THEATER

A light & breezy ‘Much Ado’

Post5's rollicking screwball touch gives Shakespeare's comedy an entertaining populist flair, but takes it easy on the dark parts

When I caught up with Post5 Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing on a not-too-sweltering Saturday night, each seat in the little Sellwood theater came equipped with a miniature hand-held fan, just in case. Curious, I fumbled with mine a bit, pressed a button in front, and – spritz! – a mist of moisture sprayed my face. The helpful woman in the next seat gently pointed out that the button for the fan part was on the back, and so it was. Still, I didn’t mind getting a little water in the kisser: it seemed to fit right in with the show.

Cassandra and Ty Boice as Beatrice and Benedick: who's chicken now? Photo: Russell J Young

Cassandra and Ty Boice as Beatrice and Benedick: who’s chicken now? Photo: Russell J Young

It wasn’t just that several of the actors were getting soaked left, right, and upside down like contestants in a wet T-shirt contest at a dive bar. It’s also that spritz and surprise are key to the company’s whole approach to this witty and subtly edgy comedy: a clowning goofiness, a touch of bawdiness, a rollicking swagger, a pie-in-the-face physicality. This production is much ado about laughter, a smooth evocation of Post5’s desire to knock the stuffiness out of Shakespeare and bring him in plain quick language to the people. It’s a friendly sort of Shakespeare, swift and well-spoken and eager to please.

And please it does, for the most part. Cassandra and Ty Boice, married in real life, make an attractive and playful Beatrice and Benedick, those squabbling would-be lovers who have to be tricked into seeing the mutual attraction that’s as plain as the noses on their rubbery faces. B&B are The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio and Kate without the troubling sexual politics: they’re more obviously equals, as much give as take, and bound, you get the feeling, for a true partnership (not that P&K aren’t, too, within the context of their times). The whole enterprise has a screwball-comedy feeling, a George Cukor giddiness, with exaggerated physical animism and repartee for the pure fun of repartee. Ty Boice plays the bachelor-misogynist thick and heavy at the start, then tumbles quicker than a gymnast into sappy puppy-love. Cassandra Boice digs into his ribs sharply and mercilessly, but with obvious affection and a rueful sense of reluctant self-deprecation.

Pretty much everything about the show speaks easy-to-follow, from the late ’50s/early ’60s pop soundtrack to Alana Wight-Yedinak’s casual costumes to Aaron Kissinger’s cleverly pop-up set, which finds surprising and amusing spaces all over the tight little stage for director Darragh Kennan to deploy his good-sized cast. And there are some attractive supporting performances here: Stan Brown’s Don John, whose sole excuse for his innate nastiness seems to be that he’s a bastard (this is Shakespeare, so that’s literal); Adam Eliot Davis’s garrulous bad-guy Borachio, whose run-on ad libs drive Don John nuts; Paul Angelo’s Don Pedro, the conquering hero returned from the war; Scott Parker’s gregarious Don Pedro, host to everyone and father of the would-be bride; Olivia Weiss’s Margaret, whose friskiness unleashes unanticipated mischief; Samuel G. Holloway as the Friar, who, like the friar in Romeo and Juliet, seems to have more basic common sense than pretty much anyone else on stage; and, in the major subplot, Chip Sherman as the love-smitten young soldier Claudio and Aislin Courtis as a welcomingly spirited Hero, the object of Claudio’s affection and eventual disdain: I’ve seen Hero played as pretty much nothing but a pretty face waiting to be victimized, and I like the spunk that Courtis gives her instead.

The laughs roll out as the play rolls on, and I enjoyed myself, sometimes quite a bit. Still, a couple of things kept the show from being everything I thought it might be. The first is minor and understandable, a creative idea that doesn’t pan out. For the crucial wedding scene, in which Claudio, having been led to believe that Hero is a bawd, denounces her and she falls into a dead faint, director Kennan has the cast and audience leave the theater space and troop outside to the building’s courtyard. It’s a nice setting, but the interruption breaks the flow, and it doesn’t do the audience any favors. If you’re tall or get out in time to grab one of the few outside seats, you can see the action fine. If you’re short or don’t get a seat, you find yourself straining to see what’s going on. Sometimes what seems like a good idea just isn’t.

