brian weaver

Backstage chat: What Shaw takes

Three actors in Portland Center Stage’s "Major Barbara" detail the challenges of performing the loquacious and provocative playwright

George Bernard Shaw, a quintessential man of the theater, had a very high regard for himself and only occasionally for his actors. (He did fall in love with a couple of his leading ladies, but to no particular delight to either them or him.) As a playwright/producer, he worked as the de facto director of many of his original productions, and was a rigorous taskmaster. His plays required smart actors with fine elocution, realistic craft, and impeccable comic ability.

Shaw, demanding.

And he could be scalding of actors who let him down, as witnessed by this note to the actor Louis Calvert, the original Frank Undershaft in Major Barbara: “I have taken a box for Friday and had a hundredweight of cabbages, dead cats, eggs and gingerbeer bottles stacked in it. Every word you fluff, every speech you unact, I will shy something at you. … You are an imposter, a sluggard, a blockhead, a shirk, a malingerer, and the worst actor that ever lived or ever will live. I will apologize to the public for engaging you: I will tell your mother of you.”

Any actor who performs Shaw has sympathy for Calvert, because the plays contain some of the wordiest dialogue that’s ever taken to the stage. (His prefaces to the plays are often even longer.) Written at a time when both comedies and dramas were five-act, two-intermission affairs, Shaw’s plays, uncut, can easily tip into four- and five-hour long evenings. Thanks to edits, the current production at Portland Center Stage of Major Barbara, his 1905 play about a young female officer in the Salvation Army, runs a trim two and a half hours.

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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A joyful miser: ‘Christmas Carol’ at Portland Playhouse

For the fourth year, the Playhouse's touching version of the Dickens classic lights up the stage

A recent article surfaced from the think tank the Acton Institute, supported by the next secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, which wants us to “rethink our position on child labor.” When Charles Dickens penned the novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, he had in mind the women and children he termed “victims of the Industrial Revolution”: the poor London souls who toiled to early deaths under the smokestacks of early factories. For all the Scrooges out there who’ve grown tired of the Currier and Ives Victorian death grip on the holiday aesthetic, this seasonal reminder of Christmases past, present, and yet to come may be the snake oil your hot cider needs.

At Portland Playhouse, which has opened the fourth annual production of its multiple award-winning version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge – a delicious Dickens name and noun, somewhere between screw and gouge – is immediately distinguishable from the rest of the characters onstage. Jen Rowe’s Scrooge wears a perma-scowl, and loafs with a purposed business shuffle. She wears a black dovetail suit, her hair is pulled back with pincher precision, and her complexion is near ash. Scrooge the misanthrope, horrible old miser, pales in the sights of the rosy-cheeked and ornately clothed villagers. Rowe’s diction is on point, like a rusty typewriter key punching paper. She takes little to no time looking up from her counting ledger, except to raise an eyebrow in disapproval or her can’t-be-bothered voice.

A light in the darkness: Portland Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol." Photo: Brud Giles

A light in the darkness: The Playhouse’s “Christmas Carol.” Photo: Brud Giles

The outside of the old church where Portland Playhouse makes its home looks more like late autumn. The neighborhood is filled with a few Christmas baubles in the yards, but mostly decorated with protest signs. Once you’re in the door of the theater, the angry aura of the president-elect is swept away in a candlelit hue. Cockney accents of passersby welcome you, and the warm voices of what seems a spontaneous choir reach your ears. The scene for Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol is an immersive dunk into a world long gone by.

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Catch a falling star, put it in your pocket

Portland Playhouse's "Peter and the Starcatcher" recaptures the magic of childhood in the origins of Peter Pan

Novelist Ridley Pearson sat down to read his daughters J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan without much luck. Not because the girls weren’t interested, but the youngest kept interrupting and wanted to know how Peter became an eternal boy, how he met Captain Hook, and when did Tinkerbell figure into the plot? Pearson was in a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders with horror author Stephen King and funnyman Dave Barry. Barry joined Pearson’s quest, and together they wrote a best-selling series that answers the origins of the famous Pan. Now Portland Playhouse has gathered all of their starstuff and staged the multiple award-winning play Peter and the Starcatcher.

