Bag & Baggage

ArtsWatch Weekly: A world on fire

Trees in Trouble. Farewell, Tim Stapleton. Maryhill finally opens. Lots of music. Women in film. Pop-up posters. TBA, Street Roots & more.

NOTHING I CAN WRITE ON A DAY LIKE THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT than the story sweeping across Oregon and the West, where high winds and wildfires and crackling-dry conditions have unleashed historic devastation. Whole communities have been erased. Main highways are blocked off; others have been bumper-to-bumper crawling with people fleeing danger zones. Hundreds of people have been burned out of house and home. Complex ecosystems have been uprooted; wildlife flee with no sure place to go. In Oregon as of Thursday afternoon at least 800 square miles of land was burning, much of it out of control. 

Amid the chaos I’ve seen many small tales of courage, generosity, and resourcefulness. People in the country offering refuge for horses, livestock, pets. Parking lots and driveways offered for people escaping in their trucks or campers. Neighbors helping clear downed trees. Medical and utility and emergency workers, already stretched by the mounting catastrophes of this most extraordinary year, laboring overtime under daunting and exhausting circumstances. As I sit at my desk at 10 in the morning and look out the window the sky has turned from blood-orange to a pink-tinged gray. The acrid smell of smoke seeps through the cracks and into my nostrils. And I am deeply aware, and immensely grateful, that I am one of the fortunate ones, sitting in a stretch of Portland that’s been spared the worst of these multiple conflagrations, and that, barring a radical shift in weather patterns, is likely to remain a safe shelter. 

How did we get here? Where are we heading? In search of some answers ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson talked with Portland writer Daniel Mathews, author of the recent book Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change. Mathews takes a long view of the state of the forests, the destabilizing effects of climate change, the role of public policy, and other factors contributing to the chaos of the land. “I’m heartbroken looking at the maps and seeing so many towns and forests I visited just in reporting for this book,” Mathews tells Johnson. “This week’s fires are shocking and truly historic: it’s likely that more acres burned in the West than in any 48-hour period in written history, including the Big Blow-up of 1910. … I  guess there are a lot of disconnects between science and policy in this country, but forest fire policy is one of the most stubborn.”


TIM STAPLETON: FAREWELL TO A GREAT SPIRIT


The much loved Tim Stapleton, in transition. Photo courtesy Gary Norman

TIM STAPLETON, THE LONGTIME PORTLAND set designer, visual artist, writer of uncommonly good memoirs, and occasional actor, died at a hospice care center on Labor Day morning, Sept. 7, from the effects of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He leaves legions of friends and admirers, and an enormous hole in Portland’s artistic community. Tim, born in Kentucky coal country in 1949, constantly called in his work on memories of those days and that culture, and before he had to move to hospice care he made his home in The Holler, a stretch of country-in-the-city in a tucked-away part of northern Portland, which is where photographer Gary Norman took the portrait above. In it, Tim seems to be simply walking away, toward something, taking his soft wry voice and sometimes jagged laughter and passion and wit with him, but leaving a trail of memories behind. 

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DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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DramaWatch: Musings on behavior, blackness, and what shows to see

Some thoughts on theater etiquette, on ideas about race and cultural preference, and on what shows to see this week in Portland.

Ben Cameron is a former executive director of Theatre Communications Group and program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and when he was in those roles  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about a variety of arts issues. One of the memorable observations he would make, a decade or two ago, was that the audience for the arts in America was made up predominantly of the kind of people who had been good at school in the 1950s and ‘60s — that is, well-educated, well-to-do, often white, with mainstream sensibilities and manners. The reason, he suggested, wasn’t just that these were the folks with the money to attend art events, but that they were the folks comfortable at art events, that art events operate by the same sorts of rules and conventions they’d thrived in before at school: “You come in, you sit over there. No, not up there on the stage — that’s for somebody else. You sit there, pay attention and be quiet. They get to talk, you don’t. You respond when we tell you to.” And so forth.

His point being, the arts — perhaps theater in particular — are presented in a context that carries behavioral expectations, and those aren’t the expectations that everyone is used to. So, if more people are to engage in the arts, the question then becomes about who has to adjust, the arts or the audience. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre can feel like a sanctified space, as in this 2019 production of As You Like It, directed by Rosa Joshi. Some folks like it quiet and full of rapt attention. Photo: Kim Budd.

