One man, two guvs, one bumpy ride

Clackamas Rep takes out a racy comic sports car for a spin, and puts the pedal to the metal in fits and starts

For a century now, Italy has been associated with stylish, sporty cars. But lately back in vogue is another kind of high-performance Italian vehicle: Carlo Goldini’s mid-18th-century play The Servant of Two Masters. Given the right driver (that is to say, lead actor) and the right road conditions (the ensemble cast, direction, etc., as we stretch the metaphor), the revved-up comedy classic provides quite the thrill ride.

That surely was the case with Richard Bean’s cheeky adaptation, One Man, Two Guvnors, a huge hit at the National Theatre in London in 2011, and then on Broadway, in both cases starring James Corden as the story’s hungry, harried and hilarious protagonist, Francis. Less widely renowned but no less remarkable was the Servant adaptation by Oded Gross and Tracy Young at the 2009 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, centered on the improvisatory genius of Mark Bedard.

Off to the races: the company shifts into gear. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Off to the races: the company shifts into gear. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Now One Man, Two Guvnors has pulled into the Portland area as a Clackamas Repertory Theatre production directed by David Smith-English and starring Jayson Shanafelt.

My great colleague and friend Bob Hicks recently discussed Artists Rep’s new production of The Understudy as primarily a vehicle for its performers; that’s true almost by definition with One Man, Two Guvnors, which is strongly rooted in the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition and its archetypes and improvisational superstructures. So, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Hicks, let’s continue with that critical framework.

I’ll put it this way: You may have a driver’s license, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win a Formula One grand prix.

There’s a lot to like about the Clackamas production, but overall it’s a bumpy ride, marred by uneven performances and uncertain rhythms.

Things sputter from the outset. Bean’s adaptation sets the story in 1963 in the British coastal town of Brighton, and uses a skiffle band to add some period flavor. Smith-English puts his band front and center for three full songs even before the pre-show stage announcement, which feels like a bit much, but that could serve either as a simple present-tense greeting or as a way to ease the audience into the time/place/feeling of the play. Yet they try to have it both ways here: Band leader Bill Briare, with one of the least-convincing British accents you’re likely to hear, jokes about what a tough time it is for skiffle bands here in 1963, what with the Beatles taking over, then proceeds to sing about “local” rivers such as the Columbia and the Willamette.

Are we supposed to be in 1963 Portland, where there’d be no such thing as a skiffle band? Or in Brighton, where it’s unlikely anyone knows about the Willamette? Both? Neither? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter, if Briare sang in tune or the quartet played with the youthful energy that characterized the British skiffle craze, but we’re out of luck there, too. Three more songs leading into Act II, plus interstitial tunes throughout, and the band’s appearances start to feel depressing, not enlivening.

The ensuing story itself is complicated simplicity. Francis (called Truffaldino in Servant,  in either case modeled on the stock commedia trickster Arlecchino) will work for food. That is, the servant is so bedeviled by his growling tummy that he takes a second job. The problem is that the lives of his original employer and his new one quickly begin to intersect, meaning he has to juggle twice the work, keep them from learning of each other and, in effect, be two people in the same place at once. Furthermore, boss No. 1 isn’t really his boss, but the boss’s twin sister in disguise. And boss No. 2, who has killed the real first boss in a duel, is the lover of the now-disguised twin. There are also competing suitors, quarreling parents, and general confusions that serve as obstacles and hairpin turns. We’re on track to zip through some silly fun. All that’s needed is to put the pedal to the metal and steer sharply.

But that’s actually the hard part.

Comedy is hard, and farce harder still, relying moment by moment on fine points of timing, precision, propulsion, shading. Shanafelt is skilled and charming, but doesn’t quite get us in the palm of his hands. The portly Corden and the impish Bedard were lovable, antic tricksters; Shanafelt is likable, but seems less a harlequin (or jester, or buffoon, or clown) than a genial opportunist, or perhaps an insurance adjuster who fancies himself the life of the party.

Still, he has some fine moments, such as a great bit of physical business when he gets into a fight with himself, and he handles the built-in improv opportunities well. At one point in the performance I saw, he pleaded his hunger yet again, then asked the audience if anyone had brought a sandwich. “I did,” called a voice. Shanafelt clambered out to the middle of row F to find the man behind the voice. “You really brought a sandwich? What kind is it?” “Hummus,” came the reply. “Well, no wonder you haven’t eaten it,” Shanafelt deadpanned.

The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag as well.

