‘Emma’ & ‘Grand Concourse’ reviews: Instigating women

Characters in Bag & Baggage and Artists Repertory Theatre productions pit good intentions against hard reality

The upstart Portland Trail Blazers are leading the greatest team in NBA history at halftime. It’s the crucial game in the second round of the playoffs.  No one expected the young Blazers to even be here. How could I tear myself away to hear repressed Victorians prattle on about who’s gonna marry whom??

Besides, haven’t we more important things to worry about — homelessness, human-caused climate change, the potential for the Greatest Upset in NBA Playoff History?

And yet, Bag&Baggage’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma held promise. Hardly anyone pulls off snappier dialogue than Austen, not even NBA broadcast commentators Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal or Kenny Smith.  So grumbling only slightly, I headed for Hillsboro.

Cassie Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage's 'Emma.' Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Clara Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Emma.’ Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Unfortunately, Michael Fry’s 1996 stage adaptation falls victim to the problems that often plague translations of art from their original medium. In trying to remain faithful to Austen’s novel, Fry bogged down the stage adaptation with slow-playing exposition, just like the many NBA teams who failed to successfully adapt to new rules intended to enliven the game. Here I was watching the equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies onstage while my mind kept drifting to the Moda Center and the Golden State Warriors with their high-flying offense.

The main plot follows Emma Woodhouse’s matchmaking machinations aimed at scoring a husband for her shy friend Harriet, somewhat akin to Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey’s convoluted attempts to lure the ideal free agent into marriage with the team and get a ring already. Along the way, numerous other storylines entwine in and out like a three-man weave fast break. Various complications, often based on class, wealth, and gender differences, proliferate.

We are introduced to a young woman too sure that her own perceptions are correct, like a too-rigid NBA coach who insists on following his favored system (say, Phil Jackson’s triangle offense) regardless of the needs and talents of the team. By the end of the play, when her triangle offense crumbles, forcing her to confront her shortcomings in trying to manipulate other peoples’ lives, she more resembles Blazers coach Terry Stotts and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who found success by altering their formerly successful schemes to suit changing personnel.

Fry’s adaptation begins with the oft-overused (it goes back to Shakespeare if not earlier) play-within-a-play technique, which offers several advantages. The frame, set in contemporary times, provides an excuse for the actors (in talking to each other about how they’re going to stage Emma) to supply some of the exposition that’s rendered in the author’s voice in the book; it plausibly permits the actors, who play several characters each, to briskly execute the many costume changes needed on stage; and it affords opportunities for winking modern humor that don’t appear in the book itself, not unlike the half-court shooting contests, races, and gymnastic trampoline dunk routines the fill the time outs during NBA games. Summoning the “private theatricals” that Austen’s family staged in their homes, the device also provides a theme for Megan Wilkerson’s cozy set.

Peppy Pacing

Throughout the play, actors switch instantaneously from voicing their roles in character to delivering expository set ups — the connecting material between scenes — to the audience directly in monologue. It’s the kind of explanation that we accept in novels unquestioningly, and in film adaptations of Austen’s books, scene-setting can be shown by the camera. But on stage, background material (e.g. now everyone’s going to a dance) has to be explained in monologues or the frame-scene dialogues — and all this framing and explaining adds more time to what turns out to be a three-plus hour production, like those endless video reviews that halt NBA action for minutes at a time. It dilutes and thereby vitiates the very element that makes Austen so compelling: that sparkling dialogue.

To compensate, guest director Patrick Walsh (from Portland’s Post5 Theater) keeps the pace moving and the audience’s eyes engaged, zipping through the transitions between the frame and main stories pretty seamlessly. The actors deftly respond to the rapid-fire dialogue, fluid blocking and scene changes that keep the tempo brisk, just as Blazers coach Terry Stotts’s players commit to his fast-moving ensemble offense.

