Don Alder

Close up and burning bright

Asylum Theatre reignites Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" with intimate staging and palpable emotion.

In Asylum Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, everything happens a few feet from your face. In the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, the seats are situated so close to the actors that it almost seems possible to touch each feeling—joy, lust, rage, agony—that bursts free of their bodies. There’s no hiding from the propulsive intensity of their performances, and that’s terrifying.

It’s also exhilarating. Burn This seizes you, jostles you and moves you, frequently daring to break and repair your heart at the same time. Director Don Alder and his cast recognize that Wilson’s play isn’t meant merely to be watched and analyzed—it’s a meditation on love, grief and identity that is meant to be felt, even (and especially) when it’s almost too much.

Feel the burn: Heath Koerschgen and Brianna Ratterman come together through grief in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, staged at the Shoebox by Asylum Theatre. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Asylum has assembled a cast worthy of joining that daunting roster. Brianna Ratterman plays the conceited and traumatized choreographer Anna and Heath Koerschgen plays the furious and irrepressible Pale, who charges into Anna’s world like a bulldozer with the breaks cut.

Burn This begins with an anguished Anna being soothed by her roommate Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and her boyfriend Burton (Jason Maniccia). Anna has just returned from the funeral of her friend Robbie, a dancer who was killed with his partner in a boating accident. Your first instinct is to cry for Anna, but there’s something off-putting about her snide remarks about Robbie’s family and her conversations with Burton, a screenwriter who spends much of the opening scene moaning about the rewriting of a script he wrote called Far Voyager.

Anna and Larry’s Manhattan loft is a static kingdom that begs to be shaken up, and Pale—who is Robbie’s brother—is more than happy to help. In the middle of the night, he bangs on the door, demanding the remainder of his dead sibling’s possessions. Bound by both grief and chemistry, Pale and Anna begin a romance that (depending on your perspective) is either a genuine connection or a destructive intertwining of two damaged souls.

To watch Burn This is to be, in a good way, trapped. You don’t just sit close to the stage—you sit on the same level as the stage. Instead of staring up at a raised platform, you stare straight into the lives of the characters, noticing details that would have been easy to miss in a larger arena, such as Anna lightly touching Pale’s mustache or Pale gently brushing Anna’s hair behind her ear.

Anna initially sees Robbie as a martyred saint and the relatives who were ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of his work as a dancer and his life as a gay man as callous villains. The reality is more nuanced, and that confuses and terrifies her (“She’s had a very protected life,” Larry tells Burton. “I mean, she’s never had to carry her own passport or plane tickets—she’s not had to make her own way much”).

Heath Koerschgen’s Pale (foreground) is the bull in the China-shop life of roommates Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and Anna (Brianna Ratterman), in Burn This. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Gradually, Anna begins to recognize that the identities of everyone around her are forever in flux. Pale may be a bully who hurls homophobic slurs, but he is also a tormented brother who irrationally blames himself for Robbie’s death. His signature line—“I’m gonna cry all over your hair”—is the play’s manifesto. Each tear in Burn This is a physical manifestation of the forces that expand the souls and perceptions of Anna and even Burton, whose journey goes far beyond the trials of being one point of a love triangle (despite his apparent heterosexuality, he fondly recalls receiving a blowjob from a man in the snow). 

Just as the events of Burn This disrupt each character’s life viscerally, the play itself leaves you thrillingly unmoored. I’m still mentally replaying its images (from Anna excoriating Pale and Burton while wearing a silky purple bathrobe to Burton holding a screenplay he has written, looking as vulnerable as a little boy clinging to a toy truck), trying to understand them and knowing that I’m not entirely meant to. Stories, Burn This insists, are as undefinable as people. No matter how hard we try to stay dry, to be human is to have tears in your hair.

David Mamet, plowing through

Why, in the #me too age, revive tough-guy Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"? For Asylum Theatre's Jason Manicchia it's the thrill of the language.

David Mamet.

The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.

But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.

Brianna Ratterman and Jason Maniccia, sealing the deal. Photo: Gary Norman

So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.

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Oh God, the Carnage

Yasmina Reza's black-hearted comedy about the fall of civilization gets a sharp and lively revival at Lakewood

One thing about a Yasmina Reza play: By the end, masks will be ripped off and something mildly disastrous is going to happen. Another thing about a Yasmina Reza play: Even when things get uncomfortable (maybe even especially when they get uncomfortable) it’s going to be pretty darned funny.

