DramaWatch: Lighting the Fuse on Arthur Miller

A fresh look at "A View From the Bridge" highlights a busy theater week that also boasts musicals, Greek epics and scary Halloween treats.

In a drafty, uninsulated warehouse on an autumn night, the temperature can drop faster than you might expect.

But theater folk are a hardy lot. So the cast of A View From the Bridge, the latest production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, simply goes about its work at the start of a recent rehearsal. Actors mill about the cavernous space, running lines and warming up Italian accents. Soon, Rusty Tennant, one of the show’s two co-directors, gathers the performers and outlines a few spatial issues about the set — mostly a large circle of cream-colored carpet and some surrounding chalk lines. During fight call, Tennant adjusts the action so that no one will fall into the small lamps set on the floor around the front edge of the carpet.


“John’s gonna be in a different place, so…,” Tennant says, until lead actor Ernie Lijoi looks up with an absent-minded, “What?”

“I’m so glad that you’re listening to me. Finally,” Tennant replies, to chuckles all around.


“It’s a rare occurrence,” Lijoi says, “so take advantage of it.”

The lawyer Alfieri (Michael J. Teufel, center) counsels a frustrated Eddie Carbone (Ernie Lijoi, right) in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge. Photo: Rusty Tennant

Productions of Arthur Miller plays definitely are not a rare occurrence. But Fuse has a way of making even the familiar seem special. Last season’s production of Cabaret, which ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson called “a rousing night of theater that ends on a powerfully tragic note,” led the company to a whopping seven Drammy Awards. And somewhat in the way that show used a text-appropriate location, with Southeast Portland’s Funhouse Lounge as sweaty stand-in for the Kit-Kat Lounge, this time around Fuse seeks to evoke the rough-edged milieu of dockworker Eddie Carbone with an unusual choice of venue.

Fuse is staging A View From the Bridge in a huge, open room at Northwest Marine Artworks, a sprawling industrial relic that once housed Northwest Marine Iron Works, which machined large parts for ships, bridges and the like. These days, portions of it have been turned into warrens of artists studios (including workspaces for such local theater contributors as Tim Stapleton and Susan Banyas). The area that Fuse is using looks like it could be a small-plane hangar, with an arched ceiling perhaps 40-feet high, its dingy off-white walls mottled with spots of bare wood from recent pressure washing. Fuse had to bring in a small electrical grid for the show, and during the rehearsal, a few heat lamps and propane tanks stand off to the side, near the massive sliding doors. (You’ll want to bundle up, as if for an outdoor show.)

“I wanted a sense of their world,” Tennant says of the site choice. Even though the story takes place mostly in and around Eddie’s apartment, the rough surfaces and imposing scale of the space seems to speak to something about the characters’ lives. “I think the work they do on the docks really informs the way they act in their home.”

One of Miller’s finest plays, A View From the Bridge is a blue-collar family drama with something of the quality of epic tragedy. (In a way, Tennant’s spare scenic design recalls the acclaimed 2015 production by Belgian director Ivo van Hove, a tense, abstract treatment somewhere between Greek tragedy and noh drama.) Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, works hard and is proud to take care of others — his wife, her orphaned teen-age niece, and, not long into the play, two of his wife’s cousins arriving illegally from Italy. His interest in the niece, however, has become more than paternal, and her romance with one of the newcomers disrupts Eddie’s sense of loyalty and justice.

“We’re talking about immigration,” co-director Sara Fay Goldman says about why she and Tennant chose this play for this time. “At the heart of it is someone who feels like something they own is being taken away by someone coming into this country.”

“The play says so much,” Tennant adds, “about how selective we are with the people we choose to demonize.”

Tennant and Goldman, who’ve worked on Fuse projects together for years, in various roles, talk fast and finish each other’s sentences, evidence of what they say is a shared vernacular and compatible artistic outlooks. They meant staging an Arthur Miller classic to be a departure for Fuse, but say it turned out not to be that way. 

“We kind of thought we were taking a leap away from our usual classics or queer theater, like, ‘Hey, we’re doing white-guy work!’,” Tennant chuckles. But in Miller’s script they’ve found familiar issues: the persistence of misogyny and white-male privilege, the uses of coded language by marginalized groups, the “othering” of both immigrants and sexual minorities…

“‘He’s not right!,’” Goldman quotes from the script, a charge Eddie makes repeatedly about Catherine’s fair-haired love interest. “(It’s a culture in which) we’re not saying he’s homesexual, we’re saying he’s wrong.

