DramaWatch: taking on ‘Macbeth’ with the power of three

This week in Oregon theater, tragedy strikes Center Stage (and that's a good thing), Broadway Rose sells out, and Shaking the Tree speaks ancient Greek.

In 2016, a young theater artist named Lee Sunday Evans, who since has become artistic director of the New York company Waterwell, staged her first Shakespeare play at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Using her own edited version of the script and original, shape-note vocal music by Heather Christian, she presented spare, probing Macbeth — no set, no props, just lighting, costumes and three actors, all women.

“The idea was that the three witches were telling this ancient story about how the societal structure of power could corrupt an individual,” Evans told the blog The Fifth Wall. “I looked at that play as an origin story about the corrupting force of power.” 

The New York Times praised it: (T)his irreducible, transcendent “Macbeth” commands engagement as it plumbs the internal life of these characters, revealing their fragile emotions. Here they receive the play’s harsh truths as much as issue them, quietly absorbing the horrible before unleashing the volcanic.”

The Macbeth opening Friday at Portland Center Stage uses Evans’ trim script, but director Adriana Baer is working with a different tool kit and some different ideas about characters and story. 

For starters, instead of an outdoor stage in summer, Baer will be presenting her version in PCS’ intimate, energy-focusing basement space, the Ellyn Bye Studio. 

Not-so-witchy women: Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green and Lauren Bloom Hanover star in a condensed “Macbeth” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

And for another thing, well…who says they’re witches?

“Actually, they’re not referred to in the play as witches; they’re ‘weird sisters,’” says Baer, who sees the characters not as wizened, manipulative hags but as “ancient, wise and vital.”
Evans’ script has the trio both telling the story and being part of it, weaving in and out as narrators, participants and observers. So Baer started her creative process by thinking a lot about them. “Once I figured out who these three women were — for me — I wanted to create a world for them.”

Noting similarities between the coasts of Scotland and Oregon, Baer, along with scenic designer Stephen Dobay and sound designer Sharath Patel, decided to set the story amid ruins and  dunes (with two tons of sand onstage) and the sound of waves, their interpretive choices informed by notions of the aftermath of a “mad-made invasion of the environment,” as Baer puts it. 

“They pull their energy and wisdom from the environment,” she says of the sisters. “We represent that in a lot of ways, one being that all the props we use we pull out of the ground…We’re heavily designing it to help the storytelling.”
Ideas about environment, decay and recurring cycles shaped Baer’s thinking about the play.
“What is it like if you have three women telling the story, and in some way they’re always telling the story — like there’s a ritual in telling it over and over…They’re almost answering the question we might ask in coming upon this place: What happened here? It’s a reminder that we’re always needing to ask these questions and to be wise about our leadership.”

Baer has a long personal history with Macbeth — it was the play that first sparked her love of Shakespeare, with the help of a beloved 7th-grade teacher — but she sees something special in the chance to revisit it in the framework of Lee Sunday Evans’ concept.
“This has allowed for a different level of artistry than I’ve been able to delve into for a long time,” she says. “I’ve been able to flex so many muscles — intellectual, emotional, visual…”

Dana Green makes her point to Lauren Hanover in a scene from “Macbeth.” Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

She’s also enthusiastic about her trio of actors: Dana Green, Chantal DeGroat and Lauren Bloom Hanover.

“It is so different seeing the ambition and drive and violence through women,” Baer says. “I’ve heard lines here in ways that I’d not noticed even when studying the play closely. When you hear women chewing the tex, you see the violence as unnatural — which it should be!”

The flattened stage

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way:

In culture we Trust

Thanks to the state’s cultural tax credit, the Oregon Cultural Trust recently made dozens of cultural development grants to an array of organizations around the state, with award amounts ranging from $5,000 to $35,000. Among the recipients of the five largest awards, three are theater presenters — Northwest Children’s Theater and School, Portland Center Stage and World Stage Theatre.

Based on the descriptions of the awards, out of 86 grants, nearly a fifth relate to theater production, facilities or infrastructure. For example, Northwest Children’s Theatre is getting money to buy a cargo van and launch a touring program that can take shows such as its popular “Elephant and Piggie” beyond the city limits. PCS gets support for its well-established play-development festival, JAW. Artists Rep will get a new WordPress site to “improve the interconnected systems of database management, digital marketing and optimized social media.” PHAME Academy will work with Portland Opera to create a new rock opera. Boom Arts will start a new summer performance festival. Oregon Children’s Theatre will team with Dmae Roberts’ MediaRites/Theater Diaspora to produce a play about the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. Liberty Theatre in La Grande will be able to include greater accessibility for the disabled in a renovation of its 100-year-old building. And so on.
Our congratulations to all the recipients, thanks to the Trust and to all the citizens who helped make it all possible.

