Michael Elich

The guitar strings at midnight

Death-metal music amid a quiet coup shapes a "Hamlet" on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage

By SUZI STEFFEN

ASHLAND – Every production of Hamlet that theater fans see is strengthened by the one before it. Or maybe it’s complicated by the previous one – or is it just affected? Even non-Shakespeare fans or non-Hamlet addicts know many of the play’s words in snatches, in pieces of lines that we all say, not needing the origin story of “to sleep, perchance to dream” or “sweets to the sweet.”

Add in the past few decades of contemporary theater and digital narratives: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet, Fortinbras, that “more ketchup!” scene from Grease II, The Lion King, the first seven episodes of the (deservedly legendary) Canadian show Slings and Arrows, not to mention a zombie Hamlet or two and the many movies of the play itself, and you’ve got cultural freight that looms around any major English-language production.

(Spoiler alert: Hamlet has a relatively high body count, which I’ll be discussing in the review, along with a few other plot points. If Hamlet’s plot is something you don’t want to know before you see the show, please wait until after you see it to read this.)

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) greets his friends Rosenkrantz (Dylan Paul) and Guildenstern (Cedric Lamar). Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

At this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet, there’s an added challenge, common to summer Shakespeare festivals everywhere: Creating a meaningful, tight Hamlet in the airy beauty of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Hamlet is an intimate court play, a two-family tragedy that has an impact on an entire region. Director Lisa Peterson and sound designer/co-composer Paul James Prendergast deal with these questions, and the specific design options of the space, by employing a guitarist and musical collaborator to set what this year’s Hamlet, Danforth Comins, called “an aural soundscape” for the play.

Continues…

At Artists Rep, ‘The Price’ is right

Arthur Miller's old-fashioned American realist drama bridges the decades and makes itself unsettlingly at home in today's culture

Watching Artists Rep’s finely pitched new production of Arthur Miller’s play The Price is like listening to a classic piece of chamber music you haven’t heard in a long time: four voices, integrated yet distinct, rising and falling and weaving, sometimes in harmony, sometimes strikingly dissonant, each voice surging into the lead, then receding, in a constant interplay. It’s a welcome reminder of the beauties of the mid-20th century American realist theater, those works from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by the likes of Miller, Tennessee Williams (whose Suddenly, Last Summer has also just opened in town, at Shaking the Tree), Lillian Hellman, William Inge, the latecomer Edward Albee and the like, each drawing in his or her own way from the pattern set by Eugene O’Neill. As different from one another as they were alike, these writers nevertheless shared some crucial qualities. Shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, they were engaged socially, concerned with the links between private and public behavior: “Mendacity!,” Big Daddy’s roar in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might have been a unifying cry. They believed in the lyrical and persuasive power of language. And they made well-crafted plays, dramas that were structured to seem inevitable both emotionally and theatrically.

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

The Price, whose title is meant both literally and metaphorically, arrived a little later than Miller’s run of great plays, opening on Broadway in 1968. It lost that season’s Tony Award to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps signaling a shift in public appetite toward a brighter, more playful and irreverent style of show. Stoppard, Pinter, Shepard and others still knew their Greeks, who were essential to O’Neill and the post-O’Neill generation, but they were tipping toward postmodernism: rearranging the pieces, joking with the verities, dabbling in creative destruction. The Price still has a ’50s earnestness in its voice, that sense that every thought and action has intense moral significance. It’s a play of slightly before its time, and as I watched the four fine actors at Artists Rep I was aware that (a) I was watching a period piece, and (b) it was a thrilling experience. Good theater can fuse the past and present into a vital contemporary moment.

The play is something like a Bartók quartet, an immersion into intimate dissonance, in which clashing ideas are bound into an exciting tension tinged with sadness, and resolutions are fleeting but profound. It opens in a well-worn New York walkup apartment, stuffed with furniture from an earlier age (the set is by Jack O’Brien), the muted bleats of city traffic (sound by Sharath Patel) seeping in from the outside world. Victor Franz (Michael Elich), a lean and tired-looking New York cop, walks in, looks around, cranks an old Victrola, puts on a comedy record that consists of peals of laughter. He’s soon joined by his wife, Esther (Linda Alper), wearing a stylish dress suit that looks like one of Nancy Reagan’s (costumes by Alison Heryer) and an air of exasperation. We’ve dropped in on an old argument, a long-brewing disappointment; years of affection and regret underlie a conversation we know is intense, even if we’re not sure immediately what it’s all about. Soon enough, we learn it’s about money: at long last Victor’s getting ready to sell off the contents of his dead parents’ apartment, and Esther, who is tired of living on a policeman’s pay, dearly hopes he’ll push for a good price. She wants some nice things and freedom from worry. Victor, who believes he could have been a big man in science if he hadn’t left college to care for his father, wants his pride.

