Saturday afternoon, we caught Off the Rails, a world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play, written by Randy Reinholz, and directed by Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, is a reimagining of Measure for Measure set in the American Wild (mid)West of the 1880s, when Native American children were rounded up and moved from their families into government-funded boarding schools, in an effort to remove their heritage and make them “Americans.” The performance we saw, I believe, was the last preview performance before its opening on Sunday, July 30.
I believe audiences are going to be mixed on this (of course, I may be way off the mark here, too).
In the first half, there is so much of the Shakespearean text here that one wonders why they just didn’t call it Measure for Measure. Really, there’s only one major change in the plot (which I’ll get to in a minute) and a subplot relationship inserted; sure, the names have been changed but they didn’t need to be. And much of the historical background could have been handled as “Director’s Notes” in the program. There were the additions of a few songs (there’s a running subplot about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show coming through town to audition for new acts, so the townsfolk are getting ready), but they could’ve been a part of a fairly straight interpretation.
Because of this, I think some audience members are going to see this as a didactic diatribe against Manifest Destiny. And, frankly, some of the First Nation material does feel heavy-handed (as this is a world premiere, I would love to attend one of the final nights of the run to see how much has changed since these preview performances, to see if the text has been massaged to make it more subtle). It’s not that the background isn’t fascinating and a great story to tell, it’s just that it is “telling” and not really “showing.” Regardless, the show in its first half is entertaining, and the one major change in plot is a great one: instead of the absent General (a stand-in for the Duke in the original), the character manipulating the action and trying to bring it to right is the brothel owner Madame Overdone. She knows Mariana (who had known Angelo in a different town long ago) because the young woman works in the Stewed Prunes Saloon (bonus points for the bawdy house reference, double bonus points for the assonance of “ooooooh” in “Prunes” and “Saloon”). This makes more sense; as does a truly absent establishment leader. So with the revelation of her plan, the opening act closes with her laugh-line: “What could go wrong?”
It’s in the second half, though, where the real deviations from the Shakespearean text come in (and the need to call it its own animal, and call it by its own name). Spoilers follow, so if you don’t want to know what happens, skip to here.
[still with me? Ok, here goes…]
The production aims to fix what I’ve always seen as broken in the original play. The whole Barndadine subplot is excised; they jump straight to the other dead prisoner. The characters themsalved question why they should let Isabel believe her brother has died. There are no uncomfortable weddings at the close of the play: The General does not marry Isabel; Mariana does not accept Angelo; the Lucio/Pompey stand-in doesn’t marry anyone. And this is a good thing. The show also questions some of the more awkward moments of the closing (“Wait a minute. You mean Angelo’s not going to be hanged???”).
The play ends with a final musical number, for the townsfolk themselves, not Wild Bill. And then we get a Native American dance. And I just don’t know. There was a part of me, small, but still vocal in the back of my mind, that felt this was just a touch patronizing. Maybe I was oversensitized by the more socio/political statements made. I don’t know. The inclusion of a gay love subplot wasn’t a problem; in fact, their duet and discussion near the beginning of the second act was a highlight (and included a hilarious laugh-line concerning leaders who are mad-men that elicited a hearty round of applause from the crowd [of course, this is not going to dissuade any who are seeing didacticism in the production]).
So, do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a solid piece of work, heartfelt and committed, and very smart (maybe too much so) about its history. But I think that this brand new play hasn’t hit its stride yet (and given this was a preview performance not only is this to be expected, but it is to be desired [peak too early and the run could descend into rote, mechanical performances]). Yeah, I’d say see it…and I would love to see it again, near the end of its run to see how it’s changed.