Shanafelt and Rimmer, shifting to overdrive. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Shanafelt and Rimmer, shifting to overdrive. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

“They’ve tried, but they can’t make bricks any thicker,” Charlie Clench says of his own daughter Pauline. James C. Lawrence delivers that line and the rest of Charlie’s drolleries with an easy aplomb. As Pauline, Bonnie Auguston, thin though she is, plays thick (that is, stupid) beautifully, with a light, sweet touch. Alex Fox brings a champagne-dry wit to the role of Stanley Stubbers, Francis’ fastidious second “guvnor.” And Doren Elias, effective as the aggrieved father of one of Pauline’s suitors, really shines when he sings a tune with the band, proving what a shot in the arm energetic music can provide.

None of those performers tried to do too much. By contrast, Annie Rimmer plays a woman, Rachel, masquerading as her twin brother Roscoe, as a conglomeration of exaggerated posturing, strutting and shouting. Granted, when it comes to character disguises in period comedies, credibility isn’t really the point, but the lack of it shouldn’t be such a distraction. A similar principle holds for Travis Nodurft’s shambling, gibbering version of an aged waiter.

Perhaps, having seen this vehicle roaring along at a couple of the greatest theater companies in the world (the National Theatre production was shown in Portland on video as part the NT Live series, courtesy of Third Rail Rep), I’m being unduly harsh here. Or maybe the right guiding metaphor isn’t vehicles but one that’s present in the show itself, as Francis’ main motivation: appetite.

If you’re hungry for some fast-paced, funny, frothy farce, this One Man, Two Guvnors is  nothing to turn your nose up at. But neither is it such a flavorful feast that you can’t help gorging yourself and still wanting more.


Clackamas Rep’s One Man, Two Guvnors continues through October 4 in the Niemeyer Center of Clackamas Community College. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Best of Everything’: Full Frontal Female

Despite strong performances, woman-centric production ultimately fails to fully flesh out its female characters.


Bag & Baggage Productions has trumpeted its new production of The Best of Everything as a triumph of female theater: a play adapted by a woman (Julie Kramer) from a novel by a woman (Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book by the same title), directed by a woman (Michelle Milne), mostly designed by women (costumes: Melissa Heller, scenic: Megan Wilkerson, lighting: Molly Stowe) and starring mostly women.

With all that estrogen involved, and the source material’s proto-feminist take on the sexist ‘50s American office culture, you’d expect this new production (the first on the West Coast) to explode the stereotypes of women that the novel and play strive so hard to puncture. But it actually succeeds mostly in one major respect that’s not the one the play intends.

Bag&Baggage Productions' "The Best of Everything." Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag&Baggage Productions’ “The Best of Everything.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly everyone had feminist intentions. The author of 16 books (one titled Mr. Right is Dead), Brooklyn-born Jaffe founded an organization to promote women writers, and, decades before Mad Men, BoE, along with other seminal — make that ovular — books of the era like The Feminine Mystique, published five years later, won notoriety for its scathing portrait of a sexist society’s effect on the women it repressed. Jaffe’s book traced several characters in a New York publishing firm similar to the one she worked in herself when she wrote the novel.

The play, which premiered in 2012, presents characters representative of the era’s various female stereotypes — the naive Midwesterner shamed for her normal sex drive (spunkily played by Kaia Hillier in one of the show’s best performances); the driven, career-oriented Radcliffe grad (the central character, portrayed by B&B resident actor Cassie Greer) who embodies the coming second wave feminist generation; the icy, bitchy executive (Morgan Cox’s Amanda Farrow) who has to repress her humanity and femininity to claw her way near (but never all the way to) the top in an aggressive man’s world; the superficially sexually adventurous Gregg Adams (played by B&B resident actor Arianne Jacques) who secretly longs for a traditional marriage; the prudish repressed virgin Mary Agnes Russo (hilariously played by B&B resident actor Jessi Walters) who derides women who actually acknowledge the natural sexual appetites that she herself appears afraid to unleash. In her program note for this West Coast premiere, director Milne promises that the arc of the play will show the reality of the women busting out of those cultural stereotypes.


Once upon a time: true stories

Portland Story Theater brings it home to Alberta Abbey with a season-opening six-pack of true and intimate tales


The relatively recently opened Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland is a warm and comfortable venue, reminiscent of Southeast’s Aladdin Theatre, but with 1950s movie theater chairs. It exudes a glow that only older stages carry. A star-shaped microphone is placed on the left-hand side of the stage, the sort of mic, you might imagine, that Buddy Holly would have used. A small jazz band, carrying the large name of Bamberger, Engel, Hines and Eave, greets the guests, and, to set a trend for the evening, the keyboardist is barefoot. The audience is personable, engaged in conversation that isn’t loud or raucous, slightly above a hum: the pleasant sort of sound heard at dinner parties.

