Running over three hours in length, this unfocused work contains many infectiously crafted pop songs but is unable to deploy them in service of a workable core narrative. The result is an intermittently entertaining experience memorable mainly for the songs and not story. The central debate around whether it is better to be a real artist and not make much money or to sell out and become financially successful – as if those are the only two possibilities – feels artificial and way past its shelf life. The show is redeemed by the presence of a radiant Miriam A. Laube.
ASHLAND – The thing with musical shows about rock stars is that (surprise) they kind of depend on rock stars. There are no real rock stars in FAMILY ALBUM, the new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald now receiving a bright and colorful world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though its two creators wield justifiable rock star cred as a result of their stunning first success, PASSING STRANGE (watch it here if you missed it on Broadway). But this time around they’re not actually in the show. And part of the challenge for the audience as we witness this tale of middle age artistic regret and indecision is regarding several of the figures on stage as real rock stars – when they aren’t.
Not that any of the musicians here are lacking. As the stand in for Stew, Luqman Brown is a solid and captivating bandleader Heimvey. Casey Scott is a fiercely scowling Claudia (a stand in for Rodewald), the base player and hard-hearted current (or former?) romantic partner of Heimvey. Christian Gibbs is Gibbs, a thin second guitar player with frizzy hair and a 70’s Marlboro man moustache (which appears to be real). Vinnie Sperrazza holds down the drum kit as Charles Andy. And the incredibly dynamic Lawrence Stallings, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Breaker, who played the central youth character from PASSING STRANGE and keeps hilariously proclaiming “I can’t believe my life!”, is tambourine player Paul. All the players are fine. But at the end of the day they’re not rock stars. And no one is ever going to replace the presence of the real Stew on stage. This is an absence we will feel, particularly during some of the weaker moments between songs.
The story before us concerns a hard working road band that’s long since arrived at middle age, minus the commercial success they all hoped for. They’re still going through the motions, playing shows at bars in Hoboken, and living out of the van, when all of a sudden along comes a somewhat incongruous chance to be the opening act for the mega teenage band of the moment, The Vomit Puppies, at Madison Square Garden. We’re asked to believe that playing this show at a monster venue would actually mean anything for the fortunes of our fearless rockers – which seems unlikely.
But with this big possible moment a few days out, our band points the van for Brooklyn and comes to crash at the upscale Park Slope pad of Cleo (the ever wonderful Miriam A. Laube), who is a former member of the band and former romantic partner of Heimvey. Cleo got out of the supposed dead end life of being a real artist and married the rich art dealing Norman (Alex Emanuel). They also have a kid (no real name), who is portrayed by the adult actor Daniel T. Parker. Depending on your tolerance for wildly over the top exaggeration and the genius child syndrome – you will either love Parker’s performance or be driven close to insanity by it. With our marginal rock heroes installed in the glam digs of two artists who have supposedly sold out (and god forbid, procreated), the stage is set for all sorts of friction between past and present, dreams and ideals.
As the narrative arc comes off the rails (particularly in the second act), the enjoyment to be had here is really from the songs – whether they make any sense in reference to the larger story or not. There are some gorgeous, sparkling numbers. And as pop songs must, they will mercilessly infest your brain. Some that still ring are Mistress Melody, Sexy Brooklyn Mami, Black Men Ski, and especially the super-charged, hook-laden and beautiful Dysfunctional Family Song. Gorgeous.
Quite a large tonnage of hay is required to stuff the numerous straw men into which our characters repeatedly thrust their under-sharpened jousts. “You either stay pure and mean – or you sell out your art to the man!” “Park Slope is an evil yuppie lair!” “Cash in before you’re old!” “All suffering is caused by desire!” “Yeah!”
There are many cliches in the air, but you also want to stop the music and ask: “Wait – who among us actually believes any of this?” The problem that no amount of heaven sent song writing will fix is that the story offers little of consequence. There’s a general lack of seriousness to everything. Nothing much matters so – sure, go ahead and sing a song about how a Ken doll thinks he’s gay.
