Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Five Favorite Productions

Last New Year’s Eve, I spent the day flying across the country and arrived to an empty house. I had another semester left on my MFA and was gearing up to return to rehearsal for two different productions. I was happy to be pursuing theatre, a thing I love to an irrational degree, however, there was some sorrow at the high cost of that pursuit including spending most of three years living on the opposite coast from my husband. This New Year’s Eve, my work life is every bit as full. I am about to return to rehearsal on Cressida, begin rehearsals for Feral, and am continuing to write Helen. I am every bit as stressed and scared and excited and humbled and anxious about this set of tasks as I was at the prospect of finishing my MFA. However, tonight I am at home in Portland, there is posole on the stove, and when I crawl into bed my husband will join me and my cat will insist that a purring pillow is way better than a regular pillow. And so it goes.

As a lover of lists and theater, I have decided to make a list of favorite productions or theater going experiences a New Year’s Eve tradition. Last year I wrote on ten, this year I realized that I had already written more than anyone was going to read in regard to five; so I switched my top ten list to a five favorites list. Isn’t alliteration the best? Happy New Years! And to everyone who reads this, thanks. 

1) Party People
directed by Liesel Tommy
at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Party People was the BEST: moving, daring, inspiring, smart, sexy, serious, full of sound and fury signifying plenty. The plot revolves around two young artists putting on a gallery exhibition about the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Veterans of those movements are brought together for the first time in decades, and wounds that perhaps never closed are stretched open. A cursory plot synopsis cannot do justice to the theatrical experience of Party People, which is as much a dance and spoken word piece as a multi-media narrative. Party People raises potent issues of the recent past as well as the present--what became of the civil rights dream, what did the rise and fall of militant freedom movements signal, and what of the counterrevolution that the CIA and the drug war ushered in?

Party People also engaged my inner theatre theorist. Shakespeare mostly owns the history play genre, with ten plays named for English monarchs. Though Shakespeare populates his plays with common folk, rebellion leaders, whores, and soothsayers, the locus of his historical vision is the king. Defined as a genre originating in Early Modern England and flourishing briefly in the 1590s, of which Shakespeare’s Henriad is the exemplar, the history play is heavily sympathetic to the “great man” theory of history. It should come as no surprise that America has never really done the history play as Shakespeare did. * Theatre based on interview projects from Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles, to Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, to Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s The Exonerated build upon a vision of history grounded in social history and our post-modern preoccupation with contradiction, the problematic nature of memory, multiplicity of sources, and fragmentary nature of texts. Party People seemed to offer a new trajectory for the history play, a transcendent one whose like I hope to see again.

2) Body of an American
by Dan O’Brien
directed by Bill Rauch
at Portland Center Stage

My other favorite play of the year allows me to continue to geek out over the subject of history play. Body of an American recounts the relationship of Dan, a young writer, and Paul, an older photographer and war reporter. Dan is based on the playwright, while Paul is based on journalist Paul Watson, who snapped the infamous Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia during the 1994 U.S. military operation. Two actors share the roles of Dan and Paul, as well as a host of other people from an Eskimo artist to a Somali cab driver to NPR’s Fresh Air host, Terry Gross. The program notes explained that through the doubling and sharing of roles, the play hoped to deconstruct the traditional one-man show and reveal something of the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder. The success of the script dividing characters in this way depended in large part upon the vocal virtuosity of the actors, who shifted roles swiftly without the visual aid of costume changes.  Luckily, the actors were extraordinary. The show felt like a radical return to theater’s storytelling roots. Here was a show not afraid of narration, not afraid to speak directly to the audience. Though there were many scenes in which the actors relate to each other as separate distinct characters, the passages in which they seem to jointly soliloquize drew me into the story, as if bundling up before the proverbial campfires of an older time.

That the one-man show is to theater what memoir is to literature may not be an original observation, but it is a useful one, especially for this show. The Body of an American is really Dan’s memoir as his sense of himself and the world, expanded through his complicated relationship to the complicated Paul. The play flashes back and forth between a miniature and a monumental scale; the day to day and the geopolitical. What does it mean to bear witness? What is the price? How do we cope with our own mortality, with loss, with love, with family? The Body of an American is simply a remarkable play, and I hope that it will enjoy another production soon.

3) Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (M/M/C)
adapted and directed by Bill Rauch & Tracy Young
at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

My top three choices of 2012 all confirm my card-carrying nerdom: a transcendent spoken word-dance-multimedia performance piece on the systematic dissolution of the Black and Puerto Rican freedom movements, a deconstruction of the one-man show that contemplates the savagery of geopolitics and the psyche, and a parallel-fusion production of three classic tales of ambition. Yeah, I like the heavy stuff. 

The show was simply one of the most impressive spectacles I have ever witnessed. The black monumental set shared the epic beauty and simple grandeur of Adolphe Appia’s designs for Wagner’s operas. Tradition was on display throughout this radical production: the Grecian robes and giant masks deployed for Medea, the Highlander hair and kilts for Macbeth, and the happy pageantry of pastels for Cinderella. Roger and Hammerstein’s score took turns with the raucous energy of the music written for Medea, a musical for which there is no surviving score. This gesture toward classical cultural assumptions of what each play looked like served to keep the stories familiar and separate. For the first two thirds of the production, most of the joy of watching derived from marveling at how amazingly on point every actor had to be to keep all the wheels spinning. One of the greatest kernels of wisdom a professor ever shared with me was this: some plays rely on the illusion that acting is easy, others rely on our understanding that acting is hard. Medea at one point says “I am in agony”; no one can think that the emotional heights an actor must scale to deliver a line like that convincingly are easy (and Miriam Laube was phenomenal in M/M/C as Medea). In the final third of the production, the actors appeared in character but out of ‘costume,’ wearing all blacks, wigs removed, beards shed.

