DramaWatch: Working up a “Sweat”

Brilliant designer-turned-director Christopher Acebo stages Lynn Nottage's timely look at labor for Profile. Plus, the theater calendar bursts with new shows.

Bill Rauch’s tenure as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, from 2007 until last year, was justly lauded for a variety of characteristics and achievements. But one of the less-often remarked upon — yet most significant — contributions to the region no doubt was when he got Christopher Acebo, one of the members of Rauch’s LA-based Cornerstone Theater Company, to move north and serve as OSF’s associate artistic director. 

Festival fans became familiar with Acebo’s genius for scenic design (from thematically trenchant abstractions for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles to scrupulous naturalism for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he seldom failed to amaze). Meanwhile he also was an operational lynchpin, tackling myriad tasks in planning, producing, casting and so on. Over time he also emerged as a prominent cultural leader, serving on the board of national Theatre Communications Group and becoming chair of the Oregon Arts Commission. Oregon ArtsWatch, too, highlighted Acebo in its recent interview series Vision 2020. 

Rauch has moved on to run the new performing arts program in New York’s World Trade Center, and Acebo, too, has left OSF. 

“I had been planning, even prior to Bill’s announcement, to take a new path,” Acebo said in a recent phone interview. “I was there, ultimately, 14 years. That’s a good amount of time and I thought it was time to get out and try some different things.”

Grit and grind: Even the neighborhood bar’s not so relaxing anymore, as the “de-industrial revolution” hits the workers in Sweat, a Pulitzer-winning play by Lynn Nottage. Linda Hayden (from left), Duffy Epstein and Cycerli Ash. Photo: David Kinder.

Fortunately for Portland theater fans, part of Acebo’s new path includes freelance directing, including a Profile Theatre production of the Lynn Nottage play Sweat, opening at Imago.

“As a designer, I feel like I’ve sort of been directing, in a sense, for a long time — working with directors on the vision for a production, dealing with questions about how people move in space and interact with their environment, being in the room and part of the decision making for a lot of those things.”

At OSF, Acebo directed for new-play development workshops and the like, but his first foray at the helm of a full-scale production came last year for Arizona Theatre Company. American Mariachi earned raves during runs in Tucson and Phoenix (“so exuberant, so joyful, so full of heart that it is impossible not to fall in love with” raved Tucson.com), then was remounted in September at the venerable South Coast Rep.

Acebo and Sweat suggest a particularly good match. Nottage was part of the first batch of playwrights commissioned by OSF’s grand project “American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle,” with Sweat — addressing the revolution in the economic structures of blue-collar work, what she calls the “de-industrial revolution” — as the eventual result. Though he wasn’t part of the creative team credited in the playbill, Acebo was in close proximity to the play’s world-premiere production. Under original director Kate Whoriskey, Sweat moved on to Broadway and won Nottage the second (!) of her Pulitzer Prizes.
I’d heard that Acebo wanted to create a grittier version of the play than that 2015 OSF production, but it’s not as though he has complaints about Whoriskey’s version.

“There’s an inherent grittiness to the play and to the place we’re going to stage it. So, yeah, I wanted to see if we could actually have some sweat onstage. And to have some really honest and tough conversations. These are people who’ve known each other for years and years, and it’s only when their livelihoods are threatened that a lot of big stuff comes out that they have to deal with all of a sudden. I want to really show that deep, loving community, and also how it starts to break apart.”

For a younger generation in Reading, PA, (portrayed here by Jim Vadala and LaTevin Alexander), the good old days of stable union work have given way to dimmer prospects. Photo: David Kinder.

Nottage based the play on extensive interviewing of people in Reading, Pennsylvania, which had been cited as one of the poorest cities in the country in 2011, when Nottage began her research. The action is set at a Reading bar frequented by workers from a nearby plant that manufactures steel tubing. Though it’s a convivial bunch of longtime co-workers, as layoffs loom and the union can’t stem the offshoring tide, cracks grow along various fault lines (labor/management, black/white/Hispanic).
When the play reached Broadway, The New Yorker hailed it as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era” for the attention it pays to the sort of Rust Belt citizens who swung the Presidential election in some states — despite the fact that it was written well before Trump was a political standard bearer.

“We haven’t really talked about it,” Acebo said when asked about the weight of current context on how audiences will see the setting (the action switches between 2000 and 2008) and the characters. “What Lynn’s written has so much relevance to what’s going on in this country right now. But the seeds were planted decades before. What’s interesting is to see that path and how it continues…how class is the basis of the breakdown in that community.
“There are moments in the play that feel more ferocious than I remembered them. And I don’t know if that’s about the current context. But if feels more urgent to me.”

