theater


Exhausted, Jenny Sutter (Gwendolyn Mulamba) falls asleep on the ground at Slab City. Photo by Jenny Graham.

If you aren't in the habit of scanning the Christian Science Monitor for info, you probably missed this superb article about one of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new plays, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.

When freelance theater critic Anna Grace and I saw the play, we disagreed about its quality and impact. (Those reviews are here, and you can read our disagreement in the review itself.) Then I wrote about Jenny Sutter and the UO student veterans' play Telling (about which I wrote in February) for a national arts blog — you can read that post here.

I think the CSM article has several strengths, one of which is that it shows playwright Julie Marie Myatt's and the OSF's commitment to getting it right. In their writing of Telling, playwrights Max Rayneard and Jonathan Wei, along with director John Schmor, also did a lot of work in order to get it right. The difference was that in the latter case, they had more than one consultant from the Iraq War; the words themselves came from veterans who also did the acting and gave a lot of feedback throughout the entire process. That certainly had advantages!

But it was super to read what the OSF actors did to learn more and how much care the OSF took with area veterans.

I keep writing about this because I'm interested in the ways that my experience of Jenny Sutter was changed by watching Telling first, but also because the CSM article brings up issues about theater and catharsis, theater and healing, etc. — issues that the playwrights and actors of Telling were explicitly trying to address with the entire project (and that they hope will be exported to other campuses and other veterans' groups as well).

Last year's theater season in Eugene had The Trojan Women and Mother Courage for war allegories/tales. I wonder what next season will bring and how we will deal with — expect? hope for? dislike? — more war stories.

See/Hear
Kirk Boyd on Eugene actors, Eugene audiences and his dream theater
by Suzi Steffen

This interview kicks off a new occasional blog series for me: See/Hear: The Local Visual and Performing Arts Scene. Sadly, although the Q&A was meant to be an introduction to the artistic director of the Willamette Repertory Theatre at a moment when his final staged play of the company’s ninth season was about to open, it also serves as a kind of valedictory address: The Willamette Rep just announced that it’s closing down after the run of Wild Oats because, frankly, it couldn’t make enough money.

I interviewed Kirk Boyd a couple of weeks ago, and though at the time he seemed concerned about how hard it was for the plays to draw a consistent audience — and I’d heard from other sources how badly the WillRep’s Proof did, financially speaking — he talked about reading scripts for next year and what plays he had picked for the three May Readings in Rep. (By the way, if you already have tix for Readings in Rep, you can get refunds at the Hult Center box office. Call 682-5000 for more info.)

UPDATE: Though I was unable to attend the press conference this morning, our gracious sometimes-reviewer and calendar editor Chuck Adams did. His report and the audio of the whole thing are available here.

On the other hand, we also touched upon the difficulties of the space — Soreng Theatre might be OK for some of the Bach Festival’s Discovery Series, but it’s a terrible, ridiculous space for performing plays — and some of Boyd’s disappointments with the Eugene audience, not to mention the night that all of his scripts (including his director-marked Wild Oats script) were stolen from his car.

Kirk Boyd grew up in Eugene and left for some years to work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But he wanted to run his own company, and once he moved back to Eugene, he spent a couple of years getting the WillRep together before kicking off the first season. I wasn’t able to talk much with Boyd on the day he sent out the press release marking the demise of WillRep, but he did say he wasn’t leaving Eugene for greener pastures. “I’m staying right here,” he said.

We talked for over an hour on the day that we met. This transcript has been edited for clarity and because of the subsequent news. As always, Boyd spoke smoothly and with eloquence about a variety of topics, ranging from why the Hult Center should be taken apart and rebuilt to why he preferred the attempt to work with Equity actors.

I encourage readers to share memories of the Willamette Rep and your thoughts about it for Boyd, general manager Michael Peterson and everyone associated with the company in the comments section of this post.

Read more here.

This review will run in the April 3 print edition and also online here after April 3.

Pic of Herr Zangler (Michael Walker) and Melchior (Michael Watkins) by John Bauguess.

Wild Yawps, Whinnies and Props
On the Razzle dazzles the eyes and ears
By Suzi Steffen

Sheer, unadulterated fun: That’s the point, and the experience, of Tom Stoppard’s fantastic farce On the Razzle, now playing at the Very Little Theatre.

And a joyful experience the show definitely is — except for the part where audience laughter blows eardrums and overrides some of Stoppard’s trademark language. OK, the show’s not perfect (I’ll elaborate in a minute), but for a volunteer-run organization, the VLT has scored a coup in this arch but warm laugh-a-minute production. More than the successful staging of a nine-door, several-staircase, ridiculously pun-filled romp, this show gives the VLT’s community theater status a chance to shine.

