We have an adage: hobbies don’t stop just because you’re on vacation. That means, when we go on vacation, that we’re stopping at local yarn and quilting stores, we driving the highways and byways looking for interesting history, and of course, we’re seeing local theatre whenever we can.
Recently, we were on vacation in Klamath Falls. The local live theatre had little of interest while we were in town, and so we decided to meander down the road (Oregon 66, to be precise) to Ashland Oregon to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB). We made a day of it, seeing two shows. The first was one that appealed to both the roadgeek and historian in me: the world premiere of Mother Road by Octavio Solis (FB).
Mother Road is, in many ways, a homage to John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath. For those unfamiliar with the Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family, forced to leave their family farm in Oklahoma due to the one-two punch of the depression and the dust bowl, and make the trek along US 66 (and US 566) to California, and eventually the central valley of California. Along the way they face hardship, family members die, and we see them for the proud and hardworking, but poor and downtrodden family they are.
Mother Road picks up the story in current times. William Joad, uncle of the original Tom Joad, is dying. He stayed in Oklahoma during the dust bowl, and wants to pass his family farm that he pieced together from sharecropped land to another family member. He has his lawyer, Roger, search, and they find the only remaining living Joad: Martin Jodes, grandson of Tom Joad of the novel. After Tom killed a man and ran away to hide, he went to Mexico. He raised a family, and there was one son: Martin. Martin has since followed the crops to Mexico, and he meets William in Weedpatch, a community near Bakersfield where the Joads onced lived. William tells him the story, and the two start a trek back to Sallisaw OK and the farm. Along the way, we learn the back story of both characters. We meet and pick up some people important in Martin’s life: Mo, a “cuz” whom Martin wants for a foreman, James, a preacher buddy of Martin’s, and Amelia, Martin’s ex. We also run into people who had interactions with the original Joads, including a waitress descended from the Wilson family. Along the way, we also see the parallels between the treatment of the dust bowl refugees (Oakies) and the Mexican farmworkers; we see how the Joad family has always fought against injustice and to do what is right.
Going into the show, I only had a passing familiarity with the original novel. I knew the basic outlines of the story of the Joads, but not the particulars. In preparing this writeup, I had a chance to review the summaries of the novel, and I can see even more how Solis mined the original story for incidents and connections. The two are tightly connected, almost in the same way as Wicked and The Wizard of Oz, building upon an existing story to make points about contemporary society.
The story makes very strong points about how segments of our society view Hispanics, and how so little has changed since the great dust bowl migration. It shows the power of family, and by the end, shows that the important family is the family that you make through your travels through life.
The manner of storytelling was interesting. It wasn’t quite linear. There were times where there was a chorus commenting on the situation. There were also numerous moments of flashback, providing backstory for the characters. The story moved forward across the road, in fits and spurts like an old car, with the backtracks and sidetrips that make the journey worthwhile.
Under the direction of Bill Rauch, the story grabs you attention and keeps it throughout. The time just passes, and the characters seem like realistic people, not caricatures. I particularly enjoyed the creative choice around the portrayal of Casear, the truck used by Martin and William as they travel back to Oklahoma.
In the lead positions were Mark Murphey (FB) as William Joad, and Tony Sancho (FB) as Martin Jodes. Murphey does a great job with Joad, moving the character from a unlikable hardass to someone whom you see as a real person who had a hard life, shaped by the trials of life. He captured the depth and depths of the character well, The same is true with Sancho’s Jodes: moving from an angry young man beat down by life to a fully rounded person, whom you see is very much like the original Tom Joad of the novel.
In what I would portray as supporting positions were Amy Lizardo (FB) Mo; Jeffrey King Roger, William’s Father, State Trooper, Ranch Hand; and Caro Zeller (FB) Amelia, Chorus Leader. As Mo, Lizardo provides some great comic relief, especially as we learn the depths of her character. King is most notable as Roger, the attorney who helps William find Martin, and later shows himself as a form of son to William. His final scenes with Martin were particularly touching. Lastly, Zeller is notable as Amelia, Martin’s ex. Her exuberance and joyfulness as a marked contrast to some of the hardship captured by the other characters.
Notable tertiary performances included Catherine Castellanos (FB) Ivy, William’s Mother, Police Officer; and Cedric Lamar (FB) Cook, James. Castellanos was most notable as Ivy, the waitress descended from the family the Joads befriended on their trek west to California. Her portrayal of a proud woman who made the best of her circumstances was great. Lamar was notable for two things: first, his wonderful singing voice, and second, his portrayal of James, the spiritual friend of Martin who helps turn his life around.
Rounding out the cast were Armando Durán Abelardo, Ranch Hand; and Fidel Gomez Abelardo’s Father, Curtis.
There were a load of understudies, none of whom we saw.
Turning to the production and creative side: The scenic design by Christopher Acebo (⭐FB) was simple: a billboard on the back for projections, some simple establishing props such as counters, seats, beds, and of course the car. They worked well to establish location and support the action without being extremely realistic. More interesting was the fact that unlike most scenic designs, they were removable — in other words, when we went into to see As You Like It a few hours later, the entire scenic design was removed. Carolyn Mazuca‘s costume design and Cherelle D. Guyton‘s wig design was appropriate for the characters, and with the actors portraying multiple characters, captured each individual character well. Pablo Santiago‘s lighting design served well to establish time and mood; and Kaitlyn Pietras‘s projection design was the main factor in establishing the specific places along the road. Sound designer and composer Paul James Prendergast‘s effects and music also supported the establishment of mood and place. Routing out the creative credits: Ty Defoe Movement Director; Tiffany Ana López Production Dramaturg; Micha Espinosa Voice and Text Director; Kareem Fahmy Phil Killian Directing Fellow; U. Jonathan Toppo Fight Director; Cedric Lamar (FB) Dance Captain; Karl Alphonso Production Stage Manager; and Ray Gonzalez Production Assistant.
Mother Road continues at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through October 26, 2019. Tickets are available through the OSF website.
I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
There is one more writeup pending from OSF: As You Like It .
Early September is also mostly open. Then things heat up, with the third weekend bringing Barnum at Musical Theatre Guild (FB), and the fourth weekend bringing Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We start getting busy in October, starting with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB) and a hold for Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville at Canyon Theatre Guild. The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musicalat the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.
Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). November concludes with a hold for Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks. Somewhere in there we’ll also be fitting in Nottingham Festival and Thumbleweed Festival, if they are happening this year. Yes, there are a lot of open dates in there, but I expect that they will fill in as time goes on.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!