Phillip J. Berns

Bleak and bristling: Post5’s ‘Lear’

Led by Tobias Andersen's perfectly balanced imbalanced king, a strong cast gets the new-look company's newest season off to a flying start

Over the last 55 years, King Lear has been staged more times than in the first 355 years after it was written. Much of the interest in Lear was revived by Peter Brooks’s 1971 film adaptation, which took a haunting look into politics, conflict, rivalry, and homelessness, and revealed an almost unbearable wasteland of emotion in the face of growing old. Before this landmark black-and-white film, Lear was, for the most part, too bleak for audiences in its original form. The ending was altered after Shakespeare’s death with a centuries-early Hollywood happy ending. No more of that.

Like the play itself, Post5 has been changing, but it still begins its new season with the Bard – and with a Lear to remember.

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Post5 Theatre photo

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tobias Andersen delivers his King Lear with a perfect balance of anger, regret, confusion, delirium, and torment. It takes stamina to bring this alive on stage. Andersen works into the monumental role with an even pacing that swings to a crescendo at the most important and famous of scenes, along with a few that are the focus of Post5’s production. He begins as an upright, square-shouldered regent. In the opening scene, when he asks his daughters who loves him the most, Andersen is severe with his demands. He has no grasp on the dominoes that begin to fall rapidly out of place. Andersen plays Lear as the real-life Celtic pagan king would have looked at the world, a victim of the fickle gods and circumstance. His descent into madness is less anxiety-provoking about how it will happen, and more the experience of watching a superb veteran actor unweave the tapestry of Lear’s mind.

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Post5’s ‘Equus’: ride alone

The company's stab at Peter Shaffer's drama about a boy who blinds horses and the man who tries to cure him gallops around the center of the play

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

Phillip J. Berns, as Alan Strang, a 17-year-old boy who’s committed a shocking act, appears onstage with heavy-lidded magenta rings under his eyes. His fragile, slumped, bone-figured shoulders are held in by the noose of his cardigan, whose threads weigh him down. He is defeated.

But then, so is every character in Post5 Theatre‘s new production of Peter Shaffer’s intense 1973 drama Equus. The needling curve of this psychological thriller creates a storytelling arch: Strang is defeated, but not broken. And as in a trial, the members of the audience become witness and judge, looking at their own futures and making a case.

Philip J. Berns as the troubled Alan Strang, with Todd Van Voris as Dysart and Jill Westerly Gonzales as Hester. Photo: Russell J Young

Phillip J. Berns as the troubled Alan Strang, with Todd Van Voris as Dysart and Jill Westerly Gonzales as Hester. Photo: Russell J Young

Post5 Theatre, where all of this is going down, has a reputation for taking a simple play and stacking it on its edges, putting an old guard in today’s features. Equus by any standard is well-written, its architecture harking to the Greeks and their chorus. While the roots of Shaffer’s play run deep, the production hinges on the fourth wall and breaking it: Equus is a psychological drama hell-bent for leather.

On a car ride in the early 1970s, Shaffer heard from a close friend the tale of a boy caught blinding horses with a metal spike in a stable in the English countryside. Fascinated, Shaffer set out to find the possible motivations behind this violent crime, from an armchair psychologist’s view.

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Acting in Yosemite 3: People

In his latest letter from paradise, Portland actor Phillips J. Berns considers the oddity of being surrounded by people while you get away from it all

[Editors’ note: Portland actor Phillip J. Berns has been spending the summer at Yosemite National Park, playing the title role in Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure, a kids’ show for visitors produced for the park by Portland-based Traveling Lantern Theater Company. He’s been filing reports to ArtsWatch on the astonishments of performing in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. This is his third letter home. Read Part One and Part Two as well.]

berns-yosemite

Photo courtesy of Yosemite National Park.

 

PEOPLE

BEING AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL EXAMINATION ALONG WITH AN UNFAIR ASSESSMENT of SOME HUMAN BEINGS IN YOSEMITE

“People are strange when you’re a stranger.” – The Doors

It’s an amazing juxtaposition, when you take the time to think about it, that this place that has been here for time unfathomable is constantly being swarmed by tourists who will be here for a few short days, or employees (like me), who will be here for a few shorter months. Like tides, people come and go to certain spots daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. And The Park, it remains more or less the same, changing imperceptibly with each tide of individual lives, just as those individual lives are changed ever so subtly by the intrinsic influence it carries.

The people of Yosemite fascinate me almost as much as the place itself. The tourists range from the entitled rich who have everything planned to the minute, guided tours each day (not too far, mind you), and dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel each night. To the families who have been coming here for years, always camping at the same site, and creating or continuing traditions that have lasted, and will last, generations. To the visitors from other countries, possibly visiting the United States for the first time, and choosing (wisely) to see its most beautiful parts. To the transient climbers and through-hikers, not truly guests of  The Park, but easygoing enough to make friends with employees equally transient in their lifestyles to let them crash in their tent for a few nights in exchange for some weed or a six-pack of beer.