The stripping down of spectacle in these final movements hinted at the truth in all three plays’ observations of ambition, how it drives us, and its potential price to our humanity. I found the appearance of the actor after this change especially striking in the case of Lady Macbeth and Cinderella. Chris Moore played Lady Macbeth. His original costume made him look like a living copy of the iconic John Singer Sargent painting, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. (For OSF regulars, the costume may have hearkened back to another male performer’s turn as Lady M, that of Greg Linington in Equivocation.) When Chris came out, sans wig, to do the “out, out, damn spot” scene wearing jeans and a t-shirt, it was not anything so simple as “surprise, a guy.” I would wager most of the audience, even those who did not read their program, already knew that. The costuming had not so much hidden that Chris was a man as emphasized that Lady Macbeth is a woman. Asking the audience to accept or remember (since men originally played all the parts in Shakespeare) a male Lady Macbeth at this late stage in the play was a brave choice, made all the braver by the tenderness of this woman trying to wash away the imagined blood of an old man. The other difference that really hit me is seemingly much more trivial. Laura Griffith wore a blonde wig as Cinderella--a really good wig, which totally deceived this patron. The actress was actually a brunette, or at least she was when I saw the show. I am still puzzling over why this unmasking seemed so poignant; my guess is that it has something to do with the reminder that theater is a business and just like television and film there is a hyper-policing of type, particularly type as it relates to “classic” characters like Cinderella.

I would have happily seen Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella three times over.

4) Philaster, or Love Lies a Bleeding
by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
part of the Actor’s Renaissance Season
at the American Shakespeare Center

While we are on the subject of the body, how about a very visibly pregnant actress playing a boy, who is actually a girl disguised as a boy, a fact hidden from the audience until the fifth act? Bet only a couple hundred of you have seen that before, and I bet nearly all of you saw the same production I did. Miriam Donald Burrows gave one of the most winning performances I have ever seen as Bellario or Eufrasia, the courtier’s daughter who disguises herself as a page boy to serve the heroic (and ridiculous) Philaster. The play is an adult fairytale, and the ASC navigated its strange tonal shifts, poetic demands, and serious silliness with pizzazz.

5) A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
directed by Penny Metropolis
at Portland Center Stage

Kate Power’s direction of the American Shakespeare Center’s touring troupe production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared on last year’s list. I doubted that I would see a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream anywhere close to its parallel for years. And then I saw this one. Despite the common text, comparing Kate and Penny’s plays would be a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, since their contexts and styles were so radically different. I treasure my memories of both. I have probably seen at least one production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year for the past ten years. In high school, I acted in Midsummer; in college, I stage managed Midsummer; and in grad school, I directed one high school production and co-directed one camp production with elementary and middle-schoolers. I could easily be sick of Midsummer by now, but I’m not and I doubt I ever will be.

So what made this one such a delight? Well, take twelve stellar actors, add a fanciful set and the most amazing costumes – EVER – and you would have this production. The costumes worked both as costumes (doing things like signifying status, grouping characters, and hinting at personality), and as fashion. I wanted to snap out my cell phone and text pictures of the clothes to one of my most fashionable friends throughout the production. Oberon’s cape looked like a top of gorgeous swamp grasses. Titania’s gown was a waterfall of bunched fabric that Rodin would have happily sculpted. The fairies had plants sprouting from their hair. Puck had a sculpted mane and the changeling boy an Afro, both serving as bases for fanciful plumage. Hippolyta wore the best dresses. Hermia wore capris! (Actresses in Shakespeare productions always wearing dresses or skirts is one seemingly innocuous theatrical convention that gets under my feminist skin.) When the lovers including Theseus and Hippolyta appeared on their wedding day, their tuxes and wedding gowns matched without being identical and the flower corsages in their hair recalled the fanciful ‘fros of the fairies.

I had a few bones to pick with this production. They changed Bottom’s profession from a weaver to a gardener, which strikes me as far less poetic an occupation, at least in a play of interwoven plots. They had a talented child actor onstage to frame the play as the dream of the changeling child who belongs as much to Hippolyta as Titania. (The play followed the common doubling maneuver of mechanicals as fairies, Hippolyta as Titania, and Theseus as Oberon.) The elitist Shakespeare scholar in me wanted to scream that the child had no business on that stage! Beyond the lack of textual support for the Indian boy being onstage, I reflexively dislike the easy sentimentality of adding a cute child to anything in order to make it more whimsical, meaningful, romantic, etc. (Later, while listening to Emma Smith’s excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare, I learned that Adrian Noble’s 1996 film version of Midsummer used the pajama clad boy in much the same way, so I gather my feelings on children onstage/onscreen are a minority opinion. Sigh.) I have to admit, though, that the boy was really good and his weird hair-do made his presence more tolerable.

*I sadly did not get to see Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, also at OSF and consequently do not know where Schenkkan’s treatment of LBJ lies in terms of historical theory sympathies.

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