Land of Ashes

[Written Friday morning 8/17]

It’s cool this morning in Ashland – 70 dry degrees under the shade of the old ponderosa pines whose roots reach deep into the cheerfully burbling Lithia Creek. I’ve loved Lithia Park, and it’s eponymous creek, since I was a girl in the first flush of my coming of age (perhaps 15?), and thought the college boys here were very grown indeed. I fell head over heels in love in 1992 with the romantic lead of “As You Like It” (the ever dreamy Ted Deasy), and have returned often enough to watch him begin taking the elder’s parts, as I have begun paying for my own tickets. (It’s a sorrow to me that he is not here this season!)

Ashland has lived up to it’s name in this week, with the sun blood red at noon with the smoke from a hundred encircling fires. As the air thickens, the theater goers are shifted from the grand outdoor Elizabethan theater to the surprisingly nice for a high school Ashland high school theater. But you cannot watch the stars rise above the flags for comedy, tragedy and history from the high school. Walking down uncommonly empty streets, faces are obscured by masks. It’s been nearly a month of unhealthy air here, and the stitch-ladies have begun turning their handicraft to N95 masks. I see more and more of them that appear attractive, artistic… permanent. Even the bright waters of Lithia seems murky with ash and fire-trace.

We saw no plays here

But while the very air we breathe may be turning against us, the actual art of Ashland is as superb as I have ever seen. I’m extraordinarily fortunate in finding a mate who likes theater as much as I do (I swear I don’t drag him – I proposed we go backpacking). So in the four days we are here, we will be seeing seven plays. We’re through five of them on this cool Friday morning, and my belief in the importance of art to show what it is you would rather not see has been swollen, like my heart.

Sense & Sensibility
I’ve never been a great lover of the Austin era romances. I’ve read a few of them, and enjoyed them, but never with the passionate ferver others express. My favorite version of Sense and Sensibility was actually a sci-fi sendup when the unsuitability of the young ladies had to do with their telekenetic and other powers. But this play was masterfully frenetic. It was almost tiring to watch the energy and enthusiasms of the young ladies and young men and gossips – the still patience of that eldest Miss Dashwood stood in most abrupt counterpoint to the chaos around her. It was a costume drama and a continual joy to the eyes. And at the end, when all the wheel of fortune ends it’s turning for the afternoon, there were tears standing in our eyes.

Book of Will
This was our first shift from the grand Elizabethan theater to the tiled halls of Ashland High, but as soon as the actor took the long trumpet in hand to herald the coming play, I was drawn completely in. This may be one of the most loving plays I have ever seen – showing long and happy marriages. It was a story of how it came to be that we still have the words of the Bard, against all odds and habit of the era. It was a good reminder of how much we owe to our forebears for their preservation of what is good and lovely. It was also very much a story of loss, and of the meaning of life. Will himself was years dead at the time of the telling, and the King’s Men (who knew his words) were also dying. The characters wrestled with questions of living now versus creating legacy, of what is owed to the honored dead, and of how to claim the very value of our days, especially when those days grow scarcer. It’s hard to say, but this might be my favorite of the plays.

Snow in Midsummer
There’s nothing quite like a good ghost story, and this one was very fine. It was a very modern retelling of an ancient Chinese story. What would happen if the honorable dead had the ability to demand justice from those who have killed them, and those who benefited from that killing? It was a very keen play, cutting to the heart of expectations, first impressions, and questions of justice versus love. It also spoke to the great modern themes of the changing climate of the world, the inequality of resources and justice, and the Chinese practice of harvesting organs from executed criminals. This is the sort of story that stays with you, and haunts your quiet thoughts.

Love’s Labors Lost
After dining with a long-lost college friend, we once again negotiated the process of getting and claiming our tickets for the Elizabethan in the high school instead. It was easier once we remembered we had a car. I’m very fond of Shakespeare’s comedies. Love’s Labors Lost seemed to echo the last two plays, with it’s sudden turn towards sorrow which questions the meaning and worth of all the drollery that makes the early acts such a frolic. In this one, I particularly noticed the costumes, going from white innocent frills throught the red of charming, lustful deceipts to the black of full mourning. The play is both a laugh at and a lamentation for youth. How very very young and innocent those kings and princesses are in the beginning. How sorrowful it is to see such folly vanish as it’s brought of age – and yet how hopeful at the same time.