The audience snickered and guffawed at the few occasions for B&B’s patented slightly exaggerated physical comedy, as when Emma physically leans into another character’s space so far (like Lyndon Johnson dominating some hapless Congressman) that the poor, alarmed woman is literally bending over backwards in her chair, or a nifty switcheroo slapstick during a drunken marriage proposal in a carriage. I wanted more of those, though maybe that would have inappropriately toppled the story into farce, like slowing a fast-moving basketball game via intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters, as the Trail Blazers did with the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan in this month’s first round playoff victory.

The five-member cast (as accomplished as the Blazers’ starting five) keeps the deluge of dialogue and exposition flowing snappily, smoothly and (when called for) ironically — one of the steadiest opening night ensemble performances I’ve seen from this company, whose committed actors continue to develop their skills further with each show. Their increasingly impressive ensemble acting resembles the Portland Trail Blazers’ unselfish, chamber music-style, passing-oriented team basketball approach that has brought them such unexpected success.

Displaying adept physical and vocal expressivity, and nice dance steps, Clara-Liis Hillier plays Emma as a sympathetic if occasionally self-deluded do-gooder who’s just trying to make her friend Harriet happy by arranging the perfect match. But the interpretation slights the character’s darker depths (arrogance, willful obtuseness, manipulativeness, toughness) that might have made Emma more fully dimensional and her eventual maturation into a more empathetic and aware figure more believable.

Damian Lillard.

Damian Lillard.

Like Trail Blazers CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, who transcended the stereotypical point/shooting guard roles to present double threats, triple-cast Cassie Greer steals the show in the most colorful character roles, by turns delighting as an over-caffeinated chatterbox (“I’m a talker!” she cheerfully and unnecessarily concedes), a likable dimwit, and a haughty grande dame. The other actors, given less lively roles, nevertheless succeed in making those less-realized characters come alive (as much as the script allows) by evoking Austen’s incisive contrasts between external Victorian politesse and actual internal motivations.

Yet even snappy direction and acting can’t keep attention from wilting under the constant onslaught of exposition necessary to set up and resolve so many storylines, somewhat as the Trail Blazers ultimately succumbed to the blitz of Stephen Curry three-pointers, though less entertainingly. And like the title character herself, Fry’s good intentions are undermined by the less-essential plot lines and characters that beautifully complicate Austen’s books but wind up competing for audience attention on stage. At two hours (the length of an NBA game), it would have been a delight; at three, it drags. Fry could learn from Stotts, who simplified the Blazers’ playbook to suit his young team’s inexperience so that they could focus on excelling in performance rather than keeping all the schemes straight.

The Trail Blazers may be out of the playoffs, but Jane Austen’s Emma continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E Main St, Hillsboro. 503-345-9590. Tickets online.

Grand Concourse

Another manipulative Emma (perhaps not coincidentally named) fuels the action in Heidi Schreck’s powerful tragicomedy Grand Concourse, which runs through June 5 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. The 19-year-old college dropout arrives at a South Bronx soup kitchen bearing multicolored tresses, idealistic intentions of helping the poor, some energetic ideas about how to do that — and some surprising secrets. Her quest to repair herself while fixing the less fortunate people around her leads into darker territory that will eventually teach this Emma — and us — even more about the limits to good intentions when confronted by hard reality.

Named after the street where the soup kitchen now stands in silent refutation to the grandiosity of its name, Schreck’s play (revised for this production) ran to mixed reviews Off Broadway, at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater, and elsewhere. As Bob Hicks’s ArtsWatch interview with the playwright reveals, Schreck drew much material from her own work in such kitchens in her native Wenatchee and in New York, where she’s become a successful playwright and actor.

Jahnavi Alyssa & Ayanna Berkshire in Artists Repertory Theatre's 'Grand Concourse.'

Jahnavi Alyssa & Ayanna Berkshire in Artists Repertory Theatre’s ‘Grand Concourse.’ Photo: Owen Carey.

