Lynn Nottage is coming for you | 2015 #AmRev commission SWEAT at Oregon Shakespeare Festival looks straight into the American abyss of de-industrialization

Are you ready, America?

Because it’s time for the show.

Ever since it was announced on March 14, 2014 that a new play by Lynn Nottage would be coming to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, I’ve been counting down the days. A new play by this savvy and supremely human writer is a cause for celebration – even when the material she may be dealing with is some of the toughest and heaviest there is.

If you saw RUINED at OSF in 2010, you know what I’m talking about – the kind of unbearable heightened intensity that a playwright like Nottage can imprint into your brain. Forever.

The kind of drama so real and powerful it caused an audience member to jump on stage to try to stop what was happening.

Well, she’s at it again and the project this time sounds about as relevant and important as it could possibly be. The countdown until opening night is rapidly dwindling toward 0. And the closer it gets, the better it sounds.

Here’s an interview with the Brooklynite from American Theatre. You REALLY want to read that.

Then get your tickets for one of this year’s highlights in the American theatre. Right here in Ore-gone.

And prepare to be reminded what theatre can be.

This woman.  Lynn Nottage has a new play for you. It all starts 7/29 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This woman. Lynn Nottage has a new play for you. It all starts 7/29 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Theater Review | SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Unwatchably dull. Stan Lai’s supposedly genius work of modern Chinese drama, rendered here in English, feels like a thrown together improv of extremely gentle, old-fashioned (and boring) commentary. Mystifyingly, the reign of terror in China that takes place during the play’s time period (1948-1988) passes entirely under the radar. While obviously safe and soft enough to attract the interest and approval of official Chinese media, as well as become one of the most popular plays in China today, the drama-free SECRET LOVE is going to teach American audiences not much about China. The program and educational materials for this show are filled with cultural, historical and literary references galore that the play supposedly draws on and engages, but the main problem here is that SECRET LOVE itself contains not a thing of consequence – at least for a non Chinese viewer not versed in all the source material and history.

3-stars

SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Thru October 31

For long time consumers of new plays, it’s a familiar syndrome that when a playwright is running short on material, they often go meta on us. You’ve seen these plays. One minute the play is on, the next minute characters are breaking the fourth wall and joking about the actual business of making theatre, rehearsing, dealing with the playwright, etc. For the mainstream audience, these moments can definitely draw a laugh. “Oh my god! Look the play has stopped!” But usually such throw away bits of silliness serve to distract us from the fact that the main event – the story on offer – is weak and the playwright is looking for something, anything, to pad the run time.

That is not to say that there are not many important plays throughout the ages that mess with the official play structure. But the best of those are often dealing centrally with some aspect of how narrative or reality are made. These plays are not breaking the fourth wall because there’s nothing else to do. They’re doing it because the nature of that fourth wall is itself a main concern of the play.

For playwrights with a real story to tell, there is no time for inside jokes about theatre or desire to break the frame and weaken the subject of their focus. There would be no reason for Lorraine Hansberry to weaken RAISIN by stopping the action to let us in on a rehearsal of the play, no reason for Ping Chong to halt the action of THRONE OF BLOOD to reveal a funny disagreement among actors about their personal lives or a fight with the director over what’s for lunch, no reason for August Wilson to show us the making of JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE – when the real JOE TURNER itself is all we need.

But for Stan Lai’s English version of SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND, now getting its American premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seemingly half the play or more is burned up with backstage funniness and Ashland-specific inside jokes about putting on the play. Given how thin the two main stories in the “real” play here are, it’s no wonder that something more was needed to fill out the slight and inconsequential script. Without the meta stream, the entire show would be about 35 minutes long and we’d turn to our neighbor afterwards wondering: “And…?”

The story such as it is concerns two different theatre troupes trying to rehearse two different plays in the actual Angus Bowmer Theatre – the very one we’re sitting in!!! Sometimes stage reality is so real, people. Somehow owing to a scheduling flub, both groups think they have the space today, and so they go back and forth trying to work in bits of the two plays while the fight for time becomes more acute. Eventually (in the single most enjoyable moment of the play for me) Tony “Harry the Horse” DeBruno arrives as an OSF operations manager to try to clear the melee from the theater. Anyone who has a problem can “call Susan in the office”.

Now, for Ashland devotees there is some fun in this real world setting. Local names and places are used. Arguing theatre people clamor to “call Bill” to straighten all this out. But such thrills of recognition soon pass, and none of this has any bearing on the actual story – other than to help disguise the fact that there isn’t much of a story.

As we’re in a straight up realer than real reality, you can’t help wondering about the gaping holes in the setup. How could two different Chinese-themed plays be scheduled for the same time to rehearse in the Bowmer? Who are these people and how did they get here? Do they not know each other? Are they part of the normal OSF acting company doing another show on the side? Outsider people? Are they traveling the earth looking for somewhere to put on a show? We don’t know.

