From Grover’s Corner to Bedford Falls: Oregon theater companies find new approaches to cherished classics

Megan Carver, Branden McFarland, Jessica Geffen, Ian Armstrong, Adam Syron in "It's a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life." Photo: Casey Campbell.

Megan Carver, Branden McFarland, Jessica Geffen, Ian Armstrong, Adam Syron in “It’s a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life.” Photo: Casey Campbell.

Ah, the holidays, time to experience the familiar reassuring messages of love, family, community and the rest, reaffirmed in the reassuring annual parade of “Nutcrackers” and “Messiahs.”

But what if you’re tired of the same-old same-old, heartwarming masterpiece or not? New productions of the classics always pose a challenge for vanguard artists: how do you make a cherished chestnut new, without distorting what made it great in the first place? Two of Oregon’s most inventive theater companies this month took different approaches to that daunting task in a pair of beloved American plays, with both finding mixed success but also much promise.

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Most theater enthusiasts have probably seen “Our Town,” even when we were way too young to fully appreciate the wisdom of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner. So when Liminal Performance Group, one of Portland’s most visionary theater outfits, announced it would take on the hoariest of high school staples, it was easy to imagine either of the usual outcomes when ambitious artists field a classic: 1) they treat it with so much reverence that the production says nothing new, or feels dated; or 2) regarding it as a puppy does a fire hydrant, they stretch to leave their mark on it, resulting in an odoriferous Regieoper (the so-called “Director’s Opera” so common in Europe in which a director substantially changes the original production style, sometimes beyond recognition) travesty.

Like many who seek to restore a classic’s once-revolutionary aspects, now eroded by endless repetition, first-time director John Berendzen aimed to retrieve what made “Our Town” great in the first place: its darkness (bubbling under the homespun small town cliches, a dimension often ignored by productions that linger on the play’s comforting surface) and its then-startling departure from the American theater’s then-regnant realism.

The first act of Liminal’s November production, however, stumbled by attempting to give us fresh eyes and ears via portentous pauses at pregnant moments. The effect turned out pretty much like lighting up a neon “HIDDEN MEANING ALERT!!” sign. Extended, unsubtle suggestions of closeted homosexuality and domestic violence, an overlong interpolated interview with a geography professor, combined with one-dimensional acting in a couple of roles, came off as hamfisted, let’s-try-anything attempts to shake up preconceived notions of the familiar plot, without (much) altering Wilder’s script itself.

By the time intermission mercifully arrived, almost two hours after curtain (if there’d been a curtain in the deliberately spare non-set at northeast Portland’s Headwaters performance space), the accumulated tedium had diluted the production’s other felicities: the sneaky opening transition, a la Andre Gregory’s ”Uncle Vanya”; that minimalist set (by kollodi and Jenny Ampersand); some fun, bovine humor, stage manager Leo Daedalus’s appealingly down-to-earth Stage Manager; evocative lighting by Nathan H. G., and more.

But beginning with the second-act wedding scene replete with marching music, Berendzen & Co. seemed to have at last alighted on a coherent vision, one that veered astutely from realism while picking up the pace, like a roadster accelerating into a turn.

That tempo shift, in turn, made the contrast with the magical third act’s still-life depiction of the afterlife (concocted from stark lighting, monotone voices, deadpan acting and occasional, not-quite-Robert-Wilsonesque slow-mo) even more revelatory. Combined with composer Jesse Meija’s gorgeously evocative soundscape (very much in line with the aesthetic of Berendzen, a composer whose theater music I’ve much admired), designed by Jen Raynak and Nicholas Erickson, and Ben Purdy’s spooky video (shot live in a second set and projected on the mainstage area, where the actors interacted with their onscreen counterparts), the closing act’s haunting stasis brought this new “Our Town” into the now, via a return to its original sense of weird dislocation.

In fact, the multi-tasked-to-distraction 21st century, with its electronic temptations and minuscule attention spans, provides an even more pertinent vantage point for the main lesson that everyone takes away from any production of “Our Town”: pay attention! Every moment, every person is precious. Had the first half of Liminal’s otherwise fascinating production raced at a rapid-fire 21st century clip rather than stalling in a contrived, glacial slog, the unforgettable third act’s eerie placidity would have viscerally conveyed the eternal verity of Emily’s unforgettable closing monologue: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed…. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

our town

Liminal Performance Group’s “Our Town.”

