gay theater

A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.

What?

Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .

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OUTwright: a Booty Candy tale

Fuse's annual festival of queer theater focuses on a comedy about a black man navigating the world of sex. It's laughter with an edge.

For a long time now, Fuse Theatre Ensemble has been one of the most openly political theater companies in town. Queer-forward, inclusivity has been a hallmark and a principle of its work for years. But this season is different. This season, the crowning gem of Fuse’s OUTwright Festival is Robert O’Hara’s Booty Candy, and, for a theater company that prides itself on pushing boundaries and upsetting expectations, this production is yet another new direction.

For eight years Fuse’s OUTwright Festival, which this year continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, has been one of the most anticipated and adventurous events of the theatrical year. It’s never quite the same from one season to the next. Sometimes it engages several venues, sometimes only one. It started out as only table readings of scripts, but now incorporates readings, full productions, and forums exploring a variety of topics centered on the company’s mission. Whatever the offerings, however many venues, whoever the artists are that are involved, the goal of the OUTwright Festival stays constant. “The mission never really changes,” says Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant. “We’re here to celebrate the queers.”

Gerrin Mitchell, Charles Grant, Shareen Jacobs in OUTwright Festival’s Booty Candy.

Tennant, who wears many hats as a theater artist (director, scenic designer, actor, technical director, teacher are just the ones I know off the top of my head) is forthright about what makes this particular OUTwright Festival different from the ones that have gone before. “The focus of this year’s festival,” he says, “is centering people of color and underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA-plus umbrella.” When asked why this was the year to focus on people of color in the queer community, Tennant says simply, “Because we hadn’t.”

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Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.

 


 

Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.

 


 

David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.

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The hidden history of ‘Oklahoma!’

Contemporary reinterpretations of the classic American musical may be getting back to its root: It's based on a play by a gay Cherokee man.

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Seventy-five years ago, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new musical Oklahoma! was beginning its sellout run on Broadway, the Times ran an indignant letter from Eva Paul, of Provincetown. “It is rather amusing to notice the insouciance and naïve bravado with which all the perpetrators of Oklahoma! eliminate all mention of Lynn Riggs,” she wrote. “After all, did he or did he not give them a plot to which they more or less adhered and a galaxy of characters which none of them ever approached in their other undertakings?”

Original poster for “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, 1943. Wikimedia Commons

He did: a decade earlier, Riggs had enjoyed a brief Broadway success at the Theatre Guild with his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which evoked the cowboys and farmers of his childhood in Indian Territory, before Oklahoma became a state. Traditional folk songs and picturesque dialogue enlivened a courtship triangle: whether Laurey, a young homesteader, would go to a party with Curly, a cocky cowboy, or Jeeter Fry, a rough farmhand. In 1942, the Guild’s producer, Theresa Helburn, saw a revival of Green Grow the Lilacs and thought it could furnish the material for an American folk opera on the model of Porgy and Bess, which the Guild had also staged. She engaged Richard Rodgers—his partnership with Larry Hart dissolving as Hart fell prey to alcoholism and depression—to compose the music and Oscar Hammerstein—longing for a hit after a series of flops with his Show Boat partner, Jerome Kern—to adapt Riggs’s play and write the lyrics.

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Pride and the need to connect

The performances put the punch into defunkt theatre's "The Pride," which tells two tales of love and pain, half a century apart

By ALIA STEARNS

The small black box theater that houses defunkt theatre welcomes audiences to its production of The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell without fanfare. The simple staging points accurately to a sitting room that does double duty in both 1958 and 2008. It is in no way an impressive backdrop, alive with special flourishes: Instead, it highlights how common the experiences of the three main characters are, and that is what makes the tears flow.

In the opening scene, audiences are introduced to Phillip (Morgan Lee), an estate agent, and his actress-turned-illustrator wife Sylvia (Paige McKinney), who has invited Oliver (Matthew Kern), the author with whom she is working, to meet her husband. As she finishes getting ready, the two men are left to work through tense chitchat, an undercurrent of attraction merely hinted at until, as they exit the flat for dinner, Sylvia comments that she “felt something.” Their storyline follows the relationship between the two men and Sylvia’s understanding of her husband’s desires.

McKinney and Lee in “The Pride.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

In a future that alternates with the 1950s narrative are another Phillip, Oliver, and Sylvia. Though they are played by the same actors, the understanding is that they are completely different people, if weighted with the psychic baggage of the ones that came before them. This Oliver is still a writer, a journalist, but rather than the romantic of the 1950s, he is seemingly addicted to having sex with strangers. Phillip, his recent ex, is a photographer. Sylvia, an actress, is his best friend. Whereas the 1950s are predominantly about Phillip and his self-hatred, the 2000s are all about Oliver and his self-hatred.

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Everything you wanted to know*

*... about Texas, but were afraid to ask. (And about the OUTwright Festival, and its cult hit "Sordid Lives.")

