“What would happen if Caliban could get his language back?”
That’s a Shakespeare nerd’s sort of question. But in the voice of Madeline Sayet, it’s not just a musing on fictive alternatives, it suggests a path for real-world change.
Caliban, in case you’ve forgotten, is the beleaguered character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest who serves bitterly under the enslavement of the magician Prospero – on the poor slave’s native island, no less. And Madeline Sayet is a playwright, actor, executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, and proud member of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut. The play Where We Belong, opening this weekend at Portland Center Stage, is Sayet’s story of going to England – to Stratford-upon-Avon, even – to pursue a Ph.D in Shakespeare studies only to confront hard questions about colonization, ancestry, identity, belonging and, of course, language.
“There is possibility in Shakespeare’s poetry,” she writes. “I read the plays and imagine us into the stories.” Shakespeare’s language is something she has grown up loving, finding comfort and accomplishment within – especially when she directs a production of The Tempest that highlights her interpretation of the play as a piece of anti-colonial writing (the play ending with Prospero and others leaving the island for his original home, Sayet reasons, suggests that Shakespeare opposed the colonization of the Americas).
But her English journey opens fault lines. (Lines, by the way, are a recurring metaphor in the show – queues, borders, divisions, demarcations of choice.) Tensions arise with her mother, who sees their native culture as the proper priority; with her academic advisors, who demand distanced analysis that runs counter to her passionate and holistic worldview; and within herself, as she begins to question whether the Bard’s work truly can operate apart from the imperialist culture that birthed it.
“The strangest of all British customs to me is their distance from colonialism,” Sayet writes. “I don’t think they realize what they do. They were thrilled when I arrived as a Native Shakespeare scholar because they thought that meant Native people chose Shakespeare as superior. I might love him, but I didn’t choose him. He is what I have to live through, in a world that would prefer there be a last of the Mohegans.”
(The Mohegans of Connecticut, by the way, are distinct from the Mohicans, a culturally and linguistically related tribe who formerly occupied lands in what’s now eastern New York and western Massachusetts.)
Sayet makes reference to micro aggressions, invasive species, a history of trust granted and betrayed, but also to Mohegan language and legacies. And she weaves through a resonant metaphor of herself, based on her language and personal history, turning from wolf into bird, flying, flying, trying to find the right place to land.
Sayet has performed this work at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Seattle Rep and elsewhere, but the PCS production – though directed, as others have been, by Mei Ann Teo, will feature Jessica Ranville.
“I know what you’re doin’
I know where you’ve been
I know where, but i don’t don’t care
‘Cause there’s no such thing as an original sin”
– Elvis Costello
Originality may be impossible in the realm of moral transgressions, but in the world of theater it is – though by no means easy – at least valued enough to be worth a try. Director/designer and Shaking the Tree founder Samantha Van Der Merwe has built her theater’s sterling reputation in part by creating inventive (if, of course, not entirely unprecedented) productions that blend elements of scripted plays, devised performance, and visual-art installations.
The latest of these is called Forbidden Fruit, and the theater’s website says it “celebrates feminine curiosity and challenges the notion of original sin.” That might suggest Eve in the Garden of Eden as a focal point, but the mix of myth and metaphor that Van Der Merwe and a half-dozen collaborating playwrights turns instead to the likes of Pandora and Alice in Wonderland.
Like one of her most celebrated creations, 2012’s set of fantastically reimagined fairy tales The Tripping Point, Forbidden Fruits takes audiences through a series of rooms, each presenting a different short piece, exploring another thematically related facet. Extending the fruit metaphor, each of the rooms here is named after some sort of produce: the Apple, the Fig, the Grape, the Mushroom, etc.
Concept and logistics aside, what’s especially exciting about this production is the array of talent Van Der Merwe has gathered to help realize her vision. Among the playwrights: E.M. Lewis, Andrea Stolowitz, Sara Jean Accuardi, Josie Seid. Among the actors: Vana O’Brien, Val Landrum, Kailey Rhodes.
Some years ago, a world-music band known as 3 Mustaphas 3, a bunch of Brits masquerading as Balkans, touted their eclecticism with the slogan, “Forward in all directions!”
I’m reminded of that by a phrase from Hand2Mouth Theatre regarding its latest devised work Time & Time Again: “Our next stop is the past, present and future.” The difference is, I don’t think H2M is making a joke.
