DramaWatch: Shakespeare and symphony meet, as if by magic

The week in theater features Ashland actors with the Oregon Symphony, plus Spectravagasm's sketchy humor, soulful social commentary, improv and experiments.

If you visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, it’s not uncommon after awhile to recognize your favorite actors around town — at the grocery store, in line at a coffee shop, that sort of thing. And with the richness of the repertory company serving up actors in multiple roles across multiple seasons, fans come to feel a kind of bond with performers even without the pleasure of chance meetings outside the theater. You already feel like you know them, so when you have the chance, why not say hello?

The effect isn’t limited to Ashland, apparently. On a recent afternoon at a restaurant in downtown Portland, a gentleman gets up from his table and approaches another nearby.
“Excuse me,” he begins. “I kept looking over, thinking, ‘I know those guys.’ And I just realized it’s from Ashland.” He’s not met them before, but is familiar with their work and remembers their names. “You’re Tyrone, right? And Armando.”

The fellow, who introduces himself as Mike, says he’s been attending OSF for about seven years now, and that he tries to catch all 11 productions each season. “Also, I’m friends with Dick Elmore,” he adds, referencing one of the most venerated of veteran OSF actors. The three men chat amiably for a few minutes about the festival, sharing excitement about its history and upcoming shows, before the visitor goes back to his table. 

Tyrone Wilson (at left, with Royer Bockus) performed in All’s Well That Ends Well earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This weekend he’ll star as Prospero in The Tempest, with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Mike’s chance encounter occurred because he just happened to be visiting from San Francisco and chose the right lunch spot. Portlanders, though, will get a more extensive look at the OSF actors — Tyrone Wilson and Armando Durán — onstage this weekend as the Oregon Symphony presents a mixture of orchestral music and Shakespearean theater at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. 

Sibelius’ The Tempest pairs a condensed version of Shakespeare’s beloved late Romance with music written for a 1926 production by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In addition to the band, the show’s cast features a mix of singers and actors, including OSF actors Rachel Crowl and Emily Ota, as well as Durán and Wilson. The opera-steeped stage director Mary Birnbaum shares the production helm with Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar (who also makes an appearance as the boatswain).

“It’s fascinating to have people we’ve worked with and Shakespeare’s text that are familiar, and then to also have the unfamiliar — which could be anxiety-provoking but I find exciting,” says Wilson, who has logged 24 seasons at OSF. “I beg not to be made to sing, but to be in an expression that combines symphonic music and singing with Shakespeare’s text, I can find my place. So I’m excited by the familiar parts but really excited by the parts of this that are new to me.”

Durán, tucking into a salad of arugula and farro, says he’s been in similar productions before, with companies such as the Long Beach Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It’s interesting being thrown together with artists from different disciplines.”

At the time of this conversation, they’re only a couple of days into symphony rehearsals, just getting to know their fellow performers. “It’s been really wonderful to see them acting,” Wilson says excitedly. “The guy who’s playing Stefano” — a young baritone named Benjamin Taylor — “it’s the first time he’s done the play. But he’s delightful!”

All didn’t end well for Armando Duran in the title role of Julius Caesar at OSF in 2017 — a bloody death is part of the gig. Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony cries over his slain leader. Photo: Jenny Graham

Both Wilson and Durán have played a variety of Tempest roles over the years. The symphony cast Wilson as Alonso, the King of Naples, and Durán as Gonzalo, the king’s level-headed, kind-hearted adviser. Between our lunch conversation and this writing, however, the departure of another performer led to Wilson switching to the role of Prospero, the magician whose supernatural machinations in pursuit of justice form the heart of the play.

Asked how he adjusts to an edited version of the play and a hybrid sort of stage presentation, he answers in a way that should hold for whichever role:

“I’ve been thinking about Alonso since we got our casting,” he says. “When I’m looking at what’s left after the director’s adaptation, there are things missing from the text, but they’re not missing from my understanding of the play.”

“The shape is still there for us to take the emotional journey,” says Durán, a 20-year OSF vet whose indelible performances have included Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. “I think (Birnbaum) did a really conscientious job of trimming the script; she didn’t just take scissors to it.”

“So you’ll get the story and the character arcs and the relationships,” Wilson concludes. “But then you also get all the glorious music and songs that add to your sense of it all. And maybe our performances are enhancing the musical experience in a similar way.”

Opening

We’re heading into that time of year where American culture fixates on celebrating the birth of the Baby Jesus (well, ostensibly). But how best to celebrate? Surprise parties are fun! But if Jesus is God (that’s consubstantiality, y’all!), and if God is omniscient, then Jesus can’t be surprised. 

