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A New Leaf

Oregon Stage Works Returns to the Rogue Valley Theater Scene

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There’s no telling what will happen next when a woman unexpectedly show up at her ex-husband’s filthy trailer twenty years after vanishing completely from his life.
That’s the short version of Annapurna. For the long version, it helps to understand Ulysses, played by Peter Alzado, a curmudgeon, poet, and recovering alcoholic who seems unable to comprehend the depth of the mistakes he made in his years under the influence. Then there’s Emma, played by Jessica Sage—neurotic and sensitive, determined to do something to help her ailing ex. But what, exactly, is that something? This is the question that truly drives the play. In the process of finding out, the two characters create an entire world beyond the confines of the stage, one with hope and heartbreak that the audience will find instantly familiar.
Oregon Stage Works is the non-profit responsible for this brilliant production, and theater geeks across the Rogue Valley are ecstatic about the company’s re-appearance. Peter Alzado was a co-founder in 2002, and the company put on its shows in Ashland’s A Street Marketplace for several years. They gave up the lease there in 2010, and OSW went dormant for a time. Then, this spring, Alzado met Jessia Sage, who plays Emma in Annapurna. The two collaborated as co-artistic directors for the show, put together a talented production team—including OSF’s Liisa Ivary as director—and found a new venue.
Annapurna is staged at Temple Emek Shalom in south Ashland. As another long and wonderful season of OSF comes to a close, it’s a breath of fresh air to take in such an intimate performance, and one that exceeds the limitations of its environment so effortlessly. Looking up at the stage at the Temple might feel awkward at first, but it’s worth it.
In fact, awkwardness and discomfort are strong currents running through the production, and it’s all on purpose. It’s theater stripped of a supporting cast, set changes, musical cues (for the most part) and elaborate lighting. Even the script is sharpened to a knife’s point. These two characters are not the type to make speeches. Over the course of eighty minutes, they simply tell each other the story of what happened, turning it over, each detail a new leaf. Some of those leaves, as Ulysses points out, are rotten.
The wit and poetry of playwright Sharr White pokes through again and again, taking the edge off the tragedy of Annapurna. The script had its off-broadway premiere in 2014, with Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally playing Ulysses and Emma. One can imagine the combination of gruff and sweet doing these roles great justice, but Alzado and Sage may have given these actors a run for their money. The fact that Alzado has been making guest appearances on Portlandia in the years since the first incarnation of Oregon Stage Works will give a sense of his wry, slightly crazed take on the character of Ulysses.
Sage, a new addition to the Ashland theater community, has been directing plays for Ashland High School, among other projects. She plays Emma with fierceness and composure, and an awareness of all the things it means to be a mother and a partner in the confusing times we live in. Emma may be in the habit of disappearing in the middle of the night from unhealthy relationships, but under Sage’s watchful eye, she doesn’t get to escape her own need for redemption and closure.
Speaking of confusing times, comparisons between the current political theater and this play are hard to miss. In an epic battle of the sexes, stakes are high and communication is sketchy. However, attending this production of Annapurna—which only runs one more weekend, November 4th, 5th and 6th—may be just the distraction needed to survive the rest of the election season. If nothing else, it’s a lesson on our own humanity, the imperfection that is inherent in it, and the possibility that we’re not all as bad as we seem.

Annapurna
8 pm, Nov 4 and 5
3 pm, Nov 6
Temple Emek Shalom, 1800 E Main Street, Ashland
$20, general. $18, seniors and students.

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