Read more!

I know, I've been a bad bad blogger. So much architecture to write about (Berlin; Tokyo; Iraq; Dresden and more), cover stories to cover, exciting theater to ... er. Well, actually, I've been going out of town a lot, and that means the weekdays are packed with, gasp, print-related tasks.

As loyal readers know, Chuck and I went to Portland and saw Twelfth Night and The Beard of Avon at Portland Center Stage. I loved the second play and wasn't as into the first one. Then I went to Portland the next week and, after spending holiday gift cards at Powell's, popped into the PNCA to see the Joe Sacco show — which reminded me of why I'd love to teach a sort of alternative forms of literary journalism class at the UO's Literary Nonfiction Progam, from whence I got a master's degree in 2004. Sacco's Palestine (now available in special edition) and Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 combine journalism and graphic novel skills (or comic skills? There's not a good language for this now — illustration skills?) to create moving and fascinating stories.

Then we went to Portland again (!). And I went gallery-hopping in the Pearl, something I've wanted to do when it wasn't a crazed First Thursday event. My faves of the many galleries I hopped through in one morning: Dennis Zaborowshi at the Blackfish Gallery; Thomas Conway at Pulliam Deffenbaugh (where I had a good time talking with gallery owner Rod Pulliam as well); and finally, though I think the art is a bit too easily accessible in some ways, I did like Carolyn Cole at the Butters Gallery as well.

Now we're on Bainbridge Island after a trip through the UW School of Dentistry yesterday — a cricle of hell I don't recommend — and a long wait for the ferry. Not going to see any theater tonight, sadly; I think people want to see the movie The Savages. Going to recover blogging capacity soon. Still reading Guardian theater blogs and other theater things, still thinking, still reading a lot of books. Reporting on those things to come.

Hey fans, I know you're out there, waiting with baited breath. Hopefully, Molly will liveblog the Oscars tomorrow! Because I know she wants to comment on people's fashion choices ...

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us Photo by Cliff Coles; click for larger image of Hal (Quinn Mattfeld), Robert (Wesley Bishop) and Catherine (Kate Cook).

Ghosts and Puzzles
Proof requires leaps of faith
by Suzi Steffen

Games: Number games, word games, logic games … mind games.

The math and science geeks I know play many games to occupy their speedy brains. In David Auburn’s Proof, the author creates a high-stakes emotional game for mathematicians, with intuitive connections that his main character desperately needs others to make — leaps that they, poor fools, can’t quite complete.

Proof played at the Lord Leebrick Theatre a few years ago, and it’s brought back to Eugene on the cavernous Soreng stage by brave soul Kirk Boyd, artistic director of the Willamette Rep. Boyd is stuck with a ridiculous space, but he has a talent for choosing plays that both challenge and please his audience. Proof fits the playbill. The audience gasped, oohed and aahed many times the night I went to the play, demonstrating that most saw neither the Leebrick production nor the 2005 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s charming and rewarding for the actors and director Pat Patton, an experienced Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor and director.

But is their enthusiasm warranted? The script, despite its Tony Award, has some problems with characterization. The actors at the Rep deal half-successfully with those issues, but the play’s games still have the power to affect and move an audience.

The puzzle the playwright creates revolves around the reconstruction of a time when Catherine (Kate Cook) tried to escape the vortex of her father Robert’s insanity for a life of her own. Robert (Wesley Bishop) was a brilliant mathematician, still venerated by students and colleagues, whose severe psychosis destroyed his career. He has a few months of clarity in the midst of decades of madness, and that time serves as a touchstone to the later setting of the play, when Robert has just died.

Auburn wrote the script, according to director Patton, after learning that “a number of famous mathematicians had suffered from mental illness.” Well, sure. So have a number of unknown mathematicians — along with people who can’t balance their checkbooks. Auburn exploits our fascination with mad geniuses through his characterization both of Robert and of Catherine. The smart, lonely young woman fears she may have inherited her father’s madness, and her older sister Claire (Megan Smith) worries about that too.

Claire’s a thankless role, one that Smith plays with an unfortunate accent and attitude (along with unsuitably frumpy costumes). Claire took care of Robert and Catherine financially while avoiding the emotional strain of dealing with them. She flies in for the funeral to dispose of everything and whisk Catherine off to New York — which is “so much more fun” than “dead” Chicago. To emphasize the “dead” theme, scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson provides unseasonable dry leaves beside a strong yet dilapidated back porch.

