A bitter irony moves about openly in Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. It is a play about a wedding, though a terribly ill-fated one, and that fact frames the identities of most of the characters here – Bridegroom, Bride, Mother, Mother-in-law, and so on. The only character whose name we hear is a young man called Leonardo, whose family name is Felix. That family name is a lovely one, from the Latin for happiness. But here the very sound of it is something awful – an open wound, a cutting blade, a flame to set the scene alight with pain. When the name Felix is spoken, all felicity flees.
In the Jo Clifford translation, which opens this weekend at Shaking the Tree, we hear the name and the bitterness it brings from the very first scene. For the Mother, something as simple as her son, the Groom, asking her to hand him a knife to make cuttings in the vineyard, calls forth memories of her beloved husband, who had “a mouth like a flower” but who was cut down by “that family of murderers.” Here, “Felix” means grief, resentment and a deep well of anger ready to surge to the surface.
The Groom, however, has finer things on his mind, such as the beautiful woman he’s set to marry. It doesn’t concern him that she was once engaged to marry someone else. But his ever-cautious mother wants to know who was this other suitor. The name she hears makes her feel “as if my mouth is filling up with my husband’s ashes and I have to keep spitting.”
As a tale of conflicted love, of enmity between houses, of familial bonds and cultural rites, the 1932 Blood Wedding is nothing unusual. But it is nonetheless spectacular. Lorca’s passionate poetry – full of imagery of flowers, blood, seeds – rises to meet the emotional pitch of the yearning, jealousy, betrayal and vengeance that course through the story. And the presentation here, as directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe, is inventive and gripping, feeling by turns folkloric and fantastical.
Van Der Merwe has developed a loyal following in Portland as a design-minded director with a particular talent for conceptual devised productions. But her knack for creating rich theatrical settings pays dividends in scripted classics, too. Here, she sketches a sense of Spanish village life with a few spare but evocative home settings in Act I, then transports us to another plane for the brief Act II, a forest that shimmers in silver-blue dusk as the dialogue grows more lyrical, the narrative more elliptical, the resolutions more grim. What starts as kitchen drama takes on blood and angst and even choral effects (Lorca’s poetry set to truly lovely music by Joellen Sweeney) and ends up in the heights of Greek tragedy.
“It’s pretty realistic at the top, and then to move into surrealism is a twist that’s really interesting,” Van Der Merwe said, following a dress rehearsal. “You get into a lot of magic in the forest. I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word, but it is really interesting to move through a tragedy. You don’t know how it’s really going to feel until you go through it.”
Van Der Merwe’s boldness as a director has won her a reputation that allows boldness. In a time of rampant cutbacks in the theater business, she’s mounting a show with a cast of nearly two dozen, and performances are selling out before the show has opened.
Surely it helps, too, that she’s gathered such a cast as this. Luisa Sermol’s seething power as the Felix-hating Mother might overwhelm the whole affair, but there’s another veteran of such craft and stature, Marilyn Stacey as the Mother-in-law, as sweetly singing counterbalance. Then there’s Josie Seid as the maid to the bride’s family, tempering the growing tension with vibrant, earthy wit, an undercurrent of carnality and joy amid all the pride and rancor.
Van Der Merwe said that she and dramaturg Pancho Savery read several translations before settling on the one by Clifford. “There’s even one by Langston Hughes,” she said. “But in this one the poetry really rises.”
So does the stagecraft of Van Der Merwe and her expansive cast and crew. And so will your heart rate when an unhappy name is spoken and a Blood Wedding commences.
Rose Bonomo is Betty and Clifton Holznagel is Rob in “California.” Photos courtesy The Theatre Company.
Once upon a time, a family road trip could be quite the odyssey. There were no cell phones to occupy all the non-drivers, no ready stores of digital music files or satellite radio streams. And if you traveled out of the range of radio-station signals, well, you had to find your own way to keep everyone from the twin ravages of close quarters and boredom.
Trish Harnetiaux turned the tale of one such trip into the time-twisting play California, which The Theatre Company staged for a fantastically entertaining but brief run four months ago.
Now, once again, this strange trip passes through the art-design/fabrication space ADX in Southeast Portland, but just for four nights.
The play is centered in a true story of a drive to California that Harnetiaux’s family once took, during which they began to spin their own version of a radio drama. But – with a little quantum riffing on the fact that the route passes the Hanford nuclear site – the story goes off-roading into realms of pretzel chronologies and alternate outcomes. There are some nods to philosophical heft, if you really feel the need to ponder, but the heart of the matter is a warm, hilarious, and occasionally thrilling family memory play.
For this remount, director Jen Rowe brings back the same marvelous cast, with Duffy Epstein and Rose Bonomo as the parents, and Clifton Holznagel, Kelsea Ashenbrenner and Angie Tennant as the kids in the back seat.
“Horror is part of the glue that holds their relationship together.”
It would be easy to misconstrue such a statement, but ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea quickly makes clear, in his recent feature on Charmian Creagle and Sean Lujan of the Reformers, it’s horror as a profession. “It’s an aesthetic they enjoy and that expresses something deep-seated about who they are or who they want to be as people. They’re perfectly pleasant humans to know, but both of them are attracted to – fascinated by – the other plane of existence, the unexplained, the phantom world.”
The couple have built a hardcore following for their annual Halloween production – innovative, surprising, distinctive – and return this year with a show called /Slash/ , which takes over Movie Madness for an exploration of 1980s horror films.
Not for Milagro and its annual Dia de los Muertos celebration the usual silly seasonal spooks. Instead, Las Adelitas, this year’s signature production, focuses on “true stories of valor” involving women who fought in the Mexican revolution. The production, incorporating folkloric music and dance, has been devised by director Lawrence Siulagi and the ensemble cast.