Reza, the French playwright best-known for her hits Art and God of Carnage, is also a latter-day practitioner of the well-made play, that marvel of construction in which a thousand pieces fly into the air, chaotically, and then fall perfectly into place. Her 2009 Tony-winner God of Carnage, which opened over the weekend in a taut and smart revival at Lakewood Theatre, takes a bit of Noel Coward (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters delightfully foolish” part) and a bit of Harold Pinter (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters ruthlessly savage” part), stirs them with a little Alan Ayckbourn-style tick-tock timing, and comes up with a rollicking escapist entertainment that leaves an existential knot in the pit of your stomach. Well, that’s them, you might tell yourself a little nervously as you head home after the show. That’s not me. Surely not.

From left: Stacey, Sikking, Alder, Lucht, pal-ish to the bitter end. Photo: Triumph Photography

Director Antonio Sonera, working from playwright Christopher Hampton’s sharp and brittle English translation, expertly puts the pedal to the metal in this hairpin race over the cliff by two sets of nominally civilized couples. Sonera indulges in what might be considered stunt casting if the four actors weren’t individually so good at what they do: The married couples are played by performers actually married in real life. David Sikking and Marilyn Stacey are Michael and Veronica Novak, he a successful hardware wholesaler, she an art lover and liberal firebrand who is working on a book about Darfur. Sarah Lucht and Don Alder are Annette and Alan Raleigh; he’s a high-powered lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone, she’s in expensive shoes and wealth management. If only wealth were all that needed managing around here.

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Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.

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Still waiting after all these years

Northwest Classical's "Godot" sits out Beckett's Big Questions vividly and with comic gusto

Gogo’s feet stink. Didi reeks of garlic. And, no, Godot never does show up. These are three unassailable facts about Samuel Beckett’s maybe and maybe not absurdist Waiting for Godot, which opened Friday night in an itchy and morosely funny revival from the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. Otherwise, the play’s so open to interpretation that actors and academics, after a drink or three, have been known to break out in fisticuffs over its meanings.

Is it a comedy or a tragedy? (Beckett called it, in its English version, a “tragicomedy”). Is it Christian, or existentialist, or something else? Is Godot really God, or simply an absence, or perhaps both? Is the play snarly, like Pinter, or sympathetic, like Wilder, or something entirely its own? Godot is a bare architecture, sparse and clean in the making, free-floating and yet fiercely rooted, and as it lacks particulars of time and place and even intention, it’s a play for all seasons. Lay over it what you will: you might be right.

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

I happen to be of the baggy-pants school: I see in Godot ripples of the English music hall and American vaudeville and the great early movie comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Max Linder, and, closer to the time that Godot was written in 1949, Jean-Louis Barrault, the great sad mime from 1945’s Les Enfants du Paradis. As great clowns tend also to know the deepest hearts of innocence and tragedy, Godot for me is perhaps the most pristine of all stage comedies. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite: the thing can seem a little overstated and pretentious, and it can drag on, depending on how it’s done. It does mean it’s a benchmark.

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Two can occupy this bench, at least for a while: James Sharinghousen (left) and Don Alder in Profile Theatre's "At Home at the Zoo." Photo: Jamie_Bosworth

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: At Home at the Zoo is not about Occupy Wall Street. When the play began, way back in 1958, and when it was finished, almost a half-century later, the Occupy movement didn’t exist.

Yet beneath its considerable entertainment value Edward Albee’s old-new play feels as current as a bullhorn-blaring encampment on a littered patch of downtown mud. It might almost have been called Occupy Central Park. Or maybe Occupy America’s Soul. In raw terms, the story comes down to this: Poor guy confronts rich guy in a park. Only one of them survives, and to say he “won” requires an extremely elastic, even willfully oblivious, understanding of the word.

From its outset the Occupy movement has been intensely and intentionally, if not always shrewdly, theatrical, and the situational roots of its theatrics are all over the stage in Profile Theatre’s new production of At Home at the Zoo. Albee’s comic drama is an expansion and reworking of his first produced play, The Zoo Story, which established his reputation as an up-and-comer before his hail-genius-well-met success in 1962 with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In the process of rethinking The Zoo Story Albee anticipated the origins of Occupy and took it a step beyond. Sure, the movement’s about greed and hoarding and the abandonment of the middle and working classes and the fully down and out. But the country’s complex and sometimes angry reactions to it are also about caution and safety – about clinging to what we have, hoping to ride things out, for fear of what unleashing unpredictable forces might let loose. Better the devil we know inside ourselves than the one we might discover if things bust loose.

The tale of The Zoo Story is almost tribal in its stripped-down tempting of the fates. Peter, a comfortable sort of upper-middle-class Upper West Sider, is reading a book on his favorite Central Park bench when he’s interrupted by Jerry, an erratic, down-at-the-heels, story-spinning young man of suspect hygiene and apparel who demands Peter’s attention. What begins as an uncomfortable moment slips into an uneasy truce before exploding into a shocking violence which is nevertheless also an almost loving complicity. The one-act is short, compact, quizzical in that early-Pinter Birthday Party kind of way: an intense white heat, satisfying partly because its nerve endings are left jangling and unexplained.

