Matt Zrebski

DramaWatch: Musings on behavior, blackness, and what shows to see

Some thoughts on theater etiquette, on ideas about race and cultural preference, and on what shows to see this week in Portland.

Ben Cameron is a former executive director of Theatre Communications Group and program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and when he was in those roles  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about a variety of arts issues. One of the memorable observations he would make, a decade or two ago, was that the audience for the arts in America was made up predominantly of the kind of people who had been good at school in the 1950s and ‘60s — that is, well-educated, well-to-do, often white, with mainstream sensibilities and manners. The reason, he suggested, wasn’t just that these were the folks with the money to attend art events, but that they were the folks comfortable at art events, that art events operate by the same sorts of rules and conventions they’d thrived in before at school: “You come in, you sit over there. No, not up there on the stage — that’s for somebody else. You sit there, pay attention and be quiet. They get to talk, you don’t. You respond when we tell you to.” And so forth.

His point being, the arts — perhaps theater in particular — are presented in a context that carries behavioral expectations, and those aren’t the expectations that everyone is used to. So, if more people are to engage in the arts, the question then becomes about who has to adjust, the arts or the audience. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre can feel like a sanctified space, as in this 2019 production of As You Like It, directed by Rosa Joshi. Some folks like it quiet and full of rapt attention. Photo: Kim Budd.

Cameron was addressing broad and ongoing issues about cultural engagement and growth, but his observation came to mind recently in a narrower context: theater etiquette.

Complaints about a decline in theater etiquette are evergreen. My apologies for burdening you with yet another. I just seem to be encountering the topic from all angles these days.


For one thing, on my most recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was stunned to observe something I don’t think I’d ever seen before in what is, to me, a kind of sanctified place: in the August Bowmer Theatre, just two seats away from me, someone eating during a performance! Yes, lobby concession stands sell snacks, and I don’t know the theater policy about bringing food into the auditorium itself; I just hadn’t imagined someone breaking the spell of that place in particular in such a way.

And to the woman in the row behind me at the Armory during opening night of Redwood last weekend: The line that you missed — and loudly told your companion that you’d not heard — was, “Did you really just use your stepmom to Love, Actually-stoop-scene me?”


You’re welcome. But is that you didn’t hear a line sufficient reason to keep those around you from hearing the next one? I believe it isn’t. Instead, try to hold the details of the moment in your mind until intermission or curtain and then ask your friend, “By the way, did you catch what she said when…”

As exasperated as I can get by such moments, I’m always aware that I’m in that audience as a matter of privilege, usually by the grace of complimentary press tickets. If I’d paid $40, $80 or $100 for my seat, I might feel freer telling fellow audience members that they’re disturbing my experience of the show (waiting until intermission, of course). Then again, if I’d made such an investment, maybe I’d feel more entitled to chat or eat or otherwise enjoy myself. (Well, I wouldn’t, but maybe that’s why others do.) 

Those instances fresh in my mind, I came across a short piece in The New Yorker about a 10-year-old’s Ten Commandments of theater etiquette going viral on Twitter this summer. That led me to an article in Town and Country Magazine by the aforementioned young theater fan’s uncle, a New York publicist named Seth Fradkoff, who apparently gets more exasperated than I do:

“I am, admittedly, more of a stickler than most,” he writes. “I recently found myself at Tootsie: The Comedy Musical for a second time. I love this show, but I only made it as far as the second number before the staff of the Marquis Theater asked me to leave. Why? The woman in Row B of the mezzanine crinkling her Twizzlers after inhaling a bag of pretzels during the overture was the last straw! After an usher declined to assist me, I walked to her row, reached across the man seated on the aisle, and grabbed the Twizzlers. I threw them into the aisle, and went back to my seat—for about a minute, until I was asked to leave.”

I must admit, I’m with him on the matter of crinkly candy wrappers. Cell phones are capable of causing all manner of mischief during a performance, but something about the prolonged static crackle of someone slowly unwrapping a sweet or a cough drop, all the effort to be careful and unobtrusive backfiring horribly, really sets the teeth on edge.

