Tartuffe

This month onstage: hypocrites, senior sex, other twice-told tales

Suddenly, Portland's stages are an echo chamber. But it's an INTERESTING echo chamber.

Say, is there an echo in here? And by “here,” I mean in Portland theater, specifically current/closing plays that I’ve recently seen: Portland Center Stage’s A Small Fire, Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Post5’s Tartuffe and Spectravagasm, Shaking The Tree’s One Flea Spare, Defunkt’s Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and Triangle’s Next Fall.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in "One Flea Spare." Photo: Shaking the Tree.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in “One Flea Spare.” Photo: Shaking the Tree.

Staying well clear of cliché, these shows have been delving into a lot of relevant themes that you don’t see every day on the stage. And unless I need my eyes adjusted, I’ve been seeing double. Just for fun, with some (mostly) late-run spoilers, here’s a short list of motifs that recur at least twice:

Senior Sex

In at least two productions, One Flea Spare and A Small Fire, senior citizens climax on stage. (Seniorgasm?) In both instances, the late-life lovers have suffered a loss of sensation, and use sex to reconnect, which brings us to…

Sensory Deprivation

One Flea Spare, Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and A Small Fire each introduces us to a character who can’t feel like he/she used to. In Flea, the loss is due to scar tissue sustained in a fire. In Fire, a rare nerve disorder robs a character’s senses one at a time. (And, no, oddly enough, I didn’t get those titles crossed.) In Flowers, HIV meds hypersensitize a character’s skin to the point where he can’t stand to be touched.

Bible Bangers

These exaggerated characters have swooped into the current plays like a sweet chariot. In Tartuffe, they abound as the title character and his enablers. In Next Fall, they’re praying for the recovery of their openly Christian, secretly gay son. In Spectravagasm, they’re the subject of spoof, and in Hat, a different bible—the AA recovery one—stands in for the other good book. Which brings us to…

Hypocrisy

Tartuffe and Hat each shows us supposed right-living mentors who backstab their protegees. In Next Fall, there’s another twist: a religious zealot backstabs himself, alternately accepting beliefs that do not condone his lifestyle, and practicing a lifestyle that’s not supported by his beliefs.

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

The Gay Community

Both Next Fall and Flowers center on committed long-term monogomous gay couples, and while Flowers hits a community hot button, HIV, Fall humanizes its pair with an everyman situation. Gay or straight, we can all be put down by a hard bump to the head.

Hispanic Bi

This is a great run for switch-hitters from south of the border. In both Hat and Flowers, we’re introduced to a discreet, half-closeted, het-married “Maricón.” In Flowers, a roguish shoe salesman warns his “blanquito” that he limits dalliances with men to “two times” to evade discovery by his pregnant wife. In Hat, the main character’s gay cousin is tired of being called effeminate and eager to show how tough he is (as tough as Van Damme, apparently) in a fight. But other than that, these characters are so similar they could almost trade plays.

Looking back, this has generally been a high-stakes, agony-and-ecstasy-filled fleet of dramas, with razor’s edges and gnashing teeth…and a few good laughs interspersed. It’s showed us challenging stuff—and then, just in case we missed it, showed it again.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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An international news and notes: Juicy, too

A night with Cedar Lake, Artists Rep's new season, Debra Beers, 'Tartuffe', Cappella Romana, Shakespeare's canon

Debra Beers, 'Cleo’s Farewell', 2013, at Lewis & Clark's Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Debra Beers, ‘Cleo’s Farewell’,
2013, at Lewis & Clark’s Hoffman Gallery through March 9

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet breezed into Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Wednesday night for a couple of hours and danced the living daylights out of three demanding and fascinating pieces.  Presumably, the company is winging its way to some new locale today where it will do the same.  If they were performing here tonight again, I’d change my plans and make sure I saw them, even if they were just repeating the same program, just to see the way the three contemporary choreographers employed those superbly trained bodies one more time. We have reached a new age of virtuosity on our dance stages, and choreographers who have grown up with it, know how to use to create effects and moods that weren’t possible before, in quite the same way.

