COCK by Mike Bartlett at Defunkt Theatre

4-stars

Terrifically exciting. Fantastic cast. Killing design and direction. Thank god for defunkt. Portland’s unpredictable, uncompromising black box tears into the most exciting season in town with fascinating study of exactly what Jon wants. Boy or girl? Or both. Neither? A completely satisfying night in the hands of blindingly bright playwright.

Thru Nov 15

Theater Review | GUYS AND DOLLS at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Forget a man on the moon – how about GUYS AND DOLLS on the stage?

High atop the list of America’s all time inter galactic achievements, right up there with space travel and skyscrapers and all that computer gadgetry, one somewhat less technical but ultimately longer lasting creation deserves a place: the musical play of the mid 20th century.

And what show could better embody the living large upswing of post war America (and especially New York) than GUYS AND DOLLS (1950), now setting fire to the Bowmer Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival several times a week.

If you’re in need of some quality time with New York’s finest, take a tip from a wise guy and hop the next plane or train to Ashland, Ore-gone. Do it now before Big Jule gets mad. Or General Cartwright gets stern. Or the show sells out and there are no more seats left – which would make Big Jule happy. Or as happy as Big Jule gets…

It’s like this, see: Finding a version of Frank Loesser’s eternal hit better than Mary Zimmerman’s super saturated, pinstriped, technicolor, slicked back, dolled up and doubled down freight train of pure joy now on at OSF may prove harder than locating a free space for Nathan Detroit’s floating crap game.

The Greek’s in town, the gang’s all here (even if a few of the crew ain’t all there – if you know what I mean) and the music, lyrics and choreography are unforgettable.

Thru Nov 1

4-stars

Three reasons why resistance is futile: Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly).  Photo by Jenny Graham.
Three reasons the Bowmer is on fire: Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Daniel T. Parker), Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner), Benny Southstreet (David Kelly). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Continue reading “Theater Review | GUYS AND DOLLS at Oregon Shakespeare Festival”

Theater Review | THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Part 2 of Robert Schenkkan’s far-reaching, massive portrait of President Lyndon Baines Johnson is an epic tragedy that explores the tradeoffs and perils of governing through the unprecedented political upheavals and competing social priorities of late 1960’s America.

Following up on the wildly successful part 1 (ALL THE WAY), THE GREAT SOCIETY continues a profound and searching engagement with a key era of recent US history, some of the battle lines from which – particularly in regard to Congressional infighting over budgets – remain active today.

By looking back, Schenkkan examines who we are, asks how we got here, and dreams of what the United States could yet become.

THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan at Oregon Shakespeare Festival Thru November 1

(moves to Seattle Rep along with ALL THE WAY in December)

4-stars

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen) Photo by Jenny Graham.
A one on one – and the man in the middle. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen) Photo by Jenny Graham.

ASHLAND – It’s November 1964 and Lyndon Baines Johnson has just won a landslide (re-) election over sun belt neocon Barry Goldwater. The victory stokes Johnson’s confidence and appears to signal popular support for the raft of social programs and initiatives the 36th president inherited from Kennedy, chief of which was the recently enacted 1964 Civil Rights Act (stripped of its crucial voting rights component). As 1965 dawns, LBJ moves full steam ahead toward the next item on his to do list, which is the War on Poverty, to be followed (at some point) by the Voting Rights Act.

And then, as Johnson may have told it in his hill country, down home Texan delivery, the proverbial doodoo started to clog up the chicken house fan.

President Johnson (Jack Willis) dictates a letter to the parents of a soldier lost in the fighting in Vietnam. Photo by Jenny Graham.
President Johnson (Jack Willis) dictates a letter to the parents of a soldier lost in the fighting in Vietnam. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Over the next few years, when America truly seemed to be falling apart, Johnson found his legislative agenda caught in a tug of war between southern Democrats (soon to flee the party), northern liberals, and the growing power of organized black American groups. Meanwhile the American attack on Viet Nam was heating up, which limited available funds for other programs and also guaranteed that millions of middle class college students, still subject to the draft, were going to get deeply involved in active protest on numerous fronts. In short, it was a perfect storm of conditions to bring important, simmering national conflicts to a head and drive millions of people into the political forum in a way they had never experienced before. Welcome to the 1960’s. We hope you enjoy your stay.