Cameron was addressing broad and ongoing issues about cultural engagement and growth, but his observation came to mind recently in a narrower context: theater etiquette.

Complaints about a decline in theater etiquette are evergreen. My apologies for burdening you with yet another. I just seem to be encountering the topic from all angles these days.


For one thing, on my most recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was stunned to observe something I don’t think I’d ever seen before in what is, to me, a kind of sanctified place: in the August Bowmer Theatre, just two seats away from me, someone eating during a performance! Yes, lobby concession stands sell snacks, and I don’t know the theater policy about bringing food into the auditorium itself; I just hadn’t imagined someone breaking the spell of that place in particular in such a way.

And to the woman in the row behind me at the Armory during opening night of Redwood last weekend: The line that you missed — and loudly told your companion that you’d not heard — was, “Did you really just use your stepmom to Love, Actually-stoop-scene me?”


You’re welcome. But is that you didn’t hear a line sufficient reason to keep those around you from hearing the next one? I believe it isn’t. Instead, try to hold the details of the moment in your mind until intermission or curtain and then ask your friend, “By the way, did you catch what she said when…”

As exasperated as I can get by such moments, I’m always aware that I’m in that audience as a matter of privilege, usually by the grace of complimentary press tickets. If I’d paid $40, $80 or $100 for my seat, I might feel freer telling fellow audience members that they’re disturbing my experience of the show (waiting until intermission, of course). Then again, if I’d made such an investment, maybe I’d feel more entitled to chat or eat or otherwise enjoy myself. (Well, I wouldn’t, but maybe that’s why others do.) 

Those instances fresh in my mind, I came across a short piece in The New Yorker about a 10-year-old’s Ten Commandments of theater etiquette going viral on Twitter this summer. That led me to an article in Town and Country Magazine by the aforementioned young theater fan’s uncle, a New York publicist named Seth Fradkoff, who apparently gets more exasperated than I do:

“I am, admittedly, more of a stickler than most,” he writes. “I recently found myself at Tootsie: The Comedy Musical for a second time. I love this show, but I only made it as far as the second number before the staff of the Marquis Theater asked me to leave. Why? The woman in Row B of the mezzanine crinkling her Twizzlers after inhaling a bag of pretzels during the overture was the last straw! After an usher declined to assist me, I walked to her row, reached across the man seated on the aisle, and grabbed the Twizzlers. I threw them into the aisle, and went back to my seat—for about a minute, until I was asked to leave.”

I must admit, I’m with him on the matter of crinkly candy wrappers. Cell phones are capable of causing all manner of mischief during a performance, but something about the prolonged static crackle of someone slowly unwrapping a sweet or a cough drop, all the effort to be careful and unobtrusive backfiring horribly, really sets the teeth on edge.

In 2016, the Hollywood Reporter surveyed a few dozen Broadway performers about what audience behavior bothers them, and the most colorful response came from (no surprise) Harvey Fierstein: “In my 44 years of trodding the boards, I have witnessed everything from people passing a whole roast chicken up and down a row, to someone trying to take down the script in dictation, to folks videotaping the show through cameras taped inside their hats, to guys getting blowjobs. People, please — this ain’t the movies!” 

That’s a funny line, but there’s something crucial there, I think. At least to my mind, the rules are different in a movie theater than they are in what I’ll snobbishly call a real theater. Unless someone’s being truly obnoxious, I don’t much care about talking during a movie because I know I could come back and see it again; whatever I might have missed still will be there, unchanged. However precise a theatrical performance, part of its thrill is in the unreproducible moment.

Then again, there are viewpoints more snobbish than mine. Seeking some set of guidelines with a ring of authority, I came across a list from the Etiquette School of New York. I suppose attending a Broadway house isn’t the same as popping down to the Shoebox Theatre, but in either case I’m not on board with rule No. 1 on this list, to dress as for a special occasion. Casual attire is fine, but so is sloppy attire. It’s only stinky attire that should concern us. And I’ll choose how to show my appreciation, thank you; that I should stand to applaud a show just because others are (rule No. 16) strikes me as overbearing.

But that brings things back yet again to the question of who decides.

