THEATER

“The Invisible Hand” follows the money

Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Ayad Akhtar's hostage thriller is sharp and thought-provoking

For a few years now, Allen Nause has talked about staging “The Invisible Hand” in Portland, back when he was artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, back before playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and right after he returned from a theater tour in Pakistan.

His idea was to bring two Pakistani actors he’d met on the tour to Portland to play in Akhtar’s hostage drama, as a way to extend his mission to connect with the acting community there. And having Pakistanis playing Pakistani characters seemed like a good idea, too. But first visa problems washed out a scheduled run of the play. Then Akhtar’s Pulitzer landed, and the Pakistani-American playwright wanted to do some serious revisions of the play. The world premiere landed elsewhere, the actors from Pakistan never made it to town, and Nause embraced a freelance career as a director and actor, after retiring his artistic directorship at Artists Rep.

But now “The Invisible Hand” has finally appeared!

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART's "The Invisible Hand"/Owen Carey

Connor Toms and Imran Sheikh in ART’s “The Invisible Hand”/Owen Carey

It’s a nice, sharp hostage thriller on the surface, but then it veers into the territory of political economics and deepens into something deliciously different. Pretty soon the audience, along with the terrorist Bashir (an enemy of the West and capitalism), is getting lessons in how futures work and selling short and the short history of how the American dollar became the globe’s dominant currency (thank you, or curse you, Bretton Woods). And finally what keeps the American dollar on top? The “invisible hand” of capitalism. So, right, a little metaphysics creeps in there, too.

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Bag & Baggage: That ‘70s Show

"Six Gentlepersons of Verona" gets groovy with un-famous Shakespeare

At the talkback session after Sunday’s matinee performance of Six Gentlepersons of Verona, an audience member asked director Scott Palmer why he wanted to stage a play that’s widely considered — including, according to his program notes, Palmer himself — to be among Shakespeare’s weakest.

“Because I wanted to!” grinned Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director, a confessed Shakespeare geek who enjoys nothing more than poring through historical source material and approaching the plays from novel directions. He elaborated: like many directors, Palmer wants to get through Shakespeare’s entire canon (much as conductors crave complete Beethoven or Mahler symphony cycles or Wagner’s Ring operas); Verona, possibly Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, contains the seeds and even some of the plot devices of his later masterpieces (a balcony scene a la Romeo and Juliet, transformative encounters in the woods like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others, a pre-Othello jealousy plot); its very dramatic weaknesses pose a challenge that any ambitious director wants to solve, and so on.

All good reasons … for a director. But what about the audience? Why should we pay a farthing to sit through a couple hours of second-rate Shakespeare? Are we mere canon-fodder?

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in "The Six Gentlepersons of Verona." running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in “The Six Gentlepersons of Verona.” running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s new production, which runs through March 22 at Hillsboro’s historic Venetian Theatre, provides some persuasive answers, and not just the unbearably cute, scene stealing pug.

Continues…

Two queens were one too many in the fearfully dis-united kingdom of 16th century Britain. One, Elizabeth, had decided to return her country to the Protestantism her father Henry VIII had imposed on it. The other, Mary, favored the Catholicism that had reigned before Henry and still prevailed in most of the rest of Europe — including France, where she’d lived since childhood, safe from England’s wrenching back-and-forth religious wars, which left thousands dead with each shift of the political/religious winds.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in "Mary Stuart." Photo: Jack Wells.

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I (l) and Luisa Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in “Mary Stuart.” Photo: Jack Wells.

Rampant beheadings, massacres and purges in the name of seemingly minor doctrinal differences, terrorism… if all this sounds familiar, it’s because humans are depressingly slow to change our ways. Playwright Peter Oswald understands these parallels, and his adaptation of the great 19th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized version of the battle between the dueling queens crackles with contemporary vitality, which director Elizabeth Huffman channels into the most powerful theater production I’ve seen this year:  Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre’s Mary Stuart.

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Family matters in ‘Other Desert Cities’

Jon Robin Baitz's play at Portland Center Stage is full of family secrets

In Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, playing at Portland Center Stage, a writer comes home for Christmas with a memoir in tow. Brooke’s hoping her parents, Polly and Lyman, will give it their blessing, or maybe just be OK with it, or at least understand how much she needed to write it. The memoir blames her parents for the suicide of her brother.

Even from that short description, which leaves out lots of additional exposition and declarations of love all around, we’re pretty confident that she’s not going to get what she wants for Christmas. And toward the end of the play, even she wakes up enough to label the whole idea a “miscalculation.”

