DramaWatch: Drammys for all

This year's Portland theater awards put the spotlight on inclusion. Plus: "Indecent" opens in Ashland, "Wicked" flies back into town.

The annual Drammy Awards ceremony, which celebrates outstanding work in Portland-area theater, is a warm and welcoming event. How welcoming? Well, so much so that, after one acting award was announced, the evening’s host, Carla Rossi, observed, “That is the only instance in which it is acceptable to rise and cheer at the words ‘Nazi sympathizer.’”

Drag clown Carlo Rossi was emcee at an inclusionary Drammy Award ceremony. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Of course, the assembled theater artists and fans at last week’s party at The Armory weren’t cheering a Nazi sympathizer, but rather the portrayal of one, by Michael J. Teufel, who picked up a trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as an unsavory character in Cabaret. Actual Nazis and their sympathizers weren’t among the welcome. As that production of Cabaret, by Fuse Theatre Ensemble, turned into the night’s big winner, acceptance speeches were peppered with what came to seem like the show’s unlikely mantra: “Fuck fascism!”

Or maybe not so unlikely, considering that the night otherwise was so much about inclusion and acceptance. Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant, whose scrappy troupe took home seven Drammys in all, made passionate demands for companies to hire queer and non-binary artists. There were lengthy testimonials – along with cash grants to Portland Playhouse, Corrib Theatre, Portland Center Stage and PassinArt – from representatives of Advance Gender Equity in the Arts. Kristen Mun, winning for Outstanding Violence Design (what we used to call fight direction) in defunkt theatre’s Girl in the Red Corner, thanked the theater community for not letting appearances get in the way: “It didn’t matter that I was smaller than everyone or younger than everyone, or a woman of color in a world of large white men, you never questioned me.” 

Rossi, in one of several advance plugs for the drag clown’s Artists Rep-bound cabaret show Looking for Tiger Lily, suggested a pointed, if tongue-in-cheek, approach to gender equity. “That’s why I wrote several roles for white men — who all die.”

Artistic Director Rusty Tennant (in blue checked jacket) and the company of Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Cabaret were big winners. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Inclusion goes only so far, of course, when you’re picking winners. This remains the case, despite the odd on-stage apologia delivered by new Drammy selection committee co-chairs Tamara Carroll and Jessica Dart, who took unnecessary pains to assure us that they know the whole process is unavoidably subjective.

The full list of those winners – heavy on Cabaret and Girl in the Red Corner – can be found at the Drammy web site. From the vantage point of my subjectivity (taking into account that I didn’t see nearly enough of the shows considered), the committee surely got it right in giving Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play to Bobby Bermea, whose small but crucial role in Fences at Portland Playhouse was such a marvel. (“I had a director who wasn’t afraid to tell me I don’t know everything,” Bermea said amid his thanks.) It was heartening to see the underappreciated Heath Koerschgen win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play for his part in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Jason and the Argonauts, and to see Sara Jean Accuardi’s emotionally astute and smartly constructed The Delays be honored as Outstanding Original Script.

Of course there also were what appear – to my eyes and tastes – to be unconscionable omissions: No nods at all to Scott Yarbrough’s direction of the tricky comedy Radiant Vermin at CoHo, or La’Tevin Alexander’s breathtaking performance in Topdog/Underdog at the Chapel Theatre. But you can’t include everybody.

Stan Foote, who is retiring as artistic director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, received a Lifetime Achievement Drammy Award. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

The Drammy organizers were smart to include Rossi (Anthony Hudson when not in elaborate stage guise), a quick, caustic, engagingly funny host. A mock “Drammy FAQ” from comic actor Jason Rouse also provided some laughs (“Can I buy a Drammy? Of course you can! Chris Murray has about 30!”). And of course there were moments of unintended humor, such as when Outstanding Sound Design winner Mark Valadez flubbed Rebecca Lingafelter’s last name amid his thanks. Lingafelter directed the Third Rail Rep production of Annie Baker’s John that Valadez worked on; she’s also his wife.


OPENING


Shayna Blass and Rebecca S’Manga Frank in Paula Vogel’s Indecent. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Paula Vogel’s play Indecent premiered Off-Broadway three years ago and had a Tony-winning Broadway run the following year, but the production now joining the Oregon Shakespeare Festival lineup isn’t an import so much as a homecoming: The play was commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions history-play project (along with Yale Repertory Theatre), one of the hallmarks of OSF under just-departed artistic director Bill Rauch.

History and theatricality go hand-in-hand particularly well in this case. Indecent is based on the controversy that flared up around Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which faced a 1923 obscenity trial over its inclusion of a kissing scene involving two women. Vogel serves up a rich array of issues. As Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times wrote, the play “explores the history of Jews in Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century, the role of the arts in moving society forward and the way attitudes toward homosexuality have served as a barometer for other forms of societal oppression.”

The Tony won by the Broadway production went to Rebecca Taichman as director, but Shana Cooper, who is in charge of this staging, has proven herself adept and creative in a handful of previous Ashland shows. Having a cast that includes the likes of Linda Alper and Anthony Heald certainly helps any endeavor.

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Mariand Torres as Elphaba in the latest national tour of Wicked. Photo: Joan Marcus

From the moment I first heard that Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked was going to be turned into a musical, I was skeptical. A philosophical inquiry into ethics and politics framed as a sort of revisionist backstory to The Wizard of Oz, Maguire’s book is an imaginative fantasy but a rather sober one. How could it weather the transformation into Broadway spectacle?

Before I saw the show, I heard the songs, and found them dreadful — trite, cloying, teen-pandering dross. When a Broadway touring company touched down in town in 2009, I was struck first by the scale of the production design, then by the relentlessly cutesy tone of the adaptation.

And yet, I slowly found myself being won over. Though songwriter Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman tilted the story away from power politics and toward the fraught friendship between Glinda the Good Witch and the green-skinned, West-bound Elphaba, in a roundabout way they wound up evoking similar questions about the nature of evil, the social and political uses of language, the role of relationships in ethical judgement, and so on. Even those songs somehow worked well in the context of the show.

And anyway, who cares what I think? Wicked has been a colossal hit. And so it’s back around again in the Broadway in Portland series, taking up residence in the Keller Auditorium for much of the month. 


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”
– novelist Edward St. Aubyn, as quoted in The New York Times Magazine

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