Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Ten Theatre Going Experiences of 2011

Theatre practitioners frequently pass through an apathetic audience member phase. They do not want to devote their recreation hours to their work. They cannot shut off their inner critic. Either they nit pick a show to death as it transpires before them or they turn the experience into a prediction game. Moreover, theatre tickets are expensive. I sympathize. Nevertheless, seeing shows is part of the work. In addition, the work is not just about staying current, scouting talent, and stealing. When you watch a show, you practice listening, you gain comfort with the public expression of emotion, and you observe the strangers known as your fellow audience members. Linklater helps. Watch with your mouth open, lips slightly parted, and tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth. Go with friends. Go alone. Go, go, go.

I am always going to remember the shows I worked on in 2011. I want to reflect on the shows I saw as an audience member: the shows that touched my heart in ways I had not known were missing: the shows where the crowd was carried away: the shows that inspired. Besides, I am kind of a list junkie, slap “top ten” in front of something and the chances that I will read it go up at least forty percent. I hope you’re a sucker for “top ten” too. Therefore, this is a list of my best theatre going experiences of 2011.

by Bill Cain
directed by Bill Rauch
@ Arena Stage
Equivocation was a revelation: thought provoking, tender, and outrageously funny. A commission from Robert Cecil on behalf of King James takes Shakespeare and the King’s Men into the belly of the governmental beast. Yes, there are many jokes that having a Master’s degree in Early Modern Drama will help you to catch. Yes, there are many jokes aimed at theatre practitioners. However in this dense and intricate fast-paced production; neither is a requirement. Apparently, there are a good many jokes for Catholics and Jesuits or so a review in the Catholic magazine America tells me.

José Rivera advises playwrights not to fear the big themes. Bill Cain is brave. Equivocation takes on torture, the reformation, terrorism, our relationship to God, parents and children, mentorship, grief, and accountability. Cain is structurally daring as well. Doubling not only deepens the resonance between characters (i.e. the flawed but sage-like priest Garnett and the flawed but fatherly leading actor Richard Burbage) but also allows scenes to morph before us from depiction to memory to the King’s Men performance of the experience. Equivocation trusts theatrical magic. It would not work as a movie. I left Equivocation deliriously happy and humbled that I have chosen the profession of Shakespeare, of the King’s Men, of Rauch, of Cain, of Equivocation’s cast.

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
directed by Amanda Dehnert
@ Oregon Shakespeare Festival

There are quite a few Julius Caesar haters in my graduate program. They baffle me. Sure, the play fails the Bechdel test with its two marginalized female characters that never speak to each other. Yes, the argument over who pays the troops is hard to follow and hard to care about. Yes, the people come off as morons. I still love Julius Caesar. Obligatory personal disclaimers: Julius Caesar is the first play I acted in and the first play I directed for an actual paycheck: we have a history.

Still Julius Caesar gripped you by the chest and threw you around. The play had immediacy. The costume design was all muted earth tone cold weather disaffected hipster with high fashion touches. There were the faintest traces of Benazir Bhutto and Princess Leigha in Caesar’s clothing. The clothes had rank, style, and personality. The set was paint cans, workbenches, and rehearsal chairs. Dehnert staged the show in the round to further emphasize the political sphere as an arena. Actors sat in the corners, observers awaiting their entrances. We were in this world together. Beneath the power politics of Julius Caesar however is a desperate yearning, to fulfill one’s destiny, to achieve, to serve one’s nation, to prove a loyal friend. Forgive another Rivera reference. He urges dramatists to remember that “character is the embodiment of obsession. A character must be stupendously hungry.” Julius Caesar at OSF got this. Hard core. Bad ass.

The Language Archive
by Julia Cho
directed by Laurie Woolery
@ Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A guide dog in the house is a good sign. If you do not enjoy the production, you can just stare at the cute animal and entertain warm fuzzy contemplations of our interconnectedness. However, even my love of puppies could not wrench my eyes from Language Archive. Moreover, the play provides all the warm fuzzy contemplations of our interconnectedness you could desire. Confessions from a disconnected marriage start the piece. The wife cries all the time and leaves her husband secret messages, riddles of her heartache. The husband buries himself in work preserving dying languages. He does not know it but his assistant carries a torch for him, setting aside her own dreams to devote herself to him. A suicidal old man and a love for fresh baked bread rescue the wife. A language teacher frees the assistant. In addition, an old forever quarreling couple that happen to be the last speakers of their language goad the husband along his emotional journey. Ever experienced unrequited love? Ever fallen out of love? Ever fallen in love? Ever lasted in love? If your answer is “yes” to any or all of the above then The Language Archive is for you. Tears ran down my face. It felt wonderful. And just my luck, the guide dog stayed for the end too. 

Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
directed by James Ricks
@ Henley Street Theatre

If you make plays, you frequently end up choosing what play to go see by whom your friends are. That is how a car full of us ended up driving two hours to see a production of Waiting for Godot. Our friend was playing Estragon. As we had seen his show stealing turn as Leonato in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, earlier that year, we had high hopes. Captivating performances from the entire ensemble rewarded our optimism. Sometimes the character’s perseverance filled you with hope. Other times you winced as though caught in horror at laughing at a suicide note. Moreover, I confess, the giggles from our party were just a split second ahead of the joke. We just knew Estragon that well. Sorry other patrons. Sometimes you cannot hold in your love or your laughter.

August Osage County
by Tracy Letts
directed by Christopher Liam Moore @ Oregon Shakespeare Festival
directed by Patrick Smith @ Oak Grove

I had the good fortune to see both a stellar professional production and a noble community theatre production of August Osage County. I got my snazzy A+ seating ticket to August through staff rush. The man next to me asked when I had gotten my ticket. Just a few minutes before, I replied. He explained that my seat had belonged to his wife. She had gotten sick and he had turned her ticket back in that night. I told him I hoped his wife felt better soon but appreciated their consideration in turning the ticket back in. He wanted to hear about my internship. I learned about his son, an equity actor in Seattle. We laughed, cried, and exclaimed under our breath through the spellbinding three hours of family drama. At the end of the show, we shook hands and exchanged “good to meet ya’s.”

A few months later I almost did not go see August again. Even though it was outdoors, a friend of mine was in the role of Little Charles, and another friend invited me. I feared my over active critic would run a side by side comparison all night long. I came to my senses. Stopped being a spoilsport and accepted that I should go. And, Oh. My. God. 

There were maybe 18 people in the audience and everyone had a connection to the performance. There were the undergraduate girls watching their professor play Violet Weston. There were the high schoolers watching their friend play Violet’s granddaughter, Jean Fordham. Perhaps, familiarity bred permission. Perhaps, few of the high schoolers or undergrads had been to a play before. Perhaps, the plot twists in August are just that shocking. The audience shrieked, laughed, talked back at the performers. It was crazy. The audience was their own show.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Preview Performance)
by William Shakespeare
directed by Kate Powers
@ American Shakespeare Center
Almost Blasphemy Tour

Another packed house at the American Shakespeare Festival. Rather than sitting up in the balcony, I sat alone downstairs. Except no one was alone during Midsummer. Laughter created community as we giggled, squealed, and convulsed over this madcap story of love and transformation. Previews tend to attract hard core ASC fans; people who want to laugh, who want to love the show, who are familiar with the ASC aesthetic and at home in the playhouse. It is a rowdy crowd, one that knows Midsummer. Not this Midsummer. Sure, the contrast between the Indian inspired costumes and dance choreography of the fairies and the Elizabethan dress showed a little more of a directorial hand than the ASC usually cops to. However, these smart design choices were only part of what excited the crowd that night. Mostly it was the steady stream of showstoppers in the second act. There were the normal ones: the Helena-Hermia face off and the rude mechanicals' play. But there was also the literal rocking of the ground by the newly reunited Oberon and Titania, the rock rendition of the fairies blessing, and Puck’s freestyle break dancing to cover Titania’s costume change into Hippolita. Nothing like being in a crowd of strangers who feel like friends discovering a classic is even better than you thought it was.

