On July 2, 1935, a production of "Twelfth Night" was staged within the leftover retaining walls of a once-dome-covered Chautauqua hall in Ashland, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was born. If you go to Ashland this weekend to celebrate the festival's 75th anniversary weekend, you can see a current (and quite charming) "Twelfth Night." But these days, the shows on the grand open-air Elizabethan Stage that now occupies the old Chautauqua site open in June.
And the complex festival schedule calls for "The Merchant of Venice" -- the other play that was presented at the first festival -- to be performed on July 2. The direct echo across the decades is lost. But the anniversary will be marked by something even more fitting for a theater company dedicated to balancing respect for tradition with a forward-thinking spirit.
Friday is the official opening performance of "American Night," the first production to result from OSF's ambitious, 10-year commissioning project, "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle." Written by Richard Montoya of the Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash, the play is subtitled "The Ballad of Juan José," and it tells a fantastic tale of one Mexican immigrant's journey to learn the history of his adopted country and pass the test for American citizenship.
Juan José is anxiously and diligently studying on the night before the test, so intent on his goal that he plans to stay up all night. But when sleep overtakes him, the characters and situations from his citizen's almanac and his flash cards blend into a time-skipping, perspective-shifting dream. The play becomes a wild, often comic, kaleidoscope of people, events, ideas, images: the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (ceding huge swaths of Mexican territory to the U.S.), the WWII Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, "tea party" town-hall meetings, Shakespearean paraphrasing ("Hath not a Mexican eyes?"), Joan Baez, Jackie Robinson, Celia Cruz.
Through the course of his dream journey, Juan José comes face to face with the beautiful and not-so-beautiful aspects of the American story and the American character.
Culture Clash was part of the first set of history cycle commissions, first announced in 2008, and "American Night" was targeted early on as the first play that would be brought to the OSF stage.
"The primary reason was their passion for telling the story of an immigrant," says Alison Carey, the director of the history cycle project.
"We always talk about being a nation of immigrants, but the decision to become an American is something a lot of us never face. We wanted that to be the first question asked, that most basic question of American identity."
True to the Culture Clash approach, "American Night" is full of insider references -- for many different sorts of insiders. There are specific cultural nods to the Northwest, Mexico, '60s counterculture devotees and so on. It's an unruly, polyglot kind of storytelling.
And that was another appeal to putting it first in the series.
"Culture Clash always surprises," says Carey, who is familiar with the troupe from her years with Cornerstone Theatre in Los Angeles, where Culture Clash frequently works. "And we wanted to say from the outset that there are all kinds of history that will be told."