Gay marriage, beach-blanket Bard: elitism for the masses

Melissa Whitney and Peter Schuyler, on the beach in "Much Ado."
Photo: Jon Gottshall

We’ve been hearing that old “arts are elitist” dog baying at the moon again lately, and there isn’t really much of an answer to the complaint. If it means, The arts aren’t for “regular” people, well, OK, maybe: the more you think about and study art the more you’re likely to get out of it. This, of course, assumes you agree with the dubious assertion that “regular” people have little curiosity and could care less about aesthetic matters. But we also have a long and vital tradition of so-called popular art – for instance, comic books or folk music ­– that’s accessible to almost anyone, and “high” art is constantly ransacking “low” art for inspiration. At any rate, as Marty Hughley says, if the arts are elite it’s an elitism of choice: anyone can decide to join in.

The economic-elitist argument makes more sense. Yes, for a variety of reasons, going to the opera or the symphony or the Broadway theater costs a lot of money, although most companies go out of their way to make cheaper tickets available. Producing art isn’t cheap, so neither is consuming it. (And no, art isn’t primarily a consumer good, like a new Chevrolet or a bag of whole-wheat flour, but pricing is an inevitable part of it.)

Yet in any fair-sized city it’s also possible to take in a lot of art for a modest amount of money – often, even, for free. (Somebody’s paying for the free stuff, but not you, at least not directly. Art galleries make a living by selling art, but you can walk in and see it gratis. And some free events are underwritten at least partly by tax dollars, although that is likely to become rarer and rarer.)

Recently I took in a couple of modest-priced theater performances – not cheap, but far from expensive – and came away feeling I’d spent my time and money well. The fact that both shows were also a little outside the mainstream (if any live theater can accurately be called “mainstream” in our digital-dominated media world) added to my sense that something important was going on in their very smallness: that alternatives to mass-media entertainment have intrinsic value simply by keeping other ways of thinking and experiencing available. Such events are the aesthetic equivalent of seed banks, keeping the genetic stock of independent thought alive and healthy. If elitism means keeping your options open … all right, I’ll cop to the charge. In a representative democracy squeezed on all sides by pressures to conform, it seems a good idea to keep as many options open as possible.

Such as: What if America gave a marriage and it turned out to be for bride and bride or groom and groom? That’s the idea behind Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, a collection of nine short pieces playing through April 21 at Artists Repertory Theatre. In a lot of circles, my own included, the answer seems self-evident: not only would the world not end, but it would be a fairer and better place. I have a feeling that in 25 years my children or their children will look back on our current squabbles, scratch their heads, and say, “What were they thinking when they wouldn’t let gay people get married?” In the meantime, the battle rages, citizens remain deprived of basic rights, and these nine plays carry political as well as moral and aesthetic weight.

My question going into the theater was, Will this be a case of preaching to the choir? And to a certain extent it was. Like such similar shows as Love Letters and The Vagina Monologues, Standing on Ceremony tends to draw a self-selected audience. The small crowd at the late-night performance I attended was mostly couples, and mostly gay or lesbian, and the evening carried a sense of nurturing reinforcement.

John Steinkamp (l), David Bodin, ceremoniously.

And while that was good as far as it went, it was also a little frustrating, because some of these playlets were flat-out good theater. When Brian Schnipper conceived this show for its original Off-Broadway run he assembled some highly talented writers: Paul Rudnick (I Hate Hamlet), Mo Gaffney (The Kathy and Mo Show), Wendy MacLeod (The House of Yes), Jose Rivera (Salvador Dali Makes Me Hot), Jordan Harrison (Act a Lady), Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), Neil Labute (reasons to be pretty), and Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project). There’s value in having all of these plays in one place. But several also deserve to be seen more widely. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned curtain-raiser, the theatrical equivalent of the pre-show cartoon and newsreel at old Saturday movie matinees? How about 10 minutes of Labute’s Strange Fruit, just to play imaginary producer for a moment, paired with a production of David Mamet’s Boston Marriage? (I know; this circles back to the economic elitism issue: tacking even a 10-minute preshow onto a full-length play adds a good deal to production costs.)

At least at Artists Rep, Standing on Ceremony is presented as a staged reading, and directors Jon Kretzu and Stephanie Mulligan have had the good sense to cast veteran actors who know how to dig into a script quickly. Several actors are rotating in and out during the run; I saw a high-quality lineup that included Mark Schwahn, John Steinkamp, Sharonlee McLean, Torrey Cornwell, Luisa Sermol, Jared Q. Miller and David Bodin. Yes, more rehearsal would have brought out more in the plays. But these are all reliable pros, and what’s here is very good.