In 2016, the Hollywood Reporter surveyed a few dozen Broadway performers about what audience behavior bothers them, and the most colorful response came from (no surprise) Harvey Fierstein: “In my 44 years of trodding the boards, I have witnessed everything from people passing a whole roast chicken up and down a row, to someone trying to take down the script in dictation, to folks videotaping the show through cameras taped inside their hats, to guys getting blowjobs. People, please — this ain’t the movies!” 

That’s a funny line, but there’s something crucial there, I think. At least to my mind, the rules are different in a movie theater than they are in what I’ll snobbishly call a real theater. Unless someone’s being truly obnoxious, I don’t much care about talking during a movie because I know I could come back and see it again; whatever I might have missed still will be there, unchanged. However precise a theatrical performance, part of its thrill is in the unreproducible moment.

Then again, there are viewpoints more snobbish than mine. Seeking some set of guidelines with a ring of authority, I came across a list from the Etiquette School of New York. I suppose attending a Broadway house isn’t the same as popping down to the Shoebox Theatre, but in either case I’m not on board with rule No. 1 on this list, to dress as for a special occasion. Casual attire is fine, but so is sloppy attire. It’s only stinky attire that should concern us. And I’ll choose how to show my appreciation, thank you; that I should stand to applaud a show just because others are (rule No. 16) strikes me as overbearing.

But that brings things back yet again to the question of who decides.

A 2018 article on the Folger Shakespeare Library website references a book by a British academic researcher named Dr. Kirsty Sedgman: “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience… argues that theatre etiquette is bound up in sexist, racist, and ableist social norms, designed specifically to produce separations between elite and ‘mass’ audiences…As Dr. Sedgman explains, when we talk about theatre etiquette now (she prefers the term ‘behavior policing’), we need to acknowledge both its notable and suspect aspects: That it’s a way to reinforce a shared vision of socially-acceptable behavior that makes public space better for all, and also a morally suspect act that is disproportionately wielded against people of color, the working class, etc.”

That sounds reasonable. Except that, unless there’s verifiable, quantifiable data (and perhaps Sedgman has some), isn’t this in itself a racist/classist presumption — that those falling afoul of the rules of etiquette must be those of certain social strata, that such strata somehow determine our behavior?

Maybe we’re left to rely on the great spiritual insight from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You’ve all got to figure it out for yourself.” I like the theater to be almost like a holy place, a place of engagement and absorption, where the moment onstage lets me know what’s appropriate, whether that’s raucous laughter or silent, rapt attention. Maybe you like theater to be someplace to forget the strictures of everyday life, a place to feel spontaneous and free, Twizzlers included. But we each have to be cognizant of each other when we’re sharing the theater space, and negotiate, in a manner of speaking, accordingly.

So…see you at the theater! …but please don’t pass me the chicken.

Best line(s) I read this week (annotated)

The epiphany that sets in motion that plot to Redwood, the world premiere currently at Portland Center Stage, takes place in a hip-hop dance class: “I was grooving away…when a great and powerful love overtook me. Love for the beautiful black bodies in that room, the beautiful, black, tunes. And I thought: history!” Later on in the play, another character responds to her mother’s claims about the family’s hard work and success by asserting that her family had denied and hated their blackness and instead “moved mostly in white spaces at great cost to our sense of ‘heritage.’”

Charles Grant leads the hip-hop dance element in Redwood at The Armory. Photo: Russell J. Young.

The White Bird dance series show at Lincoln Hall this weekend, Power by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, is a kind of choreographic thought experiment about the African-American legacy within the spiritual expressions of the Shakers. More history, more black bodies moving in (presumed) white spaces.


And so all this has your humble DramaWatcher — whose black body grew up in the decidedly white space of Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood — pondering what “blackness” means, culturally speaking. (I mean, I just looked up at my TV screen and saw Tyler Perry’s face — beneath ludicrous Madea wig and make-up — followed by the words “stream black culture.” If I hate that, am I hating blackness, or just hating the commercial promulgation of some of its lesser traits? Or am I just, justifiably, hating Tyler Perry??)

