amber whitehall

Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

Continues…

PETE takes the ‘Sisters’ to the lab

A new translation and experimental approach to Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" opens on Saturday

I counted myself lucky to see the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s first full production, R3, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It managed to unsettle the play, moving it from a series of plots by the hungry and bloody Richard to a deeper consideration of his language, the flood of words—seductions, persuasions, commands—he spews to get his way.

In my review back in 2013 I concluded:  “R3 gets us back in touch with a lying liar and the lies he tells!”

Directed and adapted by Gisela Cardenas, the production focused on the women characters (the PETE ensemble has three women and one man); it integrated design (set, costume, sound) into the production in interesting ways; and the acting style wasn’t what we’d call “natural” at all. Maybe we’d call it “odd,” though then we’d have to add, “and effective.”

In short, I thought it was a brilliant debut, not least of all because it took on a central play in the Western theater canon and delivered the unexpected.

Amber Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles of PETE in "The Three Sisters"

Amber Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles of PETE in “The Three Sisters”

Beginning on Saturday (August 2), PETE is back with its third independent production, Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, freshly translated and directed by Lewis & Clark professor  Stepan Simek, who taught two of PETE’s founders, Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman, at Evergreen State College. That’s doubling down on testing the group’s approach on the classics; Can they portray the familiar story of a noble Russian family’s disintegration in ways that make it strange and immediate?

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When we met to talk a bit about The Three Sisters, the first question I asked PETE’s four founders—Coleman, Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles—had to do with that big word in the middle: experimental. Did they mean it in a general way or did they have a specific vector of experiments in mind when they started the company in 2011?

The answer was a name, really, Anne Bogart, and then an example: They had all seen the same Bogart-directed production of Room, a one-woman play starring Ellen Lauren, devised from the writing of Virginia Woolf, especially A Room of One’s Own. Miles, Coleman and Whitehall saw it on the Seattle stop of its tour; Lingafelter in New York, where she was studying theater at Columbia University and deeply interested in Bogart’s work.

“I’d never been in a room with a performer who was that present with me,” Miles said about Lauren’s work in Room. And then they spent several minutes talking about the way the show converted the audience into participants in the event, how gestural it was and yet very contemporary, how deeply embedded movement was in the action. And they all decided that they wanted to try to make theater that did the same things.

That meant approaching theater like Bogart, whose approach to theater is a critique (among other things) of traditional, Method-based theater acting in the U.S., and indirectly, the entire system of making theater here, with its ad hoc acting ensembles gathered for one show at a time for a relatively brief rehearsal period during which they attempt to latch onto the director’s vision of a play. Bogart’s approach is anti-hierarchical, distributing the “vision” of a play into many discrete, creative choices that her company of actors and designers participate in, workshopping different ideas until they find the ones that work.

All of this is worked out in a book, The Viewpoints Book, that Bogart wrote with Tina Landau (of Steppenwolf Theatre Company fame). It’s an analytical and practical approach to theater that Bogart adapted from choreographer Mary Overlie’s ideas about making dance. The “Viewpoints” (six in Overlie’s original formulation) consider the creative potential of nine physical areas (including shape, gesture, repetition, tempo, duration, spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, architecture, and topography) and five vocal ones (pitch, dynamic, accleration/deceleration, silence, timbre). The exercises that make up the bulk of the book are designed to investigate these possibilities and apply them to theater, either existing texts or ones the group is composing.

PETE, which like Bogart’s company (SITI) trains actors and designers in the Viewpoints methods and does collaborations with other companies (earlier this year, for example, the group worked with Portland Actors Conservatory on Opus 3, an adaptation of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata), works from the Viewpoints handbook. That stretches out the time it takes to create and mount a production: Song of a Dodo, PETE’s second production took around a year to create, including a 20-minute excerpt staged in Seattle. And The Three Sisters started workshopping last summer, after Simek (who works with Lingafelter at Lewis & Clark) said, “You should do The Three Sisters—there are three women,” and offered to write a new translation for the company.

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The delightful “strangeness” of R3 emerged from the workshops and exercises as the group attempted to figure out who they really were as a company. Song of a Dodo actually featured the cast playing the birds, soon to be extinct, so yes, good luck with your Method playing THAT. The play started with Coleman’s desire to bring the fruits of a “lamentation workshop” with Marya Lowry to the stage: specifically, the notion that lamentation and revenge feed each other. And it veered from comedy to tragedy, specifically Anne Carson’s translation of Hecuba, as it unspooled over three acts. “Why does Tragedy exist?” the narrator asks at the beginning of the play. “Because you are full of rage…Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

"The Song of the Dodo" was a PETE original.

“The Song of the Dodo” was a PETE original.

So, yes, lamentation, keening, wailing figured in Dodo, and so did bird hijinks, interviews with Nicol Williamson and Katharine Hepburn, and movements that repeated, changed tempo, and formed interesting gestures—just as Bogart suggested. But not that you’d ever actually notice. I didn’t think about it all until PETE pulled back the curtain for me a little bit. That’s because all that Bogart is REALLY doing is setting the stage for creative acts on stage, ones that the company itself discovers in the process of working together.

For The Three Sisters, PETE needed to expand far beyond its four core members—Chekhov’s play has LOTS of characters and subplots going (duels!)—so the company has been bringing its approach to a cast of prominent local actors. I’ll just list them all without comment: If you go to Portland theater much at all, the names will jump out at you. Isaac Lamb, Mike O’Connell, John San Nicolas, Chris Murray, David Meyers, Jahnavi Caldwell-Green, Kathleen Worley, Michael Chambers, Jake Simmonds, and Dustin Rush make a cast I’d love to see in a traditional version of The Three Sisters, let alone an experimental one.

Simek’s idea, according to Lingafelter, is to dispense with The Three Sisters as a play of high feeling, romance and lofty ideas and play it more viscerally and directly related to the circumstances of the play. I’m imagining fewer world-weary sighs, I suppose, but beyond that, I really have no idea what to expect, even after talking to the principals.

Part of the excitement of the production for me is also just to see whether and how the seed of Bogart and Landau’s Viewpoints germinates and grows here, how the community of practitioners that PETE hopes to create starts to affect non-Viewpoints productions, for example. And I’m also interested in how the longer rhythms of PETE workshops work out practically: Can they keep a company afloat if they are only producing a show or two a year and doing a lot of teaching? Or is this actually a better way to go at a time when the arts are marginalized because they are so difficult to make into easy-to-sell-and-consume products? Yes, I’ll be eager to see how that works out.

NOTES

The Three Sisters previews on July 31 and August 1, then opens for its run August 2-17, in Diver Studio in the Performing Arts Building at Reed College. Tickets are $20-$25, with discounts for working artists, students, and seniors.