It’s Saturday night at the Abbey, September 12, and the opening of a new season for Portland Story Theatre – its 11th season, and second at the Abbey. Company founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who are also wife and husband, take the stage and announce the evening in a way that only a couple who have been in love for decades can: with an appealing intimacy and soul-sharing capacity that inform the storytelling theater they founded. Portland Story Theatre specializes in the telling of personal stories – real, intimately revealed things that happen to real people.

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tonight’s show, a one-night stand like most of Portland Story Theater’s, is called Founders, Friends and Faves. Its performers are a special invited group of three women tellers before intermission, three men after; and while the title is catchy, the evening’s real focus is connection, and especially family bonds.

Leigh Hancock, a petite brunette with a gentleness in her motions and an earnestness that also will continue in waves through the evening, starts the show with Peaches. Leigh is a Reedie, and tells the story of returning to the Voorheis Peach Farm, where she found a second home after moving from her small town to academic life in Portland. Her tale bounces between the journey with her family and the hopes she had of sharing her young adulthood with rose-colored heavy-hanging fruit falling from trees; of canning in an old farmer’s kitchen and recreating the intimacy with her son and husband. Memory often elaborates the smaller experiences we have, when we’re looking for a home, a place to sit. It connects to movement; travel that becomes a thread all of the evening’s storytellers weave. As the saying goes, “You can never go home,” but Leigh reminds us that sometimes home is not a physical place, but one of personal history.

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Duddy follows with the story of her Forever Friend, Maureen. It’s the wayback time when Lynne, age 14, goes to a rock festival with her friend, Maureen, age 16. Lynne drinks “electric wine” and gets to see Wishbone Ash perform live, the pinnacle of her short days. But, as at so many festivals of the time (cue the Woodstock soundtrack), there are rain, mud, and two or three people who don’t handle “electric wine” so well, including the stark-naked man with an erection and a hatchet. Maureen, the “woman” of the two and far more relaxed with mores and responsibility, leaves Lynn at the festival, hundreds of miles from home with only her sleeping bag and wits. Lynne soon realizes she’s just a little girl who had depended on the sadder, but wiser girl, Maureen. Lynne reminds us that in the end, we have disappointments in the people closest to us, but by overcoming them and seeing the longer and bigger picture, we maintain and enriches our bonds. History, as historians continually try to persuade us, is ledgers of people and wars. But the more important histories are the ones we build with the people who share our lives.

Next, the fiery redhead (aren’t they all?) Penny Walter takes the stage to tell a story called Never Alone. Many in the audience and outside have come to know and love her as the lively, boisterously singing star of her one-woman puppet theater, Penny’s Puppets. Tonight, though, we’re seeing a different side of Penny. She weaves in and out of memories, all the way back to school days and her teacher Mrs. Eden, who wears a long pink polyester suit and dons a long apron with deep pockets. Inside are finger puppets. Mrs. Eden invites the children in the extra ed class to get a reward each time they do well, and Penny is hooked. Her story circles to her imaginary friend, Motz, who runs marathons with her on the outskirts of the defunct farm where she grows up. They banter, fight, and make up in the sort of relationship that a true friend gives you: the challenge to believe in yourself.

A few tears fall at the end of Penny’s performance as she recounts losing the real and physical supports in her life the last few years: her parents. This is where the true nature of Portland Story Theater’s approach to storytelling comes into play. In our time of social media ad infintum, a lot of lonely people overshare, and then turn back into their shells once the catharsis has hit. The story theater is a different place to be – one that nurtures experience, dignity, and the up-down staircase of being alive. The stories are about the person telling them, but more than that, they’re about the thread that unites us and takes us all to an even ground through the telling. We all have one or two great storytellers in our lives, people who can take a simple motion like buying a lemon at the grocery store and turn it into a real saga, giving it gravity, purpose, or laughter. It’s important to realize the struggles and victories, small and big, that we all share. This is the premise of Portland Story Theater: one person, one story, and our listening.

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Time seems to go by very quickly with each storyteller. I feel engaged with the differing personality and vulnerability of each. After intermission Duddy introduces Lawrence, the first of the men storytellers, and it’s sweet to see her give him a kiss and a good-luck sentiment: it makes the community around Portland Story Theater seem more authentic.

