DramaWatch Weekly: time to JAW

Portland Center Stage's new-plays fest hits its stride. Plus: Isaac Lamb on gender and "The Music Man," Rene Denfeld on "Glass Managerie"

Summer stinks.

Sure, the long days are great, but the summer sun is a hot-tempered tyrant. There’s no good basketball to watch. And maybe worst of all, there’s not as much theater to see.

Ah, but then there’s JAW.

Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival is an oasis in the (relative) desert of the summer performance calendar. Originally called Just Add Water/West, it started in 1999 as an offshoot of a similar program at the New York Theater Workshop. Over the years, it has served as an incubator of works by such renowned playwrights as Itamar Moses (Outrage, Celebrity Row), Lauren Gunderson (Parts They Call Deep), Adam Bock (The Thugs, San Diego), Jordan Harrison (Act a Lady, Futura), Constance Congdon (Paradise Street), Marc Acito (Birds of a Feather), Will Eno (Middletown, Gnit), Kimberly Rosenstock (99 Ways to Fuck a Swan), Dan O’Brien (Body of an American), and Yusef El Guindi (Threesome).

This year’s JAW, ready to roll. Photo: Portland Center Stage at the Armory

As useful as JAW is for writers — giving each a director, a dramaturg, a cast, and more than a week for concentrated rehearsals and revisions — its a boon as well for theater fans when it gets around to what PCS calls “the Big Weekend.” That’s when the public gets let into the process for a series of free staged readings, along with other performances and events.
Because the plays being presented are still being developed, there’s not much in the way of production history or reviews to inform our expectations, but you can read brief descriptions of the plays and playwright bios at the PCS website. In any case, the spirit of discovery — both in plays well-polished or those still finding their form — is one of the great pleasures of JAW, along with the lively lobby conversations between readings.

And in a small bit of research into this year’s playwrights, I did come across this simple exchange that I liked from an interview Clarence Coo did with Ma-Yi Theatre, where his JAW submission Birds of Empathy previously was workshopped in 2015:

Why do you write plays?

CC: To increase the amount of empathy in the world.”

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Music Man?

“A few years ago,” the Portland actor/director Isaac Lamb recalls, “I read Meredith Willson’s autobiography, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, in which he talks about the process of getting The Music Man to Broadway. It’s an excellent account of someone bringing a passion project to life.”
Not only that, but it inspired something of a passion project for Lamb as well. He’s directing a version of Willson’s enduringly popular musical, The Music Man, with musical accompaniment pared to just piano and with an all-female cast of six. Third Rail Rep will present it in a “concert staging” at CoHo Theater, Aug. 2-5.

Meredith Willson at the piano, in an advertisement for Maxwell House coffee in the June 12, 1937 edition of Life magazine. Wikimedia Commons

Part of the idea for Lamb’s treatment came straight from Willson’s book, in which he describes years of performing the show in the living rooms of potential investors, splitting all the parts with his wife and accompanying them on piano. The songs, some rooted in the tradition of barbershop quartets, lend themselves to spare treatment, and so Lamb began dreaming of presenting the show without an orchestra and with an overall stripped-down approach, what he refers to as a “found theater” aesthetic.

“I want it to feel like something you could be doing in your grandmother’s parlor with a trunk full of costumes,” he says. “You would have a Harold and a Marian (the show’s romantic leads) and then a barbershop quartet that’d play everyone else.”

The other defining characteristic of Lamb’s approach to the show arose out of a less positive experience. A year or so ago he was trying to direct a musical and thought he should cast the most impressive actors who auditioned. It just so happened that those all were women. “I wasn’t trying to do it in any stunt-casting kind of way, but simply to use the best actors that showed up. And I was told by the theater company that I couldn’t do that.”

So, in part, this Music Man is his rejoinder.

“The idea that verisimilitude is necessary for relating to a character is hogwash — I hope that, as a society, we’re past that,” he says. He acknowledges that political symbolism, audience expectations, marketing demands and other factors all merit consideration. But in essence, he’s a believer in the power of good acting.

“I do think there’s a difference between changing the gender of a character and changing the gender of the actor playing the character. I think the questions it comes down to are: Who tells these stories, traditionally, in our culture? Who should we allow to tell these stories? And what changes when we open up the who and the how of telling these stories?”

Lamb recognizes that, in the current cultural climate especially, his casting choice carries an intrinsic political implication. But he insists he’s focused on the play.

“If there’s any political statement it is simply about the possibility of opening up audiences to an experience of The Music Man in a way that’s not what they’re used to. What I think it can do is refocus the lens on what the play really is. I’m super-excited to try to pull it off.”