To deepen the drama of the time, it was not only the established authority that was fracturing and facing revolt. In an interesting mirroring of Johnson’s dilemma and the competing priorities and constituencies that daily ate away at his political effectiveness, over in the black community Martin Luther King was himself caught in a crossfire between his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Committee), dedicated to non-violence, and the emerging black power movement and more radical forces who were disappointed with King’s ability to deliver real reform and turning toward open promotion of violence. And so you had these two monumental figures, Johnson and King, trying to work together, each severely hemmed in by their own power bases, often making decisions based on what was possible or needed in the moment – which was not necessarily what they wanted to do.

And that’s what political power, Schenkkan’s main subject in THE GREAT SOCIETY, which opened last Sunday at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a spectacular production directed by Bill Rauch, is all about.

In the abstract, it’s fine to talk about what you wish you could do or achieve. But given the reality of events and political calculus, especially at a moment of such chaos as the late 1960’s, what are figures actually able to achieve in the daily fray? There’s a quote floating around somewhere in materials in Ashland to the effect that “The second you get power, it starts to slip away through your fingers.” We imagine a US president or movement leader like MLK to be all powerful. But reality is different. And a lot of the appeal of this latest installment in Schenkkan’s cycle is watching as both Johnson and King (to channel LBJ again) get dragged horribly by their respective horses toward outcomes and events that no one wanted. Maybe that’s what history is.

With so much to cover in 1965-1968, how does Schenkkan organize his narrative frame? To simplify: Act 1 covers the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Act 2 follows the Skokie march and riots in Chicago, and in Act 3 all action converges in King’s decision to turn publicly against Johnson’s war in Viet Nam, the setbacks of Tet, slashed budgets for Johnson programs, and LBJ’s ultimate decision to not run in 1968 and the (to be short-lived) ascent of Richard Milhous Nixon. If it sounds like a lot to cover, it is. The play could easily expand to twice the length and not fall short of material.

The style of epic theatre Schenkkan uses is familiar from THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, which covered 200 years of a family’s life in Appalachia and won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize way back in 1993. In THE GREAT SOCIETY, the entire 16 person cast sits on stage in a half ring of raked seats most of the time as witnesses to the main action. Actors stand and enter their scenes, then return to sit and watch. The effect is to heighten the theatrical event and suggest the different roles figures were playing – knowingly or not – at the time. Scenery is minimal, but a series of projected newsreel images throughout the show quickly convey the setting and the high stakes.

Also similar to THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, which is theatre’s version of an action movie if ever there was one, THE GREAT SOCIETY moves at top speed, hurtling onwards. There is hardly a slack moment in over three hours of drama, and for such a big story and enormous canvas, the approach works well. Each scene, new piece of information, or revelation is touched on and then quickly put aside. Perhaps we as the audience feel a little like contemporaries of the actual events as one thing after another happened, only to be replaced by something more urgent and consequential. Schenkkan is a master of one and two line scenes that quickly shift focus. Reading some of the dialogue on the page, you are struck by the brevity of the writing, but onstage with characters in motion and a lot of the forward-leaning drama occurring inside the audience’s minds as they absorb the impact of what just happened and anticipate what is coming, it all works brilliantly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer about the Voting Rights Act. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen) Photo by Jenny Graham.
This two play cycle is really about two key figures. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer about the Voting Rights Act. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen) Photo by Jenny Graham.

So who’s who in this larger than life tale? Many actors play more than one role, but here are a few of the big ones.

There’s Johnson, a large and booming Jack Willis. Willis expertly shuffles personnel, priorities, and the press, switching instantly back and forth between down home humor and seriousness. Willis is perhaps a bit too friendly in his portrayal of LBJ, who is very hard not to like here, even at the end. And yet there was something about either the man or the times that turned millions against him, which we do not completely understand here. We do not get to see the ruin that LBJ became. Here he seems a little too chipper to the end, cracking wise to the end when Nixon comes in ready to takeover. At times the war does come home to LBJ, such as during a terrible moment when his black secretary’s son is killed in Viet Nam. But the famously broken LBJ collapsed in anguish in the White House as he listens to recorded tape from Captain Charles Robb in Viet Nam is not one that makes an appearance in the play.

LBJ in July of 1968 hearing the bad news about Viet Nam.  We do not see this broken side of him in THE GREAT SOCIETY.
LBJ in July of 1968 hearing the bad news about Viet Nam. We do not see this broken side of him in THE GREAT SOCIETY.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) considers the cost of the movement. Photo by Jenny Graham.
A towering performance from Kenajuan Bentley as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Kenajuan Bentley is an utterly mesmerizing MLK. You only have to listen to a line or two of King’s actual recorded voice and it sends shivers down your spine (or at least it does mine). Bentley, who was equally unforgettable in Lynn Nottage’s RUINED in 2010, brings the same gravitas visually to his portrayal of the doomed preacher. It’s very hard to look away from Bentley when he is on stage, so strong is the fascination of catching even a glimpse of the real MLK through him.