That’s one of the delusions that keeps writers writing, though, the notion that their explanations will be so powerful that they will instantly change the thinking and the emotional weather of their readers. A few minutes with Brooke’s parents, especially Polly, are enough to demonstrate just how powerful that delusion can be. Guess what, Brooke? They aren’t going to take it well.

In "Other Desert Cities," the Wyeth family gathers for Christmas and tennis./Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

In “Other Desert Cities,” the Wyeth family gathers for Christmas and tennis./Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

All of this sound a little predictable, yes? But Baitz (A Fair Country, The Substance of Fire, the TV series Brothers and Sisters) has written a play that has some big surprises in it, too, a nice dollop or two of humor, lots of literate dialogue and sensible arguments, and five characters with a lot on their minds and that suicide I mentioned, in their hearts. And though I don’t agree with director Timothy Bond that it belongs in the same breath with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, I still get why it was a critic’s darling when it opened in New York in 2011.

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Durang/Durang: funny/funny

Post Five catches the wave of the playwright's nervously comic and wholly entertaining series of skits

About a month ago, I got to talk with Christopher Durang, a playwright whose work I’ve tended to love for a long time. In advance of Portland Center Stage’s production of Vanya, Sonia, Mashia and Spike, I mostly peppered him with questions about that script and his works in general, but I also reached out to Post5 Theatre to see if they had any questions as they tackled his series of shorts, Durang/Durang.

They basically asked (in almost so few words) “What’s Durang/Durang doing?”

And the playwright, taken aback, replied, “Trying to entertain!”

“…duh,” he politely refrained from saying.

Heath Koerschgen, Jessica Tidd, and Kelly Godell in "Durang/Durang." Photo: Russell J. Young

Heath Koerschgen, Jessica Tidd, and Kelly Godell in “Durang/Durang.” Photo: Russell J. Young

A few weeks later, Post Five cried, “No, wait! We have another question.” Which was: could they just this once cast a man, Keith Cable, as Mrs. Sorkin, the verbose matron who introduces the show? Apparently the playwright obliged, because on opening night, there was Keith, demurely patting his Tootsie wig into place and delivering a ladylike performance à la Kids in the Hall, wherein the drag created a character, but was not the focus of a joke.

And here’s more good news: if Durang/Durang is trying to entertain, it succeeds, with a set of sketches so absurd, dynamic, and fast-paced they may as well be Saturday morning cartoons.

In For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls, a sendup of Tennessee Williams, Pat Janowski plays a southern mother who’s equal parts Blanche Dubois from Streetcar and Golden Girl Blanche Devereaux. She’s intent on marrying off her sickly son Lawrence, a spoof of “Blue Roses” Laura from The Glass Menagerie, played by Phillip J. Berns for maximum pity-laughs with a lurching gait and a crooked eye. Kelly Godell plays Lawrence’s intended but unlikely suitor Ginny, a good-natured, back-slapping warehouse coworker of Lawrence’s macho brother Tom, played by Heath Koerschgen with an echo of southern cartoon anti-heroes like Foghorn Leghorn or Yosemite Sam.

 Stye of the Eye gives Cable a crack at his masculine side, playing a fuming, wife-beating cowboy with a multiple personality disorder. Basking in an eerie red light, he strives to fill the scene with drama as quickly as the other, more ridiculous characters can drain it out the other side: Janowski as his hardbitten redneck mother, Berns as his (murdered?) wife Beth, Godell as Beth’s sister-in-law and a pretentious community theater actor, and Koerschgen again playing a stoic southern thug as Beth’s brother Wesley. All overtly acknowledge how “symbolic” everything is, and Wesley slaughters a lamb to drive home the point about destruction of innocence.

Janowski, like Cable, gets to run her range in this show, going abruptly from rags to riches at the top of the second act to play a botched facelift patient and nightmarish narcissist in Nina in the Morning. Berns again plays her son, this time a resentful rich kid, and Koerschgen and Jessica Tidd haunt her double doorway as her cryptic, evil butler and spoofishly sexy French maid. Her desperation is palpable (and unsympathetically funny) as she tries to perk up her falling face and flagging energy, the embodiment of “first-world problems.”

In Wanda’s Visit, Godell is a kooky character offset by two (in comedic terms) straight men: Tidd and Koerschgen as longtime married couple Jim and Marsha. Against his wife’s wishes, Jim invites his former high school girlfriend Wanda over for dinner…and both come to regret it when they realize that the once-sexy Wanda is now at best emotionally unstable, and at worst medically contagious and/or criminally dangerous. And, she will not…shut…up. Tidd’s passive-aggression seethes and Godell’s extroversion overflows in this outrageously uncomfortable relationship scenario.

