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Culture Junkie: What’s that feeling in the air?

As I was sitting in my theater seat watching Yussef el Guindi’s “Hotter Than Egypt” a week or so ago, blanketed in the warm semi-safety of the masked and vaccinated audience all around me, I experienced a moment of deep Deja Vu.

On stage, as Marin Theatre Company’s lovely and lively staging of Guindi’s bittersweet Cairo-set comedy-drama played out, I watched as two couples struggled through a series of life-altering decisions, juggling simultaneous feeling of grief, shock and disbelief while also nailing one dryly-delivered, and frequently hilarious one-liner after another.

Without spoiling anything about the play, which runs through Sunday, April 24, let me say that during one late scene a character shows genuine breathless excitement, that specific blend of fear, focus, endocrinal arousal and mental and emotional stimulation we all feel now and then. Just at the moment where everything changes forever for those characters, that’s when the Deja Vu-like feeling hit me.

I recognized it instantly, and since I was sitting in a theater as it happened, the feeling somehow managed to pull in several adjacent images, memories of being in another theater, a couple of them close together actually, while similar waves of shock and change and excitement were coming down outside, and all over the world.

I am, of course, talking about March of 2020.

Just over two years ago — and I know I’m not alone in this — I was admittedly in a state that can accurately be described as grief, though I did not identify it as such because I was also in a state of massively heightened adrenaline. The world had come to a sudden almost-stop, the streets were empty, and all local theaters — both the movie kind and the plays-and-musical kind — which have always been a place of sanctuary and safety to me - were shut down and dark.

It was, for lack of a better word, exciting.

It was awful, obviously.

People were dying (and let’s not forget that people still are, as we are currently in state of respite but not quite through this yet), jobs had been lost, we were hiding in our homes howling together at 8 p.m., while millions of businesses were pivoting to Zoom-based practices and remote home-delivery versions of whatever they’d done before. There was plenty of adrenaline coursing through the world — and normally we’d call that “excitement.”

Which isn’t always a nice feeling.

The previous weekend, it so happens, my wife Susan and I had taken our annual spring trip to Ashland, Oregon for the opening weekend of nine-month-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an event I’d attended without interruption for nearly 15 years straight. It turned out to be the first and last weekend of OSF that year, as they also closed down before the next weekend rolled around. Susan and I were among the very few to see those plays, each one postponed and then canceled a handful of days after their opening nights. The baseball cap I bought there, emblazoned with “OSF 2020,” will forever be a blend of the pleasant memories we had of our last trip before the pandemic, and an artifact of a historic moment in time when many of the things we took for granted came to a crashing halt.

My memory of those plays is fused with the surreal feeling of wondering if it would be my last time in a theater for a while. Possibly a long while.

One month later, while we were adjusting somewhat to having our groceries delivered, talking to colleagues on our computers, the tangible weirdness of it all still had our pulses pounding.

Now, two years after all of that, I feel a different form of pulse-pounding excitement every time I step into a theater. I’ve seen a number of shows since theaters reopened locally in September, but still, every time I walk into another auditorium, a small voice says, “I can’t believe I’m back!”

Of course, though the first days of the pandemic feel as if everything was changing rapidly, a return to normal almost always happens in small, gradual steps.

Last summer, as things were tentatively reopening, my wife Susan and I took a road trip up the California Coast and into Oregon, ending the trip with an overnight stay in Ashland, our first time back since that opening weekend 16 months earlier. Normally, the Shakespeare Festival would have been in full swing, with three theaters presenting nearly a dozen plays. This time, OSF was offering just one, a one-woman-show held in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater. We were required to show proof of vaccination, and we all wore masks. But we were there. It was for us, and clearly for everyone in the somewhat sparse audience, their first time in any theater since all of this began.

There’s a moment that happens at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival just before a play begins on the Elizabethan stage. A window opens on a tower up above the theater, and someone leans out, reaches for the pulleys to raise a flag high up on a pole, doffs their hat and waves to the audience below, then closes the door as the play springs to life. In past years, the audience would generously applaud this charming display. Last summer, starved as we all were for a theatrical experience, grateful for even the minimally-staged production we were about to see together, the raising of the flag drew loud cheers and, for many sitting nearby, almost immediate tears of emotion. Those tears were a mix of joy and gratitude and, I suspect, even a bit of sadness and that same grief I mentioned earlier.

Jump ahead another nine months.

As I am writing this, I am back in Ashland, sitting at a coffeeshop called Pony Espresso. I drove up on Friday, by myself, for the official 2022 Oregon Shakespeare Festival opening weekend, where I reconnected with a small group of arts journalists (two of us, technically) who have not seen one another for a very long time.

Now, in past years, the festival has always opened in the spring with four or five shows, then gradually opens more each month, with a total of 11 plays produced by the time the festival closes in October. This year there will be just seven shows presented on stage during the full season, and then a special Christmas show in November, something new that was introduced last year. Instead of kicking things off with the usual full weekend, this year saw the opening of just two plays. One, directed by the Bay Area’s Evren Odcikin, is the West Coast premiere of Mona Mansour’s 2017 drama “Unseen,” the tightly woven tale of a traumatized conflict photographer recovering in Istanbul after a mysterious and deadly incident she has no memory of. The other, directed by Lili-Anne Brown with electrifying charm and joyous, open-hearted exuberance, is the delightful 1990 musical “Once On This Island.” In it, a community of Haitian islanders gather in the aftermath of a natural disaster to share an ancient legend about a poor orphan girl, the wealthy man she eventually falls in love with, and the tricks the gods play, for good and for not-so-good.

Recovery and resilience, trauma and community, storytelling as part of the path back to some version on normalcy. Pretty appropriate themes for a festival that, along with the various communities it draws to Ashland - and theater companies across the country - is cautiously taking its next steps out of a long two-year shut-down.

Does it feel different? Of course it does. There are fewer people here, fewer shows, and a decidedly tentative feeling in the cold, crisp Oregon air. But that joyful gratitude witnessed last summer when the flag was raised over the Elizabethan Theater (not set to reopen until the warmer weather of June)? It’s definitely here.

And yes, it’s very, very exciting.

The good kind.

“Culture Junkie” runs once a month or so in the Argus-Courier. You can reach David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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