David Henry Hwang

Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”


‘The Sound of a Voice’ and ‘Cuba Libre’: Music for theater

Theatre Diaspora and Artists Repertory Theatre productions show the power -- and limitations -- of music in theater.

As if Oregon didn’t have enough music performances in the overabundance of concerts happening onstage this fall, music is also a big part of the state’s theater scene, from currently playing musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and 42nd Street, to Portland Playhouse’s hip hop play How We Got On, a pair of musicals at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and many more — including the lavishly produced Cuba Libre at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and the bare bones staged reading of The Sound of a Voice, which concludes its two-performance run at Portland Center Stage on Saturday.

Music is the first thing we experience in Theatre Diaspora’s staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s 1983 playlet. Even before we hear the sound of a voice. Larry Tyrell takes the compact stage at the Armory’s intimate Ellyn Bye Theater and plays the bamboo Japanese flute. Along with last Saturday’s lowering clouds, the haunting shakuhachi and spare set (merely a cloth-draped folding rice paper screen and a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums) created just the right suspended, otherworldly mood for this 45-minute fable.

Given the prominence of music in this play’s plot, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hwang turned it into a short opera with music by Philip Glass, with whom he later collaborated on the science fiction chamber opera 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, the first show of his I ever saw, back in 1988. The Tony- and Obie-award winning Hwang knows from music, having co-created many operas and Broadway musicals and being most famous for a show with an obvious operatic connection, M. Butterfly.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in 'The Sound of a Voice.' Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in ‘The Sound of a Voice.’ Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

This show begins with a lone, unnamed traveler arriving at a remote forest cabin in what’s evidently pre-industrial Japan, since it’s described as a two day horse ride from the nearest village. He’s greeted by its sole inhabitant, a woman (also never named) who offers him a room for the night before he continues on his journey the next day. In the morning, she encourages him to stay longer, he helps with some chores, they get to know each other, but not too much, as he’s mysteriously evasive about his past and she doesn’t much more specific about hers. Gradually we learn that his evasion is partly motivated by deception about the real reason for his appearance. As we learn more about the pair, and they about each other, conflicts emerge, and eventually a confrontation erupts — though not just with each other, but rather with their own inner contradictions.


Not-so-innocent Americans abroad

Center Stage's 'Chinglish' and Profile's 'Eyes for Consuela' take on the faces of the Ugly American

In The Ugly American, something uncanny, or maybe just unhappily predictable, happens when Americans land in a foreign culture and forge ahead as if everyone plays by their rules. Acting as official or unofficial emissaries of the empire, they find themselves tangled in a local culture they underestimate and therefore fail to understand. “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious,” Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote in their 1958 novel, which dealt with how the U.S. failed to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians over the Communists.

The image of the Ugly American lives on, of course, echoing down the years from the 1963 movie version and its visions of Vietnam all the way to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern Africa, and even places like Okinawa, where pressure to oust American military bases grows ever-stronger. You can build viaducts and aqueducts. But in Gaul, the Roman legions were looked on with suspicion.

Two shows opened on Portland stages over the weekend that give contemporary twists to the saga of the Ugly American. David Henry Hwang’s 2011 comedy Chinglish, at Portland Center Stage, tells the tale of an American businessman with a shady past who tries to strike it rich in the new China. And at Profile Theatre, Sam Shepard’s 1998 romance Eyes for Consuela, based on a story by Octavio Paz, immerses its audience in the travails of a middle-aged American man who flees his marital troubles in Michigan for a rundown hotel room in Mexico and becomes, both literally and symbolically, the captive of another man’s love.

Chinglish approaches the problem of culture clash as a puzzle. Consuela approaches it as a mystery.


Chilip and O'Connor in "Chinglish." Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Chilip and O’Connor in “Chinglish.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Chinglish largely leaves aside the world of politics for the world of business, and yet, it doesn’t: In China, where state and corporate interests are if possible even more intermingled than they are in the United States, business and politics are almost impossible to separate. That’s one of Hwang’s talking points: business and government are personal, and the areas we like to think of as personal are also intimately political and businesslike. The rule of law is illusory; one gets ahead by honoring personal connections. So, for example (and this runs outside of but parallel to the plot of the play) American-based banks and other corporations hire the children of powerful Chinese politicians as a necessary part of the price of doing business in China. You scratch my progeny’s back, I’ll scratch yours.