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Victor and Esther are joined by the booming brass presence of Gregory Solomon (Joseph Costa), an almost nonagenarian furniture appraiser and dealer, who wheezes up the stairway with an air of bumptious authority and a briefcase packed with snacks. Solomon knows the business; Solomon knows about people; Solomon wants to cut a deal. And just about when things are settled, in walks the fourth member of this dissonant quartet: Walter Franz (Michael Mendelson), Victor’s ultra-successful doctor brother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 16 years, and whom Victor blames for the way his life went sour. Walter has a deal to offer, too, a plan that would pad the price considerably.

Miller’s setup is expert, his balancing of the economic and emotional scales keen. Prices, as it turns out, aren’t always measured in coin, and a modest cost in capital terms might be a very steep one in morality and pride. Things get knotted up, and some things don’t show up on the balance sheet. From this point, it’s up to the director and actors to carry the play, and Artists Rep’s ensemble, directed sensitively by Adriana Baer, does it beautifully.

A huge amount of experience is on this stage, and the sum for the audience is an uncommon amount of pleasure: these are four veteran actors who’ve been around, and grown, and ripened well, and know how to burrow deeply inside a role and play it full. Elich carries a slump of anger and repressed pride to go with Victor’s genuine sense of righteousness. Alper is somehow sharp and soft at once, warm and capable and just about an inch from an explosion. Mendelson, who grows ever more graceful with age, is surprisingly embracing in what could be (but is definitely not here) a cool and curdling role. And Costa dances just this side of caricature as Solomon without ever crossing the line: a bit of a shaman, a bit of a snake-oil salesman, a bit of a Borscht Belt comic, a bit of a chastened and lonely ancient man, the unlikely and exuberant outsider straw that stirs this volatile family drink.

This is Victor’s story, in the end, his discoveries and decisions to be made, and as the play ends it’s uncertain what price he has and hasn’t paid; what’s he’s cost himself and what he’s gained. The composition concludes with more dissonance than resolution, and strangely, that feels right: something deep has happened. The questions hover, and do not settle. Victor, and Arthur Miller, and this production, ask: What matters? What is the truth? What should be done? In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.

*

The Price continues at Artists Rep through April 26. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Hyphenventilating over ‘The Monster-Builder’

Amy Freed's world-premiere comedy at Artists Rep brings a little Babel to the world of starchitects

In language as in architecture, details count. So let’s consider the hyphen. Amy Freed titled her newest play, which received its world-premiere performance Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, The Monster-Builder. What does that lowly building-block of a connective marker mean to the meaning of the title? Is the builder a monster builder – a monstrous example of the art and craft of designing buildings – or is he, in fact, a monster-builder: a designer who creates monsters; a modern Frankenstein? And if he is a Frankenstein of architects, just who or what are his monsters: the arrogant buildings that he foists upon the world, or the architect-acolytes he lures into his orbit?

Elich and Tigard, master and acolyte. Photo

Elich and Tigard, self-admirer and admirer. Photo: Owen Carey

Such questions buzz beneath the surface of Freed’s comedy like the unseen worker bees in a starchitect’s office. The Monster-Builder gives star billing to its audaciously egotistical title character, the internationally famous architect Gregor Zubrowski. Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Michael Elich, as thin and muscular and seductively uncomfortable as a Frank Lloyd Wright built-in chair, digs into the role with the mustache-twirling glee of a melodrama villain (“You must pay the rent!”) or a magical-elixir salesman or Don Juan or the Phantom of the Opera or Old Scratch himself. Each time you think he’s stretched his exaggerations as far as they can possibly go, he smiles and preens and stretches them a little farther yet.

Freed’s setup and plotting, which rely deliciously on the conveniences of coincidence, begin with the idealistic preservationist plans of a young married architect team, Rita (Allison Tigard) and Dieter (Gavin Hoffman), who hope to revive a decrepit old masterwork in a park and restore it as a “third place” stand-in for the old public Commons: a place for the people to call their own. The tale continues with Rita’s old college roommate Tamsin (Bhama Roget), a Judy Holliday type who happens to be Gregor’s latest girl toy; and a wealthy-climber client, Pamela (Robin Goodrin Nordli) who drags her savvy-cowboy husband Andy (Don Alder) and his hefty wallet along on all of her shopping sprees, which include, among other things, the design for a grand new house. When Gregor catches the scent of the preservation project in the park, and of Rita’s buried ambitions, the crosses are doubled, the hunt is on, and the fun begins.

