Portland Center Stage Portland Oregon Theatre

DramaWatch: Wallace Shawn in a ‘Fever’

A revival of a sharp and probing solo drama shows another side from "The Princess Bride." Also: comedy improv, Hammerstein vs. Hart, more.

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Paul Susi in “The Fever.” Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative.

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“(M)y problem is that my government is the medium through which I conduct my relationships with most of my fellow human beings, and I’m obliged to note that its actions don’t conform to the principles of morality. Yes, I may be a friendly fellow to meet on the street, but I’ve found, through my government, a sneaky way to do some terrible things.”
– Wallace Shawn, in the 1985 essay “Morality.”

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“Yes, suppose that certain people—certain people whose hearts admittedly are filled with love—are being awakened suddenly at night by groups of armed men. Suppose that they are being dragged into a stinking van with a carpet on the floor and stomped by boots till their lips are swollen like oranges, streaming with blood. Yes, I was alive when those things were done, I lived in the town whose streets ran with the blood of good-hearted victims, I wore the clothes which were pulled from the bodies of the victims when they were raped and killed.” 
– Wallace Shawn, from his 1990 play The Fever.

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WALLACE SHAWN MIGHT BE best known as a funny little villain from The Princess Bride or as the straight man to Andre Gregory’s wild-eyed philosophe in the Louis Malle masterpiece My Dinner with Andre, or perhaps from any number of comic bit parts in movies and TV. But he’s also a playwright of a particularly probing character, fond of poking the sometimes-hidden connective tissue between private psychology and the politics of inequality. 

Though Shawn’s plays have won a few Obie Awards, his work isn’t performed very frequently. That just adds a little more appeal – or perhaps it’s urgency – to the production of The Fever by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative. The company is staging the play through Sept. 9 in a former Victoria’s Secret store at the Lloyd Center. The show also will tour “to some private residences and businesses, including the home of Portland Creative Laureate, Joaquin Lopez, and Mother Foucault’s bookshop,”  and – as part of the company’s mission to bring theater to underserved communities – to the Columbia River Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary.

Paul Susi onstage in Wallace Shawn’s “The Fever.” Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative.

“This play seemed like an excellent way to start to get back to the kind of work that we love,” director Patrick Walsh said in an email. “It deals with the journey towards actualization that our narrator goes on as he comes to terms with his own privilege and what he can do to combat the poverty and suffering he sees around him every day.” 

There’s something interestingly apt about the choice of an empty lingerie shop as performance space for The Fever, with all its talk of cultural pleasures and “commodity fetishism” juxtaposed alongside images of a world rife with economic, political and physical brutality. Pacing about an alcove, in front of shelves lined with bourgeois detritus (a camera, a cigar box, cups and saucers, a globe, a gavel, an empty Willett bourbon bottle, a two-volume Oxford English Dictionary…), the skillful actor Paul Susi delivers Shawn’s discursive monologue, recollections and ruminations from an uneasy, sleepless night in a hotel room “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken.” Susi, his voice deep and resonant, almost burly, nonetheless calls to mind the impish rhythms and emphases of the playwright.

As the narrator toggles between sweet and bitter observations, mulling alternately the benign, the mundane and the horrific, images build a sense of both global connectedness and a sort of free-floating alienation: Everywhere someone is a stranger.

A review in The New York Times of the 2008 film adaptation starring Vanessa Redgrave called The Fever a “controversial study of the growing chasm between the first and third world.” But I think, rather, that Shawn’s point is that any such chasm is a delusion on the part of the privileged, who strive to protect their comfortable existence from the incursions of true moral reflection and accountability. As in his earlier, seemingly related essay “Morality,” Shawn’s rhetoric frolics pointedly along the slippery slope from decency to monstrousness. 

“The message of the play is that we cannot sit idly by, speak about the poverty we see every day, wring our hands, and do nothing,” Walsh wrote. “We all must take action. People in the greater Portland metro area seem to feel helpless as they see the extreme destitution around them. However, while it may be easy to blame inept politicians for the current state of affairs we find ourselves in, what would make a massive difference is if every individual accepted culpability for contributing to the great inequity around us, took direct action, and gave some of what they’ve earned back to create a more just world. This is a play for right now and for the powerlessness we all feel in the face of so much pain.”

The flattened stage: home edition

Not to put undue pressure on Paul Susi, but here’s a look at the opening few moments of The Fever, read by the writer himself:

Weekender

In his two-act solo show Chasing Rainbows, Bob Powers relates a story of love and loss, from romance in Italy to caregiving and then grief in Portland, as his husband succumbs to dementia. CoHo Theater hosts the show for two evenings.