The more consequential second drawback, I think, keeps the production from digging into the difficult dramatic territory that darkens the play when Hero is so deeply wronged, and makes the tale more than just a rollicking lark. I wish that Kennan and the Boices had put the brakes on the immediate affability between the bickering lovers – had made their self-realization seem less a foregone conclusion and more a prize they can win only by fighting through the thickets of their own self-delusions. In this key sense the production is let down by its eagerness to entertain. Benedick and Beatrice are jolly misanthropes, and the Boices give us a lot of jolliness without much misanthropy. B&B think they despise each other, and then, in this production, give it up almost on a whim: without battling to overcome their own prejudices, everything comes too easily. It deflates the fury in Beatrice’s demand of Benedick – that he kill Claudio – and robs Beatrice and Benedick of the stern morality and willingness to stand against the tide that separates them from the rest of the play’s pack. Suddenly the petty injuries inflicted amid the general amusement of the evening have mortal consequences, and the terror of the thing should be felt.

Even the lightest of Shakespeare’s comedies are jagged things, with reminders of the tragic flip side of the game, and the best productions meet that reality head-on rather than shying away from it. The Boices’ B&B are great fun as far as they go. I think they could deepen, and give the show a greater impact. What isn’t there, though, shouldn’t detract from what is: an enjoyable, approachable, and imaginative evening of Shakespeare that at its best is genuinely beguiling. It’s a cheerful Much Ado, a date-night show, an elaborate entertainment and, for the Shakespeare-phobic, a good introduction to the joys to be had inside the bardic universe.

Shakespeare’s comedies are remarkably elastic, open to varying interpretation, and it’s interesting to compare this Much Ado to the Portland Shakespeare Project’s current Twelfth Night. Both productions emphasize (in different ways) clear language and a clean narrative. Much Ado has a modern setting and Twelfth Night is traditionally Elizabethan, but that’s a surface difference. While Much Ado seems lighter than it might be, Twelfth Night seems darker than it often is: its comedy comes with a melancholic air that’s inherent in the script but not always played with such determination. Jim Butterfield’s Toby Belch is less the lovable comic drunk of many productions and more clearly a plain old sour and bleary-eyed alcoholic. Allen Nause’s fool Feste is almost bellicose, capable of something close to viciousness, joking around while a raincloud hovers over his head. David Bodin’s maltreated Malvolio does not go gently into that comic-foil night. Together, they alter the atmosphere. The stakes are pounded in sharply, and the laughter comes, but nervously.

A little nervousness might help this bright and friendly Much Ado reach a higher (or perhaps a better-rounded) plane, too. Or maybe that’s just the spritz talking.

*

Much Ado About Nothing continues through August 16 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street. Ticket and schedule information are here.

Cymbeline’s high-minded mess

Anon It Moves' take on Shakespeare's late romance is, like the play itself, a muddle of highs and lows

Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline has a muddled reputation. Is it a tragedy, as it was considered initially, or a romance, as more modern categorizations have it? Is its sprawling, somewhat convoluted plot adventurous or instead absurd? Are its narrative tropes and stylistic flourishes fanciful or just sloppy? Is it a fascinating experiment in the fusion of themes and forms, presaging the Bard’s career-capping masterpiece The Tempest? Or is it simply a looser, lesser effort from a writer gliding toward retirement?

Perhaps a more pertinent question is this: Is the play the thing, or is the production?

From left: Shannon Mastel, Juliana Wheeler, Tyler Miles at Anon It Moves. Photo: Russell J Young

From left: Shannon Mastel, Juliana Wheeler, Tyler Miles at Anon It Moves. Photo: Russell J Young

Certainly Cymbeline can be rendered with such clarity and verve, as director Bill Rauch did in the 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging, that its innate virtues shine through and its flaws are turned instead into charming quirks. It can be adapted liberally, as Portland Center Stage’s Chris Coleman did the previous year in Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline, which filtered the tale through the bluesy emotional hues of a piano-playing narrator.

Or it can get a treatment like the one from the little Portland company Anon It Moves and director Kira Atwood-Youngstrom. On the boards at El Centro Milagro through Aug. 8, this version takes a few liberties but winds up upholding the play’s general reputation: That is to say, it’s by turns endearing and aggravating, and overall a bit of a high-minded mess.

Atwood-Youngstrom’s conceptual take, if you can call it that, is to set the tale in a fictive future, one in which Romans and Celts have yet to be swept aside as political entities. How this twist might illuminate any of Shakespeare’s themes isn’t too clear, but it gives her a justification, she says in her program note, to change a handful of male characters into females (which, of course, she might have done all the same). She also wedges in some undistinguished electro-pop songs to showcase the big, warm voices of Sarah Yeakel and Julianna Wheeler.

