Reviews of four of the plays running in repertory in the 2016 OSF season: “The Winter’s Tale,” “Richard II,” “Roe” and “Vietgone.”

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Though increasingly focused on presenting contemporary dramas and an array of musicals, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can’t, won’t and shouldn’t abandon its original mission: the plays of its celebrated namesake. That’s still the main draw of the Ashland, Ore., company, which has the acting and design resources no other Northwest theater can muster for the task.

Under the leadership of current artistic director Bill Rauch, and his predecessor Libby Appel, OSF has kept faith with the Bard of Avon while gradually but firmly steering away from straightforward, Elizabethan-style mountings of the canon. Today OSF (like many classic companies) tends to reconceptualize and reconfigure and pop-musical-ize Shakespeare, with a modern slant — sometimes to a play’s detriment, at best with a bracing vigor that makes the audience rethink and reconnect to this theatrical treasure trove.

The 2016 OSF season, which runs through October, offers a “Twelfth Night” in Hollywood musical mode; a popular, grungy “Hamlet,” with heavy- metal-guitar accompaniment; and an update of the rarely performed riches-to-rags fable, “Timon of Athens.”

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The fest runs through Oct. 30 in Ashland, Ore.; info and tickets: 800-219-8161 or osfashland.org.

Two other Shakespeare works, “Richard II” and “The Winter’s Tale,” are also on tap. Seen back to back, they illuminate the power of an incandescent text, as well as the mixed blessings of an awkward retrofit.

“Richard II”

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For those who don’t know the poetic and psychological richness of “Richard II,” Bill Rauch’s gripping staging unearths it — figuratively and literally.

The wooden stage in OSF’s smallest venue, the Thomas Theatre, is pocketed with trap doors that pull open to reveal mini-plots of soil and sand — evocative allusions to such lines as, “Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth” and, famously, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

The saga of a brash ruler’s reckless abuse of power, followed by his brutal comeuppance and existential epiphany, is dispatched fluently and propulsively by a cast full of polished OSF veterans. In Rauch’s rendering, every word is crisply heard, and every action befits the word. So do the artful projections and Christopher Akerlind’s mercurial lighting effects.

In the title role, Christopher Liam Moore initially affects the high-pitched whine of a spoiled brat, whose petulant land grabs and sarcastic snipes at royal relations frustrate, and soon alienate, his wronged kinsmen.

The trick is getting from there to Richard’s crash-landing discovery of his own fallible humanity. After an insurrection led by his cousin Bolingbroke (the excellent Jeff King) strips away his crown and gaudy modern duds (including a ringmaster’s top hat and red tails), Moore’s failed monarch seems smaller, paler, vulnerable, quieter. He meets his fate with defiance, wonder, and finally with a kind of tender, anguished grace, poignantly drawn in a final goodbye to his queen (Sarah Jane Agnew).

This compelling “Richard II” whets the appetite for Shakespeare’s War of the Roses cycle of kingship dramas, which OSF will mount over coming seasons in chronological historical order, starting in 2017 with “King Henry IV,” Parts One and Two.

“The Winter’s Tale”

While “Richard II” embellishes upon recorded history, “The Winter’s Tale” has been classified as a fanciful “romance,” as a comedy (it ends with marriage and remarriage) and as a psychologically acute “problem play.”

Directed by Desdemona Chiang (who is based in Seattle and the Bay Area), the outdoor staging in OSF’s Allen Elizabethan Pavilion accentuates how the mercurial text divides into very distinctive halves. And integrating them into one production is a tall order.

The first half presents a case of a king’s raging male jealousy, inevitably bringing to mind Shakespeare’s earlier tragedy of “Othello.” Then, with a flourish of hocus-pocus (a magic spell, an abandoned infant, a bear attack), a bucolic romp kicks in.

The OSF program frames its interpretation as the theater’s “first Shakespeare play staged through an Asian-American lens.” There are several Asian-American actors in prominent roles. And the original Sicilian setting has been transformed into an austerely beautiful royal court in ancient China.

But after King Leontes (Eric Steinberg, an imposing figure who doesn’t always enunciate clearly) drives away loved ones and his best friend in a roaring fit of sexual suspicion, the action makes a jarring leap into a hippie-fied Bohemia circa the Woodstock era. This creates a striking visual contrast all right, from royals and their bowing servants attired in long white robes to flower children cavorting with a street rocker-rogue (Stephen Michael Spencer) and folksy sheepherders.

There are attractive design enhancements, and entertaining bouts of mirthful amusement provided by the sybaritic bohemians with a crowd-pleasing, line-dancing number.

Tinkering with “Winter’s Tale” has, indeed, a long tradition. And partially setting the play in China falls under OSF’s spotlight on Asian-American theater artists this season. (The company is also presenting Qui Nguyen’s captivating script “Vietgone,” and hosting the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival this fall.)

