Friday, August 5, 2011

Government-sponsored Theater

I'm back in Ashland, Oregon, finishing up a week of Shakespeare with my daughter and family.

It's always something of a trial, of course. The Shakespeare, not the family. Because Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is liberal-land.

The whole experience is a bit like watching the mainstream media: liberals telling each other how wonderful they are.

This year, all three plays we watched are GSEs: government-sponsored entertainment, as in the program's announcement that

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's productions of Measure for Measure; Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Part II and Love's Labor's Lost are part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, a national theater initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest.

Obviously, when you do a project like that, it turns out to be tuned to political perfect pitch. That means that the cast is exquisitely racially balanced, a lot of the plays are directed by women, Julius Caesar is played by a woman, and the humor is physically exaggerated so that even someone that has never cracked a book can get the jokes. It also means that a lot of the physical gestures of TV-land get imported into the productions. TV is our modern cultural lingua franca, and live theater has to learn to speak TV-speak or lose its audience.

Having said that, I found that under the dross you can still find the timeless question at the center of Love's Labor's Lost, the daunting question for any young woman: How can she trust the man wooing to get between her legs? He's thrown up all his grand plans as soon as he's caught the twinkle in her eyes. Very nice, very flattering. But then what? The answer is the old answer: better make him work for it.

In Henry IV, Part II there is still the question of the rising generation: will it amount to anything? Will it ever get serious? And as for the ruling generation, can we ever get out from under the debt of its quarrels, its enmities, its hypocrisies?

Unfortunately, the Julius Caesar had nothing in particular to recommend it. You'd hardly realize that she, Caesar, was a standout army commander and power politician. You'd hardly realize that the play was about ruthless high politics between the great ruling families of a great empire rather than a bunch of actors doing a workshop production in their street clothes. But maybe you can't expect a new generation, especially a new generation that helped elect Barack Obama as president, to have a clue about politics. Maybe director Amanda Dehnert should have had the courage of her convictions and had the conspirators conversing with iPhones and Facebook.

Never mind, the weather was glorious, the swimming was good, and the visit with my daughter and her family delightful as I played the role of grumpy old grandpa the best I knew how.

But next year, next year we'll be right in the middle of the liberal Annus Horribilis and the meaning of Mistress Quickly's demand that she'll have "no swaggerers here" may apply to the body language of that eternally marginalized Ashland minority. I am talking about conservative Shakespeare lovers.

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