The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will reach a long-overdue milestone when its premiere production of "Off the Rails" — by Native American playwright Randy Reinholz — opens in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. It's the 82-year-old festival's first play by a Native American.
Reinholz is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He's also Irish and German by descent.
"Off the Rails" is a simple story, he says in a video posted on OSF's website, osfashland.org.
"An Indian boy gets a white girl pregnant. It's the 1880s. Are they going to hang him? That's the drama. But since it's adapted from 'Measure for Measure,' we know we're in the hands of a great plot, and it's a comedy so things are going to end well ... we think."
The young Pawnee teenager, Momaday, is being prosecuted by an authoritarian government trying to bring law and order to the old West, and the good people at the Stewed Prunes Saloon are out to figure out if they can help this boy.
"We've got Madame Overdone, we've got Isabel, we've got Alexie, and they're trying to figure out what to do. Buffalo Bill's coming to town, so there's a lot of zany stuff happening around. Then we have to go over to that law and order place. It's dangerous over there. There's a lot of trepidation every time we go to that side of the stage."
Reinholz' irreverent and subversive adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Measure," directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, previews at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, 8 p.m. Friday, July 28, and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 29, opens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, July 30, and runs through Oct. 28.
"Off the Rails" explores a 50-year chapter of Native American boarding schools in the West, something most Americans are unaware of.
"Were these schools only deprecating?" Reinholz asks. "People did learn life skills and friendships with other cultures in them, things that made society stronger. Or did our government have a process of killing the Indian to save the man? The more you dive into that from a contemporary point of view, it's one atrocity after another. It's hard for people to believe that it happened here, much less comprehend the brutality.
"I think we're very afraid right now of immigrants in our country and want to know what to do with this tension," he says. "We want to tell a story from history that's about now."
Back to the play's entertainment value, Reinholz describes "Rails" as “'Blazing Saddles' meets Shakespeare — with Native Americans taking the reins,” told through music and a surprising dose of humor.
"Why humor? It’s an Indian trait,” Reinholz says. “We often deal with pain through humor. I think that’s true for a lot of communities, actually. In 'Off the Rails,' we use nostalgia from old Westerns to tell a Native American story with a multidimensional point-of-view.
"What is America but this clash or this coming together — sometimes in a kind, loving way and sometimes in a really brutal way?" he asks. "How do we reconcile that as a country? First, I would say we have to learn our history, and then we can start to address some of the residual problems.”
Reinholz has been director of the School of Theatre, Television and Film at San Diego State University since 2007. He also is producing artistic director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry, based in the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Native Voices is committed to exploring history of the American West through exhibits and programs, including film, music dance and theater.
OSF's cast — which features seven Native American performers — includes Lily Gladstone as Isabel; Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Momaday; Barret O'Brien as Angelo; Truett Felt as Caitlin; Brent Florendo as Grandfather; David Kelly as General Gatt, Elbow and Abhorson; Christopher Salazar as James McDonald; Nancy Rodriguez as Mariana; Sheila Tousey as Madame Overdone; Román Zaragoza as Alexie; Cedric Lamar as Cowboy; Stephen Michael Spencer as Pryor; Jen Olivares as Saloon Girl and Librarian; Steven Sapp as Sheriff; and Matt Goodrich as Musician.
Scene design is by Richard L. Hay, costumes are by E.B. Brooks, lighting is by Christopher Akerlind and projects are by Tom Ontiveros. Composer and sound designer is Ed Littlefield, music and lyrics by Nick Spear, music direction by Matt Goodrich and Duane Minard, and choreography is by Sarah Lozoff and Duane Minard. Dramaturgs are Alison Carey and Waylon Lenk, voice and text director is David Carey, Olivia Espinosa is the Phil Killian Directing Fellow, fight director is U. Jonathan Toppo and Jean Bruce Scott is creative consultant.
See osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161 for tickets and information.