A late autumn night’s dream: magic, mixups, and who we are

Evocations of the Other in 'Midsummer Night,' 'Ephemory' and 'No ... You Shut Up'

Tim True, Linda Alper, Andy Lee-Hilstrom, Daisuke Tsuji, Todd Van Voris, Damon Kupper. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

 

Like a music lover waiting eagerly for a certain shift of cadence in a well-known symphony, I always look forward to that moment in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when Titania, queen of the fairies, wakes from her drug-induced slumber and first sets eyes on donkey-headed Bottom. O revelation! O feckless bliss! Her world turns!

This is a moment of high comedy, the mirror-opposite of the illusion-shattering moment when the little boy pipes up and breaks the spell in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and actors generally milk it for all it’s worth. It’s the moment when the illusion is born, when sense becomes nonsense and any attachment to reality (which is already tenuous, considering that we’ve been frolicking in the forest of the faeries) disappears. Since the audience understands this but neither Titania nor Bottom does, the joke rises and bubbles and takes off.

Yet as funny as it is, the moment also holds a seed of sadness: we’re watching ourselves, or our theatrical stand-ins, in our most addled and ill-advised of states. This moment of faux falling in love, it seems to me, is a quintessential artistic illustration of our capacity for self-deception. We can call it “magic,” and in the play it is, but it strikes me that magic, like hypnotism, won’t work if the capacity for deception, or betrayal, or wickedness, or call it what you will, isn’t already lurking somewhere deep inside, waiting to be awakened. Something within Titania finds itself attracted to this utter ass of a mortal man, and though that something’s usually deeply and safely buried, it’s there nonetheless. The same holds true for the young lovers who hop from infatuation to infatuation under the spell of the drug: Hermia and Helena and Lysander and Demetrius are a mixup of affections and attractions (the boys, predictably, more so than the girls, who seem to know what and who they want), or the magic wouldn’t work. True love is never entirely true. Selfishness and the illusion of adventure persist. We are attracted to, and also repelled by, the idea of the Other.

Maybe it’s the recent national election, may it rest in peace. But in a race that seemed to hinge on one side’s almost pathological reluctance to entertain the notion of the “other” as anything other than “other” – the reprehensible and misguided 47 percent of “takers,” the “lockstep” African Americans and Hispanics who represented a “problem” to be overcome rather than a partnership to be embraced, the homosexuals who would be wed – “Midsummer” seems an intriguing metaphor for our national muddle of fractured self-identity. With its donkey-headed weaver and scrambled lovers and bickering royals and cries of cultural doom (the young lovers essentially do the equivalent of running off to live in Canada), Shakespeare’s comedy seems to root around in the murky undergrowth below our invasive shrubbery of twisted intentions and strange bedfellowings, and unearth some of the muck of our national malaise. Who are “we,” what is “they”? If we don’t understand “them,” and why we think what we think about “them,” how do we understand ourselves – especially if “ourselves,” in the larger sense, encompasses “them”? Is it possible, it feels reasonable to ask, that the Indian changeling boy might be something more than an exotic prize to be won; that he might actually have a central role to play in the deciding of his own fate?

Whether such questions are truly embedded in the play (and I think they are) or are simply extrapolations from a culturally restive mind, they seem to rise naturally from Portland Center Stage’s lush and charming new production of “Midsummer,” which is directed by the former Oregon Shakespeare Festival mainstay Penny Metropulos and features talented performers and designers gathered from here (Portland), there (Ashland) and everywhere (Chicago, California). The production has an easy, almost regal flow, organically blending sight, sound and action into an invigorating, pleasurable, and mostly seamless whole. For the few who haven’t experienced “Midsummer” before, it’s a clear and lovely introduction to one of the greatest comedies ever written. For old “Midsummer” hands, it explores the play’s nooks and crannies with illuminating and satisfying charm.

The production’s look is both comfortingly familiar and challengingly diverse. Michael Vaughn Sims’ set, with its hanging picture-frames and gnarly-rooted trees, has that classic fairy-tale sense of being realer than real, a landscape that’s not just alive but also strangely sentient. Diane Ferry Williams’ lighting gives the set a refracted Arthur Rackham or Kay Nielsen glow; Deborah M. Dryden, who has just retired after many years as resident costume designer at the Shakespeare fest in Ashland, wittily blends periods and attitudes, from Elizabethan to Goth to James Dean punk, into an inexplicably congruent whole. (Could it be she’s figured out the inclusive part of this whole “other” thing?)

