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DramaWatch: ‘Coriolanus’ and the perils of power

Portland Center Stage opens an updated "translation" of Shakespeare's tragedy of political and moral downfall. Plus: A multi-show triumph of women; Irish myth and more.

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Tempers rise in "Coriolanus" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Tempers rise in “Coriolanus” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

As the world turns and we get deeper into an election year, Shakespeare’s rough and riveting tragedy Coriolanus is finding its time again. After a week of preview performances it opens Friday, April 26, at Portland Center Stage, where it’ll remain through May 19. The same production, with several cast changes, will transfer to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a July 23-Oct. 13 run.

Why Coriolanus, and why now? Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s about power, how it’s used, and the responsibilities of those who wield it. With the rise of repressive autocracies around the world and a looming American presidential election in a time of fundamental divides, the play’s issues echo down the centuries and land splat in the center of things.

The play’s focus, in a few words: The Roman general Coriolanus is a brilliant soldier whose victories in the battlefield lead him to seek political power as well. But his disdain for the common people, who are rioting because they’ve been cut off from the city’s stores of grain, and his clashes with the power-sharing tribunes lead to his banishment from the city. From there it’s pretty much all downhill.

Coriolanus isn’t so much about democracy: The concept was still pretty foreign to the England of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and even in ancient Greece, the “cradle of democracy,” it was meant only for free men (no women, no slaves), which in Athens meant probably about 30 percent of the adult population. Instead, the play is about how the powerful use their power, and the responsibilities of the ruling class to those they rule. In that sense, it’s a moral question at least as much as a political one, and Coriolanus’s lack of any sense of duty or compassion toward his “lessers” is the germ of his undoing: His pride does come before his fall.

Nor can he be bothered with the little genuflections toward the common people so breezily employed in today’s world of politics. No grain for the people, who face starvation? Herbert Hoover promised “a chicken in every pot.” It didn’t get there, but it made for a good campaign slogan, even as the Great Depression loomed across the land. Today’s aspiring autocrats at least pretend to be men of the people (see: bare-chested Putin riding a horse), often to surprisingly successful result, scooping up enthusiastic followers like so many clams on the beach. Coriolanus, he of the stiff back and neck, wouldn’t stoop to handing out campaign promises or genial back-slaps or red caps of courage.

Center Stage’s production is something of a modern-day experience, too. Directed by Rosa Joshi, recently named associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it’s being performed in a new version by the playwright Sean San José of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, written for Play On Shakespeare, which began as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before breaking off on its own.

Play On hires contemporary playwrights to produce new versions of Shakespeare’s plays, which it calls “translations” rather than “adaptations.” The concept can seem a bit jarring, particularly because we consider Shakespeare a genius of language. But in fact directors and companies have been fiddling with his scripts almost from the beginning, trimming for fluidity or substituting common words for archaic ones, or sometimes even providing happy endings for tragedies. And Shakespeare himself (who was a genius of language) had no qualms about basing his plays on earlier works of drama or history. How does this new “translation” of Coriolanus compare with the original? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Another difference: The pared-down cast of seven, most of whom take on ensemble roles as well as their main characters, is performed by woman or nonbinary actors, further opening the possibilities of who has power and how it’s used. Jessika D. Williams is Coriolanus, and Mari Nelson is Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia.

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Meanwhile, a doable drive north to Seattle, another modern twist on Shakespeare is on the boards at Seattle Rep, where Dámaso Rodríguez, former artistic director of Portland’s Artists Rep, is now artistic director. Fat Ham, the comic riff by James Ijames on Hamlet that won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama, carries a familiar if updated plot. Juicy’s mother has just married his uncle, and his recently demised dad’s ghost shows up at a family barbecue demanding that Juicy get off his duff and avenge his murder. What’s a poor queer Black man to do? Soliloquize?

Jesse Green, reviewing the play’s Broadway opening a year ago for The New York Times, wrote: “Fat Ham is a gloss on Hamlet — and the best kind of challenge to it, asking the same questions but coming up with different answers. That it is a raucous domestic comedy instead of a palace blood bath (and in Saheem Ali’s production, a nonstop pleasure in itself) means that despite the enduring belligerence of mankind, and especially of men, it sees a way out.”

Triumph of Women, Parts 2, 3 & More

Kate Mura in "The Play About My Father." Photo: Greg Parkinson
Kate Mura in “The Play About My Father.” Photo: Greg Parkinson

It’s spring, and across Oregon stages women are flexing their muscles, taking the leading roles, including those once assigned to men. In addition to the women carrying the action in Center Stage’s Coriolanus, Kate Mura continues her solo show The Play About My Father, which opened at the Fertile Ground Festival, through May 5 at Fuse Theatre Ensemble. Bobby Bermea talked with Mura about the show for ArtsWatch here.

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Sophia Takla, Miss Oregon 2022, plays fashionista sorority girl turned Harvard Law School whiz Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde: The Musical." Photo: Believe Photography /Stumptown Stages.
Sophia Takla, Miss Oregon 2022, plays fashionista sorority girl turned Harvard Law School whiz Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Photo: Believe Photography /Stumptown Stages.

Once upon a time movie musicals followed in the steps of Broadway stage musicals, which built an audience craving for a movie version. That’s pretty much done a flip-flop: These days stage musicals are fashioned on the success of movies that’ve proven popular enough to take a chance on adapting them for the stage.

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That’s the case with Legally Blonde: The Musical, which follows in the footsteps of the smash hit 2001 movie Legally Blonde, in which Reese Witherspoon starred as Elle Woods, a sorority queen who’s dumped by her boyfriend and goes on to take Harvard Law School by storm, discovering depths in herself she hadn’t known were there. It’s a splendid little tale of self-realization and dawning feminist triumph, told with a rollicking sense of humor and more than a little dash of stereotype-demolishing success-is-the-best-revenge.