Don’t think too hard about any of these questions, because after about five seconds of scrutiny the entire framing conceit of the play makes little sense, and it’s hard to understand why so much effort was thus expended setting it up. You would think it could work better if the rehearsal room were, say, in Taiwan or China, where perhaps a more plausible reason for the scheduling error (one with some political context?) could have easily been manufactured. Dramatically, the idea of two different stories competing for dominance is extremely promising. But here it’s freighted with no larger consequence.

One of the stories follows a young couple about to be torn apart by the communist revolution in 1949 Shanghai, and the aftermath 40 years later as the man lies dying in a hospital bed in Taiwan, remembering his young love. The other is a traditional fairy tale about a fisherman whose wife is unfaithful. There are themes here (as we’re told exhaustively in related materials and coverage) of exile and the longing for home, love and loss, etc. But none of that gets dramatized very effectively.

There is some gorgeous pageantry, movement and sound, particularly for the older story. Eugene Ma as the enraged, befuddled fisherman is simply hilarious and an extremely gifted physical presence. But no amount of top notch ingredients, technical capability and scores of talented actors can disguise the fact there’s not much of a there there – er – here. If only all these resources could be marshaled to tell a clear story with something at stake. In SECRET LOVE, we’re told we’re witnessing some classic work of the Chinese stage, but many audience members may simply leave scratching their heads.

There seems to be an excess of respect for Lai and not enough critical appraisal. I’m not familiar with his earlier work, but certainly given how meager the play at hand is, it seems weird that his presence at OSF should be the cause of such reverence. Lai practically had minders sweeping the ground in front of him with palm fronds on the OSF campus. There’s a certain complacency in evidence here, where the audience is told over and over how important and revered Lai is, as if that should be good enough for us. What would serve everyone much better is some work on the stage that calls for actual reverence (like THRONE OF BLOOD a few years back, to recall another recent international work), instead of the cobbled together and highly forgettable piece we got.

Also, the complete absence of any mention of what went on during those 40 years of cheery communist rule that separated our young lovers (when however many gazillion people died) would seem to be a problem and a serious challenge to Lai’s stature as a critical, independent artist. I’m hardly a China expert, but I have to think that if your work is popular or tolerated by a regime whose M.O. is jailing dissident voices, it MIGHT mean your point of view isn’t very sharp.

I did find this comment by crack reviewer Lincoln Kaye who has known Lai and his work for 25 years, which gets at my hunch here: “Compared with his brilliant innovations back then [25 years ago], the current production — especially in English translation — seems the anodyne work of an established theatrical celebrity struggling to surf the treacherous shoals of China-Taiwan-U.S. cultural diplomacy.” Bingo.

All in all, worth seeing perhaps for the costumes and traditional styles used at times, but the show does not hang together as a coherent piece, and it’s hard to imagine it traveling very far beyond Ashland.

Trouble in Paradise | Backstage crew members at Oregon Shakespeare Festival attempt to unionize

Here’s an interesting note of trouble from the usually placid Rogue Valley.

According to the Ashland Daily Tidings (in a story published appropriately enough on May Day), backstage crew at Oregon Shakespeare Festival want to unionize.

If there’s any institutional structure that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of entrepreneurial arts spirit that America needs more of and that created OSF, which is now one of the great theatres of the world, it’s the union.

The mindset of owners everywhere, and of artistic risk takers and visionaries in the theatre specifically, is “what can I build”. Whereas for unions, it’s all about “what can I take”. For union members, the “I just work here, time to make the donuts” mindset is anathema to innovation and collaboration.

Collectives of innovator/operators have skin in the game. If they do something that works, everyone benefits. If something doesn’t work, everyone shares in the downside as well.

Unfortunately the theatre world is lumbered with the outdated union model, especially at the high end. As we saw with the circus in Los Angeles recently over Equity’s decision to install minimum wage pay for actors in 99 seat theatres, inserting bureaucracies and rules in between individuals and producers is the last thing anyone wants – except apparently the union “leaders”, i.e., just the kind of management layer unions were built to oppose.

It would be no surprise to comrade Marx that the theatre, like any other environment, is influenced by the nature of its economic relationships. The reason why some of the best theatre is often at the smallest end of the organizational spectrum is because collectives of young people come together to create something together. Everyone is an “owner”. You feel this in the work itself. It cannot be faked.

Then once a theatre is successful and grows larger, there comes that fateful day when there’s a knock on the door, and it’s the union. Ultimately you end up in a barren environment like Portland’s PCPA, where everyone’s punching the clock and the audience has to sit through generic crap that pays the bills – but delivers no art.

Talk to any business owner who has created something from nothing – like Noble Coffee in Ashland – and ask them if they’d like a union to get involved to make sure their employees are taken care of. You’d get a perplexed, uncomprehending stare. What? At good companies, one of the reasons people want to work there is because of how employees are treated.

When you have good management, as OSF surely seems to, the last thing you need muddying the waters is a union.

It would be a shame if higher costs and more bureaucracy start to erode the special OSF experience and intimate connection with the audience. As soon as anyone starts viewing the work they do at OSF as just another chance to extract a pound of flesh, it’s the beginning of the end.

