Even though theater is in trouble, both in Oregon and beyond, I still found many memorable moments in the couple dozen or so plays I attended in 2023. I won’t attempt a comprehensive review — ArtsWatch’s excellent theater writers Marty Hughley and Darlene Ortega hit most of my highlights, and many more — but definitely want to offer a mighty shout-out to stellar shows from Shaking the Tree, Fuse, the revitalized Bag&Baggage Productions, HART and many others.
I also encountered one considerable pleasant, non-local surprise: a touring big-name musical that actually offers promise for the musical’s future instead of wallowing in its past. The sugary pop songs of Six, which came to Portland’s Keller Auditorium in July, aren’t necessarily my jam, and I’m generally unmoved by theater that tries to cover sweeping swaths of history rather than focusing on the unities of time and place. And admittedly, the show’s creators never quite figured out how to conclude it, instead whiffing on a tacked-on tie-up that told instead of showing.
But up until then, the sparkling show’s tight pacing, gleeful embrace of the rock concert concept, sly, character-based humor, pop-culture sensibility, and respect for a modern audience’s intelligence and attention span all offer lessons in how to make musicals truly sing for today’s audiences. The proof was also offstage, in the sold-out houses and laughing, cheering, demographically diverse (including much younger than usual) audiences.
Still, my most memorable 2023 theatrical experience came not in Portland, but in Ashland. And not where you’d expect. I wasn’t able to make it to the troubled Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year, but a week after it closed, I ventured a few blocks away to Southern Oregon University for the latest edition of the annual Ashland New Plays Festival, which began 30 years ago. Amid so much bummer news about American theater, I found plenty of hope for its future there.
For a detailed description of the nonprofit festival’s origins and approach, check my ArtsWatch feature and review of last year’s festival. Briefly: The plays are curated by the community, with dozens of volunteers (most from Southern Oregon) reading, cumulatively, hundreds of script submissions, discussing them in groups, winnowing them down to a dozen, from which Artistic Director Jackie Apodaca, an SOU theater professor, then chooses the final group.
This year only three made it to SOU’s Main Stage Theater, where each received two staged readings (no props, sets or costumes, with actors standing in place or seated in chairs on stage, scripts in hand) over the weekend of October 19-22.
Many of the actors are professionals from OSF and beyond, directed by experienced professional directors, so performance quality is uniformly compelling. Each performance is followed by a Q&A session featuring the playwrights, directors, and cast members.
As before, I came away impressed by the audience members’ insightful questions and responses. The festival no doubt owes some of its high degree of engagement and conversation to the fact that many audience members actually participated in the curation process. They really are the secret sauce of ANPF’s success.
Because of the single-weekend run and limited rehearsal time, and because these are staged readings of scripts still in development, it’d be unfair to provide a standard review of these productions. (Don’t let that discourage you from attending: Good staged readings can be more powerful than full productions, as Shaking The Tree’s recent offering of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and numerous Fertile Ground Festival of New Works shows have proved.) But all three scripts — which coincidentally revolved around interfamily interactions — offered plenty of worthwhile ideas that merit further development, along with a few shortcomings. Here’s an overview of what I saw, aimed at helping the playwrights take their work to the next stage.
The strongest audience response erupted after Ashland, which admittedly had a home court advantage: Minneapolis-based Ashland native Isabel Estelle’s play drew old friends and fans from the playwright’s home state. There’s nothing in the script that necessarily binds the story specifically to Oregon, although the setting does require both a mountain and legal acceptance of death with dignity laws. Estelle, who received a standing O as she took the stage before the post-show Q&A, is telling a universal story about family.
This one is thrown into turmoil by a young woman’s sudden terminal illness diagnosis, as her siblings and new partner negotiate their own and each other’s complex, conflicting, and, as her condition progresses over a summer in Ashland, evolving responses to the imminent trauma. All love the dying woman in their own way, and all must reconcile her needs with their own — denial, closure, acceptance and more.
Because they’re all drawn as fundamentally good and loving people, serious conflict seldom flares. Given that the action is set in the Northwest (think Oregon/Minnesota nice) rather than, say, the South, over-the-top emoting would run the risk of melodramatic inauthenticity. But that also means the tension feels a little muted, despite the magnitude of the stakes. And the flashback finale coda proved not just anachronistic but also anticlimactic. Still, there’s plenty of drama in the tough physical and emotional realities expertly detailed here.
Estelle also commendably keeps the action tight and moving (in both senses), which further avoids wallowing in grief, but also leaves a couple of characters (the protagonist’s sister and a hospice nurse) somewhat underdrawn. The current version also seems to need an additional backstory scene that might set up the ferocity of the protagonist’s partner’s resistance to her lover’s chosen course. While I too often find contemporary dramas overly didactic or just too darn long, I enjoyed these characters so much that I’d trade a bit more length to achieve greater depth.
Even if Ashland mostly eschews dramatic fireworks, it finds surprising power in, of all places, its, er, dead-on use of humor. “Grief and humor are inseparable to me,” Estelle explained in a program note, “because dying is such an absurd, unceremonious thing, it’s impossible for it not to be funny.” Ashland’s humor reflects how real people (especially the protagonist’s brother) often deal with grief, and gives the audience a break from what could have been strictly a weep-fest. “It’s about taking care of the people you love,” director Caroline Shaffer noted in the post-show Q&A. “Humor is part of that.”