Trick to Catch the Old One (Closing Performance)
by Thomas Middleton
directed by ... who needs a director?
@ American Shakespeare Center
Actors Renaissance Season

Tiffany Stern’s scholarship on Early Modern rehearsal practices are the pretext for the American Shakespeare Center’s adventure in director free, designer free, play making. Year after year, with limited resources and a compressed rehearsal schedule, the ensemble creates bold, raucous, rousing theatre. As an audience member, I love it. As a director, I find it humbling in the best of ways and terrifying in the worst. Trick has not really been performed much in the past 400 years. Trick is surprisingly modern though. It is a city comedy. Prostitution jokes. Class jokes. Deception gags. It is a forefather of the Importance of Being Earnest, Great Gatsby, Pretty Woman genre.

I saw the closing performance of Trick. Closing nights are magical. They are poignant and daring. Trick closed back in April. I can barely remember what caused the moment that merits its inclusion on my top ten list. However, this I know, laughter stopped the show. Dead in its tracks. The performers attempted to restart, the audience drunk with power applauded their efforts, which kept it from restarting. Of course, eventually it did begin again. However, for a suspended moment the audience ran the show, rewarding the actors for an amazing performance with gleeful, riotous, thunderous laughter.  

Imaginary Invalid
by Moliere
adapted & directed by Tracy Young
@ Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ignorance can spell theatrical bliss. I knew precious little about Tracy Young’s adaptation of Imaginary Invalid. The first musical number came as a surprise. The play’s finale had that feel good in the face of death, go out and seize the day, wipe away that tear and smile sort of charm. Moving, affecting, simply wonderful cheese. The music was a love letter to Phil Specter. There was a projection of the Eiffel tower and a giant blue nude sculpture in the middle of the living room! Fantastic. The nurses of the celebrity doctor looked like something out of a Lady Gaga video. Imaginary Invalid, I will still love you tomorrow. 

Superior Donuts
by Tracy Letts
directed by Chris Baumer & Mendy St. Ours
@ Live Arts

Ticket waiting lists are great. If you get in, you will enjoy the show more for it. Psychologists have done studies. Five minutes before the start of Superior Donut’s my friend and I did not know if we would get in. Apparently, the board of directors, along with their friends and family, had chosen to attend that night. Well-dressed people were mingling all over the set. House music from the bar next door reverberated in the tiny third floor theatre. It felt like crashing a party. The show won me over. Despite the script’s reliance on the interior monologue technique that the lighting design accentuated by having a reflection spotlight to accompany each. When characters confess things within their own psyches; the confession risks them nothing. It cheapens the revelation. How about Hamlet with all those soliloquies? Hamlet is not talking to himself! Or he shouldn't be, he's talking to the audience. Furthermore, those soliloquies are not a device for delivering back-story as they are in Donuts. They had the audience. I found myself a foaming at the mouth universal lighting zealot by darkened room revelation #4. Still, the show belongs on this list. Lady’s performance was breathtaking. The characters pour over poetry and the novel as though America could really be healed through those turns of phrase, as though they could be healed. How could I not love a show that loves words that much? I couldn’t.

by Christopher Marlowe
directed by Jim Warren
@ The American Shakespeare Center

Confession, I dramaturged Tamburlaine, so this entry is a bit of a cheat. However, watching the play Saturday afternoon toward the end of the Blackfriars Conference was a highlight in an extraordinary week. I had not seen the show since opening and by that time, it felt like ancient history, time flies fast in the theatre. The Blackfriars Conference is a five day extravaganza of performances, key note speeches, paper presentations, and plenary sessions at the Blackfriars Playhouse on the subject of Early Modern drama and performance: past and present. The top scholars and competitive doctoral and graduate students pack the playhouse. They are a critical, intimidating, challenging, and hugely appreciative. The mood can be combative as the audience folds its arms, presses in, and seems to dare the actors to prove that there is something better in performance than they find on the page, that this company is as good as its hype. Tamburlaine is prepared for such a battle. The play goes for the jugular. It is relentless. It is bloody and bombastic. At the end of the second interlude, all the actors participate in a rendition of the God’s Gonna Cut You Down. The audience ends up clapping along. The actors throw down six black banners. On a bare stage, the result is spectacular. By that point, the audience is with the actors and Marlowe rewards this trust with two of the best suicide speeches in all of Early Modern drama. One in verse and one in prose for good measure as first Bajazeth then Zabina brain themselves against a cage. Bloody brilliant.