THEATER

Third Rail: The ghost in the ‘Static’

Third Rail Rep takes on a rock-infused play full of signs

My first thoughts about Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of Dan Rebellato’s Static involved the technical aspects of the show. How many sound cues this rock’n’roll drenched play must have, for example. And then after a bit, a bit of wonderment at how adept the four actors in Static had become at American Sign Language, signing and talking, sometimes at the same time and sometimes not. How did they keep all that straight?

So, right, my response began in admiration, but then it morphed to something else—affection. A lot of that was technical, too, I suppose. The craft of Reballato’s play, director Scott Yarbrough’s integration of its elements, including Kaye Blankenship’s stunning abstract set and Jennifer Lin’s deft lighting design, and the skill of the actors. But if there’s magic in theater, it happens when skill turns into something deeper. That happened to me during the Sunday matinee of Static.

*****

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail's "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in Third Rail’s “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Rebellato is a London playwright and academic (he is the theater department chair at Royal Holloway, University of London), and he writes for the Guardian’s theater blog. He developed Static in collaboration with Graeae, a company that champions experiences and opportunities for deaf and disabled audiences and practitioners, according to director Yarbrough, so signing was fully integrated into the show. Rebellato gave Third Rail permission to craft how signing and spoken language were balanced and presented in this production, but it had “to honor a primary goal of the play: that all members of the audience would not have access to all the information communicated in the play,” Yarbrough said.

Static, then, as the title implies, is a play at least partly about communication or the lack thereof, how we try to translate the enigmatic messages we receive, solve the problems they pose. At the heart of the play is a mixed tape discovered among Chris’s possessions soon after Chris has died, addressed to his wife Sarah, a pretty random compilation of songs dating back to the ’60s, some ridiculous and some sublime, with no apparent unifying theme or point. How can she and Chris’s rock journalist buddy Martin make sense of it? It even includes country songs, for crying out loud, and Chris was no fan of country.

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in  "Static"/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Kelly Godell comforts Maureen Porter as Rolland Walsh looks on in “Static”/Courtesy Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Even after Martin has given up on the project, Sarah continues with it, a testament to how deeply she loved Chris, maybe, to make sense of this last “message.” So where does the sign language come in? Well, Chris had become deaf after a car accident, though his love of rock music abided. Chris was deaf when he compiled the tape (and it IS a tape: Chris and Martin are confirmed anti-digital guys), and we see him in frequent flashbacks that go back before he became deaf as well as inhabiting his new state, which he adjusted to quite well, it turns out.

In her deep grief, Sarah focuses on the static left at the end of the tape. Can you hear that? Isn’t he saying something? The static, like a cloud, must contain signs she can decipher. Martin, dubious, brings over a bunch of recording gear so she can examine the tape more minutely. She senses Chris in the tape, feels him near her. Which actually makes sense to us in the audience, because we see him, too, hovering around Sarah and Martin, and then in the flashbacks. The other character in the play, Chris’s sister Julia, is so distraught she can’t hear anything, doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and seems to be determined to evict Sarah from her apartment. Yes, Static is about grief, too.

Is it also about the supernatural? How seriously are we supposed to take the specter of Chris? I guess I choose to make this ghost a symbol—of decoding the message, of understanding.

*****

At the beginning, I used the word “affection.” And this comes from the characters and the actors animating them. Rolland Walsh makes an irrepressible, even madcap Chris, the sort of fellow who injects every situation and conversation with life and surprise. Maureen Porter plunges into Sarah’s sadness and then her determination to complete the translation of what she believes are Chris’s last words with equal commitment and good heartedness. Sam Dinkowitz’s Martin manages to be more than a sidekick for rockstar Chris, more amiable and concerned on one hand and then more adamant in his rants about rock, and because rock to this crew is everything, life itself. Julia as a character is harder to take, primarily because we don’t see her attempts to accommodate to the loss of a beloved brother, but Kelly Godell convinces us of just how corrosive her grief must be.

Through the flashbacks, through the signed sequences without verbal translation, through the static (sometimes closer to white noise), the actors pull us along, maybe because we are confident that they (and the playwright) are searching for something we all search for. Consolation. Understanding. The good memories. I never felt that Static was going to drop me on my head, so I was fine with not knowing everything that was going on or being said, a common condition in life, after all. No, make that a constant condition in life.

Finally, although my own taste in music has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, I loved the pop songs that infuse Static with energy and vitality and, yes, meaning. We do tend to think that certain songs weren’t written exactly for us for exactly this moment or we try to squeeze some additional significance out of a song we like. It just so happens that Third Rail has compiled a YouTube set of the songs in Chris’s compilation tape, so you can give a listen if you like. Lots of other songs pop up during the play; many I knew, and the rest I was happy to hear.

And the inherent contradiction in Static, a play so set on communicating with deaf audiences that contains so much music, is resolved in the same way that Walsh, the deaf rock critic, solves it—with energy and passion.

SPOILER ALERT: In my favorite moment of Static, the “ghost” of Chris encounters Sarah’s audio equipment, which includes a big microphone. As I said, she was desperate to hear what she thought Chris was telling her in that last tape. Chris approaches the microphone…and starts signing “into” it. Just the perfect gesture on so many levels.

In ‘4000 Miles’ beautifully drawn characters meet the right actors

Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Amy Herzog's drama digs deep

The misunderstanding begins immediately in Amy Herzog’s superbly drawn 4000 Miles, receiving a sterling production at Artists Repertory Theatre. Vera can’t hear very well to begin with, and her grandson Leo is prattling on about something—the nameplate next to her buzzer, how it lists her late husband, not her?—at 3 am in the morning. She jumps to the chase: “You need a place to stay, is that it?” But Leo can’t understand her very well because she doesn’t have her teeth in.