Awkward!

Maybe such holiday-planning snags wouldn’t occur to you, but they occur to Sam Dinkowitz, the Portland actor/writer behind the long-running sketch-comedy series Spectravagasm, coming to Shaking the Tree theater for a reprise of its show Spectravagasm: Holidazed

Sam Dinkowitz (front and center in jingle-bell-bottoms) and company find something sketchy about Christmas in Spectravagasm: Holidazed. Photo: K. Kelly Photography.

Spectravagasm history stretches back to 2012 and the late, lamented Post5 Theatre, where Dinkowitz — having just moved back to Oregon following a stint on the East Coast —  launched it as a late-night offering to try to draw new audiences to the theater and also to give his fellow theater artists something of an after-hours playground. Part of what distinguishes Spectravagasm, he says, is the rigor behind the chaos — the theater training of the participants and their approach to rehearsal and production. Dinkowitz gets good people, the likes of Diane Kondrat, Jim Vadala, Nicole Accuardi and others. 

The show grew out of an earlier sketch show focused on sex and death as subjects (not necessarily as cause and effect, or anything), and despite the view of a 2017 review in Willamette Week, which stressed Spectravagasm’s “lack of interest in any kind of message,” Dinkowitz in fact creates his shows around themes, which he calls soapboxes. “Religion was show #4, gender was #6, we did drugs for #8, art was #7…So for the audience at a given show, as they watch these fragmented pieces, it starts to look more like a play.”

Spectravagasm: Holidazed is show #9, though in the full chronology, Dinkowitz is on to #12, which he’s developing for next summer. A premise running through this one is not exactly a new idea: “Christmas is not a holiday anymore, it’s a business.” Where Dinkowitz goes with this, though, is to imagine a Santa Claus growing progressively disillusioned and burned out. “He’s hit the wall and he’s pulling away from Christmas, trying to find to quit.

“This is the show for the bah-humbuggers,” Dinkowitz says. “We don’t entirely shit on Christmas…but what we ultimately say is, if you’re going to celebrate, celebrate yourself.”


Jason Maniccia launched his Asylum Theatre company last year with a production of Mamet’s Speed the Plow. This time out, he turns to Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, and enlists a promising cast to realize it, with Heath Koerschgen, Briana Ratterman and Michael Teufel, directed by Don Alder.

Closing

Early on in Soul’d, the devised-theater offering from director Damaris Webb and Vanport Mosaic, the show introduces itself as “stories of what it is for some of us to be American…for us, by us.” Then quickly comes a question: “But who is ‘us’?”

Director Damaris Webb (third from right), with the co-creators of Soul’d, playing at IFCC. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

The simple answer, as a recurring line from later in the show has it, would be “Oh, you mean black people.” But Webb and her compatriots recognize that American identity stories seldom are entirely simple; that’s one of the conundrums of black life that they examine in this brief compendium of comic sketches, dark satires and personal reflections.

Webb, who grew up in Portland with an African-American father and a Finnish-American mother, has explored similar territory before, as in her incisive, autobiographical solo show The Box Marked Black, or more recently (if less directly) as director of the play Queens Girl in the World for Clackamas Rep. The seeds of Soul’d were planted a couple of years ago. “Theatre Diaspora invited me to teach a Viewpoints class for a POC (people of color) group,” she says, and it made her reflect on how rare it had been, in all her years of theater training, to have a teacher of color.

“I was touched by the sense of relief (as a result) of brown bodies in space with other brown bodies,” she recalls. “I began to be interested in what it would be like to make work with a roomful of these people.”
Later, when Oregon Children’s Theatre offered her some free studio time, she used it to conduct drop-in sessions where POC theater folk could come and kick around ideas. Eventually, the project began to coalesce around notions of economics and the black experience (hence the wordplay of the show’s title). “We’re looking at what it means to be an American and at who gets to be an American,” Webb says. “And also at what does it mean to control the money? What is black wealth? What does it mean to pass on wealth, or to not pass on wealth?”

The resulting show is very much a grab bag, in tone and style as well as in rhetorical efficacy. A recurring and incisive bit is the game-show parody “Gentrification Jeopardy,” in which contestants pick from categories such as “Assholes on American Currency” or “Oregon: a White Utopia.” The social fallout of the for-profit prison boom is addressed in a pharmaceutical-ad parody. Along the way, there’s also a quick gag about the notion that black people don’t ski , which calls out for an eloquent rebuttal from Stew of Passing Strange fame:

Conversely, Soul’d also has more sober moments, such as a dry monologue that posits a novel way to pay reparations for slavery: free DNA testing to help black Americans reconstruct lineage and legacy. In fact, despite the comic forms that much of the show uses, it is very clear about these topics being no laughing matter.