But there’s life in Chicago yet: Interspersed with the stilted interactions between the two sisters are Catherine’s flirtations with Hal (Quinn Mattfeld, quite the most solid actor in this show) and remembered moments with Robert. Bishop, playing a mad/sane/mad father and genius, can’t resist chewing some scenery but provides a few touching moments as well.

Mattfeld goes a long way toward helping Cook, as Catherine, settle down. She’s all brittle cheekbones and oddly clipped phrases in the beginning, perhaps trying to show Catherine’s potential instability, but her gawkiness and wild-eyed stares leave the audience confused about why Hal would find her attractive.

And is Catherine delusional? Auburn balances that question through to the end, with feints and flashbacks slowly providing the clues to the puzzle’s solution. Cook must dance a highwire of depicting Catherine’s neediness without making her pitiful. She’s lived in hell with her father, but she won’t find heaven in New York or in Hal’s arms. As the audience learns the truth, Catherine must find a way out of her father’s shadow and into her own life.

********
Proof runs through Feb. 24 at the Willamette Repertory Theatre. Tix at www.hultcenter.org or 682-5000.

Cashing Out
Uneven showcase of Johnny Cash songs at ACE
By Chuck Adams

Inside the campy, country-fried restaurant set that decorates Actors Cabaret of Eugene, the lights turn up onstage and out walk 11 actors who proclaim, one by one, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash!”

The moment is quite touching, echoing both the refrains of “I’m Spartacus!” from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Todd Haynes’ critically acclaimed film on the life and songs of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, which uses six actors to portray the rabble-rouser in various incarnations. The scene that opens Ring of Fire is supposed to be in tribute to Cash, who began nearly every concert with this greeting. But Ring of Fire is not a tribute to Johnny Cash; it is a tribute to the story in the songs he wrote.

This distinction is important, for it sets the parameters. This is not Walk the Line: The Musical, nor is it a strictly biographical telling of Cash’s life through musical numbers. Ring of Fire, which recently ended its run on Broadway, takes 38 songs from Cash’s repertoire and arranges them in somewhat thematic order, from “Country Boy” farmer’s son to “I’ve Been Everywhere” internationally touring country legend. ACE has decided to trim five songs from the Broadway production; sadly, one of the five includes Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” a fragile, heartbreaking late-career masterpiece. But cutting “Hurt” is in keeping with what appears to be ACE’s intent, which is to put a happy face on a terribly pained musician’s songs. The effect should offend serious Cash fans.
(click on the video below to watch Johnny Cash's video for "Hurt")

Cash’s youth spent in the Arkansas fields with his family, the trauma surrounding his brother’s death, his wooing of June Carter, his time spent in prison and his own personal redemption, as sung in “I Walk The Line,” are all noted here, sure enough. But the backstory is not. When Act Two opens up with the male actors in a prison setting, the story between the songs is scrapped. Without knowing Cash’s own biography, his struggle with drug abuse, alcoholism and marital strife, the songs become empty vessels for drama. This same strategy was employed with Beatles songs in the recent film Across the Universe. Like the songs in that film, the cover songs in Ring of Fire only spurs a desire to hear the originals.

And how about the music? Recorded by Don Kelley (who is both the musical director and part of the acting ensemble) and then piped in from backstage, the instrumentals (which sound fine enough) are kept quiet they don’t trump the actors’ singing voices. Normally I’m not a fan of microphones, but they would have helped this production. Some actors had trouble with projection while others simply did not have the vocal talent to convincingly deliver Cash’s songs (performer of “Ring of Fire” and “Man in Black,” I’m looking at you).

Nevertheless there are fine performances from the female actors, particularly Amanda Fackrell, who nails down the Southern accent required for Cash’s country songs but also the deep down soul of Cash’s entire enterprise. Fackrell’s voice is crisp in the intimate space at ACE, and more of her genuine theatrics could be spread around the rest of the production.

A pit band was also badly missing from the show. Removing the Man in Black himself from the production is one thing, but also to remove the auditory delight of his music performed live is to leave only his lyrics coming out of the lips of actors on a stage. A majority of the songs come out cold when they should be energetic. The show does briefly pick up steam during ensemble songs like “Daddy Sang Bass” and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the latter probably the first time when both actors and audience are having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it’s also the final song of the show.

Ring of Fire runs through Feb. 23. Tickets available at www.actorscabaret.org or 683-4368.

Here's my review of The Very Little Theatre's Awake and Sing!:

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Jake (Bary Shaw), Morty (Fred Gorelick) and Hennie (Zoe Grobart)

(Click on the photo for a larger image; credit to John Bauguess for the photo.)

