Through nearly two decades, Samantha Van Der Merwe’s Shaking the Tree has been among Portland’s most consistently intriguing small theater companies. And while the fare has ranged from kids’ shows to Ibsen to Brecht, increasingly, since 2012’s revelatory The Tripping Point, the company specialty has been a kind of hybrid form that uses visual-arts installations in conjunction with performance.
“I have this desire to create a visual world and then see how it plays out in a theatrical context,” Van Der Merwe says, talking by phone about her latest endeavor, the tartly titled Chick Fight. She’s looking for ways to make the theater-going experience more immersive, not so bound by the separateness of the proscenium. “Sometimes in a really good play you will be drawn in and feel a part of it, but too often that’s not the case. It’s just more interesting to me to come into an environment, not necessarily as a participant, but still an integral part. I’m very drawn to that, naturally: It’s playing pretend.”
As with many of these hybrid shows, Chick Fight has been created jointly by Van Der Merwe, as director, and her ensemble of performers, though it also credits a playwright: “Words by Sara Jean Accuardi.”
“We devised it with the ensemble, but to have Sara Jean be there and then go away and write a scene that we could work through together was really wonderful,” Van Der Merwe says. “You could probably take the script without the dioramas and it’d still really work. It’s smart, it’s very witty, but also very biting and deals with the ideas we were exploring really well.”
Those ideas center on famous femme fatales and how they’ve emerged – or perhaps been created, used and discarded – throughout history. Some have decidedly bad reputations – Medea, Medusa. But Van Der Merwe and company also were thinking of modern examples, fallen celebrities who retain a little luster, allowing us more clearly to see the dynamics of myth, culture, commerce, etc. that have raised them but also chewed them up: Think Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, et al. “Even looking at Eve,” Van Der Merwe says, reaching back beyond history, “there’s this idea of the temptress at work.
“But what do you do when you’re a femme fatale? It’s not a position of glory.” Which leads us to the center ring, where women – called simply She and Her – battle it out for the title of “Most Diabolical Woman of all Time.”
“What you’ll see when you get to the theater are eight dioramas of past winners: Eve, the Sirens, a film-noir-inspired housewife, a Medea/Mother Mary/La Llorona archetype, Medusa, the Harpies, the Witch, and Inanna/Ishtar from Sumerian mythology,” Van Der Merwe writes in a follow-up email after our interview. “In the devising room, we’ve been very interested in looking at how we make monsters of women and then shame them for being the monsters they’ve become, as well as examining the knife edge some women have to walk between glorification and villainization. The center ring awaits a new, modern day victor, and once the fight begins, you’ll see two women battling over a lot of issues girls/women face.”
Exit, Center Stage
Cynthia Fuhrman announced on Monday that she’ll be leaving her position as managing director of Portland Center Stage next month to be a vice president in charge of executive search for the Tom O’Connor Consulting Group.
Fuhrman has been a beloved figure at PCS, having helped launch the company in 1988 as an Oregon Shakespeare Festival satellite, then leaving for a decade before returning in 2008 and rising to the top of the org chart, as co-leader of the company for the past several years alongside artistic director Marissa Wolf. Though the O’Connor Group is based in New York, Fuhrman will work from Portland and plans to remain involved with the Portland arts scene, where her personability and broad expertise have been invaluable.
Sharing the news via Facebook, she wrote: “Much of my work during the two years of the pandemic was centered on advocacy for support for the arts and culture sector nationally, and it’s made me want to invest in helping our field grow stronger at a time when we are leading so much necessary change in our society.”
Explaining why she’s making the change, in an interview with ArtsWatch, Fuhrman said, “When the universe delivers, you have to say ‘Yes.’”
The flattened stage
Surprising, what you can find on YouTube. Here are a few different views of PCS through the years:
This seems to be the season for inheritance-scam plots. A month or so ago, the Broadway musical Anastasia bus-and-trucked through town on tour, playing the is-or-isn’t-she game with a would-be daughter of the last Russian czar. Now in Lakewood Theatre’s Leading Ladies, a pair of low-level Shakespearean actors pose as long-lost relatives of a wealthy and ailing woman. Ken Ludwig’s farce adds drag gender twists, tangled love interests and convenient accidents, all to keep the comedy rolling along. Former Artists Rep stalwart Stephanie Mulligan directs a cast including Sam Dinkowitz, Margie Boulé, Nathan Dunkin, Jessica Tidd and others.
