Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sam Gregory is coming soon to a theater near YOU

Beloved Portland playwriting icon William S. Gregory’s latest play, Necessity, is in the midst of a week’s rehearsal at Portland Center Stage — a workshop that culminates this Saturday with a public reading, as part of JAW: A Playwrights Festival. Here’s what the playwright has to say about the upcoming event.

Sam, a lot of people here associate your writing with elegance, crackling wit, smart badinage. Not necessarily the visceral. Would you say that Necessity is a departure from what you usually explore in writing?

Thank you for asking this, Mead. Necessity is set in the rural American South in 1919. This is an aural culture that places a premium on skill in what we might call linguistic performance: the sermon, the storyteller, the gossip. A good performance in any of these was judged on elegance in delivery, elements of wit and humor, and a passionate need to communicate. The visceral, passionate language found in Necessity, salted with humor, is a natural outgrowth of my body of work.

What was the play’s impetus?

I was inspired to write Necessity by my desire to create theater of tremendous power that has a visceral effect on the audience. Theater today must be astounding: hit the heights of human experience, plumb the depths of our souls and situations. I looked to the Greeks and to the glorious and terrible experience of Americans in the First World War as fertile ground for stories and situations of extreme passion that can move and touch the audience.

Contemporary political correctness dictates that white people don’t get to write about people of color. And unwritten guidelines for producibility suggest that writers craft small-cast scripts. Did you have qualms about flying in the face of both these notions?

I thought on these very things for quite a while. Eventually I realized I had no choice. This play was in my head begging to come out and for my own sanity I needed to put secondary considerations aside and write it. There are times when the muse speaks and the artist must create or risk losing his connection to art.


William S. Gregory’s Necessity will be read this coming Saturday, July 24, at 4pm, at the Gerding Theater in the Portland Armory, with an outstanding cast including Crystal Fox, Vin Shambry, Heather Simms, Wendell Wright, Kevin Jones, Gary Yates, Gavin Gregory and Rachael Ferrera, directed by Chris Coleman.

Stick around afterward for the Theater Fair and for Famished, a site-specific piece written by Eugenia Woods and directed by Megan Ward, presented with the considerable talents of Jessica Wallenfels, Steve Brian, Courtney Freed, Isaac Lamb, Lori Ferraro, Sharonlee McLean, Michael Fisher Welsh, Tanner Ward and Tim Stapleton.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Quelle hommage!

Long, long ago, in a century far, far away, I happened to be visiting the Pompidou Centre when it was showing a remarkable special exhibition. I think it was called “After Manet,” though I can find so sign of the show on the Beaubourg’s labyrinthine website, so maybe I dreamed the whole thing. But the show consisted entirely of pastiches of Manet’s groundbreaking Olympe, the painting that shocked delicate sensibilities in its own time and that still has the power to provoke today.

It’s the look on Olympe’s face that does the provoking: frank, perhaps daring, ultimately as unreadable as the Mona Lisa. But as for originality, Manet himself was composing a variation on a popular Orientalist theme already popularized by artist such as Ingres and Benouville. E.g.:

What started me on this search was that I recalled one painting in the Beaubourg show (there were over 30, if memory serves) in which the reclining odalisque had sprouted fangs, and her equally unreadable servant held a jack-o-lantern in lieu of fleurs. Never did find this online (please let me know if you do), but I was astounded by the breadth and sheer quantity of homages this painting has inspired. Here’s a mere smattering.

There are countless abstractions of Manet's quasi-original, like this one by Bob Kessel:

and numerous reversals of gender, race, class, what have you, such as this fun one of Ken Smith's:

and 3D versions, such as this marvelous one by Paul Spooner.

There are even commercial covers (thank you, Yves Saint Laurent):

And ones that combine the softly erotic with an implicit political hint of something slyly feminist or patently recidivist, depending on how you want to interpret it. This is by Bartlomiej Dabrowski.

But my faves tend toward the overtly political, like Kayti Didrikesen's Man of Leisure, King George:

If you have favorites of your own, please share. Especially if you come across the Jack O'lympe, my holy grail of pastiches.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Let’s go, BooseyCo

Conventional wisdom in English-language literature has long dictated that certain “canonical” works are must-read classics for all(Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, e.g.) while others, though arguably brilliant, are GSO — for grad students only (e.g., The Mill on the Floss).