All of this leads me back to the files to find a favorite old clip from, oddly enough, exactly 25 years ago:

“Lately I’ve realized my idea of what’s ‘Black enough’ now extends to whatever gets me open. For example, my Top 10 list of albums for this year will be dominated by white-boy singer-songwriters—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Richard Thompson, Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, Bryan Ferry—because they’re making music out of the sorts of emotional scar issues my 37-year-old soul scrapes up against on the daily….Moreover, when I think of my favorite artists of ’94, I think of them as my niggas. Neil Young? That’s my nigga. Bryan Ferry? He my nigga too.

…I’ll be a Black chauvinist for life, but what makes that chauvinism so chewy and gooey are the contradictions. These pop up whenever anybody tries to nail Blackness in a coffin. At that [Organization of Black Designers] conference in Chicago, [cinematographer] Arthur Jaffa talked about how ‘My Favorite Things’ is dope more because of John Coltrane than Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I thought, maybe to you, my brother. I treasure the Julie Andrews and the Coltrane renditions of the song equally. And cherish even more Betty Carter’s version because Carter feasts on Andrews’ spritely but manic reading of the lyrics and Trane’s arabesques to arrive at something even more bugged out, Black and beautiful. I dig work that flips the script on our received notions of Black and white. I also dig things that are so Black even most Black folks don’t know what to do with them.”

—The great music/cultural critic Greg Tate in a November 8, 1994 column in the Village Voice.

Opening

Among the various tragedies occurring along the southern border of the U.S. has been the disappearance of hundreds of young women from around Ciudad Juarez — women often last seen on the route home from factory jobs, and presumed murdered or kidnapped into sex trafficking. La Ruta, which premiered last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, shines a light on this dark history, focusing on two mothers desperately hoping for their daughters’ return. Playwright Isaac Gomez—a native of El Paso, just across the border from Juarez—calls it both “a play about a group of women living in the wake of unspeakable loss” and “an interpersonal journey of healing, of growth, of resilience and of empowerment.” Dámaso Rodríguez directs for Artists Repertory Theatre, which is staging the show at the Southeast Portland headquarters of Portland Opera.

La Ruta tells a tale of loss and resilience along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

For years, Tony Fuemmeler’s mask and puppetry work has contributed to shows by Artists Rep, Oregon Children’s Theatre and others, so Portland theater fans should be a natural part of the audience for a two-decade retrospective of his masks, Reveal/Conceal, that’s just gone up in the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. But—theater being a collaborative art form—Fuemmeler also brings other artists into play with the companion exhibit A Universal Feeling. After fashioning unpainted papier-mâché masks for a set of emotions (fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust) Fuemmeler shipped them off to 62 other artists around the world, inviting them to complete the pieces. Collaborators including local theater makers such as Cristi Miles, Jamie M. Rea and Damaris Webb, but cover a gamut of artistic disciplines, ages, genders and so forth. Friday’s opening reception looks like a good time to catch these exhibits, but they’ll continue until just after the New Year.

Tony Fuemmeler in his mask-making studio. Photo: Dennis Galloway.

“After their last show ends in a disastrous theater fire, two vaudevillians wake up to discover that they may not have survived.” But if they wake up, then that means they must have…oh…right…it’s just a story. In which case, I suppose there’s your key metaphysical conflict right there. Duo Doppio’s Fabrizio & Cabriolet In: The Afterlife features the aforementioned vaudevillian buffoons in a life-and-death comedy that draws on the circus, puppetry and improv backgrounds of creators Ari Rapkin and Summer Olsson. As the show’s press release says of the two: “They are clowns. Unless you are afraid of clowns. Then they are physical comedians.”


Ah, here’s a show I won’t be caught dead anywhere near: FLASH AH-AHHH!!,  StageWorks Ink’s parody of the campy 1980s Flash Gordon flick. You? Go ahead and give it a try, you might enjoy it, it’s been popular enough to be celebrating this Clinton Street Theater engagement as its “fifth anniversary and finale run.” Me? It features the music of ‘70s/’80s rock band Queen, and I hate Queen more than you want to know, so, I’ll pass.


Billed as a “a 21st century TRANSlation” of the rock musical Hair, the cleverly titled Wig updates the story from 1968 New York City to the experimental drag scene of contemporary Portland’s eastside, from which the cast is drawn.


Gresham’s Eastside Theater Company presents Frozen Jr., a stage adaptation of the paradoxically hot Disney film musical, tailored for child and teen performers.

One night only!

