Ready, aim, fire: on Portland stages, a shot in the dark

 

Chris Murray and Sara Catherine Wheatley in the premiere of Joseph Fisher's "(I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi" at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Bang-bang. You’re dead.

And you, and you, and you.

My, but the Portland stage was littered with bodies over the weekend – more than we can count without peeling off our socks to get to our toes. Governments crumbled, great houses tumbled, and one small family tried very hard to scramble up from the heap. A whip snapped, flagellantly. Fingers got snipped off, excruciatingly. Brains blew away, from extremely close range. Hey, kids, that’s entertainment!

Well, yes, and let us count the ways:

  •  In Portland Center Stage’s premier of Jason Wells’s The North Plan, the immediate body count is only three. But that’s not including the god-only-knows-how-many who might yet take a bullet in the brain as Big Brother decides to clamp down and put an end to this whole democracy farce once and for all.
  •  In Artists Repertory Theatre’s premiere of Joseph Fisher’s (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi, a family squabble involving church, state, and some incestuously leaning lechery leads to – never mind; we can’t count that high.
  •  In Third Rail Rep’s production of Allison Moore’s recent Collapse, the serious deadly damage has occurred before the opening curtain, in the rush-hour collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. That monumental structural failure on August 2, 2007 killed 13 people, injured 145, and caused traumatic psychological damage to untold others.

All of this feels very much like American entertainment, the native expression of a land where a teacher can pack a pistol in a schoolyard but a kid can’t carry a fingernail clipper on an airplane. Yet the roots of violence and political paranoia spread out deep and wide across the sea. Listen to the way the 19th century poet and critic John Addington Symonds described John Webster’s early 17th century revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, the Jacobean English source material for Fisher’s new play:

 “Brief lightning flashes of acute self-revelation illuminate the midnight darkness of the lost souls he has painted. … No dramatist showed more consummate ability in heightening terrible effects, in laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain combined to make men miserable. … He makes free use of poisoned engines, daggers, pistols, disguised murderers, masques and nightmares. Yet his firm grasp upon the essential qualities of diseased and guilty human nature, his profound pity for the innocent who suffer shipwreck in the storm of evil passions not their own, save him, even at his gloomiest and wildest, from the unrealities and extravagances into which less potent artists … blundered.”

That’s some shipwreck. And apparently the pirates are armed with blunderbusses.

Tanya (Kate Eastwood Norris) gets the drop on sheriff's clerk Shonda (Ashley Everage) in the premiere of Jason Wells's "The North Plan" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

I saw the premiere of The North Plan first, on Friday night, and it left me dazed and confused – or if not confused, at least a touch unfulfilled. “What?” I found myself thinking amid a hail of culminating bullets. “That’s the end?”

Wells’s comedy – yes, it’s a comedy, with guns a-blazin’ – proceeds from the notion that a cabal of governmental nut cases inspired by the heroic example of Iran-Contra wheeler-dealer Oliver North is taking over the country. The chickens come home to roost in a backwater Ozarks town, where fish-out-of-water federal bureaucrat Carlton Berg (love those animal metaphors) has fled with incriminating microchip data that reveals the names of everyone on the cabal’s hit list: thousands of patriots and freethinkers who are to be eliminated to ensure the successful shutting-down of all personal freedoms in this great nation of ours. Naturally, a couple of cabal baddies are hot on his trail. And naturally, Carlton (Brian Patrick Monahan) finds himself locked up in a redneck jail where his only hope for escape is Tanya Shepke (Kate Eastwood Norris), a motormouth train wreck of a fellow prisoner who has the attention span of a second-grader in an advanced calculus class and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor in a South Seas tattoo parlor.

