DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

Of the 10 plays OSF is producing this season, seven are by women or artists of color (gotta save some room for Shakespeare). The most intriguing of these looks to be Bring Down the House, an adaptation of all three of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. Written by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski, co-founders of the Seattle company upstart crow collective, it relates the story of the political and military conflicts leading to the Wars of the Roses with a cast consisting entirely of female and non-binary actors. This epic still takes two separate shows, but the typical OSF schedule has been adjusted so that both open this weekend and on certain dates it will be possible to take in Parts 1 and 2 in a single day.

The opening slate of shows (five instead of the usual four, because of the bifurcated Bring Down the House) balances those upper-crust kerfuffles with the familiar, the fanciful and the heart-tugging. 

Lauren Modica as Titania (left) and Daniel T. Parker as Nick Bottom in OSF’s 2020 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The traditional Shakespeare opening slot — the pole position of plays, if you will — is taken by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed here by Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj and starring Portland favorite Lauren Modica in the roles of Titania and Hippolyta. “So many productions end up with the feeling of a New Year’s Eve party — everyone is trying so hard to have a good time,” Haj remarks in an interview on the OSF website. “There are other colors I want to bring forward so the entire evening doesn’t feel like just one big lunatic romp.”

Garrett describes Peter and the Starcatcher — by Rick Elice, based on the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson “Peter Pan” prequel novel, and directed here by Lavina Jadhwani — as “a play for…the inner children inside of grown folks.” Karen Zacarías’ The Copper Children, directed by Shariffa Ali, continues the string of OSF world premieres commissioned through its program “American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. It’s the story of Irish immigrant children, crowding Eastern cities, who were shipped west on “orphan trains” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Several more productions will open through the spring and summer. And while the symbol for celebrating an 85th anniversary purportedly is diamond or sapphire, in the case of this OSF season, paper is far more fitting. It’s just right for a theater ticket.

Best line I read this week

“Bill Rauch is the only person in the theater who no one has a bad word to say about. He’s as close to a saint as it’s possible to get.”

— Ben Cameron, then the program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, as quoted in this reporter’s old notes taken at a speech a decade or so ago, while Rauch was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The flattened stage

“They are really following the language!”

Opening

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt; sometimes it merely breeds dismissiveness. I’ll admit that when I first saw, some months ago, that Lakewood Theatre would be staging The Odd Couple, my first thought — even for so well-crafted and durably entertaining a play —  was “Oh, lord, not Neil Simon!” But then, I noticed that the reliably skillful Pat Patton would be directing, so I thought, “Well, there’s hope!”

Patton, surely, will treat the play — the story of neat-freak Felix and slovenly Oscar sharing an apartment as they each face divorce — with respect and keep it from tilting into cliche. And a cast chock full of solid stage veterans led by Grant Byington and Don Alder might well nudge the outlook past hope and in the direction of guarantee.

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 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Owen Carey

Celebrated in London’s West End (where it hauled in seven Olivier Awards in 2013) and on Broadway (a 2015 Tony Award for best play), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of a Mark Haddon novel, puts theatergoers inside the mind of a mathematically gifted, socially impaired 15-year-old turned amateur detective, who delves into the mysterious death of a neighbor’s dog only to discovery troubling family secrets. In a nod to that central character, Portland Center Stage also will offer a special sensory-friendly performance on March 31, with alterations to the production and theater intended to make a more comfortable experience for those on the autism spectrum or with other sensory issues.

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Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is referred to as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” partly for the mismatch between its comedic structure and its grim moral concerns, partly because its attitudes about sex and power seemingly are cynical to the point of being — to modern sensibilities — creepy. Commissioned by Bag & Baggage’s Problem Play Project, Portland playwright Anya Pearson takes the measure of good and evil through an adaptation called The Measure of Innocence, reframing Shakespeare’s themes and characters with reference to our time of political division, an unjust justice system and the Black Lives Matter movement. Wednesday Sue Derrico, whose Brooklyn company Experimental Bitch Presents co-produced a performance of Pearson’s Made to Dance in Burning Buildings at Joe’s Pub in New York, directs the world premiere.

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Yet more evidence of the Disney capacity to create not just lucrative entertainment franchises but unstoppable cultural crazes, the stage musical Frozen (based on the 2013 Disney film, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story “The Snow Queen”) continues to enthrall fans with surging power ballads, dazzling stagecraft and plenty of fairy-tale magic fashioned into modern messages about self-actualization and sisterhood. The Broadway touring production (recommended for ages eight and older) hits town as a sure-fire family pleaser.

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A 1983 Olivier Award winner for best new musical and one of the longest-running shows ever in London’s West End, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers concerns twins separated at birth, nature-versus-nurture arguments about class and criminality, and made-up family curses. Don Horn directs for his own Triangle Productions.

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Brian Friel’s Olivier- and Tony-winning Dancing at Lughnasa, about the poverty and loneliness of a quintet of sisters in 1930s Northern Ireland, gets a one-night staged reading from Readers Theatre Gresham 

Closing

When I went to see Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last fall, I went into the theater with only a skeletal notion of what the play was about — something to do with a controversial old Yiddish play that ran afoul of misguided American moralizing. I found the production transfixing, a moving combination of intimate backstage drama and sweeping historical tragedy.