Vera attempts to establish some basic facts. Is Leo high? Is he hungry? Does he know everyone is worried about him? Vera has a way of putting people on the defensive with questions and strong assertions. Leo, in his bike gear after a transcontinental bike ride—and an unsuccessful meeting with his probably now ex-girlfriend Bec—is caught in the crossfire. And he almost bolts. Almost.

Vana O'Brien and Joshua Weinstein in '4000 Miles' at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owne Carey

Vana O’Brien and Joshua Weinstein in ‘4000 Miles’ at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owne Carey

Instead, he settles into a routine at Vera’s place, and over the next couple of weeks they start sounding each other out. It’s a loop of disclosure and misinterpretation. Sometimes they even get close to understanding each other, but especially for Leo, that would mean understanding himself a little better. Or as Vera says, accepting some responsibility. Or as Bec suggests, obliquely, becoming an adult.

So far, four well-regarded plays into her career, Herzog has made that transition—into adulthood, into a state responsibility—a key theme. That sentence sounds a little too analytical: Herzog is attuned to the pain, frustration, uncertainty, and even partial insanity that marks the transition phase—assuming one ever gets through it. That means as empathetic  viewers, ahem, we are likely to feel some related emotions: irritation, embarrassment, and the urge to sit down all the characters involved for a little heart-to-heart. This last one is typical, I suppose: But do we really think we could make them understand?

*****

I have missed the two previous productions of Herzog’s work in Portland, Portland Playhouse’s production of After the Revolution, a prequel of sorts to 4000 Miles, and Third Rail’s Belleville. Which means I’m uniquely unqualified to write about 4000 Miles, I suppose, and that this is my first encounter with the work of Herzog. And after Artists Repertory Theatre’s edgy production—directed by Alana Byington and starring Joshua J. Weinstein as Leo, Vana O’Brien as Vera (she played the same character in After the Revolution), Carolyn Marie Monroe as Bec, and Danielle Ma as Amanda, a pick-up Leo might have pursued because of her resemblance to his adopted sister—I wish I’d seen the other two.

Both of those plays were championed by the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood, received important New York productions, and won numerous awards, announcing Herzog, now in her mid-30s with an MFA from Yaule School of Drama, as an important new voice in American theater, sharing a sensibility and sense of craft with Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens) and Lisa D’Amour (Detroit).

On the evidence of 4000 Miles, Herzog, like Baker and D’Amour, knows her way around dialogue of a convincing sort—halting, occasionally incoherent (at least to the characters onstage), tentative, probing. A good account of the way we actually speak, while retaining the consecutiveness we so often lack. And that dialogue talks around and is shadowed by failure, not just to communicate but to act honorably.

The Artists Rep set, designed by Kristeen Willis Crosser, is Vera’s simple, “realistic” apartment, with books scattered about, mostly having to do with politics of a Leftist bent. Vera had been a member of the Communist party back in the day, along with her husband, who had passed on secrets to the Soviets during World War II, a central feature of After the Revolution and Herzog’s own family’s life, though it’s not mentioned here. The action, not that there’s a lot, spools out in a series of ten episodes, in this longer one-act play.

*****

Leo calls himself a “hippie” at one point, and that’s not far off, though maybe it’s a hippie-hood minus the ecstasy even though it’s following its bliss. Leo’s is built around the moral proposition that ‘my pain is my pain, and your pain is your pain,’ and though he might have compassion for you, he knows he can’t really help you. And the reverse is true as well. This is an extreme position, of course, and over the course of the ten scenes we start to see it start to break down. Maybe we can help each other a little, after all?

Joshua Weinstein and Vana O'Brien in Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles" at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owen Carey

Joshua Weinstein and Vana O’Brien in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owen Carey

Not that it’s easy. Leo’s encounters with Bec, for example, are all about the pain, the failure to click, the lack of understanding. Weinstein, who plays Leo with a zen-like facade, cracks a little as his desire to be close to Monroe’s Bec is thwarted. Monroe is somehow passionate AND remote in these exchanges, a nice combination to pull off. We root for them, perhaps, though it’s pretty apparent that they are aren’t going to have the time, space or proximity to pull it back together.

In another scene, Leo brings back a Sure Thing to Vera’s apartment, Amanda, a rich fashion design student, with platform shoes, an alluring dress, and a clear desire to party on. But maybe you’ve already guessed how that one’s going to end.

But the central relationship of 4000 Miles is grandmother and grandson. O’Brien’s Vera cares for Leo, clearly, but she’s impatient with him, too. What’s with the biking, the wall climbing, the infatuation with Bec? What’s he doing with himself? Something happened on the bike ride that bothers him, but he won’t talk about it. He won’t talk to his family, including his sister. She doesn’t understand it, doesn’t understand him, doesn’t like getting old, and occasionally she gives in to cranky. Maybe more than occasionally.

But it’s great fun to watch them figure it out, a dance that includes some swordplay, a tango. Is it giving away too much to suggest that the gears never really mesh, at least not the way we hope they should?

*****

In 4000 Miles, Herzog gives us a set of very finely observed characters Vera struggles with her hearing, her balance, and other problems of growing older, including how to interpret the language and behavior of Leo’s generation. Leo can’t quite figure out why his philosophy doesn’t spare him pain, and why it doesn’t answer key questions for him. Bec is trapped between the mixed memories of her time with Leo and her new career as a student, which somehow aren’t compatible. Even in her brief cameo, Amanda manifests some specific confusions about herself and life.

