Summer theater: Works in progress

Keep watching the skies: Working Theater Collective’s
Invasion of the Bike Snatchers

Summer’s not nearly over—heck, it’s barely arrived—but it’s already been a productive period of incubation and development on Portland stages, whether for dance, music or theater, with more (especially Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s upcoming Time Based Arts Festival) ahead. If you’ve been spending most of your time outside these days, rest assured that Oregon artists are still making hay while the sun shines.

I intended to write about one of our most prominent greenhouses, Portland Center Stage’s admirable Just Add Water festival last week. JAW provides Oregon playwrights a crucial creative greenhouse that nurtures new works by getting their ideas off the page and in front of audiences, and I’ve enjoyed several promising plays in progress there over the years. Unfortunately,  a combination of enticing hiking weather other arts events conspired to keep me from attending all but one show—and I loathed the first half-hour of that one so much that I left mid-reading. Fortunately, Barry Johnson was made of sterner stuff and has an overview.

But JAW is hardly the only play-development program in Oregon. Over the past month, I checked out several performances of works in progress at several Portland-area spaces.
While these programs can be tremendously useful for playwrights and often fascinating for audiences, who get to see the creative process in action, they’re a little frustrating for reviewers. Playwrights are understandably chary about revealing their less-than-finished products, just as writers wouldn’t necessarily want everyone to see our first drafts. Yet audiences are essential for playwrights to see what works on stage and what doesn’t, especially after you’ve reworked dialogue so many times you can’t even hear it anymore.

So instead of a full review of these very short run (mostly single-weekend), not-fully-staged productions, here are some impressions of the script, a few mentions of performers who stood out, and a few more reactions. Just keep in mind: nothing is final.

Keith Cable, Sam A. Mowry, Sarah Rea in Saint in a Cage

Maybe the most promising show I saw was the first: William S. Gregory’s Saint in a Cage, presented  in one of the Theater! Theatre! spaces on Southeast Belmont in Portland at the end of June. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the sponsor, Portland Theatre Works, produces two series of works-in-progress by a range of playwrights, many of them experienced and even prominent on the boards in Portland:  free readings in its monthly FreshWorks program, which included a 2010 reading of Saint in a Cage; and rehearsed LabWorks workshop productions such as this one. These are selected for more intensive development with dramaturges, directors and actors and a nominal admission fee is charged. Both series include post-show audience talk backs that allow the playwright to get that crucial instant feedback.

Based on historical events, Saint in a Cage recounts an imagined encounter between an imprisoned Joan of Arc, her captor, Philip of Burgundy, and Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, who represents the corrupt church establishment that Joan is trying to overthrow. It makes for a tense threesome: Sara Rea’s nationalistic, idealistic, devout Joan, who knows how to turn her weakness into power; Keith Cable’s cynical, wry, witty and libertine Philip; and Sam Mowry’s corrupt, jaded yet practical church official. They circle each other, jousting over philosophy, religion and politics, while Joan’s life hangs in the balance.

Not to hold Saint (when it eventually receives a full-scale production) to the high standards of one of the great historical/political plays of our time, Bill Cain’s masterful Equivocation (which electrified the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009), but it does resemble that masterpiece in its convincing, non-didactic dramatization of perennially vital political and historical debates—a difficult feat. The issues raised in Saint in a Cage transcend medieval France; echoes of the Vietnamese incursion to “save” Khmer Rouge-ravaged Cambodia and various other 20th- and 21st- century conflicts aren’t hard to discern, though of course are never stated.

What makes all this work onstage is that in this tug of war between idealism and pragmatism, each character really does question his or her initial beliefs, and, by the end of the story arc, they change and grow. It’s in these wavering moments of doubt that all three actors, but especially the brilliant Cable and Mowry, who display strong chemistry, really shine, making us feel that the interests and lives of real people – not merely historical archetypes – are at, uh, stake.

Like other LabWorks workshops, this one, directed by Golla, who’s played an important role in the play’s development, included minimal costumes and props, using business suits and contemporary military camouflage uniforms to make the modern resonances clear. Similarly, Gregory uses modern colloquial, conversational dialogue to break down the historical distance. His script (well directed by PTW’s Andrew Golla) bubbles with sly wit and humor and weaves in historical exposition so subtly that it almost never feels forced or academic. Gregory’s witty, thought-provoking play deserves a full production as soon possible.

Andy Lee-Hillstrom, The Centering.
Image: Steve Patterson.

This summer also featured a welcome incubator of solo shows at Northwest Portland’s Coho Theater. I missed Chris Harder’s Drammy-award winning 2007 performance of his one-man play (co-written by veteran Portland playwright Steve Patterson), The Centering, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have bettered this dazzling showcase (which Harder directed) by Andy Lee-Hillstrom at Coho last month. He slides effortlessly and convincingly among portrayals of several characters, including (most impressively) a clown in a series of compellingly surreal circus segments.

The plot follows the memories of the protagonist, Davey, a political prisoner from an unspecified country imprisoned by unidentified interrogators in an undisclosed location. We learn his back story in a series of recollections, punctuated by moments of torture. The story draws parallels between Davey’s current predicament (and how he triumphs over it) and earlier incidents in his life. There follows an unexpected plot twist that felt almost like a bait and switch to me, if not to ArtsWatch’s astute theater writer, Bob Hicks. The political is no doubt personal, but given how fraught the Guantanamo-like scenario (or maybe it’s a rendition situation) still is, the story’s turn from what first appears to be its subject runs the risk of trivializing a pressing major contemporary public issue by using it as a mere plot device for another story. Nevertheless, I’d like to see this one developed further and on a larger stage.