Exultation amidst heartache: Michael Mendelson in Indecent. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

By contrast, heading into the co-production of Indecent by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, which closes on Sunday, I had high expectations. And I found the show engaging, entertaining, highly enjoyable — but not as emotionally powerful an experience as the Ashland version had been.
The current production has a lot going for it: a cast that’s solid and sometimes much more so, stark and striking scenic design by Peter Ksander, evocative live music woven throughout, some joyful choreography, and so forth. But this time Vogel’s time-skipping narrative structure struck me as overly fussy, her reaching for moral weight and contemporary relevance a bit less graceful. Partly I think that’s because I’d seen the Ashland production after it had been running for months, and it was a finely tuned thing, whereas opening night of this show at Lincoln Hall, absent time to settle into its shadings and rhythms, wasn’t as clear and surefooted in its storytelling.

But I’d also become more familiar with the source material, Sholem Asch’s 1906 play God of Vengeance, when Mary McDonald-Lewis directed a staged reading for Reader’s Theatre Rep this January. Indecent spins us through the tale of Asch writing a play he hopes will open theater to a broad modern audience, its explosive popularity across Europe, and the fateful decision to excise a key scene to try to make things more palatable to the well-heeled Gentile audiences of Broadway. Vogel shows the climactic ending of Asch’s play over and over, though in a stiffly overdramatized fashion here that verges on parody. Having experienced the straightforward narrative drive and emotional potency of God of Vengeance, I missed that felt sense of its greatness, its impact.

“This play changed my life,” says a character called Lemml, who hears Asch’s play at its first reading, becomes its stage manager and devotes himself to it thereafter. In this production, directed by Josh Hecht, it often seems as if Indecent is Lemml’s story, one of transformative but ill-fated love for a work of art. That’s both because some of the other characters and relationships could be more sharply delineated, and because Michael Mendelson delivers such a finely detailed performance that Lemml feels more present (and therefore more important) than anyone else. The script doesn’t quite support Lemml’s centrality; he mentions several times that God of Vengeance changed his life, and we can see how, but we mostly have to guess at why. 

All this might sound rather critical. Yet this Indecent remains highly worthy of an evening’s attention. Despite its minor shortcoming, the indecent thing might still be to miss it.

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In The Found Dog Ribbon Dance at CoHo, Tom Mounsey wants to dance with somebody who loves (or perhaps pins) him.

In his review, ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson called The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, Dominic Finocchiaro’s comedy of intimacy and its discontents, “a satisfying brew of truth, wit and catharsis.” Saturday is your last chance to feel its cuddly embrace at CoHo Theater.

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Ghost Town, the latest show by sketch-comedy mavens the Aces, also ends its run on Saturday.

Second-hand news

The Belgian theater director Ivo Van Hove has been one of the most celebrated artists in the field in recent years, known for strikingly, potently minimalist productions, sometimes of what would otherwise be familiar classics. The only Van Hove production I’ve seen was his version of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge (and only in the big-screen context of a National Theatre Live video capture), which won the director Tony Award for its Broadway run. It was amazing, and I kind of hated it. Set in a spare playing space (no furniture or decor), with intermittent percussion as the most memorable sound design element, performed with a kind of tense formality, it played like a fascinating hybrid of Greek tragedy and Japanese noh drama. But while it heightened the emotions of the View story — an Italian-American dock worker becomes so obsessed with his wife’s niece that he betrays an undocumented immigrant who also has fallen in love with her — it was so abstracted, so denuded of its particular American context, that it no longer served the interpretation through which I’ve found the play most powerful, as an ethical examination of loyalty in light of the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Van Hove is back on Broadway now with a much-talked-about remake of an even more famous classic, West Side Story. Linfield College professor and sometime ArtsWatcher Daniel Pollack-Pelzner has written a terrific article for the Atlantic, “Why West Side Story Abandoned Its Queer Narrative,” discussing what he seems to see as a similar erasure of original intent. This time, though, Van Hove may have factored politics into his interpretation too much rather than too little.

“West Side Story is capacious enough to resonate in many cultural contexts,” Pollack-Pelzner writes. “But to accept the musical as an account of contemporary migrant trauma is to verge on parody. West Side Story has always been about what it means to become American. But it’s never really been about what it means to be Puerto Rican. As a Latinx musical, West Side Story is incoherent and insulting. As the mid-century fantasy of queer Jewish artists, however, it’s surprisingly compelling.

… as Sondheim explained to me in an email, the creators ‘were much less concerned with the sociological aspects of the story than with the theatrical ones.’

These four queer Jewish artists created a thrilling musical about love thwarted by prejudice, sustained by the hope (in the lyrics from ‘Somewhere’) that “there’s a place for us.” In the film, when Moreno’s Anita asks the Jets to ‘let me pass,’ and they reply, ‘You’re too dark to pass,’ a long, deeply lived history of anxiety about Jewish assimilation, closeted sexuality, and the McCarthy blacklist gets displaced, cosmetically, onto a stereotyped construction of Puerto Rican femininity.

…The van Hove revival leans so heavily on the spectacle of brown suffering that the show’s origins are almost effaced.”

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

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