Nothing much happens onstage, really, just these characters manifesting themselves. Which is actually a lot when you think about it. And the cast and director Byington dig into them in interesting, completely believable ways. I liked the stiffness and tension of Weinstein’s posture at times, for example, and the warmth he brings to Leo. And the toughness O’Brien projects as Vera. And the fullness of Monroe’s depiction of her life stretching into two irreconcilable parts, before and after Leo, with her caught in the elastic middle right before they snap apart. It’s quite lovely.

So, yes, now I regret missing Belleville and After the Revolution even more. And I’m hoping someone has plans to deliver us The Great God Plan, the one Herzog play that has escaped us so far.

A ‘Night’ for the American ages

Milagro's "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" takes a whirlwind dream flight through the untold tales of a nation

If he’d taken NoDoz the whole thing might not have happened. But Juan José, studying feverishly for his American citizenship test, inevitably falls asleep over his stack of books and facts and potential test questions (“Name the original 13 colonies of the United States”). When he falls asleep, he dreams. When he dreams, he dreams a fascinating whirlwind of encounters with people and situations who don’t seem to get mentioned in the textbooks he’s been poring over – or if they’re mentioned, their stories are a little different when they tell them themselves. And some of this stuff is, let’s just say, disturbing.

Holy smokes. Is Juan José going to end up just chucking the whole idea and heading back to Mexico?

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, a swift and scattershot scramble through an alternate but no less real history of the United States, was developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, and since then has been freed to move about the country, getting little updates and fresh takes along the way. Written by Richard Montoya of the satirical performance troupe Culture Clash, it’s made hay out of its alternate viewpoint, considering history from the bottom up instead of the top down: what does the promise of the Constitution and Bill of Rights mean if you’re an immigrant or a black woman or a labor organizer or an Indian guide like Sacagawea or a black kid like Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman? When a place says “give me your tired, your poor,” what does it really mean?

Now American Night has landed in Portland, appropriately at Milagro Theatre, the city’s center for Latino performance and culture, and it’s been worth the wait. Director Elizabeth Huffman’s production is quick and cartoon-like, a Looney Tunes film reel of a show that plays up the script’s absurdist, caricatured aspects, sometimes at the cost of lingering for greater emotional effect over some of the more serious episodes. But it’s a kaleidoscope of a play, and kaleidoscopes keep on turnin’. The original Ashland production pulled out a lot of technical bells and whistles, and Milagro’s grittier version shows how well the show can do done with more limited resources: Megan Wilkerson’s lighting and set, with its simple lineup of entrances and exits that open and shut like vertical trap doors, make it easy to switch scenes with lightning speed; Sara Ludeman’s costumes and Sharath Patel’s nervously shifting sound design keep things snappy.

American Night is an ensemble play, with Ozvaldo Gonzalez at the center as dreamwalking Juan José and nine actors moving swiftly in and out of dozens of roles as antagonists and spirit guides. Juan José is a go-getter and an escapee, an honest cop in Mexico who got on the wrong side of the system and fled north, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who now has a child he’s never seen. He has his Green Card and is eager to gain citizenship so his family can join him in the U.S. – that’s why he’s working so hard. Gonzalez plays him as something of a wide-eyed innocent, surprised to learn that the armor isn’t always shining on the country he craves to join, but also adept at rolling with the punches.

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

The ensemble – Enrique E. Andrade, Orion Bradshaw, Michelle Escobar, Joe Gibson, Anthony Green, Heath Hyun Houghton, Garland Lyons, Louanne Moldovan, Shelley B. Shelley, with Adrienne Flagg providing voiceovers – is adept at producing quick sharp caricatures, moving like lightning from Teddy Roosevelt to anti-immigration strongman Sheriff Joe Arpaio to a hilariously caricatured Bob Dylan & Joan Baez to dockworkers angry over immigrants taking scarce jobs. Among the more intriguing tales Montoya tells are those of Viola Pettus (Shelley), a black woman in west Texas who set up a camp to care for victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic, accepting all comers, even Klansmen; of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican- and Irish-American teenager who voluntarily joined his Japanese-American friends in a World War II internment camp; and of Nicholas Trist, Luis Cuevas, and Bernardo Couto, who negotiated the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, possibly saving tens of thousands of lives by ceding much of modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah to the United States – the same land now being repopulated by legal and illegal immigrants whose ancestors had been locked out by the signing of the treaty.

Montoya immerses Juan José in the stories beneath the ideals of the history books, introducing him to both heroes and antagonists outside the usual tellings. In a way, he’s preparing Juan José for the citizenship test you wish he’d be able to take: a more nuanced, complete, and less starry-eyed version of the American story. If the play is sometimes angry, it’s never cynical; if it’s instructive, it’s also open-hearted and consistently entertaining. A hard-to-resist charm bubbles along the shifting surface of this alt-history. Join this thing called America, it seems to urge Juan José. Just know what it is you’re joining.

Milagro artistic director Olga Sanchez led a wide-ranging and vigorous talkback after Saturday night’s performance, with playwright Montoya, University of Portland professor Rene Sanchez and Portland State professor Margot Minardi also on the panel. Sanchez likened the play to jazz, a composition with a strong structure allowing for lots of improvisation, and that seems right, both for the play and for the American experiment itself. Minardi talked about the phrase “revisionist history,” which is often used as a slam but which, she points out, gets to the heart of historical investigation: we are constantly shifting and revising, choosing to emphasize those trends and events in the past that shed differing light on the story according to the concerns of the present. And Montoya stressed that Juan José, who is introduced in his dream to a United States with warts as well as promise, is himself an opportunist, seeking a better life for himself and his family: it’s the strength of the immigrant experience.