Schenkkan’s two play cycle is billed as being primarily about LBJ, but it is really about two equally tragic figures – Johnson and King. And you could argue that King is the more important and interesting of the two. Bentley is giving a dazzling performance here that is every bit as great as Willis’s and may actually be the more important one to the overall success of the project. In Act 2, as the march in Chicago looms and LBJ desperately urges MLK to hold his movement back and be more patient for change to come, the President says: “Rome was not built in a day.” King’s response is both poetic and prophetic: “But it can be burned down in one.”

Later, after the failure of the Chicago campaign, in one of the most moving moments of the play, we watch King as he thinks out loud to himself in front of his lieutenants and discovers where the real barriers – and thus areas to attack – are.

“I fundamentally misunderstood Chicago. It’s not about improving the ghettoes. You can’t. The problem, the real problem is this web of unspoken agreements between the city, the realtors, and the banks that keep our people trapped. We need to break out of these cement reservations. Why waste our time fighting over the pittance of poverty funds allocated to our broken down schools when we could just move into white neighborhoods where the schools already work!”

Of course, hearing that, any theatre person is instantly reminded of two other great American plays: Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN in 1959 (which King could have seen – did he?) and Bruce Norris’s CLYBOURNE PARK in 2010.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) learns that the he grossly underestimated the extent of the hatred, racism and brutality in Chicago and the North. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) learns that the he grossly underestimated the extent of the hatred, racism and brutality in Chicago and the North. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Peter Frechette is a hyper energetic, jittery VP Hubert Humphrey. The lot of the veep is always to simultaneously support the commander in chief but also actually do something of their own, and Humphrey darts in and out of the shadows, serving as a sounding board but also errand boy, taking initiative one moment only to get slammed down the next.

Danforth Comins shines as LBJ arch nemesis and yet supposed Democratic ally Senator Bobby Kennedy. LBJ and RFK are constantly at each other’s throats – or at least poised with daggers raised behind the other’s back.

As the gruesomely bigoted Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Jonathan Haugen channels cold hatred and calculating duplicity like nobody’s business.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, here ably played by Mark Murphey, is an earnest, immaculately organized corporation man, equally comfortable escalating the war or heading off to run the World Bank. Near the end, there is a devastating moment when McNamara, who has pushed LBJ into the Viet Nam commitment, clinically tells the President that, well, it hasn’t worked and we should get out.

Then there’s J. Edgar Hoover, the paranoid hobgoblin that LBJ put way too much trust in. Richard Elmore wears a frown you could park a tractor in. It must take real work to project such a sour look. Of LBJ’s many mistakes, you sense that one of his worst, for how it played into internal surveillance and Cointelpro, was his faith in “Jay”.

Longtime OSF vet Michael J. Hume plays Senator Everett Dirksen, Republican Senate Minority Leader from Illinois, with his usual cutting humor and zing. During one memorable drubbing Dirksen gives LBJ about budget cutting and spending on social programs (sound familiar?), LBJ says he’s going to close some military bases that are no longer needed to save money. Quick as a whip, Dirksen shoots back “None in Illinois, I trust.” Right there with him in brinksmanship, LBJ fires back a warning: “Still in the process of sortin’ that out.”

Denis Arndt is excellent as Chicago’s Richard J. Daley. Mayor Daley seems unflappable at first, but as marches and actions come to Chicago and Skokie ignites, he goes into war mode. It’s easy to imagine him dropping the hammer on protesters later in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention after what he experienced in 1965-66.

There are many more excellent performances in the large 16 person cast.

In the end, there is simply too much to cover in one play. In 1968 we skip ahead to the election, and the assassinations of RFK and MLK are not shown and feel like gaps. We need much more closure around those events than we could get in a few minutes of coverage, so maybe Schenkkan is right to put them off (for another future sequel?).

The man behind the curtain.  Seattleite Robert Schenkkan.
The man behind the curtain. Seattleite Robert Schenkkan.

Good plays do not so much answer questions as ask them. And it is much to the credit of Robert Schenkkan and THE GREAT SOCIETY that even after over three hours of drama, you leave the theater buzzing with enough big, meaningful, unanswered questions to fill another three (or six, or 12). It is the interaction between the individual and “history” (which is a fiction that does not exist) that provides the most fertile dramatic material. All of history is nothing in the end but two characters talking about something – usually deciding what they are going to do next. Schenkkan makes the most of several taut, close up encounters between giant figures. Humorously, sometimes the answer about what to do, even when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be and the characters involved are national leaders, is one that may be familiar enough to the rest of us in our own lives: “I have no fucking idea.”

