Greek tragedies don’t seem to be staged all that often these days, but oh, how delicious would it be to have a production of Medea opening in the Portland area this weekend!
I say this not out of any particular love of that play, a rather wrenching tale from the 5th-century B.C. master Euripides, or at least not a love of that play in and of itself. For me, the significance of Medea is as a part of something larger, as one component of a strange theatrical concoction called Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.
That rare hybrid was last seen in 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and there’s more to say about its wonders in a moment. But it is front of mind this weekend because the Portland area happens to have new productions to see of both Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy Macbeth, by the company Salt and Sage, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fairy-tale musical Cinderella, at Tigard’s Broadway Rose.
The audacious conceit of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella is that by putting them side by side we can get valuable insights into not just the three stories involved but also into the methods and effects of populist Western theater as a whole. Well, not exactly side by side, but simultaneously. On the same stage.
So it seems to me that we’ve just barely missed out on a great opportunity to try the experiment in a different way, to see each of the plays separately but in close succession.
Ah, well. Some other season, perhaps.
There’s no need to console ourselves, though, because the productions we do have are plenty promising in their own right.
The Broadway Rose Cinderella, directed and choreographed by Lyn Cramer, may not be quite the show you remember – if you remember the 1957 classic or most subsequent productions. Cramer is using a 2013 adaptation (curiously, the first time a version was staged on Broadway) with a libretto by Douglas Carter Beane, plus a few extra songs interpolated from other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. Beane adds a political-justice thread to the narrative, with additional characters including a regent who dupes the innocent young prince and a rebel who seeks to overthrow his oppressive government. In this setup, Cinderella’s value isn’t just in her beauty and agreeableness but also in the social awareness and moral instruction she shares with the prince.
Starring as Ella, as the main character is called here, is Jennifer Davies, and the cast also includes such Broadway Rose stalwarts as Lisamarie Harrison and Leah Yorkston.
As for Macbeth, the esteemed ArtsWatch contributor Bobby Bermea summed it up in a Facebook post: “It’s a thane thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Bermea is involved here not as a journalist, however, but as an actor. So no doubt he’s not saying that the show will be hard to follow – he’s not just a powerful performer, but an especially clear one; there aren’t many actors in the area as suited to deliver the title character’s gravity and complexity as Bermea is. But on the other hand, you might say that not understanding is a crucial part of Macbeth: Amid its dark portents and accelerating evils is a core of mystery, a knot of bedeviling questions about human will and tragic fate.
Director Asae Dean’s dozen-strong cast also includes such reliably strong actors as Paul Susi as Macduff and Peter Schuyler as Banquo. (Salt and Sage had planned to run Macbeth in repertory with Titus Andronicus, but that companion production has been postponed due to the recent death of Alexander Buckner, an actor who was to be in both shows.)
So we’ll get the weird, witchy tragedy and the fanciful romantic fantasy. But what do they have to do with each other, and also with an ancient tale of vengeance and filicide?
The history of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella begins in 1984 in a Harvard dorm, or more precisely in the brain of an undergrad named Bill Rauch, who had heard the director Peter Sellars say that the three great populist movements in the history of Western theater had been Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama and the Broadway musical. As Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote in program notes for the 2012 OSF production, “the young director decided to mount a representative triptych, with one work from each of those eras, to point up their comparisons and contrasts … Rather than stage the trio in a series or in repertory, Rauch has the visionary and slightly insane idea that he could somehow cram all three stories onto one stage at the same time.”
Looking at them side by side, Rauch found surprising similarities and synchronicities – not just in the broad themes but in the symbols they employed, the narrative rhythms they followed. He staged it first in his dorm’s basement, but it’s become something of a lifetime fascination.
Rauch has produced M/M/C with his Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, at Yale Repertory Theater, and during his time as artistic director at OSF. I’m tempted to start a betting pool for how soon he programs it in his current role, artistic director at Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (A year or so ago I sent him a social-media message: “For some reason my mind keeps going back to “M/M/C”! Can’t wait to come see it at the Perelman – because we both know you want to!” His reply: “Oh, you know me so well, sir!”) In each subsequent production (all but the original have been co-adapted and co-directed with Tracy Young), he’s increasingly refined the interweaving of the three plays into one.
