Radio Hour: What on Earth is Xingu?

Cygnet Productions presents "Xingu," an Edith Wharton radio play adaptation full of literature, lies, and laughter

What do you get when seven professional theater actors sit down at a table directed by long-time stage actor, producer, and playwright Louanne Moldovan – and hit the record button? Xingu: a lively, captivating radio hour with poignant cultural commentary and laughs to boot.

Edith Wharton pictured at her writing desk

Recording a radio hour, however, is not quite that simple. While the performers did record together in-person to replicate the chemistry and excitement of performing onstage, much production, thought, and deliberation went into crafting the perfect radio hour script and final product. Moldovan, Artistic Director of Cygnet Productions and winner of the 2004 Oregon Book Award for Drama, made the choice to switch her company’s theater productions over to radio when the pandemic shuttered all live on-stage theater performances.

“I thought it was an opportune time to create a radio theater ‘division’ of Cygnet. Clearly, I wasn’t alone – many companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to remain creatively active and keep artists employed,” explained Moldovan over email.

After years as a working actor (Company of Angels Theatre) and co-leading the Women’s Writing Project at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Moldovan moved to Portland, where she continued her career with the Civic Theatre Guild and Artists Repertory Theatre after starting Cygnet Productions as a literary cabaret theater with actor Nyla McCarthy. Typically, Cygnet presents bustling live stage adaptations including a past performance of Xingu, from which many of the radio hour’s voice actors were cast.

Xingu, written by Age of Innocence author Edith Wharton and based on the 1910 story of the same name, is a radio play presented by Cygnet. Directed by Louanne, it features Nancy Benner, Linda Hayden, Vana O’Brien, Josie Seid, Luisa Sermol, Wendy Westerwelle, and Patty Flynn as Mrs. Roby and the affluent ladies of a 1900s book club. Pompous, pretentious, and egregiously self-congratulatory, the literary Lunch Club faces a surprise twist when acclaimed author Osric Dane joins them for a visit.

Patty Flynn as Mrs. Roby, courtesy of Cygnet Productions

While based heavily on Wharton’s 20th-century New York high society lifestyle, Cygnet’s production of Xingu feels accessible to all with its sharp commentary on the academic frauds of the elite class. Its satirical tone makes light of a group that views reading as a daily obligation of intellect to mark their social status rather than a pastime devoted to the understanding of the assigned books. The women of Xingu slyly battle over societal standings and try to outsmart each other at every conversational turn, making for a hilarious depiction of hypocritical snobbery in a room of women to whom the literature itself comes second.

Mrs. Roby, the outcast of the group, who admits to not reading the visiting author’s book, adds a great deal of comedy to the hour-long production while also inadvertently posing the question, What on earth is Xingu? Played by Patty Flynn, a founding member of Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre and a member of Xingu‘s original 1999 cast, Mrs. Roby’s meddlings eventually send the Lunch Club into a frenzy, from which uproarious comic chaos ensues.

Jay M. Dickson, courtesy of Reed College

To experience the electric tongue-in-cheek fun of this production for yourself, give Xingu a listen. Followed by an enlightening companion conversation about the unique life of Edith Wharton featuring Moldovan and Reed College English and Humanities professor Jay M. Dickson, Cygnet Production’s Xingu Radio Hour will be available to stream for free via the Cygnet website, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcast.

After listening to the Radio Hour and post-podcast conversation, I caught up with Moldovan to chat about her favorite Edith Wharton book, the future of radio plays, and how Xingu relates to our current cultural climate.

Louanne Moldovan, courtesy of Cygnet Productions

What inspired you to form Cygnet Productions?

I had moved to Portland with my then-husband (and now dear friend), David Morrison, after having lived in Los Angeles for many years, where I did a lot of stage and was in a few active comedy sketch groups. I’d gotten into screen- and playwriting, and was co-leading the Women’s Writing Project at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. David had a very successful rare bookshop in Santa Monica and moved it here to a large former auto repair shop off Hawthorne. It was his idea that I start a theater inside the bookstore. I thought I was done with theater (as if we ever can be), but that lasted all of a minute before I looked around and realized what a great idea he had!  I didn’t know a soul here but recalled an old college and theater friend, Nyla McCarthy, had moved to Portland and wondered if she was still around. I looked her up and found her! I told Nyla about David’s idea, and we decided to form Cygnet Productions – a literary cabaret theater – together. I directed the first show, and after the second production, Nyla, in her infinite wisdom, withdrew to focus on her burgeoning career with the State.

How has Covid19 affected the way you are producing shows now? What has your transition to radio been like?

Before COVID, I actually launched a podcast – The Actor’s Nightmare. I had done some radio in Los Angeles and even more here … so, I had this background and always wanted to integrate radio into Cygnet’s offerings. 