When the lights came on at around 4:15 PM on opening day and we had to file out into the screaming late July Ashland sun, I was a little sad that we weren’t heading off on a dinner break before returning to follow the story ever onward – through Nixon, and Ford, and Carter. And then maybe even closer to our own time? Schenkkan powerfully suggests that many of the issues at the center of the LBJ epic are still in play today. And the biggest story of all – what is going to happen next? – interests every one of us.

The scope and ambition here to create a national theater for America is breathtaking. Where else can we have conversations like this today in the theater? Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the few places in America where stories of this scale can still be created and shared with a large audience. We are incredibly lucky as Oregonians to have this kind of national artistic treasure tucked away in the Rogue Valley.

America has made huge strides on racism and integration. We can take pride in how much better things are even if there is still a long way to go, especially in whitey white Portland. And yet sadly, when it comes to the war industrial complex, not only did we not learn anything from Viet Nam, the addiction to war has gotten even worse in our own time. If King were still alive today, surely we could learn something from him.

“How can I continue to try to persuade our desperate young men in these despairing ghettos to put down their weapons and embrace non-violence when their own country is the greatest agent of violence in the world?”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967
Riverside Church
New York City

Review stream for THE GREAT SOCIETY:

8.28.2014 Regional Theater Review: THE GREAT SOCIETY by Joel Beers, Stage and Cinema
8.11.2014 THE GREAT SOCIETY revisits LBJ’s darkest days, but falls short by David Stabler, Oregonian
8.2.2014 THE GREAT SOCIETY of bustle of history lacking full LBJ picture by Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
7.31.2014 Just politics: LBJ again under the microscope at OSF by Robert Speer, Chico News & Reviews
7.28.2014 In enthralling GREAT SOCIETY, LBJ’s victory lap is cut short by Misha Berenson, Seattle Times

A young man (Kevin Kenerly) in Watts, CA is brutally handled by the Highway Patrol (Danforth Comins), as his friends protest (Bakesta King, Tobie Windham). Photo by Jenny Graham.
A young man (Kevin Kenerly) in Watts, CA is brutally handled by the Highway Patrol (Danforth Comins), as his friends protest (Bakesta King, Tobie Windham). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Robert McNamara (Mark Murphey), President Johnson (Jack Willis) and Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) react to the rising cost of the war. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore) Photo by Jenny Graham.
Robert McNamara (Mark Murphey), President Johnson (Jack Willis) and Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) react to the rising cost of the war. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore) Photo by Jenny Graham.
The tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Tobie Windham) haunts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley). (Ensemble, Jonathan Haugen).  Photo by Jenny Graham.
The tragic death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Tobie Windham) haunts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley). (Ensemble, Jonathan Haugen). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Theater Review | The Three Sisters of Greenwich Village | THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW by Lorraine Hansberry at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a complex, unexpected portrait of the early 1960’s

Perhaps even more moving than the story at hand, SIGN is a bittersweet reminder of all the other great American plays that might have been – had Lorraine Hansberry not died at 34

THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW at Oregon Shakespeare Festival Thru July 3

4-stars

Say you parachuted in from Mars with no knowledge of 20th century American theatre history and were hustled into a dark space to see some plays. First it’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN (maybe the production now on Broadway with Denzel Washington), and then THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW (maybe the immaculate production now on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Would you ever guess that both these works were written by the same late 20’s / early 30’s playwright? Probably not.

Pre-election at the Brustein house (Ron Menzel, Sofia Jean Gomez, Danforth Comins, Armando McClain). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Pre-election at the Brustein house (Ron Menzel, Sofia Jean Gomez, Danforth Comins, Armando McClain). Photo: Jenny Graham.

On the one hand, RAISIN, the big play about a black American family in Chicago, is well known and constantly on somewhere. On the other, SIGN, the complex portrait of social and familial turbulence in the West Village in 1964 among a mostly white cast, is rarely seen. As the two main data points left to us from Lorraine Hansberry’s brief life, the plays could not be more different in terms of the worlds and characters they investigate. They suggest a vital and wide-ranging artistic intelligence that was only getting started. And so a lot of the appeal of seeing the moving production of SIGN now on at OSF is marveling at Hansberry’s scope and ambition. You can’t help wondering what other plays she would have given us. What if she had lived to be 70 or 80? Gazing out from numerous portraits, usually with a blazing, confident smile, Hansberry looks like a stylish cosmopolitan prophet way ahead of her time – but potentially at home in any.