The employees are equally varied in everything but age and feelings toward the tourists. For some reason, about half of the employees here are 24. Not 24-ish, 24. I suppose 24 is that sweet spot when you’ve been out of college for a few years, still restless and eager to explore the world, but not yet settled into a job that expects or even promises fidelity, so you think “I’m going to go to Yosemite for a while, see how that is.” Either that, or it’s just a weird coincidence. In any case, it takes a certain type of mindset to choose to work here. I’m in a fairly charmed position where I know where I’m coming from, and I know what I’ll be doing when I return there. Most of the people I’ve met, when asked, “How long you here?” will anwer, “Not sure.” Some have been here for years and will never leave, saying, “Not sure,” as in, “Not sure when I’m going to die so I can’t answer that silly question.” Some are running away from an unhealthy life, and are hoping to start anew. Some are simply trying to find themselves in Yosemite’s wilderness. And some are just true wanderers, never at home except on the road.

When you really think about it, it must take a certain type of personality to come to a place like Yosemite to work. Miles and miles from anything like a city, yet constantly being surrounded by strangers. I mean, most of the employees here serve (in some aspect or another) hundreds of people a day, thousands a week, and they will (almost) all tell you they are not here for the job, they are here to spend time away from people. It’s being surrounded by people who hate people being forced to work with people on a massive scale.

This is all, obviously, some enormous generalizing I’ve been doing here. I have met some really remarkable people and great friends who do not fit this mold in the least. Still, the most overheard conversation in employee common spaces is, by far, how awful the tourists are.

I, however, have no complaints. I’ve said often since I’ve been here and will tell you, dear reader, the same: I have the best job in The Park. I get to do what I love and make kids laugh in the most beautiful place I have ever been, or will likely ever be again. What an awesome experience. What a marvelous opportunity.

I will end this post on a rather sad note. I was informed today that Greg Tankersly, who played Bob in the Ranger Ned show for years, recently passed away. Although I never got to meet him in person, his enthusiasm and lust for life shone though over the phone, and is even more apparent in the lives he touched. Sleep well, Greg. The loss is being felt deeply here in Yosemite.

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KID QUOTE of THE WEEK!

CHILD (4 yrs.): When I was little, my dad had a beard, but now he doesn’t. I still like him though.

Acting in Yosemite: A Camp Diary from Phillip J. Berns

The Portland actor takes a gig playing a park ranger twice a day in a place where the star surrounds the stage

You might remember actor Phillip J. Berns from his one-man Christmas Carol, or from various shows at Post5 Theatre. And as you make the rounds to summer Shakespeare shows, you may even muse, “Where did that guy go?”

Well, funny story: the Portland-based but nationally active Traveling Lantern Theater Company has in its repertoire a show specifically written for, and exclusively performed at, Yosemite National Park. The interactive, all-ages show, Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure, revolves around a rookie ranger character. And…three guesses who got the gig.

Without further ado, ArtsWatch gets the field report from Phillip J. Berns.

Who has two suspenders and a summer acting job at Yosemite? This guy.

Guess who has two suspenders and a summer acting job at Yosemite? This guy.

STUPID BEAUTIFUL

BEING AN ACTOR’S ATTEMPT TO DESCRIBE THE INDESCRIBABLE, AND HOW IT AFFECTS HIS ART AND HIS LIFE

 

“Thou, Nature, art my Goddess…” King Lear I;ii;1

 

The first thing I feel I need to explain is the phrase, “Stupid Beautiful,” and what I mean by that. It’s not that Yosemite is so beautiful that it’s stupid, that its beauty shouldn’t be allowed in polite conversation or company. Nor do I mean stupid in the sense of simple, as in its beauty lives in its simple, natural state. While there is certainly truth to the latter statement, and even some in the former (I believe one of the first phrases out of my mouth upon rounding a bend to yet another breathtaking panorama of The Park was, “that’s absurd”), neither was the reason for this particular title. The phrase came to me when I started thinking about how the first glimpses of Yosemite affected me personally.

It’s a blessing and a curse, that most artists – and certainly most actors – have a hard time simply experiencing an experience, or an idea, or an emotion, before they start analyzing it, categorizing it, and locking it away for future use. Yosemite did not allow me to do that. Upon first view of its absolute Majesty and Granduer, I was stupefied. I felt as though I should say something, but I had no breath (much less the words) to express what I was feeling. I honestly stopped thinking and for a few, all-to-brief, beautiful moments, was simply experiencing. I was stupid. Not stupid in an ashamed, hang-my-head-for-I-am-not-worthy way, but stupid in an awe-struck, head-to-the-sky-in-wonder way. I felt as though I was truly part of something bigger, something infinitely important, just a very small part. The first sound I made after my initial stupification was a laugh, a laugh of pure wonderment and joy. I still find myself laughing like that from time to time when a new feature of The Park, or even when a new view of something I see every day strikes me in a particular way.