Manahatta
Thursday was our light day, with only one play (and that one only 90 minutes long!). But it was a remarkable 90 minutes. Our culture is full of the trope of cowboys and indians, the winning of the west, the conquering of savagery by civilization. But from the eyes of the conquered, killed and often-displaced the story looks very different. This play was a heart-piercing dual story of the theft of the homes and lives of the Lenape people to claim the island of Manahatta for the Dutch. The wall for which Wall Street was named was built to keep them from their own homes. The second layer of the story, seamlessly interwoven, tells the tale of a Lenape woman with the highest credentials returning to Wall Street as part of the derivatives group in Lehman brothers. We watch again, in eerie echoes, as home foreclosures chase out native folks from their homes as inexorably as did colonists a few centuries before. It was devastating. It is also strange to see presented as historic remembrance things that I easily remember as they were happening. I was no child in 2008, and I remember how it felt to wonder just how far the normal order of the world would slip (as I do now).

Before each performance, for the first time ever, the company has remembered that these theaters sit on grounds once belonging to the Shasta and Takelma people. I understood better why a company that has memorized the lines from this remarkable production would be conscience-bound to confess this.

The Way the Mountains Moved
Not every play can be the best you’ve ever seen, although the OSF sure tries. This one was well acted and well executed but perhaps overly ambitious. In telling too many stories, it failed to tell any enough. It threw together the wild mix of manifest destiny Utah with Mormons, escaped slaves, 19th century naturalists, Mexican war veterans, Native Americans and pioneers. I had high hopes, but this one was not my favorite.

Henry V
This is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this was a masterful performance. I’ve never seen a Henry so vulnerable and human. His night-before fire visits, when he talks about how the King is also just a man, really resonated with the sound of truth. It made his Crispin Crispian speech all the better, when you know that he’s fighting his own feelings, doubts and fears in order to make such a bold stand. I wish I’d gotten to see the full cycle of Hal plays with this lead actor – he was superb!

Taken all together, my heart, mind & conscience have been moved by my time here. We’ve been debating the role of art for a few hundred years now (if not longer). I find as most precious this kind of art – that makes me see things I cannot myself see from where I stand. It teaches me something of what I do not know. I have never found another place that does such art as well (or even nearly as well) as Ashland does it. I wish you could all be here, and watch these plays with me, and be moved.

What the Grownups Were Doing

So I’ve been giving you the Camp Gramp updates for the last week or so. Obviously, Adam and I were not with our children. So what were we doing? A quick litany, for my remembrance and your enlightenment.

Wellspring's new Sanctuary
Wellspring’s new Sanctuary

Friday night: Fly in. Very tired. Zzzzzz.

Saturday: Go to Seattle for family picnic and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The family picnic was lovely. I got to see all my uncles & aunts on that side, if few of my cousins. The playground location meant that that kids had fun too. This was the first time my kids had gone to G&S. They were beautifully behaved, but a not-insignificant reason for that was because they were, well, asleep. Hard to fight the time zones, late hour, exercise and dark theater, I guess!

Sunday: Church (where I got to be the pianist) was followed by a quick lunch. Then Adam and I went up to Paradise on Mt. Rainier. It was snowy and crowded up there, but we had a nice hike. We came down and then went to Wellspring. It is such a glorious place she has built there for weddings. We hiked through her lovely grounds, got massages and sat in the hot tub with the best view ever.

Monday: We drove down to Ashland. We took the direct route instead of the ocean route, which made the 8 hour trip seem short by comparison.

Tuesday: We saw As You Like It. This is one of my favorite comedies, as beautifully executed as only Ashland can do it. (This was the play that initiated my celebrity crush on Ted Deasy back in 1997.)

