Will Eno

To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

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DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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Theater review: Words from home

In Imago's 'Title and Deed" Todd Van Voris is quizzical edging toward melancholy

At the start of Imago Theatre’s production of Title and Deed, a monologue by Will Eno, the actor Todd Van Voris enters — or not quite. He appears at the curtained doorway between the theater’s main hallway and auditorium, but before he crosses the threshold he hesitates, peering at the audience curiously though not unkindly. Eventually he steps into the stage space, adjusts the lighting with a control board placed downstage left, then after a spell tells us matter-of-factly, “I’m not from here.”

Not just the manner of that entrance but the manner of Van Voris’ entire performance underscores that notion: We’re watching and listening to a man who is with us but not of us. He is present and engaging, but engaged himself in musings and memories of somewhere else. He is familiar yet strange; his life has been unusual, and just like ours. He is away from home. And therefore he is — in a sense that’s not so much directional or aspirational as it is existential — homeward bound, tangled in the ties that bind, no matter where he hangs his hat.

Todd Van Voris gets into the ring with the powerful wordplay of Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” at Imago Theatre, and everyone wins. Photo: Sumi Wu

Home is the putative central theme of the piece, though it’s addressed with the discursive, philosophically comic pointillism that makes Eno’s work so distinctive and so hard to pin down. “Home, where the hat’s hanging and the placenta’s buried,” Van Voris’ nameless character says at one point. That’s just one of the many characteristic Enoisms sprinkled through these 90 minutes — curlicues of pithy observation, droll wordplay, jokey logic, curiously inverted cliches and so on, little windows in which we might glimpse something of the human condition, or at least catch our own reflections glinting off the glass at a new angle: “If you’re half a man — and I can say without bragging that I am…” “(S)tarting out in the world, one foot in the grave and the other in my mouth, and how’s anyone supposed to walk like that?” “I’m describing it (a funeral) from the perspective of the living — which is how we see everything.”

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The actor Todd Van Voris and the director Jerry Mouawad — each, in his way, among Portland’s most distinctive and accomplished theater artists — are working together on a production of Title and Deed, a monologue by the remarkable playwright Will Eno, opening this weekend at Imago Theatre. 
And so, you might want to know, what’s it about? What’s the story?

But it’s useful first to note just how different those two questions are, especially in the case of Eno’s work.“If you tried to say what the narrative is of this, it’s: A guy from somewhere else comes and talks to the audience, and then he stops,” Mouawad deadpans. “But, y’know, most great work is not about the narrative.”

After all, The Cherry Orchard, for instance, isn’t quite about a family dithering until their house gets sold out from under them; the greatness is not in the plot but in the themes, the textures, the subtle illuminations of humanity.

Title and Deed is about, as Mouawad starts to try to encapsulate, “the wonder of language, and the danger of language; and the seeking of home, and going away from home; and mother as home, and going away from that; and…

“Often, with experimental work, if people find themselves confused, I want to just say to them, ‘You can relax. It’s about everything.’”

Just dropping in from somewhere else, the lone character in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” (Todd Van Voris) has a few things to say about feeling at home. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Perhaps not everything, in this case, but a lot. Eno’s writing doesn’t meander so much as walk in tight circles that slowly expand and change direction and grow thickets of linguistic and emotional inter-connections — something like the melodic and harmonic variations of a piece of Philip Glass music, if such musicality somehow were translated into a cross between avuncular philosophizing and stand-up comedy. Along the way, he touches on many aspects of experience and emotion, glancingly but poignantly.

There is, though, a starting point, at least, a conceptual center, perhaps, to Title and Deed.
“I’m not from here,” the play’s lone character (called, simply, Man) says at the outset. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.”

As this man from somewhere else (no place is specified in the script, but Eno wrote the piece originally for the Irish actor Conor Lovett to perform in New York) speaks to the audience, he deals with home and away, here and there, and to some extent you and us, in relational terms, tracking contrasts and commonalities that shape our experience of life. And amid Eno’s multivalent whirligigs of language, what can seem at first like offhand indulgences start to feel more like curious koans or gems of insight: “Maybe it’s a little hopeless glimmer of hope that I might somehow, with a change of scenery, change,” he offers at one point. Or:  “My mother said, ‘There, there.’ And, in retrospect, she was probably right.”

“I think the piece is really deceptive,” Mouawad says, chatting over lunch during a recent rehearsal break. “When I first started reading it I didn’t think much of it. But it starts to grow on you and then it hits you. And then you see it’s a lot deeper than you’d thought. And it just keeps going. We just keep discovering more in it.”