A 2018 article on the Folger Shakespeare Library website references a book by a British academic researcher named Dr. Kirsty Sedgman: “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience… argues that theatre etiquette is bound up in sexist, racist, and ableist social norms, designed specifically to produce separations between elite and ‘mass’ audiences…As Dr. Sedgman explains, when we talk about theatre etiquette now (she prefers the term ‘behavior policing’), we need to acknowledge both its notable and suspect aspects: That it’s a way to reinforce a shared vision of socially-acceptable behavior that makes public space better for all, and also a morally suspect act that is disproportionately wielded against people of color, the working class, etc.”

That sounds reasonable. Except that, unless there’s verifiable, quantifiable data (and perhaps Sedgman has some), isn’t this in itself a racist/classist presumption — that those falling afoul of the rules of etiquette must be those of certain social strata, that such strata somehow determine our behavior?

Maybe we’re left to rely on the great spiritual insight from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You’ve all got to figure it out for yourself.” I like the theater to be almost like a holy place, a place of engagement and absorption, where the moment onstage lets me know what’s appropriate, whether that’s raucous laughter or silent, rapt attention. Maybe you like theater to be someplace to forget the strictures of everyday life, a place to feel spontaneous and free, Twizzlers included. But we each have to be cognizant of each other when we’re sharing the theater space, and negotiate, in a manner of speaking, accordingly.

So…see you at the theater! …but please don’t pass me the chicken.

Best line(s) I read this week (annotated)

The epiphany that sets in motion that plot to Redwood, the world premiere currently at Portland Center Stage, takes place in a hip-hop dance class: “I was grooving away…when a great and powerful love overtook me. Love for the beautiful black bodies in that room, the beautiful, black, tunes. And I thought: history!” Later on in the play, another character responds to her mother’s claims about the family’s hard work and success by asserting that her family had denied and hated their blackness and instead “moved mostly in white spaces at great cost to our sense of ‘heritage.’”

Charles Grant leads the hip-hop dance element in Redwood at The Armory. Photo: Russell J. Young.

The White Bird dance series show at Lincoln Hall this weekend, Power by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, is a kind of choreographic thought experiment about the African-American legacy within the spiritual expressions of the Shakers. More history, more black bodies moving in (presumed) white spaces.


And so all this has your humble DramaWatcher — whose black body grew up in the decidedly white space of Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood — pondering what “blackness” means, culturally speaking. (I mean, I just looked up at my TV screen and saw Tyler Perry’s face — beneath ludicrous Madea wig and make-up — followed by the words “stream black culture.” If I hate that, am I hating blackness, or just hating the commercial promulgation of some of its lesser traits? Or am I just, justifiably, hating Tyler Perry??)

All of this leads me back to the files to find a favorite old clip from, oddly enough, exactly 25 years ago:

“Lately I’ve realized my idea of what’s ‘Black enough’ now extends to whatever gets me open. For example, my Top 10 list of albums for this year will be dominated by white-boy singer-songwriters—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Richard Thompson, Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, Bryan Ferry—because they’re making music out of the sorts of emotional scar issues my 37-year-old soul scrapes up against on the daily….Moreover, when I think of my favorite artists of ’94, I think of them as my niggas. Neil Young? That’s my nigga. Bryan Ferry? He my nigga too.

…I’ll be a Black chauvinist for life, but what makes that chauvinism so chewy and gooey are the contradictions. These pop up whenever anybody tries to nail Blackness in a coffin. At that [Organization of Black Designers] conference in Chicago, [cinematographer] Arthur Jaffa talked about how ‘My Favorite Things’ is dope more because of John Coltrane than Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I thought, maybe to you, my brother. I treasure the Julie Andrews and the Coltrane renditions of the song equally. And cherish even more Betty Carter’s version because Carter feasts on Andrews’ spritely but manic reading of the lyrics and Trane’s arabesques to arrive at something even more bugged out, Black and beautiful. I dig work that flips the script on our received notions of Black and white. I also dig things that are so Black even most Black folks don’t know what to do with them.”

—The great music/cultural critic Greg Tate in a November 8, 1994 column in the Village Voice.