Musical-theater specialists Stumptown Stages open a production of Legally Blonde: The Musical Friday, April 26, at downtown Portland’s Winningstad Theatre, where it’ll continue through May 19.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unwittingly gave birth to a celebratory feminist slogan in 2017 when chastising Sen. Elizabeth Warren for ignoring a Senate vote ordering her to stop speaking in her opposition to the confirmation vote for Sen. Jeff Sessions to become U.S. Attorney General. “Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell complained — and across the nation, millions cheered, and doubled down on their own persistence.

All of which leads up to Oregon Children’s Theatre’s opening April 28 of She Persisted: The Musical, at the Newark Theatre, where it’ll continue through May 26. Adapted from the book written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, the musical celebrates “female trailblazers such as Harriet Tubman, Virginia Apgar, Ruby Bridges, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Sonia Sotomayor.”

The musical runs about 75 minutes and is recommended for ages 6 and up. But, truly, I seem to hear from the cozened corners of the Senate floor: Is there no way to vote this outrage down? And should not this book be banned from school libraries? Goodness: If they see this show, what might women — and girls! — get up to next?

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From left: Blythe Woodland, Laura Hiszczynskyj, Sean Ryan Lamb and Madison Curtis in Lakewood Theatre's "9 to 5: The Musical." Photo by Triumph Photography.
From left: Blythe Woodland, Laura Hiszczynskyj, Sean Ryan Lamb and Madison Curtis in Lakewood Theatre’s “9 to 5: The Musical.” Photo by Triumph Photography.

Meanwhile, remember what we said about stage musicals following in the footsteps of hit movies? Meet 9 to 5: The Musical, stage child of the 1980 (yes, 44 years ago!) screen comedy 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in triumph over a thoroughly flummoxed Dabney Coleman.

Must be something in the coffee water. Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre opens the stage musical on Friday, April 26 (it’ll run through June 9) and it’s the second Portland area production of the show to open in the past two weeks: Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove opened its own version on April 19 and continues it through May 5. For Lakewood’s production, I see no reason not to repeat what I wrote in this space last week for Theatre in the Grove’s: “No, Dolly Parton won’t be in the show, but her songs will be. And is there ever a bad time for a rousing comedy about a group of working women giving their twerpy misogynist male boss his comeuppance? I think not.”

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Finally, Tigard/Tualatin’s Mask & Mirror Community Theatre is producing Neil Simon’s evergreen The Odd Couple: Female Version April 26-May 12. Capitalizing on the huge success of his stage and movie versions of this wonderfully neurotic comedy, Simon flipped a switch and reworked the show to give the main roles (renamed Olive Madison and Florence Unger) to woman performers. The unrelenting battle between messy and neatnik personalities remains.

A little Irish myth takes the stage

Joellen Sweeney, Claire Aldridge and Olivia Mathews in Ken Yoshikawa's "From a Hole in the Ground." Photo: Owen Carey
Joellen Sweeney, Claire Aldridge and Olivia Mathews in Ken Yoshikawa’s “From a Hole in the Ground.” Photo: Owen Carey

Corrib Theatre, Portland’s Irish-centric contemporary company, is going local with the premiere of From a Hole in the Ground, a commissioned play by Portland playwright, poet, and actor Ken Yoshikawa about, as the company puts it, “mythic figures like ghosts, fairies, and even the Púca, a morally ambiguous trickster creature from Celtic lore.”

Holly Griffith, Corrib’s artistic director and the director of Yoshikawa’s play, adds: “Ken’s exciting new play is colorful, funny, rich, and cheeky. It serves as an opportunity for us to engage with the mythic figures of old Irish lore in a context that resonates with our contemporary collective psyche. … While the play is lighthearted, fun, and kid-appropriate, its thematic palate is layered and profound.”

From a Hole in the Ground opens Friday, April 26, at the Historic Alberta House, continues through May 19, and is recommended for ages 8 and up.

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The bicoastal Rodney Hicks

Onetime Portlander Rodney Hicks, back in town of late to direct the musical Passing Strange that opened last weekend at Portland Playhouse, has an industry reading of his own new play, Inhale-Exhale, in Manhattan on April 26. Portland/Tennessee/NYC Broadway producer Corey Brunish passed along this notice from Playbill by Andrew Gans.

Hicks’s play, which Gans describes as a “dark comedy,” has gathered some high-powered talent for its reading. Actors Wayne Brady, Christopher J. Hanke, Tony nominee Crystal Lucas-Perry (Ain’t No Mo), and Tony nominee Elizabeth Stanley (Jagged Little Pill) will be directed by Josh Rhodes (Spamalot).

As an actor, Gans notes, Hicks “has been seen on Broadway in Come From Away, Rent, The Scottsboro Boys, and Jesus Christ Superstar.

… and don’t miss:

  • Ashland sinks its teeth into Macbeth. Darleen Ortega reviews the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s productions of the Scottish play and Liz Duffy Adams’ Born with Teeth, providing context along the way to the festival’s rise from the travails of the pandemic years. Also see In Ashland, a pair of winners at OSF, Ortega’s reviews of the festival’s solo shows Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender and Smote This, the other two current productions in the festival’s rotating repertory.

  • Oregon playwrights, seeding Fertile Ground. Brett Campbell profiles the Portland writing groups PDX Playwrights and LineStorm Playwrights, both of which had many shows in the recent Fertile Ground Festival of new works, and both of which are launching pads for new plays in general.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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