DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

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The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

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Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

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“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

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The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

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Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

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

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