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Tennessee to CoHo to ???: An experiment in theatrical reverse translation

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as a famous (though probably not Freudian) quote reminds us. Similarly, sometimes a butt plug is just a butt plug. But sometimes it is also a unicorn’s tail, a hint at hidden homosexuality and a symbol of the different coping mechanisms that siblings in an unhappy household use to get by.

There’s no such prop in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, but the appearance of one — thick, clear glass with a length of lavender synthetic hair attached — in Philip’s Glass Menagerie last weekend at CoHo Theater makes a certain sense. If you know the Williams story, it might remind you of Tom Wingfield’s long nights away from home and the suggestion that he’s not really, or merely, at the movies but off on illicit, random gay hook-ups. And when he hands it to his sister, Laura, who uses it to, um, accessorize her beloved unicorn figurine, it comes to represent her obsession, too, as well as the tender feeling with which each regards the other unhappy soul.

Sascha Blocker, “lovely, precise, emotionally transparent” as Laura in “Philip’s Glass Menagerie.” Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

There were lots of images and bits like that in Philip’s Glass Menagerie, director Philip Cuomo’s mostly dialogue-free adaptation of the Williams play, an experimental application of principles from clowning and physical theater to a classic of American naturalism. But as I watched the opening night performance, I kept wondering what someone who didn’t know the original might make of it, what such a viewer might imagine the actual narrative of The Glass Menagerie to be.

To test this, I needed someone who 1) was entirely unfamiliar with The Glass Menagerie, but 2) has an appreciation for theater, and 3) has a highly developed understanding of story.

My first choice, the marvelous Portland novelist Rene Denfeld (The Enchanted, The Child Finder), was game for the experiment. Initially I’d expected the results to be humorously far afield. But Denfeld’s account suggests that Cuomo’s method rendered the essence of the play with surprising clarity — even if the butt plug seemed to be just a butt plug.

Here’s Denfeld’s response to Sunday’s closing performance:

The Glass Menagerie is set in some vague antebellum period. It’s a family story, about a mother and her adult daughter and son. At first we think the daughter has a disability or mental illness: she is preoccupied by bright, shiny objects. The son appears to have—hiccup—a drinking problem. The spider in the middle of the web is the mother. She is by turns odious, imperious, and strangely vulnerable.

“The play switches between Mother’s romanticized memories of her own girlhood suitors and the present day effort to find marriage for the strange and inexplicable Laura.

“Mother is your aging southern belle on steroids. The grotesque mask of femininity is slipping, her dirty bloomers—and foul mouth—show the profane under the pretense. Her daughter Laura is trapped forever in her delusions. She is the clown who doesn’t realize she is a clown—the butt of our society’s jokes, the crazy one we love to mock.

“And Tom? He’s got some secrets to hide.

“A single empty frame hanging above the set shows the patriarch vanished: this house is empty of everything the genteel should desire. Something is very amiss, and it is not just Laura’s love of all things pure and pony, or Tom drinking himself into a stupor every night.

“It’s the gifts, the tender looks—not to mention the exchange of a sex toy—between Tom and Laura.

“Their intimacy suggests a connection, an emotional if not physical incest.

“‘Deception!’ Mother keeps crying, reading what Tom is writing. Is it a confession? ‘Don’t make momma cry,’ says Laura, before falling down in fits, her eyes doorknobs of despair. The mere threat of losing her beloved brother is anathema.

“‘I think you are doing things you are ashamed of,’ Mother says to Tom, and it seems the gig is up. He leaves, forever, for someplace further than the moon, and that may be suicide.

“Laura may or may not marry a stranger, but her true love just walked out the door.”

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Opening

“What’s in a name?,” Shakespeare asked. In our modern, consumer world we know that, if the name is a brand, sometimes what it’s in it is familiarity, perhaps an imprimatur of quality or trustworthiness. Sometimes the big-name brand lets us down, and sometimes the name we’ve never heard of before gives us what we want; all the same, the name is something we use as a clue.

All of which is to say I’m not sure what to think about the production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur coming up at Twilight Theater. The play is fantastic, full of razor-sharp wit and smart psychological twists, shot through with sexual tension and mystery. But, as I wrote when Portland Center Stage gave it a crackling run in 2013, it demands a high-degree of skill and subtlety in performance. When I saw it on Twilight’s season schedule some months ago, I was excited at the prospect of seeing it again, and yet ambivalent: Frankly, my own small experience with Twilight and what I’ve heard about the experiences of others there don’t give me that sense of name-brand trust.