Of course, tears do emerge, on stage and off — but they’re earned, not wrung forth by easy sentimentality. Death is something we all must face sooner or later, and Ashland skillfully and movingly navigates the difficult, uncertain emotional terrain between toughness and tenderness, poignance and laughter, living and dying. I hope other theaters, especially in Oregon, will produce it.
Both Ashland and New York playwright Bleu Beckford-Burrell’s Lyons Pride share a similar setup — siblings who don’t always align. Each also contains a fun family dance scene. But they differ drastically in just about every other way. As cast here, the former is white, the latter Black Jamaican immigrants. While Ashland’s characters, like the dormant volcano of nearby Mt. Shasta, hold a lot inside, the Lyons roar. Estelle does a lot more showing than telling; it’s the reverse with Beckford-Burrell. Although end-of-life care can be expensive, Ashland avoids financial implications, while class issues suffuse Lyon’s Pride — a near-universal issue that far too many American plays unfortunately avoid entirely. And where Ashland flashes almost too quickly over its interpersonal intricacies, Lyon’s Pride basks in them over its two and half hour run time, nearly twice as long as Estelle’s show.
At the post-show Q&A, the first-generation Jamaican-American actor/playwright explained its ambitious if overstuffed structure: It started out as a different story entirely, some of which she folded into (or more accurately, stitched onto) Lyons Pride, which itself is part of what looks to be a fascinating, complex larger cycle involving the same family.
What really drives the action here is money: who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it to survive. That gives rise to themes about how the need for money can conflict with pride and dignity, and how people can make tough situations even harder on themselves as a result. In that sense, Lyon’s Pride traces its lineage of financially struggling families back through other American classics, from Clifford Odets to Arthur Miller to August Wilson.
I especially appreciated Beckford-Burrell’s nuanced depiction of differing attitudes toward money and class among immigrant families of different generations and arrival times. But too often, those attitudes, and even some characterizations, were conveyed through sometimes didactic declamation, rather than via dramatic action.
The male characters mostly remain underdeveloped, representing points of view or idealized objects more than fully realized people. Yet Beckford-Burrell draws such vivid, memorable, funny (especially the character of Queen), flawed, real female characters that they invite actors (all superb here) to flesh them out and make audiences want to spend more time with them. If later incarnations of this family dramedy can shed some superfluous subplots and tighten the focus on those compelling figures, I’ll gladly return to their messy and moving portrayals of the complexity of family love.
Immigration, class conflict, assisted suicide … the festival’s community curators apparently, and admirably, favored plays that addressed contemporary social issues. And there’s none more urgent than the impending human-caused climate catastrophe. Long Time Coming laudably strives to show why some 20th century Americans who actually had the power to shape the future made — and are still making — morally deplorable choices that jeopardize their children’s future. The story, which involves yet another interfamily interplay, ping pongs between 2124 and 2024, and, we gradually learn, revolves around events from decades earlier that contributed to present and future disasters.
As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, I admired Los Angeles-based playwright Weston Gaylord’s smooth, organic integration of futuristic details though action and judicious passing references, a hallmark of compelling SF since the middle of the last century but too often missing when dabbling writers unfamiliar with that heritage clumsily try to incorporate speculative elements.
Gaylord knows his science. The Seattle native, who describes himself as “a writer and mixed-reality creative technologist,” majored in Symbolic Systems with a focus in Human-Computer Interaction at Stanford University, and in his day job creates mixed-reality installations and other dramatic works that center science. Here, he even imagines how language might gradually evolve (plausibly based on texting and other contemporary expressions), yet, in the tradition of writers like Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban, keeps the meaning clear.
Communication is a major theme. The main future characters (who are descendants of their present-day counterparts) make their living as “Tellers” in a post-apocalyptic future. They recount from memory what used to be stored digitally before the big disaster(s), which are referenced but wisely not detailed: We all can too easily imagine what they might be.
However useful that skill might be in 2124, and as intriguing as the world Gaylord imagines can be, all that telling doesn’t make for very riveting 21st century stage action. In fact, most of the play consists of one character sometimes tediously telling another about a whole lotta stuff that happened a long time ago, almost like an old bardic ballad. But at least the old bards had music to make the info go down easier.
Admittedly, it’s a tough challenge to dramatize the systemic forces that threaten civilizational collapse, which don’t always lend themselves to simplistic hero vs. villain conflicts. But that’s a prime task facing 21st century playwrights. We desperately need them to address crucial social issues in a humane way that journalism and even other art forms can’t. Kudos to Gaylord, Beckford-Burrell, Estelle and ANPF’s community curators for taking on that vital challenge.
At a moment when that other, more famous Ashland theatrical institution is receiving so much blowback from some of its legacy audiences, in part for its recent perceived turn from historical to contemporary focus, it’s inspiring to see so many Ashland theater lovers, of all generations, demanding dramas that speak to our fraught present — and future.
Dates for next year’s Ashland New Plays Festival haven’t been announced yet. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for information on ANPF 2024.