THEATER

Who’s on first? Anonymously yours

On Monday at The Armory, the company that does not know each other meets onstage for the musical "Urinetown." Expect the unexpected.

Sitting down for coffee one morning last week with Darius Pierce and Elizabeth Young, I found myself asking questions about nothing. Not nothing, actually: no one. No twenty ones, as it turned out, those twenty being the cast and chorus of the musical satire Urinetown: The Musical, which opens – and closes – on Monday at The Armory.

Pierce knows the identity of these twenty elusive entertainers, but in this he is pretty much alone in the universe. And he’s not spilling. So, a little like medieval philosophers discussing dancing angels and the load-bearing capacity of the heads of pins, we were talking about what we did not know and could not see, though we were convinced of the reality behind the mystery.

How could this be? The name of the production company, Anonymous Theatre Company, provides a clue. The quixotic mission of Anonymous is to produce one play a year, for one night only, in which nobody in the cast knows who the other actors are until they meet them, during the performance, onstage. All of the actors sit with the audience, in street clothes, until it’s time to make their first entrance. Then they rise from their seats, and are revealed. Can’t tell the players without a scorecard? At Anonymous, the scorecard doesn’t help a bit. As Kerry Ryan, one of the company’s founders, puts it, “The audience gets to see the story happening as if it is happening for the first time … because it actually is happening for the first time.”

The crowd at an Anonymous Theatre show. You can show the audience. The actors are a closely guarded secret.

In the communal world of the theater, an art form whose essence is collaboration, this approach is about as counterintuitive as driving from Chicago to San Francisco to get to New York. Even solo shows aren’t done in isolation. Designers, director, stage manager, running crew, music director and choreographer if it’s a musical, and others are involved intimately in the process.

Continues…

Sam Shepard’s Magic Time

Present at the creation in the late, great playwright's San Francisco years: watching an American "seeker and experimentalist" at work

By MISHA BERSON

Motorcycles would vroom into the massive parking lot at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, a former Army facility being transformed into an arts complex. And if I looked out of the right window from my warehouse office, I’d see Sam Shepard roaring into the parking lot alongside John Lion, the artistic head of the Magic Theatre.

Wearing leather jacket, blue jeans, and shades, his dark hair flopping over his forehead, Sam was so cool he could’ve been an extra from the iconic hipster film Easy Rider. But at that point (in the late 1970s) he was already famous in his own right, at least among theater folk, for his cowboy-beatnik charisma and his sui generis, rock-the-genre plays, like The Tooth of Crime, The Unseen Hand, and Suicide in B-Flat.

Shepard in the halcyon days.

By 1978 Lion’s Magic Theatre, a bastion of renegade playwriting, had moved from its Berkeley storefront into a bare-bones new home in a Fort Mason warehouse. And Shepard was the company’s playwright in residence.

Continues…

Portland Opera review: two faces of David Lang

Production elements sometimes enhance, sometimes impair "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and “The Little Match Girl Passion”

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Sunday afternoon marked a bravura effort by Portland Opera Association on the front lines of 21st century opera. Never an easy sell, “new” opera these days is propelled by a combination of theatrics, good music, and – as in modern cinema – special effects. POA chose well here, offering two short dramas by composer David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a success) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (a knockout). The shows conclude their run at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on August 3 and 5.

Match Girl is a moving setting of the 1846 Hans Christian Andersen tale, set on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The eponymous character, opening the opera center stage in foreboding sepia tones, was played with poise and aplomb by Max Young. The tiny match girl is the embodiment of goodness and purity pitied by onlookers too busy applauding their own pious countenance to actually help her to survive.

Portland Opera’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

While there is no earthly hope for the tiny waif, Anderson offers her hopeful dreams, brought on by the lighting of one match and then another and then all – a Christmas tree, a roasted goose, a fire to warm her bare feet and her beloved sainted grandmother.

Lang, his own librettist, inserts three angelic characters into the ensemble – guardians for her journey. He also inserts a moral overtone which, he has said, is the Passion story according to St. Matthew, hold the religion. Pain, suffering, faith, indifference.

Continues…

‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’ review: fertile fusion

Bag & Baggage Productions' new mashup of Shakespearean drama and Persian epic brings the best of both worlds

In Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene, Juliet implores Romeo to “refuse thy name / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet….Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name which is no part of thee Take all myself.”

And he replies “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized / Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

Those lines also appear in Bag & Baggage Productions’ new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing through August 5 at Hillsboro’s Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza. But the identity crisis starts even earlier.

“Call me not Romeo,” he insists to his friends. “My name is Majnun.”

They call him Romeo anyway, and Majnun, because here, he’s both. Just like the play they’re in, many of the characters Bag and Baggage Productions’s new Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun) go by two names.

Arianne Jacques as Juliet and Nicholas Granato as Romeo in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Majnun/Romeo’s beloved, too, has another name.

