josh hecht

Theater for the Ears

Stop. Listen. What's that sound? In the pandemic’s wake, Portland theater companies turn to audio drama.

“Radio is something that has to be believed to be seen.”

That line from an old Twilight Zone episode explains the appeal of not just radio drama, but any theater meant to be heard instead of viewed. And now there’s more to believe in.

Since the pandemic shut down live theater, our screens have filled with streaming videos of previous productions or new creations, many created via Zoom, with actors recording parts from their homes. But even though we’ve been said to be living in a visual age for generations now, maybe screen fatigue has finally pushed us to giving our overtaxed eyes a break. Because another form of streaming theater is enjoying a resurgence — audio dramas.

Vin Shambry records his lines in the audio version of Artists
Repertory Theatre’s Magellanica. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

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DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.

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What’s up, doc? Let me down easy.

Profile Theatre winds up its season with Anna Deavere Smith's deep dive into health care in America. It's a matter of life and breath.

How are you feeling? Been to the doctor lately? How’s your health insurance? Uncovered emergency bills draining your wallet and shooting your blood pressure through the stratosphere? Go to the closest hospital instead of the in-network hospital for that medical emergency, and now you’re stuck with the entire thirty-thousand-dollar bill? Welcome to health care in America.

And welcome to Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable series of linked monologues that are getting a remarkably vivid and engaging performance through June 16 from Profile Theatre. Smith’s play both is and isn’t about such pertinent questions. First produced in 2008 as a solo show performed by its author, Let Me Down Easy predates Obamacare, “death panels,” skyrocketing costs on crucial medications, the relentless right-wing campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and leave millions with no coverage at all, the state-by-state assault on abortion and reproductive rights, and the rising rebellion against private insurance companies and demand for single-payer health coverage.

Vana O’Brien as Texas Governor Ann Richards. Photo: Brud Giles

In a political sense, then, Smith’s play is last decade’s news. And yet it still feels fresh and up-to-date, because it’s less an agitprop play about specific policies than an inquisitive investigation into people’s attitudes toward life and death and the ways we think about what a healthy life means. In one way or another each of the twenty-odd characters in Let Me Down Easy is dealing with questions of mortality. As James H. Cone, a minister, puts it in the opening monologue: “Let. Me. Down. Easy. Those are words of a broken heart.”

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‘Well’ & ‘Pebble’: over the edge

Welcome to the well-made play? Profile and Imago go beyond the stylistic borders in new shows by Lisa Kron and Carol Triffle

A good play ought to grab its audience from the very top and take it for a ride. The way it grabs an audience can be as varied as a cowboy crooning from the wings about a beautiful morning (Oklahoma!) or a vengeful ghost skulking around a castle (Hamlet).

Well, Lisa Kron’s quasi-comic onstage argument from Profile Theatre at Portland Playhouse, opens in a well of silence with actor Vana O’Brien snoozing, or pretending to snooze, on a recliner flopped way back to sleeping position – not an action but the anticipation of an action, the tension of action’s absence.

Pebble, Carol Triffle’s new existential riff on melodrama at Imago Theatre, opens with an apocalyptic crash and boom of thunder and lightning, an absurdist clatter thrusting a mental institution, and the audience, into mind-altering darkness.

The openings could scarcely be more different. Yet Well and Pebble are both meta-theatrical shows, self-referential experiences stretching the idea of what dramatic storytelling can be. They’re plunges into pure style and the ways in which we invent ourselves, tugging at the fragile veil between fact and fiction, as we go along.


PEBBLE at IMAGO THEATRE


Triffle’s Pebble, the final play in Imago’s three-show Next Wave Festival (following Jerry Mouawad’s Leonard Cohen Is Dead and a revival of Mouawad’s lyrical fantasia To Fly Again) is both familiar and fresh, a vigorous new exploration of territory Triffle’s shown us before. It’s a place so simple and ordinary that it takes on extra-ordinary dimensions, mundanity transforming like Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor Samsa into a new reality of darkly comic horror and thwarted passion at loose ends.

Kyle Delamarter and Danielle Vermette in Carol Triffle’s Pebble: all in the family. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

The bursts of thunder and lightning at the beginning set the stylistic tone: Everything’s big, bold, broadly gestural, almost a parody of melodrama and American stage realism – the shell accentuated and the stuffing ripped out. Over decades Triffle and Mouawad have built a theater of seductive spectacle at Imago, most obviously in the company’s glorious costume-and-movement shows like Frogz, in which spoken language is either nonexistent or an afterthought, but also in the individual shows the two have created that use language extensively but usually in a disjointed manner – shards of familiarity broken off and scattered across a landscape that is altered as in an odd and perplexing dream, or a painting by Dalí or Bosch.

In Pebble, the skewed landscape is the interior of a mental institution where an emotionally unkempt woman named Pebble (Danielle Vermette) seems something like a live-in guest at an odd and slightly menacing hotel. A partly finished jigsaw puzzle sits on one table, a deck of cards at another. An easel sits to one side, with a painting of two horses propped on it. Sometimes Pebble dons a smock and picks up a brush. More often she’s making obsessive scrawls on the walls, which are covered with them. Toward the back is a reception area, the domain of Nurse Megan (Megan Skye Hale), who sometimes barks instructions into a microphone and often casts speculative glances at a medical orderly (Jon Farley), who is also the object of advances from Pebble, who’d dearly love to get her itch scratched and doesn’t trust Nurse Megan one bit. Little blue pills are passed from character to character, caretakers and inmates alike – Pebble ended up here because of an unfortunate overdose problem – and everyone prowls around like tigers in a cage. It’s all very homey, in a clinical, creepy way. Then a newcomer shows up: Nick (Kyle Delamarter), who might be Pebble’s brother (he probably is), and might be sane or as loony as everyone else, and whose arrival upsets an already unbalanced apple cart.

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DramaWatch: High-school drama of historical dimensions

Artists Rep takes Shakespeare back to school with the "Richard III" adaptation "Teenage Dick"; plus, a shortlist of Second Season shows.

Richard of Gloucester was a dick.

At least that’s impression we’re given by Shakespeare in his history play Richard III, in which this man (among many) who would be king is presented as deformed, less so for his hunchback than for his moral turpitude. Shakespeare wrote his account more than a century after Richard’s death, and some historians contend that his nasty portrait of the last Plantagenet king was propaganda on behalf of the Tudor dynasty that followed Richard. (For example, the king’s long-lost remains were found in 2012 and suggest that he was short and had one shoulder slightly higher than the other, but no hunchback.) Even so, the seething, conniving Richard of Shakespeare dominates his public image still.

And anyway, these days we might certainly call him a Dick.

If he was a modern American 17-year-old, he’d be, of course, a teenage Dick.

Mike Lew’s play Teenage Dick — which premiered last year at the Public Theater and which opens Saturday at

Christopher Imbrosciano plays Richard Gloucester — a high school stand-in for Shakespeare’s Richard III — in “Teenage Dick” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder.

Artists Rep in a production directed by Josh Hecht — re-imagines Shakespeare’s tale of England’s contested monarchy during the 15th-century War of the Roses as high school high drama with the high stakes of the senior class presidency. It’s a loose adaptation, trading on the basic premise of an outsider’s manipulative bid for power. The intricacies of relations and animosities between the House of York and the House of Lancaster give way to a cast of six and a simple division between familiar classes of popular and unpopular kids. And, whereas lots of Shakespeare adaptations are larded with Bard-lover in-jokes, Lew relies more on his Richard Gloucester’s penchant for ridiculously high-flown language (he’ll use a $10 word such as “tenebrosity” in the same speech he’ll say “apeshit”).

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