“It turns out,” Tennant says, “we’re doing the same sort of work we’ve always done, in that sense.”

With Fuse, that can be seen as a good thing. Since the big success of Cabaret (“After a decade of shows, it felt like people were honoring all that work, not just that one show,” Tennant says of the Drammy haul), they say more people express interest in their work not so much because of what play it is but because it’s Fuse that’s doing it. And despite the difference in tone and style, they see A View From the Bridge as a continuation of that invigorating spirit.

“It’s certainly not the party that Cabaret was,” Tennant says. “But we think that it’ll reach people in the same kind of way.”

A busy Slate of plays

Playwright Lauren Gunderson is the subject of a profile published this week by Slate that examines her peculiar status as both the most frequently produced playwright in the country and an “emerging playwright” with no Broadway credit just about to get her first New York City premiere, with a play called The Half-Life of Marie Curie.

“According to American Theatre’s just-released list, in the 2019–20 season, 33 different productions of Lauren Gunderson plays are going up at theaters around the country,” Dan Kois writes.” That’s 15 more than the second-place playwright on the list, Lauren Yee. Indeed, Gunderson has dominated American theater for several years: Last year, she finished just behind Hnath on the list, and she also topped the rankings the year before.” 

Just in Oregon, for example, within a few weeks in late spring of 2018, audiences might have caught Gunderson’s I and You (a deep meditation on life, death and poetry, disguised as a tame teen romance) at Artists Rep in Portland and Book of Will (a zippy history of the challenges in assembling Shakespeare’s “First Folio”) at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Ben Jonson (Daniel T. Parker) reveals his substantial eulogy to Richard Burbage, much to the bemused surprise of his fellow mourners (Ensemble), in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Kois puts part of Gunderson’s gangbusters regional success down to good relationships with, among others, Portland’s own Marissa Wolf:

“Gunderson owes the torrent of productions over the past half-decade to the regional theaters that fall in love with her work and program it over and over. Gunderson assiduously built those relationships, and at this point, you can’t swing a cat in the small world of regional theater artistic directors without hitting someone who’s known Gunderson for years and eagerly programs her work. Marissa Wolf was the artistic director at a tiny theater in San Francisco, Crowded Fire, when she commissioned Gunderson’s The Taming, which premiered in 2013. Now she’s the AD at Portland Center Stage, where her first season showcases Gunderson’s Jane Austen sequel Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” 

Kois also discusses the differences between New York theater and the regional circuit in terms of audience tastes and habits, and makes a good case for Gunderson’s work as, yes, a bit schematic and middlebrow, but emotionally satisfying.

Opening

Nothing is certain, we’ve told one another for centuries, but death and taxes. Our current Commander in Chief makes me wonder about the latter, though, and who knows — maybe you’re the first human with the miracle immortality mutation. (If so, best of luck, dude.)

For the time being, though, the title of the latest show by the Reformers sounds entirely reasonable: We’re All Gonna Die

Being generally averse to all things Halloween, I’ve yet to catch one of this troupe’s productions, but each has seemed to create a ripple of excitement in the theatre community. They’re short, site-specific, immersive and innovative — and reportedly quite scary, in the best of ways. This one, in the rather ghostly setting of the Lloyd Center mall, “promises equal parts laughter, fright and gross otherworldly creatures!”


With its Shakespearean heart and American mid-century swagger, all dusted with the magic of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is, of course, an unassailable classic. And if its ubiquity makes it seem like a safe programming choice, well, a cast of 26 might make any producer just a tad nervous. Stumptown Stages brings it to the Winnie all the same.


According to the promotional materials that co-presenters Boom Arts and Hand2Mouth are using to promote Hidden Stories, by the French company Begat Theater, the French-language Swiss daily L’Impartial called the production a “completely new experience which must absolutely be seen.”

Perhaps I’m having a translation problem, but I’m just not convinced that it’s possible to have a completely new experience. And if this somehow is such a thing, how are we to make any sense of it? Ignore the hyperbole, and this still sounds at least vaguely like works presented in Portland’s TBA festival a decade ago. 

None of which means it isn’t an intriguing theatrical prospect. It’s an immersive affair, outdoors, somewhere downtown (location revealed with ticket purchase). As the show description puts it, “the audience, supplied with headphones, is temporarily endowed with the power to hear the thoughts of certain passers-by and to follow them into the unknown.” Despite the French origins of the project (the audio is available in French or English), it features two Portland natives, Karin Holmstrom and Dion Doulis, and an original soundtrack by Portlander Peter Holmstrom of the Dandy Warhols.