“We all have this wound,” Webb says. “We’re like toddlers trying to figure out what words to use. It’s so everyday and so epic at the same time just to try to have a conversation.

“The only way I know how to really have these conversations is to make work in the room.”


When shall we three meet again? Not after this weekend! Dana Green (from left), Lauren Bloom Hanover and Chantal DeGroat in Macbeth at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

The radical idea of presenting Macbeth with a mere three actors — and all women, at that — not surprisingly brings challenges and opportunities. On the latter end of that teeter-totter, the production at Portland Center Stage accomplishes one of ace director Adrianan Baer’s goals, to make the story’s inherent violence appear yet more stark and strange and tragic by showing it through eyes and voice and bodies of women. In fact, many of the tale’s most famous scenes are especially striking here, framed by top-notch design work and boasting performances that balance explosive passion with poignant nuances. On the other hand, if you’re not especially familiar with the play, following the fluid movement between characters (on top of the varied settings and plot threads) might not be the easiest task. But I suspect that even if you might come away from this one a tad confused, you wouldn’t come away from it unmoved.

Quick hits

They’re making it up as they go along down in Milwaukie. That is, Bridge City Improv is setting up shop there at the Chapel Theatre, presenting Show Brousseau, featuring company co-founder Beau Brousseau along with other Portland-area improvisers, and Three Italians From New York, with Ross Laguzza, Rose Bonomo, and Lisa DiDonato spinning tales of their East Coast upbringings.


Continuing a curious trend around town in the past couple of years, here’s another show about wolves — this one courtesy of the residency program at Shaking the Tree (which staged a fascinating Little Red Riding Hood redux last fall, called __the Wolf). You My Love at Home Again, by songwriter/playwright Devan Wardrop-Saxton, concerns a young woman navigating a strange transition from wolf to human (would that make her not a werewolf but a waswolf?). Sounds like a potentially interesting examination of identity and social belonging.


Lewis & Clark College theater professor Štěpán Šimek often has an impish twinkle in his eye and delights in exploding tired theatrical orthodoxies. But he’s a prim and proper saint compared to the subject of his latest project, Francois Villon. A 15th-century French poet who Šimek calls “something of a medieval ‘rock star,’” Villon is remembered not just for his verse but for the rough-and-tumble life he chronicled in his writing — childhood poverty, repeated imprisonment and banishment for brawls and robberies. 

Conceived by Šimek and the Portland-based French actor Jean-Luc Boucherot, Danse Macabre adapts Villon’s autobiographical poem The Testament into a solo theatrical performance augmented with puppetry and accompaniment by the medieval music group Musica Universalis. And it’s to be performed in both English and French.
It sounds ambitious and intriguing. But it isn’t finished. Šimek, who directs the piece, plans to premiere a fully-staged production with Hand2Mouth Theatre in the spring. Before then, it’ll get a “workshop” run in February’s Fertile Ground festival.

But before that…well, these things don’t come together for free.
So, Šimek is holding a fundraiser at the 2509 (a small rehearsal/performance studio that he’s built as a daylight-basement addition to this Northeast Portland home). Boucherot, I presume, will perform some excerpts, and there’ll be treats available from Jared Goodman, described as “a Portland-based ice cream storyteller,” whatever that might be.

The flattened stage

YouTube is, by and large, the kingdom of the brief video clip, but sometimes the particularities of its terms of use allow for a full meal deal, so to speak. For instance, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” shows up in summary form and condensed, animated adaptation, but also in a 1960 TV-movie version sporting (among other notable actors) Roddy McDowall as Ariel and Richard Burton as Caliban:

More surprising, considering its relatively recent provenance, is the availability of director Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version. It wasn’t especially well-received, but with Helen Mirren starring, how bad could it be?

The best line I read this week

“Magic tricks are so odd as a form. You say, “Look at this pencil,’ and then it does something — penetrates a dollar bill. You have to get somebody’s attention with this thing and make them care about it. And the moment you say, ‘I want to show you a magic trick,’ that changes how they see it. Like saying, ‘I’m going to tell a joke now,’ kind of makes it less funny. I’ve always thought the same about performance. If you say, ‘We’re going to do a play now,’ that sets the audience up. Maybe it’s better to say that but then tell a joke or do a magic trick.”

— Geoff Sobelle, co-artistic director of rainpan 43, in an interview in Psychology Today


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

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