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin' in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin’ in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

In the end, American Night is an intriguingly optimistic play, one that takes the country’s toughest blows, gathers its counterbalancing stengths, and emerges stronger. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” Winston Churchill once said, quoting a source no one seems to have been able to nail down. He also said, in a speech in the House of Commons, in 1944: “My idea of (democracy) is that the plain, humble, common man, just the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament — that he is the foundation of democracy. And it is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected representatives … together decide what government, or even in times of stress, what form of government they wish to have in their country. If that is democracy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”

Welcome to America, Juan José. Eyes wide open, you are now a partner in the ever-shifting experiment.

*

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues through May 23 at Milagro. Ticket and schedule information are here.

At Post5, the comedy’s the thing

A witty, clownish, contemporary "Twelfth Night" is one of the funniest shows of the season

By CHRISTA McINTYRE

If Shakespeare and his inner Falstaff wanted to create a play for everyone, his democratizing agent would be a joyful and laughing audience, ready for any bet. In spring, the daffodils are nodding their heads, tulips are in open bloom, and wisteria reach past the gables. It’s an excellent time for Post5’s springlike new Twelfth Night, because with what you will (Shakespeare’s subtitle for his fantasy), love, or the laughing at it, will trump us all.

From left: Jessica Tidd, Chip Sherman, Trri Paddleford, Jim Vadela, Tom Walton. Photo: Russell J Young

From left: Jessica Tidd, Chip Sherman, Trri Padellford, Jim Vadela, Tom Walton. Photo: Russell J Young

Cassandra Boice directs a seamless and contemporary presentation of this eternally hopeful comedy. We’re greeted by a 1980s Miami background, where the clown Feste is a Gilligan or other heavy-lidded participant in the play (see recent laws passed about marijuana use in the state of Oregon). Throw away the canticle: a ukulele and kid’s accordion serenade us with The Beatles’ Let it Be. The aristocratic Olivia’s maid-in-waiting, Maria (played by Tori Padellford) arrives on the scene in a very polyester uniform, and what we see in ads about maids’ uniforms is played true.

Here lies the point and distinction of Post5’s interpretation: Boice and company take a play more than 400 years old and make it relevant and cryingly funny, marching the best parts of our humorous icons onto the stage in a very affordable seduction.

We can guess while reading or watching Shakespeare’s plays at his love of mythology and travels to distant lands. As with Herodotus, we listen for his insights on human values and understanding of others, even in the most fantastical of tales. And Twelfth Night is fantastical. A brave Duke Orsino, having failed to win Olivia’s hand, lies in melancholic turbulence. Overcome and seemingly unable to manage his kingdom, he still chooses a good and strange confidante in the recently arrived Cesario. Cesario is actually Viola, twin to Sebastian, whom Viola/Cesario believes drowned at sea. Viola dons a man’s appearance and becomes the voice of love for Count Orsino as he presses his suit for Lady Olivia’s hand. All of Cesario/Viola’s speeches are meant for the love of Orsino, even as she strives to win his current object of affection, Olivia. Olivia, meanwhile, remains in mourning for her brother. Sebastian, who has not drowned after all, returns to shore and is mistaken for his sister, who is pretending to be a man. Meanwhile, a troupe of sycophants settle into bouts of undisturbed drinking, bedding, and the occasional preemptive song. Shakespeare presents his audience with a strange and hybrid confluence of circumstances on an unknown island, with little cultural reference: we just have to understand a basic hierarchy of lady, duke, fool, maid, etc. It all gets deliciously muddled: A maid takes a man, a maid as a young man would like to take a man, a man would like to take a lady, a man took a maid many times, the maid of the lady sets out to take the lady’s man, and a man and maid of the lady set out to take a man who would like to take the lady, forging letters that expose the heart of all, ad infinitum and bee pollen. Because in the end, love triumphs all. If this seems consumptive and confusing, then you have not had a friend or fallen in love.

However, like the brooding Malvolio, you may have put on your yellow stockings and garters.

Jeff Gorham, as Sir Toby, cousin and leech to Lady Olivia, deftly lays out all that there is about being a drunk. He bounds onstage in an obvious pillowed stomach and torn-astray tie that becomes a physical fixation. Within a few minutes we reach the anchor Boice has given him – his Toby-meter, the rhythm of his consistent drinking from the bottle.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stan Brown), Sir Toby’s Bertie Wooster-minded accomplice, is red-cheeked and beauty-marked, a parody of his own class. He matches scene for scene the virility of the manchild with an empty optimism.

If, in Shakespeare, the point is always on point and made well about love, Jessica Tidd as Cesrio/Viola captures unconfused a man and maid. With her sweeping doe-gaze of wide-eyed openness and a little John Travolta knee across the floor, she makes us believe wholeheartedly in the young and attractive Cesario giving counsel that only a woman in love may give: throwback kicks, arched eyebrows and those “yes, this is love” poses. There is that.

And she plays Olivia as seamlessly as, back in the day, a man (rather, a boy) would have. This Olivia is a rose of Spanish Harlem, ample in skirt and pointed knee. She meditates upon her chosen, fragrant and fond in her focus to attain the person she shall have: flippant as in nature, yet becoming sure as an anchor toward the end. Chip Sherman, further complicating matters as a man playing Olivia, gives us a lady very capable of choosing and taking her man, as all ladies should. As Feste becomes a Venice Beach rescuee, so Olivia is an Eartha Kitt.

Traditionally, Olivia’s man-in-waiting Malvolio is played as a stuffed-shirt Puritan, a straight man countering the incessant and boorish charms of the drunks and fools lining up at his mistress’s door. Yet he, too, is not disinclined to the temptations of nature, and the straight man becomes his own foil – or at least, we believe so until the end. Ty Boice presents Malvolio as a Carol Burnett asexual butterfly with the acrid wit of a Tim Curry. He shakes and stutters and gives a gap-toothed smile as his transformation takes shape.

