THEATER

DramaWatch: It’s Bath Night, kids

Former "Live Wire" star Sean McGrath is back in town, getting ready for a run of sketch comedy. Plus "Hair" and other openings.

During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now? 

“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V

Lori Ferraro and Todd Van Voris in rehearsal for Bath Night sketch comedy.

He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”

Continues…

Are we what we hoard? Anti consumerist phenomena like the minimalist living movement warn us of the dangers of our stuff. Our desire for it can keep us from finding our own meaning, or at least enjoying the things that really matter. 

In their crisp, moving show Tonight Nothing,which enjoyed a brief run at Portland’s CoHo Theater the last weekend in July, creator/performers Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis see the stuff we can’t let go of as symbols, even talismans, of our past experiences and personalities. (Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.) The question for their characters, Kaye and Em, is whether they hold us back, or help us figure out who we really are. It’s not about the stuff — it’s about the people who carry it with them.

Clark & Lewis in ‘Tonight Nothing.’ Photo: Steve Brian.

In a series of vignettes interspersed with letters spoken aloud to the audience by each actor to each other, we see Kaye and Em’s close friendship evolve, from college through various  life changes — marriages, birth, love affairs. As their decade-long conversation proceeds through periods together and apart, both physically and emotionally, we see how very different these friends are — and how their friendship abides those differences.

Continues…

DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

*

The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

*

Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

*

“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

*

The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

*

Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

*

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Ed Asner: On politics and performing

The actor, who will perform in Newport next month, talks about the political environment, favorite roles and what it's like to be working at 89 years old

In about 10 days, Ed Asner will take the stage at the Newport Performing Arts Center in the play God Help Us!  The 90-minute show is described as “a political comedy for our times, and centers on two opposite-leaning pundits who are transported to purgatory by the Supreme Being himself for the purpose of debating today’s political and social issues.”

Asner, as God, will be joined on stage by four local actors for the two-night run, Aug. 10-11. Performances will benefit the performing arts center’s capital campaign. Tickets are available here.

Ed Asner, who says a real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist, characterizes the current political environment as “like the monkeys escaped the zoo.” Photo by: Tim Leyes
Ed Asner, who says a real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist, characterizes the current political environment as “like the monkeys escaped the zoo.” Photo by: Tim Leyes

I spoke with the seven-time Emmy-award winner by phone from his California home.  We talked about the play, politics, favorite roles and what it’s like to be working at 89 years old.

I’ve heard you described as the last real Democrat. How did you earn that title and can you talk about how God Help Us! relates to the current political scene?

Asner: I was born in 1929, so it was good year to be christened a Democrat. I come from Kansas City, Kansas, so we were vastly outnumbered. You had to learn to fight dirty and fight hard. I felt like the last living Democrat. A real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist. I like it. I think Americans were shucked into equating socialism with communism. People have been placed badly by that equation. They’ve screwed themselves. Until they get over that prejudice, our social progress will be slow.

How do you feel about the current political environment?

It’s like the monkeys escaped the zoo.

Can you share your thoughts on art/theater as a medium for resistance?

I’m delighted that artists have played a prominent role in creating resistance and continue to do so.

Continues…

Arden Forest comes to Yamhill County

And just to the south, you'll find Elsinore, as a Bard-filled weekend offers outdoor productions of "As You Like It" and "Hamlet"

Before we get to this week’s most exciting theater opening — an open-air production of As You Like It — let’s quickly cast our gaze just south of Yamhill County, where an intriguing Hamlet will be found. 

Western Oregon University keeps Shakespeare alive in the summer with free outdoor productions by its Valley Shakespeare Company. This year, WOU’s David Janoviak is directing Hamlet on the campus’s outdoor Leinwand stage. Valley Shakespeare shows offer a mix of student, faculty, community, and professional guest artists.

Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell
Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell, courtesy Valley Shakespeare Company

This is Janoviak’s fifth Hamlet. He’s played the Prince of Denmark twice, both in school and professionally, and he’s played Laertes twice, for professional companies in Utah and Texas. For this Hamlet, he’s going with a 2017 WOU graduate in the lead, Janelle Rae, who uses the pronouns they/them.

“Someone once said that you don’t simply decide to do Hamlet and then hold auditions to cast the title role,” he said. “You discover the actor first and then take on the project.  That was the case with Janelle.” The fact that Rae is female, he said, didn’t really cross his mind.

Continues…

DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

Continues…

‘The Graduate’ on the edge

The #MeToo movement raises challenges for Gallery Theater's production of the 1960s tale of seduction and the American dream

The hottest theater ticket in Yamhill County this week is unquestionably at Gallery Players of Oregon in McMinnville, where a three-week run of The Graduate (yes, that Graduate) opens Friday.

Terry Johnson’s adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel (which became an award-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman) will be performed in the Arena, the smaller of Gallery’s two stages with seating for about 80. Inside the company, it’s known as a venue for Gallery’s edgy productions — plays that might offend, or lesser known plays not expected to draw an audience that would fill the main, 236-seat auditorium. Given that The Graduate’s most popular incarnation is more than 40 years old, the play may be relatively obscure. Given the subject matter (an explicitly rendered, sexually charged extramarital affair), it also falls into edgy territory for Yamhill County audiences.

Benjamin Braddock (John Davis Jr.) decides to follow the lead of Mrs. Robinson (Holly Spencer) in Gallery Theater's production of “The Graduate,” which opens Friday, July 26, in McMinnville. Photo by: EKay Media, courtesy Gallery Theater
Benjamin Braddock (John Davis Jr.) decides to follow the lead of Mrs. Robinson (Holly Spencer) in Gallery Theater’s production of “The Graduate,” which opens Friday, July 26, in McMinnville. Photo by: EKay Media, courtesy Gallery Theater

Based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from other actors, Arena shows have drawn larger audiences in recent years. One hopes that The Graduate does as well, for here is an opportunity for audiences to see the artistic alchemy that can happen when a talented and seasoned actor takes a spin in the director’s chair.

Having been involved with Gallery since the late 1990s, I’ve known some people involved in the production for years and in a couple of cases have worked with them on stage. Surprisingly, I’d never spoken with the director until we sat down to chat about this show.

Continues…