An article in The New York Times from Sunday, Aug. 19 (sorry, I’m perpetually behind on my reading) examined two Oregon productions of Oklahoma!, the classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being allowed some 21st-century interpretive elbow room. Chris Coleman is about to christen his new tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company with his version, set amid an all-black town in the Oklahoma territory, of which there actually were a few. The approach was a hit — albeit a controversial one — for Coleman in 2011 at Portland Center Stage, producing an especially vibrant show that introduced local audiences to the marvelous Rodney Hicks, who starred as Curly (and later became Coleman’s husband).
What sparked the Times coverage, though — as the story’s “Ashland, Ore.” dateline suggests — is this season’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which director Bill Rauch has recast the show’s driving romantic relationships with same-sex couples: Curly and Laurey both women, Will Parker and the slightly renamed Ado Andy both men.
Writer Laura Collins-Hughes quotes Coleman about how “really, really picky” the Rodgers & Hammerstein representatives have tended to be about treatment of the shows, and suggests that both a lofty reputation in American theater and a longstanding relationship with Ted Chapin, who oversees rights to the catalog, where needed for Rauch to earn his leeway. Chapin, however, sounds more reasonable than rigid: “For anybody to think they have to be done in exactly the way they were originally done — I mean, that’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan thinking. And Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of dead.”
Well, maybe so. (Note: Not “Gilbert and Sullivan are dead,’ which is long-established fact about the persons, but “Gilbert and Sullivan is dead,’ which is opinion about the work.)
But here’s the thing: Apparently neither Chapin nor Collins-Hughes caught what Rauch did with The Pirates of Penzance.
At OSF in 2011 and again for Portland Opera in 2014, Rauch modernized and revivified the Victorian frippery, making it feel culturally relatable and darn-near emotionally impactful. As I wrote in a review of the OSF show for The Oregonian: “One of Rauch’s signatures as a director is his yen for smart, subtle blending of time frames, even within classic stories. Here he does it not through costume or scenic elements, which stick to their broad Victorian lines, but through the music, which spices Sullivan’s ebullient operetta melodies with pop references as diverse as “Summertime” and “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Michael Jackson and The Wizard of Oz.”
And while we’re on the subject of Bill Rauch’s remarkable and particular creativity: Next summer, he’s leaving Ashland for Manhattan, to become founding artistic director of the Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center. So, Rauch-watchers, what’s the over/under on how many seasons it takes him to relaunch his dearest of pet projects, the dramatic three-headed monster Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella?
He cooked up the concept while he was still at Harvard, as a way to examine — all at once — what he’d heard the director Peter Sellars call the three great populist movements in Western theater: Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama and American musical comedy. He staged it in his dormitory basement, and since has presented it in Los Angeles with his former company Cornerstone Theatre, at Yale Rep, and, in 2012, at OSF. (That it includes a Rodgers and Hammerstein work, I suspect, has contributed to the familiarity between Rauch and Chapin.) You figure he’ll eventually — with a new setting and new audiences at his disposal — be lured back to its theatrical and intellectual richness yet again.
Let’s set the line for M/M/C in NYC at 3.5 seasons. No cash wager; just aesthetic interest.
Hands up with people
“To change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts” might sound like a quixotic mission, unless you’re familiar with Kevin Jones and the work of the August Wilson Red Door Project. Founded by Jones and Lesli Mones, both organizational consultants by day, Red Door has been chipping away at its lofty goal since its formation in 2012, providing arts education and equity/diversity training, and facilitating community conversations about race. Jones also is an accomplished actor and director; his contributions in both capacities with Portland Playhouse on the plays of August Wilson must count as some of the most broadly impactful local theater work over the past decade.
On Saturday at the Rex Putnam High School Auditorium, Red Door will again turn to one of its most powerful tools: Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, a set of monologues written a few years ago in response to the ongoing history of police shootings of black males, such as Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Unable to speak to ArtsWatch because of his schedule, Jones forwarded a prepared Q&A about his thoughts on the value of Hands Up as both a work of art and a channel for engagement and activism. I’ve excerpted the following:
“Yes, they are stories of pain, but more profoundly, they are stories of remarkable resilience. As the director, I have chosen to focus on the power in that resilience. I base this choice on the fact that as a community, though we must be cognizant of injustice and victimization, it is not these things that will help us to heal. What helps any individual (or group) to grow, thrive, and emerge whole is being connected to their strengths, gifts, and abilities…
“Hands Up is an opportunity for many people in the community white and people of color to learn and hopefully understand on a deeper level how institutional racism plays itself out. It’s an opportunity to come together as a community and share our desire to make a better world for all of us. I know that sounds hokey and idealistic but I don’t think much can happen in the way of change until we can look at the problem openly and courageously…
“Hands Up and the conversations that follow, conversations that don’t blame but seek to deepen understanding so the feedback can get in, enable the possibility of change for systems that are stuck. We believe this is, and has always been, an important function of art and artists.”
High-definition, higher drama
On one hand, I tend to find the presentations of NT Live — high-definition video captures of shows from the London stage — a little over-determined. One of the advantages of theater to cinema, to my mind, is that the viewer can choose what to pay attention to on at any given moment. The NT Live producers, however, are choosing angles and frequent close-ups that at times sharpen the storytelling, but at the cost of the viewer’s flexibility of focus.
On the other hand, that’s the only complaint that’s ever crossed my mind about the series, which provides the chance to see the work of one of the leading theater companies in the world without the cost of airfare and hotels.
Third Rail Rep has been the Portland presenter of the series for several years now, using the World Trade Center Theater auditorium downtown that was the company’s home when it went into the high-def biz. This Sunday offers a two-fer: At noon, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starring Rory Kinnear and directed by Rufus Norris. At 4 p.m., Mark Haddon’s mystery The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Director Marianne Elliott has won Tony Awards for Curious Incident as well as for the National Theatre’s War Horse.
How to maximize your kill count
Generally speaking, you don’t go into the theater if you want to make a killing.
Theatre Vertigo, however, seems to see that as simply a problem of volume: Instead of a killing, go for many killings.
As a follow-up to its previous foray into Mass Murder, a set of monologues based on infamous serial killers, the plucky company presents a ladies version, Miss Murder, featuring depictions of Aileen Wuornos, Augusta Gein (here as a sort of psychological adjunct to her son, Ed) and Typhoid Mary. The show is part of what Vertigo calls its Wild Card Workshop, which also will feature a late-night reprise of the original Mass Murder show on Sept. 7.
Best line I read this week
“If cats had a right to privacy, there would be no Facebook, and thus we might still have a functioning democracy.” — John Hodgman, in The New York Times Magazine.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.