Architects have taken something of a beating in literature and the theater, and Freed, the author of such appealing earlier plays as Restoration Comedy, The Beard of Avon, and Freedomland, gleefully joins the pile-on. In The Master Builder, the play whose title Freed’s own suggests, Ibsen’s Halvard Solness climbs too high and takes a fatal tumble. The Pritzker Prize-winning hero of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? hides a disastrously keen affection for a compliant four-legged friend (his appetite has nothing to do with chevre). And the less said about Howard Roark, the heroically individualist architect-hero of Ayn Rand’s breathlessly silly novel The Fountainhead, the better, except perhaps to note that Freed turns the tables on Rand: Gregor is Roark triumphant, his powerful traditionalist enemies turned into weaklings scrambling for crumbs. Similar stories play out in real life. Calatrava’s buildings-as-sculptures leak. The Museum of Modern Art demolishes and eats up its quieter and more subtle neighbor. Grand concert halls sprout mouse-ears to please their patrons. Billionaires commission bulging museum buildings that feel like fuzz pedals from ground level and look like electric guitars from above. Desert monarchies sprout dizzying towers that brag like Ozymandias. Urban-renewal “affordable housing” projects look like flimsy shoe boxes jammed together with no imagination and no breathing room. Even in a city like Portland, which prides itself on its street-level, people-oriented design and planning, the blend of power, money, and design that shapes the way we live has resulted in the mowing-down of vital neighborhoods for freeways, hospitals, shopping centers, upper-middle-class enclaves, and vague plans. (August Wilson’s Jitney, now at Portland Playhouse, also touches on some of these issues.) The city fell prey to the architecture-as-statement bug with Michael Graves’s notorious Portland Building (many of whose problems, to be fair, spring from the city’s cheapskate budget for the thing). And the idea of the Commons, which has become almost quaint in the four centuries since England began to pass its Inclosure Acts, has been muddied further by massive public projects such as Baron Haussmann’s 19th century razing and reinvention of massive stretches of Paris, and by the development deals that seem to be partly behind the Christie administration’s lane-closure scandal in New Jersey.

But traditions do change, and as the world’s population explodes, change becomes  necessary. The questions are, what and how? And are starchitects the best people to carry it out? Fashion often determines who’s in and who’s out. England’s Prince Charles, a stout defender of architectural traditionalism (and among other things, organic farming), is derided in more sophisticated circles as a sentimentalist fool. Meanwhile, as lines get plainer and spaces starker, the people who actually live and work in buildings hold firm to the belief that a little grace and decoration feed the soul. Whether they make the connection or not, they long for Brunelleschi’s dome and the classical curves and proportions of Palladio. Yet the honest desire for tradition and familiarity can slip easily into the excesses of the McMansion and the indulgences of the never-was, and on the rock of his derision for such populist desires, Gregor builds his foundation and rests his case. On the outskirts of my home town a developer has built a Thomas Kinkade stone cottage, a garishly picturesque fantasy on steroids, which he uses as a model for prospective buyers who would like their own little Kinkade dream on their own little plot of land.

So, yes. The architecture trade is rife for satire, and Freed has at it. She’s especially good at filleting the pompous and often empty language of the business: at times, The Monster-Builder sounds a bit like Yasmina Reza’s theatrical exploratory surgery of the contemporary art world, Art. There’s something birdlike in Freed’s peck-peck-pecking at the foibles and corruptions of the building trade. It’s a specific sort of bird: not a Wren (as in Christopher) but a lark – a goof, a folly, a giddy spiral that rises and rises, like a Tower of Babel on the wing, daring the gods to destroy it as it spins its brittle confectionery to an assertive and breezily ridiculous cloud of froth. It gradually becomes clear that, as serious as her reservations about the state of architecture may be, and as many valid questions about it as The Monster-Builder raises, Freed is using the architecture world as an attractive backdrop to the broader comic possibilities of greed, power, vanity, and sex.

You know from the git-go that The Monster-Builder is an artificial construction, about as far from good old American realism as you can get and still play to wide audiences. The actors come out clipped and coiffed and Kaufman/Ferberish, with the boldly striding movements and precise pronunciations of Dinner at Eight, or maybe a revival of Boeing Boeing. The set is all stark white angles and glass and parts that move by remote control, a gash of egotistical clarity against an island cliff: designer Tom Buderwitz makes it look a little like the bad guys’ gorgeous hideaway near Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.

Over-the-top melodrama, (literal) cliffhangers, some mystery, and a lot of crackling one-liners are laced through the play, and director Art Manke keeps it all rolling with a keen eye toward the timing and swiftness of farce. You could say the play promises more probing analysis of architectural issues than it delivers, but it’s a comedy, not an investigative essay in The Atlantic. The actors have a fine ensemble feel, each bringing a little different style of dish to the table, from Nordli’s wisecracking can-do whimsy to Roget’s moll moves to Alder’s bubble-bursting clods of practical dirt. And everybody seems to understand that Elich is the soloist, the virtuoso who gets to riff while the others keep the rhythm going. It’s a fun group of people to hang around with, as long as you don’t actually get caught up in their games or turned into their targets.

About that hyphen? See the show, and make the call for yourself. Either way, remember: monsters eat their young.

*

The Monster-Builder continues through March 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre, and is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works. Ticket and schedule information here.

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