Sam Shepard

Letter from NY: Broadway report

What's been lighting the lights on the Great White Way? A Choir Boy, a Mockingbird, Sam Shepard, and a Prom.

By MISHA BERSON

NEW YORK – Somewhere between the dead of winter and the rebirth of spring, Broadway takes a breath. It’s before a stream of shows hoping to vie for Tony Awards take up residence near Times Square.  And it’s after a lot of productions, including really great stuff like last year’s Tony Award for best original musical, The Band’s Visit, prepare to depart.

Yet for a Broadway-bound visitor to New York there is still enough to attract your attendance, if you choose wisely.

During a recent East Coast journey I was able to put together a smorgasbord of shows that included a riveting contemporary drama,  an engrossing play revival, a play based on an American literary classic and – oh, right – a new musical.  (And it wasn’t Cher.)  I watched several screen stars in live action, revisited an old favorite script, and witnessed the flowering of a young African-American writer who is helping revitalize serious American drama on Broadway.

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Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy.” Photo: Matthew Murphey

LET’S START WITH THAT LAST ONE: Choir Boy, by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. Though it debuted Off Broadway in 2013, this adrenalin- and music-fueled play set in a black all-male prep school made its Broadway debut only this year, after some revision.  If its author sounds familiar, maybe that’s because McCraney collected an Oscar for his screenplay for the valuable film Moonlight. He also wrote the touted new Netflix baseball drama High Flying Bird.

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A dozen great reads from 2017

From a Lewis Carroll lark to a rambling Road Dog to a play about a baby to art out of ocean garbage, twelve ArtsWatch stories not to miss

A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.

We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.

 


 

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A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:

 

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

We’re all mad here … so let’s party

Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Defying disaster

Anonymous Theatre beats the odds, Brett Campbell picks the top music of the week, pick of the weekend fests, Ashland shakes it up, more

It was theater. It was comedy. It was song and dance. And from the reaction of the audience at Monday night’s performance of Urinetown by Anonymous Theatre Company, it was sports all the way. The sold-out crowd in the mainstage auditorium at The Armory clapped and roared and hollered, cheering loudly every time an actor rose from among the audience, shouted out a line of dialogue, and hustled up to the stage to play ball with the rest of the cast. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff, a little like watching game seven of the NBA championships with the outcome still on the line.

Chrisse Roccaro as Penny collars Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as Hope in Anonymous’s “Urinetown.” Photo: Sydney Kennedy

If you were there Monday night – and more than 500 people were – you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t … well, you just sat out the season. This one’s done and gone. Anonymous is called Anonymous for good reason. In this annual highlight of the theater calendar, none of the actors knows who any of the other actors are until they meet onstage; everyone rehearses in isolation; the culminating performance is a one-and-done: one dangerous shoot-the-moon evening, and that’s all she wrote. In Who’s on first? Anonymously yours, ArtsWatch wrote about the preparations for this year’s show.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: ice, ice, baby

Your guide to staying culturally cool while the heat wave shimmers

As Cole Porter put it in his musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate, it’s Too Darn Hot. Maybe not quite, in the words of another musical-theater chestnut, 110 in the Shade. But, well, shading perilously close to it. How hot is it? So hot that the Northwest Film Center’s breezy Top Down: Rooftop Cinema series, which usually screens al fresco atop the parking garage of the Hotel DeLuxe, is moving indoors this week to the cool and comfy Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne will be heating up the screen, but not the air temp, on Thursday evening in the 1937 screwball comedy classic The Awful Truth. Museums, as you know, are carefully temperature-controlled to protect the artwork from the elements. Just chill.

As a public service on this hottest week of the year, ArtsWatch Weekly brings you this cooling image by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “The Sea of Ice” or “The Polar Sea.” We will not mention the painting’s third alternate title, “The Wreck of Hope,” which refers to the ship crashed among the floes, not the rising temperature. 1823/24. oil on canvas, 50 x 38.1 inches, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany.