There’s a sense that Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room may be closest to Durang’s lived experience. Cable plays a playwright who, though content to sit home and sort his laundry, is hectored into a meeting with an executive from (Miramax sound-alike?) Zero Facts Films, played by Godell. The executive proceeds to spout offensive, ill-conceived screenplay concepts and blithely prove herself a shallow, horrible human being while an openly hostile, impatient server (played by Tidd) symbolically serves the playwright food that’s the opposite of what he ordered. Here, Tidd’s body language is particularly pointed, like a pretty Grinch.

In closing, the playwright wearily declares his intention to “go soak my brain in Clorox,” an understandable impulse to purge the many germs of ideas Durang has snuck into these slightly menacing live cartoons. Committing them to memory, as I did, is probably a mistake. Better to go along for the ride, bursting and snorting with irreverent laughter the whole time.

 *

Durang/Durang continues through March 28 at Post Five Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert St. in the Sellwood district. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

‘Tribes': the sound of silence

Artists Rep's hit play about language, deafness, and family hits the storytelling sweet spot, however it's told

They say when you lose one of your senses, it enhances the others. Like if you’re deaf, maybe the stars in the night sky shine brighter, or you read strangers’ faces more keenly for clues. On the other hand, maybe you miss all the jokes at the dinner table. And maybe you constantly wonder if you’re making yourself clear.

In Artists Rep‘s hit production of Nina Raine’s Tribes (which has been held over through this Sunday, March 8), the central deaf character, Billy, lives this spectrum of pros and cons, which we feel for him thanks to a stimulating array of stage techniques: video projections, heightened and blunted sound effects, live subtitles, and live sign language. Between flooding the extra-aural senses, Tribes employs frank, witty, surprising dialogue to barrage our assumptions about language, disability and self from all sides.

"Tribes": Everybody has 'em, no two are the same. Photo: Owen Carey

“Tribes”: Everybody has ’em, no two are the same. Photo: Owen Carey

Is language (as Billy’s brother Daniel asserts) worthless? Or is it (as his father argues) the only point of access we have to our own feelings? And how is the self defined? By ability? Accomplishment? Social class? Lovability? Or is there some more inalienable, inherent state of simply being and belonging … with no permission or approval required?

Sussing out each character’s unique orientation to these core beliefs is an engaging puzzle throughout an unpredictable storyline that plays no favorites. As we watch a projected sun and moon slip across the kitchen wall, we follow a family of individuals through an irreducibly complex set of lived experiences—those that can be put into words, and those that can’t…like, say, being caught in a lie, or listening to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune in the dark.

Billy’s parents (Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson) are two bitingly witty Brits who seem to be aging apart, and both welcome and resent their grown children’s inability to vacate their nest. His brother Daniel (Joshua J. Weinstein) was the life of the party until, at 26, he started to struggle with schizophrenic symptoms. In ironic contrast to his brother’s deafness, he hears voices that aren’t there. Billy’s sister Ruth (Kayla Lian) is a struggling opera singer who inexplicably “gigs” by performing operas in pubs. And Sylvia (Amy Newman) wanders into Billy’s life as a cute girl at a Deaf Community party whose experience mirrors his own (she grew up hearing with deaf parents), and she becomes a lifeline pulling him away from his increasingly chafing family role as “mascot.”

Beyond a few wobbles in British pronunciation, Tribes‘ actors fully realize their complex characters. Mendelson is irascible and steely, with a razor wit and a laser gaze; Alper is guarded, weary and somewhat traditionally wifely; Weinstein embodies the stresses of schizophrenia, mania, and tortured self-esteem; Lian schleps through her romantic depression with un-self-conscious surrender. Newman is easily the most sympathetic character of the clan; when she sparkles, we’re drawn in, and when she frets, we share her distress. She maintains a clear aura of impartial outsider in the midst of a family that’s otherwise fiercely dependent upon each other. If they are the storm, she’s the eye.

Deaf actor Steven Drabicki has now played Billy in four cities and has also, according to an essay in the ART playbill, basically lived this role. Growing up in a hearing family with seven kids, he struggled to participate in the family conversation, and he didn’t discover the power of sign language or claim his place in the Deaf Community until after college. Drabicki’s authenticity in his role is so complete that it’s not even a distraction from the story that unfolds. In a role that would force a hearing actor to show off technical chops, Drabicki’s humble habitation of his native Deaf role enables Raine’s storytelling to shine.

 

 

‘God Game': Pollyanna at the polls

With real-life politics deeply mired in the Cynical and Cutthroat Game, Suzanne Bradbeer's play seems just too nice for belief

“What nice people,” I mused as I watched three characters politely discuss politics in Suzanne Bradbeer’s The God Game. Among the three of them, they shared an easy, convivial charm, and even in the throes of disagreement they barely interrupted each other, let alone name-call or yell or scream. They were nice, I thought, in a way we’ve come to assume that politicians behind closed doors are not.

