Joellen Sweeney

Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

Continues…

Post5’s ‘Othello’: less is more

A stark and delicate dance of power gets stripped down to its basics in Post5's "Shakesqueer" telling of the tale

Any relationship involves a delicate dance of power. We negotiate and bargain the trivial to keep the little sparks alive. In love, we try to set aside little irritations for the sake of the oneness. If we’re in for the long haul, most of the everyday is both beautiful and eclipsed by our understanding of whom we care for.

And in this dance, Post5 has stripped bare Shakespeare’s Othello and rearranged the steps.

In director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger’s production the Other is not the Moor, as in the traditional interpretation of Othello. Rather, the have-nots are the Other: the inexplicable Iago, whose passions begin and end in fury; Cassio, who fights for love and liege; and in the end, the motives that lie behind Othello and Desdemona’s desire for each other is the real alienation.

Tell and Tidd: passion and betrayal. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tell and Tidd: passion and betrayal. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Post5 has done some Shakesqueering: most of the roles are played by women, the one exception being Rodrigo, acted by Sean Doran, who shifts the weight of his walking leg while the other clumps in a cast. He has no affection for Desdemona, and the implied ulterior motives to help Iago: he is half a man, his impotence in stark contrast to the band of Amazons who make the stage.

Continues…