In such little touches, Cassandra Boice’s intelligent direction comes through. She translates Shakespeare’s stock characters into figures from our own cultural experience. At first we laugh at every moment of Malvolio’s yellow bondaged legs, until his last monologue, when both Boices drive what has been laughable into true compassion. Malvolio, perhaps the only character in the play in whom an honesty resides, is driven to address his assault – and for the audience, ridicule becomes compassion.

Post5, as with a few other small ensembles that push the envelope in art, makes theater a living experience and opens Portland’s cultural dialogue by being affordable. The theater is small, but ambitious. At moments in Twelfth Night when the plot is rushed, and the supporting cast is less consistent than the leads. None of these small points should make you miss one of the funniest productions of the season.

*

Twelfth Night continues through May 16 at Post 5 Theatre 1666 S.E. Lambert St. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fear & loathing at Columbine

Oregon Children's Theatre's 'Columbinus' tackles the mystery and tragedy of a famous school shooting in an era of amped-up school violence

A few things to consider before you head over to Oregon Children’s Theatre to see OCT’s Young Professionals Company perform Columbinus, a play about the infamous massacre in a Colorado high school:

  • There were mass murders in American schools before April 20, 1999, when students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris began shooting up Columbine High School, killing 15 people (including themselves) and wounding 21 others. Less than a year earlier, for instance, on May 21, 1998, Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, shot and killed his parents and then went to Thurston High School, where he killed two more people and wounded 23.
  • This peculiarly American phenomenon stretches all the way back to July 26, 1764, when, in what has become known as the Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre, three men entered a schoolhouse near present-day Greencastle, Pennsylvania, then shot and killed the schoolmaster and as many as 10 children. One child survived.
  • Yet Columbine was a turning point. In one sense it was business as usual: the 215th American school shooting in the violence-drenched 20th century. But things were getting bigger, and splashier, and – appallingly – still shocking, but less surprising.
  • The post-Columbine list includes formerly unthinkable atrocities such as the Virginia Tech massacre (33 killed, 25 wounded; April 16, 2007) and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012; 28 killed, two wounded).
  • It also includes several shootings close to home just in the past year: one killed and three injured on June 5, 2014 at Seattle Pacific University; two killed and one wounded on June 10, 2014 at Reynolds High School in the Portland suburb of Troutdale; five killed and one wounded on October 24, 2014 in Marysville, Washington; three wounded and no one killed in a shooting outside Rosemary Anderson High School in Portland on December 12, 2014.
  • Call up “List of school shootings in the United States” on Wikipedia and start counting. Forty-five shootings through the 10 decades of the 1800s, 218 from 1900 through 1999, another 147 so far in the fifteen-plus years beginning in 2000. I might be off a shooting or two: my fingers started getting bleary as they traced down, down, down the screen.
  • Until roughly the 1980s the shootings were rare and mostly of the old-fashioned, “explainable” variety: shooting a teacher who gave you a bad grade, or killing the girl who dumped you, or shooting another student over a grudge, or barging in to shoot your ex-wife who’s a teacher. Personal killings, in other words: something you could explain, if not fathom. A few were just accidents.
  • The most recent school shooting, barely noted outside its immediate area, came on April 13 – that’s Monday of this week – when a former student is alleged to have entered the library at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, North Carolina, shooting and killing his former boss in a work-study program.

*

Police tape and lasting trauma: "Columbinus" at OCT. Photo: Pat Moran

Police tape and lasting trauma: “Columbinus” at OCT. Photo: Pat Moran

I would apologize for this lengthy preamble to a story about a play being performed by teenagers, except that it seems necessary. The number and ferocity of school shootings since Columbine has accelerated swiftly, as has the seeming randomness of many attacks, until we’ve become numbed into accepting that this is the new normal. Few people think their own school is going to become a killing ground, but the possibility lurks, like a sinkhole just off the path. And in a gun culture that gives no sign of submitting to even minimal checks or precautions, it seems unlikely that anything’s about to change soon.

Columbinus, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli for the United States Theatre Project in 2005, can’t even pretend to offer solutions. What it can do, and does, is to explore the high school culture in which the violent fantasies of outcast students Harris and Klebold found fertile ground. Written in something like the documentary style of The Laramie Project, the landmark play about the 1998 murder in Wyoming of gay college student Mathew Wayne Shepard, Columbinus creates a kind of everyschool environment while concentrating on the specific situations of Klebold, Harris, and Columbine. The text is a blend of excerpts from court documents, the killers’ journals and videotaped records of their thoughts and preparations, and imagined conversations.

Tackling this show is a bold move by the young actors in OCT’s Young Professionals Company, who chose it out of several other possibilities (and, as Amy Wang reports in her preview for The Oregonian, did their first read-through on the day of the Reynolds High School shootings). Oregon Children’s Theatre often stretches the routine definition of what “children’s theater” means, happily feeding the imaginations of grade-school audiences but also expanding into tougher, more controversial territory in much the way the young-adult book market has.

Playing for a limited run in the studio space at OCT’s home on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 20th Avenue rather than downtown at the Performing Arts Center, where its broader-based shows are performed, the company can take some unusual risks. The violence is one thing. The script is also peppered with language E.B. White and Beverly Cleary never would have dreamed of putting in a book for kids, although for teenage audiences it’s pretty much what they hear in the halls and lunchroom every day. The play’s casual raunchiness will keep it from being produced at almost all high schools – what principal wants to put up with the inevitable parental and pulpit squawking it would spark? – even though high schools are where its natural audience lies. That makes it all the more important that companies like OCT take on the play and its challenges.