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival, celebrating its fifth year, is bringing a lot more to the table than it has in previous years: a bevy of readings and workshops, some already finished, others still to come. And it has one main attraction: Del Shores’ cult hit Sordid Lives, which has manifested in a few incarnations since it first saw daylight in 1996: play, film, and television. OUTwright is staging the cult classic in its first form: live, onstage, fully produced.

The Funhouse Lounge, where all of this is happening, is just off the busy corridor of close-in Southeast Portland now known as “D Street.” Nestled in between houses, it stands out as a Carlo Collodi-inspired oasis with a gallery of velvet paintings dedicated to dead celebrities, an exotic collection of faux-Versailles mirrors, and a bar dedicated to drinking from the sort of 90 proof well that any chaps-wearing man would find an after-hours home. It’s the perfect place for Sordid Lives, which is best described as a John Waters-inspired text, but with a lot more compassion and “real” moments.

Victoria Blake as Dr. Eve and Michael J. Teufel as Brother Boy. Greg Parkinson Photography

There are towns in Texas where, if you order a salad at a restaurant, your waitress will ask: “Potato or macaroni?” And in Sordid Lives there is an itsy bitsy town called Snyder, Texas, on the outskirts of the Panhandle, that has a single restaurant whose salad is composed of wilted iceberg lettuce paired with a thick slice of roma tomato similarly aged and drowned in an almost aspic consistency of French dressing. There is one stop light. One water tower. Plenty of homes and churches. A school. There is nothing else. Shiner Bock is the light and cheap beer that Texans romanticize, in spite of its actual taste. Women still wear their hair high: as the saying goes the higher the hair, the closer to God. It is welded together by cans of spray-net. No person leaves their home without full attire and face on. Plastic surgery is part of most cosmetic approaches to staying young at heart.

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Review: Defunkt’s tense cockfight

A love-and-sex triangle heats up the stage with an edgy blend of energy and desperation

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment about Jane Austen, playwright Mike Bartlett would dig up Thornton Wilder and beat him with his own shinbone. Defunkt Theatre is putting on Bartlett’s play Cock through November 15.

Cock is no Our Town. It’s a love triangle – two men and the woman who comes between them – that hammers out dialogue with the intensity of a Beethoven symphony. There’s no moment of rest for the actors or audience: the air is dense and sweet, sparking with visceral lines that swing between love and hate, each of the characters swiveling back and forth between cutting character attacks and brilliant Noel Coward humor. And believe me, the jokes are needed. By the second act the night I saw the show, some members of the audience were visibly shaken, their faces flushed and holding back tears.

Take your corners: It's a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Take your corners: It’s a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

The play begins with an edgy spat whose purpose is to end in makeup sex. The chaotic dance between the lovers never ends. Clifton Holznagel as Jon and David Bellis-Squires as M fling heated words at each other, with an equal measure of gentleness. Bellis-Squires gives a great performance as a starched-shirt lover, full of kinetic energy and desperation: Jon and M’s relationship wrestles between attachment and bitterness. Both actors establish the character’s strengths and flaws within the first five minutes. They have a power struggle, and just as in real life, it’s pretty ugly. Members of the audience were so engaged, they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d walked into a real room where a real fight was going on. This is Defunkt at its best: intimate, honest, with an emphasis on acting and script.

In formal terms, Cock is what’s known as a well-made play. While the four characters play off each other and complement the plot, all of them are major players: there are no minor ones. Kayla Lian plays W, the woman who enters the picture and turns Jon’s head “right round, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She’s not a foil, but the feminine motif upon which the others respond. Lian is a subtle actress who uses her physical movements and timpani of a voice to great effect.

At its heart, Bartlett’s script is a contemporary conversation about relationships. Can we love whom we want as a person, or does our attraction create a dividing line? It’s a brutal, but successful look into binary gender roles. We in the audience want to know, who will Jon choose? By the end of the play, Holznagel’s Jon is weeping. We want to pick him up and hold him, tell him it’ll be OK.

Veteran Ted Schultz gives Cock an earthy, necessary grounding in Act II. With all the static flying around – attraction, partnership, dreams, the general chaos of infidelity – his staunch presence is welcoming. He plays M’s father and support, which are just as needed by the audience.

Defunkt is a minimalist theater in terms of props, and yet we move in and out of spaces such as subways, living rooms, bedrooms and patios with ease. Director Jon Kretzu makes it easy for us to imagine the spaces, meals, and lives of each of the characters: It’s a great triumph of the imagination. Andrew Klaus Vineyard, sound design and production manager, deftly takes us in and out of the flashback moments back to the plot, and guides us through the narratives as they play out. The play would not come off without his successful work.

After leaving the theater I was a bit worse for wear, but in a good way. Defunkt provides a generous space to reflect and come to terms with ourselves. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do this – only a handful of directors, like Ingmar Bergman, can tear you down to build you up – and we can choose which songs to listen to, but a play like Cock stares us right in the face. No one ever said art had to be pretty, but it can be right and tell the story we need to hear.

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Defunkt’s Cock continues through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.