The Brandon Woolley production continuing through this Saturday, March 7, at Shaking-the-Tree, could scarcely be better timed, as Oregon reels from real-life political upheaval.  Longtime governor John Kitzhaber’s just stepped down after allegations that his consultant girlfriend breached ethics. His replacement, Kate Brown, is the first openly bisexual governor. And now, bingo! Here’s a drama about a political couple strategizing together privately about their next public move, with a side plot about a gay political operative trying to downplay his sexuality to suit his non-activist post. It’s almost too perfect. No … it is too perfect. Because real, current affairs aren’t even as civil as the so-called drama in this play.

Laura Faye Smith: prayer and politics in "The God Game." Photo: Gary Norman

Laura Faye Smith: prayer and politics in “The God Game.” Photo: Gary Norman

If you’ll permit some spoilers: Lisa and Tom are a Virginia Republican senator and his first lady. Matt is their friend and fellow politico, an assistant to a governor that the couple secretly loathes. Matt’s also a gay man who’s chosen politics over love; he dumped Tom’s brother (who’s also Lisa’s best friend) to ingratiate himself to his fellow conservatives. Matt visits Tom and Lisa at home on their anniversary to invite Tom to be his governor boss’s presidential running mate, and he suggests that Tom make a similar ethical compromise to his own—namely, fudge the truth about his religious faith.

What would normally constitute a plot summary, counts in this case as a series of spoilers because:

a) the whole first act is spent revealing these details.

b) Bradbeer seems to enjoy fooling her audience before cluing them in—as in the opening scene, where a seductive Lisa feigns fear of getting caught in bed with Tom by Tom’s “wife”— when actually, (twist!) she’s his wife, just bein’ witty. Matt’s arrival also begins as a mystery; then we gradually learn his relationship to the pair.

These are basically the only talking points of the whole play, and talking is all that happens, and the dialogue, though expertly delivered, is not sufficiently quotable, insightful, believable, or dramatic to carry the play. But maybe the most striking problem is the characters’ impermeable comfort, which lowers the stakes of their much-discussed decision-making to near irrelevance.

Vice presidency, a hop-skip-jump from the highest office in the land, should feel like a big deal, and the characters spend plenty of lines declaring that it is. Yet somehow one is left wondering, “Whether they win or lose, what will actually change?” Life, liberty, health, wealth, property … none of these assets is risked by the average American politician in the current climate. Where other nations’ leaders face threats of coup and revolution, American politicians win and lose elections without any major sacrifice. A loss of one office is a springboard into another, or a painless fall into a cabinet position or a cushy lobbying job. Even losing a lover in pursuit of power (which, in this story, Lisa threatens and Matt has experienced) is merely a trade: the love of one, for the love of the masses.

Oh! But this is a higher question. Of ethics. Matt is asking Tom to stretch his personal truth, to make an assertion that a thousand inquiry committees could never even definitively disprove: that he believes in Jesus. And we’re to understand that Tom, a Republican senator, and Lisa, his wife, aren’t comfortable with that leap. This would somehow, miraculously, be Baby’s First Lie. The immaculate deception.

Really? In a supposedly successful senatorial career, Tom’s never welched on a campaign promise, taken a dodgy donation, or disavowed an inconvenient memory? Jesus. In a play that otherwise makes a show of realism, it’s nothing short of absurd to take this plot point (ahem) on faith. The God Game‘s scout’s-honor senator reminds me of The Man Who Could See Through Time‘s posthumous Nobel Prize: a pivotal construct in a supposedly realistic contemporary story, that just doesn’t exist in real life. In these instances, the question becomes, is the playwright uninformed … or does she just assume that we are?

Regardless, a reasonable discussion between even-tempered people who respectfully disagree on a few key points, with fewer emotional flare-ups than your average televised vice-presidential debate, barely has a place on the political stage, let alone the theatrical one. If nobody’s point is razor-sharp, and nobody’s fate is truly at stake, what’s to keep us on the edge of our seats?

But did I mention that the actors are charming? Leif Norby as Tom and Laura Faye Smith as Lisa have great chemistry; they’ve partnered onstage at least as far back as The Scene (Portland Playhouse, 2011), and come across like nice, intelligent people who like each other. Kelsey Tyler as Matt has great presence, too. And maybe that’s the ultimate comment on politics: you don’t have to give honest answers or make great plays, you just have to make people like you.

 

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