as you like it

DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

*

The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

*

Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

*

“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

*

The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

*

Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

*

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

Arden Forest comes to Yamhill County

And just to the south, you'll find Elsinore, as a Bard-filled weekend offers outdoor productions of "As You Like It" and "Hamlet"

Before we get to this week’s most exciting theater opening — an open-air production of As You Like It — let’s quickly cast our gaze just south of Yamhill County, where an intriguing Hamlet will be found. 

Western Oregon University keeps Shakespeare alive in the summer with free outdoor productions by its Valley Shakespeare Company. This year, WOU’s David Janoviak is directing Hamlet on the campus’s outdoor Leinwand stage. Valley Shakespeare shows offer a mix of student, faculty, community, and professional guest artists.

Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell
Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell, courtesy Valley Shakespeare Company

This is Janoviak’s fifth Hamlet. He’s played the Prince of Denmark twice, both in school and professionally, and he’s played Laertes twice, for professional companies in Utah and Texas. For this Hamlet, he’s going with a 2017 WOU graduate in the lead, Janelle Rae, who uses the pronouns they/them.

“Someone once said that you don’t simply decide to do Hamlet and then hold auditions to cast the title role,” he said. “You discover the actor first and then take on the project.  That was the case with Janelle.” The fact that Rae is female, he said, didn’t really cross his mind.

Continues…

Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

“Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.”

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

Continues…

As You Like It, indoors & out

Bag&Baggage blends Shakespeare's comedy with Charles Johnson's "Love in a Forest," and leads the audience on a merry chase

If the heat of summer has you longing to escape to the cool shade of the forest, you’re not alone: The lovers (both hesitant and willing) in Bag&Baggage’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, are also escaping to the forest, for love and merriment.

But Bag&Baggage isn’t settling for any other production of As You Like It. Its production — titled As You Like It, or Love in a Forest — combines Shakespeare’s As You Like It with Charles Johnson’s Love in a Forest, based on the same text Shakespeare based his on, and written more than 100 years later.

Andrew Beck (left) and TS McCormick. Casey Campbell Photography

Bag&Baggage Associate Artistic Director Cassie Greer adapted this script for Bag&Baggage’s Vault Theater and the outdoor alley next to the building, in the heart of downtown Hillsboro. Greer also directs, and sometimes you wonder if she has brought this play to Hillsboro or if she has brought Hillsboro to this play. Either way, it works magically.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

 


 

A FEW THINGS HAPPENING THIS WEEK:

Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.

Continues…

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

When I first determined to check out the “immersive” As You Like It at The Steep and Thorny Way To Heaven, I’m pretty sure I based my expectations entirely on works I’d seen there before. In this private event space, I once attended a fairy-themed vaudevillian variety show with venue co-host Megan Skye Hale emceeing for a kettle-drummer, two masked mimes, two belly dancers and an aerial acrobat. More recently, I also caught a rock revue performed by venue co-host Myrrh Larsen and inspired by Hades and Persephone, where the mythic characters pursued each other through a torrid contemporary dance that started onstage and then rampaged through the audience.

So when I heard the space would host a Shakespeare play, I wondered what we might see: A juggling Touchstone, chanting punchlines between catches? A quick-changing Rosalind, flashing rapidly between a ballgown and a tux? An aerialist Phoebe, dangling just above the shepherd Silvius’s furtive grasp?

As it turns out, Speculative Drama & Susurrations actually plays this production pretty straight and narrow—not too steep or thorny—with what would qualify as a unique and engaging treatment, but not a wild and wacky reimagining. What the play does deliver are some new faces, some fun variations, and an excellent option for date-night Shakespeare comedy. Get the Montage to sculpt you a swan, then walk a couple of blocks to this show.*

The wardrobe is Doc Marten Neo-Victorian. The set is minimal, just a black background, but with a cool catwalk installed along stage right. The blocking is dynamic and often comic, the diction is precise, and the couples’ “meet-cutes” are appropriately funny and fawning.

