“The Quality of Life”

News & Notes: Last Chance Café

Four shows to set at your table before they close on Sunday

All good things must come to an end, and sometimes they do it before we have a chance to see them. This is the final weekend for four things in Portland that might get you out of the house and into a seat at the cultural banquet before their final day tomorrow, Sunday, May 11.

Mendelson and Alper in "The Quality of Life." Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson and Alper in “The Quality of Life.” Photo: Owen Carey

The Quality of Life. Artists Rep’s beautiful, deep, and nuanced production of Jane Anderson’s four-hand drama has three more performances, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. By turns funny, contemplative and sorrowful, it explores the relationship between two mature couples and their four conflicting attitudes toward impending or recent death. It’s a quiet stunner, with superb direction by Allen Nause, an imaginative set by Tim Stapleton, and top-of-the-line performances by Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson, Susannah Mars, and Michael Fisher-Welsh. Look here for Marty Hughley’s excellent ArtsWatch review. Ticket information here.

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. Subtitled Spiritual Implications of the Financial Collapse, Alicia Jo Rabins’ musical theater piece opened for a brief run in February but was smacked, like so many shows, by the snowstorm that kept people mostly indoors. It came back Thursday for a brief run at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theatre, and has final performances of this run at  7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Producer Boom Arts says Rabins “views Bernie Madoff and the system which allowed him to function through the lens of ancient Jewish and Buddhist texts on financial ethics, ecology, and cycles.” ArtsWatch’s A.L. Adams caught the show this time around and will file her report. Win Goodbody of Portland Theatre Scene saw it in February and raves, calling it “a season highlight.” Ticket information here.

Othello. Portland Center Stage’s production of Shakespeare’s provocative tragedy has drawn mixed response from audiences, but it’s a stately-looking show that lays out the play’s themes and relationships cleanly, blending humor and drama. Read Marty Hughley’s nuanced review for ArtsWatch here. Final performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ticket information here.

Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music. The Portland Art Museum’s big exhibition featuring the likes of Canaletto, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and Strozzi, along with some gorgeous period musical instruments and musical scores, successfully suggests the form and nature of cultural life over three centuries when Venetian influence was at its height. I reviewed the show for ArtsWatch after it opened in February. Today and tomorrow are its final days; the museum’s open until 5 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Bernardo Strozzi, “Street Musicians,” 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library

Bernardo Strozzi, “Street Musicians,” 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library

 

 

No hallucination: it’s a high ‘Life’

Artists Rep's exquisite, sweet and measured 'The Quality of Life' is another highlight in a sterling Portland season

When Jeannette offers a hit of pot, her straitlaced cousin Dinah doesn’t know what to expect. “Will I hallucinate?,” she asks innocently.

“It’s a gentle, inquisitive experience,” Neil, Jeannette’s husband, reassures her. The same can be said for The Quality of Life, a thoughtful, funny play by Jane Anderson that approaches questions both contemporary and timeless, and, in a perfectly balanced production at Artists Rep, counts as yet another high point in a Portland theater season that’s already had more than its usual share.

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Gentle and inquisitive also are good words to describe Neil and Jeannette, a long-married and deeply loving couple enjoying what you might call a provisional lifestyle in Northern California. A canyon fire has claimed their house, with Neil’s years of academic research inside, and they’re residing in a yurt, surrounded by their own magic forest of debris – charred remnants of their avocado and fig trees, unrecognizably warped bits of the few possessions they could find, now strewn about as accidental art objects.

Perhaps their cheerful equanimity is the result of resignation, or maybe of the pot – which in any case they use for more than just taking the edge off: It’s the last medicine doing Neil any good, as he faces down terminal cancer.

“I’m growing prize-winning tumors here; I’m going to enter them in the state fair,” he jokes, after extolling the “heirloom pot” he inhales from a vaporizer.

The plight of Neil and Jeannette is laid out at the start, but it’s not them we meet first. The play opens with a brief scene in Ohio, where Dinah and her husband Bill decide to visit, even though they’re trying to cope with troubles of their own, the grim nature of which we learn only in dribbles.

Both couples are trying to negotiate grief in their own ways, so we know that the playwright is conducting a sort of qualitative comparison. And as soon as they get together, distinctions and divisions begin to show. Neil and Jeannette are free-spirited free-thinkers, conspicuously at ease with their circumstances and with each other. Dinah is agreeable and eager to please, Bill is dull and practical, and there’s a vaguely uneasy distance between them. Bill so objects to his hosts’ marijuana use that he retreats to his car to listen to a baseball game. And when religion enters the conversation – perhaps you can guess which couple are the churchgoers – the sides are clearly drawn.

From time to time, Anderson’s script starts to seem like another point-scoring game between the two sides of our current cultural divide: Midwest/Left Coast, red/blue, conservative/liberal, dour Xtian/happy heathen. In addition to medical marijuana, the issue menu includes the “death with dignity” movement, the power and perils of faith, the balancing of tolerance with moral and social principles, and so on.

With such an agenda, the danger of didacticism lurks, like the coyotes that prey on wayward pets near what used to be Neil and Jeannette’s house. But Anderson eventually complicates and subverts our easy expectations for how these characters think and behave. She even gives Bill, the play’s resident prig, the best line: “Don’t insult my good intentions just because I acted like an ass.”