Like Duddy, Howard easily has you in the palm of his hands. I’m delighted that he makes reference to the old television Western hero Paladin in the title of his story, Have Ladder, Will Travel. Storyteller by night, paralegal by day, Howard gives us a glimpse into the struggles of contemporary Portland. He was a hippie cabinetmaker at one time, but fell into a white-collar job to pay the bills. Being a craftsman, he took his job seriously and invested all of his work ethic into it. One day at the law firm, he was handed two bankers boxes full of files for a wrongful death suit involving a man named Bob Sharp, who was atop a 40-foot metal ladder near a power line when he died. Howard came to have a connection with Bob Sharp’s mom, and an understanding of a down-on-his-luck guy who took an under-the-table construction job to try to set his life straight. At the end, we feel a sorrow for Bob Sharp’s short life and death, but come to realize the parallels in the two men’s lives. Portland’s economic crunch and housing crisis fall on many people. Howard has no plans to climb a 40-foot ladder, but his law firm is closing, and he, like many contributors to the city’s cultural landscape, has lost his all-important day job. As with the women storytellers, Howard takes us to a visual space through geography and time: what would take a cinematographer and film editor hours to accomplish, a good storyteller can do in minutes.

An all-out playfulness surrounds each storyteller, but by far Warren McPherson seems the most gregarious in nature and tale. His loss is the aching of not having a parent. In an odd switch of gender roles, the male storytellers all have untraditional incomes. Warren is a stay-at-home dad with two children, ages 3 and 5. He’s a muscular guy, and a former wrestler, but he lets us know his two kids are the toughest match he’s ever had: The Funk and the Fatherhood. He doesn’t want to fail them; he has an Olympian list of all the things he’ll do with them and give them. But the reality of the every moment, he declares, is kicking his ass. Tiny people have more energy than any athlete can aspire to: “Parenting is a mad rollercoaster through a twister with puppies.” He wants, like any good parent, to be a better parent than his own absent father. Warren has me an the rest of the audience enraptured: his focus and attention to words came through like a hurricane.

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

John Mink’s My Portland Girl closes this fascinating and intimate evening on a high note. He knows and is comfortable with his wild and heartful nature, which complements Warren’s kinetic fire and calls back to the earnestness of Hancock’s tale. Mink’s story fits together the evening’s common themes: belonging, travel, chosen transformation, and loss. He’s introduced as a philosopher, and he is that, but not the sort you might expect. He appears onstage with a beer and a leather-brimmed hat, then delivers the quiet sort of cowboy reading you’d expect in the dead of winter in Elko, Nevada – but not, probably, in 2015. He tells of traveling to Alaska, where he takes up a butcher job, just as he’d had in his last town. Every time he ends his shift, he sees the mountains, and knows he has a different choice. Caught between earning a paycheck and following his heart, he spends years looking for someone, instead of the trees, mountains, rivers to tell him, “Yes.” That is how this evening ends, with a “Yes” from his Portland Girl. Sometimes, it seems, love can take a man from a goldmine onto a motorcycle and across a continent.

In a time where our daily digest arrives in snippets of information from friends, our interests, and news around the world, Portland Story Theater asks us simply to sit and believe. No story is the same, and none is memorized: through a story-building workshop, the group in the company’s signature Urban Tellers series supports and brings out the best of each narrative. The point is to not make the best story, but to bring out the best in the storyteller. I hope that as the season continues Portland Story Theater will bring in more of our histories, in a diversity of voices. I believe it will: the magic is already there.

Portland Story Theater’s next performance is Spellbound, a Halloween show hosted by Sam A. Mowry, on October 24. Ticket information is here.










‘The Understudy’: Driving it home

Artists Rep deftly takes the turns of Theresa Rebeck's comic vehicle about love and life backstage

Watching Gavin Hoffman’s antic, pacing, begging, whining, very funny stand-up comedy routine of an opening scene in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre on Saturday night, I got to thinking of vehicles. Not Fords or Bentleys or Priuses, but theatrical vehicles, the sort of plays that used to get written to showcase the talents of the Gertrude Lawrences and Katherine Cornells and Lunt & Fontannes of the world.

The thing about that opening scene is, not just any Tom, Dick, or George Spelvin could pull it off. It’s a bravura turn, and a dangerous one: the fate of the entire show hangs on it. If the actor aces it, the show has the audience in the palm of its hand. If he blows it, the whole performance is down the tubes already. You won’t get the audience back.

Berkshire and Hoffman: an uncomfortable reunion. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire and Hoffman: an uncomfortable reunion. Photo: Owen Carey

Hoffman aces it, and for the rest of the evening, all is well. But it also makes clear that The Understudy is a brittle play, an unforgiving one, relying to an unusual degree on the skills of its performers to work. If any of the three actors aren’t up to it, the seams will start to show. At Artists Rep, all three are up to it, shifting and accelerating pretty much effortlessly under Michael Mendelson’s smooth and swiftly paced direction, and the evening bubbles along on a light sea of laughter, affection, and appreciation for the acting art.