Wednesday: We skipped our traditional three hour breakfast to go White Water River Rafting on the Upper Klamath. It was AWESOME. We saw tons of ospreys, quite a few bald eagles, and some adorable otters. The whitewater was fantastic. Seriously, those rapids are something else. It was awesome. However, we were TIRED when we got back that night, and we still had a play.

That night we saw Henry V, which I had just seen in London at that Globe theater. These were very different productions. That Henry had been downright funny, playing up the comedic aspects to the hilt. Ashland’s Henry V walked away from the humor and the funny lines, dwelling on the martial themes with absolute seriousness. As usual, I was ready to sign up on the dotted line after the Crispin Crispian days speech.

Thursday: We took our regular 3 hour breakfast. (I’ve been reading through Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). That night we saw The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, which was a rewritten version of Shakespeare’s. They held on to the blank verse and the plot, but the marriages in question were gay marriages and the jokes very topical. It was VERY FUNNY. (And hey! It had Ted Deasy!)

Friday: Our last day out. Only a two hour breakfast. Before we left, though, one more play. We, through luck and good fortune, were at the world premiere performance of All the Way. The audience was packed with actors and dignitaries – the theater sold out. It was absolutely amazing. Our favorite play last year had been a Ghost Light… this was our favorite play this year. It went through Lyndon B. Johnson’s passing of the Civil Right’s Act and reelection. If that sounds dry, it wasn’t. It was very entertaining, and extremely educational (for those of us who did not live through it). There were big laughs, and times of tears. It was fascinating to hear how the arguments have changed in the last fifty years… and how they have not changed one whit. Some of the same arguments being made around civil rights you can still hear being made today. It was amazing. I highly recommend you go see it.

And now we’re back in Mineral, surrounded by young people who are related to us and getting ready to fly back to Boston tonight.

It was a great week!!!!

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When I returned to the office after a week’s vacation, in the standard office small talk lots of people asked me where I went. “I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.” For some people I had to explain that the festival is not a weekend-long amateur production. Others needed to be told that Ashland was in the south of the State – near the California border. Still others (in their defense, mostly my non-US colleagues) had to be told where Oregon was. But not a single person had heard of the festival.

This is tragic. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) should be internationally known and lauded. As their “About us” states:

Founded in 1935, the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is among the oldest and largest professional non-profit theatres in the nation. Each year OSF presents an eight-and-a-half-month season of eleven plays in three theatres plus numerous ancillary activities, and undertakes an extensive theatre education program. Operating on a budget exceeding $26 million, OSF presents more than 780 performances annually with attendance of approximately 400,000.

In other words, this is not a rinky-dink theater in the middle of nowhere. This is a theatrical powerhouse nestled between sea and ocean in one of the loveliest small towns I’ve ever seen. In my youth, I went to Ashland most summer’s with my Godfather. I learned an abiding love of Stoppard with Arcadia in 1996. I fell in love with Ted Deasy in “As You Like It” in 1997. I met Bobby McFerrin, barefoot and whistling, on the street the night after watching him rehearse an orchestra at the nearby Britt Festival. I have warm and lovely memories tied up there.

So this summer, when I heard they were doing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance on the open-air Elizabethan stage, I decided that this is where we were going to spend our summer’s leisure. And it was a very, very good choice!

We had tickets originally for four plays, but “rushed” a matinee play on our middle day. This is an excellent plan, if I may opine. Also, that rush play was the very best of our viewing there, leading me to be relieved and delighted we picked it up!

Tuesday – King Henry IV Part II
This was the last of the Henry’s I had not seen. I’m quite fond of Shakespeare’s histories. I liked Henry IV part I and I loved Henry V, so I was glad to see this bridge play between the boy and the man who stood on that French battlefield. But Henry IV Part II is really Full of Falstaff. It must be a difficult play to stage because, in truth, it is not one of Shakespeare’s best. The two concurrent plots seem very far from each other – suppressing the rebellion and Falstaff’s foolings. It seems as though one or the other could easily be edited out without affecting the counterpart. The production was an excellent one. My favorite interpretation element was having one of the characters deaf/mute, who communicated with Hal through this expressive and easily understood sign language. The flicker of hands and the unexpected element of interpretation was a delight to me. Still, the theater was half full and the play faded fast from memory. If you can see only one play at Ashland… not this one. (Although if you are seeing several, it should be on your list!)

