is scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti’s proscenium archway of book-shaped projector screens: Though they’re noticeable while the audience gets settled and awaits the show, it’s employed subtly so it doesn’t draw focus away from the actors. The tiered floor of the set also serves, along with Mia Kumamoto’s insightful, economic lighting work, to define the multiple plotlines that run simultaneously during the show.

Alabama Story at City Lights is a comforting tale of the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and a future classic. Lovers of Twelve Angry Men and, as mentioned, Inherit the Wind, will especially enjoy the play’s timeless themes and well-defined characters.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018 Season

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located in peaceful and scenic Ashland, Oregon, produces 11 plays in repertory each year from February to October. Only half are the works of Shakespeare, while the rest are a mixture of classic American plays, world premieres, and musicals that do justice to Shakespeare’s all-encompassing themes and love of language.

The town of Ashland boasts numerous quality restaurants with fresh ingredients, plenty of opportunities for a hike, and a thriving visual arts scene. It’s a perfect destination for a weeklong getaway.

Here are some of the most exciting plays of OSF’s 2018 season:

Othello (Directed by Bill Rauch)

Othello is the most cerebral and slow moving of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, observing Iago’s psychological torment of the proud and jealous Othello in uncomfortable detail. The 2018 production moves the play into the American military apparatus and casts Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago.

Sense and Sensibility (Adapted by Kate Hamill, directed by Hana S. Sharif)

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel ran for over 265 performances off-Broadway and won several awards. Now, fellow Austen lover Hana S. Sharif directs the play, which features Kate Mulligan (Queen Elizabeth from last year’s Shakespeare in Love) as the formidable Mrs. Dashwood.

Destiny of Desire (By Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela)

Destiny of Desire pays tribute to the beloved Mexican telenovela with a raucous musical comedy featuring twins separated at birth, conniving beauty queens, and other outlandish twists. OSF cornerstones Vilma Silva, Armando Durán, and Al Espinosa make up part of the play’s ensemble cast.

Henry V (Directed by Rosa Joshi)

Henry V completes the three-play cycle that OSF began last year with Henry IV part 1 and part 2. Daniel José Molina continues as Prince Hal – now a fully-fledged king – as he demonstrates his growth from a carefree party boy into a cold, practical ruler. Rosa Joshi, OSF newcomer and founder of the all-female theatre troupe upstart crow collective, directs.

The Book of Will (By Lauren Gunderson, directed by Christopher Liam Moore)

Lauren Gunderson, notable for her modern plays that twist familiar Shakespearean plots, examines the creation of Shakespeare’s First Folio in this lively dramedy directed by Ashland veteran Christopher Liam Moore. A group of Shakespeare’s friends and actors attempt to keep Shakespeare’s words accurate after his death in the face of pirated scripts of dubious accuracy.