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DramaWatch Weekly: Ghosts of ‘Shining City’

Sure, there's plenty of Dickens in December. But on Oregon stages, it's Conor McPherson season, too.

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December is for Dickens. And while Shakespeare always is a staple of the stage, summer looses his loyalists upon parks everywhere. It’s common for these writers to monopolize the calendar. But lately, in these parts, we might say it’s been Conor McPherson season.

The contemporary Irish playwright’s work is having a Northwest moment. In October, Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater served up a solid production of his low-key pub drama The Weir. Last month, Imago Theatre staged his adaptation of The Birds, centered on a subtly unsettling performance by Melissa Jean Swenson. 

From top: Matt Sunderland, Mark Mullaney, Jeff Giberson in “Shining City.” Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.

Now, Imago co-founder Jerry Mouawad returns to the McPherson well for Shining City, which opens a brief (five shows over two weekends) run at the company’s Southeast Portland space.

Of the three, Shining City offers the greatest situational nuance and psychological depth. Like The Weir, it is in some respects a ghost story. But as with the strange fairy visitations in The Weir and the vengeance of nature in The Birds, the most troubling apparitions in Shining City turn out to be the images conjured by the principal characters’ reflecting upon themselves.

Set in a therapist’s office in a run-down section of Dublin, the story presents the struggle of a man named John whose recently deceased wife appears in their home. “She was as real as — if you’ve ever seen a dead body? How strange it is? But it’s real. That’s how real she was!,” he sputters in his first visit to Ian, a former priest turned fledgling therapist who, as we come to see, is haunted in very real ways himself. 

In all these plays – and perhaps as well in his masterly The Seafarer, where the supernatural interloper is a very corporeal manifestation of the devil himself – McPherson isn’t trading in the sensations of horror or fear; he’s subtly, scrupulously examining the nature of what it means to be haunted, carefully following the overlapping axes of memory and longing, grief and guilt which give birth to the ghosts of our lives.

Speaking of memory, Shining City might be a powerful reminder for longtime Portland theater fans. Back in the marvelous early years of Third Rail Rep, Scott Yarbrough directed a terrific version at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, in 2008. A superb cast included Michael O’Connell, Val Landrum and Chris Harder, but what’s stuck with me most was seeing Bruce Burkhartsmeier – who’d been away from the Portland stage for a while at that point – for the first time. I recall sitting there thinking, “Where did this guy come from?! He’s fantastic!”

It should be interesting to see the play again, in what might be a very different production. Yarbrough may be unmatched among Oregon directors in his fine-grained attention to the meaning of words, the rhythms of language and the unfolding of emotional developments within a piece. Mouawad knows how to plumb a text, certainly, but his specialties as a director often are more external, a kind of ruggedly poetic way with imagery and spatial relationships. He’s working here with Mark Mullaney, Jeff Giberson, Tess Middlebrook and Matt Sunderland, and I’m intrigued to find out what we might find in shining a new light on this material.  

Closing 

Final call: Wendy Westerwelle as Bella Abzug. Photo: David Kinder

Beloved Portland stage veteran Wendy Westerwelle stars for Triangle Productions as the New York politician and activist Bella Abzug in Bella! Bella! But the polls close Saturday, so to speak, so go vote early and often.

Second-hand news 

Ariana DeBose as Anita in the new “West Side Story.” Photo: Niko Tavernise/ © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

With roots in a variety of theatrical soils (Shakespeare, mid-century Broadway and the contemporary playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner), the new Steven Spielberg version of West Side Story is a rare big-screen spectacle with inherent interest for stage purists. And as the reviews come rolling in, the consensus – 96% on the ratings site Rotten Tomatoes – makes it seem worth risking a trip to a cinema.

The Washington Post’s excellent critic Ann Hornaday calls it a “vibrant, urgent, utterly beautiful revival…sending viewers on a journey that, for all its familiarity, once again feels thrilling, romantic, drenched in movement, life and color — and, ultimately, aching sadness.”

A.O. Scott in The New York Times is a bit more measured in his praise: “The seams — joining past to present, comedy to tragedy, America to dreamland — sometimes show. But those seams are part of what makes the movie so exciting. It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled and alive.” But for all that filmmaking craft, Scott points out the centrality of what we might consider carryovers from stagecraft. 

​​”There’s a reason West Side Story is a staple of the performing arts curriculum,” he writes, “and for all the Hollywood bells and whistles, the essence of Spielberg’s version is a bunch of kids snapping their fingers and singing their hearts out.”

Calling the 1961 film version “dutiful, square and pretty dull as cinema,” Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune rates the Spielberg/Kushner as “five times the movie” of its big-screen predecessor. 

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And this new expression of the story is so well crafted that even those reactionary creeps at the National Review found a couple of nice things to say. Displaying a remarkably snide, dismissive attitude toward the play and the 1961 film, Kyle Smith’s dog-whistle-filled review heaps praise on the entertaining songs and allows that “the dramatic portions of the story still aren’t good, but now they’re more or less tolerable.” It’s an interesting read, just to see how determinedly someone can miss both essence and nuance in their subject.

The flattened stage

‘Tis the season for re-runs (this clip was featured in a 2019 DramaWatch column – so sue me.)  And since all I want for Christmas is another Portland visit from the Apple Sisters…

The best line I read this week

“The difference between good writing of the Left and good writing of the Right is that good writing of the Right ends up with very solid conclusions, while good writing of the Left comes up with more questions. Fixity and determinacy should always be anathema to the Left.

“…(Writers of the Right) always stop thinking too soon. They’re too uncomfortable with contradiction, so they want to come up with solutions. And unfortunately, those are often fascist solutions.”

– Tony Kushner, from (my notes of) a 1997 speech at the University of Georgia.

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

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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