Todd Van Voris has embodied Will Eno’s monologuistic magic before, in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

“Like with all Eno, there’s something that really resonates with me — I just see myself in there,” says Van Voris, who performed another Eno solo showpiece, Thom Pain (based on nothing) last summer for Crave Theatre. “ And at the same time, it’s this incredible puzzle to work out.”

And so another way to look at the puzzle is to wonder what may come of the experience of spending an hour with Title and Deed.

“In my heart of hearts,” Eno told Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune in 2015, “I’m hoping everyone can find things of real usable feeling.”

Or as Van Voris puts it, “It’s got an underlying sense of hope, overall: That despite all the suffering we go through, we’re going to be OK.”

However we find our way home, whatever story we tell.

Opening

The premise is simple, if (you might think) thoroughly daft: Cast a play, tell each actor chosen what part to play, but don’t tell anyone anything else. Have each actor rehearse a little — individually — with the director. Then just get onstage together for the first time, as the performance progresses, and see what happens.

What happens at the annual production of Anonymous Theatre is a helluva lot of fun, whether it’s a comedy that wobbles amusingly as everyone tries to learn their timing on the fly, or even a remarkably cohesive and credible performance of Macbeth.
 Broad familiarity can be a helpful element, so this year’s show should be especially ripe, with the ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the canvas for this illuminating experiment in theatrical process. For more about the strange magic of Anonymous Theatre, you can read Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s new ArtsWatch feature.

Certainly there’s crossover between what we might call straight theater (text-centered, director-driven, etc.) and the more free-wheeling world of sketch comedy and improvisation. But I’ve not spent much time on that bridge or, frankly, even glancing much at the other side. So I’m unfortunately unable to provide any qualitative handicapping on the Stumptown Improv Festival, which offers 17 different acts over four days at two venues. Rest assured that they’ll all be winging it — but that’s exactly what they’ve prepared for.

The Salem company Theatre 33, based at Willamette University, takes a localized approach to new-play development, focusing on Oregon playwrights and (usually) Oregon-centered stories and themes. It’s latest production, Amanda Transcending, is based on true accounts of the ill treatment of coastal natives in the 1860s and of a modern property owner in Yachats who traces the bloody historical trail across her own land. Rod Ceballos directs, from the play by Connie Bennett.

Triangle Productions’ latest staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of the most compelling of rock musicals, hasn’t been gone for long, but if you’re already missing its hard-hitting yet tender-hearted approach to gender politics, self-actualization and soul-mate searching, you don’t have long to wait for a brief re-mount later this month. If you can’t wait even that long — and who could blame you, really — you can take the wig down from the shelf, so to speak, yourself: Dave Cole, who leads the onstage band for Triangle, and Kelsey Bentz, who threatens to steal several scenes as Hedwig’s sweet-singing husband Yitzhak, host a Hedwig sing-along at the EastSide Bar and Grill. So what if it’s a Tuesday? Just look up from your vermouth on the rocks and get rockin’.

PassinArt presents a staged reading of Is the Honeymoon Over?, a comedy by Leasharn M. Hopkins that looks at the love through the lens of four couples at varying stages of their marital journeys.

But we can, by George!

“I can’t recall a play that managed to find a tone that offered up yuks and topics as serious as the glories and perils of capitalism, the role of faith in a culture obsessed with money and the havoc wreaked when immense bets are made with other people’s money.”
 — David Segal, a columnist and business reporter for The New York Times, in a July 29 article about The Lehman Trilogy, a play about the history of the famous/infamous Lehman Brothers bank.

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara, starred in Coleman’s last show as artistic director at Portland Center Stage/ Photo: Jennie Baker

Portland theater fans (or theater historians anywhere), however, might notice that Segal’s description sounds a lot like Major Barbara, the 1905 George Bernard Shaw play that Portland Center Stage presented a few months ago.

Best line I read this week

“A therapist asked her what she wanted to do, and she blurted out, to her surprise, ‘Be a playwright.’ She discovered that she was studying Shakespeare only because she secretly wanted to write plays herself. ‘It was like being a veterinarian who says, “I want to be a dog!”’”
— from a profile of Young Jean Lee, by Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times magazine.

Closing

Experience Theatre Project’s commedia-leaning Shakespeare adaptation The Taming and the Shrew ends its summer travels at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton; Lakewood’s production of the musical
Chess gets down to its last moves, and the sexy mystery Venus in Fur bundles up its things at Twilight Theater.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.