Washougal Art & Music Festival

DramaWatch: Comedy from the Gods

Clackamas Rep brings the ancients romping into the present. Plus: Broadway Rose's "Dreamcoat," new leader at Artists Rep, farewell to Book-It Rep and Sheldon Harnick, more.

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From left: Jasmyn Tilford as Daphne; Tom Mounsey as Dionysus and John San Nicolas as Ralph in Ken Ludwig’s “The Gods of Comedy.”

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“Comedy is tragedy interrupted.”

– playwright Alan Ayckbourn

For all the stature and influence that Greek drama from the 5th century B.C. has had within Western culture, we don’t know very much of it. Historians and other scholars have been able to make estimates of the number of plays written by the greatest of Greek tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – but have found only a small fraction of the works themselves. 

So imagine that you’re an Ivy League scholar and you happen to stumble upon a career-defining, culture-shifting find – a long-lost play by the great Euripides, a worthy addition to an enduring oeuvre that includes the likes of Medea, Electra and The Bacchae.

And then through some ignorant and innocent bumbling, the precious masterpiece is lost. That, dear reader, would be a tragedy. 

But what if the seemingly inevitable outcome – lifelong ignominy at worst, lifelong regret at best – were interrupted? What if some greater power could intercede on your behalf?

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So it is in The Gods of Comedy, a 2019 play by Tony Award-winner Ken Ludwig. Best known for his 1980s comedy Lend Me a Tenor, Ludwig here mashes up Greek myth and theater history with some not-quite-so-old-fashioned elements from the college campus romps of mid-century American comedy. 

As Ludwig’s tale has it, Daphne, an American classics scholar, is given a talisman that she’s told will allow her to summon gods to her aid. When she manages to lose that Euripides script just discovered by her colleague, she cries out to the heavens for help. And faster than you can say “deus ex machina,” Dionysus and Thalia appear. But, this being a comedy, things aren’t immediately set to right. Instead, as a reviewer for the San Diego Union-Tribune put it, “a pair of screwball deities encounters the carnal complexity of college coeds, campus capers, and conspicuous consumption.”

Jayne Stevens directs a production for Clackamas Repertory Theatre that features such fine comic actors as John San Nicholas, Marilyn Stacey and Tom Mounsey. 

[Earlier this week, the following note was amended to the show page on the Clackamas Rep website:  “We have received news from Clackamas Community College that the Oregon City Police Department has requested CCC close its Oregon City campus on the afternoon of Friday, June 30, due to planned demonstrations near the college that have the potential for safety and security concerns.

In an abundance of caution and in assistance to the Oregon City Police Department, CRT has decided to cancel the opening night of ‘The Gods of Comedy.’ We apologize for the inconvenience, but the safety of our patrons, our performers, and our crew comes first.

If you have already purchased tickets for Opening night on June 30th please contact jayne@clackamasrep.org to reschedule your tickets.”]

Opening

Alex Foufos in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

We all have our little prejudices. Well, at least I certainly do. And so a show on biblical themes, with a composing credit to Andrew Lloyd Webber, that’s often described as “family friendly” hits a trifecta of distaste in my book. 

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But of course, that’s just me. And for many thousands of other folks, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, one of the earliest collaborations between Lloyd Webber and writer Tim Rice (whose Jesus Christ Superstar I’ll admit liking fairly well) is an amazing theatrical dream. 

The skillful stage veteran Dan Murphy directs and choreographs this production for Broadway Rose, and that alone gives it a strong chance for success.

One night only

CoHo Theater hosts a benefit for Friendly House and The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD), a presentation of Chasing Rainbows, Bob Powers’ true story of falling in love in Italy and spending his life in Portland with a man who eventually succumbs to dementia.

Closing

From left: Lauren Bloom Hanover, Andy Perkins, and Andrés Alcala in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

With its mix of romantic and mischievous characters let loose in a realm of magic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most reliably popular works. ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega judged Marissa Wolf’s genderfluid production for Portland Center Stage “a fresh take that gently but firmly pushes us toward even deeper delights.”

Under new management 

Aiyana Cunningham, new managing director at Artists Rep. Photo courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

Artists Repertory Theatre has hired Portland theater veteran Aiyana Cunningham, currently the development director for Portland Playhouse, as the company’s new managing director. According to an announcement on the theater’s website, Cunningham will “spearhead strategic planning, financial management, and operational oversight,” so, presumably, she’ll be in charge of the business side while artistic director Jeanette Harrison, who joined the company last fall, handles what appears onstage.

