Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Mockingbird, Dog Man, Día de Muertos and a wrestling ring

Shades of time and meaning in the Broadway "Mockingbird" tour; Dav Pilkey's musical dogs; Milagro's Day of the Dead dance; Chad Deity's smashing slamdown and more.

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Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) takes the stand in the Broadway tour of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

“Times have changed,” Atticus Finch says to Judge Taylor, early in the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (currently at Keller Auditorium for the Broadway in Portland series). “Are you sure about that?” the judge replies.

That minor exchange tells us something about Sorkin’s choice to foreground Atticus and his combination of moral rectitude and optimism, presenting him as the show’s admirable yet naive hero. It also suggests an argument about the continued relevance of Harper Lee’s tale of racial injustice for a time of resurgent social division and inflammatory rhetoric. And – perhaps less intentionally – it hints at the trickiness of repositioning this beloved classic for the collective psyche of a time both markedly different from and disturbingly similar to the story’s Depression-era setting.

Sorkin’s version is, in any case, a crowd-pleaser, featuring a comfortingly assured performance from Richard Thomas in the role of Atticus, the small-town lawyer who defies prevailing prejudices to defend a Black man wrongly accused of rape. Sorkin’s dialogue often pushes the line between witty and glib, at times seeming to stuff in jokes just to buffer us from the essential ugliness of the plot. But it’s hard to complain about a laugh, especially when you need one.

Although the thematic focus is on Atticus and his education in the regrettable side of human nature, in many ways this remains the story of his young daughter, Scout. I found Melanie Moore’s peculiar accent (Deep South plus childhood speech impediment) a distracting annoyance, exacerbated by the harsh, echoey auditorium sound that made many of the characters come across like shouting caricatures. But as the storytelling gets into its groove in the far stronger second act, quibbles recede. Faded memories tell me I preferred an Oregon Shakespeare Festival version of the story, adapted by Christopher Sergel, from about a decade ago. But the power and pleasure in this production – however unsubtle it often is – are easy to see.

But back to that “times have changed” issue. 

“Sorkin has … talked about beefing up the roles of Black characters in his version. But somehow, in this story around the unjust trial of a Black man, the Black characters still feel sidelined in favor of focusing on how their pain affects the poor white folks who are just trying to do the right thing,” wrote Jerald Pierce in The Seattle Times about this same production. I can’t help feeling like we should be past many of the lessons being taught by this show.”  

That’s an understandable view, though I’d guess that – for the mainstream middlebrow audience of a touring Broadway show, centering the psychology of the white characters is very much the point, and no less so because some of us feel it’s high time we moved on to another lesson.

A contemporary sensibility can’t help but notice the complete lack of agency for any Black character, even Atticus’ tell-it-like-it-is housekeeper Calpurnia (given abundant no-nonsense charisma here by Jacqueline Williams), or the shame-based moral suasion at the heart of it all. But maybe To Kill a Mockingbird still sings to the aspects of our times that haven’t changed. Late in the play, Atticus comments that the Civil War may have occurred 70 years earlier but to some of his bigoted neighbors it was yesterday. That’s probably worth pondering when some folks these days think the Civil War is tomorrow.

Opening

Let me state from the outset that, as a lifelong cat supremacist, I find the suggestion in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s description of its new show Dog Man: The Musical that cats are “evil” to be a lowdown slander!

But other than the fact that it presents a cat as a stock villain, Dog Man looks like a good boy after all. Based on a graphic novel series by Dav Pilkey (the cartoonist who also created Captain Underpants), the show has the conceit of being a musical about making a musical, as a pair of fifth-graders try to meet a lunchtime deadline for their canine caper.

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For those who – like me, unfortunately – missed last spring’s inaugural production by Jen Rowe’s The Theater Company,  The Thin Place by Lucas Hnath, it returns for a brief engagement, again at KEX Portland (which, apparently is not the radio station but a “design-focused space” and “social hotel,” whatever that means). An exploration of the supernatural, centering on a seance, the show features Kerie Darner, Mario Calcagno, Rowe and the reliably remarkable Diane Kondrat.