A few things struck me, as a veteran of more “Midsummers” than I can count, about this one in particular.

First, Metropulos took care to cast the young lovers as very different from one another, not peas in a pod. Ty Boice’s young-rebel Lysander and Joel Gelman’s buttoned-down junior executive of a Demetrius would dislike each other even if they weren’t rivals in love; Kayla Lian’s barking Chihuahua of a Hermia and Jenni Putney’s festering Rottweiler of a Helena may be from the same species (which accounts for their supposed friendship) but have fundamentally differing personalities. This makes the quarreling more plausible, and adds a suggestive undertone to the loveplay: opposites repel, but they also attract.

Second, Ashland vet Daisuke Tsuji’s circus background gets an amusing workout in his performance of Puck, who “can put a girdle round about the earth” in 40 minutes. On a slow and moony night, he’s the speed demon who keeps the action rolling: at one point he leaps deftly backward between the roots of one of Sims’s gnarly trees, disappearing like a stray thought. Tsuji also lends the show a wayward operatic air, now and again breaking out mid-speech into song, or at least recitative, and adding an unexpected layer of melodrama to the stylistic fantasy.

Third, I found myself viewing the story mainly (and unusually) through the eyes of the two sets of royals, Titania and Oberon and Hippolyta and Theseus. This is partly because Dana Green and Richard Baird, who played both pairs of sparring lovers, seemed to be most at ease with the language, giving the poetry room to roam but never allowing it to overrule the stress and meaning of the text. They sounded elevated, natural, and dramatically expressive – the Shakespearean trifecta – and both also acted physically with precision and ease. It also struck me, particularly with Theseus and Hippolyta, that other-ness was central to their relationship, and that fact seemed a key to the play. Hippolyta, remember, was an Amazon queen, defeated in battle by Theseus and then, contrary to expectation, drawn to him in a union of romantic and personal parity. In their case, the “other” becomes the “one,” a stronger and more elastic if less comfortable “one,” with lofty political, cultural and personal ramifications. Republicans and Democrats, take note. (Side observation: In Greek mythology, Hippolyta’s father, the war god Ares, gave her a magical girdle. Did Shakespeare borrow that idea and hand it off to Puck?)

Fourth, my one important regret: I wanted to see the lovers at least struggle against the magic when Puck misapplied it and turned the objects of their affections in the wrong directions. This wish goes along with my understanding of the play as a matter of a struggle between warring dominant and recessive desires inside each of the major characters: an “othering,” if you will, of the self. Demetrius, remember, believed himself in love with Helena until Hermia came along. There was something real in that. And surely Lysander doesn’t find the prospect of having Helena as a lover entirely disgusting. Yet considering that Hermia is his soulmate, I’d expect him to at least hesitate a little against the power of the magic. But here, the juju’s unstoppable: one little whiff and the lovers’ heads are spun completely around. This bothers me even though I concede that sometimes in Shakespeare, you have to simply accept what happens, illogical as it seems. King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale,” for instance, develops a sudden, fierce, and entirely unwarranted jealousy of his wife and his great childhood friend. Why? Well, because it says so, that’s why.

This is such a charming and well-integrated cast that I can’t slip away without applauding the rest: the cannily cornpone James Newcomb as a neighing ass of a Bottom; Linda Alper, flexing her farcical muscles, as Quince; Todd Van Voris as a sweetly meek Robin Starveling; Damon Kupper as Snout; Andy Lee-Hillstrom as Flute; Tim True as Snug; and Dylan Earhart, who plays a mean toy piano, as the Changeling Boy. (The mechanicals double, quite winningly, as the fairies.)

***

Sometimes the strangers we don’t understand are those closest to us. Our parents, perhaps. Perhaps the simple yet all but impermeable barriers of time. “Ephemory,” Miriam Feder’s semi-autobiographical new play continuing through Nov. 25 at the little Headwaters Theatre in deep North Portland, is the affecting tale of a middle-aged daughter coming to grips with the failing memory and inevitably approaching death of her aged mother, and at the same time learning for the first time in depth about the astonishing if largely anonymous story of her Jewish mother’s escape from Nazi Germany and eager embrace of the American way of life.

Collage courtesy Such a Production

The ignorance of children about their parents’ lives before the children existed is common. The effort to break through and understand is quietly remarkable. “Ephemory” is a jigsaw puzzle of a play, with most of its pieces hiding in the past, and it has a documentary, reportorial quality – but a kind of reporting in which the author is intimately and unapologetically part of the story. “As my Mother exhaled her last breath,” Feder writes in her program notes, “I suddenly felt both the permission to work with her story and the urgency to do so.”