Wednesday afternoon – Ghost Light
This was our accidental play. The promo text did not sound promising. Few experience the death of a parent against the backdrop of history. In Taccone’s evocative new play, Jon is a theatre director haunted for years by the assassination of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. When asked to stage a production of Hamlet, the ghost of the king stalks the battlement of Jon’s mind and heart, and he is summoned to confront his long buried feelings. Smartly laced with poetry and wit, this world premiere is rooted in a crime that shocked a nation and changed a city—and a young boy—forever.

In fact, it didn’t sound promising at all. But I really really didn’t want to see Measure for Measure and it was half priced so….

People. It was fantastic. The dialogue sparkled. The fourth wall was breached in a most fascinating manner. The boundaries between reality, perception and dream were powerfully crossed and braided. The acting was superb. The characters were people you wanted to know and to sit with. There was one of the best awkward scenes I’ve ever seen acted. (Of course, that it included my long-time heartthrob Ted Deasy was just a bonus.) From first scene to closing, it was superb. I would strongly recommend that should you find yourself passing by Ashland, you stop and see this play.

Wednesday night – Pirates of Penzance
My family has a long, long history with Gilbert and Sullivan, and with Pirates in particular. At about Thane’s age, my brother watched a video version of Pirates (with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronsadt and Angela Lansbury … truly worth seeing some sad night when you need cheering up). But this blessed video was played every single day in my household for over two years. Sometimes twice a day. We can, collectively, sing the whole thing together. I know every line of this operetta.

Ashland was one of the few places I could count upon to improve, not disappoint. And I was not disappointed! The staging was a delight. There was a live orchestra (of course) and the conductor played a visible role in the play. There were periodic lapses into other musical idioms – all amusing – before snapping back to Sullivan’s original-as-written text. Through it all, the cast moved and flew and lunged and trotted (often with the assistance of tuxedo’d, white gloved assistants) across the Elizabethan. The production was full of fun and energy and enthusiasm – as it should be. There were just enough departures to keep me on my toes, but enough time spent on the original that I didn’t feel cheated. Perfect. I would recommend you see it – but good luck getting tickets!

Thursday afternoon – The African Company presents Richard III
I had originally thought this was actually Richard III. But no, it was about a freed black troupe attempting to put on a production of Richard III at the same time as a white company nearby. There were a few promising moments – a few speeches, a few exchanges, a few plot threads… but on the whole it disappointed. The drama of the black/white conflict was diluted. The love-plot seemed abandoned halfway. Instead of a tight interweaving of multiple plot threads, it seemed just disjointed. This was the first week the play was open, so there’s hope that it will somehow tighten. It was also produced in the temporary tent necessitated by the cracking of a structural beam in the Bowmer, so that couldn’t have helped.

Thursday night – Love’s Labours Lost
We closed our theatrical week with a bit of cotton candy. Love’s Labours Lost is one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays, with a group of boys and a group of girls playing with each other’s expectations, well mixed with a troupe of fools wandering through. This production was fun, light and did an excellent job of making the almost entirely verse play easy to follow for modern audiences. It was lovely to look upon and very funny when the text permitted it. It was a wonderful play to disprove the idea that Shakespeare is boring to a young person. It was a lovely way to end our stay.

There were two plays that, having talked with our fellow theater-goers, I really WISH I had been able to see. I was told by a fellow patron that August: Osage County might well be one of the best plays written in the last 100 years. Even putting aside such hyperbole, it came so highly recommended that I was sad I couldn’t fit it into our schedule. We also really wanted to see The Imaginary Invalid, mostly because Moliere is fun.

It was a superb way to spend a week of vacation.