As literary craft, though, Rebeck’s comedy seems a little slapdash. In an odd way, it’s all performance art, the old-fashioned kind, passing the ball deftly from one bravura turn to the next, without ever deepening much or getting to a particular point. Themes are begun and left undeveloped: the lack of women’s roles in the theater, the chasm between Hollywood and the stage (or “art” and “entertainment”), the relationship between irresponsibility and the arts, the nature of self-obsession and betrayal, even that good old-fashioned movie staple “why don’t those crazy kids just kiss and make up?”. Whether we’re supposed to take seriously the undiscovered masterpiece by Kafka that’s being rehearsed, or disregard it as a campy joke as the actors stretch it to ridiculous effect, doesn’t come clear. And we never do get a clue to why, six long years earlier, Harry dumped Roxanne without a word and left her stranded practically at the altar. The play flirts with meanings, and then steps back.

But looked at from another angle – as a well-crafted vehicle for three actors to show off their skills – The Understudy’s a rip-roaring success. In this production Hoffman remains the main attraction (a bit ironically, as he’s playing Harry, the understudy of the title who’s being rehearsed only in case the action-movie star who’s slumming on Broadway skedaddles back to Hollywood) but his companions – Ayanna Berkshire as Roxanne, the stage manager who naturally has a few issues with the new understudy; and Jared Q. Miller as Jake, the minor movie star who prompts Harry’s resentment and contempt – have plenty of space to show off their own chops. Rebeck has created a showcase for the actors, and sometimes that’s enough.

Berkshire confronts Hoffman: stage managers know best. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire confronts Hoffman: stage managers rule. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire – last seen at Artists Rep giving a lovely, steely-delicate performance as the seamstress Esther in Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, also directed by Mendelson – gets to pull out pretty much all the stops on exasperation as Roxanne, who since Harry walked out on her has given up her promising career as an actor to become a stage manager, which in Roxanne’s mind means mostly cleaning up the messes that actors, stagehands, producers, and other non-grownups make. (Somehow, Roxanne’s career shift is also Harry’s fault, at least in her mind. This makes little sense, but emotionally, Berkshire makes it stick.) The stage manager’s lot is symbolic, maybe, of the position Harry put her in when he disappeared: she was the one who had to grow up and move along. And Berkshire’s shift, late in this long one-act, from harried stage manager to actor straddling the line between performance and reality is a little bit of stage magic.

Miller, meanwhile, moves slyly and charmingly from brainless movie hunk to serious stage actor to incipiently sensitive guy as Jake, whose effects-heavy action flick has just pulled in $67 million in opening-weekend box office, and who’s starring in this “prestige” Broadway show to keep in the public eye while he’s waiting for a really big Hollywood offer. Jake’s a bit of a tweener: he makes $2.2 million a movie, impressive to the perpetually bankrupt Harry but small potatoes compared to the play’s big BIG star, Bruce, who pulls in ten times that much. (We never see the coyly named Bruce, but we hear about him a lot: he’s both the jackpot and the snake in the garden, the symbol of the Hollywood corruption of the legit-stage Garden of Eden.)

Hoffman and Miller: comparisons are futile. Photo: Owen Carey

Hoffman and Miller: comparisons are futile. Photo: Owen Carey

And Miller makes the case, almost imperceptibly, for Jake’s savvy if not his native intelligence, and for Hollywood as something different from Broadway: a medium in which visual magnetism matters, and where a line like “Get in the truck!,” delivered with the proper urgency and visceral impact, is worthy of a fat paycheck.

Which brings us back to vehicles. Yes, The Understudy might be one. But Artists Rep drives it home.


The Understudy continues through Oct. 4 at Artists Rep. Schedule and ticket information are here.

Still waiting after all these years

Northwest Classical's "Godot" sits out Beckett's Big Questions vividly and with comic gusto

Gogo’s feet stink. Didi reeks of garlic. And, no, Godot never does show up. These are three unassailable facts about Samuel Beckett’s maybe and maybe not absurdist Waiting for Godot, which opened Friday night in an itchy and morosely funny revival from the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. Otherwise, the play’s so open to interpretation that actors and academics, after a drink or three, have been known to break out in fisticuffs over its meanings.