Opening

Based on a surprise film hit from 2007, Once, a low-key tale of tentative romance between a Dublin busker and a young Czech immigrant proved as endearing onstage as on screen, winning the 2012 Tony Award for best musical. Having the terrific Irish playwright Enda Walsh write the adaptation has to have helped. But in any case, how could you resist a show with a song called “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”? Isaac Lamb, who has a brilliant track record at Broadway Rose with just this sort of sweet, off-beat musical, directs.

The bad news — well, depending on your perspective — is that it’s all so appealing that the show has sold out. Yes, for the entire run. If that’s heartbreaking news, you might try checking in periodically with the box office, in case any previously sold seats have been returned.


Euripides’ challenging 5th-century Greek tragedy Bakkhai explores, as Bomb magazine puts it, “sexual repression, intrafamily violence, the horrors of despotic leadership, and the draconian constraints of gender. Indeed, it is in danger of becoming almost too relevant.” Shaking the Tree, perhaps Portland’s most consistently inventive small theater company, presents a lively 2015 translation by Canadian poet Anne Carson, directed by fearlessly creative company founder Samantha Van Der Merwe.


Thomas, a little boy whose mother has died of cancer, deals with his grief by immersing himself in heroic fantasy, while his father, David, tries — unsuccessfully — to find solace in the abstractions of symbolic logic. These are the central characters of Mother, Come Home, indie comic artist Paul Hornschemeier’s affecting examination of loss and bereavement, published in 2004 as a graphic novel from Portland’s Dark Horse Books. Third Rail Rep presents an immersive, multimedia adaptation, directed by Jennifer Lin, with a cast featuring Darius Pierce and Damon Kupper.


Performer/impressario Stefano Iaboni calls his recurring physical-comedy showcase “Follies: The Unofficially Best Ever Variety Show.” His October guests include a slapstick-comedy/clown troupe and a man who performs elaborate tricks with soap bubbles. 


Throwbaxx: “In the Heights” Cast Do Songs From Decades Past promises to be pretty much what it sounds like. As a Facebook page for the event puts it, the lobby of the Armory (what us old-timers used to call the Gerding Theater) will be taken over by “a dance party and cabaret of familiar tunes, vocal performances and interpretive dance routines dedicated to their favorite throwback jams and show tunes” by cast members of Portland Center Stage’s current mainstage musical, “In The Heights.” It’s a free, public event, but donations will be accepted for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Closing

“If you want to picture the future, Winston, it looks exactly like this.” So says the malevolent party official O’Brien to Winston Smith, our beleaguered Everyman, in the adaptation of 1984 about to wind down its time at Imago Theatre. It’s not a warning, it’s a threat and a promise — and a reminder than George Orwell’s dystopian classic owes its enduring potency and resonance not to its prescience but to its powers of description. The geo-political machinations, the psycho-social manipulations, the dizzying philosophical conundrums — they’re all drawn from 20th-century (and, sadly, 21st-century as well) realities much more than from any fanciful futurist imaginings. 

Is trust a thought crime? Winston (Chris Harder, foreground) and O’Brien (Allen Nause) in Artists Rep’s 1984 , onstage at Imago Theatre. Photo: Kathleen Kelly

The script, by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, gives us the gripping intensity we want out of the story, but feels too compressed to fully immerse us in the oppressive milieu of Winston’s society or his mind. (How often, though, do critics complain that a show should be longer?) All the same, this production boasts strong performances from, among others, Chris Harder as Winston, the redoubtable Allen Nause as O’Brien, and Claire Rigsby, who, as Winston’s love interest, Julia, can make chocolate rationing sexier than you’d imagine.


That’s No Lady, Triangle Productions biographical musical about Walter Cole and his beloved character Darcelle — the father and mother of Portland’s drag entertainment scene — has sold out the remainder of its run. No surprise there. But you have until Saturday night to hang out near Lincoln Performance Hall looking pitiful and hoping a spare ticket comes your way.

Best line I read this week

“A reporter for the Empire Gazette for going on thirty years, he’d seen humanity from every angle. Most people, he concluded, were selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal, utterly irredeemable shit-eaters, but he’d also observed that these same people were highly sensitive to criticism.”

— From the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo


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

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