SIGN covers a lot of subjects: marital politics, race, class, feminism, substance abuse, political corruption, conformity and wayward traveling. If you go in expecting another “story about the 1960’s”, you’re going to be surprised – but not disappointed. For one thing, it’s 1963/4, so the full on 60’s haven’t ignited yet. There is still so much to come that the characters and indeed author don’t know about, even if we do. The lives here are more interesting than the familiar narratives of either civil rights struggle, rock and roll hedonism, anti-war protests, or back to the land communes. This is not a play about issues, it’s about puzzling, maddening, complicated people who happen to be living in a specific time and place.

Sidney (Ron Menzel) and Gloria (Vivia Font) enjoy the music, while David (Benjamin Pelteson) lingers in the kitchen. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Sidney (Ron Menzel) and Gloria (Vivia Font) enjoy the music, while David (Benjamin Pelteson) lingers in the kitchen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The setting is the Greenwich Village apartment of Iris Parodus Brustein (Sofia Jean Gomez) and her husband Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel). Iris is a struggling actor, Sidney is a failed night club entrepreneur who has recently latched on to the money-making (not) idea of buying a local newspaper. Though married, the two loudly grind the relationship gears almost constantly, and you wait for one of them to storm out or explode in frustration. Iris and Sidney are together but they don’t seem to know each other very well. It’s fascinating to watch these two try to find their notes and course in life, with limited success. Sidney is a bit of a blowhard and pushes Iris around, sometimes without realizing it. But Iris yearns for her own life and takes real steps to achieve independence, which keeps Sidney on his toes.

Around the Brustein center orbits a system of other characters. There’s David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), the gay playwright who lives upstairs and is realizing his first big success; Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins), a new politician running for reform who wants to win Sidney’s support; Alton Scales (Armando McClain), Sidney’s former communist friend; Max (Peter Frechette), the artist in a beret; and Iris’s two sisters Mavis, living a life of social conformity (at least on the outside), and Gloria (Vivia Font), a wonderfully rendered and upsetting “call girl”.

It’s a long ride (close to three hours), but I was so captivated, without being able to clearly say why, that I saw it a second time just to be sure. It holds up. This is one of those plays that is perfect for OSF and that OSF can do perfectly.

Late in act two, there is a sort of dream sequence as several of the characters whirl in a vortex of destruction and desperation. This may be one of the scenes that stays with me the most. The world we think we know of the 60’s may be out there, but inside the apartment unique stories unfold – and lives fall apart.

Lorraine, we hardly knew you. But at least you gave us these two plays to savor as we consider how much more you probably had to say.

Who knows what other stories you were dreaming up for us.
Who knows what other stories you were dreaming up for us.

THE COCOANUTS have landed | Audience powerless to resist ageless, madcap hilarity at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

THE COCOANUTS at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

4-stars

Resistance is futile.  But you can try.  Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Resistance is futile. But you can try. Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard). Photo: Jenny Graham.

Ladies and gentlemen, THE COCOANUTS have landed. Not in Florida, the setting for the 1929 Marx Brothers film that is the departure point for this newly adapted stage musical version by Mark Bedard, but much closer by, in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. And in what may prove to be one of the runaway hits of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, a cast of nuttily comic talents has taken up an irresistible and very loud residence in the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the next nine months. You have been warned.

On opening weekend at OSF, the order of shows matters. Just as any one play has a beginning, middle, and end, a group of four plays over three days works together in a certain way. Savvy planning takes maximum advantage of how to affect and entrance the audience, ultimately sending everyone home with a great overall buzz. It’s a carefully organized four act production.

Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) wait for some action at the Cocoanut Hotel.  Photo: Jenny Graham.
Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) wait for some action at the Cocoanut Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.

This year THE COCOANUTS was perfectly positioned as the main event act three on Saturday night. Diehards committed to all opening shows had already seen a solid if somewhat unexciting TEMPEST as act one on Friday, and an unforgettable rendition of the rarely produced THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW Saturday afternoon as act two. But neither of those shows could be called a comedy. And if there is one thing a full house in a theatre longs to do, especially if they have traveled from afar to be part of a multi day gala celebration (the only way to describe opening weekend at OSF), it is laugh. No force on earth is stronger than the desire of an assembled audience to laugh. And on Saturday night, the floodgates finally opened and flew right off the hinges.