The eight-member cast, drawn from across the metro area, does terrific, fiercely committed work, and the fine director Lava Alapai keeps the action tense and clear and focused. Thom Hilton and Blake Peebles star as Harris and Klebold, respectively, and an ensemble of Carter Bryan, Nate Golden, Charlotte Karlsen, Amber Kiara, Isaiah Rosales, and Emma Younger step in and out of a variety of roles: jock, miss popularity, nerdy honors student, goth kid, preppie, religious girl. A lot of casual bantering and battering goes on, with a fair amount of everyday bullying, taunting, and an occasional feeble challenge to the social pecking order. Researchers say that bullying, sometimes to the point of torment, is a big factor in as much as two-thirds of school shootings, and many see it as a major cause at Columbine, although Dave Cullen, author of the 2009 book Columbine, argues that Harris was more often the bully than the bullied. As heavy as the play’s material is, it’s punctuated by a few jokes, and the actors do a good job of revealing the rawness and innocence of high school culture as well as the meanness.

Life, changed irrevocably. Photo: Pat Moran

Life, changed irrevocably. Photo: Pat Moran

Harris was apparently the leader of the plot, a high-IQ kid who, the FBI later concluded, was a clinical psychopath with a “messianic-level superiority complex.” On and off of anti-depressants, he had an intense, hair-trigger personality, which Hilton projects vividly. Klebold, the follower, was depressive, and at one point apparently made a half-hearted attempt to stop Harris by revealing Harris’s secret Web page that contained raw threats of violence. Police looked, but didn’t follow up. Peebles, who starred as the sweet zombie hero in last season’s hit OCT musical Zombies in Love, brings some of the same sense of addled possibility to Klebold, making you think the slightest jolt might’ve turned him in another direction. Columbinus leaves you with the sense that Harris, who fantasized about rivaling the spectacular violence of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, was going down this route come hell or high water, but that Klebold’s case was more tentative and tragic: he might have been saved.

In the end, Columbine remains a giant question mark. For actors and audience, the play’s about staring into the mystifying face of evil. Columbinus suggests the school culture itself bears some of the responsibility, and that might be true. On the other hand, sometimes trying to find cause and effect doesn’t take into account ideas and personalities that are simply outside the bounds of rationality: a lot of kids are bullied, and very few of them become mass murderers. One of the things that makes The Laramie Project such a gripping work of theater is its concentration on the aftermath: what happened to the town and its people after the killing; how did it change their attitudes and lives? The version of Columbinus that OCT is producing concentrates more narrowly on the leadup and the massacre itself. A later, longer version does include some reflections after the fact, and it might have been good to see that. The play’s biggest weakness, I think, is its almost complete ducking of the issue of gun control. Harris and Klebold might well have got their weapons no matter what: they bought them illegally through friends, and even the strictest controls on sales won’t stop illegal trafficking. The issue is far too complex for an hour-and-a-half play to solve, let alone a bitterly divided U.S. Congress. But in a time when the extraordinary rise in school shootings parallels an equally extraordinary expansion of American gun culture and the transformation of the National Rifle Association from an organization advocating safe hunting practices to a shill for the unfettered arming of the nation, a play about school shootings should at least bring the issue up and try to figure out how it fits. How do we ease down to something approaching mere sanity? With great difficulty and many small steps, I’ll suggest: Pandora’s opened the box, and you can’t just stuff things back inside and shut the lid again. To hope for a single sweeping solution is to engage in a parallel sort of fantasy bravado to the take ’em out mentality of the mass murderers. But surely some sort of rational limits on the sale of arms is one of the necessary steps that eventually must be taken: it’s not the solution, but it’s a solution. Considering the sort of questions that Columbinus does is another.

What Columbinus does do, it does very well: if it doesn’t answer any questions, it raises a lot of pertinent ones. Take an afternoon or evening away from the swaggering bang-bang-bang of television police procedurals and remind yourself of what guns and bombs can really do. OCT suggests attendance for people 15 and older, or 13 if accompanied by a parent.

*

Performances continue at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 16-18, and at 1 & 5 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at Oregon Children’s Theatre, 1939 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Ticket information is here.

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Wayback machine, updated: ‘Cyrano,’ ‘School for Lies’

Refreshed classics at Portland Center Stage and Theatre Vertigo bring a giddy back-to-the-future tint to the theater season

Crank up the DeLorean, kids: we’re headin’ back in time. All of a sudden it’s Wayback Machine season on Portland stages. It started with a pair of American classics, Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer at Shaking the Tree and Arthur Miller’s The Price at Artists Rep. Then, on Friday night, Cyrano opened at Portland Center Stage and The School for Lies at Theatre Vertigo. And the history party isn’t over: this Friday, Post5 unveils a new production of Twelfth Night, and on April 24 the young Scuttlemagoon Players (is there a more vividly named troupe in town?) open a fresh adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.

So far, it’s been a highly entertaining time trip. Center Stage’s Cyrano is a brash contemporary version by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French play Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the last gasps of grand Romanticism on the theater stage. Hollinger and Posner have loosened the language and considerably shortened the original, which can stretch into the wee hours of the morning, to a swift and compact two and a half hours. The School for Lies is the excellent David Ives’s very free adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, tossed off in rhyming couplets with a sly modern twist. Cyrano charmed and moved me in spite of itself, as a good production of this outlandish tale inevitably does. The School for Lies was one of the funniest, most bracing evenings of theater I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

 *

Taylor and McGinn: drunk on words. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Taylor and McGinn: drunk on words. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

“A shabby little shocker,” music writer Joseph Kerman famously called Puccini’s opera Tosca, and in a lot of ways he was right, but in the end, who cares? – the music and the drama carry the day. In a way, Cyrano de Bergerac fits the same mold. It’s oddly structured, far-fetched, and dripping with adolescent bravado and Romanticism. Its hero is less tragic than pathetic (as are Romeo and Juliet), and its heroine is maybe a little more dim-witted than she really ought to be. Cyrano is one of those memorable plays that isn’t great but is extraordinarily effective, and when done well it can be a huge amount of fun as it roils your emotions. Most of the evening hinges on Cyrano himself, that great, bulbous-honkered, battling bounder of a poet. In Cyrano (the character really existed in 17th century France, and was noted as a writer and a duelist) Rostand found a sort of mythological hero, a Greek demigod capable of extraordinary feats and cursed with an all-too-human weakness: an inability to see beyond the freakishness of his own nose.

