Jeffrey Gillespie: Audaciously, they dare reboot the Bard

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival this week announced the launch of “Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare.” An epic-looking and well-funded project, capitalized by OSF patron David Hitz, “Play On!” creates a platform for the “translation” of the entire canon into contemporary English.

Needless to say, members of the theater community have started to buzz about the project, and on balance, there appears to be a great deal more nattering from the nabobs of negativism than one might expect, even from an audience that has historically been peppered with members who posture as amateur guardians of the purity of language. Such pumpkin-pantalooned Shakespearean purists are often also those who have the money and the clout to underwrite shows; easily offended (but also generous) defenders of the faith.

Their taste is for the traditional, and if you cast your eye across the audience on any given night at OSF, you can see them in abundance. Their season tickets provide a solution to the problem of getting bottoms into seats; their literalism and rigidity, by contrast, offers a contrast to that solution.

This particular, entitled branch of American theater patronage is one of the important reasons why we need projects like “Play On!”. Any project that might provide a fresh horse to the intellectual or scholastic development of the arts — and that shakes such traditionalists free of their privileged torpor in return — is very good news.

Shakespeare wrote for the street. He was a radical and a progressive in that his art was designed for the appreciation of the masses, and as a subtle skewer for the powers that be. In a time when you might be sent to the executioner's block for insulting the establishment, he was always willing to poke the bear.

We need a good deal more poking of the bear in the august climes populated by high-level donors and entitled academics at the center of the dissent against the “Play On!” project. At its core, the project is beautifully egalitarian. If properly executed, it could give a window into the canon for people who may not have had the luxury of early exposure to Elizabethan language. It gives three years of well-paid work to perhaps 70 professional artists (each playwright is paired with a dramaturge). It works in concert with the evolution of art in the 21st century as is being realized by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who (in this columnist's opinion) is way ahead of the game when it comes to understanding what theater will look like in future decades.

The suggestion that the “Play On!” project could or would hurt Mr. Shakespeare insults the long-proven robustness of his work. In fine art, the abstract expressionists did nothing to hurt Renaissance painters. In music, Philip Glass has not eclipsed Monteverdi.

Art exists to be played with, expanded upon and, yes, deconstructed and rebooted, hopefully to the discomfort of an enraged previous generation. That said, any ruffled conventionalist can cast their eye over the 2016 playbill and see no fewer than five Shakespeare plays being presented. Four of them are unimpeachably perennial — Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night and Richard II. OSF has been at pains to point out that the project is contained in a separate sphere from the main stages at the festival, the implication being that apprehensive patrons can continue to attend the sort of Shakespeare that they might expect to see when they plop down that $100 for a single ticket.

For those who are willing to continue to explore the Bard’s ongoing capacity for new and exciting interpretation, watch and learn. With prominent national talent on display (and with Lue Douthit, the festival’s longtime literary director, helming the effort) the project will likely play an important role in the orrery of artistic offerings that will continue to expand around the work of William Shakespeare.

Jeffrey Gillespie's writing has appeared in the Santa Fean and Art Collector magazines, the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week. He lives in Ashland.

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