Opening

Among the various tragedies occurring along the southern border of the U.S. has been the disappearance of hundreds of young women from around Ciudad Juarez — women often last seen on the route home from factory jobs, and presumed murdered or kidnapped into sex trafficking. La Ruta, which premiered last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, shines a light on this dark history, focusing on two mothers desperately hoping for their daughters’ return. Playwright Isaac Gomez—a native of El Paso, just across the border from Juarez—calls it both “a play about a group of women living in the wake of unspeakable loss” and “an interpersonal journey of healing, of growth, of resilience and of empowerment.” Dámaso Rodríguez directs for Artists Repertory Theatre, which is staging the show at the Southeast Portland headquarters of Portland Opera.

La Ruta tells a tale of loss and resilience along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

For years, Tony Fuemmeler’s mask and puppetry work has contributed to shows by Artists Rep, Oregon Children’s Theatre and others, so Portland theater fans should be a natural part of the audience for a two-decade retrospective of his masks, Reveal/Conceal, that’s just gone up in the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. But—theater being a collaborative art form—Fuemmeler also brings other artists into play with the companion exhibit A Universal Feeling. After fashioning unpainted papier-mâché masks for a set of emotions (fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust) Fuemmeler shipped them off to 62 other artists around the world, inviting them to complete the pieces. Collaborators including local theater makers such as Cristi Miles, Jamie M. Rea and Damaris Webb, but cover a gamut of artistic disciplines, ages, genders and so forth. Friday’s opening reception looks like a good time to catch these exhibits, but they’ll continue until just after the New Year.

Tony Fuemmeler in his mask-making studio. Photo: Dennis Galloway.

“After their last show ends in a disastrous theater fire, two vaudevillians wake up to discover that they may not have survived.” But if they wake up, then that means they must have…oh…right…it’s just a story. In which case, I suppose there’s your key metaphysical conflict right there. Duo Doppio’s Fabrizio & Cabriolet In: The Afterlife features the aforementioned vaudevillian buffoons in a life-and-death comedy that draws on the circus, puppetry and improv backgrounds of creators Ari Rapkin and Summer Olsson. As the show’s press release says of the two: “They are clowns. Unless you are afraid of clowns. Then they are physical comedians.”


Ah, here’s a show I won’t be caught dead anywhere near: FLASH AH-AHHH!!,  StageWorks Ink’s parody of the campy 1980s Flash Gordon flick. You? Go ahead and give it a try, you might enjoy it, it’s been popular enough to be celebrating this Clinton Street Theater engagement as its “fifth anniversary and finale run.” Me? It features the music of ‘70s/’80s rock band Queen, and I hate Queen more than you want to know, so, I’ll pass.


Billed as a “a 21st century TRANSlation” of the rock musical Hair, the cleverly titled Wig updates the story from 1968 New York City to the experimental drag scene of contemporary Portland’s eastside, from which the cast is drawn.


Gresham’s Eastside Theater Company presents Frozen Jr., a stage adaptation of the paradoxically hot Disney film musical, tailored for child and teen performers.

One night only!

Even amid the generally agreeable members of Portland’s theater community, Matt Zrebski presents an especially sweet-natured disposition. But behind that soft-spoken facade, dark forces must be roiling. Zrebski’s writing returns over and over again to quasi-apocalyptic  fantasies and luridly nightmarish scenarios, high dives into a subconscious cloudy with fears. 

His new play In the Darkest Hallway is based on a true-crime mystery known by the grim name of the “Boy in the Box.” Zrebski has approached the story with his characteristic formal invention, crafting a four-character play for one actor that dribbles out details from differing perspectives across time, distilling a potent atmosphere of dread and yearning. 

The terrific Sharonlee Mclean performs the play in a Sunday-night reading at Milagro, directed by Casey McFeron. 


Playwright Milta Ortiz’ Judge Torres premiered in January at Milagro and ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson judged it “a loving, entertaining and—most of all—imaginative tribute” to Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Xiomara Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as an undocumented nine-year-old. That production was directed by Mandana Khoshnevisan, who is bringing it back for one performance at The Vault Theater in Hillsboro, home to Bag & Baggage, where Khoshnevisan is an associate artist. The show will be followed by a talk-back discussion with the cast and director, facilitated by Pacific University Assistant Professor of English, Elizabeth Tavares.