Not to be too terribly literal, but if we’re going to the past, present and future – all at once – how could it be a “stop”? Outside of linear time, what would “next” even mean?
If I’m coming across too much like a sophomore philosophy student, my fear is that the show’s creators might, too. Granted, ensemble-devised performance pieces seldom lend themselves to straightforward description in press releases. And, to be fair, H2M has a long, strong track record, with more than 20 years of such work. My misgivings stem from the show’s premise, to “playfully ask the question: Do we all experience the same moments, the same sense of time, or are we all alone in the journey forward, backwards and onwards?” My initial thought is, Of course we don’t! Which is followed by the notion that we’d need to define our terms (what, quite, do we mean by “moments” or “sense of time” or “journey”) and that a show that mixes “movement, poetry, improvised encounters (and) synchronized choreography” might not be especially suited to the task.
Then again, what we hope from a show such as this isn’t formal argumentation but something more like poetic evocation, or perhaps provocation – both of which Hand2Mouth has provided in the past. Coherence is welcome, surely, but it might not be strictly necessary.
The John Patrick Shanley play Doubt: a Parable is as solid as theatrical properties come: a serious drama that was a hit Off Broadway and on, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a best-play Tony, turned into an Oscar-nominated film vehicle for Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The story points toward the hot-button issue of clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, but subverts moralistic expectations in a way that’s not at all reactionary. Instead, Shanley presents a dramatically rich, ethically probing examination of personal and institutional power, of the dangers of both complacency and certitude, of the tensions that can arise between means and ends.
In addition to the great script, Antonio Sonera, directing this production for Lakewood Theatre, has what’s likely to be a cheat code: the terrific Diane Kondrat in the role of the quietly terrifying Sister Aloysius.
“A lot of what I like to explore comes from a place of rage,” Gina Femia said a year or two ago in an interview with the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. That might tell us a little about the title of her play I F#@ing Hate Shakespeare, which Bag & Baggage presents over the next few weeks, in repertory with Jennifer Fawcett’s Apples in Winter. Not an anti-Shakespeare screed, it’s something more akin to the aforementioned Madeline Sayet play, a highly personal slice of Bardology, if you will. Femia’s monologue explores the challenge that Shakespeare’s legacy presents “as the ultimate thing that you can never achieve but also need to achieve. And juxtaposing that with two back-to-back abusive relationships I was in through my schooling … to talk about how I became the artist that I became.“
The Fawcett play – directed here by B&B’s occasionally returning founder Scott Palmer – centers, not on rage and literature, but on grief and guilt and family. A list of keywords for it on the website for New Play Exchange includes “drug addiction,” “crime,” “prison” and “death penalty,” but also “mother” and “apple pie.” It’s the monologue of a woman making a pie for her son’s last meal, freighted ritual and reminiscence as the clock counts down to his execution.
Milagro presents a Spanish-language production with English subtitles, directed by Julia Rosa Sosa, of Ardiente Paciencia, about a friendship between a postman and the Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who becomes the shy mail-carrier’s wingman in the pursuit of love.
The flattened stage
The Portland theater community still is in a bit of shock from the unexpected death recently of Andrew Harris, a stalwart star of the area’s sketch comedy scene. For those (like me) who missed his memorial, his friends and collaborators Ted Douglas and Sean McGrath assembled this highlight reel to remember him by.
Big touring theatrical productions – such as those in the Broadway Across America series – sometimes are referred to as “bus-and-truckers.” How else might all those triple-threat performers and lavish sets make it to your local stage? But snow and ice and mountain passes care nothing for fanciful notions that the show must go on. So it was that inclement weather delayed the arrival of the touring company of My Fair Lady earlier this week, leading to the cancellation of Tuesday night’s opening performance at the Keller Auditorium.
That having been the designated press night, DramaWatch is unable to provide any first-person description/commentary. But…y’know…it’s My Fair Lady. And it’s in town just through Sunday evening.
The best line I read this week
“The idea of a yesterday is a salve for the ceaseless present, a reminder that time does move, even if its motion—or, implicitly, life itself—means nothing, changes nothing, heals no wounds.”
– Vinson Cunningham, in The New Yorker, musing on the comedic implications of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, in a production by the Irish Repertory Theatre. As a character in the play puts it, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.