THEATER

Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?

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Who’s afraid of a casting switch?

Portlander Michael Streeter thought he was going to produce "Virginia Woolf." Edward Albee's Trust said no. Why? Because Streeter had cast a black actor.

Producer Michael Streeter had been planning since November 2016 for his production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, intended to appear at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre in September. There was only one hurdle to clear before officially being granted the rights to perform the play, which he had on hold with theatrical publishers Samuel French: he sent headshots of the cast off to the Albee Estate for approval.

The cast of Woolf consists of four characters: a middle-aged married couple (George and Martha, famously played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film), and a younger married couple (Nick and Honey). On May 15, Streeter got a call from the Albee Estate asking for him to elaborate on his choice of actor for the role of Nick. Streeter had cast a black actor, and was happy to explain why.

As he said to me by email, “This was a color conscious choice, not a colorblind choice. I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’”


Playwright Edward Albee, in an undated photo. UH Photographs Collection, 1948-2000/Wikimedia Commons

The Albee Estate was not convinced. They insisted that the actor be fired and the role be recast. Streeter refused. So the estate refused to grant the rights to the show. Streeter, shocked, took to Facebook: “I am furious and dumbfounded. The Edward Albee Estate needs to join the 21st Century. I cast a black actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Albee Estate called and said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one. I refused, of course. They have withdrawn the rights.”

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The Meaningful Manners of Miss Julie

Strindberg's erotic drama probes the link between beliefs and behaviors, and cracks into the rift between rich and poor

One must never leave the theater mid-scene. And certainly not just to go pee. It’s simply not done. Perpetrators must be chastised or shunned.

At Shaking The Tree last weekend, my seatmate violated that firm principle of etiquette at the very climax of August Strindberg’s* drama of manners, Miss Julie. Before the show, she’d chatted with me affably, managing to mention that she’s a homeowner in a pricey neighborhood. But after her faux pas (which included a hoarse whisper, a departure and a return midplay) I could barely look at her. In my eyes, she was fallen.

This real-life scenario actually handily illustrates the playwright’s key thesis: that our notions of social propriety often run too deep for our shared humanity to overcome. Certain social mores are at least baked and sometimes beaten into our psyches from childhood, and whenever someone breaks an ironclad convention—even if no further harm would seem to be done—they can cause intense distress, shame, and pain.

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Gershwin in Paris: S’wonderful

The Broadway tour of "An American in Paris" creates a gorgeous spectacle of song and dance inside Keller Auditorium

“S’wonderful, it’s marvelous,” this Broadway version of An American in Paris, playing at the Keller Auditorium through Sunday.

I thought so when I saw it in New York a year ago, and I still thought so last night, when the national touring company version opened here with a cast that is not as accomplished as the one I saw on Broadway, but nevertheless gave some outstanding and absorbing performances. All the other elements that make this such a wonderful show are, happily, unchanged, except for the orchestra, which is smaller. Christopher Wheeldon’s signature choreography; Bob Crowley’s stylish multimedia sets and costumes, which put you squarely in wartime Paris; and Natasha Katz’s lighting design, giving us both a city of light and one of war-time darkness, remain the same, as does the book by Craig Lucas.

Puttin’ on the ritz: the “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These elements come felicitously together in the service of George Gershwin’s music, the jazzy orchestral “American in Paris,” composed in 1928 as an homage to the city of the Lost Generation, as well as songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” familiar to the many members of the not-so-young audience who remember the 1951 film on which the show is based.

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Janie’s got her gun

Defunkt blows up the war of the sexes with Sheila Callaghan's "That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play"

What happens when a pair of radical ex-strippers on a homicidal Thelma and Louise road trip become the inspiration for a 4chan-tinted, Wes Anderson-style tale? In Defunkt’s new staging of Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play, a radical Pandora’s box of no-apologies theater, gender-identity bending, and raw angst dusted with a heavy sugar-coating of pop culture lets loose.