But the summer/winter worlds are so polarized in this staging that their merger in the final scenes doesn’t follow through satisfyingly on the stated Asian motif — or do each realm equal justice.

 

Modern works are breakout hits

A provocative hip-hopping, pop-out tale of South Vietnamese immigrants in America. A world-premiere study of the battle for abortion rights, told from dual perspectives.

Both of these plays are breakout hits at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. And tickets for both Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” and Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” may be hard to score at the Ashland, Ore., theater complex this summer. But Seattle hopefuls are in luck with the latter: in December, Nguyen’s play comes to Seattle Repertory Theatre with most of the same OSF cast.

“Roe”

Loomer’s new, absorbing docudrama, smoothly staged by Bill Rauch in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, liberally blends fact and fiction, and deserves a Seattle airing, too, in the near future.

The fervent struggle between pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion forces continues in the political sphere, and in many U.S. communities where abortions are increasingly harder to obtain due to new limitations and regulations.

“Roe” isn’t an ideological and rhetorical cage match. It takes a macro and micro view of the issue as it chronicles the defining 1973 Supreme Court case (Roe v. Wade) that legalized abortion, from the often conflicting perspectives of a determined feminist lawyer and a problematic plaintiff.

The two are based on real people and represent a striking contrast in temperament, style and, most pointedly, class. Well-educated, middle-class Sarah Weddington (played by a poised, adamant Sarah Jane Agnew) is an ambitious young Texas attorney. She persuades Norma McCorvey (the terrific Sara Bruner), a hard-living, pregnant and low-income lesbian bartender, to become the anonymous plaintiff in a case challenging the national ban on abortion, a case that will be tried in the Supreme Court and confirm a woman’s right to choose.

The wary alliance between “Jane Roe” (McCorvey’s legal alias) and Weddington begins with a misunderstanding, and the friction extends over decades. As Norma brazenly hustles for media attention and money, and pens two self-serving (and contradictory) memoirs, Sarah keeps fighting for abortion rights and other causes and becomes a prominent law professor.

She’s often the more admirable figure here, also the most reliable and didactic in doling out historical information. (More glimpses of Weddington’s personal life could balance and enrich the story.)

Norma is far more colorful and unpredictable, shown in the play as a congenital liar who exploits her loving partner and others. But through Bruner’s multilayered performance you feel for her, too. Her life has been framed by poverty, ignorance, parental abuse. And while her brief embrace of the Christian fundamentalist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue isn’t entirely altruistic, it springs in part from grief and loneliness.

“Roe” whisks along on two tracks, the rhetorical and the personal, and it’s laced with both comedy and pathos. It also deftly poses larger, intriguing questions about how progress is made, how history is recorded and by whom, and why that matters.

“Vietgone”

Just two years after the Roe case, the invasion of Saigon by the North Vietnamese ended the Vietnam War.

In the immediate aftermath, about 125,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. Their stories of loss and displacement are not widely known to the general public, but one is related with creative verve, pop-culture savvy and fiery empathy by award-winning playwright Qui Nguyen, in the Thomas Theatre.

In a preamble, an actor portraying the author both encourages and discourages us from interpreting “Vietgone” as a true-life depiction of his parents’ culture-shocked arrival in America, and their refugee-camp courtship.

Whatever in the play is biographical, Nguyen’s theatrical sensibility is inventive and very much his own. He’s an American author whose plays reflect a keen appreciation of rap music, graphic novels, multimedia theatrics and geek culture.

The 30-year-old Tong (Jeena Yi) and her homesick mother (Amy Kim Waschke) fight about their displacement and reduced circumstances, but they’re both audacious, sardonic and tenacious women feeling guilty about leaving loved ones to unknown fates back in Saigon.

Quang, a former soldier and fellow immigrant (James Ryen) is also haunted after unintentionally abandoning his wife and children. He leaves the camp on a battered motorcycle with a pal (Will Dao), determined to return to Vietnam. Along the way there’s a clash with anti-war hippies that pounds home the perspective of the patriotic South Vietnamese who feared and fought Communist rule in their country.

Quang and compatriots now and then pour out their angst in rap music soliloquies. And we hear what they hear when Americans speak humorously garbled, elementary Vietnamese to them. (Though all their dialogue with each other is in English.) There are also fun interludes of slow dancing and cartoonish combat.

Actually, there is not a dull moment under May Adrales’ spirited direction, even in the smattering of stiffly rhetorical moments. And the hot, erotic connection and reluctant romance between Ryen’s Quang and Yi’s Tong really sizzles (the actors have great chemistry), as two uprooted souls find their way — both strangers in a strange land.