The characters in Canadian playwright Michaela Jeffery’s WROL (Without Rule of Law) are 8th-graders, but the things that concern them aren’t what you’d usually consider kid stuff. Having been kicked out of the Girl Guides (what we in the U.S. call Girl Scouts) for “being too intense,” as Jeffery put it in an interview with Playwrights Canada Press, they are middle-school survivalists, their backpacks stuffed with emergencies supplies, their heads filled with free-floating anxieties and jargon-spiked doomsday rhetoric. But they’re convinced that dark, dangerous times are sure to come because, for them, dark dangerous times already surround them.
Jeffery sets the action in what seems to be an abandoned basement lair the group has stumbled upon. That occasions the right kind of vaguely doomsday atmosphere, but the ostensible thrust of the plot – about whether the place was previously occupied by some other survivalist group and what might have happened to it – isn’t terribly engaging. Thankfully, everything else about the play – and the production by Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals troupe – is pretty terrific. Without beating anything over the head, Jeffery creates what feels like an elaborate metaphor of socio-political awareness, taking seriously the girls’ complaints about the patronizing and marginalizing treatment they get in daily life, while subtly evoking the spectres of climate catastrophe, sexism in society, and rising authoritarianism in politics as part of the same systemic dysfunction. And all this seriousness is leavened with lots of sharply observed humor and a warm embrace of the developmental quirks of an age group perched awkwardly between childhood enthusiasm and adult responsibility.
It’s a smart, fast, devilishly wordy script, full of complex ideas and emotions. And OCT’s teen cast, with direction by the esteemed stage veteran Andrea White, navigates it all with remarkable agility and seeming ease. Despite being staged in a rather bland, boxy space, it’s an absorbing, wonderfully entertaining show. Put it on your weekend calendar before it’s too late.
Long story short, Hedwig and the Angry Inch once again has been a hit for Portland Center Stage, rocking the Ellyn Bye Studio with a tale of love, betrayal, thwarted ambition and, um, incomplete personal transformations. This remount of the production from early 2020, starring Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. and Ithica Tell, closes Sunday.
I’ve written in a recent column about my preference for a model of theater etiquette in which the audience mostly stays quiet and shows its enthusiasm about what happens onstage through rapt attention, not boisterous interaction. But another view holds that ideal as unduly restrictive, an off-putting part of a larger culture of white-privilege orthodoxies that need dismantling in order to make theater more welcoming. Portland Playhouse goes so far as to use part of the pre-show “curtain speech” to encourage audiences to do whatever they feel.
Though it isn’t presented as an argument one way or the other, a recent article on the theater website Howl Round, contrasting audience behavior in Malawi with that in the West, puts the differences in a striking light.
The writer Mishek Mzumara cites the experience of a British director: “In her experience, a Malawian audience expects to participate and be a vocal partner in the experience—shouting out advice to the actors, heckling, noisily laughing, and cheering. She gave an example of one of the Shakespeare productions she directed: when Hamlet is at Ophelia’s grave and cries out ‘I loved Ophelia,’ in anguish, a member of the audience in Malawi shouted, ‘Too late’ and got a huge laugh. With a Western audience, that same moment was met with silence and quiet emotion from the audience.” In fact, “all was very quiet right until the end, when the audience stood and clapped and cheered. Until that moment, the Malawian actors were convinced that the performance was going badly because they were getting no vocal feedback.”
I find that Ophelia anecdote amusing, but also appalling. How – I wonder – does the participatory model jibe with prevalent notions of a theater production as a controlled and nuanced expression, a result of fine-grained directorial control? On the other hand, though, does the Western model give too little credit to audiences, assuming they can’t both participate and absorb all the details of a story? Locally, how might the growing trend of “BIPOC affinity nights” (speaking of Portland Playhouse) move the pendulum from one ethos to another?
Best line I read this week
we die and don’t die
the earth is still,
A helicopter eyeballs my wife –
a man cannot flip a finger at the sky:
each man is already
a finger flipped at the sky.”
— excerpted from “Soldiers Aim at Us,” a poem by Ilya Kaminsky.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.