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12/4/2013 9:28:00 AM
Ashland play crossed line of disrespect for Christianity
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.
Fr. James Coleman
Fr. James Coleman
Fr. Jim Coleman

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.

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Article comment by: Ken Kiesow

Unfortunately Mr. Rauch, your defense is ultimately unsatisfying. In truth, what was done with such a Holy icon representing the ultimate sacrifice by God is in fact brutally offensive, no matter the intent. The ACT speaks far more loudly. As noted earlier, such a denigration of Muslim or Jewish icons would have landed your organization on the national news and sparked worldwide outrage and you well know that. This is no less acceptable, and downplaying the act merely deepens the insult.

Posted: Monday, December 16, 2013
Article comment by: Bill Rauch

As the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I wanted to weigh in on this issue. Father Coleman and Father Bloom and I have been in touch with each other about this issue through extensive correspondence. Our theater is an inclusive one that welcomes everyone. We never want to have any faith tradition or any group feel unwelcome based on our artistic choices. The intention of the playwright of this particular play was not to denigrate the Christian faith, but rather to have one character point out the religious hypocrisy of another character. Shakespeare of course frequently put anti-Semitic, sexist and racist language in the mouths of his characters in order to make points. Moreover, a fictional character's point of view is not necessarily the same as the playwright's or the producing theater's. As I have stressed to Father Coleman and Father Bloom, I am truly sorry that anyone has been offended. I am grateful to both priests for expressing their concern to me, as dialogue is a healthy and necessary part of any artistic process.

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Article comment by: Steven Scripture

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, has dropped to a despicable low in virtually immersing Christ on the crucifix in urine. They have offended Christians everywhere with a foul denunciation of Jesus Christ! Would they do this to all religious followers, and out of what? Is it disgust, or merely a pointless show of disrespect?
You may strike the name of Shakespeare from your vile and disgusting company as in no way does your World Premier entitled "The Liquid Plain" reflect on any truth inspired by the great historical playwright of England.

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Article comment by: Brian Warn

The statement, "devotion to all that is human inside us," is in my opinion the crux of why any of this (the response, etc. described by Fr. Coleman) should matter at all to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "front office" staff and those associated with The Liquid Plain. In the actions whereby Jesus -- and Catholics and other Christian people by extension -- was denigrated, the people involved are denigrating and diminishing part of what is human within themselves.

Their decision to insult -- as evidenced by the work noted by Fr. Coleman -- a segment of the population the way they chose to do so shows us their character. In this character display, Frs. Coleman and Bloom witnessed that The Liquid Plain writers, producer(s), actors, actresses, and -- by their ascent to the production being staged -- the OSF staff itself are quite willing to publicly discriminate against a people group in their local and regional community.

I don't know any of the people at the OSF or those who are associated with the stage production, The Liquid Plain, but I would expect that they all ascent to the ubiquitous statements regarding non-discrimination against people on the basis of race, gender, sex, creed, etc. we all know very well. They've demonstrated here that they do indeed discriminate and appear to proudly do so against people of one type of creed.

OSF and those involved with The Liquid Plain need to be called out for their hypocrisy and the decision of these priests to not support such hypocrites is one part of the way that OSF is called to render an explanation as to why it is an organization that is characterized by open discrimination in this manner.

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Article comment by: Susan Howard

Freedom to express oneself has never implied freedom to bully, harrass, libel, oppress or defame the deeply held cultural or religious beliefs of a particular demographic. Most cultural and religious groups in America - such as the Anti-Defamation League or the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee - would fiercely defend their ideals when attacked in the manner that Christianity generally and hundreds of Christian denominations specifically have been at the hands of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But Christians try perhaps too much to allow the insults to roll of their backs. What pride can the Festival take in their freedom of expression when all it does is express their tactlessness, lack of consideration, mean-spiritedness and bigotry?

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