DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

So I decided to talk to some directors and actors to try to make sense of the notion and to get their opinion on whether it might have any critical validity.

“It’s just bullshit.”

Pat Patton, the veteran director who’s worked often in Ashland and Portland, isn’t one to obscure things, bless him. “If she’s playing herself, she certainly has a fascinating self!” he says, noting the variety of compelling roles she’s had through the years. “As someone who’s worked with her, I’d say she’s very open to what’s going on around her. She’s so accessible, so connected to everything she’s doing.”

Scott Yarbrough, former artistic director of Third Rail, zeroes in on an aspect that I’ve also noticed: it’s a charge that’s only likely to come up at all with a highly individual performer, especially one with a distinguishing vocal quality. “She is so distinctive as a person,” he says of McLean, “in some cases I imagine people can’t see beyond her into character. That doesn’t mean that character isn’t there.

“When they’re talented like Sharonlee, you never know what they’re going to come up with — to make you laugh when you don’t expect to, or make you cry when you don’t expect to. And that has to have a lot to do with craft. But she’s so good at creating that quirky humor that that’s what people come to expect.”

Mendelson

In Luna Gale, it’s closer to quirky drama. Caroline is by turns poker-faced, clever, combative — “insane like a fox” — but above all conscientious and caring. Michael Mendelson, the Artists Rep stalwart and artistic director of Portland Shakespeare Project, attended the same performance I did, and said afterward that he thought it was among McLean’s finest performances, in part because quirky humor wasn’t in evidence.

But we all agree that McLean is terrific, so I’m more interested in the larger implications of the notion: What would it mean to just “play yourself” and what exactly would be wrong with that?

“My first response is, ‘You try to be your authentic self onstage and see how far you get,’” Mendelson says. “They’re not seeing the craft in truthful acting because (the point of) the craft is to mask itself, to make it appear natural. I always look for truth in a performance, and truth comes from the person.

Is it a difference, I wonder, in approach, in the questions that underlie the work; between “What would a character in such circumstances be like?” and “What would I be like in such circumstances?”

“In many cases, both of those questions are weighted equally,” says Mendelson. “Both are completely valid questions.”

Bogie: Brits can’t act?

But, I wonder, might it not be that the latter question offers the more direct channel to deeper human truth? And in any case, can someone not be themself yet still convey another person’s truth? Is there such a thing as your truth and my truth?

But let’s stop before we stray too far into the philosophical weeds.

I recall seeing, many years ago, Richard Burton interviewed by Dick Cavett and talking about his friendship, during his early years in Hollywood, with Humphrey Bogart. They’d often argue about acting, he said: Americans don’t act, they merely play themselves, he’d charge. Brits aren’t actors, they’re merely elocutionists, Bogie would counter.

I wonder if either of them ever saw Sharonlee.

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Spicy cheesy melty comedic crunch

Ted Douglass just can’t seem to make up his mind. And I’m good with that.

Repeatedly, Douglass and his numerous cohorts in (and out, and back in) the Portland sketch-comedy troupe The 3rd Floor keep telling us they’re giving up their comedy jones and going straight. But it never seems to happen. True, after several feints in that direction, the troupe finally “retired” in 2016, but its principals continue to pop up in other funny business around town, and now, of course, there’s Nacho Gold.

Comic inspiration on a plate. Wikimedia Commons

Made up of such 3rd Floor alums as Douglass, Jordi Barnes, Jason Rouse and Lori Ferraro, this “new” group is not called The 3rd Floor apparently just because it came together in this incarnation over nachos and margaritas. Whatever. These are some damned funny folks. Already under their belt (along with the nachos) they have a debut at last year’s Portland Sketchfest and a December run at Milagro. So expect by this time out, a run of Friday-Saturday shows through June 2 at the Siren Theater, they’ll be serving up the laughs hot and ready.

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Opening

Gentrification has enduring resonance as a theatrical subject, involving, as it does, change and stress and conflicting hopes and dreams. But of course it’s an especially apt thematic territory in Portland these days. Repulsing the Monkey, a PassinArt collaboration with ROSE Community Development, presents Michael Eichler’s play about a blue-collar Pittsburgh bar whose second-generation owners struggle with questions of family legacy, community cohesion, and that ever-present bugaboo, money. Jamie M. Rae directs, which bodes well.

It’s a short run, just two weeks, but with Monday-Wednesday shows it’ll fit in readily around the rest of your theatergoing calendar.

“Cabaret” lights the Fuse.

“Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” Such a cheerful invitation to such a strange and menacing place — the seedy underbelly of Berlin in the later years of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, as the brown shirts begin to multiply; the world of the darkly lustrous musical Cabaret.

The risk-taking Fuse Theatre Ensemble presents the Kander & Ebb classic as its “10th season anniversary production,” opening Friday.

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Closing

I’m simply a bit too old to have made much of an emotional connection to the 1980s teen flicks by the director John Hughes — aside from my lasting irritation that Pretty in Pink, though ostensibly inspired by the Psychedelic Furs song of that name used in the soundtrack, actually runs directly counter to the song in tone and meaning. Certainly I have no nostalgic feelings about his catalog. But lots of folks a decade or so younger than I am do have such feelings, and John Hughes High, the well-received new Mark LaPierre/Eric Nordin musical from Staged!, is for them — or perhaps you. So go enjoy it before it graduates this coming Sunday.

Nerd City: Aidan Tappert, Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez in “John Hughes High.” Photo: David Kinder

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Screening

Film isn’t usually the province of this column, but one of the documentaries in the Portland QDoc Film Fest nonetheless should interest theater fans.

Terrence McNally and director Jeffrey Kaufman. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Kaufman

Producer/director Jeff Kaufman’s Every Act of Life, which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, relates the remarkable career of playwright Terrence McNally (Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Love! Valour! Compassion!; and so on). The Village Voice praised it for the way it “conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist,” but likely it’s the rich list of interviewees (including Edie Falco, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera and others) that supplies the most intrigue.

 

 

2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Jacqueline Camp says:

    Attended the closing performance of Luna Gale at The Coho. The subject of the play was disturbing on many levels, heartbreaking on others and brought a tear to my eye at the end. I did notice that there were other performers in the play aside from Sharonlee McLean although there is no mention of them in this review. Pity….

    • Bob Hicks says:

      Jacqueline, glad to know CoHo’s “Luna Gale” was such a moving experience for you. Marty’s column isn’t a review of the production but a discussion of a larger phenomenon in the theater world. I hope you’ll also take a look at “Surviving the Baby Wars,” Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s review for ArtsWatch of the show: http://www.orartswatch.org/surviving-the-baby-wars/

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