Orlando is Tim Fodge, a Newberger making a worthy Portland debut. A Kenneth Branagh/Kevin Klein type who looks best in a beard and comports himself with eloquence, pomp and mischief, Fodge probably has a past and is safely assured a future in Shakespeare, but could yet develop more range. Even when he’s exiled from a kingdom and attacked by a lion, we never believe he’s in any danger. Enso Theatre Ensemble’s Caitlin Lunshington as Rosalind is over-the-top adorable, dimpled and enthusiastic and, when necessary, coy and sly. Her best moves include an impressive cartwheel out of Orlando’s arms, and a 1950s “boy adventurer”-style Ganymede, with hands on hips and a twinkle in the eye, a la Davy Crockett or Peter Pan. Megan Skye Hale, also the show’s A.D., plays Rosalind’s cohort Celia with matching gusto.

Readers Theatre Rep’s Wendy Wilcox plays a stately female version of the banished Duke Senior (timely, with Hillary’s rise), while Jacques (whom recent productions including this one puzzlingly insist on calling “Jay-Queeze,” like some B-list rapper) is portrayed here not as a straight sad sack, but rather a preening and arch gay man flourishing a fan, more in love with the poetry of his own laments than actually aggrieved by them. A few characters, Audrey, Charles, and William, are omitted, with Charles still referenced but never seen onstage and the other two struck completely from the script. Audrey’s omission leaves Touchstone without a lover, giving Jacques’ eager recounting of meeting him a more twitterpated tone. Jacques also seems to take more than an artistic interest in his accompanying troubadour, Amiens—a take that seems new, but also plausibly may hark all the way back to the original Elizabethan all-male-player tradition. “Play me songs all day to soothe my spirit?” Please. That is flirting. Jeff Desautels, who plays both Amiens and Oliver, sports a similar scarf and demeanor in both roles, but cultivates more chemistry with Jacques than with Celia, which piques the imagination. YOCTOtheatre’s Sean Bowie as Touchstone is given less than usual to do, but dispatches it admirably; Caitlynn Didlick, a recurring performer at Steep and Thorny, plays a relatively mild-mannered and understated Phoebe; and PSU theater student London Bauman makes a sympathetic Sylvius.

Though nobody’s spinning from the ceiling, this is a worthwhile spin on Shakespeare comedy As You Like It—and as it happens, I do.

*Because of the space’s status as a private venue, reservations are required.

As You Like It: Post5’s home at last

The company opens its new Sellwood space with an uneven but exuberant frolic in the woods

It’s the afternoon of the fateful wrestling tournament in As You Like It, and the nasty Duke’s man, fearsome Charles, is kicking young Orlando’s behind. The Duke’s not-at-all-nasty niece Rosalind, who’s taken one look at the young challenger and is smitten beyond repair, leans forward from the crowd and blows a kiss to Orlando, who catches it, swallows it, swells with sudden strength, and kicks Charles into the middle of next week.

It’s an audacious moment, a big-wink, comic-strip spectacle that’s representative of Post5 Theatre’s brash new production, and Rosalind’s kiss might well be aimed at the entire enterprise: This As You Like It is Post5’s first production in its new home in the Sellwood district, and Saturday’s opening-night audience greeted it as a celebration.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here, spreading a little gleeful autumn in the forest. Photo: Russel J. Young

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, gleefully sprinkling  autumn leaves. Photo: Russel J. Young

The opening performance was all of that, and like Orlando’s victory, a bit of a dramatic turnaround, too. Ty Boice, Post5’s artistic director and the director of As You Like It, told the crowd that as of four days before opening, the theater had no chairs. The company borrowed a little more than 100 of them from the neighboring church, and eventually will have to come up with its own. The show, as they say, must go on – and it did.