Yet all along these characters have felt like real people, very much like people we all know. And credit for that goes to the emotionally scrupulous direction by Allen Nause and to a well-matched cast that digs hard and deep for truthfulness while making it look easy.

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Linda Alper, now a Portlander and Artists Rep regular, fairly sparkles as Jeannette, by turns sassy, empathetic, caustic, tender, vulnerable and wise. Michael Mendelson delivers one of the finest performances of his long and acclaimed tenure in town, quietly and subtly showing us Neil’s weariness and pain, his alacrity and humor, and hints of his submerged rage and fear. Together they make an utterly believable couple, comfortable and natural in their interactions whether laughing or squabbling.

Susannah Mars lets us see the way Dinah is constricted by convention yet yearns to live authentically by her own lights. And from behind the almost buffoonish rectitude of Bill, Michael Fisher-Welsh presents a warm, deeply sympathetic character, the alternating surges of consternation and concern calibrated just so.

Much of what the play mulls comes under the umbrella of what these days we call quality of life issues. But there’s a reason the title has that definite article. The quality of life, after all, is, well, life.

And that’s what this exquisite production offers us in something that feels very close to the real thing.

Artists Rep adjusts its season, postpones “The Invisible Hand”

Artists Repertory Theatre adds "The Quality of Life" to its 2013-14 season

With opening night of Artists Repertory Theatre’s “The Big Meal” hurtling toward us on Saturday, we’ll pause for a moment to consider an adjustment Damaso Rodriguez has made to the end of Artists Rep’s season. The company announced that it was delaying its production of Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar’s new play “The Invisible Hand” to Fall of 2014 and replacing it with Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life.”

Because the production of “The Invisible Hand,” secured by former artistic director Allen Nause, has been delayed a couple of times, I worried that maybe it was going to drift from view entirely, especially after Akhtar’s Pulitzer last year for “Disgraced.” Visa problems for the Pakistani actors that Nause wanted to star in the play and fundraising issues combined to stymie the show previously. But maybe Akhtar’s new success would lead him to a bigger theater for the premiere of “The Invisible Hand”?

As usual, a cluster of events led to the change, according to Rodriguez.

The visa deadline for the two Pakistani actors Nause had met in his foreign adventures was looming and so was a request to Actors Equity to waive its rules to allow them to play in an Equity house. In dealing with bureaucracies of whatever sort, sometimes it’s best to allow for ample extra time.

Maybe more importantly though, Akhtar decided to re-write the play “from page one,” Rodriguez said. (A version of “The Invisible Hand” premiered at the new play festival of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012.) Akhtar was involved in a possible Broadway run for “Disgraced,” which made finishing in time for the opening a little iffy, and Rodriguez wanted to be “involved in the re-write.”

Finally, Nause found a co-producer for “The Invisible Hand” during a meeting in Seattle with Kurt Beattie, A Contemporary Theatre’s artistic director. The show will open in Seattle in August and then move down to Artists Rep with the same cast. Because ACT and Artists Rep are alike in stage sensibility, joining forces seems reasonable, and as Rodriguez points out, “More interaction between Seattle and Portland makes sense.” The combination also offers a new play significant exposure in two good theater cities, a chance to work out the kinks before a possible New York production, and financial returns in the same ballpark as those from a larger regional theater.

Michael Mendelson and Linda Alper in "Ten Chimneys"/Owen Carey

Michael Mendelson and Linda Alper in “Ten Chimneys”/Owen Carey

So, moving “The Invisible Hand” out of this season wasn’t a hard decision for Rodriguez. Neither was making “The Quality of Life” its replacement this season. Anderson, best known as the writer of “The Baby Dance” and as a television writer (“Mad Men”), though she’s written several plays, wrote “The Quality of Life” in 2007, and it had several productions, including Arena Stage (in Washington, DC) and ACT in San Francisco. “I saw the original cast in the play at the Geffen,” Rodriguez says about the LA production. He’d read a new version, and thought of company’s resident artists LInda Alper and Michael Mendelson for the roles of the northern California couple facing the husband’s fatal disease in the company of Midwestern couple with entirely different values.

Alper’s selection as a resident artist, by the way, was another significant addition to ART’s core. Alper has been a big star at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over the years, playing the great Shakespearean roles for women while developing a subtle yet powerful approach to contemporary work. She appeared in the excellent “Ten Chimneys” last season with Michael Mendelson, directed by Rodriguez. Alper has also worked at Portland Center Stage, and the resident artist designation solidifies her ties to Portland. Alper created a body of work as writer/translator/lyricist in Ashland, too, so maybe she will do the same here.

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NOTES

A few other bits of Artists Rep news…the inclusion of Anderson makes three women playwrights in the schedule this season: “I look at the season and I’m glad that we’ve got three,” Rodriguez said. “I look at next season and I’d like to do better and I’d like to do better with directors, too”…the holiday double bill of one-acts will be directed by Louanne Moldovan and Rusty Tennant, who have assistant directed at the company in the past…the company landed the world premiere of Amy Freed’s “The Monster-Builder” in part because of Rodriguez and Freed’s mutual relationship with director Art Manke, an old friend of Freed’s and mentor of Rodriguez’s…Rodriguez thinks Artists Rep can be more involved in producing new work: “This is a great city and theater to come and safely do your work and develop your play…my story on Allen Nause’s foreign travels for American Theater magazine.