Even amid the generally agreeable members of Portland’s theater community, Matt Zrebski presents an especially sweet-natured disposition. But behind that soft-spoken facade, dark forces must be roiling. Zrebski’s writing returns over and over again to quasi-apocalyptic  fantasies and luridly nightmarish scenarios, high dives into a subconscious cloudy with fears. 

His new play In the Darkest Hallway is based on a true-crime mystery known by the grim name of the “Boy in the Box.” Zrebski has approached the story with his characteristic formal invention, crafting a four-character play for one actor that dribbles out details from differing perspectives across time, distilling a potent atmosphere of dread and yearning. 

The terrific Sharonlee Mclean performs the play in a Sunday-night reading at Milagro, directed by Casey McFeron. 


Playwright Milta Ortiz’ Judge Torres premiered in January at Milagro and ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson judged it “a loving, entertaining and—most of all—imaginative tribute” to Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Xiomara Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as an undocumented nine-year-old. That production was directed by Mandana Khoshnevisan, who is bringing it back for one performance at The Vault Theater in Hillsboro, home to Bag & Baggage, where Khoshnevisan is an associate artist. The show will be followed by a talk-back discussion with the cast and director, facilitated by Pacific University Assistant Professor of English, Elizabeth Tavares.


Live renditions of radio drama hardly count as a rare thing, nor do performances of spooky tales. But performing by candlelight and presenting it all along with food and wine? Sounds like a promising package deal, called Lights Out! A Night of Radio Horror, on offer from Seven Sails Vineyard on Northwest Germantown Road. 


Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, an hilarious yet socio-politically astute satire about American history and liberal guilt, was a hit at Artists Rep in the spring of 2018. So, if you missed it or would like seasonal refresher, Readers Theatre Gresham presents a reading. 

Closing 

“At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly,” wrote ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson, “Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play.” But if you’re not to miss the latest Dia de Muertos celebration at Milagro, this weekend is your chance. 


With Women of Will, an astute explication of the feminine in Shakespeare by renowned actor/director Tina Packer, the time has passed to catch the engaging overview that Bob Hicks reviewed for ArtsWatch. But some of Packer’s deeper dives into particular periods of the Bard’s development are on tap at Portland Playhouse this weekend.


And should you want to take in the touring Broadway production of Miss Saigon at the Keller Auditorium, performances continue through Sunday.

The flattened stage

OK, so the pay-off is a bit late in arriving with this clip, but…all the same…“No soggy bottoms here!”


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time. 

Drammys: Where’s the party?

DramaWatch: Attendance dropped and the drama crept behind the scenes at this year's Portland theater awards. What comes next?

Once upon a time I had a dream about the Drammys.

I don’t mean dream as in a sleepytime movie, but rather a hope, a wish, an ideal of a future. When I first began to care about the Drammy Awards, the annual celebration of Portland-area theater was held at the Crystal Ballroom. At one end of the oblong room, outstanding theater work was honored onstage. At the other end, the combination of the entrance and the bar catalyzed a sometimes raucous social scene as friendly acquaintances convened. There was tension between the two elements, with the loud, lubricated chatter from the back sometimes drowning out the official proceedings, but it had the feel of a fabulous party. That feeling continued once the event was done, as the crowd spilled outside into a stream of sidewalk clusters stretching around the block and into Cassidy’s, which suddenly boasted more actors than you could shake a script at. 

Drag clown Carla Rossi was emcee at this year’s Drammy Award ceremony, where attendance was down. Photo: Scotty Fisher/Sleeper Studios

I was writing about theater for The Oregonian, and was thrilled about all the interesting and talented local artists I was encountering. Seeing so many of them all together, as one big, convivial community, celebrating one another and the fine work they’d done over the past season, was exhilarating. 

I figured that excitement should be shared.

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DramaWatch: Giving you Moor of what you’re funkin’ for

Portland Actors Conservatory's raps "Othello: the Remix"; Oregon Children's Theatre makes teens "Shiver"; plus more shows set to open or close.

“Othello’s rich, but she keeps me poor

And now it’s time to settle the score

She never lets me get my foot in the door

And this is why I hate the Moor!”

OK, so it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. But of course, that’s the point.