The canonistas dump Dion Boucicault (above-captioned phonetically for your convenience) into the latter category, and unjustly. His shamelessly commercial plays, dating back to the mid- and late 19th century, were immensely popular in English-speaking theaters of their day. In due course their hegemony (!)(sorry, grad school jargon dies hard) got dethroned by none other than our old friend Oscar, whose megahit The Importance of Being Earnest managed to have it every which way with these comedies — he lampooned them, yet honored their methods at the same time.

Dion’s very first hit in a long and storied career was London Assurance (1841), and it’s been enjoying a renaissance in recent years thanks to such theater visionaries as Sam Mendes and, currently, Nicholas Hytner. We can see Mr. Hytner’s National Theatre production this coming, on July 17, thanks to Third Rail Rep’s NT Live presentation. I’m going to the matinee performance (2pm), so please come to that showing so I won’t be all alone. If you can do without my company, however, there’s also a 7pm showing.

If you haven’t been to an NT Live showing before, you’re in for a real treat. These are broadcasts of live National performances -- notable productions that allow you to see excellent London theater without the bother of a transatlantic flight.

And what of London Assurance itself? The character names give you a clue; there are servants named Pert and Cool and a lawyer called Meddle. There’s also an aging fop named Sir Harcourt Courtly (which I think should be my new nom du guerre) and a “horse-riding virago” known as Lady Gay Spanker, who refers to her submissive husband as Dolly (which actually IS one of my many monikers). There are attempts by the older characters to lech off the younger ones, but you may suspect from the start that young lust will prevail in the end — even it takes some saucy gender-bending along the way. Throw in the acting talents of Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale, among other luminaries, and you’ve got yourself a classic — the kind you actually enjoy.

Think of it as grad school, but without the tears and caffeine-laden overnighters, and with all the romantic hijinks. See you there.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ticket to ride

What’s more fun than seeing someone you know and like on the cover of American Theatre magazine? Seeing the show that inspired the cover, of course. Ya, that’s Liam Kaas-Lentz’s handsome mug to the right, gracing the April issue of said publication. And that's Hannah Treuhaft below, photographed with Liam. Both are company members of Sojourn Theatre — one of the jewels in the crown of national theater, let alone Stumptown’s. And guess what, next week Sojourn opens a new show it’s been working on for years.

On the Table is ambitious even by Sojourn’s standards. Reflecting the company’s commitment to site-specific and journey-based theater, every performance starts in two different locations simultaneously: Portland, and the rural town of Molalla (population 7,500). You start in one location, or you start in the other, where you bear witness to a community event and meet a host of fictional characters. Following that, you all board a bus and travel to an intermediate third location, where you meet the audience — and the characters — of another play altogether.

It turns out, you see, what you saw back in Molalla or Portland was just part of a bigger story. That bus ride is a journey through time as well as space, because now you are 20 miles and 30 years from where we started. All 90 of us wind up at one big communal dinner, where two people are about to make the biggest decision of their lives. From the Sojourn press release:

They’ll turn to their neighbors (you), and ask a question of life-altering and state-defining significance. Join us as we revisit the truth of a conversation that never occurred, and that happens every day, in an effort to help two families and an urban/rural citizenry decide – once and for all – who needs whom, and why?

Intrigued? I am. Usually theater happens in a cocoon of darkness. We’re safe; almost by definition, nothing is going to happen to us there. And while that shared experience of sitting in the dark while being told a story may imply a community forum, it’s rarely really the case. Sojourn’s presentations are remarkable because they actually need you to see them in order to complete the play — not just so you’ll buy a ticket, not to justify some grant, but because the play is actually about your presence in that room. Or in this case, at that table, breaking bread with 89 other people.

Rarely has “going along for the ride” been this specific. You are invited to come along, and you are needed. But if you want to be part of it, get your tickets soon. The nature of Sojourn’s work means it usually has short runs in small venues. And typically the company will have light houses for its first weekend, then word gets out, then suddenly it can’t accommodate all the people who want to have the experience. And people like me are throwing tantrums and dropping names like Oprah and Obama just to wrangle single tickets.