Is it a comedy or a tragedy? (Beckett called it, in its English version, a “tragicomedy”). Is it Christian, or existentialist, or something else? Is Godot really God, or simply an absence, or perhaps both? Is the play snarly, like Pinter, or sympathetic, like Wilder, or something entirely its own? Godot is a bare architecture, sparse and clean in the making, free-floating and yet fiercely rooted, and as it lacks particulars of time and place and even intention, it’s a play for all seasons. Lay over it what you will: you might be right.

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

I happen to be of the baggy-pants school: I see in Godot ripples of the English music hall and American vaudeville and the great early movie comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Max Linder, and, closer to the time that Godot was written in 1949, Jean-Louis Barrault, the great sad mime from 1945’s Les Enfants du Paradis. As great clowns tend also to know the deepest hearts of innocence and tragedy, Godot for me is perhaps the most pristine of all stage comedies. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite: the thing can seem a little overstated and pretentious, and it can drag on, depending on how it’s done. It does mean it’s a benchmark.


Skulduggery in high places

Post5's 'Equivocation' captures the humor of Shagspeare's tussle with the king, if not always the depth

As English secretary of state under King James I, Sir Robert Cecil was a well-informed man. So well informed that although he wasn’t a theatergoer, he knew who among London’s early-17th-century playwrights was writing work that would endure. As Cecil says to William Shakespeare in the Bill Cain play Equivocation, which opened last weekend at Post5 Theatre, “People will still be performing your plays in 50 years!”

These days that really would be a lofty achievement for a playwright. But Cain’s play, first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, might have that kind of staying power.

Rebecca Ridenour and Keith Cable: the quality of mercy, sometimes strained. Photo: Russell J Young

Rebecca Ridenour and Keith Cable: the quality of mercy, sometimes strained. Photo: Russell J Young

Honoring it with the 2010 Steinberg/ATCA Award for the best play to premiere outside of New York City, the American Theatre Critics Association called it a “fantasy-comedy-drama about Shakespeare, Jacobean skulduggery, bigotry and the relationship of art to government and artists’ personal responsibility to truth.” That is to say, there’s a lot to it.

The fantasy comes in the form of the play’s central conceit – Cecil commissioning a reluctant Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, a recently foiled attempt to blow up Parliament, kill the Protestant King and return England to Catholicism – and a revisionist/speculative approach to the history of that “skullduggery.” The comedy comes from a barrelful of jokes about the Bard’s works and the collaborative tumult of a theater troupe (“If we can get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period,” the actors gripe while slogging through a King Lear rehearsal, “we can get through this.”) And the drama has multiple nodes, most notably Shakespeare’s doubts about the government account of the plot and his fears of making a misstep amid the sectarian landmines of the time: the choice, as he puts it, to “lie or die.”

Amid all this, Cain also weaves in an ethical treatise on truth-telling (“If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question”), a critique about the acquisition and uses of power, and the emotional tug of multiple layers of family dynamics.

Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, parsing consciences and kings. Photo: Russell J Young

Todd Van Voris (left) and Keith Cable, parsing consciences and kings. Photo: Russell J Young

Narratively and thematically, it’s an awful lot to blend and balance. “My kingdom for a red pen!” objected Washington Post critic Peter Marks when the OSF production was remounted in 2011 at Arena Stage.

Add in that it also requires its cast of six to cover a wide range of roles in dizzying (and often not discrete) succession, and Equivocation is a bear of a script to tackle. For Post5, a young company blessed with more pluck than resources, it counts as a remarkably ambitious choice.

Under Paul Angelo’s spirited direction, the Post5 Equivocation very nearly manages a grasp to match that reach. It is brisk, engaging, and funny enough that the night I saw it the couple behind me laughed so loudly I feared they might perforate an eardrum. At the same time it effectively brings out many of the threads of philosophical inquiry and political allegory that give the work its heft, as well as the feeling of fellowship and goodwill that give it some heart.

And yet, a certain vital tension is lacking.

That might not be entirely a matter of the production. When the play opened in April 2009, American use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the “War on Terror” was a matter of intense public debate, and the parallels with Cecil’s brutal treatment of his Catholic enemies gave Equivocation a sense of both chilling dread and riveting relevance. Only a couple of years later, at the Arena Stage remount, torture references didn’t seem to ring as loudly amid the fugue of themes. (Not surprisingly, the D.C. audience tended to respond most strongly to the explicitly political – such as when Cecil lambastes Shakespeare for demonizing Richard III despite the fact that he’d balanced the budget.) If anything keeps Equivocation from the American stage canon, it might be that its moral outrage on this issue will feel dated, or insufficiently immediate.

