Stage sense: the year in theater

2018 in Review, Part 8: ArtsWatch offered varied perspectives on the methods and meanings of theater in Portland, Ashland and elsewhere.

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us. But you — by which I mean we humans — are under an obligation, or at least a compulsion, to make sense of the universe. That’s easier said than done, of course, even if you’re focusing on a particular little slice of the universe such as theater in Oregon.

The writers and editors of Oregon ArtsWatch try to make sense — and, more crucially, to convey that sense — of the theater scene: what’s being staged, what it’s like, what it means, how it makes us feel, who the artists are and how they approach the work. Of necessity, we mostly try to hammer out that sense show by show and week by week, with the occasional broader overview mixed in. But we hope that amid the vibrant mix of news, reviews, interviews, profiles, features, and the happy/snarky jumble of previews and commentary in the weekly DramaWatch column, readers find that a helpful and sensical bigger picture emerges.

Despite flux in the front office, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival keeps sprinkling magic across the stage, as in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke
Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As we look back at ArtsWatch’s first-draft history of 2018 theater, we’ll alight on major news developments, insightful cultural takes and passionate writing worthy of another look.

News news

Facts are the infrastructure of making sense. In the arts, it often is the behind-the-scenes story that really shapes what’s happening. This year saw some foundation-shifting developments in Oregon theater:

In the case of Artists Repertory Theater, that foundation is the literal one under the building. “A white knight has arrived,” as Bob Hicks put it, with an anonymous gift of $7 million that helps the company keep its footing as it prepares to sell half its downtown headquarters block to a developer and reconfigure the remainder.

 

Bill Rauch soon will trade the stages of Ashland for the brighter lights of New York. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF

Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch announced that he’ll be leaving Ashland next year to run a new performing-arts program at New York’s World Trade Center. Wrote ArtsWatch founder Barry Johnson, “Rauch transformed OSF during his tenure, turning it into a central player in the national theater scene, not just the nonprofit world, where the company’s practices regarding inclusion and its aggressive new play commissioning have spread nationwide, but also into the commercial theater scene, where Rauch-commissioned plays have frequently gone to Broadway and beyond.” Another blow to the festival came later in the year, when smoke from nearby wildfires caused shows to be moved or canceled, costing the company millions. “Is 2018 the new normal in the Rogue Valley or is it an outlier, not likely to be repeated?,” mused Johnson. “It’s another way of asking, do we have to start taking climate change into our considerations? “

At Portland Center Stage, the losses and gains weren’t quite so dramatic, but significant nonetheless. In May, Barry Johnson shared his “exit interview” with departing PCS artistic director Chris Coleman on his long and successful tenure. In August, PCS announced the hiring of Kansas City Rep’s Marissa Wolf as Coleman’s replacement, and several weeks later, Wolf and PCS managing director Cynthia Fuhrman told DramaWatch about their plans to build and broaden the theater’s audience.

Management turnover also was the big story at Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage, whose founder and artistic director Scott Palmer told ArtsWatch in November about his upcoming departure for Sun Valley, Idaho’s Company of Fools. Brett Campbell story about the departure made the case for Palmer’s region-wide importance as an advocate for the arts in suburban and rural communities. And ArtsWatch also paid attention to the operations of a small, scrappy troupe such as Theatre Vertigo, whose two-decade history and latest reinvention were expertly examined by Bobby Bermea.

Mad about methods

Perhaps more important than knowing who’s in charge or where the money’s coming from is understanding something about how theater gets made. Process is an ongoing fascination among ArtsWatchers. When Portland Center Stage presented Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw’s satire of political economy and morality, John Longenbaugh talked to the actors about all that talk — about the challenges of playing Shaw’s verbose, idea-driven characters. “I feel strongly that we must fight to balance…brevity and superficiality with long-form, deeply considered arguments, with sitting in a theater with 500 strangers and sharing a once-in-a-lifetime communal experience, with letting Shaw’s language remind us of the beauty, variety, specificity, and power of language,” actor Hanley Smith told Longenbaugh. ”Not only can I make an argument for Shaw in our time, but I think he and other playwrights like him are essential for our time.”

