Jaime Belden and Sullivan Mackintosh playing Posthumous and Imogen in Cymbeline. Macie Harreld/PSU Vanguard

Can we engage in Shakespeare ethically?

OPS Fest returns to Portland

This summer, 11 Portland parks have transformed grassy lawns into theater stages for the fifteenth season of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest).


OPS Fest prides itself on replicating production techniques true to Shakespeare’s time, with limited rehearsals, an onstage prompter and actors reading only their own lines—scroll-in-hand.


“Because we do Shakespeare the way Shakespeare was intended, for me, those performances—both as a performer and as an audience member—are so much more engaging,” said Beth Yocam, OPS Fest company manager. “So often we read Shakespeare in a classroom, but that wasn’t how it was intended to be.”


Contrary to the typical first encounter of lugging through opaque archaisms in a ninth-grade classroom, OPS Fest enlivens these texts—molding chaos into clarity and captivating crowds with electric deliveries.


This year, the company added Cymbeline to its already extensive repertoire. Their execution made for an energizing and delightfully witty performance. OPS Fest lends itself to top-notch talent. Actors embody their roles with compelling vivacity and propel the drama with a vibrant magnetism.


The production closes a certain distance associated with theater arts by transcending even the stage. Actors meander through the audience, respond to the prompter to clarify plot perplexities and interact with the audience’s questions, boos and cheers in spontaneous hilarity.


The festival gaps another bridge for the Portland area by providing free performances in public spaces. They rely entirely on donations to maintain this tradition. “We don’t have a big set or lights or costumes—it’s just the people that we pay,” Yocam said. “But it is tricky, and we have to keep our costs minimal in order to make it through.”


OPS Fest persists despite budget constraints, inspired by a long storytelling tradition. “I think that the reason that Shakespeare has been done by theaters and theatremakers for so long is just the nature of really good storytelling, and I think we can do things to update and make things land differently than they would have landed in Shakespeare’s time,” Yocam said.


One way OPS Fest updated Shakespeare is through its diverse cast. While initially only men performed Shakespeare, Yocam said their company “is really diverse in terms of race and sexual orientation and gender expression.” For example, in casting female or nonbinary actors for traditionally misogynistic male characters, OPS Fest attempts to deconstruct patriarchal expectations.


The company also edits out offensive and racist language. “We’ve tried to update the text so that the connotation that Shakespeare intended is there, but it doesn’t land in a way that would harm anyone who’s coming to see our shows,” Yocam said.


The controversy lies in the fact that Shakespearean literature remains highly regarded in today’s culture, despite containing prejudiced language and representations. This raises the question of whether we should repurpose a narrative that has been used to target marginalized segments of society.


OPS Fest provides entertainment and humor with its spirited and amusing performances. Nevertheless, it prompts us to ponder why we engage with repetitive storylines that require significant mental acrobatics to fit into modern social acceptability.


Jonathan Walker is a PSU English professor who specializes in English Renaissance gender and sexuality, drama and critical theory. He spoke with Portland State Vanguard about this dilemma.


“There are characters and language in Shakespeare that’s racist, that’s misogynistic, that’s antisemitic, that’s classist, that’s nationalistic, and I think that those words—those views and positions—absolutely should be scrutinized, but we should also understand those views and positions in the context of the fact that this is dialogue and these are fictional settings,” Walker said.


In contextualizing problematic themes and representations within the broader relations of the works, they become social mores which are wrestled with rather than concrete assertions about class or identity.


However, Shakespeare is more than a playwright. His works are more than the fictional worlds they describe. To reference playwright Madeline Sayet, Shakespeare is also a real-world system which upheld a Eurocentric hierarchy 400 years ago and still does today.


“I think that Shakespeare’s status today has a very problematic history—not just in terms of colonialism and as an example of colonial language, but in economic and nationalistic ways,” Walker said.


Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, visiting scholar in PSU’s English department and scholar-in-residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project, added that “a reason why we are studying Shakespeare 400 years later—thousands of miles from the place where Shakespeare wrote in England—is because of the spread of British imperialism and the usefulness of Shakespeare as an author for the British empire.”


The Shakespearean system marks a trail of oppression synonymous with English colonization itself, from the British conquest of the Indian subcontinent—which required in-depth knowledge of Shakespearean literature for south Asians to access their own civil service—to the United States forcing Shakespeare on Indigenous children in an attempt to annihilate Indigenous cultures and languages.


Thus, the bard’s work still reigns supreme on the world stage. Shakespeare’s original plays and their derivatives are performed and studied more than any other playwright and reimagined in media everywhere, from Disney to Bollywood.


He is the one and only author listed as required reading in the Common Core—a U.S. educational system. Even here at PSU, our English bulletin lists only two courses based on a specific author and they’re both Shakespeare.


The literature itself may be profound, complex and inventive—all that which makes for good literature—but Shakespeare’s total preeminence is undoubtedly no literary feat.

Kelsea Ashenbrenner as Pisanio in Cymbeline. Macie Harreld/PSU Vanguard


“I love Shakespeare, and I teach Shakespeare—he’s my bread and butter,” Walker said. “But I think that the idea of idolizing Shakespeare and trying to champion him as this greatest ever writer is highly problematic and really short-sighted.”


The immense space which one English writer has taken up for nearly half a millennium has not only robbed other voices and identities of adequate self-representation, but has also been used to legitimize white supremacy and elevate colonial interests.


“Even as we might embrace the possibilities that Shakespeare opens up for us, we want to be conscious of the kind of cultural power that has been wielded to elevate Shakespeare[…] over lots of other writers and make sure we are holding space for other voices as well,” Pollack-Pelzner said.


The Shakespearean system should end, but there is potential for positive impact in our reinterpreting, reimagining and repurposing of the works themselves.


Nataki Garrett’s reinventing of Romeo and Juliet is one such example. Set in an Oakland homeless camp, this production tells a tragic love story within the context of twenty-first-century economic scarcity.


“The plays are usually capacious enough that you can find a location for whatever your concern or curiosity or interest might be,” Pollack-Pelzner said. “So I hope that folks who are either curious or resistant or skeptical are willing to enter that conversation.”


Shakespeare’s First Folio: 1623–2023 is a point of entry into that conversation. This is an upcoming PSU community project organized by Walker. The event commemorates the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio and will include Shakespearean productions put on by the university, local artists and performers, as well as a literary exhibition and speaker series led by PSU faculty and other Shakespearean scholars.


“My aim for the whole project is to make Shakespeare and his plays relevant and intelligible for us, rather than some guy 400 years ago,” Walker said. “[The celebration] is for non-expert audiences, who have an interest in maybe Shakespeare, but definitely public health or definitely sexuality or definitely race relations.”


This event will bring together Portland talent and scholarship to make Shakespeare more accessible to the general public. Likewise, OPS Fest’s 2023 season will continue through Aug. 27.


Engaging with Shakespeare in an ethical manner raises several important points. We must contemplate the degree to which we should permit his legacy to dominate the contemporary stage. Furthermore, we should explore ways to evolve its utilization in order to foster a more equitable future.


“I hope it can be both entertaining and offer us possibilities for a more inclusive, more just, more open world,” Pollack-Pelzner said.