These changes neither add nor detract much in terms of the narrative, but seem to be the entry points for some unwelcome distractions, such as costumes that make the Roman characters look like they’ve wandered in from a community-theater production of Starlight Express. Maybe there’s also meant to be some connection between the futurism and the lone primary scenic device, a high wall or tower fragment from atop which Yeakel’s character (a vaguely supernatural presence called the Diva) and a musician/sound designer oversee all the action. The Diva appears to take the place of a few ghostly apparitions that make a cameo in the original, and might also be a nod to the themes of providence that course through the tale. But the character seems to be here mostly as a sort of melodic frosting that clashes with the dramatic cake.

Gender-switching is a common Anon It Moves move, and an admirable, often useful one. Here the main changes are to Posthumus Leonatas, the husband – now wife – of King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen, and to Iachimo, an arrogant, scheming Roman who wagers with Posthumus over Innogen’s fidelity. Making both into women is a neutral move – it doesn’t change the contrast of their characteristics or social standings.

Anon It Moves' "Cymbeline": clash of the titans. Photo: Russell J Young

Anon It Moves’ “Cymbeline”: clash of the titans. Photo: Russell J Young

But the virtue vs. vice battle that plays out sneakily between the two is in many ways the crux of the play, and it is sapped of its requisite tension here by the wooden, energy-thwarting performances of Wheeler as Iachimo and Alwynn Accuardi as Posthumus. The richness of personality that Wheeler effects in her singing is entirely absent in dialogue, where Iachimo’s brashness needs to be rounded out with wit and charisma. Meanwhile, it’s hard to invest in Posthumus’ plight of separation from Innogen if we see no spark between them; hard to understand the righteous fervor of his/her jealousy if we can’t see the honor and credulity that Iachimo has played upon.

But all is not lost on the performance front. Jahnavi Alyssa is a marvelous Innogen, as fierce in her loyalties as she is luminous in her love. Paige Jones provides a sly incisiveness as the conniving Queen, and Steve Vanderzee makes her cloddish son Cloten engagingly despicable. Best of all is Tony Green who, as the titular Celtic king, gives the show its big, emotionally framing moments, with fire-breathing anger early on when he sets trouble in motion by banishing Posthumus, then with affecting grief followed by infectious joy at the conclusion, when conflicts and mysteries resolve into reconciliations. And, naturally, tragedy transforms into romance.

 

‘Play’: the play’s the (meta) thing

D.C. Copeland's newest at Shaking the Tree is a spry leap into artifice and reality, a play about the play of making a play

Play, D.C. Copeland’s aptly named and spryly entertaining new play that premiered Thursday evening at Shaking the Tree, playfully underlines a crucial point: in the theater, there is no such thing as realism.

That is, realism isn’t reality. It’s just another style, artificial like all the rest. Characters live and breathe and do what they do at the whim of an invisible hand – not Adam Smith’s elusive economic balancer, but the hand of an unseen character known as the playwright, who may or may not be in control of the impulses that move her to play the pieces of the play the way she does. The playwright, in this case, is the mother of invention, and she has the audacity to openly display the artificiality of her enterprise while at the same time trying to lure the audience into that emotional complicity with the characters that we call, for convenience, “realism.”

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in "Play." Photo: Gary Norman

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in “Play.” Photo: Gary Norman

A few shades of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author are flitting about the stage, although the characters in Play generally tend to consider the author more of a minor irritation than a crucial element of the action. And Copeland’s play dovetails, in intriguing ways, with a couple of other meditations on self-invention and the inherent theatricality of people’s lives that are on the boards in Portland right now: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Portland Shakespeare Project and Much Ado About Nothing at Post5. Viola invents an artificial reality that slowly aligns with “real” reality in Twelfth Night, as much through the power of language as through the foolery of disguise. Beatrice and Benedick trick the tricksters in Much Ado by following the self-deception of their mutual passion to discover it is the key to the very deep truth that their illusion is, in fact, their central truth: in a “real” sense, they’ve created (or perhaps discovered) themselves. In both plays – let’s say all three, because Copeland’s, too, is very much about the mysterious power of language to create and alter and sometimes destroy life – words are the magic that create and sustain existence out of nothingness.

If that sounds very meta-, well, it is. Like her simpler and much darker The Undiscovered Country, which premiered in May at Defunkt, Play relishes the gamesmanship of theater, and Copeland could hardly hope for a smarter and more vibrant production than she gets in this premiere production, which is directed by John San Nicolas, who also stars in the key role of the Narrator (meta-theatrical plays pretty often have a narrator, so named or not: think Our Town). Some plays are very forgiving: their virtues are so narrative and near the surface that they can survive even mediocre productions. Play is of the more elaborate and particular sort: it’s a loose-jointed yet cunningly structured edifice that everyone involved, from director to performers to designers, must fully comprehend and be in agreement on. In lesser hands, the whole puzzle could fall apart, like amateur Beckett. Play is very much a gamble – that the director and actors will get what’s going on, and that the members of the audience will appreciate having the blueprint created and contradicted and reshaped in front of their eyes.