Live renditions of radio drama hardly count as a rare thing, nor do performances of spooky tales. But performing by candlelight and presenting it all along with food and wine? Sounds like a promising package deal, called Lights Out! A Night of Radio Horror, on offer from Seven Sails Vineyard on Northwest Germantown Road. 


Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, an hilarious yet socio-politically astute satire about American history and liberal guilt, was a hit at Artists Rep in the spring of 2018. So, if you missed it or would like seasonal refresher, Readers Theatre Gresham presents a reading. 

Closing 

“At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly,” wrote ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson, “Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play.” But if you’re not to miss the latest Dia de Muertos celebration at Milagro, this weekend is your chance. 


With Women of Will, an astute explication of the feminine in Shakespeare by renowned actor/director Tina Packer, the time has passed to catch the engaging overview that Bob Hicks reviewed for ArtsWatch. But some of Packer’s deeper dives into particular periods of the Bard’s development are on tap at Portland Playhouse this weekend.


And should you want to take in the touring Broadway production of Miss Saigon at the Keller Auditorium, performances continue through Sunday.

The flattened stage

OK, so the pay-off is a bit late in arriving with this clip, but…all the same…“No soggy bottoms here!”


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

Stage sense: the year in theater

2018 in Review, Part 8: ArtsWatch offered varied perspectives on the methods and meanings of theater in Portland, Ashland and elsewhere.

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us. But you — by which I mean we humans — are under an obligation, or at least a compulsion, to make sense of the universe. That’s easier said than done, of course, even if you’re focusing on a particular little slice of the universe such as theater in Oregon.

The writers and editors of Oregon ArtsWatch try to make sense — and, more crucially, to convey that sense — of the theater scene: what’s being staged, what it’s like, what it means, how it makes us feel, who the artists are and how they approach the work. Of necessity, we mostly try to hammer out that sense show by show and week by week, with the occasional broader overview mixed in. But we hope that amid the vibrant mix of news, reviews, interviews, profiles, features, and the happy/snarky jumble of previews and commentary in the weekly DramaWatch column, readers find that a helpful and sensical bigger picture emerges.

Despite flux in the front office, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival keeps sprinkling magic across the stage, as in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke
Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As we look back at ArtsWatch’s first-draft history of 2018 theater, we’ll alight on major news developments, insightful cultural takes and passionate writing worthy of another look.

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“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

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“Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet,

Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep,

When the body lieth in clay.”

— from The Summoning of Everyman: a treatise how the high father of heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.

“Hey, everybody. Don’t be so crazy in life. Like, you may think all that ‘craziness’ is great initially because it’s really fun but, when you die, you may regret all that fun, because — though we honestly don’t know what happens when you die — we have this hunch that you could wind up someplace which is objectively worse than this one — and let’s call that ‘Hell,’ this state of eternal, unfathomable suffering. And this craziness, let’s call it ‘sin’ — this ‘sin,’ or at least too much of it, is our idea of how you wind up there. We think.”

— from Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody dies.

Oh, so sorry! I forgot to say “Spoiler alert!”

Because when I say “Everybody dies,” I don’t mean — only — that anyone who reads this column will die (because that sounds rather threatening, and I actually love readers), or that all humans eventually will die (at least it seems that way so far). I mean that Everybody, the title character of the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody, which opens Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, dies.

Facing Death with (varying degrees of) dignity: Ted Rooney (as Death, at left), John San Nicolas, Andrea Vernae, Barbie Wu, Michael Mendelson and Sara Hennessy in “Everybody” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

Everybody follows a similar template, albeit with a much breezier, funnier tone and a less doctrinaire path through the philosophical questions involved. Compared with the tricky satire of racial representations in An Octoroon, Everybody should be controversy free; but it presents a different kind of challenge: How do you cast somebody — anybody — to portray Everybody?

The clever, if complicated, solution that Jacobs-Jenkins employs addresses the issue of representation — not choosing a white male or any single type to stand in for all of us — but also the randomness of death. Out of a 10-person cast, five of the actors play varying roles, with an onstage lottery early in each show determining who will perform the role of Everybody, who will be Friendship, Kinship and so on. This means that those five actors have had to learn and rehearse five roles and be ready to drop into any of them at a moment’s notice — and that they (and the audience) have 120 potential combinations.

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