DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

I’ve been a fan of Eno’s work since 2007, when Devon Allen’s Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab staged his remarkable Thom Pain (based on nothing) with a memorable performance by Matt DiBiasio. (Todd Van Voris also took a brilliant turn with Thom Pain last year.) A few years later, Allen described another Eno work, the quintet of brief play-lets, Oh, the Humanity, as being about “the knowledge that we’re going to die and that language is all we have to face it, and that’s not enough.” Put a slightly more accepting shine on that and it’s not far off from describing Wakey, Wakey.

Save the “cheerun,” or: the aesthetics of ambiguity

Portland Center Stage kicked off its season last week, as it tends to do, with an expertly executed production of a big, bold musical — in this case, the stage adaptation of The Color Purple. Opening night was a rousing success, with fans shouting their appreciation at several points in the second half and at show’s end rising into a standing ovation almost as one.

Almost. I couldn’t see just many folks declined to join in that rapturous response because I was still sitting.

Even if I were the lone holdout, such black-and-white reactions seem appropriate for a story that avoids any gray areas.

To be clear, the production is thrilling in many ways, full of marvelous voices, a stellar pit band, smart and striking design, plenty of vivid acting. I think I understand why it’s such a powerful, positive experience for many. But I kind of hated it.

Us got trouble: “The Color Purple” paints every character and emotion in black and white. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“Exposition comes fast and blatant,” T.J. Acena allowed amid an enthusiastic review for ArtsWatch, “but this is a small complaint in view of the payoff of this show.” But I found the storytelling so ham-fisted that I couldn’t invest emotionally to begin with. The put-upon main character, Celie, is hardworking and virtuous. Her husband, Mister, is mean and evil (until he is humbled, then simply and fully redeemed). Celie and Mister’s mistress Shug, fall in love, apparently because Celie combs her hair without yanking. Sophia, a sassy character whose been literally beaten into broken, submissive silence, snaps right back to her former self simply by hearing Celie show some fighting spirit. And so on.

The show seeks to evoke a sense of black life in the South of a century ago, in part through its vernacular dialogue. But this seems to be a world with no children, only “cheerun” — an egregious pronunciation that stuck out awkwardly and repeatedly (interestingly, the playbill credits no dialect coach), and that annoyed me almost as much poor downtrodden Celie being forced to ration her use of verbs (“Things hard here”).

Let’s just say subtlety is not part of the formula.

By contrast, another musical that opened the same weekend — a small, unheralded show without the pedigree of Pulitzers and Tonys — thoroughly charmed me. Ordinary Days, at Broadway Rose, works in part because it’s not spending so much energy strenuously trying to tell you what to feel. It’s a fairly simple story of young New Yorkers trying to make love and life make sense, but the characters are nuanced enough (even with next to no spoken dialogue) that their arcs aren’t so obvious, our responses not so overdetermined.

One of the most affecting moments in the show (to me, anyway) comes when a stressed out graduate student spontaneously decides to throw her thesis to the winds, giving up on what little direction she has in life. Is this wise or foolhardy? A liberation or a setback? It might well be all of those, or none. And in that ambiguity is a wonderful freedom and richness.

Inside job

The accomplished Portland actor and producer Eleanor O’Brien mounts (sorry, no pun intended) Come Inside 2018, a festival of “sex-positive stories” and comedy, taking over the CoHo Theater for two weeks. You can look up all the details at the website of her Dance Naked Productions, if you like. Or read ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea’s preview here.

Meanwhile, in discretion-positive stories…

Opening

Summit Theatre, a new company based at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, makes its debut with Steven Dietz’s cleverly plotted drama, Fiction, about a pair of long-married writers whose private diaries reveal disruptive secrets. Matt Pavik directs, and has the advantage of Cecily Overman, whose compelling performances have been too-seldom seen in recent years, as one of his stars.

Mace Archer and Cecily Overman in the Steven Dietz play “Fiction” for Summit Theatre. Photo: Matt Pavik.

Though the play — coming to Imago Theatre for the next two Sunday evenings — is billed as William Shakespeare Lives, the Shakespeare in Portland website informs us that the full title actually is William Shakespeare Lives; or, William Shakespeare, a 33 year-old playwright living in Vancouver, Washington, has just opened his new play, Titus Andronicus, and it was not well-received; a comedy in three acts. Give him a life as long as that title, and the Bard probably would be writing a Netflix series right now. In any case, Nathan Wonder’s comedic monologue gives a contemporary, beer-swilling, foulmouthed playwright struggling to live a creative life.

The Portland Civic Theatre Guild opens its 2018-’19 season of readings with Foxfire, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, about Appalachian music and its commodification.

Bag & Baggage gets up to the guessing games of Ira Levin’s Tony-nominated thriller Deathtrap, directed by Scott Palmer.

Ann, and more Ann

Lee Williams, writing for The Oregonian, called Ann. the tribute to former Texas governor Ann Richards, being staged by Triangle Productions, “a biographical quilt stitched together with anecdotes and advice — and a thousand points of laughter,” and lauded the way director Don Horn and star Margie Boule “partner in a deft do-si-do through the two-hour monologue — somehow landing upon the right stride.” ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell, who covered Texas politics during Richards heyday, wasn’t so taken, though his complaints center on Holland Taylor’s script.

Apparently, though, the former view has been winning at the box office. The run has been extended a second time, with closing now set for Oct. 14.

Closing

This theater season’s opening weekend (unofficially determined) earlier this month felt like an auspicious one, with top quality shows at multiple locations. But you gotta catch ‘em while you can. Already some of those joys are about to disappear.

The biting satire Radiant Vermin at CoHo is an audacious ethical indictment of consumer culture, yet much funnier than that makes it sound. At Artists Rep, a gritty, heartfelt story of labor under duress plays out in Skeleton Crew. And out in Clackamas, David Lindsay-Abaire’s barbed comedy Ripcord gives us an engaging, elderly odd couple.

Seriously. Get out there. Time’s a-wastin’.

Best line I read this week

From a calendar item in The New Yorker (Sept. 24), about an appearance by the Oregon musician Michael Hurley:

“Hurley had a start turn on the collaborative album ‘Have Moicy!,’ a mid-seventies touchstone of outsider folk that sounds like a children’s party being crashed by a pack of beatniks.”

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

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