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DramaWatch: Basking in Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’; rollin’ with the Tina Turner jukebox musical

Why everyone's flocking to an old Victoria's Secret to see a Beckett play. Plus: "Tina" on tour, the joys of a kids' backyard theater camp, and a question: Must the show go on?

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Diane Kondrat in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in an old Victoria’s Secret storefront. Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative.

“There is nothing either good or bad,” our friend Hamlet tells his ill-fated friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “but thinking makes it so.”

As much as I admire Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane, I can’t imagine he’s entirely right about that. What’s bad about being burned at the stake, for example, must be so before and beyond cognition. 

But what about the more quotidian trials of human existence? What about the awful stuckness of a consciousness trapped in time? What about the never-ending existential challenge of yet another meaningless day? What about Winnie?

At the moment, Winnie is enjoying another little flush of attention; you might even say stardom. An indelible invention of the great playwright Samuel Beckett, Winnie is the centerpiece of the play Happy Days, which Patrick Walsh has directed for Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative, and which has been selling out its performances in the makeshift space of the former Victoria’s Secret shop at Lloyd Center.

A dense, indeterminate, if undeniably funny piece of theatrical absurdism isn’t what you normal expect to be packing them in at this time of year. But the show has attracted a fair bit of press, with stories from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Willamette Week, and – at greatest depth – ArtsWatch’s own Bobby Bermea, who focused on the craft of actor Diane Kondrat.

To be honest, we had a little tussle here at ArtsWatch over who would get to sing Kondrat’s praises – both Bermea and I are longtime fans of her work. But I think more likely overall to account for press and public interest in the play is its intriguing concept: Winnie spends the entire play buried, more or less, in a mound of dirt. This isn’t a holiday at the beach; this – we understand without any backstory being given – is Winnie’s life. With no one else around except a husband who makes a few grudging replies and even fewer fumbling appearances out from behind the mound, the play is really just Winnie’s ongoing and oddly cheerful chatter.

It’s not at all like Hamlet, of course, and yet, in a way, Winnie is engaged in a determined experiment of that particular princely notion, seeking to triumph over her absurd condition by force of attitude, announcing repeatedly that this – this! – is yet another happy day!

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Considering the centrality of the setting to the premise, it’s hard not to notice the sad state of Winnie’s mound in this production. Actually bringing a ton or so of dirt into the mall clearly would’ve been impractical, but the facsimile here – a large, dirt-smeared tarp stretched over a frame whose boards are too-clearly outlined beneath – looks less like a mound than a kind of strangely lumpy desk or the near side of a trench. Kondrat’s Winnie doesn’t looked constrained or trapped by it, she looks as if she’s merely standing behind it.

You might think such an issue might ruin the whole effect. But …

“No. No-no.”

That little phrase is one that recurs in Beckett’s deceptively poetic script, and Kondrat’s delivery of it is just one of the many markers of her mastery. Each time, she gives it the same melodic contours: “No” as a long, slowing, slightly descending sound that negates whatever notion has been stated before it. “No-no” following after, the quick syllables floating up like bright bubbles of affirmation.

That’s so Winnie. And Kondrat’s Winnie is particularly, uh, winning. She gets her first laugh (by brushing her tongue) within seconds. Her voice – brighter and more connective here than, say, the dour tone she adopted for Sister Aloysius in Doubt several months ago at Lakewood Theatre – takes on a bell-like resonance in the octagonal recess of the shop that serves as the stage. Her face beams with a look of delirium that seems somehow at once naive and hard-won. Her expression slips now and then into momentary worry, dark premonitions bracketing her eyes and weighing down the corners of her mouth. But such threatening thoughts are quickly vanquished, vanished. Even as her incessant talk brings reminders of time’s predations, of the fading of memory, eyesight, looks and so on, Winnie’s buoyancy wins out.

It’s the sort of play that takes time afterward to sink in, for its subtle effects to worm their way through your psyche. The timing that Kondrat and Walsh create – with some piquant humor from Chris Porter as the seldom-seen husband, Willie – allows for both momentum in the performance and reflection for the audience.

The production is set to continue through Sept. 9. If you can get a ticket, you can say it’s another happy day. 

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Song of the week

Like Winnie in “Happy Days,” “She says she’s found a way to make her own light/All you do is smile/you banish the night.”

