political theater

‘God’ lends a hand to Newport theater drive

Ed Asner stars in "God Help Us!," a fundraising political comedy scheduled for August

What started out as a plea for cash has turned into what likely will be the biggest draw at the Newport Performing Arts Center this summer.

It’s a play called God Help Us!,  and playing the title role is the actor with more Emmys — seven — than any other male performer. You may know him best as Lou Grant, the ornery TV news director with a soft spot for Mary. Yep, that would be Ed Asner.

Here’s how it happened.

For the past seven years, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts has been raising money for its seven-phase capital campaign to expand and improve the Newport Performing Arts Center. That campaign is in the final stage, with efforts to transform the former Black Box Theater. The Black Box originally was designed as rehearsal space, morphed into a small theater, and recently was renamed for the late David Ogden Stiers. Improvements totaling $1.6 million will make it a fully functioning theater.

Ed Asner as God judges a debate in purgatory between a former couple — one liberal, one conservative — in the political comedy “God Help Us!”

Charged with figuring out how to raise the money, Andrea Spirtos, capital campaign consultant for the council, got her hands on an extensive resume of Stiers’ work. Stiers was a Newport resident and actor best known for his role as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H.

“It included all the shows he was on,” Spirtos said. “And then I researched each of those shows to find out which episode he was on and which actors would have been filmed with him, including what lines he may have said surrounding his appearance.”

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Dreaming about ‘Tomorrow’

Boom Arts 8: The New York ensemble The TEAM talks about "Tomorrow Will Be ...," its new, made-in-Portland show, playing Friday-Saturday

The three members of the New York theater ensemble the TEAM don’t call Tomorrow Will Be…, which they’ll present Friday and Saturday in Portland at Boom Arts, a show. “I feel weird calling it one thing,” says Zhailon Levingston. “A person who is looking for a one-sentence description might need to take a leap of faith.”

Tomorrow is also a switch in plans. Originally TEAM was going to present Primer for a Failed Superpower, an all-ages community concert featuring a multigenerational group of singers performing new arrangements of classic protest songs, for the last show of Boom Arts’ season. But early this year the company announced that TEAM would be presenting a new work, Tomorrow Will Be….

The “Tomorrow Will Be …” team, clockwise from top left: Zhailon Levingston, Orion Johnstone, Nehemiah Luckett, Ben Landsverk.

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Boom! Arts from the edge

Boom Arts scans the globe for performances that challenge audiences to take on new perspectives. Next up: Penny Arcade; a gallery fete.

Essay and photos by FRIDERIKE HEUER

In times of political change and upheaval the arts often undergo a paradigm shift. New ways of representing the world or challenging the status quo rise out of despair or are driven by hope. This is true for the visual arts but perhaps even more so for theater. In Germany, my country of origin, for example, the era between the two world wars saw an enormous shift towards the use of theater as an instrument for social change. Famous innovators like Erwin Piscator and his Proletarian Theatre envisioned performances that would make people more thoughtful, and help them consider their social environment more critically. Live performance would encourage members of the public to analyze what was going on around them rather than making them react purely emotionally to a particularly beautifully written or produced play. In Piscator’s eyes the purpose of theater was to tell the truth and awaken consciousness for the truth in the audience, which might pave the way towards political action.

Piscator’s productions, which influenced his eventually much more famous compatriot and colleague Berthold Brecht, were geared toward audience involvement: He hoped for a modified version of the ancient model of the Greek stage and its public, making theater once again central to community life. His working-class actors often played without a stage, costumes or lighting, in neighborhood meeting halls or industrial barracks, encouraging conversation with the audience. His politics did not sit well with the rising totalitarian regime, and he eventually fled into exile, working, among other things, at the New School for Social Research in New York before eventually returning to Germany after the war.

Ruth Wikler-Luker

I was reminded of all this because I sat down with Ruth Wikler-Luker recently for a conversation about Boom Arts, the performing arts organization she founded in Portland about six years ago. I have been volunteering to photograph for Boom Arts for a number of those years, but had never had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the organization and its producer in more detail.

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The significance of ‘Insignificance’

Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio walk into a hotel room. Defunkt Theatre seeks big ideas in a 1982 play.

History repeats. Leaders consolidate power until they lose it all. New scientific discoveries overturn the way we look at the world and then become taken for granted. Society claims progress for women while still treating them as objects. We see these patterns but never really seem to learn how to avoid them. Defunkt Theatre opens its season looking back at our own history with Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance.

Set in a hotel room in 1950s New York, the show centers on four of the most iconic characters of the era: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio. Due to liberties Johnson takes with history the characters are referred to simply as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator, and The Ballplayer. While they are ostensibly the historical figures they represent, they are also ciphers for Johnson’s exploration of politics, celebrity, and science.

Tabitha Trosen as The Actress, Gary Powell as The Professor. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Insignificance is a show about ideas. The light plot revolves around The Professor (Gary Powell), beset on one side by the anti-Communist Senator (Nathan Dunkin) and on the other be the advances of The Actress (Tabitha Trosen).

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Revenge tragedy, political farce

The Public Theatre kills off a Trump-like Julius Caesar, and the outrage flies. What happens when theater and politics clash.

It’s the murder heard ’round the Web. Stab-stab-stab, and the emperor’s dead. Across vast stretches of Blue America, a metaphorical wish has been fulfilled. And lo, a righteous and avenging fury has swept across the nation from stage right, and the shouting heads have shouted ’til they’re blue in the face, and the mighty money spigot has cranked shut. New York’s Public Theatre has done the unthinkable in its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. It’s dressed up JC to look like Donald Trump, and allowed the assassination to go on (quite explicitly, according to the reviews), and the play to proceed to the perpetrators’ plummet from the heights, felled by the hubris of their own violent act.

The cultural world is unlikely to have a flashier flash point this summer, although considering the political craziness of the moment, all bets are off. A production of a classic play about politics has itself entered the political theater, where the stakes are higher and the action’s vastly more ruthless. It’s at once a tragedy and a farce, on a level that The Public’s director Oskar Eustis might not have anticipated, even though he courted the controversy.

“Murder of Caesar,” Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas, Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany

Agitators have rushed the stage and disrupted several performances, loudly shouting canned slogans: “Liberal hate kills!” “Goebbels will be proud!” “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands!” (This is the same Steve Scalise, shot at baseball practice by a looney who had also been a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has proudly touted his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.) One such interruption came from an “investigative journalist” and right-wing operator named Laura Loomer, whom up to that point I had had the extreme pleasure of never having heard. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she shouted, perhaps in defense of the candidate of the right who suggested that his loyal Second Amendment supporters might have a solution to the distressing outrages of his liberal election opponent. Corporate sponsors Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, aghast at the thought that their feel-good marketing support of free theater in the park might make them targets of a backlash that could cost them business, promptly withdrew their backing – and in the process, created a backlash to the backlash that almost certainly will cost them business. Shakespeare festivals across the country (including Oregon’s in Ashland) that had nothing to do with The Public or its Julius Caesar drew vitriolic complaints and even, in some cases, threats of violence from an aroused right-wing faithful. It all made, if nothing else, for “good TV.”

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Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.

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Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:

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Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

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