The North Plan is lean and clean and zipper-quick, workshopped to a stage-smart edge. It’s also a cartoon, and as such it doesn’t carry much weight and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, the intention is satiric. But satiric of what? At first glance it seems like a liberal wish-fulfillment caper: noble government guy and spunky salt-of-the-earther team up to foil fascist elements. Look again and it seems like a conservative wish-fulfillment: evil government power grubbers get their comeuppance from gun-totin’, Constitution-spoutin’ good ol’ boys (and girls). The enemies are paper tigers. That’s why you don’t feel any dread when the bullets start flying: only a satisfying rush of adrenalin. Tea Party and Occupy movement meet in the middle and make whoopee. Chuck Norris for president!

None of Symonds’ lightning flashes of acute self-revelation illuminate the midnight darkness of lost souls here: In spite of the crises we’re assured are taking place offstage, the emotional stakes are too low. What The North Plan has, and uses to brilliant effect, is a single terrific character: the chronic drunk driver and jailbird Tanya, who in Norris’s slap-you-silly characterization is a supersonic boom of high-wire performance art. Norris’s extended bursts of creative cursing are wonders of linguistic excoriation, bel canto outpourings of scatological dexterity. She’s the Annie Oakley of comic outrage, a sharp shooter of bargain-basement wit. Screw the politics: Tanya is, in the end, why The North Plan exists.

I don’t want to be a downer about this production. It’s well-turned, neatly directed by Rose Riordan, and I think it’ll be a hit. I enjoyed the show, not only for Norris’s performance but also for Wells’s playful approach to our contemporary cultural craziness. But then, I enjoy Everybody Loves Raymond, too, and the characters in that unprepossessing little situation comedy actually have more subtly revealed interior lives than the living laugh tracks in this supposedly more socially and intellectually motivated play. I wish the aim had been a little clearer, and a little higher.

Perhaps unsettled by the light heft of The North Plan, I spent the first act of (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi the following night in a bit of a funk. Fisher, an imaginative playwright whose talent I’ve followed in the likes of Tundra, The New House and Faust.Us, seemed to be playing too lightly with his source material. I was missing the rich excoriating wit of Webster’s language in Fisher’s truncated contemporary Euroglitter interpretation, and the subtle unfoldings of Webster’s characterizations seemed in Fisher’s version to be getting smacked across our faces suddenly and impatiently, like psychological givens instead of complicated discoveries. The little jabs at religiosity seemed too easy, and I missed the antiquity of the thing. The shallowness of the characters’ interplay, the Duchess’s voraciously flighty appetite, the gossip-network flashiness, seemed a little glib.

Then, after intermission, I began to pay attention to the show I was actually watching, not the one I’d wanted to be playing in my head – and Fisher lowered the boom. In Act 2 everything darkens, and the play begins to wear the consequences of depravity. The Duchess (Sara Catherine Wheatley) grows in courage and moral dignity. Her secret husband, Antonio (Vin Shambry) reveals some spine. Todd Van Voris as the calculating and merciless Cardinal turns what might have been a cartoon villain into a portrait of emptiness and existential despair. Camille Cettina as Cariola turns from giggling rich-girl’s companion to streetwise hustler capable of doing anything to keep herself alive. Not only does Fisher’s contemporary version reveal Symond’s “profound pity for the innocent,” it also subtly alters our perceptions of who and why the innocent are.

An intriguing thing about Duchess in both its 17th and 21st century versions is that the most interesting character, or at least the one who takes the most startling journey of discovery, is the lowlife Bosola (Chris Murray), who begins as a spy in the Duchess’s household for her brothers the Cardinal and Prince Ferdinand (Jake Street), becomes the plotters’ designated hit man, and then, in a subtle redemption brought about through love or mercy or shame – the mash of emotion and motivation remains realistically unclear – becomes an angel of vengeance. Murray is simply marvelous in this pivotal role, charming and terrifying as the ship goes down in the storm.

Fisher has made many changes from Webster’s original, turning this into a closely related but truly different play. It’s much shorter and more streamlined, losing a lot of characters but choosing the right ones to stick with. The language is vastly more clipped and less rich, but it compensates with a caustic contemporary punch. The Duchess is less a symbol of virtue and has more backstory in Fisher’s version; Antonio is less capable; Delio (Nicholas Hongola) transforms from Antonio’s trusted friend in the original to Fisher’s narrator, a flippant, scandal-mongering journalist who carries a good share of the play’s satiric subtheme of celebrity and scandal as tools of political manipulation in the modern state.