You might think of it as The Iliad going on an odyssey. Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative will be staging An Iliad, the compact, one-actor adaptation created by Denis O’Hare (best-known from HBO’s True Blood) and Lisa Peterson, which re-shapes the Homeric epic  for solo storyteller and contemporary concerns about the costs of war. Directed by Patrick Walsh and starring Paul Susi, it opens on Sunday evening at West Hills Friends Church, but then moves around to a half-dozen other locations. A few of the performances are open to the public; others, such as at Reed College and at Oregon State Penitentiary, are inside affairs.


Whether by natural law (description) or civil law (edict), any attempt to represent the culture of Louisiana seems to require a gumbo metaphor. Oh, hey — here’s one right in the title! Gumbo…a steel magnolia in the Rose City is a solo show by Louisiana native Shelley Tate, in which she uses multiple characters, “educational stations” and audience interaction to bring alive her Cajun homeland and how it compares with Oregon in regard to social justice. Dorinda Toner directs.


I’ve always tended to consider October a lovely month. But what do I know? To lots of folks — Readers Theatre Repertory included — it’s a time of (or at least for)  terror. Randy Patterson performs Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart, adapted and directed by David Berkson, this weekend at Blackfish Gallery. 

Closing

Considering the grim reality it details — the practice of keeping unwed mothers as virtual prison-laborers in laundries run by the Catholic Church in Ireland — the Corrib Theatre production Eclipsed declines to come on dark and dire. Instead, its slow-simmering first act feels surprisingly lighthearted, even as flecks of inner turmoil show through the characters’ charming facades. After intermission, though, the moral and psychological horrors no longer can be held at bay by cheerful Elvis impersonations or the half-measures of a sympathetic novice.

Patricia Burke Brogan’s script has its weaknesses (that first act feels sometimes more slack than subtle, and an unsatisfying framing device steals power from both the beginning and end of the play), but Gemma Whelan’s uses music and movement to great effect, knows how to play the story’s tonal shadows,  and draws terrific performances from her ensemble cast, with especially vivid turns by Jamie M. Rea, Lucy Paschall and Lorraine Bahr.


Streetwise spectacle: In the Heights at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory
 

Reviewing for ArtsWatch, Shawna Lipton described In the Heights as “a soapy quotidian dramedy,” yet also as “a high-energy entertainment with an impressive ensemble cast” and “stunning, virtuosic dancers.” On balance, a big win. Especially for Portland Center Stage, which invested in this ambitious co-production with Milwaukee Rep, Seattle Rep and the Cincinnati Playhouse, and got a season-opening show that long ago sold out for the rest of its run.


Unless you have a way to do the Time Warp back to a few weeks ago, Sunday will be your last chance to catch Lakewood’s production of the indefatigable camp classic The Rocky Horror Show.


No matter how much drama you’re going through, or how much fun you’re having, eventually it’s nice for the home front to settle down and get back to normal. Perhaps it’s getting to that point for whoever the homeowners may be who’ve lent their inner-Southeast Portland home to Speculative Drama for “The Lake House Hamlet,” the plucky troupe’s immersively staged, contemporary interpretation of a play by…oh, I know his name’s here somewhere, but there’s too much, er, drama on my desk.


Plying the high-sea in search of treasure sounds like fun, but not so much once the season turns dark and cold. So this seems like the right time for How I Became a Pirate, at Northwest Children’s Theatre for a few more shows, to head back to port — or perhaps in this case, hidden cove.

The flattened stage

The modern hobby of binge-watching TV series isn’t one I’ve much indulged in, but once I happed upon an episode of the multi-part Ken Burns documentary “Country Music,” watching the rest in quick succession seemed the only reasonable response. Among the many joys the program offers is a reminder of Minnie Pearl, who I’d known of since childhood but never really paid attention to.  A character created by the actress Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, Minnie Pearl was a regular on the corn-pone-comedy TV show “Hee Haw,” which in our household was viewed with derision. But much as I later came to see the brilliance of that show’s hosts, the musicians Buck Owens and Roy Clark, I’ve now realized what a comedic gem was Minnie Pearl.

Out of the YouTube archives, here are a couple of favorites: 

Best line I heard this week

“Roger Miller had grown up in Erick, Oklahoma, a town so small, he once said, ‘we didn’t have a town drunk. So we had to take turns.’”
— from the Ken Burns documentary “Country Music”


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

Comments are closed.