Way back in my former life as a music critic, I once interviewed the singer/guitarist known as Frank Black. He’d just issued his first album under that name, having previously led the band the Pixies (in which he used the name Black Francis, though his given name is Charles Thompson IV), one of the most revered and influential bands of the 1980s rock underground. In the course of our conversation, I admitted to him that I hadn’t been a big fan of the Pixies, and that I’d eventually realized that was because I valued a strong emotional connection when listening to music and the Pixies always seemed to me somehow emotionally inauthentic. However exciting their records and shows could be, they felt to me like a bit of a con job.
He didn’t seem at all bothered by this criticism; rather, he laughed it off entirely. Emotion wasn’t the point of rock’n’roll at all, he argued; it was all about sensation! Therefore, authenticity was an empty ideal. The only meaningful truth was what the art made you feel.
That exchange has been back in my mind recently after seeing three plays last weekend and finding that all of them — to varying degrees and in wildly different ways — involve questions of presentation and representation, veracity and truthful intent, and the effects on belief and emotion that follow.
Longtime fans of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — where, in pre-Covid times, one often could see a half-dozen plays in a three-day visit — are familiar with a kind of conversation that the plays seem to create with one another, a beneficial (and largely unplanned) crosstalk where themes and ideas recur in different contexts, almost seeming to echo or comment upon one another. Now that we’re back to busy weekends of theater all around, it’s possible to encounter the phenomenon not just at a big repertory company but out in the wild, so to speak, among whatever productions you might happen to see.
For me, the linkage was strongest this past weekend between two new productions in Portland — Artists Repertory Theatre’s The Chinese Lady and Barbecue at Portland Playhouse. Each play paints broad, contrasting strokes with a fascinating palette of cultural assumptions and stereotypes. But even more centrally they both examine truthfulness, deceit and meaning as refracted through layered modes of representation and often hidden intents. In both plays, artifice is baked into both subject and style.
The Chinese Lady takes up the story of a real woman who lived during the 19th century. Afong Moy was brought from China to the United States in 1834, as perhaps the first Chinese woman every to come to America. However, she wasn’t quite either tourist or immigrant; she was a museum piece — carted from city to city, shown amid commercialized oriental curios, in a manner midway between natural-history display and carnival sideshow freak. Though she had a passing fame, the historical record on her is not deep, with no accounts of her own views of her experience. Playwright Lloyd Suh imagines a rich, lively personality for her and — in Barbie Wu’s wonderfully spirited and witty performance here — offers a view of her strange emotional predicament, as her self-regard and idealism come into increasing conflict with the realities of her treatment and her perception by others. She sees herself as a worthy ambassador of cross-cultural understanding; her audiences and handlers see her as weirdly “exotic” at best, subhuman and expendable at worst.
In various ways, often through the less-than-faithful translations of her Chinese interpreter Atung, we come to see the chasm that insincerity creates. As the play progresses, Suh rides a fine line, extending his story past any known history of Afong Moy and making her into a kind of mother figure for the image of Chinese people in America, but also arguing eloquently for her realness and individuality.
Questions about what is or isn’t true in Barbecue are far trickier, by design. Robert O’Hara’s comedy seems early on to be playing primarily with cultural assumptions, presenting one story with two casts — one white and one black — in alternating scenes. What do we think and feel about these characters — a family of foul-mouthed drinkers and crackheads — depending on what race they are? And which is more believable, truer-to-life?
Midway through, though, what we understand to be happening pivots and a kaleidoscope of new vistas opens on matters not just of race, status et al, but of honesty, artifice and their relative effectiveness.
Time, too, plays a role in both. The Chinese Lady becomes more concerned with history as it goes on past about 1850 (when the historical record on Afong Moy dries up), making her more of an abstraction even as it seeks to humanize her. That plot-pivot at the end of Act I in Barbecue upends whatever ideas about sequence we might have had, splintering further our attempts at a confident, cohesive view of the truth.
The third show I took in this weekend, a Sunday matinee of Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria, is so straightforward that it at first seemed a world apart from these puzzles of representation. Set in a small-town Irish bar, it’s just some regulars sitting around telling stories, most with a mysterious, possibly supernatural bent.
But eventually it dawned on me that here, too, the theme appeared. As the blokes tell mild ghost stories to the rare woman who’s come into the pub, there’s the question: What do you believe of what I’m telling you? Whether or not the “fairies” and spirits alluded to are real, the effect of the stories is: The process of sharing these disquieting mysteries leads the characters to begin sharing more personal true stories, the hauntings of real life.
In all these cases, it’s hard for me to know entirely what is truth, or ought to be, or how that might best be represented. But they all serve as a fine reminder that good theater can be a sensation!
Considering all the memorable musical productions that Portland Center Stage has mounted over the years and the many new plays it has developed (especially through the JAW program), it might seem surprising that the company only now is commissioning its first full-fledged new musical. But then again, there may no kind of theater project as complex and challenging to create — or as rewarding, if you can get it just right — as a musical.
PCS recently announced the project — part of the PCS Commissions program launched last year — following an initial developmental workshop earlier this month with the core creative team of director/choreographer William Carlos Angulo (who choreographed PCS 2019 In the Heights), composer/lyricist Michelle J. Rodriguez and librettist Isaac Gómez. With the working title Hombres, the show isn’t based on an existing story but will be devised collaboratively, based on the artists’ ideas and experiences around Latinx identity, machismo culture and father relationships.
It’s no surprise, though — considering this working approach — that the announcement includes no speculation about when the project might be ready for even preliminary public viewing.
And more musicals
Keeping it light, as is their wont, Broadway Rose has announced a slate of fizzy-fun musicals for its 2022 season. There’s a countrified jukebox musical (Honky Tonk Laundry), a winter-themed romantic comedy (Don’t Hug Me), a bit of the funny papers come to life (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), a comedy about dating (The Evolution of Mann) and a holiday buffet with local flavor (A Very Merry PDX-mas).
Ready for the witching hour? Supernatural powers and all-too-human madness are a potent enough combo already, but boiled down into Upon This Blasted Heath: a one-hour Macbeth, they should make for an especially effective brew. Directed by Myrrh Larsen for Speculative Drama, this production starts at the Southeast Portland alternative-arts space the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven but proceeds to an as-yet-undisclosed outdoor location nearby. Even though it’s outside, masks will be required. But the show is free and there are even treats in store.
Experience Theatre Project is cooking up another immersive evening with The Rise of Houdini: Return of the Master. Conceived as a trip back in time to 1928, the production begins with a cocktail hour, followed by some burlesque dancers and then a seance to call the spirit of the famed illusionist (who died on Halloween in 1926). For a real fright, though, they might have set the action a year later — amid the true horrors of the 1929 Wall Street crash.
They’ll be making it up as they go along, but of course that’s the fun of it. Impulse XV is the return of the popular improv show from Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals Company.
For ArtsWatch’s Bennett Campbell Ferguson, “seeing Bojangles of Harlem was the most fun I’d had at a theater in over a year.” That’s doubtless a smaller sample size than normal, considering the period in question, but even so…Consider that a ringing endorsement of the latest Stumptown Stages creation, a tribute to the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The flattened stage
Speaking, as we have been, about veracity in representation, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in cinema, spoken by my favorite actor in one of my favorite films: “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.”
Best line I read this week
“Something always seems a little off in reality television. You don’t believe that what you are seeing happened in the way it is shown to have happened, any more than you think that the man in the Magritte was born with an apple attached to his face.”
— Janet Malcolm
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.