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2022 October 1

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2022

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My family (that is, my wife, our son, and I) went to Ashland to see five plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival September 21–24. This was my wife’s first trip to Ashland, though I’ve been there three or four times before, and our son at least twice more than me.

This time we were not going with a group, so we flew from SFO to MFR (Medford, Oregon).  Because the flight was midday, and United was warning people to come at least three hours early because of delays in the security line, we got a room at the last minute at a San Bruno motel.  The Hotel Aluxor is well-named, as it is certainly deficient in luxury.  If we do the trip again, we’d take the late afternoon flight and spend the extra night in Ashland instead. We took an Uber from Medford to Ashland, though the bus would have only cost $4 for the 3 of us (two seniors and one adult).

We stayed in the Stratford Inn, about ½ mile from the theaters, where our son and I have both stayed before.  Of the places I’ve stayed in Ashland, it provides the best tradeoff of comfort, convenience, and price, though I’ve only tried three places, so I may well be missing something better.

On the evening of the day we arrived, we saw The Tempest at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre (the outdoor theater). There was a very light rain at times, but we were comfortable enough with our raincoats, the throws we had brought with us, and rented pillows to sit on.  Heavy rain would have made us miserable, though, so we were lucky that the rain held off throughout the performance and the time it took us to walk back to the hotel afterwards. The theater was less than half full, but we attributed this to the day of the week (Wednesday), the rain, and the time of year (after school had started).

The play was a pretty good production of The Tempest—certainly better than the Santa Cruz Shakespeare one we’d seen five weeks earlier, though not as adventurous. The script cut very little of the dialog (leaving in some of the racism and misogyny that is usually cut), but rather surprisingly cut some of Ariel’s most famous songs.  The other major cuts were to the masque, which is almost alway cut heavily.  The projections they used for the masque were ok, but not really great (still better than the “great quotes from other plays” that Santa Cruz Shakespeare substituted). It was not such a bad thing that OSF cut Ariel’s songs, because their Ariel was not very good as an actor—he may have been an ok singer, but the sound engineer really butchered the amplification of the songs.  All in all, it was a decent production with a strong Prospero and only Ariel as noticeably poorly cast.

The next day we saw two plays: Confederates by Dominique Morisseau in the Thomas Theatre (the smallest of the three stages) and Revenge Song in the outdoor theater.

Confederates was probably the best of the productions we saw in Ashland this year, with good acting and directing, a well-written script, and a set that did not distract too much from the play.  There were a few times when we thought that they could have used the traps of Thomas stage to do set changes with a little less running around by the stage crew, but the transitions went fairly smoothly.  The contrast and parallels between the Civil-War era slave woman and the modern Black female professor were intelligently done, and the interactions between the professors and the students were realistically portrayed.

Revenge Song was not exactly what we were expecting from their description

Buckle up for a musical story about Julie d’Aubigny—a queer 17th-century rule-breaking, sword fighting, opera-singing transgressor of boundaries. It’ll be loud, it’ll be rowdy, and it’ll be hilarious! Qui Nguyen (OSF’s Vietgone and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon) sets this irreverent take on French history somewhere between the realms of superheroes and comic books and asks what it means to bust through your prescribed roles into who you truly are.

The description is accurate enough, but we were expecting more operatic music, rather than over-amplified rock that drowned the voices under guitars and drums and made the lyrics incomprehensible. The acting was good, and the fight choreography well done (though I think a number of the fight scenes were being done at ⅔ speed, because we had an understudy for Julie). The story itself was pretty easy to follow (despite the fake French accents) and the costuming marvelously silly. We enjoyed the show well enough, despite the sound engineer making the music painful at times (the description did warn us that it would be loud).  We felt that they would have described the show better if they had claimed it was “like Rocky Horror Picture Show with swords”—they might then have attracted a more appreciative audience.  As it was, the theater was only about a quarter full and a lot of the white-haired audience seemed to be tolerating it rather than enjoying it (though there was a contingent of dedicated fans).

On our third day we saw Once on this Island and King John, both at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Once on this Island was certainly the worst of the performances we saw. The sound engineer must have been completely deaf, as the music was amplified so loud that it was distorted and painful to listen to—worse even than the overamplification of Ariel in The Tempest and the instruments in Revenge Song. The story line was trite with an awkward framing story, there was essentially no dialog (just songs strung together, which were nearly incomprehensible due to the bad sound engineering), and the costumes and set looked like a high-school production. About the only good part of the show was the dancing, but that was not enough to rescue the production.