It isn’t just a matter of topicality, however. Dramatically speaking, much of the engine of Cain’s story is the dangerous predicament that Shakespeare (Shagspeare, as he’s called here, or Shag for short) finds himself in: Cecil is as much bone-breaker as king-maker, as ruthless as he is powerful, and a mere playwright ought not dare to displease him. For Shag, it’s a conflict between artistic instinct and survival instinct. And despite some vividly grim work from departing artistic director Ty Boice as a bloodied and shaken torture victim, this production doesn’t tighten the screws enough.

Shag watches as the king's thugs torture a political enemy (Ty Boice). Photo: Russell J Young

Shag watches as the king’s thugs torture a political enemy (Ty Boice). Photo: Russell J Young

The real Robert Cecil was small, so much so that his king called him “my little beagle”; so is Matthew Smith, who plays the role here, and by no means badly but mildly. What’s missing is Cecil’s imposing psychological stature, the frightful power of a tireless, mechanistic intellect wed to a wounded animal of an ego. Smith’s Cecil explains, insinuates, occasionally threatens; but he doesn’t push, pull and intimidate, seduce, trip and ensnare. He shouldn’t just defend Richard III, he should emulate him.

Keith Cable’s Shagspeare too often registers outward concern and inner conflict alike with a strained stare. When he announces, “Now I’m frightened,” in the midst of a prison visit, we wonder what took him so long; disquieting things have happened, but his face hasn’t registered his growing recognition. On the other hand, Cable seems to ease into more nuanced expression by Act II and is strong throughout in conveying the bottled-up guilt and grief that hampers his relationship with his daughter, Judith (played by Rebecca Ridenour with a mix of cynicism and stoicism that somehow comes out as loveliness).

As important as the Shag/Cecil interplay is, Equivocation relies on its ensemble work. Here the production benefits from Jim Vadala’s deft comic touch in a variety of roles, and most especially from the presence of Todd Van Voris, a new Post5 company member but for years one of the city’s great stage talents. As Richard, the de facto leader of Shakespeare’s theater troupe, and as the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, Van Voris creates powerful, well-realized characters that ground and energize any scene they’re in.

Credit also should go to Angelo for keeping the complex plot and shifting characters clear. Some Act I moments could use more deliberate pacing as we get used to Cain’s slippery approach to point of view, and surely Dan Brusich’s lighting design would’ve delineated space even more effectively in a more thoroughly equipped house. But these are quibbles.

Finally, let’s not equivocate on this: Equivocation is a play built to last.


Equivocation continues through October 4 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street, Portland. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Pure as the driven slush: Margie Boulé’s Tallulah

"Looped," a look at the stage and screen diva's still-glittery fading years, kicks off Triangle's "Year for Women"


It’s 1965. Herman Miller has designed every chair in America, Ma Bell rotary dial phones come in colors to accent each room of your home, and the three-martini work meeting is standard. We’re at the end of an era: pillbox hats and Brylcreem hair styles are soon to be replaced by mop-topped British invaders and the sound of Bell helicopters in Vietnam on the living-room television screen.

We’re in Los Angeles, where the major studios are struggling with prima donna actors, bankruptcy, and the rising ticket sales from B movies produced by smaller companies. There’s been a gaffe in a film recording, and Tallulah Bankhead has been called back into the studio to record an overdub of one line so editing on her latest movie, Die! Die! My Darling!, can be completed.

Boulé at home on the staircase. Photo: Triangle Productions

Boulé at home on the staircase. Photo: Triangle Productions

Ten years ago the recording of this session was unearthed, and playwright Matthew Lombardo took the premise and made a play called Looped, which opened Thursday night at Triangle Productions, with Margie Boulé delivering a glamorous and overflowing performance as the powerhouse diva Tallulah. Bankhead was one of the first American show-biz celebrities to really bank on celebrity. She never bothered to remember first names, so she took up the habit of calling everyone “Dahling.” She was the youngest member of the fabled Algonquin Roundtable, moving strategically to the hotel to make a closer “in” with the literati and makers of the day: she sharpened and refined her wit under Dorothy Parker.

