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Backstage: Theater can serve church-like life role

Benjamin Bonenfant plays Pip in “Great Expectations,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This is his first season at OSF. Recently, Bonenfant was Prince Hal in Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s productions of “Henry IV: Parts 1 and 2” and King Henry in “Henry V.” This is the second in a two-part column; the first was published on Aug. 8, 2016.

EH: How does theater relate to politics and society?

BB: Right now, in our political arena, there is an on-going theater of the grotesque that is really unsettling. We see revolutions, fascism and these regime-toppling ideas being tossed around, rather than any sort of discourse between two moderate sides. It’s horrifying. It feels like a spectacle.

How theater relates to social issues? There’s a lot to be said for what theater can accomplish and how it can be relevant. I love the diversity and inclusion initiative in this company. For example: There is a preexisting narrative that the world of Dickensian London was a predominantly white place. That is part of a false narrative. There were people of color all over England in Dickens’ time. We have a production of “Great Expectations” that is very diverse. We introduce a diverse world of Dickens to the minds of people who didn’t know there was one. We also reflect more authentically a cross-section of the human experience. It broadens the capability of this story to apply to everybody. This is the kind of narrative we need in this country.

EH: What is unique about theater as an art form?

BB: I like the shared cultural heritage of the stories that we can act-out on the stage. But also, I find theater serves many of the same functions that church did for me as a child in terms of having a sense of communion with a large group of people, a sense of fellowship, a shared experience of a moral lesson or of food for thought. A good play is a good sermon. If it leaves you reflecting on yourself or reflecting on life, there’s something holistic, energizing and freeing about that.

I believe strongly in questioning and analyzing your own beliefs, and I think that theater is a sneaky way of doing that. When you present a story, people might think that they’re just there to be entertained. But if a play is good, it should have some underlying theme that also makes them think about life or themselves differently.

Dickens said in an interview that "all of his moral characters are the way that he wished he was, and all of his immoral characters are the way that he thinks he is." He got to express himself in the form of his flawed characters and idealize himself in the form of his good characters. He starts from the point of “I’m a sinner” and finds redemption.

He’s almost uncomfortably honest with his characters. He’ll make his characters ugly, make you squirm a little bit; and it makes you chuckle, because it makes you uncomfortable. He has a great wit, but he also has this great wry quality that plays off of you, being self-aware and feeling uncomfortable with your own shortcomings, by being so bare with his.

EH: What peak experience do you take away from “Great Expectations” at OSF?

BB: I’ve been humbled by the audiences, especially the student audiences. To get a sense that it is relevant to people, makes the work feel very worth doing.

“Great Expectations,” adapted by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper, plays in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30. For tickets to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and was a founding cast member at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.