Seattle Opera Pagliacci

DramaWatch: Going to an ethical dilemma in St. Ives; a midsummer romp

Lee Blessing life-and-death drama, Shakespeare's Puck & the gang, "Full Monty," and last chance for the fine "Mary Jane" and "True Story."

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Erin McGarry (left) and Quigley Provost-Landrum in Lee Blessing’s “Going to St. Ives.” Image courtesy 21ten Theatre.

“I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.”

– from the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, as translated from Greek by Francis Adams (1849), quoted on Britannica.com

***

What’s called the Hippocratic oath has existed in various forms over the centuries, but in recent times is best known for one seemingly simple kernel of advice: Do no harm.

Ah, but there’s the rub. How are we to know, beforehand and with certainty, what harm may come, from what source? And what of harm that may foster greater good, as the surgeon’s violation of the flesh can turn out to be the redemption of the body?

Going to St. Ives, a 1996 play by Lee Blessing, begins in the realm of medicine – a woman has come to England for treatment from a renowned eye doctor, and visits her home for a conversation the day prior. But as it grapples with questions of how true healing can take place, matters of ethics come to the fore, dragging with them the legacies of imperialism, the terrors of autocracy, and the complications of forging relationships and choosing actions in a world ineluctably divided by politics.

21ten Theatre, which a year or two ago took over the Southeast Portland space previously known as the Shoebox Theatre, is staging Blessing’s play through June 24, with company co-founder Ted Rooney directing. The production stars Quigley Provost-Landrum — who, though absent from the stage in recent years, has done fine work in the past at Artists Rep and other theaters — and Erin McGarry.

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Blessing, a Reed College grad (class of 1971), has had a much-lauded career, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship among other honors. Portland’s Profile Theatre dedicated its 2010-’11 season to Blessing’s work, including a one-night reading of Going to St. Ives. Of that play, Variety has written that “Blessing’s plays often deal with the exploration of moral, ethical and social dilemmas in an intimate context. But his characters and story here are richer and deeper than his usual intriguing reflections. In taking the personal and giving it a global reach, he presents a work that is haunting, healing and soul-stirring.”

Those dilemmas, in this case, are tricky ones.

May N’Kame comes to see Dr. Cora Gage about her failing eyesight. But Dr. Gage wants something in return beyond her usual fee. N’Kame is the mother of an African dictator, and Gage asks her to intercede on behalf of some colleagues of hers imprisoned in N’Kame’s home country. The cause of healing linked to the cause of justice, presumably.

But N’Kame herself turns out to be more than a medical tourist. Distressed by her son’s brutality toward her fellow citizens, she wants the good doctor to provide the poison with which to kill him. A surgical form of justice, perhaps.

As the two formidable women talk over tea at Gage’s home, and then later at N’Kame’s, the complications – personal, cultural and historical as well as ethical – steep to a dark, bracing brew.

“What intrigues Blessing,” a reviewer for the website TheatreMania wrote, “is not the murder of a man who himself has green-lighted the deaths of thousands and has even attended some of the more hideous killings; rather, it’s the conflict and the bond between two strong women who collude in a crime that many would applaud but who must endure its psychological and political after-effects.”

Opening

Ken Yoshikawa as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

Ranking extremely high on lists of all-time great fairy stories and all-time great love stories, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perennial audience favorite. Getting back in touch with its roots as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage takes us back into that enchanted forest, with a cast admirably mixed in terms of race and gender (for instance, Tyler Andew Jones as Helena, Treasure Lunan as Lysander, etc.), under the direction of artistic director Marissa Wolf.

***

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Warm weather has arrived in Oregon, so it’s time to take off a few layers of clothing. Or you can just go to an air-conditioned theater and watch someone else do it. Stumptown Stages presents The Full Monty, the stage-musical version of a hit 1997 film about unemployed steelworkers turned strippers, featuring a book by the great Terrence McNally and songs by fellow Tony winner David Yazbek.

The flattened stage

“Unlike the heroines of tragedies, who are trapped in terrible circumstances, the heroines of comedies find ways to escape those circumstances. I’m not trying to victim blame, but if Desdemona or Juliet or Ophelia happened upon a forest and some pants perhaps things could have been different.”

“Thing is, Hermia jonesin’ for some of that Lysander lovin’. So she and her boy toy are all like, ‘F— this! Let’s peace out to the woods and get hitched on the DL.”

Closing

In a program note for Third Rail Rep’s production of  Mary Jane, an exquisitely unspectacular yet moving play by Amy Herzog, Pancho Savery, the show’s dramaturg, evokes the plays of Chekhov, “in which nothing much happens, but where everything matters.”

He’s right, I think, to link Herzog to that tradition of finding the profound within the quotidian. We follow Mary Jane, a single mother caring for her severely ill young child, through a series of scenes in which she chats with other women – nurses, similarly situated mothers, etc – first in her Queens apartment, then in a hospital. Her son’s medical challenges are the framework, but aren’t really dramatized; he never appears onstage. The story is just a look at how folks get by in trying times.

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Rebecca Lingafelter (left) and Miriam Schwartz in “Mary Jane.” Photo: Owen Carey

Yet, in that, it speaks with an understated eloquence that’s nearly breathtaking. Directed by JoAnn Johnson with an evident warmth and care to match Mary Jane’s parenting, this show has an unforced verisimilitude the equal of anything I can recall seeing onstage. Much of that is due to a perfectly calibrated performance by Rebecca Lingafelter in the title role, as a woman who faces down persistent duress with a determinedly sunny disposition and concern for others. Mary Jane is neither Pollyanna nor steely saint, and Lingafelter subtly shows us sadness and weariness and frustration as well as a remarkable gift for rising above them.