Despite his gifts as a designer, Acebo has opted to stick to the directing role, hiring out the design work to others. “I wanted just to stay in this one seat and let other artists take those other seats and contribute their talents and their ideas,” he said. And speaking of talents, he’s assembled a terrific cast, including the likes of Victor Mack, Bobby Bermea and Duffy Epstein.

“This is really starting to shape up in the way I imagined it,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary play, and this cast is going to blow people away. This cast and Lynn’s words together are getting to something really powerful.” 

Opening

In 2016, Andrea Parson saw Susan Banyas perform as a guest with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte’s examination of aging, Beautiful Decay and became intrigued. Not long after, she took a workshop to learn Banyas’ creative method, called Soul Stories. Parson, a celebrated  dancer, and Banyas, a sage multidisciplinary artist, recognized a creative kinship. In 2018, they co-directed a dance-theater work, Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories, for CoHo’s Summerfest, with Parson the standout among the performers. Reflections on Parson’s Sicilian grandmother were an especially engaging part of that show, and it’s too that familial well of stories and identity that Parson returns to in She’s Here: a One-Woman Show, written and performed by Parson and directed by Banyas. Weaving “personal stories, oral history, and myth to unlock the doors of her Sicilian lineage of spirituality, magic, and witchery,” this sounds like an especially poetic exploration of the Soul Stories form.

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Portland playwright Bonnie Ratner continues her examination of race relations in Blind, getting its premiere from Chapel Theatre Collective. Set in 1967, the story concerns the tensions in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood between a fearful white shoe-store owner and his would-be local customers. William Earl Ray directs a promising cast that includes the Collective’s co-founder Jason Glick, Andrea White and the too-seldom-seen Jill Westerby.

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“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” goes an old saying. The children’s theater version of that must be, “the way to a young audience is through snacks,” or some such. Food and fanciful creatures seem a reliable combo in this field. Hence, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s  Dragons Love Tacos, blazing its way into the Newmark Theatre with puppetry and other hot stuff for all ages.

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Meanwhile, back at the farm — or rather, at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s eastside headquarters — the teen improv troupe Impulse has a run of performances in the YP Studio Theater, for audiences seven and older. 

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Shannon Millman, whose website describes her as a “keynote entertainer” and a “workplace positivity expert,” visits All Saints Episcopal Church with her autobiographical solo show, Not So Supernova, comedicly addressing,among other things, the trials of giving birth.

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In case you’ve not caught the bug for the NT Live series, it offers hi-definition screenings of productions from Britain’s National Theatre. Sunday brings two. The Arthur Miller classic All My Sons staged in London at the Old Vic stars Sally Field and Bill Pullman in the searing 1947 drama about secrets and loss and the underbelly of the American dream. Hansard, a recent hit  for playwright Simon Wood, focuses on a 1980s Tory pol in what’s billed as a “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class.”

The Flattened Stage

By “the flattened stage” I’m referring to the flatness of theatrical work subject matter presented not in the fulsome fullness of in-person performance but on a two-dimensional video screen. Sometimes, no doubt, being onstage can make you feel flattened in a different sense. Those times are the stuff of the Actor’s Nightmare, a new project from Portland theater-maker Louanne Moldovan. The first podcast episode can be heard now on the website, and apparently there are more elaborate expressions in the works. Perhaps you’ll recognize some favorite faces in the trailer:

Closing

Readers Theatre Rep’s staged reading of the 1907 Sholem Asch play God of Vengeance serves as a valuable primer for anyone interested in seeing next month’s Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production of Indecent, Paula Vogel’s dramatization of the controversial and tragic history of Asch’s play. But it’s also proof that God of Vengeance was a groundbreaking and deeply affecting work in its own right. Directed by Mary McDonald-Lewis, this version is fueled by a volcanic performance from Doren Elias as a brothel owner seeking redemption through his daughter’s purity. But it also features several indelible roles for women, in which Chrisse Roccaro and Voni Kengla shine in particular.

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Huinca, a play by Marila Nuňez about encroachment on indigenous lands in Chile, ends its run at Milagro .

Second-hand news

Sometimes — maybe not in this column, but sometimes — criticism is so well done that it deserves not just readers but awards. Soraya Nadia McDonald, a cultural critic for the website The Undefeated, recently won the $10,000 George Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, administered by Cornell University, whose selection committee praised the “ambitious reach and bracing common sense of her criticism,” in particular McDonald’s examination of race in casting and movie symbolism in a review of King Kong. It’s worth a look.

The best line(s) I read this week

“Kites have always meant a lot to me. What an image of our condition, the distant high thing, the sensitive pull, the feel of the cord, its invisibility, its length, the fear of loss.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

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

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