Regional Theater Review: WILLFUL (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on September 12, 2011

in Theater-Regional


If you read the spiritual/psychotherapeutic tome A Course In Miracles, it states that miracles occur as a result of a shift in perception; that meaning lies not in the actual events in our lives, but rather in our interpretation of these events. Willful, the site-specific theatrical event at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, takes us on a journey that poignantly heightens our awareness of the ephemeral nature of our decisions and the ways we attach meaning to them. Audience members split up into smaller groups, each of which watches a scene that centers on the search for familial connections; then we travel to three other performance spaces on the OSF campus – an amphitheatre, a rehearsal room, and a black box theatre. Individual stories – a twin searching for her sister, a deaf man searching for his parents – interconnect, but in a non-linear fashion. The ongoing theme is a sense of identity and how we define ourselves in relation to others.

Willful - Elizabethan Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon – regional theater review by Tony FrankelMy group began with a mini-play about a man who grapples with the loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s. Playwright/director Michael Rohd’s poetic dialogue creates the many conversations surrounding one event: the man talks to us about the loss of his wife, she speaks from her momentary awareness, and then they try in vain to come together. The casting of young performers points to the sadness of the situation – perhaps this couple just wants to get back to what they once had. By staging the man on a loading dock separated from the woman, who is up above in a parking lot, it emphasizes the profound need to connect and the unbearable sorrow that occurs when we cannot. Even the music that played in our headphones prior to the scene was music from the Swinging Years, an era that this couple desperately wants to return to (the headphones also keep us engaged as we travel between spaces). This opening scene was profoundly touching; it created a context that allows the audience to notice the way that we make up our own stories about life: she may be in an alternate universe, but does that invalidate her experience? What is memory? And is it subjective?

Willful - Elizabethan Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon – regional theater review by Tony FrankelWillful is purposefully ambiguous, a thought-provoking journey of snippets of stories and philosophies that ask us to notice our surroundings, our thought patterns, and how we operate in life. Not an easy task for audience members who need theatre spoon-fed to them with a tidy beginning, middle, and end. Many philosophers believe that self-awareness is the key to transformation, yet many people go to the theatre to forget themselves. It was fascinating to watch audience members after the show: some were deep in thought, some appeared nonplussed, and others were quietly sobbing. Although some of the ideas are occasionally bewildering and a bit too abstract, and the multi-media images are difficult to comprehend, Willful successfully invites us to look at ourselves (as such, my theatergoing companions can not keep from discussing the values and beliefs that they have created in life).

Whereas some performance art hurls one-sided notions at us, Willful’s ensemble gently and lovingly offers up a collage of human experiences, which gratifyingly create a sense of community, even as we are on our own individual journeys. This event is seminal in that it points to the possible theatre of the future, a theatre that invites its participants to interact in the beautiful dance of life, rather than just bear witness to it.

tonyfrankel @

photos by Jenny Graham

scheduled to end on October 9
for tickets, visit

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