The flattened stage (theatrical edition)
Here In Portland, we have a new production of one of Anton Chekhov’s classics to look forward to in the coming year – well, two, actually, that I know of: a version of The Seagull from Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, the last in its series using translations by Lewis & Clark professor Stepan Simek; and a production of Uncle Vanya at 21ten Theatre.
Meanwhile, The Seagull makes a fitting visit to the Oregon coast, where the National Theatre’s NT Live series takes over the Newport Performing Arts Center on Wednesday. The live-captured high-definition presentation stars Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones, making her West End debut.
“As the world emerges slowly from a not-exactly-over-yet pandemic, and the climate crisis deepens, and wars and rumors of wars rain down on our heads, and much of American life seems to be crumbling into acrimony, it’s hardly surprising that people are hungry for an occasional stroll down the sunny side of the street. You can call it escapist or you can call it plain old common sense, but it can be an excellent thing in hard times to at least occasionally accentuate the positive.”
So wrote my esteemed editor, Bob Hicks, in his review of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Fats Waller tribute musical at Broadway Rose. “Many of the songs are about cutting loose, cruising for some action … finding fleeting moments of pleasure in a world designed to clip your wings.” Sounds like he’s positive you’ll have a good time.
Those good times roll, however, right off the calendar this weekend, as do the bitterly funny classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace at Lakewood; They Them Their, playwright Mikki Gillette’s exploration of transgender life at a queer youth center, for Fuse Theatre Ensemble; and Where We Belong, a poetic plumbing of Shakespeare, language and Native American identity, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Gorgeous Big Apple
In June of 2022, Triangle Productions staged a play called Mr. Madam, adapted by Triangle founder Don Horn from the memoirs of a mid-century drag performer named Kenneth Marlowe, described as “an oft-overlooked trailblazer in LGBTQ+ history.” Though the script was in need of some tailoring, the tone was by turns delightfully dishy and compellingly dramatic.
Best of all, the show featured the fabulous Wade McCollum, a former Portland stage favorite now working regularly in New York. As I wrote in this column, McCollum “portrays Marlowe as a curious combination of plain-spoken Midwesterner and incorrigible coquette, employing a Cheshire-cat grin whenever a charm offensive is called for, while also slipping fluidly among numerous other characters.”
Since then, Horn has been plotting to remount the show in the Big Apple. Now retitled Make Me Gorgeous!, the show is set to run from Nov. 10 until the end of the year at Playhouse 46, on West 46th Street, in New York.
In a recent essay for The New York Times, headlined “Why Has Culture Come to a Standstill,” the critic Jason Farago makes a case that the arts of the 21st century have been stagnant, failing to show the continual progress of style and form that typified several centuries prior. “Today culture remains capable of endless production, but it’s far less capable of change,” he asserts. It’s a fascinating, somewhat lengthy piece of commentary.
A few re-stitched excerpts may offer the gist of Farago’s thinking:
“When I was younger, I looked at cultural works as if they were posts on a timeline, moving forward from Manet year by year. Now I find myself adrift in an eddy of cultural signs, where everything just floats, and I can only tell time on my phone.
“… To pay attention to culture in 2023 is to be belted into some glacially slow Ferris wheel, cycling through remakes and pastiches with nowhere to go but around. The suspicion gnaws at me (does it gnaw at you?) that we live in a time and place whose culture seems likely to be forgotten.
“…the key factor can only be what happened to us at the start of this century: first, the plunge through our screens into an infinity of information; soon after, our submission to algorithmic recommendation engines and the surveillance that powers them. The digital tools we embraced were heralded as catalysts of cultural progress, but they produced such chronological confusion that progress itself made no sense.
“… Outside of time there can be no progress, only the perpetual trying-on of styles and forms. Here years become vibes — or “eras,” as Taylor Swift likes to call them. And if culture is just a series of trends, then it is pointless to worry about their contemporaneity.”
Throughout the piece, Farago displays an impressive command of the history and aesthetics of painting, poetry, cinema, the past half-century of popular music and of critical discourse through the ages, referencing Aristotle and Amy Winehouse with equal fluency.
Interestingly, though, what he doesn’t discuss is performance. He glancingly mentions theater and dance as among the forms that, especially in the 20th century, subscribed to modernism’s credo of perpetual progress. But the dominance of digital culture and its downstream effects frame his thinking so heavily that he doesn’t make room for culture that – although no doubt influenced by those ones and zeros flying everywhere – hasn’t surrendered its essence to them, hasn’t incorporated them so thoroughly into its methods of production or modes of thinking.
Farago isn’t, it should be noted, just being some sort of multi-disciplinary moldy fig. “There is no inherent reason — no reason; this point needs to be clear — that a recession of novelty has to mean a recession of cultural worth,” he writes. His secondary thesis seems to be that the problem isn’t so much with the art but with the lingering hold of “that pesky modernist conviction.”
I’d be keen to hear from some more astute observer than I am how Farago’s thinking reflects, or doesn’t, the work on 21st-century stages.
The flattened stage (home edition)
One of the virtues of theater is that it is high-definition entertainment in 3-D. But it could always use more cats.
Best line I read this week
“You want a heart-stopper? Just go back and watch the highlights of this game over the past decade alone. … Or, if you want to take that question literally, you could step outside the stadium gates and directly into the State Fair of Texas, the event that envelopes the Cotton Bowl and this game, and choke down a basket of deep-fried cheesy crab tater bites or a plate of deep-fried honey butter brisket swirls. My Crestor bottle started vibrating just by me typing that.”
– ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee, extolling the drama of the annual “Red River Rivalry” football game between the great and virtuous University of Texas Longhorns and the foul, loathsome Oklahoma Sooners.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.