To top off the joy of being able to see shows at the festival, one of my friends, Mark Murphey, who I studied acting at university with, is playing one of the two leads in an original play called Mother Road. I had always admired his acting but had not seen him in decades, so it was a great joy to catch up with him and see him in action again.
Ashland is a lovely town nestled in the hills of southern Oregon, a gorgeous state in the northwest of the US, a place I had never visited before and am rapidly growing to love with its great climate, rolling hills, snow-capped mountains, magnificent evergreens, lakes, rivers and lots of welcoming, down-to-earth people. Ashland is also a cultural hub with the festival and several other theatres thriving there. What could be better than a town with great natural beauty and a friendly population that also loves and proudly supports its theatres?
Anyway, back to the shows I got to see. The first I saw was called Cambodian Rock Band. It told the story of the thriving underground rock scene in Cambodia prior to the takeover by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. With great music, inspired story-telling and terrific acting by six Cambodians/Americans, this show moved effortlessly from the tale of a fledgling rock band in the pre-Khmer Rouge days, to the actual takeover by Pol Pot with all its resultant interrogations and genocide, to modern days with a Cambodian/American journalist trying to find and prosecute one of the Khmer Rouge war criminals while attempting to solve the mystery of one of the survivors of this villain’s camp.
Mystery, music, humour, twists, horror and a surprise ending made this original play a powerfully moving experience. Thankfully, it avoided falling into the trap of leaving us desperate and sad. Conversely, it ended with joyous music and the actors and audience dancing wildly together on the stage. Afterwards, we were able to meet and talk with the cast in the lobby, delightful young people who were both wonderful actors and accomplished musicians.
I thought how great it would be to have the cast perform this play in Phuket and tour the region. When I mentioned this, they liked the idea, but for now, they are booked around the US with San Diego the next stop after Ashland. But who knows the future?
That evening I went to see Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well in the open-air Elizabethan theatre, the first of its kind in the US, having been built in the ’30s. This play is considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ because it doesn’t readily fit into the category of tragedy, comedy or history. Some critics have felt it is not even that great a play, but director Tracy Young and her cast did a commendable job of playing it for laughs and giving us a lot of fun.
The protagonist, the lowly Helen in love with a noble above her station who rejects her advances, is an awkward, nerdy genius who we love and empathise with immediately. Her love interest’s cowardly soldier friend, Parolles, gave us many a laugh as did the Clown character. All in all, it was a delightful evening.
The next afternoon was the high point of the visit for me, seeing my friend in Mother Road by Octavio Solis. Mark said the following about the play, “Playing Will Joad has been a great pleasure to me. Octavio Solis has written a wonderfully complex character with enigmas in the first part of the play which become clear in the second but done with a masterful touch to make it seem almost effortless in the writing.
“There is so much I love about this play. Its connections to The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck being so carefully thought out and worked into the fabric of the script is a great aspect of the story. Then there are the two main characters coming to terms with their demons, prejudices, and overcoming them. The themes of redemption are always something I love doing.”
Mark also told me, “The live stage has been the mainstay of my acting, and I have been very fortunate to find work for the past 50 years on a regular basis. I love being on the stage doing a show every night to a different audience. It’s alive and vibrant, just because it is live. That’s what I love about the theatre. The immediacy and intimacy with a live audience.”
Both he and I love movies and watch them avidly, but when it comes to acting, there is no thrill like acting for live people, giving them something that has never been exactly the same nor ever will be again.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has an 80-year head start on Theatrix and others of us who are involved in theatre in Phuket. Not only have they brought quality theatre to a small town in Oregon, they have also gathered a huge, loyal audience to the point that Ashland has become the second most visited city in the US for the purpose of seeing theatre, just behind New York City. It has a population of 20,000 and gets 400,000 visitors a year! We here can at least dream and put our dreams into action, can’t we, and who can predict the outcome?