Mystery about method is part and parcel of Anonymous Theatre Company, which each year presents a play for which, until the show is in progress, the cast remains a secret even to the actors involved. Bennett Campbell Ferguson pierced the veil of secrecy slightly, enough to deliver a fascinating account of rehearsing a production one actor at a time.

Sometimes we peek behind the curtain with a more personal view. David Bates celebrated the 50th anniversary of McMinnville community theater Gallery Players of Oregon in part with a pocket history of the group’s origins, but most affectingly with his own recollections of taking part in its productions. “I’ve learned the hardest thing to do onstage is not to cry, laugh or even passionately kiss a friend while your spouse (and hers) watches from the audience, but to eat.”

 

Flipping pages: Fealty to the playwright keeps Scott Yarbrough consulting the script during rehearsals. Photo: Owen Carey

Process and profile went hand-in-hand even more so in Marty Hughley’s career appreciation of Scott Yarbrough, the former artistic director of Third Rail Rep. ““The main thing to know about Scott is that he grew up in Oklahoma as a preacher’s son,” says Michael O’Connell, one of Yarbrough’s co-founders at Third Rail. “While everybody else was bucking hay and playing football, he was home reading books. For him, story is always key.” Yarbrough’s approach is so text-focused that he says his secret weapon for directing is, of all things, typing. “Transcription. That’s the part of my process that is probably my most important: retyping the script, slowing it down and intentionally acknowledging every word. Transcribing it once, I’ve found, has about the same value as reading it 10 times.”

Social views

If art, as the saying goes, holds a mirror up to society, you might expect it to be making an ugly showing these days. But as often as not, theater these days grapples with the social and political issues of the times with a kind of determined optimism and an inclination toward activism. Throughout the year, ArtsWatch writers tracked the twining of artistic endeavor and social messaging.

No theater company in the region has merged its artistic and social agendas more assertively than the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has. “An 80-year-old tourist destination in small-town southern Oregon that has a dead white male as its middle name, as its staff is fond of joking, might not seem the likeliest engine of social change,” the theater scholar Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote for ArtsWatch in March, examining the start of the OSF season. “Under its outgoing artistic director, Bill Rauch, however, its resident company has become 70 percent actors of color, and the 2018 lineup features five new plays by women.”

Sometimes the rancher and the farmer should be more than friends. Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) romances Laurey (Royer Bockus) in OSF’s “Oklahoma!” Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Rauch rightly insists that he’s doing no social engineering, he’s merely making the theater into a truer reflection of the society as it really is. No single production garnered as much attention in that regard this season as his gender-catholic interpretation of the classic musical Oklahoma! This is inclusive rethinking and casting at its most innovative.” DeAnn Welker wrote in her review for ArtsWatch back in May. Later in the year, Pollack-Pelzner took a deep dive into the hidden history of Oklahoma! — its origins in a play by Lynn Riggs, a gay Oklahoman of Cherokee descent, and its implications for gender norms and political legitimacy. “The result, however, played as a celebration of love in all its forms—and a radiant celebration at that.”

Love and optimism aren’t always so easy to come by, of course. “With a topic as explosive and polarizing as police violence against civilians, the question isn’t so much how do you find a middle ground, but how do you even begin a conversation?” wrote Bobby Bermea in his thoughtfully hard-hitting look at Cop Out, a series of monologues derived from interviews with police, commissioned and produced by the August Wilson Red Door Project. “Whatever you think about the police, you can’t solve the problem without them. And the public and the police have dramatically different ideas about what the problem even is.”

Views of society aren’t necessarily about conflict. Former Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson pitched in for ArtsWatch, looking at the sugary Broadway musical Waitress and seeing a frisky feminist fable, “the latest manifestation of our fascination with the myths, the magic and the drudgery evoked by images of women waiting on tables.”

MVP

Theater is perhaps the most collaborative of art forms. But however many disparate talents it takes, some individuals stand out. To a degree, that’s true in journalism, too.

Bobby Bermea (front right) gets on the good foot in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

So let’s take a moment to recognize the year that Bobby Bermea has had. Long known as a powerful actor and increasingly as a scrupulous director, Bermea more recently has emerged as a skillful chronicler of the theater as well. In addition to the aforementioned stories on Theatre Vertigo and Cop Out, among other topics, he delved thoroughly and perceptively into:
playwright E.M. Lewis’s epic Antarctic adventure Magellanica,  

the Institute for Contemporary Performance devising a piece about the Donner Party,

the changing perceptions and socio-political resonances of David Mamet.