 


 

COMING UP THIS WEEK:

First Thursday. Portland’s monthly gallery walk is this week, with most openings on Thursday and a few scattered on other days. Among the many exhibitions opening, we have an eye on veteran historical illusionist Sherrie Wolf’s new show Postcards from Paris, which includes paintings of postcards of paintings in still life settings, at Russo Lee; Sara Siestreem’s new show of paintings equidistant, at Augen; Butters Gallery’s 29th anniversary group exhibit; and Blackfish Gallery’s We the People, a “participatory installation” by thirty Blackfish artists and others.

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Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.

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Bats in the belfry: ‘True West,’ ‘Fledermaus’

Shepard's play and Strauss's operetta bat around ideas about passion and rationality. Oh: and 'Fledermaus' sings, too.

It’s a batty sort of show, Sam Shepard’s True West, and I mean that in the best possible way: a loony surreal flight in the night, a mighty swing of the situational bat, a whack upside your headbone hard enough to take your breath away – as happens to brother Lee, although the choking mechanism’s an old-fashioned telephone cord, not a bat.

Profile Theatre’s new production of Shepard’s swift 1980 cage fight of a play is a fitting capper for its season of Shepard plays, which gives way come January to a fresh season of plays by Sarah Ruhl (Dead Man’s Cell Phone; In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play; Passion Play; Orlando).

Ferrucci and Newman in "True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

Ferrucci and Newman in “True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

But first, True West. In spite of a couple of anachronisms – that wall phone, a manual typewriter that gets bashed within a keystroke of its life with a golf club – Shepard’s viciously comic tall tale holds up well, because its truculent heart is pretty much timeless: brawling brothers, as old as Cain and Abel; intellect versus instinct, as old as humanity itself. Shepard’s tinkered with these themes throughout his career, from his early experimental plays to his mature family dramas and in-between projects such as 1972’s musical horn-locker The Tooth of Crime, which in certain ways feels like a primer for True West.

Adriana Baer directs Profile’s True West with an eye for its swaggering comedy and a major assist from fight choreographer Kristen Mun, who knows a body tackle from a headlock and isn’t afraid to let the plates and foodstuffs fly. The tale is elemental: reason versus passion, or, in ring terms, boxer versus slugger. Austin (a nicely clipped and eventually unraveling Nick Ferrucci) is an aspiring screenwriter, an Ivy League grad with a deal he’s close to sealing as he bats away at a final draft in his absent mother’s home in Southern California, near the desert, where the coyotes yap in the breeze. Trouble is, his shiftless brother Lee (Ben Newman, all reflex and ooze) has shown up unannounced, hellbent on casing Mom’s neighborhood for a few easily snatchable TVs to fence, and pretty much throwing Austin completely off his game.

At first the brothers merely annoy each other: competing and divergent chips off the same block. That changes when the movie agent Saul shows up (Duffy Epstein, in a broadly funny performance dripping with SoCal charm and smarm), ready to ink the deal with Austin until Lee horns in, spinning an outrageous tale about “two lamebrains chasing each other across Texas,” and Saul does a one-eighty. He always goes with his gut, he says. Suddenly Lee’s in, and Austin’s out in the cold.

You can read this tale a lot of ways, and I like to think it has something to do with the creative process: Austin the craftsman, the careful builder, the rationalist, the erudite smith who knows how to put things together; Lee the wild man, the imaginative dreamer, the guy who picks something elemental out of the ether and follows it where it dangerously leads. The two detest each other, and they need each other, because art requires both wildness and craftsmanship: complementary sides of an uncomfortable whole. Like Harold Pinter in pretty much all of his plays, and John Fowles in his novel The Magus, Shepard eschews the notion of the elevating “niceness” of art, arguing instead for something more basic, and roiling, and awe-ful: art as terror, perhaps, but also art as necessary expression of the duality of the human beast.

With Alan Schwanke’s open yet intimate set, Sara Ludeman’s sly costumes (check out Epstein’s Vegas cocktail-bar duds) and Shareth Patel’s yawping, chittering sound design, Profile’s True West looks and sounds good. Dad’s an unseen character, referred to repeatedly in absentia, a drunken wastrel whose impact on his sons remains intense, if in very differing ways. And Mom (Diane Kondrat) shows up late in the game, acting somewhere between befuddlement and pure matter-of-fact.