There’s two parts here to the fun: the show, and the actors. While the show itself is solid and benefits from referencing a much loved film, the real attraction of COCOANUTS is a dazzling cavalcade of OSF super stars. Much as a lot of the appeal of the Marx Brothers was the Marx Brothers themselves, as opposed to the plots they found themselves enmeshed in, this is the kind of show that succeeds or fails on the strength of brilliant physical comedy. The actors have to be good enough that they can simply stand there, look at you, and it (meaning your ability to not laugh) is all over. Mission accomplished.

Detective Hennessey (David Kelly, center) has much to sing about at the wedding rehearsal dinner. Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Detective Hennessey (David Kelly, center) has much to sing about at the wedding rehearsal dinner. Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

But if there is one aspect of the structure of the show to call out, it is the reliance throughout on short but recurring, hair-raising improv segments. Like a pause at the top after a long roller coaster climb up and before the thundering descent, realizing that the cast, in front of a sold out house, is suddenly off book and airborne with no net or harness causes no small degree of terror (for us and them, no doubt). Will they pull it off? It takes that crazy moment of pure chaos first before the flipside of uncontainable joy when they bring it home. And on opening night, the improv moments were so good they should have all been scripted in for the rest of the run to save everyone some extra inches of stomach lining.

Commanding the shock troops of mirth is Mark Bedard as Mr. Hammer (Groucho). Bedard is fast, hyper attentive, and very much in control. On opening night, during one of those inevitable moments when an audience member decided that, yes, this quiet pause was finally the time to unfurl that glazed donut wrapped (in several layers) in what sounded like brittle Christmas present paper (were they a plant?), Bedard was instantly on it, instructing the poor suckah: “Yeah, go ahead and unwrap it now.” Hilarious. Along with a speechless Brent Hinkley as Harpo and John Tufts as Chico, Bedard leads his three musketeers into a night of endless technicolor laughs – and several prolonged scenes of spontaneity.

There’s plenty of madcap hi jinx and breathless shenanigans to keep the laughs rolling up the lower slopes of the mighty Siskiyou. But for some actors, just standing there, or making the slightest move, is sufficient to bring the house down.

Brent Hinkley. Even if you don’t know him by name, you know him. He’s that drunk guy with a ruddy nose, listing to and fro, or swiping at a butterfly in his underwear like an overgrown toddler. He’s the village idiot with a heart (if not brain) of gold. He’s the guy roused from sleep wearing an absurd vintage Shakepeare era sleeping cap. Hinkley is a master at filling in the borders of OSF scenes with such exquisitely funny detail that you can easily miss what is really going on, because you can’t look away from him. Hinkley is more center stage here than in other shows, but treat yourself some time and just keep your eyes on Hinkley the whole time he’s on stage and watch what he does.

With nothing in his suitcase and not a single line, Harpo (Brent Hinkley) is unforgettable.  Mr. Hammer (Mark Bedard), Chico (John Tufts) and Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer) look on. Photo: Jenny Graham.
With nothing in his suitcase and not a single line, Harpo (Brent Hinkley) is unforgettable. Mr. Hammer (Mark Bedard), Chico (John Tufts) and Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer) look on. Photo: Jenny Graham.

And another: K. T. Vogt. As the bruising, outstandingly funny Mrs. Potter, who is a mother-on-a-mission (namely get that daughter married to the fella with a future, not the desk clerk), Vogt is simply too good to be believed. Channeling some of Hinkley’s butterfly chasing elan, Vogt is often just outside the narrative (and one step behind it), frumping and woozily swinging an overloaded handbag at a world that just won’t behave. She is quite possibly the single funniest person in this show – which is saying something. Unfortunately none of the production photos feature Vogt in code red mother mode, but for anyone who has seen the show, an indelible image of her teetering around stage in a somewhat cavernous dress, hefting that god almighty handbag while trying to maintain Victorian era standards, will be burned into memory. At one precious moment, pulling the rug out from under her daughter’s infatuation with the desk clerk, Mrs. Potter clarifies that there is one way to know if he (Eduardo Placer) is “just” a clerk: “One who clerks, Polly, is a clerk.” Bam. Case closed.

But don’t answer yet. You also get David Kelly, Kate Mulligan, and Jennie Greenberry. The list goes on. But in the interest of public safety and order, we should probably stop at this point.

One more improv gem (and I don’t think this is a spoiler alert as it appeared to be a one night only event). Late in the opening performance, as considerable comedic firepower had already been deployed and wheeled off stage, funny man John Tufts was delivering some pointed comments to director David Ivers where he sat in the audience, when suddenly he said something like: “Most of this show was directed by David Ivers. Except for this part.”

