DramaWatch: Gunning for understanding

Chapel Theatre Collective's "Friends With Guns" tries to get past the divisive and doctrinaire. Plus: openings at Corrib and Artists Rep.

Jason Glick and Danielle Weathers, artistic leaders of Chapel Theatre Collective, appear to have a keen eye for stage literature. The company’s debut production, Anatomy of a Hug by Kat Ramsburg, paired a dramatically potent premise (a mom, released from prison because she’s dying of cancer, moves in with the daughter she was convicted of trying to kill) with emotionally astute writing.

Opening this weekend, Friends With Guns, by Stephanie Alison Walker (like Ramsburg, a Los Angeles writer), should be even more attention-grabbing. Walker digs into the increasingly heated American debate about gun possession by framing the matter in a personal, easily relatable story — and then letting people’s worst inclinations take over.

Well, at least one person’s worst inclinations.

Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Friends With Guns” is another provocative premiere for the Milwaukie company. Photo: courtesy of Chapel Theatre Collective

Shannon and Leah meet one day at the park and quickly bond over the mutual stresses of parenting and modern life. Leah is confident and comforting, and her husband Danny ticks off every box of impressive yet effortless cool. When Shannon brings her husband Josh to meet them, the warm-and-fuzzy circle of instant friendship is complete: They start making Thanksgiving plans together, and it’s only May.

But then it comes out that Leah and Danny have a blemish on their liberal bona fides: a safe full of firearms locked in the garage. Let’s just say that Josh isn’t cool with this, and complications — ranging from mildly unfortunate to downright ugly — ensue.

The script is tight, bright, smart, funny, engaging. On the page, the characters quickly come alive as the kind of folks you’d probably like. (Glick and Weathers will star alongside Claire Rigsby — who was a minor revelation in The Thanksgiving Play last year at Artists Rep — and Joseph Bertot.) Walker has a handle on a variety of gun-rights/gun-control perspectives and the skill to incorporate them in a way that feels natural to the characters. It’s a terrific piece of writing.

And boy, did it piss me off.

Certainly, the play’s rhetorical ambitions are admirable.

“If you’re anything like me, you want to at least feel in control of the world around you and you don’t,” Walker wrote in an author’s note recently posted to the Chapel Theatre Collective Facebook page. “We can’t. It’s utterly impossible to feel anything resembling control or stability when every day 100 Americans are killed with guns. We so desperately want to feel in control, because the alternative is helplessness and that feeling is just too difficult to live in. So instead we give ourselves over to rage. Outrage. Righteous indignation. Because at least it feels like we’re doing something. We’re engaged. We’re enraged. And I get it….I wrote Friends With Guns because I grew tired of the outrage– my own and everyone else’s…No matter where you stand– for guns, against guns, somewhere in the middle– you can set down the outrage and listen to the other side. Even just for the duration of this play. That’s my invitation. As Leah suggests to Shannon, ‘Set the fear down. You can pick it up when we leave.’”

Setting aside fear and self-limiting assumptions is a good thing, of course. Listening is essential. But listening to someone else’s point of view doesn’t have to mean accepting it. Walker attempts, I think, to get at a truth beneath the socio-political divisions on the gun issue — that the essence of our safety lies within human emotion and behavior, rather than with tools or rules. But in highlighting that point by emphasizing the failings of its most stalwartly left-leaning character, she implicitly weakens the credibility of his stance and let’s some very shabby arguments win the day.

In an email exchange, Glick made the point that my sort of certitude is what Walker is trying to poke helpful holes in. And there’s a sly kind of provocation at work that reminds me of the way Bruce Norris plays, for instance, have moved me from irritation to grudging admiration to whole-hearted enjoyment. In any case, I’m less sure that I’m right about gun policy than that I still have plenty to think about and that this is the kind of art that serves that purpose. So for now I’ll hold my fire.

Opening

Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking 1879 social drama A Doll’s House leaves its heroine, Norwegian housewife Nora Helmer on the precipice of a highly uncertain sort of freedom, having fled the stultifying convention of a hollow marriage. Playwright Lucas Hnath’s Tony-nominated sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2 imagines Nora’s return, 15 years later, seeking to finalize her divorce and untangle the knots of gender and relationships. Luan Schooler, Artist Rep’s director of new play development and dramaturgy, directs a promising cast of Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson, Vana O’Brien and Barbie Wu.

Corrib Theatre’s production of Four Last Things stars Alexandria Casteele as Jane, Ted Rooney as Brendan, and Jacklyn Maddux as Bob, the farm dog. You might guess that a human portrayal of a dog must be a cheap comic role, a gag, a waste of as expert a dramatic actor as Maddux. But Lisa Tierney-Keogh’s play is no laughing matter; it concerns a student who has left college in Dublin and returned to her remote family farm, where her father and their dog watch with mute alarm as she descends further into depression and despair. Maddux was as marvelous as ever a few months ago in Chapel Theatre Collective’s Anatomy of a Hug. Rooney powered last year’s Quietly for Corrib with a performance of simmering intensity. Casteele I’ve not seen, but she’s a 2015 Portland Actors Conservatory grad, so the training’s there, and director Gemma Whelan has a knack for helping actors to sharpness and clarity.

Ah, childhood nostalgia! For me, one of its pillars would have to be Jesus Christ Superstar, the influential rock opera. Just the thought of songs such as “What’s the Buzz” and “Blood Money” takes me back to high school days poring over the original concept album, to a time when the name Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t yet fill me with disgust. Stumptown Stages, it seems, does know how to love him.

Helen Raptis stars for Triangle Productions in I’ll Eat You Last, a dishy, inside-showbiz show about celebrity agent Sue Mengers whose client list included many talented artists (Gene Hackman, Bob Fosse, Gore Vidal, Candice Bergen, Mike Nichols…), and also Cher.

Northwest Children’s Theatre stalwarts Sarah Jane Hardy and John Ellingson get prehistoric with the “interactive, puppet-fueled extravaganza” The Starlings Present: Dinosaurs, suitable for theatergoers as young as three.

Closing

How much does the annual Fertile Ground festival of new works have to offer? With only three of the fest’s 11 days remaining, you still have 60-some performances to choose from.

Mike Lew’s ingeniously simple take on Shakespeare’s Richard III — reworking it into a story of high school anxieties and ambition as Teenage Dick — has been enjoying a well-reviewed and crowd-pleasing run at Artists Rep. The play itself is endearing yet uneven, and the same might be said of this Josh Hecht-directed production, which feels a tad too cartoonish in its approach to Richard’s rivals. But stage newcomer Tess Raunig provides both comic verve and engaging believability as Richard’s pal Buck, and the remarkable clarity and vulnerability of Kailey Rhodes’ performance as Richard’s love interest/victim Anne allows the play to navigate the tricky turn from comedy to tragedy.

Best line I read this week

“Don’t mess with the mammal whose fight-or-flight response involves lawyers.”

— David Hunt, as quoted in The New Yorker, on why his company’s facial-recognition research focuses on cows instead of people.

 

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

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