At one point, Heimvey takes a deadpan crack at a band whose name the world DOES know. “And you know, as REM says, ‘Everybody hurts sometime’,” he wails forlornly, mocking the hyper sensitivity of it all. It’s funny but would be a lot funnier if Michael Stipe weren’t a household name and musical genius – and if the reference didn’t remind at least one audience member that some of us are hurting NOW, and that we could be spending the afternoon watching an REM tribute band instead.
While the absence of (musical) rock stars has been noted, what saves the show is the presence of one very real theatre rock star. And that’s the entrancing Miriam A. Laube. A lot of the show becomes about watching Cleo and trying to figure out where she’s at. Laube has a gaze that could drown out a Marshall stack or hold a packed MSG (Madison Square Garden) rapt, and when she’s staring right at you in the small Thomas Theatre, the effect is electric. She delivers a starry performance given the material she has to work with, essentially transforming thin air into drama by sheer force of personality. And, as those star OSF-ers do, she’s on double duty at the moment, also starring in INTO THE WOODS simultaneously. Very impressive.
A final major stage presence to note – Lawrence Stallings. This guy, who is a background character here, is so so good. He really needs to be given more runway to come out front and center and really show what he has, because there’s clearly a huge amount of talent. And when that breakout moment happens, he is going to knock our socks all the way to Madison Square Garden.
Or even Brooklyn.
ABOUT HOW YOU CAN’T BE RICH & GOOD
I JUST CAST A SPELL
SEXY BROOKLYN MAMI
20 MILLION UNITS SOLD
MY LIFE YOUR HOBBY
DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SONG
BLACK MEN SKI
SOMETHING LIKE RELIEF
MISTRESS MELODY REPRISE
“MILLION DOLLAR FEELING
UNFINISHED PAUL SONG ABOUT THE MEDIA’S FADING INTEREST IN CLEO
LOVE IS A CULT/SOMETIMES I WISH I HAD IT LIKE MY DAD
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.
(moves to Seattle Rep along with ALL THE WAY in December)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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
New York City
A split screen of two stories, WATER references big subjects like the Iraq war, cocaine addiction and family disintegration – but does not have much new to say about any of them. Lengthy staging of “social media” dramatically inert.
The second in a trilogy of plays about the Puerto Rican-American Ortiz family in North Philadelphia, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL follows two separate threads that eventually converge. One concerns Elliot, a 31 year Iraq war vet with serious leg injuries who is working for low pay at a sandwich shop and still trying to leave the psychological impact of his tour of duty behind him. The other follows a chat room for cocaine addicts with a crew of three regulars and one occasional visitor who is new to the game. Scenes alternate between the two worlds, and for a while it’s not clear what the link between them is.
The stronger half is the real world plight of Elliot, here played by a talented Daniel José Molina. Molina looks great in the part and deftly conjures the swagger, hurt, and confusion of a damaged Marine who has come home to no particularly promising opportunities. Elliot was raised by his aunt Ginny, who is now older and has been needing assistance from him and his cousin Yazmin, an adjunct music professor. Elliot’s actual birth mother Odessa gave him up when she descended into drug addiction. As the play begins, Elliot receives a text from his estranged father that Ginny could pass at any moment. She soon dies and Elliot and Yazmin have to tend to her funeral arrangements with scarce available funds. Also in the mix is a ghostly presence in the form of an Iraqi who keeps appearing to Elliot and repeating a phrase that has lodged so deeply in the young American’s psyche that he has asked Yazmin to put him in touch with an Arabic-speaking colleague of hers to help translate.
