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Merry Time

Oregon fest puts together superb year for Shakespeare lovers

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IMMIGRANT SONG Sabina Zuniga Varela, right, is tough and vulnerable as Medea. - JENNY GRAHAM
  • Jenny Graham
  • IMMIGRANT SONG Sabina Zuniga Varela, right, is tough and vulnerable as Medea.

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."

So wrote William Shakespeare, and whichever day you choose, it's a good time to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which kicked off its 2017 season in February with a quartet of quality shows. One's a frisky stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, one's a bloody and visceral Julius Caesar, another is a highly entertaining take on the father-son history Richard IV, Part One.

The most impressive of the four (running through July 6 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre) is the brilliant drama 'Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles,' by the prolific L.A.-born writer Luis Alfaro, directed with power and passion by Juliette Carrillo.

Alfaro has adapted a number of classic Greek tragedies over the years, putting a Latino spin on such myths as Elektra and Oedipus Rex, and now Medea. In Mojada (Spanish for "wet," as in "wetback"), Medea is an undocumented Mexican seamstress living in L.A. with her common-law husband, Jason, her son, Acan, and her talkative, Greek chorus–like friend Tita. They are survivors of a brutal crossing from Mexico, which, we eventually learn, cost Medea much more than money or blood.

Played with ferocious fragility by a superb Sabina Zuniga Varela, Medea carries some very dark secrets—and a desperate fear of losing Jason (an excellent Lakin Valdez). He's a construction worker whose American dreams of money and influence have placed him in an uneasy alliance with the wealthy widow Armida (Vilma Silva, wonderful). Also an immigrant, though with a very different story of making her way to the States, Armida employs Jason as a contractor in her construction company, and may have her eye on him for more than just his house-building talents.

Medea's neighbor, the over-effusive Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), has yet another version of the modern immigrant story. She's a hard-working baker who rises early to make the bread she sells from a cart on the streets.

Anyone familiar with the Medea story will know where all of this is headed, and the machete occasionally wielded by Tita (wonderfully played by Vivis Colombetti) serves as a constant reminder of what's to come.

The set by Christopher Acebo is a little marvel of architectural beauty and poetry—a circle of chain link and concrete, and a tiny house that appears to float above the yard, with vast roots angling beneath it, beautifully suggesting the uprootedness and in-between-ness that constantly define Medea, much as it does, tragically, an entire generation of American dreamers.

'Julius Caesar,' also in the Bowmer Theater (through Oct. 29), is directed by Shana Cooper (of D.C.'s Wooly Mammoth company and the Bay Area's California Shakespeare Theater), widely acclaimed for her tightly stylized, occasionally off-putting, highly visual approach to classic and original plays. That style is certainly on display in her impressively visual Caesar, in which the war-and-violence themes of Shakespeare's story are played out on a set built of actively crumbling drywall, the action scenes propelled by wildly aggressive, aerobically impressive fight choreography, all of it underscored by the rhythmic, chant-like shouts and vocalizations of the fully committed cast.

As Caesar, longtime OSF member Armando Durán is wonderful. His subtle physicality and quickly shifting emotions brilliantly suggest the kind of politician some would distrust while others would worship. Roman senator Brutus, often played as the dark, brooding opposite of the virtuous Mark Antony, here becomes the central figure of the play. Played by Danforth Comins as a man of high intellect who is caught between his love for Caesar and his suspicions of powerful people, Brutus is easily manipulated by the angry Cassius (Rodney Gardiner), who despises Caesar for what he sees as the new leader's deeply hidden weaknesses and frailty. Antony (Jordan Barbour), usually the moral axis of the play, is portrayed as an opportunistic hothead, further placing the central ethical weight of the story on Brutus' shoulders.

When the inevitable slaying of Caesar takes place in the Capitol—simply suggested by rows of easily upended chairs—it is effectively bloody and horrific, and credit must be given to Durán for the emotional power this much-played scene manages to evoke, even pulling fresh power from the line "Et tu, Brute?"

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There is an appealingly stripped-down, industrial-decay vibe to every detail of the show, from the deceptive simplicity of Sibyl Wickersheimer's construction-site set to the plastic buckets used as stools and lanterns, to the flashlights used to illuminate actors faces during key meetings of the conspirators, to the castoff hoodies and Army-surplus grunge of Raquel Barreto's highly effective costumes.

There is a strong "indie theater" feel to the production, which sometimes feels lifted from some underground warehouse theater where brilliant artists do impressive work for next to no money. (The observation is meant as high praise.)

In the program's directors note, Cooper praises "the deep physical and emotional sacrifices that this fierce ensemble of actors contribute," and one gets a sense of it from the opening moments, as bewigged celebrants pound on the theater doors, invading the auditorium with whoops and hollers, stomping and dancing across the stage. In the play's second act—long accepted by scholars as a bit of a confusing mess compared to the play's lean, tight first act—the consequences of Caesar's murder play out in an escalating series of interchangeable skirmishes and bloody deaths.

It's here that Cooper's vision fully reveals itself. The battles, choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, are danced as much as they are fought, though these are no West Side Story rumbles. There is a true sense of terror and rage in these scenes, suggesting that the violence unleashed by the conspirators did not take much to set free. The easily manipulated populace, portrayed by the cast in eerie masks, commit compulsive acts of revenge every bit as savage as the murder of Caesar. Even after the final line has been spoken, the warriors' vigorous, frightening fight-dance continues, until we in the audience ask ourselves, "When is this ever going to stop?"

And that, of course, is the whole point of Julius Caesar and Cooper's offbeat but stirring approach to Shakespeare's tragedy, an examination of politics, manipulation, bloodshed and war, that ultimately demands to know, "When is this ever going to stop?"

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