One of the perverse pleasures of Webster’s play is its lavish imagination in dispatching its victims. One character, for instance, falls dead after kissing a poisoned Bible: Imagine how that played in 1613. Fisher opts for efficient American forms of violence: bullets, mostly, with an odd knife-thrust for variety. What the choice lacks in subtlety it makes up in brutality, which in itself becomes a statement about the perverse deterioration of contemporary public life: We are all potential slabs of disposable meat. Unlike the play-acting Saturday matinee shootouts in The North Plan, the executions in (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi are potently frightening and emotionally painful. The graphicness of the violence is shocking in a way it rarely is on film, because it’s carried out by live actors in front of the audience, as if it were real, and because by the time it arrives we’ve become emotionally invested in the lives of its victims. Yes, it’s a play. But it’s not playing. With these executions Fisher and director Jon Kretzu shove the audience roughly into the pool of blood: Indeed, this thing has consequences. As Symonds wrote, the drama heightens terrible effects, laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain.

Too painful for audiences? We’ll see. But you can’t say Fisher pulled his punches. This play is one tough cookie.

Rebecca Lingafelter, Stephanie Gaslin and Jim Iorio in "Collapse" at Third Rail. Photo: Owen Carey

By Sunday afternoon, when I saw Collapse, it was almost a relief to be attending a play in which the motivating violence was of the natural-disaster variety rather than an excoriation of the rank and duplicitous human soul. Sometimes bad stuff just happens – which doesn’t, of course, make it any less bad, but might make it easier to handle. The matter of intention does make a difference. If The North Plan is a comic twist on Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Collapse is a distant cousin to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Playwright Moore begins Collapse in a nervous tizzy and quickly balances the comic silliness with a tender emotional touch. The play has modest elements of mystery – we learn the shape of things gradually, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box – but the writing and acting are engaging enough that the process is a pleasure, not an irritation.

It’s a pretty bad day in Hannah and David’s household. Hannah (Rebecca Lingafelter) is having trouble getting pregnant and is on the verge of getting fired by her law firm. David (Jim Iorio) is hanging around the house listlessly sucking down beers instead of going to work – again. Hannah’s nutty sister Susan (Stephanie Gaslin) shows up from California, carrying a piece of contraband to be delivered to the mysterious Bulldog, who may or may not be the sex-addicted Bulldog (Shelly Lipkin) who has offered Hannah a convenient shoulder to cry on, or whatever else she feels like doing with it. Coincidences pile up like – well, like cars tumbling into the river from a collapsing bridge, and in Moore’s smart version they have an opposite effect: rather than causing heartbreak and disaster, they conspire to pull things back together again.

Collapse follows a familiar formula of loss and redemption, but that’s no weakness, it’s only a format. David, we eventually discover, was on the bridge when it collapsed, driving to an appointment, and he slid down, down, into the river, beginning to drown and somehow kicking free and rising to the surface. A year and a half later, he’s still trying to breathe. Moore has dealt with a real disaster in a way that emphasizes its private as opposed to its public implications (as do some post-9/11 stories), dealing with the aftershocks and asking, simply, how do we pick up the pieces and move on?

Two things stand out here. The first is Larry Larsen’s knockout set, which turns the Winningstad Theatre into a big junkyard of collapsed concrete with cleverly sectioned playing areas. It’s massive and intimate at once; a perfectly realized physical setting for an emotional disaster area. The second is, as usual, the fine ensemble acting under Slayden Scott Yarbrough’s direction. Third Rail rarely performs “big” plays but almost always chooses projects that encourage that mysterious bond onstage that makes everything together richer and more satisfying than its parts. This is a funny, moving, smart and sentimental show, and if it begins in violence, it has the good sense to eventually dig itself out. After The North Plan and Duchess, it’s almost sunny.

Still and all: anyone keen for a nice, perky little musical comedy?

 

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