The illusion of Play is that you can strip the illusion away, revealing all of its working parts, and still leave it intact. The danger is that the audience will see it as mere trickiness, and get bored when the arbitrary wand waves again. It’s very much, though not exclusively, a play for insiders – for artists, who grapple with this issue of reality and illusion every day in their own work; and for avid arts followers, who are fascinated by what it is that artists are about. Except for a couple of points where my attention flagged and I fantasized that I’d dropped in on a grad-school philosophy-of-theater seminar, I was caught up in both the play and the production, appreciating its little twists and plunges and cluster-bombs of comedy and even, though I usually loathe such things, its occasional forays into audience participation (partly, I think, because the audience-participation bits weren’t done earnestly, but with self-deprecating humor: how far can we manipulate you and get away with it?).

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

Play exists at various and shifting levels of reality: the unseen playwright, who is both the most and least important “character”; the omniscient and a little caustic Narrator; the actor playing a playwright, who seems to be pulling the strings except when they sometimes pull her; the characters the actor/playwright creates; even the audience, which is repeatedly exhorted to respond and get involved. The play begins, skippingly, with a character who decides she’s a playwright (bright and bushy Vonessa Martin, as Flan) and a second character (the arch and ferociously funny Lauren Modica, as Lola) who, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes her roommate. Flan declares; Lola prods; Flan scribbles; Lola argues. An extended family springs to life: best friends Grace (Kelly Godell) and Lila (Keiko Green); Grace’s daughter Rosalind (Tiffany Groben), who undergoes an entire life cycle over the play’s intermissionless 80-odd minutes; Grace’s too-good-to-be-true husband (Spencer Conway), who maybe isn’t so good but then again maybe is; and Joshua J. Weinstein as a sort of stagehand/factotum/handy spare part to be comically employed when the situation arises. The characters stumble, under Flan’s arbitrary hand, through episodes ludicrous and touching, comical and tragic, drunken and sober, furtive and open; and at some point the enthusiasm of the process gives way to something more wearing and heavier for the play’s creator to bear. Things happen to the characters that the playwright (the playwright in the play, and maybe the one outside of it, too) regrets but somehow cannot change: some things, she says, just have to be the way they have to be. Creation, as it turns out, is something weightier than just fun and games. Fantasies take on moral and emotional dimension.

As Copeland and her characters shift between action and commentary, commentary and action, director San Nicolas’s actors hover in a territory between avatars and fully fleshed characters, developing emotional shadings despite the playwright’s insistence that they are mere inventions: imperceptibly, they coax the audience into caring about their fates. This, too, is part of the illusion of the theater: It’s what happens every night onstage, only more baldly, almost perversely, stated in Play. And the actors’ deep dives into their characters, that fusion of the real and unreal that makes good fiction feel so very much alive, is crucial to it all.

It’s an exceptionally strong cast: I was taken particularly by Green’s emotionally confused Lila and Modica’s brassy Lola. And San Nicolas’s Narrator is a wonder, ranking with his outstanding work in the likes of Badass Theatre’s Invasion! and Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat. He’s a stretchy-elastic, caustic, rueful, show-offish, restrained, unpredictably funny conduit of high-voltage energy, connecting everyone to everyone else. It’s ferocious. Then again, it’s only a play.

*

Play, produced at Shaking the Tree by Cracked Nutshell (well, you’ve got to if you’re going to eat the nut), has a limited run of nine performances though August 8. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Love and Information’ overload

Caryl Churchill's elliptical play opens San Francisco's new Strand Theater.

Please please tell me

No

Please because I’ll never

Two friends stand together, maybe at a bus stop. One tells the other that she has a secret that she can’t reveal to anyone. The second woman cajoles and inveigles and finally the first whispers into her ear. Her eyes grow wide at the revelation. But what does she do now?

Unlike the characters in this opening scene of Love and Information, the audience never learns the secret. But the scene sets the stage for the rest of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2012 play: with so much information available, do we really need to know as much as we think we do?

L–R: Joel Bernard, Dominique Salerno, and Christina Liang in ACT's production of Caryl Churchill's Love and Information. Photo: Kevin Berne.

L–R: Joel Bernard, Dominique Salerno, and Christina Liang in ACT’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. Photo: Kevin Berne.