And still his best work was on the stage, with his spare, muscular, incisive direction of Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror  for Profile Theatre and (alongside his partner Jamie M. Rea) Topdog/Underdog for Street Scenes, as well as searing performances at Artists Rep (as a conflicted auto-factory foreman in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, and as a frustrated son in Between  Riverside and Crazy) and Portland Playhouse (as Gabe, brain-damaged brother/heavenly herald to the central character of August Wilson’s Fences).

Editor’s choice

For all the varied ways that ArtsWatch attempts to get to the essence of theater, there remains something especially valuable about that old standby, the review. So we’ll end this recap with reference to a handful or two, among the many that have helped ArtsWatch readers make sense of what they’ve seen — or might like to see — on stages around the city and the state.

Jacob Coleman takes a leap into comic desperation in the title role of PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” Photo: Owen Carey

“Without a Vanya committed to the comic possibilities in the play, things would have fallen to earth very quickly. Fortunately, Vanya’s in the hands of Jacob Coleman, who can go from drunken unconsciousness to full rant in under five seconds. So distracted by Yelena, so angry at and envious of the professor, so filled with self-disgust, this Vanya dances about, flops around, cajoles lasciviously, drinks heavily, and collapses dangerously, often on his bottom but sometimes in full belly-flop mode. I think of it as clowning of a very high order, because it feels so spontaneous, but Coleman is in service to an idea about the play that he never loses sight of.”

Barry Johnson, executive editor (and our esteemed founder), on Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Uncle Vanya.

 

“Adapting Stark’s book of popular history no doubt presented much greater challenges: locales that ricochet from Manhattan to the Columbia and even to Hawaii, with all manner of treacherous seas and mountain ranges in between; multiple time frames for the sea-going party, the overland party and Astor back East; a large cast of characters with complicated roles and relationships; and most of all, a narrative scope that presents loads of gripping action yet also demands ongoing contextual framing and frequent exposition. There’s just no way this play could deliver what good contemporary theater usually offers: absorbing, fine-grained examination of human emotion and behavior through tightly focused circumstances, yielding poetic allusions to The Way We Live….

Yet there’s so much the piece does so well that it earns admiration for its ambition, affection for its sheer verve, and, yes, patience with its mammoth running time.”

Marty Hughley, theater editor, on Astoria, Part Two at Portland Center Stage.

 

“The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.

I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal.”

Bob Hicks, senior editor, on Milagro Theatre’s Astucias por heredar.

 

“Given the backdrop of Rauch’s departure, the weekend emphasized Rauch’s approach. It highlighted the racism and misogyny in Othello, the consideration of leadership in Henry V, a deeply diverse cast enacting a 19th century novel (Sense and Sensibility), and the riotous celebration and send-up of telenovelas, Destiny of Desire. Taken together, they made a powerful aesthetic case for artistic diversity in all its forms: The audience directly benefits from Rauch’s inclusiveness, because the plays had a sharper edge, a more telling angle, and, ultimately, a deeper truth.”

Barry Johnson, on the opening four shows of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 season.

 

Papa don’t take no mess: Kevin Jones as the battered but proud patriarch of “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young

“Much like the shabby abode behind the chic address, initial appearances can be deceiving here: Deception and/or self-deception is at work with just about every character, in ways it would be a spoiler to outline too thoroughly. Suffice it to say that a sharp comic line from Junior’s perpetually half-dressed girlfriend Lulu (‘Just because I look how I look, that don’t mean I am how I look!’) stealthily delivers a dramatic and thematic key.

In a way, Guirgis — whose similarly slippery play The Motherfucker With the Hat was a hit for Artists Rep in 2014 — fronts a bit, too. His set-up, with the apartment on the line and Pops inveighing against the white rookie cop who shot him eight years prior, could lead you to expect an examination of the big-city housing crunch or police brutality or racism. But although race stays stubbornly at center stage (this is America, after all), the play is more about lineage in terms of personality; about how upbringings and appetites, choices and circumstance clash to both make us who we are and keep us from being who we want to be.”