Hollinger and Posner have cut the original’s cast of thousands to a nice neat nine, four of them (Darius Pierce, Chris Harder, Gavin Hoffman, Damon Kupper) making up a tip-top chorus that steps nimbly in and out of several roles, providing plot propulsion, soldierly camaraderie, the odd bit of swordplay, backstage palaver, and a good deal of comic byplay. These four are key to the revised piece, and their adeptness at providing full character (or at least, caricature) in fleeting passages makes the thing feel bigger than it is: the effect of Kupper in a servant’s dress is infinitely removed from that of Harder in a nun’s habit. They are abetted ably by Leif Norby and Brian Gunter in deft turns as, respectively, the imperious womanizer De Guiche and as Le Bret, soldier and de facto narrator of the tale. That leaves the crucial trio at the center of the action: Colin Byrne as Christian, the handsome but tongue-tied young soldier; Jen Taylor as Roxane, the beauty whom Cyrano adores, and who is smitten by Christian; and Andrew McGinn as Cyrano himself, the beautiful soul in the ugly package who becomes Christian’s mouthpiece in his bid to woo Roxane. Was ever there such a noble fool?

The script, and Jane Jones’ crisp direction of it, provides a big contemporary wink at Rostand’s original, breezing through scenes with a quick comic remove before it settles into the meat of the matter. For the first half of the first act things stayed light and self-amused, and I wondered if the whole thing was going to stay a sort of comic meta-commentary on the dripping Romanticism of the original. But gradually things deepened, and the production revealed a good, practical adaptation for modern audiences, losing some of the sweep and grandeur of the original but maintaining its basics and staying devotedly with Rostand’s intentions in the clutches.

Norby and Taylor: unwanted attentions. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Norby and Taylor: unwanted attentions. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

The magic of Cyrano is that the old swashbuckler’s pain and sacrifice seep deeply into your own soul as you’re watching the play, and you are moved – I’m moved – by the pitiable sadness of it all. McGinn’s performance as Cyrano, at turns rustic and quicksilver and taunting and achingly open, make it easy to fall into the alchemy. And Taylor’s Roxane is bright, brave, and witty, not so much the ideal of perfection on a pedestal that Cyrano sees as a real, attractive, potential lover and friend. I’m a little less taken with the way the script seems to present Christian as a buffoon, a dolt in a gorgeous package. I like to think of him rather as a good soldier and good man who is formidable in his own way but is simply not right for Roxane: It’s her late realization that the soul is more important than the flesh that provides the poignancy to the play, and if Christian is so obviously no match for Cyrano, her inability to see that makes her seem a little dim, too.

It could be that Cyrano is one of those pieces that works best when you’re 17 years old, like La Boheme or Carmen or Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Yet a show that can make you feel again as deeply and unashamedly as you did when you were 17 serves a great purpose. And Cyrano, with all of its heartbreaking panache, achieves that in aces. Three cheers and a flourish of a feathered hat to that.

 *

Dunkin and Cordell: can this be love? Photo: Gary Norman

Dunkin and Cordell: can this be love? Photo: Gary Norman

Vertigo’s The School for Lies is, quite simply, a hardboiled delight. I walked in not knowing much about it, except that it’s by Ives, a playwright whose work I like a lot, and it’s a very loose adaptation of The Misanthrope, one of those satiric classics to benefit in English from a superb translation by the great Richard Wilbur. Ives’s updating doesn’t replace the Wilbur so much as sit confidently beside it, a brasher and bawdier interpretation of the same (or, given Ives’s freewheeling liberties, let’s say similar) material. Molière subtitled his play The Cantankerous Lover, and Ives’s version dips deeply into that delicious duality.

The School for Lies is delivered in iambic-pentameter rhyming couplets, and in Ives’s version it’s a rough-and-tumble poetry, a brash barrage of rude entendre and cheeky wit. Director JoAnn Johnson and her ensemble (like Cyrano, it has nine actors) handle the turns with gutsy aplomb, letting the rhythms accentuate themselves without falling into singsong. Everything’s syncopated and artificially heightened: exaggeration’s the name of the game, but it’s exaggeration with a shape. Johnson’s keen understanding of the material is essential to this production’s success: School is contemporary but classic, as a satire its comedy is more of the head than the heart, a mastery of style is essential to it, and Ives’s script manages witty nods not only to Molière but also to Shakespeare and the Restoration comedy that his title suggests.

When Vertigo moved to the little Shoebox Theatre I worried a bit about how the company’s shows would fare. It’s a tiny space, with fewer than 40 seats, and its intimacy requires a precise and honest relationship with the audience, which is close enough to touch. For this show, at least, the match seems perfect. Yes, everything’s played big. It’s also played with crisp control, and for the audience, the closeness is part of the allure: In a play “where even the artifice is artificial,” as Ives writes, you can see every line of makeup, catch every flicker of the eye, practically count the stitches in the seams of every dress.

