THEATER

‘Gypsy’ preview: one thorny Rose

The Shedd revives a classic midcentury musical that shows the dark side of celebrity ambition

The overture to Gypsy kicks off the show with one of those rousing, familiar tunes that practically bellows “classic American musical.” And a classic the 1959 show (created by writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, just off his breakthrough with West Side Story) certainly is. But if it’s most famous for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” they’re more like the blossoms the Rolling Stones sang about in “Dead Flowers.” Like the music, the story turns darker, more complicated, more real than its splashy opening number suggests.

Closing this weekend at Eugene’s Shedd Center for the Performing Arts in a production directed by Peg Major, with music directed by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, Gypsy delivers the memorable Big Tunes and production numbers that fans of musicals crave — while also limning the depth of character and even darkness rarely found in musical theater to that time, and too seldom since.

‘Gypsy’ closes this weekend at The Shedd in Eugene.

Set in 1920s vaudeville, the story is propelled by an aging, wannabe burlesque queen, “a pioneer woman without a frontier… born too soon and started too late.” It’s at heart a family drama pitting the manipulative stage monster, er, mother’s stifled ambitions and fears against her daughters’ independence and self-esteem as she labors to vault them to the vicarious stage stardom she never achieved herself. In the process, we come to understand the pain that underlies her craving for recognition.

One indicator of any classic’s greatness (whether a play, a composition, a dance) is the variety of interpretations it allows, and in frequent revivals on Broadway and beyond, Momma Rose has been successfully played by a wide variety of acclaimed musical actresses. Though all inevitably stand in the formidable shadow of the original Momma Rose, the volcanic-voiced Ethel Merman (who actually initiated the project after reading the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee), the fact that stars as diverse as Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone have successfully played the role in frequent revivals demonstrates the character’s depth. In Eugene, Shirley Andress reportedly presents a more vulnerable interpretation of a still-steely character in transition.

So too, do different productions vary the import of the ambiguous ending. More than most works of musical theater including opera, Gypsy catches the complexity of real life — and conveys it in unforgettable songs like “Together Wherever We Go,” “You Gotta Get A Gimmick,” “Let Me Entertain You” and of course “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” And that complexity, signaled by an unexpected turn from opening exuberance to eventual disappointment, helped spark a similar transformation in the American musical itself, opening it to an unprecedented kind of psychological complexity that Sondheim and others would continue to develop.

That makes Gypsy a timeless creation, frequently staged. Maybe in this age of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and a burlesque revival that recently produced a made-in-Portland opera that told the story of Portland striptease artist/author Viva Las Vegas, the time is again ripe for Rose’s demented dreams of ecdysiastic elevation. The notion that you can cure your psychic damage and find glory — or at least self-esteem — by riding the public revelation of superficial parts of yourself to stardom didn’t disappear with vaudeville strippers.

Featuring Shirley Andress as Rose, Clarae Smith, Ward Fairbairn, and Kenady Conforth, Gypsy runs for six performances at the Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $22 to $38, available at the box office at 868 High St. Eugene, 541-434-7000, or online. A version of this story appears in Eugene Weekly.

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Full Circle: a universe of theater

At TCG's national conference in Portland, people of color traded stories on how to build an American theater that includes everyone

I straddle many worlds as a journalist, writer, and media and theater artist. When I interview artists, I often have to pull back from their perspective to gain a more outside view. Yet it’s the inside look that draws me to the work of the artist, and it’s the personal I find fascinating. Crossing lines and boundaries of many worlds is in my DNA. I’m mixed-race. I’m Asian. I’m Chinese or Taiwanese or a person of color, an immigrant, an American. Like all PoCs (People of Color), I switch languages, cultures and sometimes personalities depending on the world I inhabit. I was not prepared to find the worlds presented at Full Circle, the Theatre Communications Group national conference June 8-10 at the Hilton Downtown, so welcoming and meaningful.

Theatre Communications Group’s leaders of color gather for a group shot at TCG’s national conference in Portland. Author Dmae Roberts is near the center in the second row from the top. Photo courtesy Elena Chang / TCG

I don’t generally like conferences, but lately I’ve found ones focusing on racial and cultural issues impact me the most. Last October I forged deep connections with API (Asian/Pacific Islander) theater artists at the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest). I honestly thought TCG would pale compared to ConFest. I was wrong.