King John with an all-female-or-nonbinary cast was excellent. The play has some of the best speeches for women that Shakespeare wrote, and the cast did a vry good job with them, as well as with the male characters, though I think that the directing or acting for John could have been a bit better—the character did not seem to be consistently portrayed (some of the difficulty there is in the script). The fight scenes were highly stylized, to mixed effect. I rather liked the battle done as repetition of a very simple weaponless combat, with projection of the results on the scrim—it brought out the banality of battle and death rather than glorying in the combat. The greatsword fight with the Bastard was clumsy, though—having the Bastard grab the sword by the blade and use it like a grappling hook or halberd made no sense at all. The checkerboard battle, like the weaponless repeat, was an interesting abstract stylization of a battle scene.

Overall, we thought that Confederates and King John were excellent productions, well worth the trip; The Tempest was a workmanlike, but not exceptional production; Revenge Song was good of its kind, but did not particularly appealing to us; and Once on this Island was not worth listening to. I hope that in future Oregon Shakespeare Festival does fewer musicals (since they clearly can’t produce them well—though maybe hiring different audio engineers who were not deaf would help) and more plays like Confederates and King John.

We felt a little sorry for the cast (and the festival in general) as most of the performances we saw were to very sparse audiences (half-empty theaters or worse).  Only Confederates, in the tiny Thomas Theatre, was close to being a full house.

When going back to the airport at the end of the trip, we did take the bus, and were pleased to see how many locals used the bus for transportation.  The security line at Medford was short but slow, since they were having everyone take off belts and shoes, taking laptops out of sleeves, and generally doing the security theater like it was 2002, rather than 2022. The flight itself was uneventful, and our son got home to Richmond fairly promptly by taking BART from SFO. My wife and I had a somewhat slower trip home (BART, Caltrain, Highway 17 Express), because it was a weekend and Caltrain was running only one of the two tracks while they did repair work on the other, resulting in substantial delays.  We ended up taking 9 hours door-to-door from the Stratford Inn to home, which is not that much faster than taking a bus the whole way (which generally ran 12–13 hours, when we went with a charter group).

2019 October 18

Book progress update

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At the beginning of the summer, I set myself the goal to clear the 161 to-do notes from the draft of my book by the first of December, which meant doing about 1 a day.  I kept up for quite a while, but I am now a little behind schedule, with 48 to-do notes left, which would have me finishing on December 5, if I maintained one a day. The book is now 637 pages, with 315 images in 256 figures (many have subfigures).  I think I may be done adding figures, but the remaining to-do notes include adding a few pages of text (which may or may not increase the page count for the overall book, depending of how much white space there is at the end of the relevant chapters).

I was keeping pretty well to schedule over the summer, but I fell behind during the Santa Cruz Shakespeare trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The trip was worth the time—I saw six plays: two very good (La Comedia of Errors and All’s Well That Ends Well), one well-acted but with a bit of a thin script (Mother Road), one well-acted but with awkward sets and strange direction that did not really work (Macbeth), one interesting but deliberately uncomfortable play (Between Two Knees), and one awful production (As You Like It) that failed in almost every way.  The original script for As You Like It is good, but the director managed to mangle it by rearranging speeches, assigning them to the wrong characters, cutting excessively, and generally making a hash of it. Gender roles were randomly reassigned, the wrestling match was played for laughs (like a video game), Touchstone was played very stiffly, and Jaques was changed from a melancholy character into a giddy one.  The costuming was also poor—I felt very sorry for the actors having to put up with such a poor interpretation of the play.

I’m on leave this quarter, so I don’t have to teach, go to meetings, or hold office hours, but I’m taking a physics course (PHYS 102, which is an introduction to quantum mechanics).  The homework for the physics class has been taking quite a bit of time, and I have been prioritizing it over the book writing. I brought my laptop with me on the Ashland trip, but I didn’t do any writing for the book—I finished the first homework for the physics class instead, as it was due the day after we came back.  Today I finished homework 3 for the physics class (due Monday), so I should work on the book this weekend.  Maybe I can get back on schedule? (Or maybe I’ll try mowing more of the back lawn—I’ve cleared about a quarter of it.  Creative Procrastination!)

