Washougal Art & Music Festival

DramaWatch: William Hurt onstage

The movie star, who died in Portland on Sunday, performed in four plays with Artists Rep. Also: Getting grisly with "Titus," comedy & more.


“Oscar-winning actor William Hurt lives on a ranch in Central Oregon, appears now and again in productions of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater, and made his stage debut more than 30 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Shawn Levy wrote in The Oregonian a decade or so ago. “So while he’s an East Coast native and has lived hither and yon over the years, we’ll claim him as ours, thanks much.”

William Hurt (left) and Tim True in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland in 2011. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense, Hurt was ours until the end, dying on Sunday at his home in Portland, as reported in The New York Times. Synopsizing his life and storied film career, The Times not surprisingly neglects to mention his regional stage credits. But his family connections to Oregon and his friendship with Allen Nause, who met Hurt at OSF and later became longtime artistic director at Artists Rep, were enough to bring the movie star to Portland for some celebrated productions.

Hurt’s mother was born in Harney County, near the base of Steens Mountain, and he first came to Oregon in the mid-1970s to bury her at Fort Harney. Not long afterward, fresh out of Juilliard, he spent a season at OSF, where he and Nause played bit parts together, and Hurt also starred alongside Northwest stage titan Denis Arndt in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Hurt (center) with Allen Nause (left) and Patrick Wohlmut in Artists Rep’s 2004 production of “The Drawer Boy.” Photo: Owen Carey

When Hurt happened to visit Artists Rep in 2001, he and Nause renewed their acquaintance and eventually decided to work together again. Hurt starred at Artists Rep in The Drawer Boy in 2004, as the idealistic yet world-weary Dr. Astroff in 2007’s Vanya (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya), as the hidebound stage star James Tyrone in a 2010 Long Day’s Journey Into Night co-produced with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company that played in the Newmark Theatre, and, finally – perhaps most successfully – the following year, as the mercurial, down-on-his-luck poet Spooner in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.

“I thought it would be interesting for him to play a failed artist because he’s such a successful artist,” director John Dillon said of casting Hurt as Spooner. “Here he is playing this failure and at one point during rehearsals he has to leave to fly to Los Angeles because he’s been nominated for an Emmy. That’s a lovely paradox.”

“Spooner is so various in his parts and an active player can find enough quicksilver changes to keep himself occupied in amusing ways,” observed ArtsWatch pater familias Barry Johnson in an essayistic review. “Hurt is an active actor and I found his Spooner absorbing. Maybe I also found him baffling. But Spooner shares that quality with Hurt.”

Australian Star Robyn Nevin and Hurt in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which they performed in Australia and then at Artists Rep in Portland, in 2010. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Bob Hicks wrote, “each of his performances in Portland has sharply divided onlookers: Mr. Hurt is a cool-temperature actor with a very hot personality, and he upsets applecarts.” Behind the scenes, stories abound about Hurt as a difficult co-worker, unpredictable and domineering. On the other hand, others found him engaged and invigorating, charming and kind. 


Washougal Art & Music Festival

That is to say, Hurt could be lovely, and he could be a baffling paradox.

Either way, or all ways, his talent will be missed.


Shakespeare’s early-career revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus is renowned mostly for 1) being his most popular play during his lifetime, 2) being among his least popular ever since, and 3) being so drenched in gore that it makes Macbeth look like a warmhearted romp. To Tina Packer, the founder of the famed Shakespeare & Company, it’s a play that brings up vital questions for our time: “Why are we so violent? Why so many killings in the street? Why do we have (military) bases all over the world?” Adds her former student, Brian Weaver, “Part of the reason I wanted to do this is to ask the audience to confront the violence we participate in.”

Packer and Weaver are co-directors of Titus at Portland Playhouse, a production starring Packer’s frequent collaborator Nigel Gore, Playhouse co-founder Nikki Weaver, and such other fine performers as La’Tevin Alexander and Jamie M. Rea. Expect a show that doesn’t shy from emotional extremity but doesn’t overlook the poetry and dark humor of Shakespeare’s text. 

