Peggy Taphorn

DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

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The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

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Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

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“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

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The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

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Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

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

Still Dancing, Still the Queen

Broadway Rose's "Mamma Mia!" is a not-so-guilty pleasure

I was eating a veggie burger and chatting with two fellow journalists when the subject of guilty-pleasure music came up. This was a few weeks ago and for a moment, I debated whether I should reveal the truth. But eventually, I summoned the courage to say it. “I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure because I don’t feel guilty about it,” I told them, “but I love ABBA.”

I expected to be tossed from the room with French fries shoved up my nostrils. That didn’t happen. Instead, one of my friends simply said something along the lines of, “If you’re going to go for cheese, you may as well go for the king of cheese.”

Laura McCulloch, Peggy Taphorn, and Lisamarie Harrison in “Mamma Mia!” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

That sums it up for me. ABBA, the Swedish pop group of chart-topping, Broadway-busting fame, is fueled by giddy electronic beats and a feverish sentimentality that makes their songs easy to mock—and makes them a giddy joy. It’s addictive music, but it’s more than that. It’s a sound that reverberates with contagious glee and romance, making you think of swirling disco balls, heartache, Molly Ringwald, and prom night.

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West Side Story: the memory lingers on

Broadway Rose's vibrant production captures the up-to-date thrills and issues of a 60-year-old American musical classic

In 1957 theater critic Walter Kerr wrote this famous opening line: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”

West Side Story lost out in awards that year to the equally iconic piece of American pie known as The Music Man, but West Side Story was a nutshell of figures, issues, and culture that would come to dominate the stage and set the bar for what audiences would expect in performances for the next few decades.

Broadway Rose is taking on Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins this summer, first with its production of West Side Story, running through July 24, then with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Aug. 2-24. Robbins choreographed and directed West Side Story, which was Sondheim’s Broadway breakthrough show, as lyricist; Leonard Bernstein composed the score. Forum was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose's "West Side Story." Photo: Liz Wade

Austin Arizpe and Kayla Dixon in Broadway Rose’s “West Side Story.” Photo: Liz Wade

Director Peggy Taphorn and company have brought this latest West Side Story to life with sparkling energy and freshness, immersing the audience once again in the thrills and charms of a genuine classic. Far from being an antique, this landmark musical is a show whose images and issues are with us every day, and Broadway Rose’s production plays them out with thrilling intensity.

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West Side Story is now an American legend that touches almost all of us. It carries its own particular American story, and we have stories about it: every time we see the show again, we bring the stories with us into the theater seats.

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America, America: ‘Carousel’ and ‘Best Little Whorehouse’

A pair of summer musical entertainments at Clackamas Rep and Broadway Rose reflect today's headlines

“Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress,” Charles M. Blow wrote in a Monday op-ed piece in the New York Times bemoaning the simultaneous shenanigans and torpor of the current do-nothing Congress. “Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

As it happens, I read Blow’s depressingly rational screed the morning after catching that grand old flimflam of a musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Broadway Rose, and I couldn’t help thinking, What else is new?

The women's chorus in "Best Little Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The women’s chorus in “Best Little Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse first opened on Broadway in 1978, and is based loosely on real events a few years earlier when a crusading television reporter started a campaign that finally shut the doors of the Chicken Ranch, a century-old institution of widely if reluctantly tolerated repute outside the rural town of LaGrange, Texas. The resulting political fallout, at least in the fictionalized version onstage, is less a matter of actuality than of appearances, which in the topsy-turvy world of politics have a way of becoming reality. Life has been rolling along pretty much as humanly usual, with most of the human appetites being accommodated in some sort of agreed-upon manner closely associated to a wink and a nod and a turning of official heads in the opposite direction. But times are changing. Raise enough of a stink and eventually someone’ll be forced to do something about it, not so much to stop the stink as to stop the noise and keep the incumbents safely in office.

Whorehouse isn’t the best musical to come roaring down the two-lane blacktop of rural Americana, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well, and as I hadn’t seen it in a number of years I was happy to make its acquaintance again, especially in this agreeable production directed (as was Broadway Rose’s pert and winning revival of The Music Man earlier in the summer) by the stage-smart Peggy Taphorn. Like most musical comedies it’s really mostly about its surfaces, but it does make a difference what’s underneath, and Whorehouse survives partly because its book latches onto some enduring American themes: a strong libertarian bent, an equally strong moralistic fervor, a thirst for fame and power and the various pleasures of the flesh, and the destruction derby that occurs when the soft tissue of human desire meets the driving metal of religious extremism and unshackled careerism. The resulting ruckus brings to mind such political and religious fast-shuffle hall of famers as Wilbur Mills and Lyndon Johnson and Aimee Semple McPherson, and the shenanigans of such latter-day politician/entertainer/perpetrator/scolds as Michele Bachmann, Elliott Spitzer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Weiner, Glenn Beck, and that comeback champ Newt Gingrich. Ooh, they love to do the little sidestep: It’s like watching Molière performed on a pedal steel guitar.

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