Prince Hamlet is a moody death-metal addict with a messed-up ghost on his case.
The jealous monarch from The Winter’s Tale has become a tyrannical ruler in imperial China.
And the 70’s musical The Wiz is … well … The Wiz.
It’s hard to conceive of any scenario in which a presentation of ‘The Wiz’ – a variation on the Wizard of Oz set in a fantasy version of a New York ghetto – would be made to seem tame and safe, but safety is a matter of perspective. In what turns out to be Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s most daring and inventive summer season in years, the Allen Elizabethan Theater has now opened, presenting two supremely bold, thoroughly satisfying takes on William Shakespeare—and a perfectly pleasant production of The Wiz that, in any other year, might have actually felt like the risky choice.
Helmed by first-time OSF director Robert O‘Hara, the delightfully revolutionary 1975 adaptation of Frank Baum’s fantasy novel has been given a respectfully energetic staging that may comes as a shock to anyone who thinks that the 1978 Michael Jackson-Diana Ross movie was actually The Wiz. The movie version changed the tone, cut crucial songs, and transformed the sweetness of the stage show into confusing, uncomfortable, weirdness.
On a strikingly bare stage, a mostly African-American cast brings The Wiz to life, not with elaborate sets, but with brilliant costumes and over-sized, crystal clear performances. As Dorothy, Ashley D. Kelley is all kinds of adorable, and she leads an impressive cast of singers and actors who act first, sing second, and dance third, but fully capture the up-from-the-streets inspiration that is sewn into every beat of Charlie Smalls and William Brown’s groundbreaking show.
Compared to the committed, goofy comfort of The Wiz, Lisa Peterson’s freaky, gleefully transgressive art-house horror show of a Hamlet is the equivalent of setting fire to elementary school. Which is to say, it’s brilliant, but possibly not what anyone expected.
Danforth Comins’ angsty/angry prince carries an electric guitar, is haunted by the ghost of his dead father—who is seen running here and there past doorways and windows before suddenly appearing right next to his son. Hamlet is ominously “shadowed” by the ever-watching form of Neurosis guitarist Scott Kelly, accompanying the action on an array of instruments. The introduction Kelly’s Doom Metal music, intrinsically spring from feelings of anger and fear, is nothing short of ingenious, and the cast’s commitment the creepy beats of a classic horror story results in a Hamlet that is alternately thrilling, heartbreaking, and unforgettably disturbing.
Standing somewhere in between those two shows is Desdemona Chiang’s surprisingly effective staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, an emotionally complex, endlessly surprising interpretation of the Bard’s silliest and saddest romantic fantasy. Almost post-modern in structure, the story begins in Sicilia – transformed here into China – where the jealous king Leonates — becomes convinced that his wife, the devoted queen Herminone has been unfaithful.
The resulting series of misfortunes move the tale to Bohemia, here imagined as a kind of steampunk/Godspell version of the Old West, giving Shakespeare’s melancholy masterpiece a touch of Kung Fu. As Leonates abandoned daughter Perdita (Cindy Im, breathtakingly good) comes to adulthood in a foreign country, the patented forces of fate and Shakespearean soft-heartedness conspire to bring two broken families back together again.
Rarely has The Winter’s Tale made so much emotional sense, transformed with skill and affection into a play overflowing with sweet, life-affirming beauty.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs February to October, in Ashland, Ore. For information on all currently running shows visit osfashland.org.
I’m David Templeton Second Row Center, for KRCB