Like the production itself, Post5’s new space – which takes up roughly half of a handsome church compound at 1666 Southeast Lambert Street, off Milwaukie Boulevard – is a work in progress. The bones are terrific, and for the rest, the basics are in place. Post5 has a performing space that’s bursting with potential, and a nice little bar and lounge in the basement, and the rest will come: Unfinished Cathedral, the title of T.S. Stribling’s 1930s novel of the economic and cultural transformation of the American South, comes to mind. Plus, the place has that most precious of commodities, a big, free parking lot. The space came together in the nick of time, and it gives Post5 a genuine home to grow into gradually, in a lively neighborhood that’s outside the usual performance zone. That’s worth tossing a little confetti in the air.

Post5 approaches Shakespeare with a reckless verve, putting the pedal to the metal and emphasizing the nowness of the thing rather than its antiquity. Boice’s As You Like It is built for speed, made for audiences who come not to worship Shakespeare but to enjoy him. And it’s bound to divide viewers: does it breathe fresh postmodern energy into a creaky old narrative, or does it simply skim along the surfaces of a classic, hauling in easy laughs while the bigger, deeper ones remain untouched?

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5's new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5’s new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

On opening night I found the show winsome, agreeable, a little sloppy, and a little too eager to please: I’d’ve liked more precision and evenness of tone, and less eagerness to adopt any frisky shtick that came wagging its tail down the street. Yes, As You Like It is a frolic. But it also has some high emotional and philosophical stakes. In this light comedy are questions of trust, truth, honor, danger, betrayal, and the categories of love, from brotherly to casual to deeply bonded. Evil and mortality rear their ugly heads, and the play considers the role of aggression and violence in both politics and love.

The balance is tricky: all of this thrums below the surface, and to approach the play like a Lear or Hamlet would be to fundamentally mistake it. But the shadings should be acknowledged, and this production plays the whole thing like a high-school rom-com. Having Charles show up in a Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestling mask (shades of Portland artist Victor Maldonado’s sly cultural interventions), uttering only savage grunts, turns him into a purely comic character and drains the danger out of one of the play’s crucial scenes. That air-kiss further turns the scene farcical. And there are wild variations in performance approach, so much so that I sometimes wondered whether the actors were making deliberate choices or simply hadn’t fully shaped what they were doing. The show’s prevailing mood seems less a specific style than a loosey-goosey anarchy in the woods. I lay this at least partly to the twin stresses of putting on a new show and creating an actual theater from an empty space at the same time.

Yet there’s also that refreshing narrative drive. The play’s well-spoken, and the cast is studded with good performers, several of them younger and brimming with promise. Chip Sherman as Orlando and Isabella Buckner as Rosalind (who performs in her male disguise as a drawling cowboy at home on the range) are engagingly open and well-matched, and Jessica Tidd is a likely sidekick to Rosalind as Celia, the duke’s daughter, who out of friendship flees with her to the Forest of Arden when her father banishes Rosalind on pain of death. Max Maller’s shoulder-shrugging Touchstone works less well for me, deliberately casual yet casual to a fault. The performance that sticks with me most clearly, and seems in many ways the most perceptively formed, is Keith Cable’s as Jaques, the melancholy fellow of the woods, who delivers the “seven stages of man” speech with laconic eloquence and who hints, in his double edge of comedy and moroseness, at the clipped contradictions of a Hugh Laurie.

Boice and his designers have made a virtue of the show’s low budget, which fits with Post5’s determination to deliver good theater at a low price: tickets are just $15, and on pay-what-you-will nights, you get to choose, which makes this show affordable for almost anyone. Costumer Cassandra Boice’s designs are bright and cheap and affable, with a touch of logger chic, and tech director Randall Pike’s sets and props are wittily low-rent, from simple hanging sheets to exuberant sprinklings of colorful leaves, flung playfully into the air to depict the changing seasons with a wink that works. The show resolves with an exuberance that overrides what doubts you may be wrestling with. After all, this As You Like It is only a beginning.

*

 As You Like It continues at Post5 through December 13. Ticket and schedule information are here.

________________

Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!