Theater: A little murder, a little politics. What’s the dif?

Nevan Richard as the dastardly Demetrius in “Kubiki Titus.” Photo courtesy Bag & Baggage

With a ritualized lop-lop and a sadistic snip, there go poor Lavinia’s hands and tongue. And with the bright heat of television cameras overstimulating their delicate innards, a pair of politically potent turkeys explode all over the White House walls.

Splat! Welcome to greater Portland’s summer of theatrical overstatement.

That’s not a criticism, just a description. In their exceedingly different ways, Bag & Baggage’s Kabuki Titus and Jane: A Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s broad comedy November revel in the sort of exaggeration that is one of theater’s most enduring strengths, pushing human behavior to an extreme that reveals its dark undercurrents.

Dark, and funny, too. Grotesquery may be horrifying, but it’s also inherently comic, as storytellers from Hieronymus Bosch to Alfred Hitchcock have understood, and while neither of these projects hits those heights, they understand the territory. The world as we know it is ending. Ain’t that a kick?

*

 A lot of productions of Titus Andronicus play the thing almost strictly for laughs. As B&B director Scott Palmer notes in the program for Kabuki Titus, Shakespeare’s early revenge drama features: “14 killings (9 of them on stage). 6 severed limbs. 2 acts of violation. 1 live burial. 1 case of insanity. 2 acts of cannibalism involving meat pies. 1 act of a father killing his son.” Faced with such over-the-top material, laughter is both a logical defense mechanism and a fair reaction to the logistical unlikelihood of it all.

Palmer’s own approach in his highly ritualized and slimmed-down adaptation, Kabuki Titus, is different. Instead of playing up the brutality he actually cuts it down, tossing out characters and incidents in quest of a sleek visual storyline that carries a fatalistic emotional punch. Out go the atrocities – quite a few of them, anyway. Those people pies don’t make, you should pardon the expression, the cut. For that particular theatrical snack you’re going to have to wait until September, when Portland Center Stage kicks off its 25th season with Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Palmer emerges with something elemental and stylized, a fusion that links Shakespeare, traditional Japanese performance and, in feeling if not in specific gesture, classic Greek theater. The gore becomes less gratuitous than mythic. Something bigger than life is going on here, and the fact that it’s played out in a public space – the amphitheater-shaped outdoor plaza of downtown Hillsboro’s Tom Hughes Civic Center – emphasizes the story’s ritualistic roots.

Boice and Mueller, aghast and mutilated. Photo courtesy B&B

Bag & Baggage’s lean production runs less than an hour and a half with no intermission, and though the setup takes too long things quickly pick up steam. I’d be surprised if Palmer hadn’t had the films of Akira Kurosawa in mind when he was creating his adaptation, especially Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s noh-steeped adaptation of Macbeth. Once Anne Mueller, playing Titus’s unfortunate daughter Lavinia, enters the stage the performance suggests another movie parallel, the movement poetics of the great silent films. Mueller, a recently retired principal dancer for Oregon Ballet Theatre, has no lines: how could Lavinia speak, with her tongue cut out? Yet when she floats delicately onto the scene she immediately becomes the most vital reason to see this show. The production springs into an altered reality, elevating from what had been a sometimes strained approximation of kabuki movement into the sort of time-altering dream-state that ritual requires.

Ty Boice makes a compelling Titus, a masterful soldier whose weakness turns out to be his mercy, until it’s not. The pared-down cast also features Benjamin Farmer as Titus’s loyal brother, Marcus; Melissa Murray as the savage Queen Tamora; Brenden McFarland and Nevan Richard as Tamora’s sadistic sons; and a couple of hooded messengers/set movers. Composer Tylor Neist and his live ensemble including violin, viola, cello, flute, koto and percussion provide excellent accompaniment, underscoring (literally) the show’s silent-movie feel, and Melissa Heller’s costume designs and Addie Underwood’s essential makeup provide the distinctive lush yet simple look.

But in the end this is Lavinia’s, and Mueller’s, show, culminating in the sort of unfathomable tragedy that, like Medea or Oedipus Rex, raises more questions than answers. Why must Lavinia, already mutilated beyond imagining, die to atone for  her “shame”? Well, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in the world of myth.

