DramaWatch: God’s lottery calls Everybody’s number

“Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet,

Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep,

When the body lieth in clay.”

— from The Summoning of Everyman: a treatise how the high father of heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.

“Hey, everybody. Don’t be so crazy in life. Like, you may think all that ‘craziness’ is great initially because it’s really fun but, when you die, you may regret all that fun, because — though we honestly don’t know what happens when you die — we have this hunch that you could wind up someplace which is objectively worse than this one — and let’s call that ‘Hell,’ this state of eternal, unfathomable suffering. And this craziness, let’s call it ‘sin’ — this ‘sin,’ or at least too much of it, is our idea of how you wind up there. We think.”

— from Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody dies.

Oh, so sorry! I forgot to say “Spoiler alert!”

Because when I say “Everybody dies,” I don’t mean — only — that anyone who reads this column will die (because that sounds rather threatening, and I actually love readers), or that all humans eventually will die (at least it seems that way so far). I mean that Everybody, the title character of the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody, which opens Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, dies.

Facing Death with (varying degrees of) dignity: Ted Rooney (as Death, at left), John San Nicolas, Andrea Vernae, Barbie Wu, Michael Mendelson and Sara Hennessy in “Everybody” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

Everybody follows a similar template, albeit with a much breezier, funnier tone and a less doctrinaire path through the philosophical questions involved. Compared with the tricky satire of racial representations in An Octoroon, Everybody should be controversy free; but it presents a different kind of challenge: How do you cast somebody — anybody — to portray Everybody?

The clever, if complicated, solution that Jacobs-Jenkins employs addresses the issue of representation — not choosing a white male or any single type to stand in for all of us — but also the randomness of death. Out of a 10-person cast, five of the actors play varying roles, with an onstage lottery early in each show determining who will perform the role of Everybody, who will be Friendship, Kinship and so on. This means that those five actors have had to learn and rehearse five roles and be ready to drop into any of them at a moment’s notice — and that they (and the audience) have 120 potential combinations.

The cast includes Michael Mendelson (if theaters gave MVP awards, he’d get Artists Rep’s), Sarah Lucht, John San Nicolas and the up-and-coming Andrea Vernae. Rodriguez again has brought in a co-director: Jessica Wallenfels, long a noted theatrical choreographer.

For reasons that go beyond the casting roundelay, it’s a tricky script to bring to life — facing Death all the way through, as it were.

Here’s hoping they’re killing it.

Opening

“My hope for you is that you leave this performance with the knowledge that oppression IS NOT an immovable object, and the way to move it is by reaching for one another.” So wrote Kevin Jones, co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project, in the program note to an October preview performance of Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue. Directed by Jones and consisting of monologues written by local playwrights Andrea Stolowitz and Bonnie Ratner, J. Nicole Brooks of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, and others, the play is an attempt to give a hearing to some of the experiences and perspectives of law enforcement officers. It’s also in some senses a companion piece to another show that the Red Door Project has presented, Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, which related experiences of black Americans with racial profiling and violent treatment by police. It’s important, though, to think of Cop Out as an extension of Hands Up more than as a response to it, less an attempt at balance than at thoroughness, a broadening of the conversation. The October preview at the Winningstad included eight of 20 monologues Jones said were created for the project, but striking insights and performances (by the likes of Joseph Gibson, Chris Harder, Julana Torres and Andrea White) abounded. This weekend’s world premiere takes place at the headquarters of Self Enhancement, Inc.

Jessi Walters stars in “Bell, Book & Candle” at Bag & Baggage. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

What would you give up in order to have true love? In John Van Druten’s mid-century romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle, what’s weighed in the balance against the heart’s desire is the very magic of witchcraft. A witch living in Greenwich Village (hipness being a very occult thing, apparently) falls for her mortal neighbor and must decide whether to forsake either her powers or her happiness. Bag & Baggage founder Scott Palmer directs the play that inspired the 1960s TV show Bewitched.