“It’s not as daft as it sounds,” I wrote in my review for The Oregonian of the 2012 production. “All three plays, Rauch has pointed out, involve highly emotional journeys for their title characters, and elements that course through them include themes of ambition and royal succession, the intercession of magic and personal transformations. And despite the differences in style and tone, the narrative structures are more alike than you might expect.
“Rauch and Young have created a sophisticated cut-and-paste combination of dialogue that manages to move all three stories along while highlighting and even commenting upon the parallel plot and thematic developments. And the staging and subtly color-coded costumes create an ingenious swirl that sometimes sets the stories in three separate spheres (for instance, Macbeth on the main level of the stage, Medea on a curving ramp, and Cinderella in an upper-level throne room), but often blends action and even props. One moment, impending transformations are juxtaposed across the stage as Medea holds aloft her vial of poison, Macbeth determines to poison Banquo, and a glittering gown and carriage magically arrive for Cinderella. The next moment, the stories are one, as Cinderella’s callous stepmother waltzes with Banquo’s bloody ghost.”
“One of the most provocative things we’re asserting with this piece is to say that, in a way, Medea and Cinderella are not that different from each other,” Young told Weinert-Kendt. “(T)hat they’re perhaps the same character in different times. Given any particular time and place, we’re capable of anything, good and bad and everything in between. All those different people are within us.”
Karlyn Love directs the 1965 hit musical Man of LaMancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes 17th-century epic Don Quixote, in a production for Clackamas Rep. Among those dreaming the impossible dream of grand romantic adventure are such solid performers as Michael Sharon, Todd Hermanson, and others.
Vancouver’s Magenta Theater stages the stage-musical adaptation of Amélie, the 2001 French film hit. Erin Knittle directs.
Red Velvet, the opening show of Bag & Baggage’s 19th season and the first under new artistic director Nik Whitcomb, peers into the world of 19th-century European theater as a lens on issues of art and society that still feel relevant – though you might have to squint a bit. British writer Lolita Chakrabarti’s play concerns the kerfuffle over an 1833 London production of Othello in which the famed actor Edmund Kean, having fallen ill, was replaced by Ira Aldridge, an American Black. Is presenting a Black man as Shakespeare’s Moor (an unprecedented approach for an elite theater at the time) a valuable move toward verisimilitude, or a lowering of standards? And what, really, are the ideas and values that undergird those standards?
Unfortunately, Chakrabarti squanders too much time on a frame narrative – an interview decades after the main event – that accomplishes nothing more than establish Aldridge’s historical bona fides while also sketching him as an arrogant and unpleasant fellow. And for all the questions the story raises about race and representation, performance and authenticity, and so on, the play ultimately has little insightful or resonant to say about them.
All the same, Whitcomb’s measured direction and a fine central performance by Eric Zulu as Aldridge keep things entertaining.
Even the, er, ripest of dairy products can have an expiration date, and the same is true for theater productions. Northwest Children’s Theatre’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales reaches its see-by date this weekend.
“Hope, courage and resilience.” Those are valuable traits for anyone at any time – perhaps especially as we hurtle toward what’s likely to be a bizarre election year. Those also are necessary qualities these days for a theater company; or for that matter, a theater season.
Milagro has chosen those words as motto for its just-announced 40th season of plays, which will be focused “around social justice and mental health education outreach to Latine communities.’
The flattened stage
“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”
So Alan Swann declaims – with an amalgam of soaring egotism and desperate anxiety – in the 1982 film My Favorite Year. The actor playing Swann, though, was both – a memorable master of stage and screen. In honor of the birthday of my favorite actor (the late, great Peter O’Toole, born Aug. 2, 1932), here’s just a little of him in stage mode:
The best line I read this week
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse stands as one of the oddest, most audacious, most unclassifiable shows in television history. The man-boy Pee-wee and a vast collection of human and nonhuman characters — there was, for instance, Chairry, a talking armchair that gave hugs — held forth in each episode about, well, it’s hard to summarize. There was a word of the day. There were bizarre toys. In one episode, Pee-wee married a fruit salad.”
– Neil Genzlinger, in The New York Times, from his obituary for the actor Paul Reubens.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.