DramaWatch: Brain food at ‘Barbecue’

This week at the theater: Chewing over the issues in Portland Playhouse's prism on race and language; "Mean Girls" and 600 Highwaymen hit town; last chances & more.

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Back in 2015, the esteemed theater critic Hilton Als, writing in The New Yorker, wasted no time in his review of the Robert O’Hara play Barbecue, declaring in his first sentence that it “is my idea of an American classic, or the kind of classic we need.”

That, of course, is high praise. 

Watching the current production of Barbecue at Portland Playhouse on its opening night a couple of weeks ago, I found that I couldn’t quite reconcile such praise with what I was watching, but I assumed that the problem wasn’t with Als’ opinion or the show here as directed by Patdro Harris, but rather with my own inability to quite get O’Hara’s drift.

From left: Ithica Tell, O’Neil Delpenha, Andrea White, and Treasure Lunan in Portland Playhouse’s “Barbecue.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

Als, in his review, seems most intrigued and impressed by the play as a kind of prism on race and language:

“Young Jean Lee, in her 2009 play, The Shipment, showed how speech—especially in the theatre—has been racialized. A cast of black actors used street slang and ‘white,’ or ‘dicty,’ language while dramatizing various stereotypes of race. The implicit question was: How does the idiom change the way we see the action? O’Hara has a similar interest in how race is performed, or how it informs a performance.”

Indeed there is a lot to chew on with such issues, as Barbecue, in Act I, presents a single sequential story but switches scene by scene between a white cast and a black one. Two weeks ago, I wrote in this column about Barbecue and a couple of other recent productions, considering how they addressed issues of representation and authenticity. But I’ve not written a full review of the show, in part because — weeks after seeing it — I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it.

As a reviewer, I tend to focus much less on my evaluations and opinions of the performers’ and designers’ work than on what overall meaning(s) I believe the playwright and director are trying to impart; performance comes into play particularly as an effective or ineffective (to my view) contributor to meaning.

O’Hara uses not just the performative/rhetorical device of the cast-switching in Act I, but a second, more fundamental (and too juicy to give away) twist, and both of these complicate the world of the play, its referents and its possible meaning. Maybe that’s why I’m not only unsure of what my take-away is in regard to ideas about race and language and the assumptions we make back and forth between them. I’m even more unsure what to think of the performances I saw.

Was I right to find the performances of some of the black actors more credible (as comedy and as reality) than those of some of the white actors? Or was that some prejudice in the way? Were the more broad comic performances (Robin McAlpine as leopard-print-clad white trash, for example) clumsy? Or were they a clever further complication of theme?

I’m tempted to see the show again, to try to figure this all out, or at least get closer. Weeks from my first viewing and I’m still thinking about it. Maybe that alone makes it a classic. 

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Opening

The “Mean Girls” national tour settles into Portland’s Keller Auditorium through Sunday. Photo: © 2019 Joan Marcus

It’s not often that the popularity of a musical rides not on the songwriter or the director or the star, or even on the story or songs themselves, but on the book writer. Mean Girls carries the sterling comedic reputation of Tina Fey, who wrote the book for this touring Broadway show based on her 2004 teen-comedy film hit of the same name. A five-day, eight-performance run at Keller Auditorium opened Wednesday. Expect lots of pink.

Many, many people (very, very many people) are big (like, really big — devout, even) fans of the Star Wars entertainment franchise. I am not. Those who are may very well enjoy the Canadian actor Charles Ross’s show One Man Star Wars Trilogy, coming to the Newmark Theatre for one performance on Sunday evening. As preparation, be sure to check out the fine interview with Ross conducted recently by ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson.

“A Thousand Ways (Part Three: An Assembly,” from 600 Highwaymen. Photo via Boom Arts

A popular anecdote has it that the the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III was instead titled The Madness of King George because the filmmakers feared American audiences (generally ignorant of history, don’t’cha know) would assume they’d missed two installments of the story. 

So it is (sort of) with A Thousand Ways (Part Three): An Assembly, by the theater troupe 600 Highwaymen. In this case, the show is the third part of a trilogy. But it also is a self-contained piece, not requiring you to have taken in the previous parts of the series.


Those first two parts of the experimental/experiential work featured one-on-one encounters between strangers — mediated through phones in one case and panes of glass in the other — as audience/participants. This time out, it’s a slightly larger gathering, using a script on notecards “in an act of collective storytelling to practice a new way of imagining who we are, as individuals and together.”

Closing

Among the reasons to make it to the Artists Rep production of The Chinese Lady by its final performance Sunday are a multifaceted performance full of sly wit from Barbie Wu; Sara Ryung Clement’s vivid scenic and costume designs; and the emotional and socio-political resonances of Lloyd Suh’s script that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

Barbie Wu in “The Chinese Lady,” which closes its Artists Rep run on Sunday. Photo: Lava Alapai

Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon is one of those little treasures that a fertile theater scene creates now and then — unusual yet familiar, intellectually rich yet viscerally down-to-earth, entirely professional yet somehow charmingly homespun. In each of its limited runs, it has taken place in very small venues; which helps make it feel special, because it is. 