No joke.

*

Promotional photos for November feature Brian Harcourt, as a venal and grossly unpopular leader of the free world, wearing a pair of old-fashioned braces to hold up his presidential pants.

Turns out, they’re the suspenders of disbelief.

Snap ’em good. You’re going to need to suspend an awful lot of disbelief when watching Mamet’s 2008 lampoon. November is almost more a hyperextended Saturday Night Live sketch than a serious addition to a theatrical resume that includes the likes of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. This is not, to put it mildly, a work of great dramatic art. You get the sense that Mamet was just having a great big goof.

Courtesy Jane: A Theater Company

But it’s pretty darned funny, especially as we move into the hyperbolic excesses of the presidential political campaign season, and director Elizabeth Huffman keeps the farcical wheels well-oiled: the thing has bounce. Even a passing knowledge of recent American political history has prepared us well for the plump ducks Mamet sets up in his comic shooting range.

So we get lame-duck prexy Charles Smith (Harcourt), a whiny little improbability headed toward almost certain defeat in his reelection bid, who at this point in his abject failure of a career wants little more than a tidy wad of cash and a presidential library as a monument to his importance. The play came out as George W. Bush was approaching the end of his presidency, and Harcourt gives his character a bit of a broad Texas twist, but President Smith really seems more reminiscent of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s bribe-happy and slogan-spewing but otherwise vacant vice president. Eager as he is to walk home with a big payoff for his years in public service, Smith never seems to have learned the proper employment of machine-politics muscle for personal profit, as explained by the legendary Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: the difference between honest graft and dishonest graft.

Then the turkey guy walks in. The Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey Products Manufacturers (Lior Zadok) arrives at the inner sanctum to complete the annual quid pro quo: the president “pardons” a turkey, reminding all good Americans what’s going to landing soon on their Thanksgiving dinner table, and the president gets a nice little payoff.

Except that, what with the terrible poll numbers, and the gay marriage debate, and the Chinese baby adoption market, and the avian flu, and the Indian casinos, this year it doesn’t work out quite that way. But enough about plot.

Harcourt plays the idiot president with the sly broadness of a Family Guy cartoon, and the fact that he bears a passing physical resemblance to Portland mayor Sam Adams doesn’t hurt the comic possibilities. He’s balanced quite wonderfully by the cool silences of Corey Brunish as Archer Brown, the president’s cynical and manipulative personal attorney, who’s assured enough in his position that he can, and will, say anything. “What is it that people don’t like about me?” Smith whines at one point. “That you’re still here,” Brown replies.

Between these two political poles slides Kim Bogus as Clarice Bernstein, the president’s harried and deeply talented lesbian speechwriter, who is improbably devoted to this empty suit even though she sees the raw material of his ineptitude every day. Zadok as the turkey guy and Nathan Dunkin as the angry spokesman for the Indian nations (he wants Nantucket Island returned so he can build a casino on it) pitch their grenades into the puddle, too.

Director Huffman is on a bit of a roll, with her recent production of Oedipus el Rey at Miracle Theatre and her starring role in Steven Wolfson’s one-woman show You Belong to Me at CoHo. Brunish is on a roll, too, having recently picked up a Tony Award as a producer on Broadway of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and also playing a producing role in the Broadway shows Bonnie and Clyde and Peter and the Starcatcher. That the two hot streaks came together on November is, well, a bit of a lark. The play’s too cartoony to have anything serious to say about the state of American politics, and it doesn’t even shed much light on Mamet’s much talked-about conversion to conservative political thought: as far as serious analysis of the political process goes, there’s just not enough there there. If anything, it suggests that Mamet feels like walking away from the whole mess: a pox on all their houses.

But that might be overanalyzing. November is what it is: an odd but bracing little goof that embraces the great American passion for ridiculing the casual venality and mock sincerity of politics. Things’ll get heavier and heavier as November approaches. Right now the sun’s out, the jokes are flying, and the targets are as fat and juicy as they’re likely to get. Bring your pop gun. Bag yourself a politician. Seems they’re in season.

*

NOTE: You can read Marty Hughley’s excellent review of Kabuki Titus for The Oregonian here, and Richard Wattenberg’s of November here.

Comments are closed.