I’ve seen more psychologically vicious productions of the play. In spite of the strenuous calisthenics, there’s an amiability to this one: neither brother seems truly bent on killing the other. Like Oedipus and his dad, Lee and Austin never quite figure out they’re in this thing together. But they do feel the stirring of a common blood: they lack the viciousness for that final killer blow. If you consider the play as a tall tale, an eternal playing-out of the struggle between reason and the heavy bear who goes with it, that works: same song, billionth verse. And as it’s a song close to the mysterious heart of the human predicament, we sing it over and over again.

Profile Theatre’s True West continues through November 23 in the company’s home space at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Cat and mouse in "Bat": Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on  Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

Cat and mouse in “Bat”: Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

The bat gets the title in Die Fledermaus, although it takes a few tortuous twists of the plot to figure out why: It goes back to a practical joke in which the victim, who was left drunk in the town center, dressed as a bat, is taking a Byzanfiendishly plotted revenge on the perpetrator. If by chance you don’t know this story, don’t worry: Die Fledermaus is about the music and the mood, and the mere facts of the matter aren’t all that important.

Portland Opera’s production, which kicks off its 50th season and concludes with performances Thursday and Saturday, is a bit ramshackle itself, not as tight and pointed as it might be yet also overflowing with pleasurable musical and farcical moments. This is operetta, not grand opera, and it’s meant to amuse. It also provides a timely reminder of why the company is switching to a festival-style, summer season beginning in 2016, moving half of its programming into the 870-seat Newmark Theatre rather than the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, where this Fledermaus is flapping around the rafters. The big old hall once again swallows much of the music, muting smaller voices and muffling sounds delivered from upstage. This show needs a light and dexterous balance, and it’s tantalizing to imagine how it might play in the much more intimate and audibly manageable Newmark.

Johann Strauss II’s dreamy, melodic, and approachable score is truly what Die Fledermaus is all about, and both singers and orchestra treat the Waltz King’s music well. But Karl Haffner and Richard Genée provided him with an affable libretto, basing it partly on a French play that also, intriguingly, served as the basis for Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta Trial by Jury.

Die Fledermaus takes place in sophisticated Vienna and True West in the voracious wilds of the American West, but Fledermaus shares a bit of Shepard’s fascination for the duality of the human soul. In a very traditional (and very upper-class) European way, the characters of Fledermaus keep up propriety as they let the beast of their animal urges out to play: husbands prowl among the chorines, wives play push-and-pull with would-be bedmates, housemaids discreetly flaunt their wild sides. It’s as if the characters in True West have come to terms with their duality and brought it into a civilized, carefully dangerous harmony: one roils and boils, within reason.

There are, I think, possibilities in the play that aren’t fully exploited here, and that the economics of regional opera, with its short runs and short rehearsal periods, maybe militate against. But Portland Opera’s Fledermaus delivers on many fronts, from Zack Brown’s traditionally sumptuous sets and costumes to the often fluid acting (stage direction is by Chas Rader-Shieber) and, most importantly, the voices. The women in particular shine: soprano Mary Dunleavy as Rosalinde, the wife who plays a practiced game of cat-and-mouse; soprano Susannah Biller as Adele, Rosalinde’s flirtatious maid; mezzo Jennifer Rivera in the traditional pants role of Prince Orlofsky, the bored Russian zillionaire whose party sets the mechanisms of farce into motion. Daniel Belcher is warm-toned and suitably peacockish as Eisenstein, Rosalinde’s rash and wandering husband; and company followers will be pleased to see the continuing assurance of former resident artist André Chiang as Dr. Falke, the devious and genial bat of the title. Now, on to the belfry. Better yet, to the Newmark.

Portland Opera’s Die Fledermaus concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, November 13 and 15, at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Sam Shepard one-acts: drama, drawn and quartered

Profile Theatre had its hands full portraying characters whose stories are shrouded in amnesia, aphasia, music and poetry.

“How was it?” asked an actor friend when I returned from a day immersed in Sam Shepard’s storytelling. “Mindblowing,” I … exclaimed? No, more like sighed. Because it was great in a way that made me very tired. By the point in Profile Theatre’s Festival of One Acts when a watermelon plummeted from the rafters and smashed on the stage floor, my own melon felt the same way: brain-sploded.

Beth Thompson, Chris Murray, and Nelda Reyes. Photo by David Kinder.