A role to revel in

Portland Revels has named a new executive director, and it’s none other than Lauren Bloom Hanover, who has made her mark in the Portland theater community over the past several years both onstage at Portland Center Stage, CoHo Theater and elsewhere, and as an administrator, including a stint as interim artistic director for Profile Theatre.

Happy anniversary?

Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library, in addition to its impressive on-site collections and events, offers a wealth of interesting material online, in podcasts, blogs, etc. New this month is a blog post commenting on the 25th anniversary of the release of the Baz Luhrmann film Romeo + Juliet, the Australian director’s at once faithful and radical version of the popular tragedy.

The writer Carla Della Gatta (who also blogged recently about a related anniversary, the 60-year-old cultural legacy of West Side Story) encountered the movie while in college and clearly has a keen appreciation for it, and an astute sense of what distinguished it in the history of Shakespearean film adaptations. “What might be common in today’s concept productions and films was a big risk at the time: Luhrmann retained the language but modernized the setting and visual style,” Della Gatta, an assistant professor of English at Florida State University, writes. (Boy, did he ever, but more on that in a bit.) “Most Shakespearean filmmakers gloss over anachronism between theme and form, but Luhrmann relishes it.”

Della Gatta, who has written a forthcoming book on Latinx Shakespeare productions, highlights Luhrmann’s “ethnicizing” of the Capulets, but seems especially enamored of his “fantastical integration of visual language …

“Shakespearean filmmakers often focus on the story, but Luhrmann was focused on storytelling, just like Shakespeare. Both storytellers grabbed the best pieces from their source materials and influences and made the story their own …

Romeo + Juliet got us to fall in love, not just with the romance in the story, but with all the languages of storytelling.”

I find Della Gatta’s analysis particularly interesting because I also have such vivid memories of seeing the film when it first was in theaters. I was in Atlanta and went with a couple of friends (one of them the former manager of R.E.M., Jefferson Holt), but I spent the last third of the movie waiting for them in the lobby — I’d hated the thing so much that I walked out on it.

Della Gatta is right to laud Luhrmann’s choice to edit, rather than modernize, Shakespeare’s words, a choice that paid off in the clarity and emotional impact of the scenes between stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. But where “(t)he opening credits and fast cars in the first scene were dizzying and electrifying” to Della Gatta, to me they were dizzying and horrifying. And only the first taste of a hyperactive, pretentious and deliriously unsubtle stylizing — full of guns and explosions, hammy acting and over-caffeinated camera work —  that dominates pretty much any scene not solely focused on the young lovers. (So distinctively overheated is Luhrmann’s aesthetic that, years later, flipping through cable channels, I came across a garish production number in the middle of some movie I’d never seen. After only a few seconds I guessed, correctly, that it must be from Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.)

Because of what I guess might be termed its contemporary edge and energy, the film has earned a reputation as a sort of Shakespeare gateway drug, a version that teens can readily relate to, even as it doesn’t shy from the metaphorical riches of the Bard’s original language. But when I recall Romeo + Juliet, I can’t help thinking of how much it would have suited the tastes of my favorite (fictitious) film critics:

The flattened stage

Best line I read this week

“Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” — Lewis Carroll, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, quoted in The New Yorker.

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

About the author
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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One Response

  1. Normally I find poetics and koans in ledes to journalistic articles including reports and arts reviews. Marty Hughley now has me focusing on the tag ‘graphs that end these overlooked works of journalistic arts. From Hughley this uniquely candid close to his wrestling openly with grasping the intents of playwright Robert O’Hara and the current low-profile yet extraordinary sounding local production in NoPo by Portland Playhouse of O’Hara’s Barbecue:

    “I’m tempted to see the show again, to try to figure this all out, or at least get closer. Weeks from my first viewing and I’m still thinking about it. Maybe that alone makes it a classic.”

    Thank you for publishing these well thought-through and processed essays by journalistic heavy-weights like Hughley. As for gravitas, can’t beat FARM FILM REPORT from the late lamented SCTV network based on the edge of the Canadian western plain in media capital Melonville. Those 2 film reviewers were right on the money citing Antonioni’s New Wave film touchstone BLOW UP. Not a single thing got ‘blowed up real good’ in that so-called ‘art film.’ If only our sorely missed KMHD program creator and aural collage host Carlton Jackson of Sunday nights’ THE MESSAGE were around to appreciate the sourcing of SCTV critical guides like Jim Bob or Count Floyd, both of whom Carlton would channel on wild and wooly splashing nights of climate chaos like these….Miss ya mucho, Carlton, Z”L…Tio Mitchito, Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa Media Discussion List\Looksee (Refuge of A-tone-ment Seekers)

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