Uh oh! With zero warning, there we were again at the top of that roller coaster summit, plummeting in space, holding the person next to us, or screaming with our hands held high above our heads if we were really tough. The brilliant aspect of this particular foray into the unknown is that you got the feeling Bedard did not even know what was coming. Was this purely Tufts and Hinkley, deciding to insert a little something into the center of a mainstage OSF show? Do they have to, you know, CLEAR IT WITH ANYONE BEFORE DECIDING TO DO THAT?? You’d love to know. After a long and skyborne double twisting backflip, as the landing came into view and you realized Tufts was indeed going to stick it (and the roller coaster was going to stay on the tracks), Bedard could do nothing but stare deadpan at the audience for a good minute of hysterical house-destroying laughter as if to acknowledge: “So, that happened.”

It did happen. It happened again and again. And it will keep happening until November 2.

So don’t delay, visit Florida (aka Ashland) today!

Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan) shares her scheme with Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan) shares her scheme with Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan), Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank) get to know each other at the Cocoanuts Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan), Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank) get to know each other at the Cocoanuts Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer, center) and his staff (Katie Bradley, Miles Fletcher, Erin O'Connor) review the situation. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer, center) and his staff (Katie Bradley, Miles Fletcher, Erin O’Connor) review the situation. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Trixie (Katie Bradley), Nate (Miles Fletcher) and Coco (Erin O'Connor) welcome guests to The Cocoanut Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Trixie (Katie Bradley), Nate (Miles Fletcher) and Coco (Erin O’Connor) welcome guests to The Cocoanut Hotel. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) cause havoc in the hotel rooms. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) cause havoc in the hotel rooms. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Theater Review | THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh at New Century Theatre Company (Seattle)

The day the story changed. The best show in Seattle right now is an electrifying, must-see production of THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh, a co-production between New City Theater and New Century Theatre Company.

4-stars

Just another day of drama in Cork City.
Just another day of drama in Cork City.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the original Druid Ireland production of Enda Walsh’s stunning play THE WALWORTH FARCE took the (English-speaking) world by storm. Starting in 2007, it won a coveted Fringe First at Edinburgh. Then in 2008 it toured to New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it received rave reviews. It moved from there to London’s National Theatre. And then in 2009 (with a change to two of the cast) it began a world tour with stops all over North America, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada.

Anyone who saw the original cast of Denis Conway, Tadgh Murphy, and Garrett Lombard will not soon forget it. The show was directed and essentially co-created (because of its intense physical demands) by Mikel Murfi.

Druid's incredible double threat actor/director Mikel Murfi.
Druid’s incredible double threat actor/director Mikel Murfi.

If there’s a downside to catching a Druid world premiere, it’s knowing that you are likely witnessing the best version of the play you’ll ever see – the benchmark against which all future productions will be measured. Especially for Irish plays done outside Ireland, there are so many pitfalls (me Oirish accent!) that can bedevil an effective production. And so it can be a lot harder than it should be to see a top notch version of a contemporary Irish play in the US.

Knowing all this, having seen the original Druid show, and being unfamiliar with the two Seattle theatres involved (New Century Theatre Company and New City Theater), I took a flyer anyway on a production of this modern classic and found my way to a small storefront space on 18th Ave and E Union on a densely socked in October night.

And lo! It was one of those nights in the theatre that you dream about but so rarely find. Inside the 48 seat space on a dark street was a first rate production of this scary, off-putting and verbally magical show. The place was packed with excitement and energy. The actors were exceptional. Director John Kazanjian fully understood and transmitted the play to us. This is the kind of experience you can only get in the live theatre. And we got it.

The cast for New Century's WALWORTH.  Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and  Dinny (Peter Crook).
The cast for New Century’s WALWORTH. Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and
Dinny (Peter Crook).

In the first act of WALWORTH, we discover a family of three in a dilapidated London tower block flat. There’s the manic father Dinny (an outstanding Peter Crook), who sits in a chair waxing his wig, and his two sons Sean (the superb Darragh Kennan) and Blake (the excellent Peter Dylan O’Connor), who appear to be arranging costumes as the curtain rises. Not a whole lot makes sense, and as the action kicks in, we realize things are going to get less clear by the minute. The family is performing its own sad story as theatre to each other, as they do each day and have done presumably for years and will do forever, if left to their own devices.

