In 2009, Artists Repertory Theatre staged a production of The Seafarer, by the Irish dramatist Conor McPherson, and on opening night I happened to bring along one of my sisters, who seldom saw live theater. At the end of the show, after the audience finished its ovation and we walked out of the auditorium, my sister turned to me with a look of stunned wonderment.
“Is everything you see like that?,” she asked.
“Oh no!,’ I replied. “That one was pretty special.”
And so it remains in my memory. In the 15 years or so that I’ve written about theater in Oregon, that Seafarer still stands out as one of the most impressive, most marvelously realized productions I’ve experienced.
In part, that was because of a Dream Team of performers brought together by the veteran director Allen Nause: talented Portland favorites Tobias Andersen, Todd Van Voris and Leif Norby, and – in the crucial leading roles – Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Bill Geisslinger and Denis Arndt, an OSF vet, a founder of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, a titan of the regional stage. (I recall mentioning to Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s founder and my predecessor as theater critic at The Oregonian, how good I thought Van Voris had been. “He didn’t have any choice,” Johnson shot back sternly. “He was onstage with Denis Arndt!”)
But surely much of the magic came from the play itself. McPherson won an Olivier Award for his 1997 breakthrough The Weir and numerous nominations thereafter for Olivier, Tony, Drama Critics Circle and other awards. And audiences in the Portland area have seen fine productions of his plays, including St. Nicholas (Corrib Theatre), This Lime Tree Bower (Our Shoes Are Red/the Performance Lab) and Shining City (Third Rail Rep). All of these plays are fabulous, yet to my mind none quite matches the narrative, emotional and even metaphysical richness of The Seafarer – which begins as just a gathering of alcohol-soaked ne’er-do-wells for a Christmas Eve card game but soon reveals itself as supernatural battle of wills and wits.
Over the past year and a half, Imago Theatre’s Jerry Mouawad has delved into the McPherson book, staging both Shining City and The Birds (adapted from the same story behind the famed Alfred Hitchcock film). Now he turns his attention to The Seafarer, opening Friday.
Mouawad says he doesn’t really know what cemented his desire to stage the play, but he’s clear about how he sees the story: “There’s a sense of the metaphysical, the spiritual…It’s a play about redemption.”
At first, you might not see any of the characters as particularly likely candidates for that.
Sure, our central character, a fellow called Sharky Harkin, is trying not to drink. But he’s recently lost his job and come home to take care of his older brother Richard, recently blinded. And Richard and the friends who’ve been invited over for a night of poker have no such compunctions about imbibing. There’s their longtime friend Ivan, and a kind of bland bloke named Nicky, whose presence adds a minor bit of tension, as he has taken up with Sharky’s ex. That Nicky’s been invited just adds to the list of things that Sharky and Richard fight about. But what really gets under Sharky’s skin is that Ivan and Nicky have shown up with a stranger they’ve just met, a Mr. Lockhart, who’s dapper and dignified, at least compared to this slovenly crew. And though Sharky doesn’t recognize him, he insists they’ve met before.
Everyone here seems to live a sordid life. But Sharky’s past, we learn, includes both grave mistakes and lucky breaks, and Lockhart’s arrived to balance the scales.
“Who are you again?” Sharky asks him, when the others have left the room. His devilish reply makes the game’s stakes plain: “I’m the son of the morning, Sharky. I’m the snake in the garden. I’ve come here for your soul.”
“One of the things McPherson does in the play is he creates a mythology, really, with Christianity as its base,” Mouawad says. “He develops this idea that the devil leaves his realm – which is very cold and icy instead of hot – only on Christmas and Easter to conduct his dealings with humans. He hates humans.
“What’s interesting is that this family – the brothers and their friends – have had a rough upbringing and they’re sort of broken. But there is a lot of good in them. I don’t know that you can call it an everyday family, but let’s call it a McPherson family. In one sense it’s a family that has fallen apart. But in another it’s a family that’s beginning to come back together – even if it’s only Sharky who has any sense of what’s happening.
“I don’t think McPherson is the kind of playwright who wraps things up and gives you a resolution. It comes down to little moments and details that allow you to see the possibility that Sharky should be forgiven.”
Mouawad’s production will feature the terrific Portland actor Danny Bruno as Lockhart and Jeff Giberson as Sharky, along with Sean Doran, Tory Mitchell and Chris Brantley. Together they’ll play their hand with a great story. No bluffing.
The flattened stage
“According to the National Catholic Register, demonic activity is currently on the rise.” So too, it seems, is The Seafarer, as that quote comes from the director of another production of the play onstage these days, at a theater in Tucson. In any case, that pre-show talk goes deep into the Devil and the details.
Here the playwright himself talks about the world of The Seafarer – a realm of drink and guilt and the murky mysticism of the Irish psyche. (But be warned: After a brief glimpse of one of the play’s scenes, around the 11-minute mark, the program abruptly shifts to the unspeakable horror of Jersey Boys.)
History so often encourages and disappoints us at once. For instance, that the play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is considered a groundbreaking work in terms of well-rounded representation of lesbian characters and that it premiered no earlier than 1980. Written by Jane Chambers, it’s the story of a set of women at a de facto lesbian enclave, negotiating relationships and other life journeys.
Triangle Productions presents it as a reading in its ongoing PDX Pride Series. Stephanie Mulligan, one of the linchpins of Artists Repertory Theatre in its heyday under Allan Nause, directs.
Trade, playwright Mark O’Halloran’s deceptively taut examination of the emotional struggles of a closeted Dublin family man buying an hour with a rent boy in a drab hotel, is precise and powerful theatermaking – of the kind that’s a specialty of the Irish-focused company Corrib. Damon Kupper’s performance as the quietly, internally beleaguered character known merely as Older Man is well worth fitting into your schedule at short notice.
Though I don’t love it as much as such Will Eno masterpieces as Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Middletown, the playwright’s Oh, the Humanity, and other good intentions, a quintet of philosophically-linked short pieces, is an intriguing and entertaining example of his witty, linguistically adroit, and emotionally potent modernism. The Portland State University theater department presents the work, under the direction of the ever-astute Devon Allen.
For a theater as large and regionally significant as Portland Center Stage, each season must accomplish many things. It can’t quite manage the trick famously attributed to Shakespeare – the ability to be all things to all people – but it has to try to head in that direction.
Accordingly, the just-announced PCS 2023-’24 season covers a lot of bases, from classical to campy, the political to the romantic. There should be something for you to sink your teeth into, whether you’re fascinated by vampires or just a good sandwich.
Particularly exciting (from this writer’s perspective, anyway) is Heidi Schreck’s Pulitzer finalist What the Constitution Means to Me, a personal window into the most profound questions about our nation; a production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, featuring a new translation out of the modernizing program Play On Shakespeare; and Clyde’s, a comedy by the Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage.
Portlander Anthony Hudson, also known as the audacious drag clown Carla Rossi, presents the first public reading from the forthcoming memoir Looking for Tiger Lily, adapted from the justly acclaimed stage show of the same name.
The best line I read this week
“If you haven’t written something worth criticizing, you haven’t written something worthwhile.”
– Scott Hershovitz, in his book Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, as quoted in The New York Times. A sentiment that offers a ray of hope, at least, for the writer of…
The worst line I read this week
“Dance like you finally forget/Dance like the saint doing bad things/Throw those thighs around.”
– lyrics, by Mark Eitzel (formerly of the middling alt-rock band American Music Club), from the musical Cornelia Street, as quoted in Helen Shaw’s review for The New Yorker.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.