All the radiance of the morning was Juliet. She was the most beautiful garden, Majnun a torch of longing.
She planted the rose-bush,
He watered it with his tears.
What can we say of Juliet?
As dark as night the color of her hair
And her eyes like an Arabian moon.
The night we call Layl, so we can call her Layla. Slender as a cypress tree,
Her eyes could pierce a thousand hearts
With a single glance, with one flicker
Of her eyelashes, she could have slain the world.

She was a jasmin-bush in spring,
Majnun a meadow in autumn.
She was a glass of wine, scented with musk. Majnun had not touched the wine,
Yet he was drunk with its sweet smell.

It would have been easy for B&B artistic director Scott Palmer’s new original adaptation to use the Persian names from Layla and Majnun, the epic poem he’s melded with Romeo and Juliet, as mere aliases that give Shakespeare’s ardent teens exactly what they’re asking for: new identities.

But like the doomed lovers portrayed in both Shakespeare’s play and one of its primary sources, Persian poet Nizami’s half a millennium older epic,  Romeo/Layla is a mashup of both stories, not a substitution of one for the other. (For more background on the show, read ArtsWatch’s preview.)

The big question with any kind of artistic fusion is: will the two elements interfere with or amplify each other? No one is better qualified to pull this kind of thing off than Palmer, a research nerd, particularly with Shakespeare, to whose work he’s devoted years of study and staging. Palmer also has experience with Shakespearean fusion, like Bag & Baggage’s masterful 2012 Kabuki Titus, which used a traditional Japanese drama form to turn one of Shakespeare’s weakest creations into something far more compelling than it had any right to be.

Here, he wisely drew on the expertise of scholars and community members knowledgeable about the cultural, religious and historical context this show embraces. The result: a production that benefits from the best of both its sources — the lush beauty and dramatic depth of Nizami’s poetic setting, and the equally lyrical words and page-turning plot that has always made Romeo & Juliet so popular. In finding success by smartly incorporating so many outside influences, including in its cast and creative team, the show also offers a lesson in the value of cultural pluralism that transcends theater.

Continues…

Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.

Continues…

‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’: cross cultural combination

Bag and Baggage's new theatrical mashup of Shakespearean and Persian classic tales involved collaboration across cultures

Scott Palmer was stuck. The Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director had just auctioned off the choice of its annual summer Shakespeare production to a patron, and this year’s choice was… Romeo and Juliet.

Palmer silently groaned. They’d staged the popular perennial ten years earlier and Palmer, an expert on the Bard of Avon’s work, didn’t want to revisit it so soon. Now he had no choice. How could he do it differently than before?

Lawrence Siulagi as the Sayyed in Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Romeo & Juliet/ Layla & Majnun.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Palmer, an inveterate Shakespeare nerd whose MO involves plunging deeply into historical and dramaturgical research, started investigating the play’s provenance. He and learned that one of the most famous plays in Western literature was actually based on a 12th century epic poem by one of the most famous Muslim writers in history. He got a translation of Layla and Majnun by Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), read it — and was instantly hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.

But Palmer quickly realized that couldn’t do it alone. “It’s the greatest epic piece of Muslim literature. I immediately realized I was in over my head,” Palmer recalls. “I had no clue about 12th century Persian culture.” He needed help.

And he found much of it in a surprising place — his theater’s own home of Hillsboro. Both onstage and in creation, Palmer’s brand new mashup of Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun, which opens this weekend, represents a cultural combination — and cross cultural collaboration.

Continues…

‘Cabaret’: the darkness behind the razzle-dazzle

Unlike the current stage revival, Bob Fosse's film made evil real by making the political personal

Last week’s production in Portland conclusively demonstrates just what a work of dark genius Cabaret is.

No, not the popular Broadway road show that Broadway in Portland brought to Keller Auditorium last week. Sure, this third major incarnation of the venerable show, Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Tony Award-winning production, boasts some catchy tunes, powerful source material, a still-fascinating concept — using the cabaret setting to both contrast with and comment on the rise of Nazism in inter-World War Germany. And given the alarming rise in neo-Nazi rhetoric and power (including one of the US President’s closest advisors and a significant part of his power base) and resurgent homophobia (anti-gay laws from Russia to Uganda to Arizona to murders in Orlando), it has renewed relevance.

But beset by shoddy casting, acting, and singing and a flawed book, if the current road show was the only version of the immortal Kander & Ebb musical you’d ever seen, you’d wonder why the show has lasted half a century.

Even the orchestra is beautiful in the current road show of ‘Cabaret.’

No, as renowned as the original musical and this long-running Mendes-Marshall revival (which upon its 1993 debut scored a huge financial success, snapped up its own slew of Tonys, and sparked several re-revivals including this one) were, it’s the second major version, the 1972 film version of Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse, that will stand as one of the great artistic creations of the 20th century, one still relevant today. And the differences between what happened onstage last week at the Keller and what appeared onscreen 45 years ago reveal the kinds of tough artistic choices that transform a work of art from good to genius.

Continues…