So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Get your tickets now. Then you’ll know what American Theatre is talking about.


What: World Premiere of Sojourn Theatre’s On The Table

Where: In Portland: The Church, 602 NE Prescott
In Molalla: Rosse Posse Acres, 32690 S Mathias Road

When: July 15 - August 1 (Wed - Sun 8:00pm), previews July 15 & 16

$15 General Admission
Pay-What-You-Can Preview on July 15
$25 Sojourn SupporTix (help keep prices low by choosing this premium rate)
$12 Students & Seniors (limited availability; advance purchase & show ID at door)

Tickets on sale at right here.

Advance purchase is strongly recommended. Only 90 tickets are available for each performance: 45 in Molalla, 45 in Portland. Wear comfortable shoes as the audience will stand and move throughout the event. Please call 971.544.0464 prior to purchasing tickets if you have questions or special needs regarding accessibility/mobility.

Friday, July 2, 2010


First thing when I showed up in Portland eight years ago, I was informed that I would need to reverse my vacation habits. Plan on going somewhere dry during the winter months,” they advised me. “You’ll want to spend every minute of the summer right here in town.”

Fine, except for one thing. Every summer Portland coasts through a period of disquieting calm, starting just after the Drammy Awards and last till September, when there’s just not a lot to see. Blame it on the climate, everybody says; western Oregon enjoys about three months when it’s pleasant to be outside, and by god people want to be outdoors all the damn time. Traditionally there are a few moments of excitement, such as the annual JAW Festival, but basically…let's just say it’s pretty easy to stay current with everything that’s on.

So for years some of us having saying: what if we tested those assumptions, and put together something inside some nice cool venues to see what happens? Apparently the 100th theater monkey got wind of this idea, because suddenly the entire town is bucking the conventional weather wisdom.

Witness, for example the fabulous Wet Ink Festival of new plays, presented by Playwrights West. This is a wild reading series of plays that didn’t exist at all until a few weeks ago, which have been receiving their first public airings now at CoHo Theatre. Something about the sheer recklessness of the endeavor has paid off handsomely; all the plays have been fantastic. BTW, the concluding entry happens tomorrow, the third of July: Nick Zagone’s latest escapade, Lee Marvin Be Thine Name. I definitely plan to be there.

Nor does CoHo’s fun end there; the progressive, outside-the-black-box venue has a whole slate of summerfare in store for intrepid theatergoers. PCS is likewise making good use of what was once known (in the kinder, gentler 20th century) as “down time.” In addition to the annual ferment of JAW, the Ellen Bye Studio downstairs will cook with a summer cabaret created and performed by vocal powerhouses Susannah Mars and Gavin Gregory that is going to be hothothot.

Miracle Theatre Group simmers all summer long, too, and it’s off to a very good start with its current production, Songs for a New World, a veritable revelation of vocal fireworks written by Jason Robert Brown and co-produced by Staged!, the endlessly inventive musical theater company. TAKE NOTE: this powerful song cycle also concludes its run tomorrow night (Saturday, July 3), so if you prefer music theater to Wet Ink’s verbal hijinks, get your tickets right this minute. And if you’re missing out, not to worry; Staged! is mounting a virtual Jason Robert Brown festival, having presented a concert version of The Last Five Years just last night, continuing with its theater camp’s mounting Brown’s Parade, and concluding in August with a cabaret entitled JRB Songbook.

Upcoming too is an ambitious and literally far-reaching new exploration by Sojourn Theatre/ called On the Table — which needs its own blog entry, so stay tuned — and a great opportunity over at Third Rail to see the NT Live presentation of London Assurance, starring the legendary Fiona Shaw. And let us not forget what is fast becoming a summer tradition here, Third Eye’s latest installment of bloody, disgusting short plays in the tradition of Théâtre du Grand Guignol.

I haven’t mentioned the various Shakespeare assays (including a colorful Pericles), and even then this isn’t everything. But it’s a lot, when you’re used to pretty much…..nothing. For those of us who do fear the heat of the sun, it’s a summer we can suffer.