That snatch of rhyme comes from a show called Othello: the Remix, which opens this weekend in a production starring students of Portland Actors Conservatory, directed by Artists Rep resident artist Vin Shambry. It shares something with Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, in which one of the plausible reasons for the villain Iago’s enmity toward Othello is a promotion that hasn’t gone Iago’s way. But that’s no iambic pentameter, and instead of a higher rank in the Venetian army, the prize that has eluded Iago is higher billing amid the pecking order of a touring hip-hop crew overseen by Othello as star and mogul.

Julet Lindo stars in the title role of “Othello: the Remix,” as a woman on a precarious perch atop the hip-hop game. Photo montage: Owen Carey

“Now I know what I should be.

I know what I’m worth,

But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”

Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:

I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?

He deals the freshman a fresh hand,

And he makes him his best man,

And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.”

This rather liberal modern adaptation was created by Chicagoans Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum (GQ and JQ), who work under the name the Q Brothers. They’ve been at the hip-hop-theater thing (or “add-RAP-tation,” as they call their approach) for quite awhile, having scored an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999 with the wittily titled The Bomb-itty of Errors, and toured extensively since, including a 2015 appearance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show. Othello: the Remix was commissioned by the Globe Theatre as part of 2012’s London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad.

Gettin’ in your ear: In the Portland Actors Conservatory production of “Othello: the Remix,” Xzavier Wolfie Beacham’s Iago (left) insinuates; Julet Lindo’s Othello implodes. Photo: Owen Carey.

For the Actors Conservatory version, Shambry has changed things up in a few additional ways. One of the points of tension in Shakespeare’s play, famously, is that Othello is black (“the Moor”), hence an outsider, an other, in Venice despite his high status. Shambry realigns that conflict: “I made Othello a strong black woman and Iago a black man.”

He credits that shift to the actors at his disposal, especially Julet Lindo, who’ll play the title role. “She blew me out the water,” Shambry says. “I came in thinking that Othello, as this rap mogul, has to be hard, masculine. What I didn’t see at first was the vulnerability. But I saw all of that in her.” Meanwhile, in Xzavier Wolfie Beacham, Shambry found a suitably compelling, mercurial Iago, in this case not the dissatisfied army ensign but instead “a better MC who doesn’t get the limelight.”

Continues…

Portland Mini Musical Festival review: brief encounters

Fertile Ground Festival musical showcases benefit from focus on relationships

It’s hard enough to produce believable character relationships in a full length musical, what with the characters breaking into song and dance in the midst of their encounters. Yet even in under 15 minutes each, most of the six short works in this year’s edition of the Portland Mini Musical Festival at downtown Portland’s Brunish theater managed that difficult trick, mostly by focusing on a single relationship each.

Raimer and Carver in ‘Work Friends.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Work Friends, the most thoroughly successful of the lot, showed how even in just a few minutes, deftly drawn characters can evoke real sympathy — all while singing and dancing. Aubrey Jessen’s touching and hilarious office bromance earned genuine guffaws for its beautifully blocked cubicle dance, Jessen and composer Mont Chris Hubbard’s uproarious lyrics, and a winning, multifaceted (singing/dancing/acting) performance by Collin Carver. Kurt Raimer and Courtney Freed also excelled. An office worker longs for a closer connection to his charismatic but oblivious office mate, but doesn’t know how to make it happen— until an eavesdropping colleague stages a welcome intervention.

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Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”

Zrebski

Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.

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OCT’s gray and brilliant ‘Giver’: it’s humans’ theater

The children's theater's revival of the dystopian Lois Lowry tale reverberates beyond its core audience's years

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

In the society that author Lois Lowry imagined for her novel The Giver, only one person at a time can carry any real emotional weight at all. Therefore that person has to carry all of it. For everyone.

That person – both fortunate and unfortunate, though perhaps in unequal measures – is known as the Receiver of Memory, and serves as a sort of walking data center of human experience and natural history. The Receiver learns  or in some mysterious way absorbs – the panoply of facts, sensations and emotions that have been tamped down since society’s leaders decided to adopt Sameness, a state of superficially cheerful, pervasively gray social, sexual and even environmental conformity.

Ostensibly, this allows the Receiver to be the source of wise advice. But really, no one wants to know.

