Annual theatre week strengthens Chinook-Ashland links

<p>Big Joe (Ian Merrigan) considers his options in “The Unfortunates,” as the denizens of the King Jesse’s bar (Ensemble) await. This modern musical is one of the most entertaining and impressive performances in the nation today.</p><p></p>

Angus Bowmer, Chinook schoolteacher and Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) founder, brought workingman sensibilities to live theatrical performances. They’re supposed to be fun, not fancy.

Shakespeare himself was aiming for popular entertainment, not high art. Thinking of going to one of his plays makes some modern people hyperventilate in a panic, but in their time plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were regarded in much the same way we see Monsters University — not a chore but a diverting, welcome way to spend an afternoon or evening — “plays” instead of “works.”

Everyday pragmatism is at the heart of Pacific Northwest theatre. Arnee Hansen, whose dad was one of Bowmer’s students here in the 1920s, recently recalled for me that Angus started putting on community plays to buy uniforms for the basketball team. Bowmer coached them to the Pacific County championship in 1929.

It’s wonderful to see Bowmer’s traditions continue in various ways in Chinook:

• The Peninsula Association of Performing Artists (PAPA) is presenting “The Wizard of Oz” at the Fort Columbia State Park theatre in Chinook on weekends through Aug. 4. PAPA is a bit like encountering a shipwrecked crew of Broadway actors who spilled out of a tall ship onto our storm-tossed shore and decided to start putting on musicals. A small-town miracle, it wouldn’t be much exaggeration to say PAPA can hold its own with OSF. Tickets and details are available at

• The “new” Chinook School that replaced the one Bowmer taught in will soon be revamped thanks to Washington state funding. In the meantime, the separate fully restored gymnasium building — housing a stage Angus inspired — has become a brilliant community-gathering place.

• One of the most exciting of these events will occur in mid-November, when OSF Executive Director Emeritus Paul Nicholson and festival actors come to Chinook to present selections from this season’s plays and conduct acting workshops for Ilwaco and Naselle High School students. (OSF actors will also be at Seaside High School in November.)


I wasn’t born with the gene to politely fake enjoyment and become harder to impress with each passing season, like a cynical old trout that’s spat out every type of artful fishing fly. Standing ovations should be rare rewards, not passed out like a politician’s lies or a hussy’s kisses.

In an epic bout of theatre that may require a couple years of recuperation, my family and I attended seven plays in seven days in Ashland earlier this month, including two Shakespeare comedies. The real standout performance of the summer, however, isn’t 400 years old but brand new — the sublime “The Unfortunates.”

Mostly taking place in the traumatized imagination of a soldier awaiting execution, ultimately “The Unfortunates” is a joyous story with roots that twine deep into the American subconscious, framed by the folksong “St. James Infirmary Blues.” I know it sounds ridiculous. We might not have taken a chance on it except that it has the same corps of a cappella hip-hop performers known as 3 Blind Mice who blew us away in OSF’s soul-awakening Hamlet in 2010.

I’m 100 percent with director Shana Cooper when she says of “The Unfortunates,” “Perhaps the greatest gift is how it has revitalized my belief in the capacity of music and theatre not only to inspire but to heal and to redeem.” A sincere standing ovation for this tour de force of originality that pays homage to everything from Rocky Horror to Albert Camus. In its weird and rough-edged way, this is a play that I can envision enduring for 100 years.

OSF’s re-imagined “My Fair Lady” and the lighthearted female-empowerment adventure “The Heart of Robin Hood” also brought me to my feet this year. All the casts are outstanding. However, two individuals I’ll remember forever are Anthony Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle and Tanya Thai McBride as Plug the Dog. Completely overturning his infamous role as Hannibal Lecter’s slimy psychiatric nemesis in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Heald is the ultimate charming rapscallion in Lady. And the young McBride, who also has a big speaking part in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” cracked me up as the best dog ever. I wanted to go backstage afterward and reward her with a scratch behind the ears. Man’s best friend has never been so hilarious. 

Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.

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