Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: A week for kabuki, ‘Rent,’ clowns, Johnny Cash tunes and more

The dark and twisted Yukio Mishima could be funny, too – and in his kabuki play "Sardine seller," is. Plus a fresh look at the AIDS era's "Rent," the OUTwright Festival and more.

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Japanese writer Yukiyo Mishima, author of the kabuki play “The Sardine Seller’s Net of Love,” in 1956. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

THE DOMINANT IMPRESSION of the late, great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima is of an artist of dark, sometimes twisted brilliance. He’s best known for novels such as The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which juxtapose formal restraint and subtle emotional insight with paroxysms of violence, garish splashes of red across elegant patterns. Though perhaps, really, he’s almost as well known for the florid eccentricities of his life, which included the fetishization of death and culminated in his creation of a private paramilitary force, strident right-wing nationalism and a highly public ritual suicide.

But, hey – he could be really funny, too!

“Mishima’s attitude and goals in writing kabuki plays was utterly different than in writing novels,” says Larry Kominz, a Portland State University professor who has translated and directed Mishima’s popular kabuki play The Sardine Seller’s Net of Love“Even as his concerns and his politics and everything were changing over the course of his life, he never gave up loving kabuki and going to it, attending plays every month that he was in Tokyo from the time he was a boy.”

As a devoted kabuki fan, Kominz points out, Mishima’s approach in that form was more outwardly directed than in his other works. He wanted to support the careers of the actors he admired, to help kabuki as an art and industry, and, crucially, to please audiences. “That’s why he wrote his most normative works in his kabuki plays.”

And though some of his plays, whether kabuki or contemporary drama such as The Black Lizard – which Kominz helped Imago Theatre stage in a fascinating 2014 production – luxuriate in what he called “the beautiful aesthetic of cruelty,” he turned to the comedic potential of kabuki for what became his greatest stage hit. 

The Sardine Seller’s Net of Love is a lighthearted tale of disguised identities, topsy-turvy class status and high/low culture jokes, calling to mind in those ways such Shakespeare plays as The Comedy of Errors.

In a loving send-up of a classic style of kabuki storytelling involving the romances of feudal lords, Mishima instead gives us a roving fishmonger, Sarugenji, who impersonates a great lord in order to get close to Hotarubi, a courtesan he has fallen for, but who is far beyond his station. Despite his awkwardness in his role, he charms her. But he has had too much sake in the process.

As Kominz synopsizes in his book Mishima on Stage: “Presently the inebriated sardine seller dozes off, his head resting in his beloved’s lap, but in his sleep he begins to intone the sardine seller’s spiel. When awakened and questioned by Hotarubi, Sarugenji maintains his false persona by referring to classic poems. Finally convinced that the young man is indeed a feudal lord, Hotarubi collapses in tears. She reveals that she is really a princess and that she fell in love with a sardine seller when, from her castle tower, she heard him call out his spiel in a beautiful voice. She was later kidnapped and sold to a Kyoto brothel, but has never forsaken her first, true love. Princess and fish monger reveal their true identities and are united in love.”

Kominz’ production, which concludes its short run with performances in Lincoln Hall on Friday and Saturday, May 27-28, features PSU students from his Japanese studies department as well as guest artists, and is preceded by a trio of pre-curtain dances.

Opening

The cast of Jonathan Miller’s “Rent” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Alex Lugo

WAY BACK IN THE SPRING OF 1997, I was on a fellowship with the National Arts Journalism Program and about to visit New York for a meeting of the fellows, our academic advisors and various other folks from the arts and media industries. In addition to our panel discussions, museum tours and the like, we had time scheduled to attend shows.

As I was a music critic at the time, someone suggested I might be interested in an acclaimed Broadway rock musical called Rent. Needing to choose from among several options, I got a hold of the Rent cast recording to check it out. Whereupon, from my seat of snobby indie-rock authority, I decreed that it was a rock musical by folks who hadn’t a single clue about rock’n’roll, and I asked for a ticket to something else instead. (Maybe that was the night I went to see Stockard Channing in The Little Foxes.) That is to say, I really, really hated the music.

Yeah, but what do I know? That production won Tony Awards for best musical, best book, even best score. Oh, and also a Pulitzer Prize. 

Based loosely on the Puccini opera La Boheme, the show (with book, lyrics and score by Jonathan Larson) has maintained a loyal and passionate following for the quarter-century since it premiered, in part as a spirited response to the AIDS crisis in the late-1980s and as a celebration of bohemian community. 