Marty Hughley, on Between Riverside and Crazy at Artists Rep.

 

“And there is this crucial truth: Watsonville bravely plays a crucial channel that far too many Americans, especially white Americans, routinely tune out. Its fictions reveal some stark facts that are core not only to Americans’ beliefs about who we are and what our collective responsibilities are, but also demand a response to the questions of what we want to be and what we’ll do to get there.”

Bob Hicks, on Watsonville: Some Place Not Here at Milagro Theatre.

 

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

“It’s easy to say what To Fly Again is like: a big dollop of Waiting for Godot; a splash of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author; a jigger of Mad Max; and, as ArtsWatch dance writer Martha Ullman West noted after the show, a few drops of Fellini’s dreamscape La Strada, with Tater in the role of the gamine Giulietta Masina. It’s harder to put into words what To Fly Again is, except to say that it’s playful and serious and gentle and harsh and fluid and prickly and utterly, dreamily theatrical. The play enters into Beckett’s existential territory, a territory where God either does not exist or does not care, and yet in the lighter atmosphere of To Fly Again this seems to matter less either way: the universe spins on.”

Bob Hicks, on Imago Theatre’s To Fly Again.

 

“I and You, the Laura Gunderson play on the boards at Artists Repertory Theatre, is about a couple of teenagers meeting cute and doing their homework. It also is about life and love and death, the transcendent beauty of poetry, and the grand mysteries of existence and connection. I and You is a play with next to nothing in terms of action. It is also a play in which events of the utmost consequence take place. I and You feels wonderfully charming yet slight. It also feels profound yet more than a little irritating.

That this one-act play can have such a dual nature — and such a contradictory one, at that — is due in large part to a surprise narrative twist, very late in its 90-minute run time, that radically alters our understanding of what’s come before it.”

Marty Hughley, on I and You at Artists Rep.

 

“By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale.”

Bob Hicks, on Guys and Dolls at Broadway Rose.

 

The funky verisimilitude of Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design (which features dancers in shadow, like ghosts in the machine) and Sharath Patel’s sound design is practically a character of its own in Artist Rep’s “Skeleton Crew.”

“Through much of Skeleton Crew, the well-built drama currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre, we can hear the machines. One of the play’s characters, a young woman named Shanita, whose fierce work ethic doesn’t crowd out her dreamy nature, talks about the music of the factory, the self-orchestrating noises of everything from the assembly lines where sheet metal gets stamped into car doors to the old refrigerator humming softly in the break room. There’s a musicality, to be sure, about Sharath Patel’s sound design, with its deft mix of ambient noises and industrial-soul hip-hop beatscapes. But more crucially, the subtle symphony of wheezing pumps and clanking metal suggests breath and movement, the restless, rhythmic life force of some great creature.

The further we get into playwright Dominique Morisseau’s tale of the waning days of a Detroit automobile plant, the more we recognize the importance of the factory’s breathing — not for its own sake, as a beast of corporate power — but as the lungs of a community.”

Marty Hughley, on Skeleton Crew at Artists Rep.

 

“Ridley dishes up this tale as a rapid-fire, tag-team recounting by Jill and Ollie to an audience that’s sometimes explicitly acknowledged, even co-opted. In part it’s the couple’s plea for understanding and absolution, but the two of them are so nervously, relentlessly cheerful, and their ethical qualms so readily turned inside out, that their spiel starts to feel more like a recruiting seminar or a timeshare sales pitch.”

Marty Hughley, on Radiant Vermin at CoHo Theatre.

 

“Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.”

Bennett Campbell Ferguson, on Theatre Vertigo’s A Map of Virtue.

 

“Writing at the nadir of McCarthyism, Van Druten presents the witches as feared pariahs who must hide in plain sight, never revealing their true nature to the normals. ‘Have you been engaging in un-American activities?’ a clueless Shep teases Gillian when she considers revealing her true nature to him. ‘No — very American,’ she replies. ‘Early American.’ Without getting preachy or pedantic about it, this production aligns human fear of witches with the repression and homophobia that permeated American culture as much as the midcentury mod furnishings that decorate the set and even the Vault lobby.”

Brett Campbell, senior editor, on Bell, Book & Candle by Bag & Baggage.

 



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