Bodin absolutely owns Kaufman’s London Mosquitos, which also strikes me as the best play of the lot. It’s a winding monologue delivered as a funeral eulogy by the dead man’s partner, who had lived with him – unmarried, if only legally – for 46 years. In this extraordinarily tightly written play the audience comes to know two characters intimately, and to understand, through their stories, the personal consequences of political decisions. This is a love story of quiet power, and a play that has the potential to open more hearts and minds than a hundred political speeches.

The evening includes a good share of humor, including the opener, in which odd-couple Schwahn and Steinkamp cheerfully rewrite the traditional wedding vows to represent the legal and cultural realities of their same-sex nuptials in Harrison’s The Revision. Labute’s Strange Fruit is lean, mean and scary (it’s surely no accident that its title echoes Billie Holiday’s signature song about a lynching), and if it relies on coincidence, the coincidence is depressingly believable. My other favorite is Gaffney’s A Traditional Wedding, in which two longtime lesbian partners (McLean and Cornwell), able to marry at long last, look back on their years together with humor and deep affection. The play, and these performances, contain some of the delightfully quirky yet emotionally logical and sanely humanistic humor of Gaffney’s original Kathy and Mo Show with Kathy Najimy many years ago in a Lower Manhattan basement theater.

Artists Rep’s production is in partnership with Basic Rights Oregon, which is sharing in the proceeds from the show. So, returning to our thesis: can you be elitist and socialistic at the same time?

The appealing off-centeredness of Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s current Much Ado About Nothing is more akin to the sort of thing Chris Coleman’s been doing lately at the much larger Portland Center Stage with his creative adaptations of classics: his African American version of Oklahoma! (without a line changed) and pared-down piano-player version of Cymbeline, which he retitled Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline. In both cases, the idea was to stay true to a classic while also considering it from an unusual angle. Both were successful because the concepts were strong and worked with the scripts instead of against them.

At NWCTC, director David Sikking has turned Shakespeare’s comedy into a beach-blanket fantasy, somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and an Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon movie romp – “hey nonny nonny” with a Beach Boys twang. Surfboards are the main props, and they swing festively through the action. Much Ado happens to be one of my favorite plays, so I entered with slight trepidation tempered by my sense of the innate sensibility of the theatrical perpetrators. As things turned out, no damage was done to the sacred script, and a fair amount of fun was had along the way. If the production wasn’t life-altering, it was (if you’ll pardon a new-agey-sounding term) life-affirming.

Right off the bat, things are going to look different at any Northwest Classical Theatre show because they’re performed in the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, which squeezes 38 seats into a space that wouldn’t be big enough to house a Kardashian closet. On a Saturday night 36 of the seats were occupied, and pretty much everybody had a ringside seat. The idea of doing big theater in small spaces is a popular one, but Shoebox takes it to an extreme.

For the most part the in-your-faceness is an advantage. When it doesn’t work it’s mostly because there isn’t enough room to pull back: modulation becomes a problem, and quiet moments lose their necessary distance. But you can always see a show in a big proscenium hall, and the extreme situation of seeing a classic while sitting in the actors’ laps has more pluses than minuses. It’s pretty much impossible to zone out. When I saw the show a small group from a suburban high school Shakespeare class was in the audience, and part of the fun was seeing how utterly involved in the action the students were.

Melissa Whitney and Peter Schuyler are nicely paired as the battling wits Beatrice and Benedick, Scot Carson is a raucously ding-dong Dogberry, Orion Bradshaw is a slicked-back biker bad guy as Don John, and steady vets such as Alan H. King, David Heath and Grant Turner give the thing a solid footing. The show works because for all the beach-shack low comedy, director Sikking understands what’s important in the story and pays close attention to it. One of the things I love about Much Ado is the way that it sometimes falls off the cliff: rollicking comedy suddenly giving way to momentous stakes. A nasty trick is played for pure spite. A bride faints and apparently dies. A harsh demand tests a newfound love. Injustice, retribution and almost unaccountable mercy muscle into the action. You can’t play these things smoothly. You’ve got to go with the bumps.

The other thing I love about Much Ado is the way that Beatrice and Benedick spin a new reality out of their passion for language. By talking, by creating their stories on the fly, they travel from isolation to consummation. It’s the perfect evocation of the power of language, of art, to transform lives. Beatrice and Benedick don’t fall in love. They talk themselves into it.

Wondrous. Elitist. And available to anyone who chooses to choose it.

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