Theater Review | LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

ASHLAND, OREGON

9.3.2015 UPDATE I saw the show for a fourth time on August 15, 2015, and it has gotten much, much better since March/April, when I saw it three times in close succession. It appears a number of the issues I called out below have been addressed. I definitely recommend seeing it now.

Original review based on three viewings in March and April of 2015

Solid – but not without lots of small issues and a couple of big ones. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (LDJIN), Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece and family expiation, is hampered by age-inaccurate casting, non existent Irish context and a general lack of directorial vision and style.

Despite the limitations, as this ultra marathon of pain moves on toward its near four hour length in the second half, the sheer fascination of watching a literal reenactment of the psychic alchemy that made America’s first great playwright wins us over. Though he surely did not intend to, O’Neill has assured himself personal and artistic immortality by weaving his own life story deeply into the fabric of this late play, which becomes only more revealing and valuable to fans each year as we move farther away in time from O’Neill’s own era.

Even while the first half may drag a bit and the play ends with truly the worst directorial choice imaginable for O’Neill, the total experience on offer is still rewarding. It’s a good first viewing of the play for anyone coming to it new. Unfortunately it will not stand out for the devoted O’Neill scholars and enthusiasts who have seen the play many times before and travel the world ceaselessly (like ghosts in a Eugene O’Neill play), ever in search of great, defining performances of EON’s work.

As an American touchtone, this long journey into O’Neill’s soul could be (should be) so much more than this.  Especially when done on a prominent national stage like OSF.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

3-stars

Thru Oct 31

The Tyrone family gathers after breakfast (from left, Michael Winters, Danforth Comins, Judith-Marie Bergan, Jonathan Haugen). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Eugene O’Neill’s original repertory company: his family. Michael Winters, Danforth Comins, Judith-Marie Bergan, Jonathan Haugen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Continue reading “Theater Review | LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill at Oregon Shakespeare Festival”

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”

PERICLES by Bill Shakes at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hollywood ending. Bill keeps body count low and turns on the tears (good kind). Gorgeous production values. Bonus: Michael J. Hume in heels. A little too much focus on “plowing” virgins. Wayne T. Carr gives exceptional performance. Just goes to show, when you’re in a pinch, count on some pirates.

Thru Nov 1

A call out to Chinese Americans to come to Ashland to see SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai

Something interesting is afoot down south in Ashland, Oregon. Then again, something usually is in this major US and world theatre center.

But this time it involves a reworking of one of the most popular plays in modern China, which includes the legend of a “Peach Blossom Land”. What does that entail? Aha. We’d tell you but – we’re in the drama business. Actually, the real answer is, we don’t know ourselves yet! But tomorrow starting at 1:30 PM more will be revealed…

The play is SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai.

It’s a big moment for Chinese culture in the US, and a very smart move by OSF to bring a world theatre piece like this to our shores.

To learn more, here’s a series of interviews about the production.

No translation needed for that point.  Director Stan Lai.
No translation needed for that point. Director Stan Lai.

SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai opens today at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Show number six of the 2015 season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens today down in Ashland.

How big of a deal is SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai in modern Chinese drama?

Big enough that there are multiple news crews from China and Taiwan in Ashland covering the American premiere.

Sounds like if you have yet to point the chariot southwards this season it’s now officially time.

Coming next – the outdoor stage opens June 12-14. Ze piece de resistance there? It’s gotta be Jeff Whitty’s world premiere HEAD OVER HEELS, featuring music by the Go-Go’s.

Master Yuan (Paul Juhn, center) and Blossom (Leah Anderson) have some fun behind the blanket, unbeknownst to Blossom's husband Tao (Eugene Ma, left). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Master Yuan (Paul Juhn, center) and Blossom (Leah Anderson) have some fun behind the blanket, unbeknownst to Blossom’s husband Tao (Eugene Ma, left). Photo: Jenny Graham.
Outside, blossom season in Ashland is already past.  But inside it's just getting started.
Outside, blossom season in Ashland is already past. But inside it’s just getting started.

A meme is born | Visit @osfAshland and post your pics of #BowmerCarpet

Alright, people. Here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor.

The internet barely knows it yet, but the next big thing is a viral celebration of the new carpeting in the Bowmer Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The tweet heard round the world.
The tweet heard round the world.

You know what to do. When visiting the Bowmer this year (which should already be on your radar by August at the latest if not before – world premiere of new Lynn Nottage play anyone???), simply look down and snap a pic of your feet on the new carpet. Then post to any platform with #BowmerCarpet.

You can monitor the madness with a single view of all posts (FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) via #tagboard.

Get in now and be able to tell the grand kids you were posting and tagging about the Bowmer’s new threads before #BowmerCarpet walked all over #PDXcarpet.

We could have another Civil War style UO/OSU situation on our hands here.

You got this.

See that strip of snazzy new rug on the left?  Get your feet on it and go #BowmerCarpet.
See that strip of snazzy new rug on the left? Get your feet on it and go #BowmerCarpet.
How you know the apocalypse is near. @pdxcarpet tweeting with its doppelganger about Easter.
How you know the apocalypse is near. @pdxcarpet tweeting with its doppelganger about Easter.