 

Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Not surprisingly, this bland dystopia has its dark corners. And the latest Oregon Children’s Theatre production, assertively directed by Matt Zrebski, doesn’t shy away from them. It’s harrowing, in a quiet kind of way, without being heavy-handed, and has a clarity and poignancy that make it as rewarding for adults as for the middle-school crowd it’s mostly aimed at. (OCT recommends the show for children nine years or older.)

OCT first produced The Giver eight years ago, having convinced Lowry of the theater’s passion for the story and having commissioned a stage adaptation by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble, who’d previously written the company’s 2002 treatment of  Sacagawea.

That 2006 production earned OCT national attention as a place for new-play development, and the creative relationships with both Lowry and Coble have continued to bear fruit. OCT artistic director Stan Foote talked Lowry into writing her first play, a stage version of her novel Gossamer, which the company gave a luminous premiere in 2008. Coble (whose 2010 play The Velocity of Autumn is currently on Broadway) adapted Matt Phelan’s Dust Bowl graphic novel The Storm in the Barn for OCT a few years ago, then returned to the Lowry ouevre – and to the same fictional world as The Giver – a year ago with Gathering Blue.

The stories in the set of books that’s sometimes called The Giver Quartet (it also includes Messenger and Son) take place amid societies that have taken radically different approaches in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world. The community of Gathering Blue values story, expressiveness, color, yet is socially harsh and materially primitive. By contrast, Tal Sanders’ sleek, monochromatic scenic design for this production of The Giver could be a low-rent relative of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, and the life that our main character, a pre-teen named Jonas, knows is boringly comfortable, devoid of not just color but also variety and choice, joy and pain, excitement and danger.

It feels appropriate, then, that Zrebski seems to have opted for an intentionally stiff acting style, except for the two characters – the Receiver and the Giver – who come to realize that there could be more to the bloodless lives around them.

As a book, The Giver occasionally has stirred controversy; its tone and content are darker than some folks think a “children’s” story ought to be. Those folks, of course, are wrong. “That’s one of the joys of working with OCT,” says Coble. “The attitude is always, ‘If we can find artistic ways to move through those things and grapple with fears, let’s do that.’ And a lot of other theaters aren’t willing to do that.”

Part coming-of-age tale, part social commentary, part “thought experiment” (as Ursula LeGuin describes her speculative fiction), The Giver centers on Jonas and his friends reaching the age at which the elders assign them their lifetime work: birth mother, caregiver, assistant-director of recreation, fish-hatchery attendant, and so forth. Sensitive and introspective, Jonas (nicely realized by Wilson High junior Tristan Comella) gets a rare and mysterious honor, the job as Receiver of Memory. Apprenticed to the Giver, Jonas learns about aspects of human experience banished to the past (from love to war), as well as some of the disquieting accommodations made to maintain the current calm.

Andrés Alcalá as the Giver provides the full-spectrum performance this show needs at its center, showing us the sweetness in such simple pleasures as a memory of snowfall, yet also conveying the weariness and worry of someone carrying the burden of history’s accumulated horrors and humanities hurtful tendencies. That you have to take the bad with the good in life may not be the most surprising of insights, but there’s a deep poignance to Lowry’s stark presentation of the notion, and to the elegant simplicity of Zrebski’s staging – to which Sanders’ scenic and lighting designs and Jeff Kurihara’s video projections are essential.

This is the sort of show that OCT has excelled at in recent years, but has struggled to sell. The kiddie crowd that flocks to the likes of Pinkalicious isn’t quite ready for this, but OCT would like to draw more of the inquisitive middle-school audience. But even though the bulk of OCT’s work proves that “children’s theater” shouldn’t be considered a pejorative, the term doesn’t quite fit a production such as The Giver, anyway. Consider this humans’ theater.

 

Teens in heat: ‘Ablaze’ lights up the stage

Matthew Zrebski's musical thriller is like a YA novel in the flesh

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

Reaching for the light. Photo: David Kinder

“Ablaze” has been doing a slow burn since 2004, when playwright and director Matthew B. Zrebski began gathering ideas for a new show from students at Lincoln High School. “The idea was to create a high-tension, terrifying situation – and in doing so, to lift the veil from difficult subject matter,” Zrebski writes in his production notes for the play’s most recent and perhaps ultimate incarnation, which attaches the words “an a cappella musical thriller” below the title.