One night only

Summer is a great time for doubleheaders. But because baseball is a deadly bore, how about a pair of improv comedy performances? Bridge City Improv takes the field – er, the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, rather –  as host for THREE (Bill Cernansky, Daryl Olson and Beau Brousseau), and then Broad Selection (Lisa Brousseau, Adrienne Flagg, Mariah Muñoz, Whitney Johnson and Kerry Leek).

The flattened stage: theatrical edition

A cluster of big-screen showings hosted by Third Rail Rep at CoHo Theater starts with something unusual – a documentary, Botticelli: Florence and The Medici, about the celebrated 15th-century painter and the milieu of Renaissance art and patronage. But then we get the more expected sort of fare: plays from London’s National Theatre in the ongoing NT Live series. Jodie Comer stars in the solo legal drama Prima Faciethe acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner stages an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s sci-fi saga The Book of Dust, which explores ideas about human consciousness and multiple universes.

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Concert Portland Oregon

Closing

Keaton Fields is Arro, the Frog Prince, and Sophie MacKay is Princess Ember in “The Kiss.” Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre Company.

It’s not that easy, a famous amphibian once told us, being green. Neither is it easy to create a new work of musical theater that works well in all its varied and ideally interlocking elements. Despite the considerable talents involved in The Kiss – chiefly the late, great filmmaker Will Vinton, who conceived the project; lyricist/composer David Pomeranz; and director Greg Tamblyn – this attempt to give a fresh spin to the old fairytale of the Frog Prince doesn’t quite have legs.

DeAnn Welker’s review for ArtsWatch points to both sluggish pacing and a story that feels at once re-hashed and muddled, but suggests that children and other big fairytale fans can find plenty to enjoy in the performances, especially Colin Carver’s scene-stealing turn as a bewitched rat-turned-prince set up as romantic rival to the froggy hero. 

A passage for PassinArt

Connie Carley.

Several weeks ago, chief ArtsWatcher Bob Hicks and Stage & Studio producer Dmae Lo Roberts wrote eloquently about the legacy of Constance G. ‘Connie’ Carley, co-founder of and managing director of the Portland theater company PassinArt. “Carley didn’t care much for the limelight, and kept herself largely out of the public eye,” they wrote. “But for people at PassinArt and beyond, especially in the city’s Black and nonprofit communities, she was a guiding light, a bright spirit, and a voice of practicality, vision, and affirmation.”

On Saturday, Aug. 20, the communities that Carley was such a vital part of will gather for a celebration of her life, at 2 p.m., in Alberta Abbey (126 N.E. Alberta St.).

Second-hand news

I grew up (arguably) in the generation during which musical-theater songs lost pride of place in the center of American culture, and I grew up in a family that, while not entirely unaware of Broadway’s hits, prized Beatles albums over cast recordings. In my twenties, though, as I began to explore broader varieties of popular music, I developed at least one particular opinion about musicals: The songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was terrific, but the later pair of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein was a stodgy bore.

Years later, as I became more interested in musicals, I came to recognize how wrong I’d been – at least about the shows created by those respective partnerships. But it took a recent article by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, on the letters of Oscar Hammerstein, to make me realize how I’d come to my initial conclusion and then to its revision.

“In fact, the lovers of popular song tend to break into two schools without quite knowing it: a school of Hart, which loves theatre music for the songs that it makes and wants them swung, or at least illuminated; and a school of Hammerstein, which loves theatre music for its theatricality and is almost proud to sacrifice songfulness, let alone swing, for the sake of character and story,” Gopnik writes.

My earlier appraisal was made from the viewpoint of a fledgling music critic, a lover of cleverly worded pop songs and swinging jazz interpretations. No wonder I found more in “Mountain Greenery” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” than in, say, “Some Enchanted Evening.” But when I switched my focus to theater, it was the unity and depth of whole shows such as Oklahoma and South Pacific. 

Back to Gopnik and his facts: “In fact, of all the great shows of the period from 1940 to 1965, when Broadway was still the place where hit songs came from, Hammerstein’s are perhaps the only shows that do reliably work in revival, and, though Rodgers was the genius of the pair, that the shows live on is Hammerstein’s doing.” 

The best line I read this week

“The source of the greatest song is sympathy.”

– Halldór Laxness, Icelandic novelist, from his book Independent People, as quoted in The New Yorker.

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

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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