Last weekend, Boom Arts launched its first-ever Global Voices Lab for International Plays in Translation, a staged reading series that the company hopes to make annual. In defiance of the hugely overblown storm warnings, a small but earnest audience clustered into Lincoln Hall’s Studio Theater for a reading of Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie on Friday; then a marathon on Saturday consisting of Joned Suryatmoko’s Picnic, Sedef Ecer’s At The Periphery, and Luis Alberto Leon Bacigulpo’s The Captive. An encore performance of Jackie on Sunday kicked off at the Super Bowl-friendly but otherwise unusually early hour of 11:30 a.m. (with complementary coffee and bagels).
Next weekend will bring a different selection, Lara Foot’s Fishers of Hope and Zainabu Jallo’s Onions Make Us Cry, at a different venue, the PCC Cascade campus. Wisely, Boom has chosen to present the two African plays alongside the Cascade Festival of African Films.
So how is it?
Illuminating. Diverse. Challenging to many Portlanders’ current body of knowledge and range of experience … which is to say, worthwhile.
“These are perspectives that are rarely expressed on Portland stages,” says Boom curator/producer Ruth Wikler-Luker. “These plays allow us to plop ourselves into different cultural contexts.”
When planning Global Voices, Wikler-Luker curated via connections rather than submissions, reaching out to her network of theater producers around the world to get recommendations and find works that spoke to her. She wanted the works to be distinct from one another in tone and theme. She wanted each to feel timely. And most importantly, she wanted to choose plays that make their own statement about the world.
Picnic, from Indonesia, is a modest, contained play set in (of all places) a hotel lobby men’s lavatory at one in the morning. The drama unfolds via some revealing exchanges between the hotel’s head plumber, his assistant, a traveler, and a travel agent who’s one of the plumber’s oldest—if not best—friends. It speaks to the bonds formed in childhood by mutual outsiders, the particular dream of the nation’s rural population to live and work in Bali, and, more universally, how old bonds and long-held beliefs can be strained by new circumstances. It’s a micro-crisis of conscience, and a window into the dilemmas faced by the region’s hospitality workforce.
At The Periphery, from Turkey, is a sympathetic-but-not-pathetic portrait of life in a Turkish shantytown. An older couple reminisces about building a community out of trash, then accepting an exploitative factory job, then succumbing to a takeover by developers with bulldozers. Meanwhile, the ostracization of a so-called “gypsy” woman in their midst proves that even the most marginalized communities tend to define their own “other.” In the next generation, closer to present day, a young couple bicker over their TV, but agree on the big picture: wanting more from life. Representing two viewpoints of the disenfranchised, Azzad watches TV cynically and plans to overcome his circumstances by self-reliance and grit, whereas Tamar worships a TV celebrity (a glittering fortuneteller-esque persona called “the Sultane”) and believes that if asked, she’ll eventually provide salvation. As it turns out, they’re each only half right.
The Captive, the darkest and arguably most riveting piece, comes from Peru and attempts a literal and figurative autopsy of that nation’s civil strife with communist faction “The Shining Path” in 1980. The corpse of a 14-year-old girl who’s been slain and brought to a pathologist for an autopsy springs back to life and begins rhapsodizing poetically to the pathologist’s young assistant. She gushes about her family, her upcoming quinceñera, and her hunger for breakfast (toast and cream), all the while denying that she’s dead. By recalling the horrors of her parents’ murder at the hands of Peruvian officers, she convinces the assistant to defend her body against further molestation by the officers. It’s a taut, surreal play that makes time stand still. And—amazingly, considering the subject—the effect is more uplifting than it is revolting.
Jackie, though written by an Austrian, delves deeply into a very American subject: the singular, secret psychology of JFK’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Unleashing a prolonged stream-of-consciousness monologue, a late-life cancer-suffering Jackie reflects on her husband’s charm and infidelity, his mistress Marilyn Monroe’s legendary lack of restraint, the gruesome spectacle of his assassination, and—most of all—her own image, which was perhaps the most carefully crafted and meticulously maintained public image in American history. As the aging Jackie preens and rebukes and cackles, framing her life as a convincing performance in beautiful costumes, we get a sense that there could’ve been more vanity and more connivance in the erst-thought victim/heroine than initially met the eye.
While even plain staged readings would have been enough to give each script a fair hearing, Boom has gone a step further, putting each script in the hands of a different local director. Though actors read from the page and perform only limited blocking, there were additional visual and dramatic flourishes, including select props, set pieces and conscious costume choices, to further engage both audience and presenters in the stories.
Post-show talkbacks (featuring Suryatmoko, professors from PSU and Lewis and Clark College, and a Skype session with The Captive‘s translator Mary Ann Vargas in London) helped elucidate the plays, sometimes in their own right and sometimes in the broader context of national character. “If Jackie were fully staged by a German director,” remarked L&C theater professor Stepan Simek, “you might get three Jackies, one would be a drag queen, one would be in a wheelchair, there’d be projections of Tom & Jerry cartoons and footage of butchering a pig…I’m not kidding; this is the kind of thing you would see.”
Similarly, Suryatmoko explained that the word “picnic,” has a special meaning and even its own spelling, “piknik,” in Indonesia. It describes picking something up at a food cart and/or casually getting together outside one’s job or apartment. The term is so common, he said, that the government lists someone not being able to afford to “piknik” among its official criteria of poverty.
Of course, there were some cases where the experts (and one might assume the countries they represented) expressed opposing views on theater. For instance, Simek touted Jackie‘s abstract language as being in keeping with German “post-theater,” which “sees kitchen sink realism as bullsh-t”—and yet Picnic, performed on the same stage just hours earlier, is a prime example of—if not kitchen—bathroom sink realism.
One more twist to each tale is, of course, translation from the plays’ native tongues into English—and primarily England‘s English rather than American English. It’s not a huge distinction, but it’s evident through tiny tells, like the English expression “you lot” rather than the American “you guys,” “you all” or even “y’all.” The word “toilet” was also a standout in Picnic—to the English, it means a room; to Americans, an appliance.
In addition to enlightening the local audience, Global Voices has a secondary objective: to connect Portland’s theater producers, actors and scholars with playwrights from other parts of the world. The plan seemed to be working. During Picnic, that reading’s Portland-based Picnic director Jacob Coleman and playwright Suryatmoko (the only featured playwright in attendance) sat together, enjoying evident rapport as they watched their show. In The Captive, Patricia Alvitez, one of Portland’s few Peruvian-born actors, played a lead role alongside Enrique Arias, an Oregon-born Latino actor and film producer, suggesting another side-benefit of the series: Portland-based actors of color connecting and bonding over shared cultures of origin. And Wikler-Luker has one more wish: that the series might inspire local producers to consider mounting full productions of some of these shows—which is more than Boom, a boutique operation, currently has bandwidth for. By the time the house closed on Sunday, she hinted that a few people were expressing interest.
Whether or not these titles pop up in town again soon, Global Voices’ mission has already proven worthwhile. This compilation of plays would otherwise never be seen together, and maybe wouldn’t make it to Portland at all.