Ten minutes before showtime on Saturday, the line at Lakewood Center for the Arts extended from the box office out to the main entrance, a couple dozen people on their way in to see a production of Murder on the Orient Express. I took my cell phone out of my pocket to turn it off, and noticed that a few more emails had just arrived about shows for the forthcoming Fertile Ground festival, once again forced into all-virtual mode by the ongoing pandemic.
For much of the past two years, in-person public performances have been few and far between. In the fall, the Portland-area theater scene began to wake from its involuntary slumber. But as the Delta variant emerged, seeming to make people sicker, followed soon by the Omicron variant, seeming milder but much more transmissible, we’re having to re-evaluate. Most performers and audience members are (we can not only hope, but insist) vaccinated, yet that might no longer be sufficient for safety.
In fact, I’d come to Lakewood not out of any interest in the who, how or why of a detective story; rather it was for the chance to see some theater – in a theater! – while that’s still possible. Over the past week or so, a couple of much-anticipated productions scheduled to open this month – the premier of a play called The Queers by Fuse Theatre Ensemble and a Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble version of The Cherry Orchard – were postponed because of pandemic concerns. A repeat of the 2020 lockdown looks unlikely, but perhaps it’s best not to take present opportunities for granted.
I’d come alone, my attempts to get a friend to join me thwarted by (well, at least so I was told) variations on reasonable Covid caution. One friend had some sniffles and thought it wise to avoid a public gathering; another was spooked by the surging Omicron-fueled infection rates and, well, thought it wise to avoid a public gathering.
I took out my vaccination card and my driver’s license, then glanced up to see – amid the line of folks who’d just had the surefire pandemic reminder of being asked for their vaccination card – a man mistaking his face covering for a chin strap, wearing it with the upper edge resting on his lips. And a few feet away, a younger fellow, his nose clearly poking out above his powder-blue surgical mask.
“Honestly, people,” I grumbled, half to myself. “You just crimp the little metal strip over the bridge of your nose and the mask stays up. It’s a simple technology that we’ve all had nearly two years to learn!”
Into the auditorium we went. The younger fellow, his mask migrating up and down his face minute by minute, was a few seats to my right and there were a couple of other chin-strappers around the room. I reminded myself that I had double-masked for the occasion (cloth and surgical; when will those bloody N95s I’ve ordered arrive?!), and tried to tamp down my irritation. What’s front of mind for me, though, isn’t some sense of personal risk but rather a a belief that public health has become everyone’s responsibility and that we’re never getting out of this mess without some procedural integrity.
Speaking of the procedural, there was the play. An Agatha Christie story, it trots out some archetypal yet ostensibly colorful characters (the Famous Detective, the Ugly American, the Young Lovers, the Brassy Gal, the Glamorous Countess, etc.) and quickly bumps one of them off. Then everyone bustles around a bit, announcing a long and tedious list of “clues,” mixing cheap forensics with ersatz psychological insights. “There are too many clues!,” the sleuth Hercule Poirot (Mark Schwahn) cries near the end of the first act. “I am unhappy!”
Yeah, me too, bub.
Despite what strikes me as unavoidably trivial subject matter, I wanted to see the show for some of the actors whose work I’ve long admired. Finding something credible in such pulpy cardboard characters must be a challenge (though Marilyn Stacey does have great fun as a bawdy and entitled vacationing Midwesterner). Perhaps that’s why I found pleasure mostly in the nicely measured performances of under-written roles – Gary Powell as the steadfast railway director Monsieur Bouc; Tom Mounsey, wry and amused as both train conductor and restaurant head waiter; Kylie Jennifer Rose and the former Northwest Classical Theatre stalwart Tom Walton as those young lovers. Yet for all that good work, I just couldn’t fathom why anyone would care about a story that’s a mechanistic diversion at best.
Then again, I suppose a passing diversion is all some folks want. While I tried to engage my attention with what was onstage (“Ah! Rather handsome and efficient scenic design by Demetri Pavlatos.”), I kept being distracted by people around me talking during the performance – something I’ve found to be far more common in the suburban theaters. Some theaters these days actively try to loosen up the theater experience, to blow away an image of staid restrictiveness and encourage audiences to react however they please, even to the point of talking back to the actors onstage. Welcome the groundlings, and all that. It can work for some shows, but overall I’m suspicious of the approach and the thinking behind it. Inclusivity and etiquette aren’t incompatible. But in any case, a Lakewood audience is practically a cliche of a traditional theater audience, the kind of folks assumed to be comfortable in that environment. Sometimes so comfortable they think nothing of chattering right through it.
I’m not asking for reverence. But I am asking for awareness, consideration…perhaps some sense of shared purpose or at least common endeavor. To come together and take in some art. To seek, at least, entertainment, enjoyment, maybe even elevation or enlightenment. It can be a wonderful experience.
So these musings bring me back to the subject of the pandemic – and to Saturday night’s intermission.
The fellow seated directly in front of me had been approached by a theater staffer before the show, not because his mask was half off but because he was eating in the auditorium. Throughout intermission, his mask hung loosely about his lips. I spoke up, saying that his mask was down and that if we’re going to be able to gather in theaters we all need to be more scrupulous. He ignored me. Incensed, I walked out and went home.
I understand that we all have pandemic fatigue. But what I’m most tired of is going to a grocery store or riding a light-rail train and seeing so many people wearing masks improperly or not at all. I don’t have some magical belief that universal masking will solve everything. But I do believe that we all have a responsibility to follow the rules, to show one another the most basic respect, to share the burden of inconvenience, to not assume anyone else’s risk tolerance, to do our individual best for the common good. It’s not so much that I want to be able to go to the theater without worrying about getting sick (though, of course, that’s important). It’s that I want to be able to go to the theater, period.
Or else the answer to the next whodunnit might be “the theater critic, in the aisle, with a rolled-up playbill.”
A young writer turning out plays full of vibrant wit, bold theatricality, keen historical awareness, and a juggler’s deftness with inter-related themes, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins is one of the foremost new theater stars of the past decade. Artists Rep has presented two fantastic works of his, An Octoroon in 2017 and Everybody in 2018, each showcasing an inventive approach to form along with serious social and philosophical inquiry plus a surprising amount of laughs.
Now Profile Theatre joins in, presenting Jacobs-Jenkins’ Pulitzer-nominated Gloria. Perhaps inspired in part by Jacobs-Jenkins’ time working at The New Yorker, the play centers first on the thwarted ambitions and petty conflicts among a bunch of editorial assistants at a high-profile magazine, then on the emotional and career ramifications of an awful spasm that occurs midway.
“It is a savage appraisal of humanity and contains its own slice of barbarity that is best left as a bombshell for those who go to see it,” the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of the play’s Australian premier. Profile’s production, staged at Imago Theatre, is directed by Josh Hecht. And while these days nearly every actor in town is one I haven’t seen in quite awhile, the cast of six includes at least a few (Nick Ferucci, John San Nicholas, Foss Curtis) I’m particularly happy to have back onstage.
At Milagro, meanwhile, Lawrence Siulagi directs company co-founder Dañel Malán’s bilingual play Duende de Lorca, about the formative early career of the Spanish poet/playwright Federico García Lorca.
The flattened stage
Best line I read this week
“After much reflection, I’ve decided that one ought to write as much as possible and publish as little as possible. The latter conclusion follows from the glum fact that most poetry is likely to be bad, if judged by any standards which would justify the assertion that some poetry is good.”
– Delmore Schwartz, from a short piece called “Poetry Is Its Own Reward.”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.