Hairspray

It’s a landmark year for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

After 12 seasons as artistic director, Bill Rauch is stepping down to take a gig in New York City. His tenure at the venerable Ashland company, one of the largest-budget theaters in the US, has been remarkable. Under Rauch, OSF has become a serious player on the national scene, commissioning loads of new shows—several of which have landed on Broadway and other major stages around the country—and pushing for greater equity and inclusion among the acting company and staff.

In March, OSF announced Rauch will be succeeded by Nataki Garrett, the first person of color to lead the fest. Garrett, like Rauch, is a champion of new work—she has a background in devised work—but also professes a commitment to classical texts. She doesn’t officially take the helm till August 1, but she’ll soon enter rehearsals for How to Catch Creation, opening in mid-July. 

Amid all that hubbub, OSF’s season is already underway, with five productions currently running. Here’s a peek at four of those shows. (The fifth, Between Two Knees, wasn't yet onstage when I was in Ashland. And six more shows are still to open—find info on the full season here.)

Jamming out in Cambodian Rock Band

Cambodian Rock Band

The early season’s standout is this rollicking, emotionally complex, song-filled show written by Lauren Yee and directed by Chay Yew. The premise is ripe with potential pitfalls: Yee takes a story about the Cambodian genocide and overlays it with psychedelic surf rock (the cast doubles as a live band). The play follows a young woman, the daughter of Cambodian refugees, who’s in Phnom Penh to investigate the atrocities that pushed her parents out of the country—a pursuit that’s interrupted by her father’s sudden arrival in the country, which triggers a series of flashbacks and borderline-melodramatic plot twists.

But Yee’s characters are all so human—by turns hilarious, infuriating, and tear-jerking—that the whole thing works like gangbusters. It’s a story of a father-daughter relationship, a portrait of friendship, and a meditation on forgiveness, the limits of loyalty, and what we do to protect those around us—and, most of all, a paean to the power of art.

Rex Young and Will Wilhelm in As You Like It

As You Like It

The only Shakespeare show onstage at the moment is this romantic comedy—you know, the one about young lovers Rosalind and Orlando, cross-dressing, and all the world being a stage. In director Rosa Joshi’s hands, it becomes a tale of abandoning patriarchal conformity (Duke Frederick’s court, here a place of severely tailored garb and military-precision marches) for inclusion and compassion (the casually queer forest of Arden, whose gender-fluid inhabitants don flowy garments and enjoy languid picnics). That’s oversimplifying it, of course—Joshi’s actors are more than symbols. But the production can feel over-choreographed, which saps it of some of Arden’s charmed energy. 

Even so, there are stellar moments. The early wrestling scene is a stunner, with maximum preening before the slow-mo, rock-’em-sock-’em bout begins. Rex Young is a delightfully hammy Touchstone, while Erica Sullivan, as Jaques, brings new levels of tortured melancholy to the role (and her her malleable facial expressions are a thing of wonder). 

Crossing into Oklahoma in Mother Road

Mother Road

In this world premiere, playwright Octavio Solis, who lives in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, offers up an imagined sequel to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Inspired by a trip Solis took along the original Route 66—which Steinbeck calls the “Mother Road” in his novel—the action begins in California, where a distant cousin of Tom Joad has come looking for a blood relation who can inherit the family property in Oklahoma. He finds one—just turns out he’s Martín Jodes, a young Mexican-American farmworker. “You mean I’m gonna own me a honky farm in Bumfuck, Oklahoma?” Martín asks. 

The unlikely duo sets off in a rusty Dodge pickup, and as they rattle across the country, racism flares, old wounds surface, and a friend of Martín’s named Mo hops in the truck for some crucial comic relief. It’s powerful if occasionally ponderous and overstuffed, but Solis’s language is wonderfully lyrical (“she could sing the ripeness into a persimmon,” Martín says of his mother), and Rauch’s direction plays up the poetry, with several actors serving as a sort of Greek chorus.

The indomitable Greta Oglesby in Hairspray

Hairspray 

Only the most stony-hearted could hate Hairspray. Sure, the musical—about a plus-size teen in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on a television show and winds up spearheading a campaign of racial integration and radical self-acceptance—feels a little dated in 2019. But this kinetic production, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, is bursting with rambunctious dance numbers, tight comic timing, and sparkles (oh, the sparkles!). As Motormouth Maybelle, the hostess of the TV show’s “Negro Day,” Greta Oglesby swoops in for a jaw-dropping rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” And as protagonist Tracy Turnblad, Katy Geraghty has heart and pluck to burn.

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