The history of the managing director post at Artists Rep has been a bit convoluted of late, however. For one thing, Cunningham won’t entirely replace the current business leader, J.S. May, at least initially. 

In January 2021, the company promoted Kisha Jarrett, who’d been director of development and marketing, to managing director while bumping up May’s title to executive director. The plan was for Jarrett to succeed May once he retired, upon the completion of the ongoing capital campaign/rebuilding project for Artists Rep’s downtown headquarters. Later that year, though, when artistic director Damaso Rodriguez left to join an arts consulting firm, Jarrett proposed that she take the artistic helm as well, May later told ArtsWatch. The theater’s board rejected that idea and Jarrett moved on (a LinkedIn profile lists her as working currently as Culture & Community Director at Ars Nova in New York City). Literary manager Luan Schooler stepped in as interim artistic director until Harrison’s hire and the managing director post went unfilled until now. 

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Though presumably retaining the executive title, May will switch to a half-time role overseeing fundraising and construction of Artists Rep’s Morrison Street home until the project’s completion.

Second-hand news

Closing the books: Zoey Matthews (left) and Joy Woods in the current “Solaris,” the final show in the 33-year run of Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre. Photo: Anthony Floyd

The theater world continues to face what we might think of as an institutional version of long Covid. Many theater companies are slogging through a long and difficult recovery, but for some the condition is proving fatal. The latest casualty, coming closely on the heels of the demise (for now, at least) of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is Seattle’s well-regarded Book-It Repertory Theatre.

“To blame for the closure,” reported an article in the Seattle Times, “were diminished audience attendance, changes in funder priorities and a lack of enough major donors, among other reasons.”

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Mark Bedard and Amalia Balash in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of the great Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock musical “She Loves Me.” Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF

Another major loss for the theater world came recently with the death of Sheldon Harnick, one of the true master lyricists of the American musical. Harnick is best-known for his work alongside the composer Jerry Bock, the most celebrated of which no doubt is Fiddler on the Roof. 

For me, however, the great source of affection instead is She Loves Me, which Harnick, Bock and writer Joe Masteroff adapted from the same source material (a 1937 play by Hungarian playwright Miklós László) that has been the root of such movies as The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail. A 2010 production of She Loves Me at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival remains on the short list of my favorite shows there.

“Harnick’s gift for expressing simply the complexity of emotional architecture finds perhaps its greatest expression in She Loves Me, a show essentially built on romantic delusion,” writes Jesse Green in an appreciation for The New York Times

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“Once heard, Harnick’s lyrics seem like the last word on their subjects.”

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A bit of positive news comes from American Theatre Magazine, which has announced that it once again will be a magazine. That is, the Theatre Communications Group announced plans to resume print publication of its journalism this fall, ending a hiatus (or a reprieve for the trees, anyway) of more than three years. “The theatre needs a print magazine to record and reflect its work as it flashes past us night by night; to account for it and hold it to account; to trace the arc of its history and point to its future; to take it seriously both as an art and as a trade,” wrote editor-in-chief  Rob Weinert-Kendt.

Season’s greetings

We knew this was coming.

Profile Theatre’s “American Generations Season” was planned from the outset to actually be two seasons, such are the riches available in the works of Kristoffer Diaz, christopher oscar peña and Lauren Yee. The just-completed season featured such fine productions as Diaz’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, peña’s How to Make an American Son and Yee’s King of the Yees. So now comes the schedule for Profile’s 2023-’24 season, which continues with the same clutch of still-young yet accomplished playwrights, what will be the first season in the company’s quarter-century history to feature all world-premiere works.

The flattened stage

I neither speak Japanese nor have thorough knowledge of (or much interest in) the “Star Wars” franchise. So I have no idea what’s going on in the story presented here. Nonetheless, I find this kind of fascinating to look at.

The best line(s) I read this week

  “Music was deemed to have a powerful effect upon the character of man. The great philosophers debated this in determining the morality of people. …

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“The irony of this, of course, is that it was taken for granted right up to and including the period of the great 19th century composers, almost until the 20th century. Since the dawn of time, or the dawn of music, it was self-evident that music possessed a mediating role between Heaven and Earth, that it was a communications channel from man to the gods, and the gods to man, and a key for releasing the energies of the supreme into our life here on earth. Powerful stuff, which we have done much in the last hundred years to lose, downplay, or deliberately forget.

“We say music is important, but we circulate it for free, accord it no significance, fail to listen to it when we are in its presence, and ignore it, in a century in which, paradoxically, there has never been more of the stuff on tap. It has a good deal less status than water, which at least has the decency to be an essential for life.”

– from the autobiography of jazz/rock drummer Bill Bruford.

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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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