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Ashland New Plays Festival presents 'Edward III' in modern verse

Latino playwright Octavio Solis — who is part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s project Play on! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare — puzzled his way through difficult verse from William Shakespeare's "Edward III" to create the history tale in modern verse.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of it," he says in a press release. "It taps into the part of my brain that likes puzzles. I’m decoding something really intricate and special. The process has revealed Shakespeare’s craft as a writer. I’m getting into Shakespeare’s head, like when I try to think like Will Shortz so I can solve New York Times crosswords.”

Ashland New Plays Festival will present a dramatic reading of Solis' new "Edward III" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 27, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland. Dawn Monique Williams directs, and the cast features Armando Duran, Devin White, Sam Osheroff, Tamra Mathias, Jamie Peck, Jon Cates, Jordan Barbour, Kyle Haden, Robin Goodrin Nordli, Nancy Rodriguez, Stephen Michael Spencer and Vilma Silva.

Tickets are $20 or $25 for reserved seats and can be purchased online at ashlandnewplays.org/tickets-e3/ or at the door.

"'Edward III' is a new play in the sense that it's only recently been added to the Shakespeare canon," says ANPF president James Pagliasotti. It is in line with what ANPF commonly does, which is bring new works to the stage. It will be a play I've never seen before, as, I think, it will be for a lot of the audience."

Spearheaded by director Lue Douthit, OSF's Play on! commissioned 36 playwrights and paired them with dramaturges to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English. The project's aim is to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation while making companions of Shakespeare's plays that are accessible to actors and useful in classrooms and productions.

The project is controversial. Some believe Shakespeare's words should remain unaltered, that today's audiences should be able to grasp Shakespeare's plays in their original language through skilled actors and directors.

“I understand why this project exists,” Solis says. “In scholarship, the language feeds the scholar’s soul to read and study it. But in performance, there are some elements that are over our heads no matter what.”

There are many references and metaphors from Shakespeare’s time that have lost their impact, Solis says. In "Edward III," he had to research the identity of “the queen of shades.” Once discovering it, he rewrote the line to provide context that she was “Diana of the moon.” 

Solis honors Shakespeare’s poetry and gets to understand the playwright’s motives in order to clarify and strengthen his translation's power for today’s audiences.

“I’m trying to make myself invisible in this process,” Solis says. “But I’m a poet, too. And I think I bring some poetic clarity to the work. I’ve also been an actor, so I’m trying to make lines more personal, rather than lofty and disengaged. I’m not reinventing characters or story; I’m working from what is already there.”

One of Solis’ discoveries during this project is what he’s learned from dissecting Shakespeare’s writing process: his word choices, shortcuts and creativity.

"I am in awe of his particular genius, to fit so much into one line, and then make it rhyme,” Solis says.

Separate from the controversy of translating Shakespeare, there is disagreement among scholars that "Edward III" was written by Shakespeare. It was officially added to Shakespeare’s canon in the late 1990s. Part of the evidence used to credit Shakespeare as the author came from computer software meant to find plagiarism in college papers.

"In two of the most powerful speeches — with messengers describing graphic sea battles and French refugees fleeing their villages — there is such a command of language and tone. They’re so vivid, with the poetry subverted to describe something that is truly horrifying,” Solis says.

The story of Edward III follows the personal and political struggles of pivotal characters at the start of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 14th century. The five-act play features the English king’s love for a married countess, brutal battles for power in France, and personal struggles of honoring oneself versus honoring a king or country.

When "Edward III" was written in the 1590s, it was a propaganda play, showing the royalty and their praiseworthy wars.

"But it doesn’t put a gloss on it," Solis says. "Yes, it was patriotic and enormously popular, but there are some dark things that Shakespeare is mindful of exploring, like how to be a good ruler, a good conqueror.”

In a pivotal scene at the town of Calais, it is the king’s wife who helps change her husband’s mind to not kill French men who surrendered voluntarily to save their town. However, the king wants to raze the village and kill the men to show his power. Queen Philippa then says, “Those who fall under the sword and turn to ash by fire offer you no homage. Only living can pay you homage.”

As Solis labored over individual words and phrases, he also translated the characters, giving audiences a stronger connection to the lives and lessons played out in the story, and, as the play must work as poetry, he constantly asked himself, “If Shakespeare were alive today, what would he do?”

"Shakespeare’s poetry is just gorgeous, and I’m a purist,” Solis says, and he quotes the Play on! playwrights’ first rule, “to do no harm.”

“This is a fresh script, newly done, and I am working in a mode that is entirely new to me,” he says. “It’s imperative that I hear it with the most qualified Shakespearean actors in order to know whether I am going in the right direction or not. ANPF is giving me a shot at this. The importance of that cannot be minimized.”