Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo
Armando Durán as ghost of William Blake addresses Bekesta King in The Liquid Plain.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo
Armando Durán as ghost of William Blake addresses Bekesta King in The Liquid Plain.
WOODBURN — I have attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland for many years. The last 10 years I have been making the trip south with Father Phil Bloom from Seattle. We have looked forward each year to the time together and the viewing of several plays.

Our viewing has grown increasingly critical over the years. We have gotten used to dismissive or mocking attitudes towards the Church and Christianity. We have also been inspired and thrilled with many of the performances at the premier cultural institution of Oregon.

For the first time this season we made a second trip south. We ended up seeing all 11 of the plays offered. It was one too many. The last play was called The Liquid Plain, a world premier commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American history series.

At the intermission we were commenting how pleasant it was to have a good, straightforward telling of a story. The second act undid that judgment. A grotesque figure — supposed to be the poet William Blake — appeared and ranted rather incoherent stuff. Then we heard the name “Jesus” and a sexual act imputed to him. It went by so fast and was so disconnected from the rest of the play, that I could have easily imagined that I misheard, except at our Oct. 24 performance there were Spanish captions facing us. Father Phil and I have both spent many years in mission work in South America and in ministry to Hispanics here at home.

There was no mistaking the key words.  They had said what we thought we had heard.

Faced with the question of what to do, the two of us agreed that unless there were to be a change at Oregon Shakespeare Festival that we in conscience would not return. We sadly announced that decision to the morning Mass community at Our Lady of the Mountain the next day.

There is something terribly wrong when our artists and institutions can show such irreverence and lack of respect towards Christ and Christianity. Clearly nothing of the kind would be written or spoken about Mohammed or Islam. If we do not receive respect we must, at least, show enough conviction to decide “Enough! No more!”

With the desire to understand better the mindset and culture behind the festival, I read the Mission and Values Statements of the 2013 season.

It occurred to me to look back a few years to see if there was evidence of any changes. What I encountered in the 2005 program was “the smoking gun.” Artistic director Libby Appel was writing in praise of Jerry Turner, the man who succeeded Angus Bowmer, the founder of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Turner died in 2004. She wrote: “. . . perhaps the strongest character trait that permeated his being was his courage.  In 1990, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) attempted to restrict its grants to only those artists who were willing to sign an agreement not to engage in any work that could be regarded as obscene or otherwise objectionable, Jerry stood with few other theaters in this country and refused the grant. He wrote, ‘. . . at its best, the theater that nourishes the spirit is nothing if not free — from politics, committees, formulas, commerce. It must be free if it is to serve its audience best. It shall be free if it acknowledges no masters but its own integrity, and its devotion to all that is human inside us.’”

Such words as “nourishes the spirit . . . free . . . integrity . . . devotion to all that is human” ring very hollow today. I pray that those involved in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will reexamine their values, their mission, their product. I hope for a change. Lacking that change I will sadly turn my love of theater elsewhere.

On a recent Sunday, Nov. 10, we read of the seven sons of a valiant mother. They refuse to violate God’s law. They are martyred one by one — courageous, because they believed in the resurrection. Sometimes we have to give witness to higher and sacred realities.