Thursday, October 4, 2012

OSF: All the Way and Party People

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival took us back to the 1960s and the civil rights movement with two marvelous world premiere plays commissioned as part of American Revolutions, its U.S. history cycle. All the Way was written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, and Party People was written by UNIVERSES and directed by Liesl Tommy.

Jack Willis as LBJ. OSF photo
by Jenny Graham
All the Way is the story of the first 11 months of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through election night, 1964, when LBJ swamped Barry Goldwater. It's a fascinating study of Johnson, played brilliantly by Jack Willis, and portrays the hardball politics it took to pass the Civil Rights Act and the challenges LBJ faced on the way to the nomination that summer.

LBJ is an interesting character. He won passage of the civil rights act through pure force of will and political skill, and many of the programs this year's candidates are arguing about sprouted from his presidency. Yet he was clearly a flawed individual, and his handling of the Vietnam War was ultimately his undoing. The play portrays a moment after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, after which Johnson supposedly proclaimed, "We have lost the South for a generation." Sure enough, in 1964 LBJ won by a landslide, with Goldwater getting just 52 electoral votes, from his home state of Arizona and the rest from five states in the deep South. It's been more than a generation, and they haven't flipped back.

The set was clever and changed deftly from office to hotel room to Senate floor to campaign trail to convention hall. The acting was top-notch all around, but in addition to Willis I'll single out two other great performances: Richard Elmore was truly creepy as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Jonathan Haugen terrific as Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Christopher Livingston at Malik. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
Party People is a fantastic play created by UNIVERSES, a theater collective including Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp, and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja. They, along with a host of OSF company members, tell the story of the old veterans of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, through the high-tech lens of today's hip-hop generation. 

Young men Malik (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz) pull off a reunion of the Panthers and Lords at an art gallery exhibit that tells their stories. They use multiple video cameras and screens, hip-hop, gospel music, spirituals, dance, and recorded interviews artfully interspersed to tell the stories of the oppression and racism the two groups were faced and were fighting. It also revealed lingering tensions between the groups and their members, even a generation later, as the old leaders had escaped the limelight but were still fighting the fight, and being watched by the FBI.

There's some great musical talent in the cast. Sapp, Ruiz-Sapp, and Ruiz are good. We're always taken aback, too, at the musical talent of Michael Elich. When we first saw him he was kicking butts as Aufidius in Coriolanus back in 2009, but he's a musical guy, too, playing Harold Hill in The Music Man and the pirate king in Pirates of Penzance.  

We're typically skeptical of the use of high-tech effects in theater,  tending to prefer to let people tell the stories. The whiz-bang is sometimes used as a crutch, or employed for no discernable reason, but this production used such tools liberally and it worked. Ruiz was creepy as a clown who was the MC of the reunion and dug at the foibles and contradictions of pretty much everyone in the room. The set was a pretty simple stage with multi-level metal scaffolding at one end, with the word REVOLUTION in big, lighted caps at the top and multimedia screens behind the scaffolding. The show was engaging, fresh, exhilarating, and thought-provoking.

Party People runs at the New Theatre and All the Way at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through Nov. 3. See both for some great perspectives on one of the more interesting and challenging eras in U.S. history.

Props to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its commitment to American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The 10-year program will commission as many as 37 new plays--the same number in Shakespeare's canon--about key moments in our nation's history. Two other plays have been produced in the series: American Night in 2010 and Ghost Light last year.

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