Hardly a month goes by when The Zoo Story isn’t in production on some stage somewhere around the world. Yet as successful as it’s been, something about it kept eating at Albee. It bugged him that, while Jerry dominates the energy and action, Peter remained largely a question mark. Who was he? What did he think? Why didn’t he just get up from the bench and walk away?

There was another, fuller story, Albee felt, and so he turned his one-act into a full two-act play – or rather, a pair of linked one-acts, adding Homelife at the beginning and doing some minor tinkering with Zoo Story to create At Home at the Zoo. The fresh version debuted in 2004 at Hartford Stage under the title Peter and Jerry and then opened off-Broadway in 2007, under its new title, at Second Stage.

Home life, interrupted: Karla Mason and Don Alder. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

Profile’s swift and often funny production, under the direction of that smart and efficient master mechanic Pat Patton, digs into both the old and new with satisfying gusto. Peter (Don Alder), the  mild-mannered man on the park bench, becomes the link between Act 1, which takes place between Peter and his comfortable but not entirely satisfied wife Ann (Karla Mason), and, in Act 2, the aggressive and possibly loony Jerry (James Sharinghousen).

Both acts are fascinating and alternately funny and horrifying, and now that they’re together the tale almost screams for a concluding Act 3. There are gains – a deeper understanding of both Peter and the forces of violence that coalesced on the park bench; the wonderful character of Ann, who prods Peter in ways less confrontational but no less radically challenging than Jerry. And there are losses – primarily in the savage mysteriousness of the 1958 original, which seemed to rise from the muck like an unexplainable holy fragment of pure existence. (The Zoo Story has the rush of early Sam Shepard.) Lovers of mystery, the existentialists in the audience, may well prefer the original. Classicists, those who thrive on exploration and explanation, will be glad for the expansion. I’m happy that both versions now exist.

“Almost before I knew it, Homelife fell from my mind to the page … intact,” Albee wrote upon the New York debut of the expanded version. “There was the Peter I had always known – a full three-dimensional person and – wow! Here was Ann, his wife, whom I must have imagined deep down, 40-some years ago, but hadn’t brought to consciousness.”

At Profile, the byplay between Alder and Mason in Homelife is quite delicious. Mason is forthright and sophisticated, funny and affectionate, and surprisingly practical in revealing something that Ann’s husband doesn’t want to hear at all – that something’s missing, something necessarily beastly and savage, and it leaves her feeling that life is slipping by while she and Peter remain on the sidelines. Like Bill Pullman, who starred as Peter in New York, Alder has the gift of presenting a calmly controlled surface that gives way to little gusts of humor and small hints of disturbances roiling beneath.

Peter is a man whose strength is his ability to suppress his wilder instincts, to provide a rich and trouble-free and above all smooth life of civilized comfort and measured pleasure. He cut loose once, in the past, and it frightened him deeply. He’s determined not to let it happen again: Too much feeling disturbs the universe. Peter publishes boring but important textbooks, and his job has provided for him well: his salary is very good, and no doubt he’s invested prudently. He’s a man of gradual advances, not revolutions. He believes in order and progress, the rising tide that lifts all boats. When he discovers that this isn’t enough for Ann, it shakes him to his well-protected core. Is he, might he be, an empty man?

Then, in the park, there Jerry is: the savage, the avatar of impulse, Peter’s opposite and enemy, who might also be his undiscovered half or the son he doesn’t have. There’s always been something a little cartoonish about Jerry, who is both victim and victimizer, occupier and occupied. Sharinghousen roars and growls and leaps like a playful bear. But bears can bite.

In his versions of these paired plays Albee brings scope, intelligence, sadness and extraordinary wit to an often inchoate set of ideas that have been rumbling around America since its inception – ideas of equity and opportunity, sharing and hoarding, having and having not, communalism and independence, staying safe and hanging over the edge. This is the ether that the Occupy movement breathes. Albee, writing before the movement began, suggests that such matters are more than simply economic, and that in matters of emotion and belief and even action, the ratio isn’t only 99 to 1. It’s also 20 to 80, and 92 to 8, and 50 to 50, and 37 to 63, and 33 to 33 to 34, and one to one, and at some core level we’re all responsible, all in it together.

Share the park bench, anyone?

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Profile Theatre’s At Home at the Zoo continues through January 29 at the Theater! Theatre! Building, 3430 S.E. Belmont St., Portland. Ticket info here.