Marty Hughley

 

Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

20 years in, Triangle's lean and direct production starring Dale Johannes brings a landmark musical back to life

Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summer Shakes into view

Summer arrives on the wings of Shakespeare and lands in Ashland

In a recent TV ad, pretty young folks in swimwear cluster on a beach while one of their ilk thrusts a hand into a cooler. They look on expectantly, until he fishes a beer from amid the ice, then rejoice at the news he offers: “Summer is here!” The tell-tale sign, we’re told, is that the beer is in its “summer can.”

This, apparently, is how morons recognize the change of seasons.

Summer starts when summer starts—that is, at the solstice (3:07 a.m., next Thursday, should you have some pagan ritual to plan). But there are other markers in the popular imagination, such as Memorial Day (for the truly anxious), the last day of school, or, in Portland, the end of the rains of Rose Festering.

“You kiss by the book.” Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But if we orient ourselves around what really matters, we know that summer starts this weekend with the opening of three plays in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

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Lady Day, in a bar, with a band

Deidrie Henry is terrific as the great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a musical bio that isn't quite fish or fowl

Near the beginning of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened last Friday at Portland Center Stage, Deidrie Henry, portraying the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, ascends a staircase in the middle of the stage, wearing an elegant white dress, long white silk gloves and a black fur coat, moving slowly, wearily, like an apparition with bad knees. She coughs. Then, still pushing up the last steps, she begins to sing: “All I know is that I love you…”

A couple of hours later, the opening-night party was well under way in the Armory’s second-floor lobby as Henry ascended another staircase. Before she could wade into the crowd, the entire place seemed to turn toward her at once and break into a fresh round of applause, even after the standing ovation at show’s end. All they knew — or at least one salient thing they knew — was that they loved her.

Deidrie Henry, up close and personal. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

And that’s as it should be. Henry is a well-traveled actor familiar to Northwest audiences from a handful of seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and previous shows at PCS. Her performance here is strong, polished, nuanced, affecting, pretty darn hard not to love. She expresses a variety of facets of what we might expect Billie Holiday’s character and affect to have been — by turns charming, willful, sarcastic, aggrieved, flirtatious, caustically funny, melancholy, tired, sick, and both emotionally and pharmacologically messed up. Her singing is rich, warm, expressive.

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DramaWatch: two great musicals

This week features openings of two of the best musicals in the past 20 years: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "The Light in the Piazza"

There are those among us who — brace yourself for this — dislike musicals. Perhaps they hate them, with an active, withering passion, but more likely they simply dismiss the form altogether as sentimental or soapy or sappy or just stupid.

Theater folk understand how much craft and care and sheer intelligence of various sorts it takes to make a musical actually work, but anyway … The form’s detractors can find plenty of ammo for their view (Cats, anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., etc.). A bad musical can be as dreadful as art gets.

And yet.

Do it right and the thrill is magnificent. Do it boldly and creatively, taking the form in new directions, and the overall effect is something that I’d argue is hard to duplicate in any sort of entertainment.

Dale Johannes in Triangle’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Photo: Henry Liu

This week in Portland we get new local productions of two of the most boldly creative, and thrilling musicals of the past 20 years.

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I & You and the unexpected twist

Boy meets girl and both meet Walt Whitman in Artists Rep's newest. But what about that surprise jolt before it ends?

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.

But first, there’s a project due for American lit class.

Emily Eisele, Blake Stone, and Walt Whitman in the bedroom. Photo: Russell J Young

Anthony shows up out of the blue, through the bedroom doorway of Caroline. They’re high school classmates but don’t know each other, in part because Caroline has been increasingly ill and is studying (somewhat half-heartedly) from home while she awaits an organ transplant. Anthony arrives unannounced to collaborate on an assignment Caroline hasn’t even bothered to notice, a presentation on the use of pronouns in the poetry of Walt Whitman.

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DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

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