It’s a well-sailed ship. The first thing to notice in the old church/playhouse that Portland Playhouse calls home is the meticulously detailed toy pirate ships dotting the stage. The white curtain is a mast with metal loops for rigging, but it has a soft blue glow like an ocean wave or the night sky reflecting the tiny distant suns in the sea wake. Front and center are silver clamshell lights, the kind you would have seen in the 19th century, which gave off the glow of the limelights. There’s an old magic in the air; you can almost feel a Ouija board summoning of the ancient spirits of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Oh, the villainy! OH, THE ADVENTURE! PHOTO: BRUD GILES

Oh, the villainy! Oh, the adventure! Photo: Brud Giles

We begin our history lesson in a sad and bleak Dickens vision where all the good grown-ups are jumping ship, leaving behind the nasty and distrustful. A trio of orphans – “the most useless creatures on earth,” named Boy, Ted, and Prentiss – are aboard. Ted (Chip Sherman) has an empty vortex of a stomach. Prentiss (Quinn Fitzgerald) dons a woolen cap too big for his head and is the self-proclaimed leader of the group. Boy (Nick Ferrucci), who has curly dark black locks, also has a temper against all the grown-ups and a slight impish look. The fourth child sailing on a ship they call the Neverland is the higher-born and more esoterically schooled Molly, played by Jen Rowe. Molly has good posture, and is full of common sense, which at times is overturned by curiosity. Because this is a good story, a children’s story, the four will overcome great odds, make a mess of a situation into a quest, and crown a few heroes by play’s end.

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‘Mr. Burns: A Post -Electric Play’ review: A Canticle for Homer

Portland Playhouse's production offers clever ideas but diffuse drama.

This must happen all the time in Oregon: a group of friends gather around a campfire in the woods, reminiscing about their favorite Simpsons episodes. “Remember the one where Sideshow Bob chases Bart around the ship, and they sing HMS Pinafore songs and….”

That’s what happens in the first act of Anne Washburn’s  Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which runs through June 7 at Portland Playhouse. As the half dozen campers dimly try to recall the episode details, laughter and delight follow — until there’s a noise from the woods, and the guns come out.

Isaac Lamb, Brian Adrian Koch, Kemba Shannon, Cristi Miles in Portland Playhouse's "Mr. Burns." Photo:  Brud Giles.

Isaac Lamb, Brian Adrian Koch, Kemba Shannon, Cristi Miles in Portland Playhouse’s “Mr. Burns.” Photo: Brud Giles.

It’s something of a coup for Portland Playhouse to land a local production so soon after the show earned raves in New York. With its Oregon connections (Washburn is a Reed College alum, and of course Portland’s Matt Groening created the soon-to-be-mythical yellow family) and hip cultural references, Mr. Burns seems an ideal play (or as a program note terms it, a “thought experiment”) for here and now. The show’s sheer weirdness, gleeful eagerness to depart from theatrical convention, ingenious (if hardly original) concept and creative staging by director Brian Weaver do offer intermittent insights, chuckles and grins. And like another play currently running in Oregon, it’s also a testament to the social power of theater and storytelling. Ultimately, though, the story is too diffuse to achieve much more than cleverness.

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‘The Light in the Piazza’: It’s love, actually

Portland Playhouse's version of the sublime musical captures its sweetness and pain

A friend of mine is an avid fan of the composer Adam Guettel, and so in 2007 when a touring production of the musical The Light in the Piazza came to town in the Broadway Across America series, I got tickets for my friend and his wife. The show was marvelous. It even accomplished the rare feat of turning the cavernous Keller Auditorium, usually such an inert space, to its advantage, creating a sense of visual and emotional expansiveness.

As I sat next to him during the show, I was certain he was enjoying it as much as I was. That was an underestimation. When the house lights went up after the poignant finale, I saw that he was a mess. The man — hardly someone prone to effusiveness or extremes of mood — had been sweating and crying so much that he looked like a puddle wearing a shirt.

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

Cross-cultural awareness: Meredith Kaye Clark, Michael Hammack. Photo: Brud Giles

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Theater review: ‘Detroit’ gets down to particular cases

Lisa D'Amour's fine play about two suburban couples gets a well-acted production from Portland Playhouse

Brooke Totman toasts the company in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman toasts the company in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

Pretty quickly in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” now playing at Portland Playhouse, the lay of the land becomes apparent. Frank and Mary live in an old suburb of some unnamed city (Detroit itself never gets a shoutout). Mary’s a paralegal who is developing a taste for expensive food, and Ben is starting a financial advice service with the severance he received from his old job at the bank. Life could be better.

As the play begins, they are getting together for a backyard cook-out with Kenny and Sharon, who just moved in next door but occupy a lower rung on the economic ladder. Sharon works at a call center, and Kenny’s a warehouseman. They’ve only managed to crash this neighborhood because they are living in Kenny’s great-aunt’s house. Or something like that. Life could be a whole lot better.

They live on Sunshine Way, close to Ultraviolet Lane and Fluorescent Avenue.

Ben and Mary, Kenny and Sharon. No one is special, and nothing all that special happens to them in the course of the play, well, except for the odd catastrophe, and even that’s no big deal. Nobody symbolizes anything, no one is a stock character, nothing much happens, the politics of it are in deep subtext (if they are there at all), the conflicts are mostly inner ones, though sometimes couples do disagree. And yet “Detroit” is mesmerizing, maybe because we so seldom see people like this. The genius of D’Amour in “Detroit” is how particular her characters are, and how true that particularity seems to us. The strength of this production is the ability of its cast to deliver those characters clearly, despite their inevitable complexity.

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