One of the great jokes of Chinglish, which takes its name from the often inadvertently hilarious translations of Mandarin into English (“keep off the grass” = “I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face”), is that the not-so-innocent American abroad, Daniel Cavanaugh (Peter O’Connor), is trying to sell accurately translated English signs to the Chinese – and he doesn’t understand a word of Mandarin, let alone the byzantine social customs of a culture that is many centuries older than his own. If his company wins the contract, it won’t be because of the quality of its translations.

Hwang hurls Daniel into a sea of cultural rip tides that are sneaky-deep and quick, threatening to pull him under. A supposed ally, the cultural minister Cai Guoliang (Jian Xin), puts on a happy face as he surreptitiously slams the door in Daniel’s. A supposed opponent, deputy cultural minister Xi Yan (Tina Chilip), not only holds Daniel’s hand through intricate negotiations, she also hops into bed with him – as it turns out, for an extremely complicated set of reasons. Peter Timms (Jeff Locker), an Englishman who’s lived and taught in this “small” regional city (a mere 4 million people) for many years and is now tying to pass himself off as a business consultant, seems to talk good cultural sense but runs into his own slammed doors. Bad-boy Enron figures like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling play a surprise role in negotiations. And always, always, Daniel’s surfing in waters way over his head, yet somehow managing to keep from tumbling off the board. O’Connor’s blend of bluff salesman chutzpah and earnest little-boy-lostness, along with Chilip’s nuanced revelations of Xi Yan’s multiple motivations, form the solid and likable core of Center Stage’s production. Excellent support comes also from Lily Tung Crystal, Rachel Lu, and  Yuekun Wu.

The show, directed by May Adrales, is as smooth as its revolving scene changes, capturing a brittle and deftly timed presentational comic edge in its performances and navigating the tricky shoals of its bilingual text (about a quarter of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with English supertitles) without an apparent hitch. It plays perfectly easily for English speakers. And for Mandarin speakers? I don’t know: like Daniel, and most Americans, I don’t speak a word of Mandarin. That, after all, is part of Hwang’s point.

Hwang is best-known for his massive Broadway hit M. Butterfly, which plays off of themes in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly and has a yearning, transformative dramatic quality. But a lot of his work, from FOB to his chamber-opera collaboration with Philip Glass 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof to this play, is essentially comic in outlook, seeing life as a puzzle-box that is both frustrating and endearingly ingenious. Hwang analyzes the game, but he also enjoys it. Chinglish has its echoes of Let’s Make a Deal and Heart of Darkness in addition to The Ugly American. But it reminds me even more closely of Jerry Sterner’s 1989 hit Other People’s Money, which both excoriated and reveled in the wicked ways of Wall Street. Like Chinglish, it’s a pretty darned entertaining play, too.


Mendelson and Alcalá in "Eyes for Consuelo." Photo: David Kinder

Mendelson and Alcalá in “Eyes for Consuela.” Photo: David Kinder

Eyes for Consuela, the first production in Profile’s season of Sam Shepard plays and also the company’s first show in residence at Artists Repertory Theatre, is the mystery to Chinglish’s puzzle. Like most Shepard plays, it deals less in logic than in the deep and tumbling passions of the lower brain and heart. You get the sense with Chinglish that if you try long and hard enough, you can think your way out. You get the sense with Consuela that thinking has nothing to do with it: If you get out at all, you’ll have to feel your way, dive deeper and deeper into your own contradictions and the encompassing, dangerous fog that inevitably fools your senses until you can latch onto something true. The play tickles at the edges of magical realism, and carries the symbolic wallop of a tall tale.

The Ugly American in Eyes for Consuela is Henry, an obsessive escapee from a place he despises (Michigan, so frigid compared to his native Texas) and a marriage that’s gone sour. Henry, played by Michael Mendelson like an emotional pinball racking up hundreds of bonus points, has landed in a squalid little hotel room in a steamy part of Mexico where nothing seems to happen, and yet the air is filled with something dangerous and urgent. Wrapped up in his own head, he barely notices – until, suddenly, he finds himself on the wrong end of a knife blade, captured by a seeming madman who calmly explains that he isn’t going to kill Henry, he’s only going to gouge out his eyes as a gift for his wife Consuela. Henry’s night of the iguana, played out to the tune of his captor’s increasingly sympathetic if lunatic truth, circles and circles as it aims toward its moment of self-comprehension.

 As a mood piece, Eyes for Consuela thrums along eerily and seductively. As a drama, it’s a bit of a mess – representative Shepard in its themes and compulsions, but not top-flight Shepard in its structure and depth, or even its language. One logical problem – if you’re being held captive and your captor falls asleep, wouldn’t you run out the door instead of settling in for your own snooze? – nearly sinks the enterprise. I don’t know how Paz’s story, The Blue Bouquet, solves the problem – I can imagine Henry simply being in thrall to his captor, Amado, and unable to break the spell that’s been cast – but the play doesn’t make that case.