Theater and television writer Callaghan’s script is poetically muscled, fervent, and meticulous in its craft, and director Paul Angelo takes on a tough job with a play that has enough stage directions to put George Balanchine in a spin. This highrise production has enough levels for the highbrow playgoing aesthete, and enough grit for lowbrow surveyors to take a shine to the blacker-than-black humor Callaghan is known for.

Jessica Tidd, Blake Stone, and Jessica Hillenbrand in “That Pretty Pretty. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

The play’s beginning echoes ancient Greek repetition in a fragmented cacophony, and throws the character’s identities and gender into a finely sharpened Cuisinart. It’s an accurate portrait of the creative process: dead-files, collected memories of conversations, cutouts from pictures, snatches of dialogue underlined in novels, all of it informing and nurturing the next creative spark. The dialogue of That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play is hyper-fresh, like an observation of people’s internet scrolling in a rundown Venice, California cafe.The play’s pacing is frenetic – somewhere between practice-shooting clay pigeons while high on cocaine and riding a rollercoaster that betrays the physics of killing thrill-seekers. Like a rotten snow globe found in the rubble of a decayed inner city, the pieces drift down and come into a cohesive narrative shape. This play is difficult to its core: Without Angelo’s experience on stage and the emotional and physical bravery of the cast, the lucid drama could fall flat.

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15 Surprising Satchmoments

If you've studied Louis Armstrong's biography, you'll enjoy seeing it brought to life. If you haven't, this show will be full of surprises.

Sure, you could watch a documentary. Read a biography. Listen to a record or two or ten. If you want to simply learn about the life of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, there’s no shortage of material.

But there’s something special about a one-person bio-play—something less eerie than using a medium to conjure a spirit, but more present and more humanizing than most other media. When an actor breathes life into a figure who once lived, and we listen to their words with fresh ears, it’s a new level of “paying respects.”

Salim Sanchez as Louis Armstrong. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

Respect was something jazz trumpeter and singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong struggled to obtain, probably more than anyone in his position before or since. And in Triangle Productions’ Satchmo at the Waldorf, actor Salim Sanchez credibly and thoughtfully embodies that struggle. Performing a script by Wall Street Journal drama critic and Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, Sanchez portrays three characters: Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser, and musician Miles Davis.

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Think Pink (and cupcakes, too)

Oregon Children's Theatre's "Pinkalicious" makes sweet music and a little bit of a moral for its enthusiastically pink-clad audience

Oregon Children’s Theatre invited its audiences for Pinkalicious: The Musical to wear pink, and the suggestion was enthusiastically taken up by a majority of the audience at Saturday’s opening matinee. The pink-clad demographic, ranging from 3 years old to about 10, featured a corps de ballet’s worth of tulle and tiaras sported predominantly by little girls, but by at least two boys as well.

Oregon Children’s Theatre, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, is a master of its trade, and has engineered every aspect of the afternoon to be maximally exciting for its young audiences, from the scavenger hunt in the lobby before the performance to the carefully marshaled line for actor autographs and (pink, obviously) coupons for free miniature cupcakes afterwards. And, of course, the show in between. A brisk 60 minutes, with peppy musical numbers placed at perfect intervals to minimize fidgeting, and just a dollop of audience participation, it’s easy to see why Pinkalicious) (written by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, composed by John Gregor, and directed by Stan Foote) has been a sell-out hit for OCT through several revivals.

The great Cupcake Caper, Spray Division. Photo: Owen Carey

This iteration is anchored by the ridiculously winning Kai Tomizawa in the title role as a young girl who eats so many pink cupcakes, she turns completely pink, to the dismay of her family and friends. Last seen as young would-be Confederate soldier Raz in Artists Rep’s A Civil War Christmas, Tomizawa has an assured stage presence that in this instance puts her more closely on par with her adult co-stars than her fellow young performers. She can sing, she can dance, and she has a maturity and confidence—an ease with directing her brief moments of audience call-and-response and with holding the huge Newmark stage—that is seriously impressive. And judging by the multiple young audience members excitedly reading her name and reminiscing about her Drammy-winning performance as Junie B. Jones, she has something of a fan following. I found myself hoping that the casting director for next fall’s Fun Home at Portland Center Stage has an eye on her.

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