The play’s the thing: Original Practice Shakespeare, season nine

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Company member/Musical Director Andrew Bray as Feste the Jester in "Twelfth Night." Courtesy of KKelly Photography

What do you get when you cross the text of William Shakespeare, a Starbucks barista apron, referees, picnics, and a gorgeous Portland park? You get a true Original Practice Shakespeare experience. OPS is a local theater company specializing in Shakespeare, but with a twist.

“We do Shakespeare the way Shakespeare did Shakespeare,” said Tom Witherspoon, core company member. You’re probably wondering: How on God’s green Earth does a company in 2017 Portland do Shakespeare circa 1590?

Started nine years ago by Founding Artistic Director (and company player) Brian Allard, OPS incorporates the First Folio, which means that all the actors in a particular show don’t have a full script. “[We only have] our lines and the first four syllables of the lines that cue us, said company member Brian Burger. “It really forces you to listen, and do the most important thing in acting, which is listen and react.” Not only are there few rehearsals (or none at all, for some parts), but the only things rehearsed ahead of time are fights, dances, and songs. What OPS does is unrehearsed Shakespeare, just like the Bard intended.

Honoring the style, OPS also uses a prompter, which is effectively an on-stage referee. The prompter is also a positive instigator of sheer hilarity. If a show at OPSFest were an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the prompter would be Drew Carey (or Aisha Tyler if you’ve kept up with its modern reiteration).

The prompter finds the most opportune (or ill-opportune) moment to interrupt the action and give the character a side task. For example, at The Merry Wives of Windsor, the show I saw, the prompter interrupted one of the actors to ask him what his character thought of marriage and how he proposed to his betrothed in the play. It was hysterical. It’s this type of thing that makes OPS stand out.

“It’s a more immediate connection with the audience,” Witherspoon said.

“We revel in our messiness,” Burger said.

This company is a must-see in Portland as a social and artistic barometer. OPS, in all its gleefully irreverent glory, is not afraid to portray some of its characters as important social figures. OPS is not afraid to call characters on the carpet when they do something wrong (in regard to the text). OPS is not afraid to base a character on anyone from political figures like Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway to comical pop culture references like Wonder Woman and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you won’t find that kind of free-spirited energy anywhere else in the Portland theater community.

The importance of Shakespeare in these tumultuous times, is, of course, very important for the company. But what the company really values is “the cultivation of community and bringing everyone together to enjoy something, as opposed to everyone sitting on their couch and seeing what’s trending on Netflix at the time,” according to Managing Director Shandi Muff. “We get people in a park, get them together, and have a shared experience that’s really pretty rare, outside of sports.”

OPS players like to do things dangerously. It’s a badge of honor for them. They’re like a theatrical Breakfast Club. You’ve got all these different people from different walks of life collaborating to make art, and not just to make art but to do as Shakespeare did and bring important art to the masses. Because of that, Portlanders, I exuberantly encourage you to attend what the company is calling WIL Fest. OPS is doing something unprecedented and performing its entire repertory in only three short weeks. They conquer such behemoth shows as Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, all the way down to lesser known works like Henry IV, Part 1 and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The company adds two new shows each year, and what better shows to add this year than Shakespeare’s infamous problem play All’s Well That Ends Well and the almost too eerily relevant tragedy Julius Caesar?

Their whole rep is being performed at three parks in the Portland Metro area: Willamette Park, Irving Park, and Laurelhurst Park. Three beautiful locations to see many beautiful people performing beautiful work. What they do is ferocious. It’s fast, scattered, unusual, and yes, dangerous. There is a line in Hamlet where the titular prince says, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” OPS catches the conscience of an entire city. OPS shows make you think, make you confront uncomfortable subject matter, and make you see the ridiculous nature of the world we live in, which is something that many art forms don’t do as effectively as this Portland gem.

Watch an OPS show this summer and I guarantee you: You’ll remember it for many years to come.

For more information on OPSFest, visit www.opsfest.org

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