As the tale goes on we realize that the facts of the story, which concerns the circumstances of why the family left Ireland for London and is heavily controlled by Dinny, are wrong. And yet the sons are unable to break out of this traumatic cycle. Once a day Sean leaves the flat to go to the local Tesco to buy food supplies needed to run the daily script (such as a large chicken to roast), and it is here that he meets a young black checkout girl named Hayley (the spot on Allison Strickland). In his flustered small talk with Hayley, who fancies him, Sean mistakenly leaves his bag of groceries and grabs another, and it is this wrench in the daily routine, and particularly Hayley’s surprise arrival at the door of the family’s nightmarish flat at the end of act 1, that propels the normal course of events off the tracks and toward a tragic conclusion.

In act 2, with Hayley now an unwilling participant in the dangerous performance, things start to veer out of control. Walsh brilliantly dramatizes how frightening it is when two characters fight physically to control their narratives. What happens when someone wants to step out of their story? Can one brother let another go?

The original WALWORTH dream team.  Garrett Lombard, Denis Conway, Tadgh Murphy.
Druid’s original WALWORTH dream team: Garrett Lombard, Denis Conway, Tadhg Murphy.

The Irish accents, so often a landmine for US actors, are perfect. Kennan is a first generation Irish American, so that probably helps. Instead of being put off at each awkward word in an Irish play performed in the US, which amazingly still happens at even the largest theatres in the land when it comes to Irish theatre, here you can focus in on the story itself. Beautiful. The actors are all excellent, but Peter Crook’s Dinny is truly a high water mark.

On paper, the odds against a night of exceptional theatre at a place like the tiny New City Theater are stacked high. It’s too small a space, it’s too unknown, the play is too hard, it requires foreign social context. But incredibly it all comes together in this unique, old school Seattle space and is thereby even more exciting than a great show at a big established theatre. Indeed, the outcome here is one that even many far larger theatres could not achieve no matter how large their budgets.

This show is absolutely worth traveling for, and has just been extended thru November 3. More info.

Want to find out what else is happening on the Seattle theatre scene? Here’s a quick guide.

From this tiny 99 seat theatre in Galway to Broadway, the West End, and beyond.  Druid's home theatre.
Galway makes, the world takes. Druid’s 99 seat home theatre. It all starts here – but it ends on Broadway, the West End, and beyond.

Theater Review | THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD by David Farr at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hoods in the woods – with the goods.

Fast-moving adaptation of olde English tale delights all ages on OSF’s outdoor stage.

4-stars

Ah, linear narrative. Oh, gripping plot. Lo, strong character.

And yea, hear this: Love.

Throw in over the top theatricality, visual slights of hand, aerial aerobics, light shows, uproarious brawls, an enchanted forest, seeping mist, camp fires, ropes to swing on, a moon, a clown, a swarthy villain, a pair of copiously proportioned peasants rolling around in their knickers, state of the art digital projection, a case of mistaken identity, baddies in tights, a piano, swords, horses, severed heads, some good old (but not too smart) boys, highway brigands, an insanely unhinged sister, a faire maiden with a problem (but in disguise as a man), a hero with buns and jaws of steel, AND a dog (one hell of a dog), and behold: you’ve got yourself a play.

And in the case of David Farr’s roguish adaptation of the Robin Hood epic, now making upwards of 1,100 souls a night (women, children, and men) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor stage go all starry-eyed and weak in the knees, what we the audience have got is a breathtaking and laugh-giving summer blockbuster.

Don't worry: This IS going to end well.  Robin Hood (John Tufts) crashes the wedding of Marion (Kate Hurster) and Prince John (Michael Elich). Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Don’t worry: This IS going to end well. Robin Hood (John Tufts) crashes the wedding of Marion (Kate Hurster) and Prince John (Michael Elich). Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Continue reading “Theater Review | THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD by David Farr at Oregon Shakespeare Festival”

Theater Review | A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the ages at Portland Center Stage

Tim True, Linda Alper, Andy Lee-Hilstrom, Daisuke Tsuji, Todd Van Voris and Damon Kupper. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

4-stars

Most seasons the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival puts on 11 shows and ends in early November. But this year a strong argument could be made that Oregon’s largest theatre company is still going strong the week before Thanksgiving on show number 12.

While stages in Ashland may be dark, the Gerding Theater at former OSF satellite Portland Center Stage is blazing bright. And under the masterful direction of OSF veteran Penny Metropulos, with a star-studded cast that includes several other favorites imported from the Rogue Valley down south, PCS has opened a truly outstanding production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM as the centerpiece of its 25th anniversary season.

Continue reading “Theater Review | A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the ages at Portland Center Stage”