Onstage in Triangle’s Looped, the sound engineer, Steve (James Sharinghousen) and the producer, Danny Miller (David Sargent) await the perpetually late Tallulah. Boulé enters with a bam in a satin purple cocktail dress highlighted by a crystal brooch. As she descends the stairs in her furs and sunglasses, we almost see a famous Bankhead drunk-tumble. It’s hard to act a drunk: it means being very sober, on-point, and having lots of iced tea in a decanter. Boulé gives us Tallulah: the glamour, the calculated and fractured physical movements of an alcoholic, the long drawn face of a nicotine addict, the overconfidence of someone who has spent her life alone, the sexiness of a woman who knows what she wants, and the rapier wit for which Tallulah was famous. In an almost perfect sense, Boulé was meant for this role: for years she provided the Walter Winchellese to The Oregonian. She was beloved for her columns that covered the serious, eccentric, and everyday life of Portland. More than any journalist in town, she had a constant repartee with her readers. On the side, she more than moonlighted with acting: she’s been in more than 100 productions and that deep experience shows.

While women in pants, wearing makeup, having a profession, and keeping an apartment of their own was seen as scandalous in the 1920s, Bankhead kicked it up a notch or 20. “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” she introduced herself. Much like celebrities of our day, she never had an addiction problem, because she could afford it. She reportedly smoked more than 150 Craven A cork-tipped cigarettes a day, could polish off a bottle of bourbon in half an hour, unless the weather was sweltering and she held it to her chest for a few seconds. Then there was that little penchant for codeine and cocaine: “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”

die_die_darling_movieThe beautiful, morose, aristocratic Southerner made her name on the stage in England, and descended upon Hollywood to sleep with Gary Cooper. She was the rare woman actress who wasn’t afraid of being directed by Alfred Hitchcock ( in an adaptation of Steinbeck’s Lifeboat), and was a close friend of Tennessee Williams.

But back to that recording studio in 1965. For all that Bankhead had done – become an international star of the stage and screen, gossip-column headliner, libertine, and outspoken liberal Democrat Dixiecrat – it took her 8 hours to record that single line of dialogue. Tallulah had a deep voice, like Lauren Bacall, with an affected Southern accent. And like Judy Garland, she has her place in the pantheon of gay heroes, women and men. Her acerbic wit, noted and adapted by other semi-outed actors such as Paul Lynde, has become part of a legacy. There have been six plays devoted to the icon of Tallulah Bankhead, and even one comedic drag duo, the Dueling Bankheads. In Looped, Lombardo took the opportunity of an eight-hour overdub odyssey to create a chance for the real Tallulah to come forward, with some respite from a fan who takes a moment in time to speak to his hero.

Bankhead did the sort of things that several fading stars of the Hollywood system did: starred in live-broadcast television plays, had a failed variety show, did cameos on pop-culture television, and made horror films. Die! Die! My Darling! was from the British Hammer Films, a company that thrived on excessive amounts of psychological and physical gore, to the point of being campy to avoid censorship. It’s in this moment that we catch a glimpse into Triangle’s Looped: where other productions have concentrated on the Sunset Boulevard quality of the play, we get to see dialogue, acting, circumstance that has dimension and experience, and does what the stage does best: create the human experience.

Lombardo’s play weaves actual Bankhead sarcastic quotes into the dialogue, and Boulé delivers the script with a natural ease. Sargent plays the straight man well: his over-ironed posture, as if he left the hanger in his grey suit when he put it on, takes her punches with grace. He’s also a man of the era, showing little emotion until he’s pushed to the edge. Triangle’s Looped deftly overlaps stock theater characters from history such as Falstaff (Bankhead) and Pierrot the Fool (Miller) by overlapping them with their mid-century real life counterparts.

With a tour-de-force like Tallulah, supporting actors have to be the rice or mashed potatoes to the main course. Their acting is all the more important as scaffolding to hold the invisible joints of the play together, and Donald Horn’s skill as a director can be seen in this intricate performance. As Tallulah was once quoted: “Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.”

The first act will have you laughing at Bankhead’s outrageous and true proclivities and quips: “I’ll be the first to say I’m bisexual: Buy me something, I’ll be sexual.” I was worried that 90 minutes of listening to a deep Southern gravelly-voiced “dahling” might be hard to handle. But, the ease with which Boulé and Sargent work together, it wasn’t a problem in the slightest: the rest of the audience and I came to love our antihero in no time. In Act II, the sarcasm and bitterness give way to their origin, the painful truth. One of which many of us can identify: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.” The play’s highlight comes when Tallulah is reminiscing over her failed performance as Blanche DuBois in her friend Tenny’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Boulé moves flawlessly from Bankhead to DuBois, from DuBois to Bankhead, and back again.

This is Triangle Productions’ 26th season, with a lineup the company has dubbed “The Year for Women.” It’s start off with a bang. We look forward to the rest of the season (coming up next is The Book of Merman, with Amy Jo Halliday as the brassy Miss Ethel), and seeing Boulé on the stage more.


Looped continues at Triangle through September 26. Ticket and schedule details are here.

















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