Tongue-tied

Some of what I've missed telling you about
Some of what I've missed telling you about

When you get out of the habit of frequent posting, you get tongue-tied. There’s a pressure behind your speech, of all the things you meant to say that are unsaid. This blog is part friendship, part letter home, part baby-book, part journal and part sanity check. But it also only touches a portion of my life. There are realms of my life that go unsaid and undocumented here. For example, I rarely talk about work in any but the vaguest of ways because, uh, not to put too fine a point on it but it’s really dumb to talk a lot about the details of your work in your personal blog. (See also: Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

Why haven’t I written very much lately? There are a few elements. First of all is the sheer time/energy factor. I’m really crazy super annoyingly busy. I just simply don’t get much downtime between a full time job, obnoxious commute, small children, real dinner, housework, church work (another place I’m horrendously behind/lax) and needing 8 good hours of sleep a night.

Second is, truly, that tongue-tied factor. It’s harder to restart than it is to continue.

Third is the stoooopid leg. OK, a bit more story here. We all remember how I brilliantly busted my knee leaping off a 5 foot stone wall. Right. Then we all remember how much BETTER I was getting. Well, about a week and a half ago, doing yoga as prescribed by the orthopedic surgeon to restore my flexibility before I hurt myself, I stretched the opposing tendon to my injured one. It seemed minor. I went to PT the next day and we got some stretches to work on that. Look how GOOD I was being people! Then on Thursday night I went to dinner with people I totally didn’t know. It was fun. I sat with my knee bent, which was sort of novel and fun because I hadn’t really been able to sit that way for two months! When I went to get up, uh, I couldn’t. I really, really, really couldn’t walk. I couldn’t put any pressure on that leg. I needed help to get to my car, which sheesh. Talk about embarrassing! Then my knee blew up to balloon size.

I did the only logical thing I could do. We left the next morning to go camping.

Then my stoooopid lower back which I’ve totally had completely under control since Thane was born decides that one bum joint isn’t enough. I have kept my lower back issues under control with a combination of massage and core strength. With the enforced inactivity, the core strength has been compromised, and the additional pulling off of significant limpage has caused some serious back issues which infuriates me past speech.

So yeah, things have taken longer than they usually do and I’ve been in pain.

And fourth? Well, there are big things afoot in the parts of my life I don’t talk about here. And that’s where I’ll leave that, in incredibly tantalizing and confusing form. Best of all, from an annoying-my-readers point of view, if this thing doesn’t pan out, you’ll never know what it was! Muahahahah! If it does pan out, it’s too big to not be mentioned here. So you should cheer for success with it (which makes it clear, I hope, that the THING is an opportunity not a threat).

So what haven’t I told you? Well, we went to The Gloucester Fiesta with our neighbors the weekend before last, and had a complete blast. Watching our kids play together in the surf (in their diapers, the weather was supposed to be awful but turned amazing!) in the foreground while the walking of the greasy pole went on the in the background totally made my day.

Grey has started summer camp. It seems fun, but extremely tiring and logistically challenging. Each day is different and requires different gear! On the other hand, they get two fantastic field trips a week!

I am on my third batch of jam for the summer. So far there’s two strawberry and one strawberry rhubarb.

We went camping for the 4th weekend (see also: things that are challenging with one leg). I took no pictures. Our Saturday was fantastic. Our Sunday was good. We came home Sunday night, and then had fun watching fireworks with Crazy Unka Matt on the 4th proper. Grey fell asleep in the kitchen chair eating a post-fireworks snack.

The meeting I was at when my knee conked out was a really neat one about setting up a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in Boston focused on food justice. The best part was all the locally sourced dishes that were fed to us there. YUM!!!! Or maybe the best part was the fun and interesting ideas tossed around. It’s hard to pick.

We’re getting ready for our summer vacation. My knee has BETTER behave, but I find it oddly prescient of myself that for once I opted NOT to go backpacking this summer. Instead, we’re going to Ashland Oregon. We’ll be seeing 5 plays in a week for our vacation, and I can’t wait.

OK, those are the big things I’m willing to talk about. What’s going on with YOU?