For several weeks, the Portland Playhouse website listed only three actors for its Titus. It turns out that production has a cast of more than a dozen, but I began to wonder how a three-actor Titus could be possibl;. “Are they going to spend the whole evening slaughtering puppets?!”

Apparently, though, I wasn’t the only person to have that bizarre idea. Coincidentally (?) showing up the same weekend as the Playhouse version, the Canon Shakespeare Company takes to the web to present Titus Andarnicus: a Sock Puppet Play. No, really.



Oregon Cultural Trust

The French playwright Yasmina Reza juggles questions of aesthetics, philosophy and friendship in her play Art, which Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater presents in a translation by Christopher Hampton.


Fuse Theatre Ensemble and LineStorm Playwrights team up to present a new play by Dan Kitrosser, Sveltlana! Svetlana!. Cassie Greer (recently departed as artistic director of Bag & Baggage) and Kitrosser play multiple characters in a story billed as an “irreverent and unorthodox love story in dark comedic fashion” about theater and Russian history. Producers are presenting this two-night stand at The Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio for free, while encouraging audience members to donate to Ukraine relief efforts in lieu of the ticket purchase.

The flattened stage

Snotty, snarky and needlessly speedy – but in some ways a useful summary all the same. (Take with a grain of sand in the wound):

Access video here.

Then again, Titus has its fans. Julie Taymor, who directed the only film adaptation of this particular tragedy, called it “a great play – one of the greatest Shakespeare plays”:

Access video here.

Best line I read this week

“No high theory about Shakespeare is any good, not because he’s so divine but because he’s so human. Even great art is jumble in the end.”

“So the critics are just stupid?”


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“It needs no theory to tell us this! One should simply try to like as much as one can.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

Comedy tonight

Portland Center Stage’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Ellyn Bye Studio closed recently, and Artists Rep’s The Children has a few weeks before it opens in the same room. But why leave a good theatrical space empty? Friday fills it with two comedy shows – the Broke Gravy Improv Comedy Hour presented as part of Artists Rep Arts Hub, then, for the late-night crowd, PCS offers The Love Boys Love Chris Estrada, the first in a series of loosely formatted, multi-act humor and music events.

Second-hand news

Topical relevance – so often celebrated in the arts – at times is a bitter reminder of the times. Last Sunday’s New York Times includes a feature about Dogs of Europe, a play being staged in London by the Belarus Free Theater, that we can hope turns out to be merely timely, not entirely prescient: “(I)t imagines the continent cut in half by a wall. On one side sits a Russian superstate, where a dictator has eliminated almost all opposition, and where people cannot speak their native languages or even perform folk dances. On the other side sits a Europe that failed to realize the Russian threat, or stop it from absorbing Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and beyond.”

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell


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.


One Response

  1. Titus Andronicus was fairly popular in its day, but the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays were Henry IV, Part 1 and the sequel, as well as what we would call a spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The great popularity of these plays was owing to the character of John Falstaff. “According to Leonard Digges, writing shortly after Shakespeare’s death, while many plays could not get good audiences, ‘let but Falstaff come, Hal, Poins, the rest, you scarce shall have a room'” — Wikipedia, cit. The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

    Tina Packer and Brian Weaver presume to find a message for our times in Titus Andronicus, including “why do we have so many military bases?” That seems to be a strained search for particular relevance. The play is a welter of revenge. The message would seem to be: “Don’t execute the son of a captive queen in pointless recompense for the loss of your son in battle, and then let your daughter go out on a hunt with the brothers of the executed guy.” The whole hideous spectacle in set in motion by the action of Titus, but these are characters, not sociopolitical musings.

    I saw a production of Titus Andronicus many years ago in Central Park. The director kept the brutality toned down as much as could be, focusing on the motivations of Titus and Queen Tamora. But it is impossible to keep things much in check — the story makes most slasher films look restrained.

    No doubt there will be audiences drawn by curiosity, to see how the outrageous action is handled, just as there were in Shakespeare’s time. I will probably be among them. Nothing like a gore fest in classical mode (no doubt updated in mise en scène) to achieve some kind of catharsis. But don’t look for answers to the violent crime rate in Portland.

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