Ives’s bilious hero, Frank (played here with droll belligerence by Nathan Dunkin) is a little like Cyrano, though an upside-down version of that Romantic swooner: he sees a world of fools and sycophants, and believes himself superior to compromises and compromisers. He excoriates all dissemblers, railing like Hugh Laurie’s curdled House against art and artifice, whether it be bad poetry (a pox on Oronte’s head!) or foofie food (let’s send the tray of canapés flying!). That Dunkin does so in modern black-leather motorcycle mode while the rest of the cast is dressed by costumer Casey Ballard mostly in period finery (and Heath Koerschgen, as the foppish and curiously mispronounced Clitander, in an absolute excess of wiggery) only adds to the sardonic fun.

Koeerschgen: bewigged, bothered, and bewildered. Photo: Gary Norman

Koeerschgen: bewigged, bothered, and bewildered. Photo: Gary Norman

Dunkin is matched barb for barb by Stephanie Cordell’s seductively imperious Celimene, the wealthy widow whose snarky slanders could cost her everything, and whose sudden affections for Frank, at the beginning at least, are served on a platter of lies. Celimene is a woman who understands the politics of position and wealth, but who can’t quite control her impulses to play a dangerous game of truth and consequences. Cordell brings her impishly and excoriatingly to life. Koerschgen, Tom Mounsey as the politic and lovestruck Philinte, and Holly Wigmore as Celimene’s wicked stepfriend Arsinoé also sparkle in this solid cast.

The capper on this rollicking production is the deus ex machina that Ives so providentially provides, and that director Johnson so obviously understands. This sudden confluence of coincidence that ties things up so neatly isn’t a desperate means of wrapping up loose ends. On the contrary, it’s one final fling of artificiality, a glorious and generous joke shared with the audience, a wry reminder, in the form of an impossibly perfect ending, that life is all too often the very opposite. Without giving too much away, I’ll just point out that the dénouement includes a Clark Kent/Superman-style transformation moment. Let’s leave it at that.

________________

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Capturing the conscience of Tennessee Williams

Shaking the Tree's revival of 'Suddenly, Last Summer' offers a glimpse inside an outsider's mind

By CHRISTA McINTYRE

Rocked in the cradle by the demons of his Southern birth, Tennessee Williams was a man of his age and place. Shouldering that burden with Truman Capote and others of his era, he adopted a visceral masculinity polished with an effete sophistication. In a time when being openly homosexual was likely to have you expelled from society physically, psychologically and emotionally, Williams and his generation set a standard of untouchable worldliness, creating a gentility from which they could write, dance or paint beyond the circumvention of accepted gender identity. He was like an Orpheus, torn apart not by the Bacchanal, but rather by the inner sadness of his alienated standing.

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

Suddenly, a story gets told. Photo: Gary Norman

While much and little has changed for gay civil rights, at the center of Williams’ work we experience the lost man. He writes in contrasts, from the humid, chthonic overgrowth of a personal garden to the bone-dry burning seaside. As his characters stand outside of temporary destinations, their mental and emotional lives pay a heavy cost for stoicism. If his characters were more honest, more open, more at liberty, we would have no play.

Shaking the Tree Theatre & Studio, which has just opened a revival of Williams’ 1958 one-act drama Suddenly, Last Summer, is an intimate playhouse, and its size and careful use of space are good matches for the savvy of the company’s audience. The actors, and director/set designer Samantha Van Der Merwe, often break the fourth wall: a character might appear off the side curtain nearing a hallway, but the direction draws you in as a participant experiencing a play. A respectful easiness in performance welcomes dabblers, lovers, and masters of the spoken word.

The set for Suddenly, Last Summer matches the contrasts within Williams’ play: an ornate rattan floral sitting room against a starch-white handmade paper forest of flowers and vines. Lights skip seamlessly off of the dead poet Sebastian’s jungle in greens and purples that match his mother’s antiquated lace dress. The sound of birds pitch against silent pauses and accentuate the dense overgrowth.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a series of confessional monologues anchored between aggressive interruptions. The members of a disingenuous Louisiana upper middle class family are set to save their reputations, bank accounts, futures, sanity, and egos after the unexpected death of the center of their universe, Sebastian Venable, a reclusive dandy who spends his life planning for vacations abroad, where he acquires and sometimes pays for one-time-a-year love. It is in his secret life and charm that his mother and later his cousin, Catherine, become entangled in his web of orchestrated hedonism.

Shaking The Tree captures the static, polarizing history and figures in Suddenly, Last Summer and presents the psychic front lines of knowing, but not saying, the truth. The opening minutes are uncomfortable and forced, capturing the foundation of presumed mores. As the play continues and more of the cast fills the stage, we become engrossed in solving the riddles we wish to be solved in real time.

Beth Thompson, as cousin Catherine Holly, mirrors the fortitude and despair of a prisoner of Bedlam. She matches, one on one, Jacklyn Maddux as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s mother. They are the two characters who display a complexity of personality, dueling off the one-sided attrition of the lesser sycophants. Steve Vanderzee is the perfect repressed and over-pressed young Southern man,  torn between apron strings and self delusion.

Van Der Merwe has done an exceptional job of assembling theatrical elements, using lighting, sound, and image to explore the inner stories and lives into which we get a glimpse. Each of us has been an outsider at one point in our lives. The great axis upon which good artistic work rests is finding the universal thread in the  current dilemma. Shaking The Tree gives Williams a new approach to see that invisible line.

*

Suddenly, Last Summer continues through May 2 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information are here.

*

Christa McIntyre is a Pacific Northwest freelance journalist, a lover, a fighter, mother, chef of sandwiches and occasional back seat canoe paddler.

 

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