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'Off the Rails' challenges us to keep hope

“Off the Rails” opened last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the world premiere of a play that is also OSF’s first by a Native American playwright, Native Voices’ Randy Reinholz.

Loosely based on Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure,” “Off the Rails” sharpens the moral issues surrounding federal Indian policies in the 1800s, policies that are terrible to recall and important to remember.

On the opening night of “Off the Rails,” there was a buzz of chatter, last-minute email and people squeezing past into their seats, but before long, the audience quieted and watched raptly. High notes of a flute sounded like wind whistling over the plains, and against the backdrop of the stage were children’s drawings of Native people, trains, soldiers, landscapes — each fading one into the other.

The transience and naïveté of the figures crayoned onto lined notebook paper makes you stop and wonder.

Set in 1880s Genoa, Nebraska, when Manifest Destiny enshrines the white man’s cultural ascendancy, “Off the Rails” brings back a time in American history when Native children were taken from their families to live in boarding schools where their language, customs and practices were forbidden.

The official ideology was that education, proper clothing and Christianity would “civilize” the savages and save their souls. Children were abused and punished for their difference until they conformed.

The love between Momaday, a boarding-school student, and Caitlin, an Irish orphan, is the nominal center of the play. Their forbidden love is blessed by marriage in the Pawnee way and gives rise naturally and easily to a pregnancy welcomed by both. Fornication, though, is a crime, and Momaday is imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Just as in “Measure for Measure,” true love will not be thwarted. Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Truett Felt are superb in their roles as Momaday and Caitlin, theirs a pleasing and hopeful love shining bright in the moonlight. The merging of their souls and bodies is expressed by exchanges in both Pawnee and English, and by speaking the languages so seamlessly, their love for each other and the acceptance of each other’s culture is also natural and whole.

Also forbidden, but played with compelling sweetness and light, is the growing love shared by Alexie, played by Roman Zaragoza, and a passing cowboy, played by Cedric Lamar.

Dress and language are the external signs of power and acculturation, and transformation. Dress establishes General Gatt’s position, the mayor of Genoa played by David Kelly and that of Captain Angelo, the boarding school superintendent played by Barret O’Brien. Both stand tall and speak with righteous authority, and Captain Angelo especially, played by Barret O’Brien, seems to escape any penalty for his grievous offenses.

Language is power, the specialized language of law or regulation, written documents that govern business and commerce. Language that can convey authority and suggest social equality or deny it is remarkable in the exchanges between the lustful and corrupt Captain Angelo and Isabel, played by Lily Gladstone.

Christopher Salazar as James McDonald, General Gatt’s mixed-blood advisor, is a lawyer who commands respect through his reasonable words that counsel compromise. His dress is a common man’s checked suit and bowler hat.

Language is also used to elicit humor, lightening the burden of this country’s history, as Stephen Michael Spencer plays a Falstaff-like tapper named Pryor, tending bar in the saloon.

Language is powerful, too, in the trance-like exchanges with Grandfather, played by Brent Florendo in full headdress and buckskins, sometimes offered with humor, and always with love. Just as powerful are the flutes that sing in the night, the guitar picking that lifts one's spirits, and the drums that resound like the beating of many hearts.

Women have important and effective roles in “Off the Rails.” Isabel is at first captivated by her education and bewitched with a future as a teacher. Gladstone’s transformation from a token Indian woman at the mercy of any white man into a Native woman who holds her own destiny is vibrant and resonates with the audience. Her dress shifts from a conservative shirtwaist, nipped in with gloves and hat, to bangles, beads and buckskin.

Madame Overdone has few lines and less influence in “Measure for Measure,” but in “Off the Rails,” Overdone, the Lakota-French saloon owner played by Sheila Tousey, drives much of the narrative. Tousey commands this role with resolute determination, building clever alliances to maintain the Native community and those she holds dear at the saloon.

“Off the Rails” is a simplified retelling of “Measure for Measure” and is also much more complex and immediate. “Off the Rails” is about people who refuse to be marginalized in their own community, who defy a corrupt, hypocritical and powerful man and more, refuse to be humbled in the face of federal policies.

“Off the Rails” tells of yesterday’s sorrows that are painful today, but these superb OSF performers bring it forward and ask the audience, ask all of us, to stand tall in the face of contemporary hypocrisy and corruption. With words, song, dance and drumming, “Off the Rails” challenges us to keep hope and reject silence.

The performance ends with a joyous celebration of Native culture, traditional dance right there in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, with the audience joining in for the Circle Dance, drumming and singing of spirit and possibility.

“Off the Rails” is directed by Bill Rauch and continues in the Bowmer through Oct. 28. A sign-interpreted performance is scheduled for Oct. 7. The show is approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Pryor (Stephen Michael Spencert), left, and the Sheriff (Steven Sapp) catch up at the Stewed Prunes Saloon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's premiere of 'Off the Rails.' [OSF / Jenny Graham]