Feder’s stand-in, as Ruth, the grown daughter sorting through the memorabilia in her mother’s home and the increasingly shaky memories in her mind, is played with quiet openness by Alana Byington: a little frustrated, a little astonished, a little guilt-ridden, a little dictatorial, but always wanting to learn and understand. Carolyn Marie Monroe is eager and winningly brash as the young Carole, breaking from her home in Germany and embracing the opportunities in the teeming city of New York.  Kaycheri Rappaport plays Carole as an old woman, forgetful and fitfully lucid but happy, all in all, with the life she’s led. Chris Shields and Amanda Mehl take on a variety of roles, and the adaptable David Mitchum Brown marches manfully through all of the male roles, from old-world father to new-world lover to soldier and latter-day husband.

What seems remarkable about “Ephemory,” which is directed by Debbie Lamedman, is that Carole’s story isn’t remarkable – or rather, that it’s remarkable in a way that so many immigrants’ tales are, especially the stories of those who found safety from the horrors of the Holocaust, whether they left before, during or after. Carole is one of the fortunate ones, and one of the many whose loss to Europe was America’s gain.

It’s not so much the role of art to challenge the politics of identity as it is the nature of art to explore it. Who are we? How did we get that way? Why do we think and feel the way we do? Yes, art can be didactic, but when it is, it usually lessens itself. In a human sense, politics can only follow where art has already explored. The great American symbol of inclusion, the Statue of Liberty – also known as the “Mother of Exiles” – implores the world to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In many millions of stories like this, that remains the hope and strength of this immigrant nation – not border fences and exclusionary politics. Because, after all, the Other is Us.

***

Comedy on the razor’s edge. Courtesy Lauren Weedman

On Saturday night I drove to Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood to catch Lauren Weedman’s late-show performance of her monologue “No … You Shut Up.” It was unfortunately a short run, and Sunday’s performance was the last. So let’s just say, in case you missed it: Weedman’s a very funny woman.

Many Portlanders first saw her last year when she performed her solo show “Busted” at Portland Center Stage. She was so intrigued by her stay in town that she decided to write a show about life in our peculiar little corner of civilization. “The People’s Republic of Portland,” which she’s developing now, will premiere at Center Stage at the end of this season, April 30-June 9. Watch out, Portlanders: Weedman might very well put more than a bird on it. If “No … You Shut Up” is any indication, it’ll be more than bright and cute and safely quirky. Weedman’s got teeth, and she’s not afraid to use them.

Doing a solo show is like dancing on a razor blade: you’ve got to move fast and light or you’re gonna get hurt. There’s no place to hide, and you’ve got to be “on” without a lull: If you let the audience’s attention flag for a moment, you could lose them for good. Sometimes it’s closer to standup comedy than traditional theater, but it calls on both kinds of skills, and Weedman’s extremely good at them: we don’t see performers with her kind of physical and vocal focus and adaptability very often.

I’m not sure how much Weedman sticks to the facts of her own life in her solo shows, but I suspect that, like “Ephemory,” a lot of “No … You Shut Up” is autobiographical. And what begins as standard late-night TV joking – Weedman’s the protypical motormouth, a regular Lucille Ball with an attitude, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and then having to try to clean up the mess she’s made – morphs ever so subtly into something much more tender and revealing. The laughs and the shocks are here, but in service to a fascinating and touching personal story. It involves adoption neuroses and a couple of split-ups and a widower with teen-agers and an “unadoptable” kid and a nightmare visit to the potential in-laws and, finally, a self-realization, or maybe a self-determination, that opens things up. Sometimes we, ourselves, are the “other” we don’t understand, but with a little effort we can stumble through. Laura, meet Laura. She’s actually pretty cool.

 

NOTES:

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the dance version, gets a run in town this weekend: The young dancers of The Portland Ballet, accompanied by several professional guest artists, bring back choreographer John Clifford’s version with live accompaniment by the Portland State University Orchestra of Felix Mendelssohn’s enchanting score, Friday through Sunday at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Details here.

Holly Johnson’s review of Center Stage’s “Midsummer” for The Oregonian is here.

Win Goodbody’s review of Center Stage’s “Midsummer” in Portland Theatre Scene is here.

Mitch Lillie’s review of “Ephemory” for Willamette Week is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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