I’ve been to enough conference sessions dealing with diversity issues to become skeptical. At one public radio conference, I recall a session on “Unintentional Bias” with great irony when a white executive director of a national radio program barged her way to the head of a line filled with PoCs waiting to comment. She felt defensive and thought nothing of interrupting a Latinx radio producer to tell everyone her network wasn’t biased.

So when I saw the TCG conference had numerous EDI sessions, I was hopeful yet cautious. Equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI, has become the phrase of choice when looking at changing the structures limiting the imagination when it comes to hiring practices and the kind of art that’s presented, particularly in theatre. This year’s Full Circle exceeded my expectations.

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Day 1 – June 8, 2017

On the first day of the TCG conference, I attended TCG’s Commitment to EDI session, which pretty much foreshadowed EDI as the main theme of the conference. I turned to another conference attendee and asked if this was a typical focus for the TCG conferences. The person nodded her head and said it was even more last year.

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Revenge tragedy, political farce

The Public Theatre kills off a Trump-like Julius Caesar, and the outrage flies. What happens when theater and politics clash.

It’s the murder heard ’round the Web. Stab-stab-stab, and the emperor’s dead. Across vast stretches of Blue America, a metaphorical wish has been fulfilled. And lo, a righteous and avenging fury has swept across the nation from stage right, and the shouting heads have shouted ’til they’re blue in the face, and the mighty money spigot has cranked shut. New York’s Public Theatre has done the unthinkable in its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. It’s dressed up JC to look like Donald Trump, and allowed the assassination to go on (quite explicitly, according to the reviews), and the play to proceed to the perpetrators’ plummet from the heights, felled by the hubris of their own violent act.

The cultural world is unlikely to have a flashier flash point this summer, although considering the political craziness of the moment, all bets are off. A production of a classic play about politics has itself entered the political theater, where the stakes are higher and the action’s vastly more ruthless. It’s at once a tragedy and a farce, on a level that The Public’s director Oskar Eustis might not have anticipated, even though he courted the controversy.

“Murder of Caesar,” Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas, Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany

Agitators have rushed the stage and disrupted several performances, loudly shouting canned slogans: “Liberal hate kills!” “Goebbels will be proud!” “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands!” (This is the same Steve Scalise, shot at baseball practice by a looney who had also been a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has proudly touted his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.) One such interruption came from an “investigative journalist” and right-wing operator named Laura Loomer, whom up to that point I had had the extreme pleasure of never having heard. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she shouted, perhaps in defense of the candidate of the right who suggested that his loyal Second Amendment supporters might have a solution to the distressing outrages of his liberal election opponent. Corporate sponsors Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, aghast at the thought that their feel-good marketing support of free theater in the park might make them targets of a backlash that could cost them business, promptly withdrew their backing – and in the process, created a backlash to the backlash that almost certainly will cost them business. Shakespeare festivals across the country (including Oregon’s in Ashland) that had nothing to do with The Public or its Julius Caesar drew vitriolic complaints and even, in some cases, threats of violence from an aroused right-wing faithful. It all made, if nothing else, for “good TV.”

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Good with people, reluctantly

David Harrower's contemporary two-hander "Good With People" does fascinating personal battle in Our Shoes Are Red's hands

Portland is a town where good theater happens in little spaces. Not just small Equity houses like Artists Rep and Portland Center Stage’s black box Ellyn Bye Studio, but holes-in-the-wall and carved-out places like defunkt, the Shoe Box, and Shaking the Tree, spaces where a good old-fashioned Shakespeare history or a big-scale Broadway musical might have more people onstage than seats in the house. And right now, in something of a popup production, you can find good theater in the little Performance Works NW, off of Southeast Foster Road, where one evening late last week roughly thirty people came close to filling the available seats and two people prowled the stage.

Evan (Matt DiBiasio) lands back home, bringing his baggage with him. Photo: Devon Allen

Those two actors were Devon Allen and Matt DiBiasio, for their occasional producing company Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab, and they were performing the Scottish playwright David Harrower’s 2010 character drama Good With People. Allen is Helen Hughes, who works in a small hotel  called the Seaview near a loch in the town of Helensburgh, Scotland, on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde. DiBiasio is Evan Bold, a traveler with a past, and the only guest we see in the course of the hour-long play.