The 90-minute, no-intermission show, running through August 9 at San Francisco’s revived Strand Theater, comprises 57 mostly unrelated vignettes—some as brief as a few sentences—divided into seven sections and performed by a dozen very busy actors. (The Strand’s revival by one of San Francisco’s most important theater companies, American Contemporary Theater, is also newsworthy for West Coast theater—see below.) Ranging from five seconds to five minutes short, some scenes are funny (teenage girls giddily crushing on a teen idol), some poignant (a woman gets a terrifying diagnosis from a physician; a son learns that the woman he thought was his older sister is actually his mother), some trivial (a couple bicker about whether to go over to another couple’s house). One scene, in its entirety: [Someone sneezes.]

It’s the theatrical equivalent of a novel written in tweets, or a TV episode compiled from constant channel surfing, an album made of 30-second song previews … take your pick from any of today’s rapid-fire media phenomena. It’s a thrill ride—until it isn’t.

We’ve all been bombarded by the news that we’re all being bombarded by information these days, so much that we’re risking info overload about info overload. Do we really need to be shown it onstage? Does a theatrical presentation of TMI + ADD = WTF? How many short sketches do we need to experience to really get the point that our info-ADDled society is destroying our attention spans, our ability to form or sustain relationships, even our ability to focus on… uh, what was I saying again?

Continues…

Erica Smith gets into character

Oregon State apparel design student Erica Smith lives in the intense world of cosplay, a world of strange characters and intricate costume designs.

By RITA FEINSTEIN

Erica Smith hasn’t slept in three days.

Tonight is the sexual health fashion show, and Erica’s design is finally runway-ready. She’s been stitching condoms to a dress for the past 72 hours, but only the manic brightness in her eyes betrays her fatigue. She looks edgy and elegant, almost vampire-chic, with her black lace and dramatic eye shadow. Her unwashed hair, swirled with a braided blonde extension, is pinned up in a lavish bun.

She knew there was a good reason for keeping so much fake hair in her closet.

Continues…

Through the ‘Twelfth Night,’ clearly

The excitement of Portland Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night' is in its transparency

The Portland Shakespeare Project launched its fourth season with Twelfth Night on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. That’s a simple enough sentence, especially in Shakespeare-besotted Portland. Portland’s acquaintance with Shakespeare is deep enough that I don’t have to append a descriptor to the title—”the rom-com Twelfth Night,” say, if I wanted to be just the tiniest bit cheeky. And maybe a bit wrong.

Not totally wrong: Twelfth Night IS a romantic comedy, no doubt. And it’s other things, too, a lot of other things. But it takes a very clear understanding of the existential predicaments of its characters by the actors to coax an appearance from those wonderful “other things.” Because otherwise the flow of words they generate just rushes on by.

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night'/David Kinder

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project’s ‘Twelfth Night’/David Kinder

So, the REAL lead of this account: Portland Shakespeare Project opened a Twelfth Night on Saturday that is about as transparent and understandable as we can expect of a play from the very early 17th century, when English was written and understood in a very different way. Even a familiar one such as Twelfth Night. And this clarity frees our (we in the audience) imagination to consider and delight in the possibilities of the play, consider alternate readings safely, lose ourselves in a moment, confident that we’ll regain our footing, no matter how spongy the ground beneath us—the language—becomes.

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The new Hearth Collective spotlights women playwrights

A new play-reading festival addresses the failure of mainstream theater to include women playwrights

Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. For all of today’s theatermakers, these are pressing issues—or at least they should be, as the art form fights to maintain viability and relevance in contemporary society.

To some folks, addressing these values means shaking things up. The Kilroys, for example, describe themselves as “a gang of playwrights and producers in LA who are done talking about gender parity and are taking action.” Their motto: “We make trouble and plays.”

To others, the key is to create a comforting experience, something that makes theater feel welcoming and warm, even to those who’ve felt left out by it in the past. That’s the ethos of the Hearth Collective, a new Portland theater group formed by Courtney Freed, Megan Kate Ward and Jill Westerby, whose larger interest is the showcasing of new and under-produced plays.

The two approaches come together on Sunday in the Kilroys List: A Festival of Contemporary Plays, at Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio.

Last year, the Kilroys compiled a list of 46 plays, selected through a theater-industry survey, intended as “a tool for producers committed to ending the systemic underrepresentation of female and trans playwrights.” For its first event, the Hearth Collective presents readings of three plays from the list: I Enter the Valley by Dipika Guha at noon, Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead!) by Jami Brandli at 4 p.m., and The Oregon Trail by Bekah Brunstetter at 8 p.m.

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