Beth Thompson, Chris Murray, and Nelda Reyes. Photo by David Kinder.

Since then, I’ve been poring over the most memorable moments from the festival:

  • Chris Murray and Andrés Alcalá portraying either Godot-inspired hobos suffering dementia and dehydration, or children playing war games—it was hard to say. (Cowboys 2)
  • Beth Thompson embodying and narrating the whole trajectory of a romance, from coy first meeting to giddy courtship to moments of comfort, boredom, suspicion, rejection, and eventual heartbreak … all while addressing an invisible partner. (Savage/Love)
  • Ty Hewitt hunched over a mic like a radio DJ, talking hypnotically about a changed point of view from one day to the next, that we don’t know but must suspect was brought on by his character’s death. (Tongues)
  • Murray and Alcalá again, this time as dueling audiophiles comically one-upping each other by naming the “best” sounds in the world. (Rhythm)
  • Alcalá as a lonesome long-haul trucker with a sinking superstition that the spirit of a dead raven haunts a feather he picked up and is controlling his vehicle’s course. (The Curse of the Raven’s Black Feather)
  • Nelda Reyes turning on a dime from a lost, confused vagabond seeking help to a manic, demonic being triumphantly rampaging around the stage (The War in Heaven)
  • The aforementioned watermelon, dropping in abruptly during Elizabeth Huffman’s soliloquy about blowing out one’s brains (Evanescence or Shakespeare in the Alley )

What exactly about Shepard’s storytelling is so demanding? He’s certainly not the angriest or most ardent contemporary playwright, nor the most mystical nor the most intellectual. But his words exert such a pull in so many different directions at once that gradually, he tears his subjects apart. He doesn’t beat his subjects to death; instead, he draws and quarters them.

In her introductory statements, Profile’s artistic director Adriana Baer summarized the actor and playwright’s multidirectional tug-0f-war:

“…you will hear the push and pull of the old west versus the new west, the city versus the country.  You will hear loss of love. You will hear loss of language. You will feel that in some way, each primary character is trapped.  Whether that be literal or imaginative entrapment, there is an active pushing against external forces.”  

In Hail From Nowhere, a man is convinced that he’s “lost” his wife at a hotel, but it turns out that he’s shot a gun at her and chased her away (and then somehow forgotten the incident?). When she calls her mother to explain the situation and her new whereabouts and name, her mom can’t remember her ever even being married, and further insists that her daughter’s”boyfriend” isn’t capable of such violence. (Intractable arguments between family members about events that should be  important milestones but have instead been forgotten are a Shepard staple; Buried Child was chockfull.)

It’s hard to tell whether Shepard’s characters are simply forgetful, whether they’re in willful denial and trying to re-write their troubling histories, or whether they’ve got full-fledged amnesia. Trying to figure out whom to believe, and why any given character might lie, is one of the subtle stresses of watching a Shepard show.

Another condition that afflicts several characters is a great difficulty putting thoughts into words. Characters struggle, repeat, pause and backtrack (much like the killer from Defunkt Theatre’s suspenseful spring offering, Fewer Emergencies) and their truth comes out only in fits and blurts, or in oblique ramblings that gradually come to mean what they intend. This is especially true in The War in Heaven, one of three featured pieces Shepard collaborated on with New York theater luminary Joe Chaikin, whose ability to verbalize his own thoughts had been compromised by a stroke-induced condition called “aphasia.” Other Chaikin collabs, Tongues and Savage/Love, also approach their topics—death and romance—sidelong rather than directly.

In Hail and some other works, Shepard’s characters each get allotted one point of view and have to battle the other characters to defend it. But just as often, Shepard instills just one character with an inner schism, forcing a battle against the self, often without anyone else onstage to play against.

Shepard’s sparse one-acts are the theatrical equivalent of an isometric workout, requiring the fest’s multiple directors and actors to hold their own resistance and tension within his poetic, provocative texts, knowing that if they slackened—even for a second—a performance could flop. Thanks to live music during some pieces and wry twists of humor throughout, this rigorous exercise doubled as a dance. Even so, there was no way to make it seem easy.

Profile Theatre’s Sam Shepard season will continue with a free staged reading of The Curse of the Starving Class on October 20, and True West November 6-23.

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A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!