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The journey, not the destination

Dspite some too-literal bumps along the road, Profile's version of Quiara Allegría Hudes’ "26 Miles" provides a trip that sticks with you

High school is rough. In another era, tenth grader Olivia Jacob would have a blog or a YouTube channel. But it’s 1985, so she has to settle for handmade zines that she hands out at school and sends to her mostly absent mother, Beatriz, and her physically present but emotionally constipated father, Aaron. But when things get desperate, she finds herself embracing a source of solace that has called to restless hearts across the centuries: a road trip.

Quiara Allegría Hudes’ 26 Miles at Profile Theatre begins on the night that Olivia, after throwing up fifteen times probably from food poisoning, calls her mother in the middle of the night and sets in motion an accidental journey that sees their small, fractured family reconfigured.

On the road: Julana Torres and Alex Ramirez de Cruz. Photo: David Kinder

As most road trip stories know (this one included), the destination itself is almost always a bit of a disappointment. The journey is where everything good happens. The same might be said of 26 Miles itself: though the plot clangs against some clichés—a mystery doctor visit, a frigid and jealous stepmom, lines like “The woman he knew is gone”—Hudes’ lyric, poetic language almost always serves to lift the scenes above familiarity. Olivia’s monologues in particular, delivered with endearing teenage awkwardness by Alex Ramirez de Cruz, are delicate and lovely.

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Tom(boy) Sawyer on the run

Connor Kerns' new heroine adaptation of the Mark Twain adventure is fun. It could've been radical, too.

One of my favorite parts of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is when Tom Sawyer suddenly reappears near the end of the story, and the worlds of Twain’s two most famous novels jarringly collide. Tom, still wrapped up in his adventure fantasies, gets Jim unjustly arrested and himself nearly killed because he wants to plan a daring escape rather than just tell everyone that Jim is, in fact, now free. Tom’s still just a kid; Huck has learned that there is a real world out there, with real danger and real consequences. And that’s the difference between the pair of their eponymous novels, too. Though The Adventures of Tom Sawyer includes murder and danger, the terror of the circumstances is mostly held at arm’s length by Tom’s boyish innocence.

Tom (Taylor Jean Grady) chills with some tunes. Photo: Gary Norman

In the new play Tom(boy) Sawyer from Quintessence: Language & Imagination Theatre, director and playwright Connor Kerns’ Tom(asina) Sawyer is not an innocent. She’s a weed-smoking community college dropout slacking her way through her twenties in Washougal, Washington in 1989. She can’t sing, but she dreams of being in a band. She can’t decide if she’s in love with her best friend Hector Finn, or her friend Jenny Thatcher. She hates The Man, but doesn’t really know why.

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Five questions for the Falstaffs

Between them, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's K.T. Vogt and G. Valmont Thomas are playing the Big Guy in all three of his shows. Here's what they think.

This year, Falstaff is all over the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF patrons can see all three plays that feature that most well-loved, most roundly hated, most written-about of Shakespeare’s (perhaps) comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. He appears as a mentor, teacher, playmate, and friend to Prince Hal – who will someday be Henry V – in both parts of Henry IV, and this season, he’s played in both by G. Valmont Thomas.

The Henrys are some of the best of Shakespeare’s history plays, but Falstaff has a longer life: A theory exists that Queen Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff so much that she asked the Bard to write a play, supposedly in 14 days, which featured Falstaff in love. True or not, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy that indeed features Sir John Falstaff trying to woo and win at least a couple of women at once, and hijinks definitely ensue. It’s a comedy, but also for several scenes an excellent farce, and it features Falstaff considering his place in life as he grows older. Thomas played that role in OSF’s 2006 version of Merry Wives, but this year the Falstaff of love is played by the festival’s K.T. Vogt.

Poins ((Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and Mistress Quickly (Michele Mais) are unconvinced by Sir John Falstaff’s (G. Valmont Thomas’s) account of his bravery during a robbery in “Henry IV, Part 1.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

With the festival’s summer open-air shows opening this weekend on the Elizabethan Stage (Merry Wives on Friday, June 16; Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Odyssey on Saturday; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Sunday) we asked both Falstaffs five questions via email as they rehearsed for the openings of Merry Wives and Henry IV, Part 2. They are due to present themselves for a similar discussion for a special donor/member event on Sunday morning of opening weekend.

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