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Ashland Theater Review: Off the Rails

Photo by Jenny Graham

Dorothy Velasco reviews the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Off the Rails, the first play by a Native American to be performed at OSF.

This is KLCC. I’m Dorothy Velasco with the Ashland Theater Review.

“Off the Rails,” the first play by a Native American to be performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a mishmash — part comedy, part musical, part history lesson, and part morality tale loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

As directed by Bill Rauch, this saga by Randy Reinholtz is set during the 1880s in Genoa, Nebraska, the site of a school for Native American children known for its brutality. In the play, we often hear the chilling slogan, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

This lavishly staged production features exemplary acting and music. Although the author hammers us with undigested statistics, by the end I felt a wrenching sadness for the suffering of a conquered people mingled with pride in their ability to regenerate their cultural heritage.

Most of the action takes place in a saloon, owned by a Lakota-French woman, Madame Overdone, given a strong, complex portrayal by Sheila Tousey. When the young Pawnee Momaday impregnates his love, an Irish orphan, he is sentenced to death by Antonio, the acting mayor.

Isabel, Momaday’s older sister played by the luminous Lily Gladstone, leaves her studies at a teachers college and comes to implore Antonio to spare her brother and allow him to marry sweet Caitlin.

Antonio, although a religious fanatic, finds himself attracted to Isabel and promises to free her brother in exchange for sex. This is straight out of “Measure for Measure,” but not nearly as nuanced or profound.

After all, there must be time enough for lively songs, political jabs, a gay black cowboy and the son of a chief who goes to Princeton.

In spite of a not-quite-perfect script, the opening day audience savored every moment, and expressed rapturous appreciation.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.
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