It’s fascinating in that way as a character study, but Johnson and Lingafelter are right, too, in seeing the play as a tribute to the community of women – caregivers all, in their way – whose lives intersect with Mary Jane’s. This production features fine work all around in these roles, but none more affecting than by Diane Kondrat, impeccable at every moment as either Mary Jane’s tough-talking/warm-hearted building super, or a quietly empathetic Buddhist chaplain.

***

Joshua Weinstein, Claire Rigsby, and Setareki Wainiqolo in “True Story.” Photo: Lava Alapai

The E.M. Lewis play about to end an entertaining run at the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio, in a production by Artists Repertory Theatre, is called True Story. It is not, we’ll note, called Plausible Story.

True Story is a crime story and a mystery. As genres go, I’m not especially a fan of either – but that might have helped me enjoy the show.

The tale concerns a struggling novelist who reluctantly accepts an assignment from his editor to ghostwrite the memoir of a man recently acquitted in a high-profile murder case. With plotting that shifts and blends time frames, the questions we start with (Did the man really kill his wife? Is his wife really dead?) open the door to others (has another crime been committed? Who? Why?), and the air swirls with literary references and ethical conundrums.

The minutiae of a detective procedural isn’t Lewis’ main concern here, but the story asks for far more than its share of logical forbearance, shall we say; the plot hinges on some unreasonably compressed timelines and some assumptions that don’t withstand even the briefest thought. Friends of mine more inclined to mystery stories found such lapses disqualifying. I shook my head but just went with it.

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Director Luan Schooler treats it as a noir pastiche, leaning into the dishy, throwback rom-com dialogue between Joshua Weinstein as the Scotch-swilling protagonist and Maria Porter as his exasperated yet indulgent editor, and giving the atmosphere some topspin via the sly wit of Matthew M. Nielsen’s music and Sharath Patel’s dovetailing sound design. All that, plus a compellingly slippery characterization from Setareki Wainiqolo as the putative, OJ-like bad guy, make for an enjoyable exploration, not so much of truth but of the forces that grip our imaginations.

Under new management (for now)

​​The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been undergoing a period of unusual tumult, with leadership departures, staff restructurings and emergency fundraising pleas falling hard upon one another over the past several months. In what might be a move toward renewed stability, the festival announced on Thursday that it has a new interim executive director, filling a key post that’s been vacant since the January departure of David Schmitz.

Tyler Hokama, interim leader at OSF. Photo courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tyler Hokama, a technology and business operations executive who retired to Ashland in 2016, will take over the business side of the Northwest’s premier cultural institution, providing leadership to, in the words of OSF board vice-chair Sachta Card, “drive strategic financial planning, foster local partnerships, and enhance operational efficiency, ensuring a bright and sustainable future for our organization.” 

The festival’s press release about Hokama’s appointment also trumpeted the success of the fundraising campaign called The Show Must Go On: Save Our Season, Save OSF, which it said had brought in $2.7 million since it was launched in April. But that target either is fuzzy or just looks that way because it keeps moving. The April 11 announcement of the campaign said it had “a goal of raising $2.5M to help complete the 2023 season successfully” and that it “must raise $1.5M by June for the 2023 season to continue.”

However, according to Thursday’s release, “(w)ith the first critical phase of the fundraising campaign complete, the company is now focusing on reaching its annual fundraising and ticket sales goals by the end of the fiscal year on October 31. This will mean raising an additional $7.3 million which will allow OSF to complete its season as planned.” 

Presumably there are meaningful, if unspecified, distinctions between continuing the season, completing the season, and completing the season “as planned.” But it makes OSF sound like the distressed damsel in a silent-film serial, lashed to the tracks at the end of every episode, the train continually threatening. 

Season’s greetings

For those who wish to look ahead, Artists Rep has announced four plays for its 2023-2024 season. Don’t pull out your planning calendar yet, though. The run dates of the shows aren’t included – nor, for that matter, is any info on directors or casts. This also means that it’s unclear which show comes last on the schedule (Diana Burbano’s Sapience, perhaps?) Why would that matter? Well, if construction goes as scheduled, the final show of next season is on track to be the first production presented in the company’s re-built home on Southwest Morrison Street.  

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The best line I read this week

“For many of us who love experimental theatre and the deep fringe, soap operas were a gateway entertainment. Any given arc on, say, ‘Days of Our Lives’—remember when Marlena was possessed twice, and she (re)married the priest who exorcised her?—can go toe-to-toe with the avant-garde’s dream-logic, postmodern approach to character and its calculated use of shock.”

– Helen Shaw, writing in The New Yorker, and proving her point with a quote from the Julia Izumi play Regretfully, So the Birds Are: “When you’re an Asian adoptee whose parents won’t let you or your adopted siblings know what country you each separately come from, and you’re also a human disaster who lives in your childhood New Jersey home because you can’t keep a job and you keep getting dumped, and your pill-popping mom is awaiting trial for arson and manslaughter for setting your dad on fire because he cheated on her multiple times, does your genetically unrelated brother and sister being in love with each other really seem that bad?”

***

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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