Opening

Naomi Rodgers as Tina performing ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It” in the touring production “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022.

The annals of American popular music might hold no more inspiring story of perseverance and triumph than that of Anna Mae Bullock, who sang and danced her way to fame and glory as Tina Turner.
Turning that story into a jukebox musical for the Broadway stage, Tina: the Tina Turner Musical has met with a mixed critical response. As harrowing and compelling as Turner’s true-life experiences were, it’s the story that has taken its lumps here. “The book (by Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) is so thin it’s see-through,” wrote Jesse Green in The New York Times. “…(T)his is a problem built into the biographical jukebox genre, whose songs leave the narrative only enough time for turning points and climaxes. Cherry-picked lives look ludicrous.”

You might think the tougher challenge would be recreating the high-voltage nature of Turner as a performer, but reportedly that is where this musical excels.

***

Devisers/performers including the longtime Fuse Theatre Ensemble contributor Kate Mura present a workshop production of Rebels & Priestesses, based on a book by tarot consultant Mary K. Greer about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian-era occult secret society.

Closing

Salem’s Pentacle Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time prepares to move to a farm upstate (so to speak).

From the notebook

A couple of weeks ago in this column I shared some comments by Cynthia Fuhrman, an arts consultant and the former managing director of Portland Center Stage, about the financial shoals that have endangered the American regional theater industry of late. 

As we talked about the post-pandemic state of the theater, Fuhrman also discussed some of the ways in which the culture of the theater world has changed, including the decline of an ethos built around the idea that – no matter what – the show MUST go on.

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“It used to be we all loved those stories – ‘Oh, that guy was so sick that every time he stepped off stage he’d throw up in a bucket!’ And everyone would cheer! ‘What a trouper! That’s so great!’,” she recalled. “But was it? Or was that abuse?”

The stark dangers of Covid in its first several surges made lots of folks rethink that long-held attitude. “It used to also be about, ‘We don’t want to cancel shows because we don’t want to lose the revenue. Now it can be about, well, someone needs to go to their grandmother’s funeral.”

Certainly such a shift, at least at larger companies, reflects an adjustment in managing philosophy. Furhrman’s current job – as a vice president in charge of executive search services for the New York-based Tom O’Connor Consulting Group – involves helping organizations find the next cohort of arts leaders amid a time of widespread social and generational change. And she sees a major change in how such leaders operate compared to when she started her career decades ago, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under one of its most revered leaders. 

“I think back to Jerry Turner,” she said. “As the artistic director, he was the artist. He had to talk to the board, but he didn’t have to do fundraising, he wasn’t that much involved in budgeting, even. He decided what he wanted to put onstage and the rest of the organization was there to figure out how to make that happen.” These days, skills in budgeting, donor relations, strategic planning and much more are essential for those ostensibly in charge of the aesthetic side of theater operations. 

Perhaps even more importantly in our new era is another recognition about the role of a company leader. “You’re also a steward of the people now,” Fuhrman said. “And that’s a change.

“I think some artistic directors paid attention to that just because that’s who they were; but it’s definitely something that’s valued more now in organizations.There’s so much more of an emphasis on company culture, EDIA [equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility] … In the past three or four years, the big change is, they have to have a facility for the more human way companies want to operate.”

Second-hand news

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore mostly contributes articles related to history and assorted cultural Americana (she’s also a professor of American history at Harvard). But I loved a recent piece of hers about theater.

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Well … not really about theater so much as about her experiences with a certain related raw impulse: for lack of a better term, play acting. Lepore recounts the spontaneous rise and fall of a very casual theater camp of neighborhood kids that put on shows in her backyard.

“The shows were terrible, truly terrible,” she admits. “The badness is why I loved it: I got to stow away on the seaworthy ship of their childhood, with its courageous captains and intrepid crew, their bravery, their beauty, their zany, chaotic daring.”

The flattened stage

The best line I read this week

“The theatre is a place of obsession. It is not a soft dreamland. Unemployment, poverty, disappointment, racking indecision (take this now and miss that later) grind reality into one’s face; and, as in family life, one soon learns the narrow limitations of the human soul. Yet obsession is what it is all about. All good dramatists and directors and most (not all) good actors are obsessed men. Only geniuses like Shakespeare conceal the fact or rather change it into something spiritual.”

– from the Iris Murdoch novel The Sea, the Sea.

***

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

 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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