Then again, it’s important not to judge any show you’ve not seen (unless, perhaps, it’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber). And kudos to Twilight for this smart programming choice, part of a season-long exploration of the fine line between theater and life.

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Best line I read this week

From an article by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker, July 23: “(A) world in which no one complained — in which we only celebrated how good we have it — would be a world that never improved. The spirit of progress is also the spirit of discontent.”

(So if I write a negative review, I’m only trying to make the world a better place!)

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Closing

ArtsWatch’s DeAnn Welker calls As You Like It, or Love in a Forest, the latest Shakespearean adaptation from Bag & Baggage, “the perfect play for a summer evening.” But just for a few more evenings, in this case.

And the fuel gauge is getting low, so to speak, for Out of Sterno, the Deborah Zoe Laufer comedy at Siren Theater.

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

 

 

6 Responses.

  1. Dear Mr Hurley,

    While I very much appreciate you taking the time to announce the opening of Venus in Fur, it is with some surprise that I read your (self-admittedly) somewhat presumptive apprehension of our upcoming show at Twilight Theater Company. Not because, as you say, the script is not without its challenges, but because you say you have had only ‘small experiences’ at Twilight and have heard only second hand experiences to fuel this ambiguous mistrust. And while I am not privy to what you may have heard, statements like “I’ve heard about the experiences of others there” without citing sources comes across as vaguely negative hearsay and can be damaging to an non-profit organizations reputation.

    It is true that Twilight Theater is a somewhat newcomer to the Portland Theatre scene and it is worth noting that TTC is the one of the only Community Theaters in Portland (most community theaters thrive outside of the city and find homes in smaller outlying suburbs or bedroom communities). In the case of Twilight Theater, this is not true. Not only do we reside in an urban neighborhood, we have been experiencing exponential growth in the past couple of years.

    Here I readily admit my own bias, sir, as I am extremely proud and humbled by the advancement we have made in such short time. Since I stepped in as Artistic Director two years ago, we have made consistent and progressive steps forward in improving our space, our staffing and our programming (thank you for your Kudos there). We have made it our mission to produce relevant and accessible theater both for our audiences and our artists alike. Though we are a Community Theatre we have many professional artists (actors and Directors) that give of their time and talents to aid us in working toward that mission. When I started with TTC we had a volunteer board of 6. Now we have a board, advisory group and staff totally over 30 (not including regular volunteers). Artists are flocking to our auditions in great numbers partly because we are taking a non-traditional approach to our community theater offerings and because they feel that we are providing a positive environment in which artists can continue to hone their craft. Furthermore, patron and sponsor donations in 2018 are already up over 28% from this time last year and attendance is up over 25% in the same time frame.

    Your own publication (Oregon Arts Watch) has recently given very favorable reviews to two of this season’s offerings – Stage Kiss and Antigone – with both reviewers offering that both the talent and the production were above their own community theater expectations.

    With all that said, respectfully, I think it may be time you to personally come and take another look at what this little ‘Community Theater that Could’ is doing in North Portland. In fact, Mr. Hurley, I will gladly have two tickets to Venus In Fur awaiting you in our box office and warmly invite you to come as my personal guest.

    Venus in Fur runs July 27 – Aug 12
    Twilight Theater
    7515 N Brandon Ave
    Portland OR
    http://www.twilighttheatercompany.org

  2. My Hughley. What’s in a name indeed! My apologies for the misspelled last name.

  3. Chris Murphy says:

    Twilight is one of the best theatres I’ve ever worked at.

  4. Viv Hastings says:

    Sir,

    I find your comment regarding “name brand trust” truly appalling.

    Twilight Theater has done for years, and continues to do, smart and relevant theater. In fact, I have been far more impressed with the quality at Twilight Theater lately than many “professional” theaters in Portland. I would argue that Twilight is more consistent in terms of quality.

    As a believer in the importance of the arts, I urge you to consider the damaging impact of hearsay to well-meaning non profit organizations.

    Furthermore, I would like to remind you that theater should not be about “brand” in the first place. Fundamentally, us lovers of theater are looking not only to be entertained but also to be challenged. “Professional” theater should not be considered the be all end all of art.

    I urge you to give Twilight Theater another try. I think you ought to take Dorinda Toner up on her offer for tickets, and I applaud her response.

    Thank you.

  5. The Portland Civic Theatre Guild is one organization that believes in the future of Twilight Theatre Company. We gave it our 2018 Portland Civic Theatre Award in Support of Theatre Award in the amount of $3,000 to help improve and beautiful its space so Twilight could continue the growth that it’s exhibited in the last few years.

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