Assassination. Rebellion. War. The epic new "American Revolutions" project thrusts contemporary political history into the spotlight at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Last year, the ambitious U.S. history cycle gave birth to the world premiere of "Ghost Light," a memoir of the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. This year, OSF targets the politics of change in "Party People," a documentary theater piece about the rise of Black Panther movement, and "All the Way," a distillation of the turbulent first year of LBJ's presidency in the wake of JFK's slaying.
An American roster
Led by director Allison Carey, "American Revolutions" echoes Shakespeare history plays by creating a canon of 37 new plays that reflect periods of political upheaval in American history. Many of the plays are built on scholarly research, grass-roots interviews and community outreach in order to give birth to a roster of plays that capture the scope of the American experience.
Going beyond the folio but still echoing the rigor and ambition OSF brings to the Bard, this new play cycle hopes to paint a kaleidoscopic view of our nation, its struggles and its triumphs, to illuminate turning points in history.
"We are hoping to spark a dialogue about the national identity," says Carey. "What is America? What does it stand for? We want to follow the passion of the artists and the audiences and what is happening now in our country to illuminate the past and help us look to the future."
The mixture of plays in the cycle includes docudramas, comedies and musicals. That unruly juxtaposition of laughter and tragedy, the ancient and the modern is at the heart of artistic director Bill Rauch's aesthetic. One of oldest and largest repertory companies in the country, OSF has earned a reputation for firing on all cylinders from the classical to the au courant.
In a single weekend at OSF, a theatergoer can bop from the giddy mashup "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" and the world premiere of Mary Zimmerman's fantastical "White Snake" (which transfers to Berkeley Rep in the fall) to the rarely staged Shakespearean tragedy "Troilus and Cressida." If you yearn for an eclectic theatrical marathon, Ashland beckons.
"The beauty of 'American Revolutions' is how theatrical artists are now joining the community of storytellers who tell the story of our past," says Jonathan Moscone, whose tragic family history was revisited in "Ghost Light." "History is personal ... I couldn't have been more honored and excited and moved to be part of OSF's profound initiative to include theatrical artists in the telling of our national stories."
Getting wacky in Iowa
For her part, Carey also wrote the silly Shakespearean riff, "The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa," the randy antics of the down-on-his-luck Sen. John Falstaff, who has just lost the Iowa caucuses and is on the prowl for new, ahem, constituents. Democracy is exposed as a messy sausage factory of ideas where candidates are cranked out with few thoughts of hygiene.
"In an election year, it's important to look at the presidency and the institutions of change," notes Carey wryly, "as well as the lasting impact of the '60s."
"Party People" examines the legacy of the Black Panthers, the black civil-rights organization founded in Oakland in 1966, and the Young Lords, the New York-based Puerto Rican civil-rights group it inspired. The play explores the scope of these groups' ambitions, from the militant response to racism to the social safety net they championed. Among the programs they spearheaded are free school lunches, preschool, garbage pickup and low-cost health care for impoverished neighborhoods often neglected by the system.
Created by Universes, a theater collective including Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz Sapp and William Ruiz, the play draws on interviews conducted from East Harlem to East Oakland. "Party People" celebrates the origins of protest in the love of country at a time when a new youth movement is arising.
"How do we own that legacy?" asks Carey. "The timing of these plays may seem fortuitous, but artists are always responding to what they see in the culture. Look at Occupy Wall Street -- protest movements are being reinvigorated right now."
Carey relishes the fact the play debuts on the Fourth of July, because it's an expression of the patriotic impulse.
"The Fourth is a celebration of democracy, it's a celebration of history as well as of hot dogs and parades," she says. "It's a time to stop and take stock."
"All the Way" scrutinizes LBJ's volatile first year in the Oval Office amid the chaos of the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam War. The winds of change rocked the presidency and the nation.
A watershed year
"1964 was a pivotal year; that was the year everything changed in American political history," says Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan ("The Kentucky Cycle"). "I am interested in the big picture approach to history, telling the long story of American themes."
In a culture smitten with the future, "American Revolutions" give us a rare chance to look backward, to see our lives in the context of our shared heritage.
"History can seem inevitable and unchangeable, but truly, history is about a million different people making a million different choices," says Carey. "We are all making history right now."
Oregon Shakespeare Festival: 2012 Season
"Romeo and Juliet," by William Shakespeare (through Nov. 4)
"Animal Crackers," book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby (through Nov. 4)
"The White Snake," adapted by Mary Zimmerman (through July 8)
"Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," adapted by Bill Rauch & Tracy Young (through Nov. 3)
"All the Way," by Robert Schenkkan (July 25-Nov. 3)
"Seagull," by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Libby Appel (through June 22)
"Troilus and Cressida," by William Shakespeare (through Nov. 4)
"Party People," by Universes and Liesl Tommy (July 3-Nov. 3)
"Henry V," by William Shakespeare (through Oct. 12)
"The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa," adapted from Shakespeare by Alison Carey (through Oct. 13)
"As You Like It," by William Shakespeare (through Oct. 14)
Where: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore.
Tickets: $21-$100; 800-219-8161;