Day of the Dead

Music and dancing are integral parts of Milagro’s Día de Muertos show. Photo: Kat Leon

While Halloween seems to be mostly about candy and elaborate masquerades of the macabre, Day of the Dead celebrations, with their implicit acknowledgement of death and life as eternal co-dependents, retain a bit more symbolic connection to our cyclical/seasonal world. And so, after years of concocting narrative and thematic concepts for its annual presentations, Milagro’s latest Viva la Muerte show, the theater says, “returns to its original Día de Muertos traditions with an espectáculo filled with dances, songs, poems, calaveras, monologues, and more.” Nice and cyclical.

Weekender

Lakewood continues its long-running series of concert-style musicals, The Lost Treasures Collection, with The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, a mid-1960 music-hall romp by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. 

Sponsor
Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Closing

“Chad Deity”: On the stage and in the ring. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre

Dismissing professional wrestling because its matches have predetermined outcomes is like dismissing ballet “because you already know the swan is gonna die.”

So argues Macedonio Guerra, known mostly as Mace, the passionate and personable narrator of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a Kristoffer Diaz play that uses the world of pro wrestling to present what is both an indictment of American triumphalism and a fascinatingly slippery study of the plastic arts of modern mythmaking.

Having turned his childhood love of the sport (“sport”?) into a workmanlike career as a stock player for a WWE-style touring extravaganza, Mace is a purist who relishes both the technical nuances of simulated fighting and the way the presentation of wrestling can tell compelling stories. Within the moneymaking machine run by Everett K. Olson, however, Mace is just another compromised artiste. His boss is a happy huckster whose only ideals are green. And Chad Deity? That would be the beautifully muscled, proudly vacuous star of the show, a wrestler with none of the moves but all of the looks to be the champ.

Looking for a way to create more opportunity for himself, Mace upsets the balance of things more than he expects when he brings someone new into the fold. Vigneshwar Paduar is a cocky basketball player and self-styled neighborhood playboy whose gift of gab looks like a useful skill for pro-wrestler character building. But Olson just sees him as a swarthy other, and brands him as a menacing – but silent – Islamic-terrorist type. Stardom quickly follows, but the newcomer, silent or not, isn’t interested in sticking to the script.

For a story set in a world of artifice, what’s most winning about Profile Theatre’s production, exuding energy and intelligence under the direction of Josh Hecht, is its verisimilitude. That starts with Matthew Sepeda’s performance as Mace. Far from a bruiser, he’s sweet, almost a bit of a nebbish at times, but always sincere. And that makes him an ideal tour guide behind the scenes of macho make-believe. Duffy Epstein disappears into the role of Olson, his eyes gleaming with self-satisfaction and a blissful absence of scruples. Despite being the titular role, Chad Deity is a mite underwritten, yet La’Tevin Alexander imbues him with a sense of pride, practicality and a greater self-awareness than you’d guess at first. Levi Cooper, a former WWE wrestler in real life (if that quite makes sense) is at once believable and comically inventive in a small role called simply “The Bad Guy.”

But the revelation here is Naren Weiss, whose credits include work Off-Broadway and regional theater work, as well as TV shows such as Deception. His Vigneshwar starts as a kind of preening B-boy wannabe but builds layers of complexity and mystery that help the play keep you guessing throughout and thinking about it long afterward.

The flattened stage 

With the musical 1776 back on Broadway these days in a revamped form (female and non-binary actors cast as the founding “fathers”; telegraphed skepticism about the hypocrisies inherent in the slaveholders crafting a Declaration of Independence), I’ve been reminded anew of how much I still enjoy the original, antiquarian or not.

The best line I read this week

“Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise.” 

— Bertrand Russell, from a speech upon accepting the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature (quoted in a story from The Marginalian)

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

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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