I’ve also been wasting a lot of time reading news, humor, and a few subreddits on the internet—the physics class is only taking about 15 hours a week, so I can’t really blame the class for my being behind schedule on the book.

2019 September 30

Thirty-ninth weight progress report

This post is yet another weight progress report, continuing the previous one, part of a long series since I started in January 2015.

My weight is almost the same as a year ago, showing a steady increase since classes ended. This does not bode well for my retirement years.

The pattern for this summer looks the same as for last summer—I’m going to have to try to drop my weight this fall, and not wait until January.

I’ve been exercising more this summer than last year, cycling up the hill to work out at the OPERS Wellness Center about three times a week. I’ve been averaging 3.77 miles/day for August and September. That exercise does not seem to have affected my weight gain, though. I like to kid myself that the exercise has increased my lean body mass while reducing the fat, but one look at my waist disabuses me of that notion.

I think that being home and having available food at all times makes a bigger difference than exercise in failing to control my weight (I say, having just eaten a chocolate-chip cookie my wife baked this afternoon). Not only are the way too many chocoloate-chip cookies in the house, but my son and I will be baking a big batch of Shakespeare shortbread cookies tomorrow, also, though we’ll be giving most of them away on the bus trip up to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

2017 April 16

Recent theater events

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I have been so busy lately that I haven’t had a chance to do a blog post about the theater I’ve seen lately. The electronics course has mostly been responsible for my being busy—from March 20 to March 27 I was grading the huge pile of design reports for BME 51A, and classes started again on April 3.  Two weeks into the new quarter, I’ve just finished grading the third set of homeworks for BME 51B, and I’m already tired of grading.  (There are still six sets of exercises and five 5–10-page lab reports to come.)  I have a non-course pile of “grading” to do also: I’m on a committee to evaluate 22 project reports from across the School of Engineering for Deans’ and Chancellor’s Awards.  I’ve looked at four of them so far, and I have about a week to finish them.  They are a bit bigger than the little design reports (7–67 pages), but generally better written, and I don’t have to read them closely—just rank them to figure out which are the most award worthy.

But since I have my homework graded, I’ll take a break to list some of the plays I’ve seen lately:

date title playwright theater company
March 25 Dance of Death Strindberg Jewel Theatre
March 29 Julius Ceasar Shakespeare Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 29 Shakespeare in Love Norman/Stoppard/Hall Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 30 Henry IV, Part One Shakespeare Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 31 Hannah and the Dread Gazebo Jiehae Park Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 31 Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles Luis Alfaro Oregon Shakespeare Festival
April 15 The Nether Jennifer Haley SeeTheatre

 

The Strindberg play did not quite sell out the Colligan Theater, but it was well attended by the usual crowd of white-haired theater goers.  Julie James gave herself one of the leads (what’s the point of owning a theater company if you don’t get to play lead?), but this time she was well-cast in a part that matched her skills, unlike some of her earlier attempts to play parts for women 20 years younger. The play was well-acted, but the directorial decision to use MP3 players and laptops jarred with the text in several places.  The set was a bit generic, but the costumes were good. Overall, I think that we all enjoyed seeing the play, but have no particular desire to see another production of it ever—it just isn’t that gripping a story.

Over  Spring break, my son and I both traveled by bus with people from Santa Cruz Shakespeare (staff, board members, and donors) up to Ashland, Oregon to see 5 plays there, to get a backstage tour, and to get a tour of the new production facilities in Talent, OR. My wife was unable to go, as her spring break is a week later than UCSC’s and UCSB’s.

Of the five plays we saw, Shakespeare in Love was the most fun, Mojada had the strongest emotional impact, and Hannah and the Dread Gazebo  was the most thought-provoking.  The two Shakespeare plays were the weakest productions.

The Julius Ceasar was a rather lack-luster production, with little attempt to get inside the characters’ heads, just showing us the public faces.  I found the Brutus (played by Danforth Comins) particularly disappointing, portraying Brutus as a weak and vacillating figure, rather than a man of strong principles who was so moral that he attributed high principles to everyone around him.  The dance theater elements really left me cold—it felt like I was watching a poorly produced music video on YouTube. The kata at the end seemed endless and monotonous. Others in our group had much more positive reactions to the play, and the reactions seemed to split based on whether or not people liked to watch dance.  The dance fans loved the play, and the non-dance fans did not.