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“These stories (especially at Christmas) seem so familiar, we have become so accustomed to them, that they can’t surprise us any longer,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions director Scott Palmer in the program notes to his new adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film classic, “It’s a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life.” “Well, at Bag & Baggage, we want people to think MORE about these stories, not less. We don’t want them to become old, worn tired old shoes….”

Palmer’s approach to rebooting another oft-sentimentalized American classic differs from Liminal’s: he crafts a new frame narrative in the form of a radio play production of the Christmas perennial, giving today’s irony-inured audiences a more knowing take on a potentially saccharine storyline. In this respect, the plucky Hillsboro company’s production resembles another classic now delighting Oregon audiences, Michael Frayn’s fabulous farce, “Noises Off,” which generates laughs from the contrast between what the audience knows about the cast’s backstage antics, and what is supposed to be transpiring on stage.

Similarly, in “IA(S)WL,” Palmer’s adaptation tries to derive comic tension from the contrast between what the audience knows is supposed to be happening in this 1940s radio show studio — an audio production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — and the near-disaster being perpetrated by the contentious cast of dyspeptic radio actors playing Capra’s stereotypical characters — generous George and Mary Bailey, benevolent Clarence the Angel, addled old Uncle Billy, greedy Mr. Potter, and the rest. An inebriated Foley artist (the guy who makes all those sound effects), a novice “actress” imposed on the production by the lustful director, a jealousy-charged love triangle — Palmer deploys these classic comedy devices in a triptych set on stage at Hillsboro’s chilly (on the night we went) Venetian Theatre, so that action stage left can spoof, augment comment on, or make fun of what’s happening around the radio mike stage right.

It’s a brilliant concept, as always in each of the four B&B productions I’ve seen, but in the execution, “IA(S)WL” suffers from the same lack of contrast between first and last acts that hamstrung “Our Town.” Not to give away the inevitable twist, suffice it to say that if a climax of comeuppance and redemption is to have any impact (and come on, this is still a Christmas story, after all, so you know where it’s going), the reprobates need to start off from a place of deep cynicism and Scroogian abrasiveness.

Yet even at their pettiest, the radio actors here come off as just too lovable, too much like the sympathetic IAWL characters they’re playing in the on-air production. It’s a delicate balance, this actors playing actors playing characters meta-business. But B&B’s fine players demonstrate that they’re up to the challenge, as Palmer elicits his customary superb acting from the uniformly strong cast of company regulars (with one exception, the equally entertaining Jessica Geffen as the shrill newcomer), all of whom strike just the right balance between broad gestures and sympathetic characterization.

But their admirable efforts and Palmer’s characteristically adept staging are occasionally sabotaged by the frame story’s often-clunky expository dialogue and sketchy script that devotes insufficient attention to dramatizing (verbally or otherwise) the radio actors’ jaded attitudes (especially the love triangle), instead over-relying on Ian Armstrong’s admittedly spot-on James Stewart impression. To achieve the density of humor required for true comic combustion, the too-long show needs more Frayn-etic slam-bang comic moments, and less tedious traversal of the familiar original Capra lines, which the audience already knows well enough. We didn’t need to hear much of “Hamlet” to get “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

Still, holiday theatergoers will surely find plenty to chuckle over (as many did the night we saw it) in B&B’s sweet and frequently very funny update on Capra’s original, and leave with hearts warmed by what amounts to the original’s message, now reinforced by Palmer’s surrounding frame.

Come to think of it, it’s also the lesson Wilder reminded us of in “Our Town”: life is short, our friends and family are precious, pay attention — sentiments appropriate to the holidays, or any other time, 1930s, 1940s, now. Both these ambitious new productions have devised original, illuminating concepts for refreshing the classic vehicles for those messages, and I hope both companies will retool them — or, to use Palmer’s analogy, put a new shine and sole on those vintage shoes — for subsequent productions, so we can appreciate them anew.

“It’s a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life” runs through December 23 at the Venetian Theatre in downtown Hillsboro.
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