I realize that all of this must sound terribly hyperbolic, but that first glimpse of The Valley was the closest I have ever come to a religious experience.

For those who have never been to Yosemite, the one thing I must impress upon you is the sheer scale of the landscape. The Park itself is larger than the state of Rhode Island, and its features mirror its size. I believe Margaret Sanborn put it, if not best, than very aptly when she wrote:

Walling the valley are cliffs of gray granite, mountains,  infinitely varied in height and size, in form and character, and differing wholly one from another – some smooth and sheer, some intricately carved, some crowned with domes and spires; all are separated by wooded ravines or deep shadowy canyons threaded by streams and cascades.

– Yosemite: Its Discovery, Its Wonders, and Its People p.11

Even this, however, doesn’t come close to the experience of viewing El Capitan or Half Dome for the first time in person. Even famed photographer Ansel Adams could not truly capture the (again, literal) breathtaking beauty of The Park and its features, though he spent almost a lifetime trying to. I harp on this theme simply because it is imperative that you understand the backdrop I ma working with. My office for the next three months consists of North Dome almost directly upstage, Half Dome to my left, and Glacier point directly in front of me, not 200 yards behind the audience, always watching, and always (its hard not to feel) critiquing. In this sense, I feel I have the best, and harshest critics in the world.

Which, of course, brings me to the show, Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure. It is a wonderfully funny, accessible, and often poignant two-person script centered around Ranger Ned (my role) who finds himself having to give a presentation on his very first day as a Ranger when his boss and idol, the fictional Ranger Fred, is unable to make the show. Racked with nerves, Ned asks an audience member to assist him – the second player in the show – Bob, as well as a child volunteer who plays small rolls throughout (a thunder-sheet operator, a Sequoia sapling, a mule deer fawn, and a delightful John Muir, who echoes Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bully’s,”) to the audiences delight. The show runs about 45 minutes, the first two-thirds of which center around the history of Yosemite, and the final third with how to be a conscientious guest and how to be “bear-aware.”

As a performer, my experience thus far has been a mixed bag to say the least. Being a city-boy at heart, the transition to a much slower lifestyle, and focusing on one show (which we perform twice daily, five days a week) has been both a difficult and intensely rewarding one; my free-time spent hiking and climbing have been unnerving, challenging and whole lot of fun (more on those in future posts). In addition, our first Bob was unable to do the show this year due to medical reasons, throwing a huge wrench in the plans for the summer.

Traveling Lantern flew in a dear friend of mine (and Traveling Lantern stalwart), Sam Levi, to do the role for the first two weeks. Sam played Ranger Ned in 2012 and was, therefore, familiar with the script. I can’t imagine a better man to fill in during such a crisis. With only two days and one rehearsal to learn a completely new role, Sam not only stepped up, but also brought amazing choices to a part he had only ever seen. I first met Sam about six months ago when he Stage Managed Post5 Theatre’s (of which I am a proud Company Member) Tartuffe, and immediately took a liking to his enthusiasm, positivity, and professionalism. I recently saw Sam off, and to say he will be sorely missed would be a tragic understatement. You’ll be able to see Sam as one of the Octavius Caesars in Portland Actors Ensemble’s Antony & Cleopatra this summer.

To replace Sam as the part of Bob for the remainder of the summer is Mr. Murren Kennedy. Murren starts his second year at Portland Actor’s Conservatory this September and is a 6’ 2” tower of professionalism. After rehearsing a half-dozen times with Doren in Portland, seeing Sam’s final performance, and having one rehearsal in the park with K.B. and myself, he was able to both incorporate Sam’s choices (which had never previously seen), as well as bring new and exciting characters I had yet to see to the stage. I’m frightfully excited to see how we both grow as performers during the next three months, and how the show grows due to that personal growth. Lastly, I feel immensely blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people, landscape, and energy as I take this sabbatical from the city (for that is truly how I’m viewing this time), for having such a remarkable opportunity to reconnect with both nature and myself, and for knowing that when I arrive back in Portland, I’ll have a loving family of friends and colleagues to welcome me back.

I’ll see you all in September, until then, I remain,

Your humble fake Ranger,

Phillip J. Berns

 

KID QUOTE of the WEEK!

CHILD (to Sam, before they enter as Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir on hobby-horses): Wait! Shouldn’t I name my horse first?

SAM: How silly of me! Of course you should! What will you name it?

CHILD (after a moment of serious reflection): JuiceSparkle!

 

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Artists/performers, do you also have an out-of-town gig, residency, or position this summer? Feel free to share where you’re going and what you’re creating in the comments below.