Elizabeth Huffman in You Belong to Me.
Image: Russell J. Young

Still another utterly compelling solo performance animated the next Coho work in progress I saw, Los Angeles playwright Steven Wolfson’s You Belong to Me. Like the protean Lee-Hillstrom, Elizabeth Huffman’s remarkable ability to morph personas among several characters via shifts in facial expression, voice, and costumes so simple she could change them onstage was nothing short of phenomenal. And both shows used well timed lighting changes to underline those shifts in time and place, in this case from ancient Greece to contemporary America.

The script might benefit from one less minor character and more bolstering of the thematic links between the two stories, but the main idea—that people gain freedom and power over their lives by taking control over their own stories from others—resounds powerfully, and this well-written, powerfully dramatized story really deserves a full production, though I hope one with a different music score. (We’re not really supposed to review production details of works in progress, so I’ll say no more about that. But, hey, if an Oregon theater is going to set even part of a play in ancient Greece, its director might consider the otherworldly reconstructions of music of that time and place by Portland’s own De Organographia, Philip and Gayle Neuman’s historically informed ensemble.)

The final installment in Coho’s solo series, Irregardless, jettisons plot entirely for a series of sketches by talented Portland comedian Stacey Hallal, who has that essential gift of any really successful theater artist: she makes you root for her onstage. Hallal’s smart, somewhat vulnerable and exceptionally appealing stage persona immediately creates an intimacy with the audience, and several of her vignettes (a pantomime scene with sound effects and music, a phone sex skit) are really funny.

Stacey Hallal in Irregardless

Occasionally augmented here by film segments, the show would make a fine night at a standup club, but at this point, Irregardless doesn’t quite transcend the genre to become more than the sum of its often clever parts. Still, if Hallal can forge more connections between her segments, I can imagine it eventually turning into the kind of loosely integrated show we’ve seen occasionally in the Time Based Arts Festival.

Speaking of works in progress… for the past four years, Portland’s Working Theatre Collective has presented a literally movable production—an original play that has something to do with bicycles. It’s part of Pedalpalooza, the immense collection of rides and other events that celebrate Portland’s bike culture. This year’s version, called Invasion of the Bike Snatchers, wasn’t quite as ambitious as last year’s, but still offered a few fun episodes, and a delicious two-wheeled experience. Around six dozen audience members showed up at Ladd’s Circle in Southeast Portland for the opening sequence, in which space aliens arrive and begin their sneaky takeover of the planet by inhabiting innocent bicycles and turning them into sentient beings intent on world domination. Or something like that: as the title suggests, the story served merely as an excuse to goof on those execrable 1950s science fiction movies that became retro chic a generation or so later and have maintained their ironic appeal.

Invasion of the Bike Snatchers.
Image: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland

In an expository scene involving the mayor, we learned the back story about a war in which bicycles had turned on their makers (like robots in mid-century science fiction) and one rogue cycle intended to spark bike revolts around the galaxy—unless it could be stopped. This rolling production doesn’t really bear closer analysis—it’s all about bringing good theater fun to unusual places and further expanding Portland’s already rich two-wheel scene.Anyway, the play proceeded in six scenes staged at stops (including Laurelhurst Park, the old Washington High School, a bike store parking lot, an elementary school and more), plus some brief pantomimed action that took place alongside the fairly short route that wound through southeast Portland. About 75 mobile theater fans followed a bike equipped with speakers that pumped out cheesy ‘50s music (“Monster Mash,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Purple People Eater,” et al)  and became involved with Ghostbuster-style agents of the BIA (Bike Intelligence Agency, of course), a plucky young heroine who uses Science try to foil the nefarious plot, the (fictional) mayor of Portland, who negotiates with (and inadvertently poisons) an alien ambassador, and other silly spoofs.

Ty Boice and Anne Mueller in Kabuki Titus

In truth, the lurid original is so shallow that no one would pay attention to it today (despite the great Peter Brook’s praise) were the Bard’s name not attached, so Palmer’s decision to  follow the play’s amputational esthetic and sever most of the bloody action doesn’t really lose much of value. Even better was the decision to use a kabuki esthetic to reflect the ritualistic nature of the revenge tale’s violence. (This has been a season of kabuki, what with Portland State University Japanese studies professor Laurence Kominz’s involvement in this show, the school’s own kabuki productions, and Imago Theater’s soon-to-return Black Lizard.)Bob Hicks has already reviewed Bag & Baggage Theater’s Kabuki Titus, but I just have to add my props to the Hillsboro-based company’s extraordinary July production of Scott Palmer’s 2002 adaptation of Shakespeare’s early Titus Andronicus, the most startling theater I’ve seen this summer.

What really made this minimal, almost prop-less production at Hillsboro’s Tom Hughes Civic Center shine were the unscripted elements: Melissa Heller’s striking costumes and Addie Underwood’s equally expressive, makeup design; Tylor Neist’s evocative, shakuhachi-influenced and percussion and koto-enhanced score (soon to be recorded), well played by a live chamber ensemble and smartly used both as incidental music and underscoring; Palmer’s symbolic direction (including a macabre, shadowed representation of Lavinia’s mutilation); and above all former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Anne Mueller’s silent movements and facial expressions in the key role of Lavinia, Titus’s ravished daughter. I hope this tight Titus can find its way to other Oregon stages.

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