OSF’s ‘Mother Road’ Paves Thought-Provoking Path

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 84th season is underway, marking the last with artistic director Bill Rauch before he leaves for New York’s Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts.

Rauch is directing two plays in his final season, both featuring the same nine actors. “La Comedia of Errors” — Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” translated into contemporary modern English, then into a bilingual rendition – will open June 29.

Opening earlier this season was “Mother Road,” a triumph of a script by Latino American playwright and director Octavio Solis. Solis grew up in El Paso but now lives in rural Oregon.

Solis was featured on the PBS News Hour in October, following the release of a memoir, “Retablos,” stories about his childhood along the Texas-Mexico border. The segment mentioned the upcoming world premiere of “Mother Road” at OSF.

Playwright Octavio Solis attends the premiere of “Mother Road” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March 2019.

In 2013, Solis was one of three artists invited on a 75th anniversary trip commemorating Tom Joad’s journey from Oklahoma to migrant agricultural camps in California in the American classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” In the words of director Rauch, Solis “opened his eyes and ears and heart to how things have and haven’t changed in the 80 years since John Steinbeck captured our nation’s class-rooted divisions.”

The result is a compelling drama enacted by a talented cast that includes Mark Murphey as the terminally ill, grouchy William Joad; Tony Sancho as the sole heir to the Joad Oklahoma farm; and Amy Lizardo as the straight-shooting, big-hearted Mo, “cousin” of Sancho’s Martín Jodes (Jodes being the Spanish version of Joad).

“Mother Road” actors Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) and Mark Murphey (William Joad). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Life circumstances converge for a variety of characters of different ethnicities, who find themselves reversing the westward journey chronicled in “The Grapes of Wrath,” following the “Mother Road” from California to Oklahoma.

The play hints at, foreshadows, and slowly reveals its characters’ secrets as the miles unfold – measured on stage by the chorus periodically chanting “mile marker, mile marker, mile marker” while a video screen flashes images of roads and towns.

The play deals with heavy subject matter – racism, immigration, family secrets, cancer – but does so with moments of levity, creativity, and hopefulness. The characters are complex, human, relatable. The story includes flashback vignettes that do a powerful job of showing viewers key elements of the past, rather than simply narrating them.

The Ensemble of “Mother Road”, a world-premiere play written by Octavio Solis and directed by Bill Rauch, will perform in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 26. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The result is a thought-provoking, thoroughly enjoyable two hours and 40 minutes (including intermission). Solis attended the opening weekend production of “Mother Road” with a packed house in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. The play generated spontaneous applause several times after particularly resonant scenes – and earned a standing ovation.

Read a Mail Tribune review of “Mother Road.”

In other OSF news, a replacement for Rauch has been announced: Nataki Garrett will become the festival’s sixth artistic director in August.

“I have known Nataki Garrett for 17 years and have closely followed and admired her career. She is a rigorous and thrilling artist; a thoughtful, confident leader; and big thinker,” said Rauch. “Nataki’s historic appointment, as an African American woman running one of the largest-budget theaters in the United States, is a direct expression of OSF’s decades-long commitment to helping create a more equitable field.”

Garrett most recently served as acting artistic director for Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) during the organization’s 18-month leadership transition, working in partnership with the managing director, chief executive officer and board of directors, and managing the theatre company’s $27 million annual budget.

For more than 20 years, Garrett has worked as a theatre administrator, director, producer, playwright, educator, activist and mentor. She is a graduate of California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in directing.

In addition to “Mother Road” and “La Comedia of Errors,” other plays this 2019 season include Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” “Macbeth,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well’; “Hairspray—The Broadway Musical,” “Indecent,” “Cambodian Rock Band,” “Between Two Knees,” “How to Catch Creation,” and “Alice in Wonderland.” For tickets and additional information, visit osfashland.org.

Candace L. Brown

Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.

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