The addiction chat room world consists of den mother HAIKUMOM in Philadelphia, who runs www.recovertogether.com and her two addict charges ORANGUTAN, a 31 year old woman raised in Maine who has gone to Japan in search of her real parents, and CHUTES & LADDERS, a 56 year old black IRS employee in San Diego. HAIKUMON guides the other two through sobriety and provides encouragement as they struggle and/or succeed. Of course she has her own backstory with addiction. Into this status quo one day comes FOUNTAINHEAD, a wildly improbable new member who is a high-flying entrepreneur with a yellow Porsche and thinks he may have just a little problem with crack. The existing group tries to get FOUNTAINHEAD on course, with mixed results.
Whether or not anything like the chat room portrayed here still existed in 2009 (certainly it did in 1995), it feels like an extremely creaky setup. Indeed, if even hearing the ancient term “online chat room” gives you the willies, you may be similarly intolerant of watching the awkward staging of old-fashioned “online exchange” here. The conceit is that the characters all login now and then and then talk amongst themselves. They sit at different locations on stage and do not directly interact with each other. Most of the time they just talk aloud, and we get that they are typing and posting. But later in the play when Elliot’s narrative joins with the chat room, there are the dreaded moments when a keyboard is deployed.
Some things do not work very well on the stage. Car chases. Long walks. Closeups. And online activity, aka “social media”. We see many attempts by current playwrights to stage the minutiae of how people actually use social media, as if it is either new or even all that noteworthy. In a wide open audio medium like theatre, where anything is possible, what is interesting and compelling is THE VOICE – a character speaking. S/he might be speaking to another character who is present, or s/he might be on the phone, writing a letter, sending a telegram, sending a text. Or it could be a solo speech to the universe. Whatever the actual technology being used to transmit, the audience gets that the character is speaking. What is important is the WHAT (the character is saying), not the HOW (they say/send it).
Watching someone at a keyboard or on a mobile banging out text one character at a time that slowly appears on a screen behind them rarely works in the theatre. It is passive and undramatic and usually kills any momentum dead. Whereas in an engaging play, the action is flying along one step ahead of the audience and there’s an exciting feeling of hanging on for dear life, when it comes to dramatizing social media on stage like this, the dynamic switches and the audience waits for the slowed down play to catch up. It kills the dramatic through-line.
Did 19th century playwrights pack their works with long sequences showing people realistically tapping out telegrams just after that technology was born, or farther back putting quill to papyrus when all the cool kids were doing it? Would anything be gained by watching a character spend 5-10 seconds dialing out a long number on a rotary phone (another social media) before placing the call? Not really. Just pick up the phone and talk. With luck, we’ll soon be able to move on to a better standard way of conveying that a voice on stage is communicating via text or email or chat. But for now a lot of these exchanges are burdened by slow-moving, overly realistic rendering.
The play’s tone wobbles unconvincingly. The subjects at hand are serious, but there’s a strong sitcom, throw away one-liner energy that keeps popping out whenever it can, with many of the jokes seeming to serve no larger purpose or part of the narrative – they are simply little blips of humor that come to mind, asking for a laugh in return. It feels like the playwright has done plenty of research into the worlds of war vets and addiction and is painting by numbers to create characters based on what she learned. But none of the resulting figures has the ring of truth or authenticity.
There’s another confusing piece of fabric woven into this canvas – the music of John Coltrane. At one point Yazmin gives a dramatically inert lecture to her students about dissonance and how Coltrane’s music changed after 1965 as he moved into free jazz. The problem with inserting snippets from a masterpiece like A Love Supreme into a play’s soundtrack (other plays have the same problem when they project sections of famous films) is that unless the play is really good, you run the risk of making the audience wish you would just leave the music on. In this case, even five seconds of Coltrane’s eternal depth instantly upstages the entire play. I found myself wondering what the theatrical equivalent of such shimmering art would be, and wanting that.
It’s very hard to understand how this slight play won the 2012 Pulitzer, especially as Jon Robin Baitz’s considerably more ambitious and better executed OTHER DESERT CITIES was also in the running.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!