I also have difficulties with the way that Mendelson, an actor I admire, and his director, Mikhael Tara Garver, have chosen to play Henry, with a sort of manic hyperactivity that rarely lets up. As a character study it might make sense: Henry’s at the end of his rope, frightened out of his wits, and he rages. But dramatically, I long for him to rein himself in, so that in those key moments when he needs to cut loose he’s not just doing what he’s already been doing. I want a shape to his nervous outbursts, not just an all-out jangled nerve. Similarly, I wonder about the hectic racing-about-the-stage by Crystal Ann Muñoz as Consuela, representing a frantic effort to escape her unusual circumstance. Something more withheld, more still – a magic produced by costuming and lights – might work better.

On the other hand, there’s much to like here, in particular Andrés Alcalá’s earthy and menacing and deeply funny performance as Amado, Henry’s captor. It’s an impressive and welcome return to the Portland stage by Alcalá, who’s been absent for several years, first at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and for the past seven years in Arizona and on national tours. Gilberto Martin Del Campo is solid in the small but pivotal role of the old man Viejo, and the singer/songwriter Edna F. Vazquez is superb as the troubadour Ejakatl, lurking around the edges with her guitar, providing the musical mood for the telling of the tale. Shepard was a musician before he was a playwright, and he’s often thought in melodramatic terms, from the early days of The Tooth of Crime to his heavily scored classic-period A Lie of the Mind. When he uses music, he uses it creatively and well. Technical credits are once again fine, too: Seth Reiser’s shabby scenic design, Jessica Bobillot’s costumes, Carl Faber’s lighting, and again, a special nod to Sharath Patel for his understatedly eerie sound design.


“Chinglish” continues through February 9. Ticket and schedule information here.

“Eyes for Consuela” continues through February 2. Ticket and schedule information here.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

David Henry Hwang on language, race and culture

Dmae Roberts interviews the playwright as his "Chinglish" opens at Portland Center Stage


For many Asian American theatre artists, Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, whose “Chinglish starts previews this weekend at Portland Center Stage, is as revered as the late August Wilson. Hwang resists any direct comparison to Wilson, because he says his process has been “less deliberate” than Wilson’s chronicle of each decade of African American history in the 20th century. So, for the past 30 years, Hwang has written for the screen and opera projects with Philip Glass and with Elton John on Disney’s “Aida.” But his “personal writing” generally gravitates to “the same patch of soil”—as he calls it—of Asian and Asian American themes.

I didn’t know much about Hwang until I understudied “M. Butterfly” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Portland (the previous incarnation of Portland Center Stage) in 1992. “M. Butterfly” was produced on Broadway in 1988 and won the Tony award. No other Hwang play had been done professionally in Portland until that time. And in pre-internet days it wasn’t as easy to learn about other plays particularly by Asian Americans let alone see their work produced locally.

“M. Butterfly” remains Hwang’s best-known and most-produced work. Based on a true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year relationship with a Chinese Opera star he believed to be female, Hwang deconstructed Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” in a biting and tragic commentary of orientalism and Asian festishism.

Most of Hwang’s plays have been based on Asian American history and themes. Others include:

  • “FOB” dramatized the conflicts between Fresh Off The Boat immigrants and established Asian Americans and won the Obie award in 1980.
  • “Dance and the Railroad” in 1981 documented a strike by Chinese railroad workers in 1867 through the nuances of Chinese Opera (recently revived at Signature Theatre in NYC).
  • “Golden Child” in 1996 detailed the lives of an early 20th century Chinese family.
  • And Hwang’s partly autobiographical 2007 play “Yellow Face” showed subtle conflicts about the politics of casting racially.

With “M. Butterfly” Hwang turned his focus to larger international themes. He does so once again with “Chinglish” and its exploration of the difficulties of language and culture. “Chinglish” also signals the first return of a David Henry Hwang play to Portland since that “M. Butterfly.”

I talked with Hwang by phone about his career and “Chinglish.” [Editor’s note: Listen to Dmae Roberts interview David Henry Hwang on her Stage and Studio radio show, 11 am Tuesday 1/7/14 on KBOO 90.7FM and Saturday 1/11/14 on KZME107.1FM, or listen online.]

David Henry Hwang at the Public Theater in New York in 2008/Photo by Lia Chang

David Henry Hwang at the Public Theater in New York in 2008/Photo by Lia Chang