The Henry IV, part 1 had a good Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas) who was an excellent physical comic, and they really played the Eastcheap tavern scenes for all they could milk out of them, but the second half of the play fell flat.  Some of the cross-gender casting worked well (Lauren Modica as Glendower, for example), but I was not thrilled by Alejandra Escalante as Hotspur.  Don’t get me wrong—Ms. Escalante did a superb job of acting, but the machismo of the part made it very difficult.  (Note: I’m not at all opposed to cross-gender casting—last year’s female Hamlet at Santa Cruz Shakespeare was by far the best Hamlet I’ve seen.)  I think it would have been more interesting (though even more difficult) to make Hal be the female character—the father’s disappointment at not having a worthy son and Hal’s subsequent attempt to live up to the father’s dreams could have worked quite well as a female role, though the desire to keep the same actor for Henry IV, part 2 and for Henry V would have required a much bigger commitment to a female lead.  Some of our party thought that Falstaff’s comic acting was too much like minstrel shows, with too much caricature of black culture.  Others were uncertain whether Mr. Thomas was being directed to this caricature, or whether it was just his style of comic acting—I’m sure that black comics actors are forever wrestling with the dilemma of how to be funny to a wide audience without being disrespectful to their peers.  I’d be interested in hearing how black theatergoers react to his Falstaff.

Shakespeare in Love is a delightful romp through a lot of Shakespearean references (as well as big parts of Romeo and Juliet), and the actors and actresses all seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.  The play is pretty close to the movie (at least as I remember the movie), which is unusual in a stage-play adaptation of a movie.  I was impressed by the teen actor playing John Webster (Preston Mead)—he did a good job of portraying a particularly ghoulish character.I think that this play will have the widest audience appeal of any of the five we saw.

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo was the strangest play I’ve seen in some time, with a lot of dream sequences and non-linear story telling. All the money for the set was spent on a massive wall that tilted down to make a rooftop.  We were told that the counterweight for the wall weighed 8000 pounds, and that combined with the rest of the wall, the total weight was around 10000 lbs.  The counterweight was not taken out of the theater on the twice daily set changes, but the rest of the set was. I was particularly impressed with the lighting design (by David Weiner), as the set took on very different characteristics with no change in the set pieces, just from the lighting.  The only disappointing set piece was the “gazebo” at the end, which was symbolically represented by a chandelier—this felt like a we’ve-already-overspent-our-budget move, rather than an artisitic choice. The quick costume changes needed by the Shapeshifter (Jessica Ko) were also technically very challenging (some of the changes had to happen on stage, as there was only 5–10 seconds for them). The play had an emotional resonance for some of the Asian-Americans in our group and perhaps a few other second-generation immigrants, but I found it more of an intellectual puzzle than an emotional play (despite being a second-generation immigrant myself).  I really needed more time to ponder it, but we had Mojada to see the same evening, which rather cut short my time for rumination.

Mojada was definitely a gut-punching play (as you would expect from any adaptation of Medea). The script kept many of the elements of Euripedes’s play, though a number of characters were conflated to reduce the cast size.  The acting was strong, but I found the set rather distracting—trying to make an L.A. slum apartment look like Baba Yaga’s hut was a little too strained.  They might have been better off producing the play on a bare stage.

The high point of the trip to Ashland was not the five plays (though they were definitely worth seeing—or the 3 non-Shakespeare ones were).  The high point was visiting the production facilities in Talent, OR. The custom-built space is a Makerspace par excellence for theater lovers. They have all the usual tools: 3D printers, laser cutter, CNC router, CNC lathe, machine shop, two wood shops (props and scenery), spray paint booth big enough for a car, robotics workshop, … with huge amounts of space. One wall of the paint shop has a grid large enough to hang the largest flies that any of their theaters can use, with theatrical lighting for it so that they can paint the backdrops vertically, rather than having to lay them on the floor. Their scene shop has a full-size mockup of the theater stages, complete with a 14-foot-deep pit for testing lifts to the stage, and that mockup is a small fraction of the whole scene shop.