We all have our own brands or discrete focus, of course. I draw from a lot of the Cygnet canon – so many of our productions are beautifully well-suited to radio. And we are doing a couple of things slightly differently – to replicate the live stage experience, we record live; in other words, we don’t stop for various takes. If an actor flubs their words or gets lost on the page, naturally we stop. But the performance is akin to being live – and the audience can appreciate it for that same vibrancy, as well. We also offer a recorded “conversation” I have with a particular authority or specialist related to the subject matter of the show. For example, I interviewed Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel for Address Unknown, and Professor Jay Dickson of Reed College for Xingu. And I just chatted with my friend, Gemma Whelan, artistic director of Corrib Theatre, for Faith Healer, our upcoming show.

Do you think radio is becoming more prevalent in this age of distancing? If so, what does its future hold? Will it ever hold the same audience that stage does?

Oh yes, as I mentioned, there are many theaters producing audio-only productions. The creative engine doesn’t stop, even if we encounter physical barriers. It was a natural transition to radio, which after all, had its own rich theatrical history. I wonder, though, if audiences will maintain their interest in listening to shows when they can enjoy the whole experience again in a theater environment. It may be a gradual resumption to the live experience, but they are distinctly different modes of artistic entertainment so maybe they can successfully co-exist. I’ve been wondering about the likelihood of radio theater’s endurance, though, and I guess I’m dangling in the doubtful zone.

What are the major differences between producing a stage play and a radio play?

For one thing, due to budgetary constraints, I only have two rehearsals. I am always available to the actors in between, but officially that’s all I can afford. No one thus far has had a problem with it; they are such pros, prepare sufficiently, and know how to come to the table (literally!) supremely ready to go. 

There are different considerations, being these are audio-only presentations. I used to do voiceover work, mostly characters for animation projects, and I began casting voiceover jobs. I used to tell my producers and directors I would seek out actors with great voices – great as in quality and flexibility and creativity, rather than voice actors. Everyone I’ve worked with – and some I never worked with before – are so gifted and professional. And they adapt well to just using a microphone rather than an entire stage – distilling their performance to a small mechanical unit but a large canvas in their minds. And we retain the vital importance of their connection to each other – I want their characters to see each other, be affected by each other. Even with Faith Healer, which we just recorded – the play is comprised of monologues. But the actors sat and listened – they needed to be a part of that process. It’s a very focused effort, kind of Zen-like, but still open and engaged.

Luisa Sermol as Miss Van Vluyck, courtesy of Cygnet Productions

How did you originally connect with all the wonderful actors in this production?

We did Xingu at our last and final permanent home, the Russell St. Theatre (a space David found for us). I am friendly with a few of the actresses from that production, and they were eager to reprise their roles. Another couple of women are also friends and we had talked about doing this piece a while ago. … Originally, I cast a man as the famous female author; he was in drag and was sublime. And I added a character – of a maid – because I wanted to involve Gregg Bielemeier, the renowned dancer/choreographer. I gave him a few lines throughout but mostly wanted him to add some of his characteristic physical graceful levity to the story. Being radio, these two choices would not be effective. 

Why Xingu?

I wanted to present something more lighthearted after the heaviness of Address Unknown and before Faith Healer’s haunting quartet of monologues. It’s not a story a lot of people are familiar with so I liked that kind of surprise aspect, and I always enjoy paying tribute to powerhouse writers such as Edith Wharton.

How does Xingu relate to our current social, literary, and art cultures today? Nationally, and also particularly in Portland?

Well, Portland is known as the bastion of all things literary, including book clubs, which are popular all over the country, of course. That Edith Wharton based her story around a pretentious ladies’ book club was too irresistible, and her satirizing of this group of intellectually aspiring show-offs has a vague, and in some cases, a certain reference point to the tendency of scholarly grandstanding by the endless “experts” on news programs or the occasional highbrow know-it-all in a book club or classroom. Pomposity and snobbery know no timewise bounds.

How does Wharton’s comment on wealth and society in Xingu translate to the large wealth disparity seen in our country today?

It is that much more expansive a commentary, given the sheer extremes between the very wealthy and everyone else. One percenters reside in their own foreign, wholly unrelatable, ridiculously privileged reality. If Ms. Wharton were alive today, she would make mincemeat of the staggering inequities in our country. The fact she was born into upper-crust New York yet satirized that from which she came makes her mordant observations that much more condemning. 

What led you to become a fan of Edith Wharton? Do you have a favorite work of hers? Would you consider doing more productions of her work?

Gosh, I just savor the perfect excellence of her craft. When I am reading a book of hers, I can sit back and be happily swept away while also marveling at her breathtaking skill. She epitomizes the transformative power a work of fiction can have.

I would say House of Mirth is my favorite. The tragic power of the novel is intact – from the cruelty of the world towards women to the struggle for personal freedom in a money-obsessed culture to the aberrations of the Gilded Age. It is a work of art still as captivating and relevant in our 21st century.

What will your next production be, and how can audiences support your forthcoming radio hours and performances? 

We just recorded Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Faith Healer, with Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Vana O’Brien, and Keith Scales. The actors were breathtaking. I invite our audiences to listen, enjoy, and subscribe. All our shows are free this season, with thanks to the generously magnanimous Ronni Lacroute. But we welcome donations! Folks can just email me.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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