Singin’ Bout Revolution
The VLT takes on an American classic
By Suzi Steffen

How much do the children of immigrants owe to the sacrifices of their parents? How does an acting troupe recreate a time when a telephone was a luxury and a room of one’s own merely a dream? And why is a community theater in Eugene trying to bring to life 1930s working-class Jewish life in the Bronx?

The Very Little Theatre addresses the first question and gives the other two tasks a tremendous try in its production of Awake and Sing!, the most famous and successful play of socialist playwright Clifford Odets. If the pacing and some of the acting aren’t quite up to the task of recreating the faded, cramped atmosphere of the script, that’s not surprising. And though the effort shines through, what doesn’t quite occur might be more important: Is the play relevant? This show doesn’t make that clear, which is regrettable, for issues of intergenerational conflict and the price of breaking dreams couldn’t be more relevant to our recession-prone, immigrant-bashing times.

Right-wingers call Odets’ work mere propaganda, but that’s far from the case in this play. The story of the Berger family depends more on the personal and less on the political. Unfortunately, some of those personalities couldn’t be more annoying.

That’s especially true of the parents, Bessie (Penta Swanson) and Myron (Steve Mandell). Swanson exaggerates a beat too long with every gesture and every statement. True, Bessie should be an overwhelming, smothering character, and some in the audience won’t be familiar with the New York Jewish mother stereotype, but that’s no reason to embellish her character quite so much. Director James Aday needs to reel in this hyperbole. And he needs to help Mandell overcome his self-conscious tics and settle into a more generous interpretation of the weak-willed Myron. Right now, neither character earns audience sympathy, and that’s surely not what Odets intended.

Bessie’s father Jacob (Bary Shaw), a Russian immigrant who believes in solidarity and redemption, says early on, “If this life leads to revolution, it’s a good life.” He means the Great Depression, the life that’s forcing evictions in their street every day, the life that terrifies Bessie. But he also means his own life, the one he’s leading as the constantly abused, poverty-stricken elder trying to enjoy his books and music in his small room, for the use of which his capitalist son Morty (Fred Gorelick) pays Bessie. Meanwhile, his whiny grandson Ralph (Kory Weimar) sleeps on the daybed, and his lushly pretty but frustrated granddaughter Hennie (Zoe Grobart) fends off the attention of indolent boarder Moe (Patric Knight) and hapless but hardworking Sam (Greg Gumbs).

Shaw’s the strongest actor of those living in the apartment, at ease on stage, calm and comfortable in his skin. But Grandpa Jake shouldn’t be quite as relaxed and thoughtful as Shaw indicates; after all, the man as written can’t even defend himself against the insults of his daughter or the jibes of his successful and wealthy son. As that son — well-to-do, self-satisfied Uncle Morty — Fred Gorelick best suits his part. His venality, his ability to disregard and run roughshod over others in his pursuit of the almighty dollar, his sleek appearance and his rapacious appetites all create the portrait Odets wanted us to see of a conniving, scheming union-buster who would even sell out his nephew.

Several central plot points press upon modern audiences our luck in having medical options, privileges, material goods, an ability to communicate instantly. But the necessity of making hard choices about survival, about breaking free of familial constraints while remaining humane, about pursuing an American dream in the midst of economic uncertainty — those haven’t changed. In the play, the perennial and particularly American belief in forging destiny means tossing away the advice, the sacrifices and even the love of previous generations. Should you see the play? If you’ve made out all right in the capitalist economy and have some patience for slow pacing, then go, consider the issues and, perhaps, undergo your own awakening.

Awake and Sing! runs through Feb. 9. Tix available at 344-7751. Two Talk-Back sessions run on Thursday, Jan. 31, and Sunday, Feb. 3, for those who want to hear more about the play’s setting.

Here is Anna Grace's review of the Lord Leebrick Theatre's production of Memory House. As usual, the review will pub in this week's paper. Photo of Katia (lying down, Miranda Schmidt) and Maggie (Kim Donahey) courtesy Lord Leebrick Theatre.

Troubled Waters
Can baking and writing transform one freighted night?
By Anna Grace

Memory House is a study in the frustration of writing, remembering, dealing with relationships — and making blueberry pie.

This complex play, now running at the Lord Leebrick Theatre, is about a mother and the daughter she adopted from Russia. Katia (Miranda Schmidt) must finish her college application essay and have it postmarked by midnight on this New Year’s Eve if she is to stand a chance at getting into her first choice school. Maggie (Kim Donahey) must confront her own disappointing past in an effort to help her daughter discover memories of her own.

Read more.

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