Almost half the building is taken up with storage for costumes and props. The costume collection is amazing, and they rent out everything to theater companies and schools (with a big discount for community theaters and schools).  Almost everything is photographed and indexed on the web (https://www.osfcostumerentals.org/OSF-Costume-Rentals).  The props are not so well indexed nor do they have a formal rental program, though they have occasionally rented out pieces on a case-by-case basis.

This wall of shoes is part of the shorter wall of the room—the long wall would not fit in any of my pictures, nor would the many rows of racks double-height racks of clothes.

I took a few pictures in the costume storage area, but none were able to capture the sheer magnitude of the space and the overwhelming number and variety of costumes. This picture shows just a tiny fraction.

The most recent play I’ve seen is Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, which is still showing at Center Stage (through April 29). The play is intended to be thought-provoking (about what standards should apply to online entertainments), but the themes are a bit tough for many audience members: child abuse and murder of virtual characters.  Like in many science fiction works, there was a bit too much exposition, but the actors managed to keep things moving despite that. The highlight of the play was the performance by Olivia Gillanders, a fourth-grade student who played the role of Iris, the child avatar that is abused and murdered (off-stage). Nick Bilardello as Mr. Doyle and Andrew Davids as Mr. Sims were also quite good.  I felt that the April Bennett (as Detective Morris) and Robert Gerbode (as Woodnut), did decent jobs, but were not up to the caliber of the rest of the cast—their delivery was sometimes a bit wooden, and the characters lacked the intensity of the others.  Part of that may be in the script—the characters didn’t have as good lines—but they could have done more with what they had to work with.

The set was very simple, being split between an interrogation room (stage right) and the virtual world called the Hideaway (stage left).  The interrogation room was done in greys and ultra-utilitarian furniture, while the Hideaway attempted to be a lush Victorian parlor (not quite successfully, as the theater company lacked the budget, but well enough to give the impression of a virtual-world Victorian parlor).

I felt a little sorry for the actors, as the house was only about half full last night (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a production at Center Stage that was not sold out before, as the house only seats 89 including the wheelchair spot). The play is worth seeing, and there are two more weekends (tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2729920). I recommend that people buy tickets, even if they can’t go, in order to keep small theater companies from going bankrupt in Santa Cruz.

In addition to these plays, other recent cultural events include Viva La Lehrer IV (April 8 @ Kuumbwa Jazz, a celebration of Tom Lehrer songs) and a visit to the crochet coral reef on display at the Porter Sesnon Gallery at UCSC (which my wife and I went to April 14).

The Lehrer songs were fun, though I could quibble with some of their selections and how much time they gave to the weaker performers compared to the stronger ones—I don’t feel any need to go to Viva La Lehrer again for about another 5 years.

The CO2CA-CO2LA Coral Reef exhibit runs at the Sesnon gallery until May 6.  I recommend it for kids as well as for adults (one part is mounted in a dark room that you explore with flashlights).

2016 August 26

Santa Cruz Shakespeare last weekend for 2016

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This is the last weekend for Santa Cruz Shakespeare (one show tonight, two each on Saturday and Sunday). I’ve seen all three plays this year, and definitely liked the Hamlet best (see 2016 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season and Santa Cruz Shakespeare has released Hamlet photos).

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has just released the photo call for the intern’s fringe showOrlando, which we saw in the sold-out closing performance last Wednesday.  The intern’s shows are always lively, low-budget romps, and this one was no exception. The directing reminded me a lot of the directing that John Pasha has done for the conservatories at WEST—a lot of choral work and lines split among several actors.  I don’t know whether this is just currently trendy (perhaps to equalize the number of lines per actor) or whether it is a considered choice for actors who are not quite up to long monologues and dialogues. Either way, it worked fairly well, and the cross-dressing and gender changing played well to a Santa Cruz audience. (Note: Orlando is all about gender roles and gender changing, so this was not a Santa Cruz interpretation put uncomfortably onto the play, but integral to the original concept.)

My son went to Ashland last week with WEST to see six plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  OSF was also doing Hamlet this summer, but their take on it had heavy metal guitar music. My son reported that the OSF Hamlet was good, but not as good as the Santa Cruz one (which he saw twice, once with us and once with the WEST conservatory group). I can see heavy metal music as appropriate for Hamlet, but not for Ophelia, whose madness is of a gentler sort.

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