THEATER

Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

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Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

20 years in, Triangle's lean and direct production starring Dale Johannes brings a landmark musical back to life

Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summer Shakes into view

Summer arrives on the wings of Shakespeare and lands in Ashland

In a recent TV ad, pretty young folks in swimwear cluster on a beach while one of their ilk thrusts a hand into a cooler. They look on expectantly, until he fishes a beer from amid the ice, then rejoice at the news he offers: “Summer is here!” The tell-tale sign, we’re told, is that the beer is in its “summer can.”

This, apparently, is how morons recognize the change of seasons.

Summer starts when summer starts—that is, at the solstice (3:07 a.m., next Thursday, should you have some pagan ritual to plan). But there are other markers in the popular imagination, such as Memorial Day (for the truly anxious), the last day of school, or, in Portland, the end of the rains of Rose Festering.

“You kiss by the book.” Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But if we orient ourselves around what really matters, we know that summer starts this weekend with the opening of three plays in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

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Lady Day, in a bar, with a band

Deidrie Henry is terrific as the great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a musical bio that isn't quite fish or fowl

Near the beginning of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened last Friday at Portland Center Stage, Deidrie Henry, portraying the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, ascends a staircase in the middle of the stage, wearing an elegant white dress, long white silk gloves and a black fur coat, moving slowly, wearily, like an apparition with bad knees. She coughs. Then, still pushing up the last steps, she begins to sing: “All I know is that I love you…”

A couple of hours later, the opening-night party was well under way in the Armory’s second-floor lobby as Henry ascended another staircase. Before she could wade into the crowd, the entire place seemed to turn toward her at once and break into a fresh round of applause, even after the standing ovation at show’s end. All they knew — or at least one salient thing they knew — was that they loved her.

Deidrie Henry, up close and personal. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

And that’s as it should be. Henry is a well-traveled actor familiar to Northwest audiences from a handful of seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and previous shows at PCS. Her performance here is strong, polished, nuanced, affecting, pretty darn hard not to love. She expresses a variety of facets of what we might expect Billie Holiday’s character and affect to have been — by turns charming, willful, sarcastic, aggrieved, flirtatious, caustically funny, melancholy, tired, sick, and both emotionally and pharmacologically messed up. Her singing is rich, warm, expressive.

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DramaWatch: two great musicals

This week features openings of two of the best musicals in the past 20 years: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Light in the Piazza"

There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.

Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.

And yet.

Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.

Dale Johannes in Triangle’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Photo: Henry Liu

This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.

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Laughing at the end of the world

Carol Triffle's apocalyptic comedy "Fallout" at Imago is a show of quirky madness with a heap of questions hanging like a mushroom cloud

What is Fallout? I suppose the term “end-of-days comedy” fits. Yet that seems too narrow for a play about war, friendship, sexual awakening and the adverse effects of nuclear ash on human hair. Written and directed by Imago Theatre’s renowned absurdist Carol Triffle, Fallout is a play far grander in scope than the cramped room where it unfolds.

In an era awash with self-important tales of heroines and heroes nobly braving the apocalypse, the idea of Triffle (co-founder of Imago and co-creator of the legendary Frogz) journeying to the end of the world armed with her trademark anarchic wit sounds inviting. Yet despite the healthy amount of chuckling in the audience on the night I saw Fallout, the play struck me as emotionally aloof and scattershot. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a cereal box stuffed with many disparate brands.

Kyle Delamarter: crazy like a fox, or just crazy in a foxhole? Imago Theatre photo

Fallout begins in a bomb shelter that a bumbling drifter named Bobby (Kyle Delamarter) has molded into a relatively cozy home. It’s not immediately clear whether Bobby is hiding from a nuclear war or is simply a reclusive lunatic (a scene where he muses nonsensically about snake bodies encourages the question). Yet he seems to have settled into a routine that consists of playing his out-of-tune guitar, writing in his diary, and dreaming of either going to college or dying (don’t look for logic in his thinking).

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