The subtitle isn’t kidding. Other than a bit of percussive sound here and there, the entire play is sung in pop-operatic style, without instrumental accompaniment, by 24 young performers. Everything’s either song or recitative, except for some short and welcome breaks of spoken dialogue from the four actors playing “The Watchers,” a sort of high-school Greek chorus that frets over the play’s frenetic action. The original production wasn’t a musical. “Ablaze” became one later on, in a further development workshop with students from Wilson High School (some of them are in the current cast). Now, after a run in last year’s Fertile Grounds new-works festival that generated a lot of buzz, it’s reached the stage of the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, where Zrebski and the musical-theater production company Staged! have brought things to a spectacular boil. The kids in the cast – most are in high school; the oldest is a recent college grad ­– have the vocal chops, and they move like a single leaping flame through choreographer Jessica Wallenfel’s vivid and complex movement patterns. (The 12-member dance team, costumed in flame-like appendages, is referred to simply as “The Fire.”) Whatever you think of the music or plot, you might not see a more earnest and committed show all season.

But what’s “Ablaze” about? In the end, it seems more about a feeling, an intense group emotional passage, than anything particularly narrative, and that’s why turning it into an extended musical work makes good sense. “Ablaze” is more mood than story. A group of high-school kids is lured to the abandoned grounds of an old school, where somehow they’re trapped in the smoldering underground and held hostage for 19 days. Who’s holding them and watching them? Why? The answers burst out eventually, if a little confusingly, but they really aren’t the point. A little like the station in William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” the hidey hole in “Ablaze” exists mainly as a psychological and emotional testing ground for the people stuck there. If Inge’s sensitive American realism is amped up in “Ablaze” with a heavy dose of modern horror-movie paranoia – well, this is a play about teens and their hopes and fears, after all.

Watching and listening to this fresh-scrubbed production, it struck me that Zrebski has created a musical-theater version of a YA novel, and that could be a good thing: right now the young-adult market is the hottest thing on literary wheels. YA is where traditional kids-lit falls away and the urgent pump of estrogen and testosterone takes over. A lot of YA books read, almost literally, like a fever, and that’s what Zrebski’s injected into “Ablaze.” There’s the nominal thriller-mystery. Beyond that, there are urgent teen issues ranging from pregnancy to popularity to geekiness to being gay.

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of through-sung musicals – I prefer a little breathing space, and a little interplay between plot and music – but these days they’re the way of the musical-theater world. To my mind it’s a rare pop score that can manage the weight and sophistication that allows opera to be sung through successfully, and besides, good dialogue can provide both cleverness and insight to a play. Something gets lost when everything’s told through music, especially when overamplification so often drowns out the lyrics that are supposed to be telling the tale. Partly because there is no band, that’s not a problem in “Ablaze.” Zrebski’s lyrics can sometimes feel a little forced, as if they’re searching desperately for the right rhyme and not quite finding it, but they come across crisply and clearly, and in the main they do the job well. And his songs have a nice pop lyricism and a natural-sounding way with a hook: this is a legitimate musical-theater score. Musical director Eric Nordin has done an excellent job of keeping all of it focused and pushing forward.

It’s a little tough to pick standouts in what’s truly an ensemble show, but Christopher James as sensitive Saul, Jessica Tidd as tough Tess, Austin Mahar as Chaz, and Charlotte Karlsen as Cassie do a fair amount of burning. “Ablaze” isn’t really meant for me, and may or may not be meant for you, and that’s perfectly all right. It’s not a grown-up play: that is, it lacks subtlety and analytic detachment. But that can just as easily be an advantage for an audience looking to immerse itself in pure feeling. “Ablaze” obviously connects deeply – enthrallingly, on the evidence of the night I saw it – with its intended audience, which experienced something fresh and personal and appealing. I tip my geezerly hat to that.

NOTES:

  • “Ablaze” continues Thursdays-Sundays through May 5 in the Brunish Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Ticket information here.
  • Kaitie Todd’s review for Willamette Week is here.
  • Holly Johnson’s review for The Oregonian is here.

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