Scott Palmer is, by his own admission, “just a big Shakespeare dork” – so much so that he even has a bit of “Hamlet” (“What a piece of work is man…” etc.) tattooed on his forearm. Which means that The Last White Man, although contemporary rather than classical, is very much his kind of play.
Though it might suggest some sort of Great Replacement Theory screed, the play’s title actually is a sidelong reference to Hamlet, and the play itself is a kind of fractal presentation of Shakespeare’s “melancholy Dane,” the character’s status as the pinnacle of theatrical roles, its psychological depths and complexities, and so on.
For Palmer, the play makes a fitting vehicle for a return to Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage, the theater company he founded a couple of decades ago and built into a respected regional mainstay before leaving in 2018. A classicist with an iconoclastic streak, Palmer specialized in creative adaptations and vivid interpretations of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers, often interrogating the continued relevance of such work.
“Part of why I wanted to direct this play is because it’s a show that is reflective of the moment,” he said, chatting recently over coffee during a rehearsal break. “It asks, ‘Do we still have to do Shakespeare? And if there’s still space for it in the culture, what kind of space is that?’”
The Last White Man will be Palmer’s first directing work in Hillsboro since he left his home town for what looked like the greener pastures of Sun Valley, Idaho’s Company of Fools.
“After 15 years with Bag & Baggage, I was so excited to go to a larger theater, an Equity house with a bigger budget,” he recalled. “But after the pandemic hit, we had to let go of most of the staff. Begging for money and not actually producing anything was not going to work for me. Then my husband and I both got Covid. My dad got sick. My mom and our friends needed help. So we moved back about 16 months ago.”
Palmer returned to a job he’d long done alongside his theater-making, working for the Oregon Nurses Association. Though he’d poured so much time and energy into building Bag & Baggage, he had no interest in meddling with its operations and wasn’t anticipating coming back to the Vault, the company’s downtown Hillsboro home, except to see a show.
Meanwhile, a friend of his called to tell him about a play he’d just been called in for as a replacement actor. “I’ve got a part in this show – you’ve gotta read it.” The play was The Last White Man by Bill Cain, getting its world premiere at Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee. The play’s multi-layered probing of the many meanings of Hamlet and its place in contemporary society was right up Palmer’s alley. And, as with Hamlet, Cain’s play touches on father/son relationships and legacies. “Fathers and sons,” as one character muses. “The world according to Shakespeare. It always ends in death. And madness.”
Palmer’s father died last December. “So all of that felt really relevant to me,” he said.
When Bag & Baggage, which is currently without an artistic director, called to ask Palmer if he was interested in directing something, he signed on – under the condition that he could choose the play.
He didn’t choose an easy one.
Bill Cain, who directed a couple of plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the late 1980s, is well-versed in the multivalent and recombinant properties of Shakespeare’s themes, characters and stories. In The Last White Man, inspired in part by a 1989 incident in which Daniel Day-Lewis walked out of a “Hamlet” performance in mid-show, presents the behind-the-scenes story of a high-profile production by a young, black, female, avant-garde-leaning director and featuring her old college friend who’s now an Oscar-winning actor. HIs nervousness about the role is contrasted with the brashness of his understudy and then the preternatural calm of a respected stage veteran brought in as a potential replacement. Their attempt to create a definitive Hamlet – an attempt reflected in their own struggles and squabbles – only takes us further into its infinitely prismatic nature. And Cain amplifies this aspect of his subject matter by scrambling the chronology of his scenes, adding even more questions to this quest for the secrets to character development.
It’s a complicated play on numerous levels, including tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy, from classicism to (believe it or not) disco. Palmer loves the challenges.
“The things I relish are the things that make me pull my hair out,” he said. “I’m trying to direct three different guys doing three different Hamlets – the one who’s indecisive, the one who’s ready to die for the art, the one who’s arrogant but childish – all these aspects of Hamlet. Charlie is grappling all the time with the issue of Hamlet’s rage. Rafe is constantly riddled with insecurity. Tigg approaches it with joy and abandon.
“Cain has done this remarkable thing. It’s an infinite opportunity to approach this from different angles. I think he does legitimately ask what happens when we hold Hamlet up in this way. It is the butterfly that is pinned and yet lives.”
The flattened stage: home edition
Equivocation, which premiered in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, just might be the apotheosis of that category – disparaged by some but beloved of others – the theater-nerd’s play. Sparking comparisons with Bush-era political issues around power, secrecy and torture, Bill Cain’s taut, twisty period drama imagines Shakespeare as a young dramatist being strong-armed by a powerful official into writing a theatrical version of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, a version that lays blame where the government wants it.
I really wish I was more familiar with the play – between the Ashland production and a revival several years later in Washington D.C., I managed to see it only seven or eight times.
Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre continue their seasons with a joint production of the ripple, the wave that carried me home. Written by Christina Anderson, whose book for the musical Paradise Square earned a 2022 Tony nomination, the play had its world premiere just last month at Berkeley Rep (with Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Christiana Clark starring). Even more recently it won the 2022 Horton Foote Prize, lauded as “a poignant, transporting, and quietly subversive story of racial justice, political legacy, and family forgiveness.”
The production here, on the Armory mainstage, is directed by Daniel J. Bryant and features a highly promising cast of Lauren Steele, Andrea White, Chavez Ravine (returning to PCS for the first time since Black Pearl Sings! a decade ago) and Don Kenneth Mason.
Touring Broadway shows sometimes are called “bus and truckers,” a reference to the vehicles needed to carry all the cast and crew and production elements. To Kill a Mockingbird rolls into the Keller Auditorium on Tuesday with yet more to carry – the weight of expectations that come with such celebrated source material (Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning 1960 novel), a buzz-worthy adaptation (by Emmy winner Aaron Sorkin), and a beloved star (the veteran actor Richard Thomas, who captivated Americans of a certain age in the long-running TV hit The Waltons).
Emma Goldman, the anarchist writer and activist, is reputed to have said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I’m partial to the more poetic formulation by the great contemporary songwriter Joe Henry: “There is no revolution without boots and song/Her foot falls like a banner day and I will sing along.”
But writer/director Ashley Hollingshead and her Social Sciences Productions use the Goldman quote (or misquote) as the downbeat for DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: Emma Goldman’s American Years, which they describe as a “mash-up of contemporary dialogue, pop music, and the text from some of Goldman’s greatest speeches” in an exploration of “the enduring concept of how to live your ideal when the world seems stacked against you.”
No one knows everything, especially me. And two of my bigger knowledge blind spots (interest blind spots, too, frankly) are 1980s Hollywood movies and vampires. I do know, however, that Portlanders Shelley McClendon and Courtenay Hameister are deathlessly funny writers with a particular knack for loving parodies of pop culture. So I’ll just assume that The Lost Boys Live! – their staged version of some teen vampire flick I’ll never watch – is a killer (in the good sense). Whether immortal or not, the show is returning from a 10-year sleep.
Newport’s Red Octopus Theatre presents David Lindsay-Abaire’s antic comedy Fuddy Meers, a play that uses the normally tired conceit of a main character having amnesia and turns it into a fulcrum for all kinds of wit and narrative invention.
This fall’s iteration of the Ashland New Plays Festival features readings of five plays (each presented twice over the six-day event) selected from among hundreds of submissions.
Like a candid snapshot in an antique gilt frame, Love, Shakespeare presents improv comedy with a grounding in the works and times of the Bard. Great fun for modern groundlings.
Reading is fundamental
Astoria’s cozy Ten Fifteen Theatre serves up a staged reading of a Tennessee Williams classic, Suddenly, Last Summer, filled with family intrigue and surging undercurrents of exploitation and shame, sex and violence.
The Evolution of Mann, a boutique-scale romantic-comedy musical at Broadway Rose, passes into the fossil record after this weekend’s shows. Similarly, the Noel Coward classic Blithe Spirit, at Lakewood Center for the Arts, also gives up the ghost.
I’d imagine that every artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival except the revered founder Angus Bowmer has dealt with some amount of criticism from self-styled purists, audiences members who demand Shakespeare productions featuring – in the words of former AD Bill Rauch – “men in tights and women in dresses that touch the floor.” Never mind that willful, and sometimes gleeful, anachronism was a major arrow in the Bard’s own theatrical quiver.
But as successive leaders continue to push the festival’s offerings further in terms of nontraditional casting and thematic interpretations that foreground politically progressive and socially inclusive ideas, it appears the blowback has turned into a storm of nastiness. A recent report by NPR revealed that the current artistic director Nataki Garrett has received death threats because of the changes she’s made to the august institution’s programming.
It’s a commonplace to say that the arts should be thought-provoking, but the thoughts ought not include murderous rage.
Now, according to the Hollywood Reporter, theater organizations are circling the wagons to support Garrett.
The flattened stage: theatrical edition
NT Live, the fabulous series of live-captured high-definition productions from the National Theatre in London, with local Portland screenings hosted by Third Rail Rep, presents Jack Absolute Flies Again, high-altitude comedy based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, on Saturday evening; then on Sunday afternoon, it’s the stormy fantasy The Book of Dust.
The best line I read this week
“(He) doesn’t really like life…for him it is a piece of homework that some unknown teacher has set him, and that he can’t get his head round, no matter how hard he tries.”
From “The Loft,” a novel by Marlen Haushofer, quoted in an article in The New Yorker.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.