If the subject of witches stretches credulity for you, how about ghosts? If you believe in ghosts, what place in America is more likely to be haunted than Gettysburg, where Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker sets her play John, a story of a relationship on the brink and the elusive deeper meanings coursing through the everyday. The Washington Post called it “a mystical puzzle that teases you to fill in the blanks.” Rebecca Lingafelter directs for Third Rail Rep.

Portland actor/director Jason Maniccia appears to have a thing for the plays of David Mamet. The website for Maniccia’s long-dormant Asylum Theatre lists just two past productions — way back in 2000 and 2001 — The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, both by Mamet. And he’s restarting Asylum with Speed the Plow, taking the role of Bobby Gould, a movie producer on the rise who runs smack into the complications of commercial pressures, sexual politics and conflicting loyalties. Brianna Ratterman (fresh off a captivatingperformance in __the Wolf at Shaking the Tree) and the terrific Danny Bruno co-star; Don Alder directs.

For a company called Twilight Theater, a murder mystery seems like an apt programming choice. And Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afootabout goings on at the weekend get-away of a Broadway star known for playing Sherlock Holmes — has the added benefit of being set at Christmastime.

The year that’s nearing its close has seemed especially anxious and fractious, but just think back to the good ol’ days of 2000. Ah, Bush vs. Gore, it seems like only yesterday! We get to revisit that politically and emotionally fraught time in Lisa Kron’s play In the Wake, about a news junkie who can’t see the blind spot in her own beliefs and desires. “The play spans the Bush years, but it’s not about that time period,” Kron told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about the bigger question of the American character: the assumption…(t)hat we will always revert to prosperity and stability.” As part of its season-long look at Kron’s work, Profile Theatre also will host the playwright for a Dec. 9 public conversation.

The little theater company known as Jane gets back into action after a year off, presenting its family-friendly, panto-inspired take on a classic tale of forest economic theory with The Hullabaloo! Robin Hood.

Sometimes a holiday show is about the holidays and sometimes it’s merely at the holidays. The Willamette Radio Workshop’s Holiday Radio Hour appears to be the latter. Unless, that is, the episodes of The Bickersons and Fibber McGee and Molly that Sam Mowry and company will be onstage are Christmas-themed. Then again, perhaps it’s both, with Stan Freberg’s Santa-focused police procedural “Christmas Dragnet” apparently among the selections.

Described by the Portland Chinatown Museum as “a love letter to America’s Chinese communities,” playwright Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees follows the trail of her missing father through the at-once strange and familiar byways of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the mysteries of her own evolving cultural identity. Though what we’re getting here is billed as “enhanced staged readings,” they’ll surely benefit from experience: Director Desdemona Chiang and three of the five cast members have been part of full productions at Baltimore Center Stage and Seattle’s ACT Theatre.

Trigger warning: Christmas is coming!

Seeing his name up in lights: Isaac Lamb as Ebenezer Scrooge in “Twist Your Dickens” at Portland Center Stage, 2018. Photo: Russell J. Young

Numerous holiday-themed productions open this weekend, to help you share in the joy of the season of giving! (Or whatever purpose you can come up with, I suppose.) Another recent DramaWatch column was devoted to them. So let’s not repeat ourselves needlessly.

Closing

LaTevin Alexander tries to make something from nothing in “Topdog/Underdog” at Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog is a Pulitzer winner and earlier this year was chosen by The New York Times as  the best American play of the past 25 years. But it still takes some work to make that marvelous text come alive onstage. Actors LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr., directors Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea, and it seems everyone associated with the Street Scenes production about to close shop at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, did the work. This is bracing, visceral theater that doesn’t skimp on poetry or grit, humor or danger. It’s terrific, straight up. Catch it if you can.

Best line(s) I read this week

“The best puns have more to do with philosophy than with being funny. Playing with words is playing with ideas, and a likeness between two different terms suggests a likeness between their referents, too. Puns are therefore not mere linguistic coincidences but evidence and expression of a hidden connection—between mind and material, ideas and things, knowing and nomenclature. Puns are pins on the map tracing the path from word to world.….In poems, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme. This is the ultimate test of wittiness: keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.”

— from “In Defense of Puns,” by James Geary, in The Paris Review

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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