Portland Center Stage presents it in a production directed and choreographed by Chip Miller – whose fabulous work earlier this season on Gem of the Ocean has reset the low expectations I had after what I thought was the botching of a great rock musical in his production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. 

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Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

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Morgan Clark-Gaynor’s “Clown as Protest: at CoHo Theatre.

COHO THEATER CONTINUES to be a space for artist-driven exploration, as demonstrated by the CoHo Residency Project, showings of works created through what it calls a “semester-long opportunity for artists to develop an idea or revive an old project and take it to the next level.”

This weekend’s trio of pieces – two available for streaming and one performed in CoHo’s NW Portland space – offers intriguing variety. Quinn, by Portland Actors Conservatory grad Xzavier Beacham, is a short film interrogating Black male identity through the conceit of a first-time visit to a sex shop. Claire Rigsby – who has done some fine work for Artists Rep and others, and currently is busy in the Rent cast at PCS – finds a metaphor for mind in a sort of string theory – or, more accurately, in a yarn about knitting and crochet titled (un)tangled.

And the same boards that have seen such inspired work from the CoHo Clown Cohort (a pet project of the former CoHo artistic director Philip Cuomo, who died last year), now will host Morgan Clark-Gaynor’s Clown as Protest. Cuomo’s use of the clown toolkit often took a literary tack; Clark-Gaynor’s tilt is toward leftist politics, in this case examining tensions between class solidarity and individualism. The clown medium surely partakes of the energies of in-person performance, but this show can be live-streamed as well.

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THE OUTWRIGHT THEATRE FESTIVAL has begun its 10th annual run at Fuse Theatre Ensemble, at The Back Door Theatre, the little performance space behind the Common Grounds Coffee Shop on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. It continues through June 26 with the premiere of Ernie Lijoi’s The God Cluster plus workshop productions of plays by Eleanor O’Brien and Ajai Tripathi, and readings of scripts by C. Julian Jiménez and Mikki Gillette.

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CONCEIVED BY William Meade and created by Richard Maltby Jr., Ring of Fire takes the “musical portrait” approach to stage biography – that is, loosely sketching the progress and themes of a musician’s life story through a string of songs. In this case, the musician is Johnny Cash, so the show wisely avoids having any performer shoulder the task of replicating his stone-pillar voice or the alternating recklessness and rectitude of his persona. Instead, Stumptown Stage’s cast of five at downtown’s Doilores Winningstad Theatre takes on such tunes as “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.“

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PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL  is a popular stage adaptation of a vacuous 1990 romantic comedy, with songs co-written by the hack Canadian “rocker” Bryan Adams. Presented here as part of the Broadway in Portland series of touring shows.

The flattened stage

I happened upon the film critic Lindsay Ellis only recently, and though she already had moved on from YouTube and social media (to devote herself to fiction writing, apparently), I’m fine with being late to the party. To my thinking, her work combines strong analytical chops, solid research skills and a sense of voice that balances smarts and snark along with the strange admixture of passion and weariness of a discerning consumer trapped in a crass, crap-filled marketplace.

Plus, she seems to have a particular interest in musicals, including how they often suffer in the transition from stage to screen. Such as in this examination of Rent:

Closing

IN ADDITION TO THE KABUKI PLAY The Sardine Seller’s Net of Love at Portland State University, several other productions are due to wind up this weekend. They include City Without Altar at Milagro, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Last Stop on Market Street, Triangle Productions’ Sex on the River, Hand2Mouth’s latest devised work We Live Here, and, again at Portland State University, a production of Sartre’s quietly harrowing No Exit

Second-hand news

A couple of weeks ago, the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to James Ijames, a writer and a co-artistic director of the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, for a play called Fat Ham. American Theatre magazine quoted the Pulitzer jury’s description of it as “a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes Hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility, and honesty.” That jury, incidentally, was chaired by Misha Berson, the doyenne of Northwest theater critics and an occasional contributor to ArtsWatch.

The New York Times has published both a Q&A with Ijames and most recently a review of Fat Ham, which because of Covid-related postponements is only now getting its first in-person performances at the Public Theater.

Best line I read this week

“…(E)arly on in my life I felt overwhelmed by the world…It was a world which was certainly no worse than average, not much better either, so it was not one inherently overwhelming, one which would do the strongest of characters in. No. It found in me a weak respondent, a poor player. I was the sort of actor who specialized in exits.”

— from the essay “Finding a Form,” by William H. Gass

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

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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