I remember when Twyla Tharp pushed her dancers to the very limit in the ’70s, and I still love those dances and dancers. But this level of athleticism and technique, that’s another story completely. I won’t go into last night’s program at length, because, well, it’s gone. And if you saw it, you saw this apex dance company dancing the new international style brilliantly and compellingly. This isn’t the only way to dance, of course, but it’s what the major touring companies are doing, and though I may have some reservations still, I have to say I was delighted and moved by last night’s show, which included Hofesh Shechter Violet Kid, Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet, and Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.

But we have so much more on the docket today!

Continues…

Review: Tartuffe, with a Texas twist

New turf, same game: At Post5, theater's favorite hypocrite grovels to conquer

In the last month or so, Tartuffe director Tobias Andersen has approached me a couple of times, sparkling with excitement about his latest show: “Our version is set in Moliere, TEXAS!” he declares with a wink.

It’s no wonder Andersen rushes to correct preconceptions about Tartuffe. Audiences are more than familiar with this title, they’re downright used to the 17th-century rhyming relic. The name means “hypocrisy” as clearly Faust references soul-selling. They also associate it with a period aesthetic—baroque as a joke, and full of French frippery. When I picture a production of Tartuffe, I see foppish cravats and powdered wigs. I hear whinnies and trills of courtly laughter and snooty stanzas of protracted poetry.

tartuffe2

Well…this is not your great- (great-great-great…) grandmother’s Tartuffe.

Post5‘s version is a recently conceived one, translated by Virginia Scott and adapted and edited by Constance Congdon in 2010. “Instead of being in Alexandrine couplets like the [Richard] Wilbur translation, Ms. Congdon has adapted [the verse] into iambic pentameter, which is quite accessible,” Andersen explains. “This adapation was first produced at the Two Rivers Theatre in New York when Aaron Posner was still artistic director. They decided to set it in Texas, and after I sounded the lines out loud a few times, I realized what a good idea it was! The twang just seems to work!”

It does, indeed.

For one thing, the Southern accents and affectations wrench the story right into a contemporary context, which makes performances feel almost like TV or movie roles rather than stage ones. Christy Drogosch as Elmire could easily keep pace with Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women; Tori Padelford’s Madame Parnelle could sip sweet tea right between Kathy Bates and a Golden Girl. Keith Cable as Orgon seems like he could clear brush and furrow brows with George “Dubya” Bush. Dennis Kelly as Valere has a higher-brow, more suave Southern flair. And Garland Lyons’ poker-faced, silver-tongued Tartuffe could cross swords with Kevin Spacey in the very current House of Cards.

You can’t quite do “Southern” without a few good ol’ boys, and Anderson found four doozies: Larry Wilder, Erik James, Dan Robertson and Jim Davis. Davis as Cleante plays a reluctantly plain-spoken confidante to the deluded Orgon with the manner of someone who has a lot of conversations outdoors, even seeming to kick at the dirt and squint into the sunlight. Robertson makes a great overly polite repo man Loyal, while Eric James as the Sheriff is John Goodman-ish, blustering in to set everybody straight. Between scenes, Wilder and Davis pick-and-grin through topical bluegrass tunes like The Devil Wears a Hypocrite’s Shoe.

All performances here are strong, but the MVP of this show may be Sarah Peters as Dorine, the irrepressibly sensible housemaid. She navigates a frenzy of onstage action with superb comic timing, and she even “sits in” on violin with the band.

The Southern-ness, though, serves as more than just a fun quirk for wardrobe and character development. It works on a deeper philosophical level, too. Hypocrisy tends to flourish wherever strong beliefs are found in the first place, and the American South’s charismatic Christianity may be the ideal climate. Jimmy Swaggart and PTL Ministries spring into contemporary memory as figureheads of Southern hypocrisy. Their methods? Similar to Tartuffe’s: Claiming folksiness, simplicity, sinner-hood. Then passing the collection plate.

The aforementioned Kevin Spacey character sums up the Southern mindset thus: “What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask.”

And so we watch Tartuffe playing an age-old game on newish turf: groveling to conquer.