Girl, Boy, Girl
Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella is the latest opening at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season, and it’s very, very unusual. And very, very good, if you have a broad background and are open to a little weirdness.
Here’s the sitch: three plays, excerpted because three full plays on one stage would take like, nine hours or be totally unintelligible. Three excerpted plays, excerpted such that the similarities and contrasts are emphasized. Three plays, excerpted so that the similarities and contrasts are emphasized, running at times simultaneously, at others interwoven, at others independently. Three plays, from across twenty-five centuries of writing for the theater, excerpted to keep their plots intact in a third of their usual individual running times, juxtaposed, combined, interwoven, and made to form a unified and coherent whole.
Let me put it in terms everyone can easily understand: FAA facility levels. That local airport that has a tower but serves only light prop (private) aircraft, one step up from the unattended grass field you trained at in a Piper Cub, is probably a level 5. Smaller regional commercial airports, like Kalamazoo or Medford, are a level 6. Portland (Oregon) and Baltimore are 9s. O’Hare, LAX, and Atlanta are all 12s. 12 is as high as it goes (I guess they never saw Spinal Tap).
This play would be something like a 14 or 15 if one tried to keep track of it all, because, unlike a FAA controller, the audience here can’t tell one or more sets of actors to PLEASE SHUT UP AND LET US LISTEN to the others. So there are sections with dialogue from three different plays being spoken, punctuated by sections in which one or two plays have speaking roles and the others are merely moving around the stage, fighting, dancing, or otherwise engaged in physical dialogue.
If that all sounds maddening, confusing, or just strange, it is.
It’s also brilliant, revelatory, and amazing.
Here’s a play that juxtaposes two classic plays and one classic musical, rips the best bits from each, holds them out to the audience and asks “what do you think?” And it will make the audience think, because it’s impossible to watch scenes from each with complementary and contrasting scenes from the others, and not be taken by the audacity of the authors’ reaching across two and a half millennia of playwriting to make the connections on stage, in real-time, in front of an unpredictable audience, instead of in a play-reading forum or a dry, professorial analysis.
I will say, this is a play for which one must do a little homework. If one has managed to avoid all productions ever of Macbeth or Medea, and all knowledge of the plots of either, and was raised in an environment in which Cinderella would have been considered unholy because it has a witch (the Fairy Godmother), then one must crack a book or put in a DVD and get at least the basics of the stories involved. It’s simply not possible for the authors and cast to make them so clear that one can follow the plots ab initio, because too many important chunks–important to the individual plays, not to this new whole–must be left out in order to have the whole clock in at just under three hours (one intermission; we take Advil). And asking ones neighboring theater goers what is happening and why the nice actress is doing that will get one a well-deserved stink-eye and shushing.
As the authors put it in their notes (I am paraphrasing; any errors mine), Ashland and OSF, with its self-selecting audience of committed theater-goers, may have one of a small number of audiences sufficient in number and concentration to make staging this worthwhile. This is decidedly not the play one who is not an avid theater goer should attempt on a whim, or when looking for an evening’s after-dinner entertainment. It’s a sprint and a marathon, all while trying to play a game of handball.
But, if one is at least reasonably familiar with the three underpinning works, this is definitely a unique (in the strictest sense) work that should be experienced at least once. We’ll definitely be headed back for another look or two.