At the soup kitchen, Emma (played by newcomer Jahnavi Alyssa) encounters Shelley (Ayanna Berkshire), a disillusioned, quick thinking nun with her own back story who somehow manages to keep an inherently chaotic place running relatively coherently while battling her own doubts. Inspired by the great Dorothy Day, she’s abetted by Oscar (John San Nicolas) — “from the DR,” like Dominican-Born Trail Blazer Luis Montero (actually, I didn’t think about the Blazers at all during this gripping show) — who does a little bit of everything (security, maintenance, etc.) at the kitchen to put himself through community college and earn enough to support his offstage fiancé.

They are sometimes impeded, sometimes entertained by Frog (ART veteran Allen Nause, almost unrecognizable, and utterly convincing) a mentally damaged near-homeless man that Nause plays closer to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy than to the tie-dyed and bearded figure I remember from the mid-1990s encounters that I and practically everyone else at the University of Oregon, including evidently Schreck (who received her bachelor’s degree there) had with his “Would you like to buy a copy of the world’s funniest joke book?” shtick. In the post show talkback, the actors revealed that some of the jokes came from one of those omnipresent little mimeographed volumes. All these seemingly well defined characters turn out to be in transition, not quite what they initially appear, even to themselves.

Finding Forgiveness

Framed by Shelley’s periodic confessions — to the microwave oven — the action, which takes place over several months, proceeds amidst much chopping of vegetables, soup preparation, cleaning up and the other mundane chores required to help our fellow humans. Frog is the only client who appears onstage. Much of the first half’s flirtation with superficial, sentimentalized stereotypes  — the crazy guy who’s really wise, the tough nun with a heart of gold, the troubled yet idealistic teen — turns out to be part of Schreck’s set up for the play’s emotional climax. I don’t want to reveal too much about what happens for fear of obviating the show’s impact, much of which derives from sudden plot twists and their consequent effect on the characters. To some, the story’s wrenching, unexpected turn might seem contrived, even melodramatic. But anyone who’s had some experience around people facing the emotional and mental challenges portrayed here might not be surprised at all; their very unpredictability is often what makes those challenges sometimes intractable.

This potent production makes us empathize with its characters and brings us convincingly into their troubled world. Kristeen Willis Crosser’s design for the soup kitchen in which all the action takes place drew praise from the after show talk back audience, several members of whom had worked in such places. Company members spent a day working at a Portland soup kitchen to get a feel for the place. Sharath Patel’s evocative sound design, we learned in the talkback, incorporates ambient street sounds from the actual New York location the play’s kitchen is set in. Despite the claustrophobic setting, JoAnn Johnson’s unobtrusive direction gives each character room enough to shine, nicely balances the script’s offbeat blend of humor and tragedy, and keeps us engaged throughout the 90 minute, no-intermission performance.

John San Nicolas makes a warmly engaging and funny Oscar. Alyssa (who impressed as Emily in Liminal Theater’s Our Town last year has the toughest role as the unpredictable Emma, whose motivations don’t become clear (or at least explicable) toward the end of the play. She pulls off the extremes with such aplomb that it’s hard to believe she’s only 25. Her compelling performance in her Oregon major theater debut bodes a promising career.

Allen Nause in "Grand Concourse." Photo: Owen Carey.

Allen Nause in “Grand Concourse.” Photo: Owen Carey.

Ayanna Berkshire’s thoughtful, sympathetic portrayal of the down to earth Shelley (including beautifully underplaying her benumbed reaction to a shattering event at the end) helps compensate for the script’s insufficient exploration of the source of Shelley’s growing crisis of faith. Although the play begins and ends with her questions and choices, for long stretches, Shelley’s lower-voltage journey is eclipsed by those of the other three, more colorful characters, in part because the story puts her in a passive rather than instigating role until the end. Like the others, she’s mostly and understandably reacting to Emma’s abrupt moves. But when the script requires a character to explain a major life decision at the end, rather than the audience emotionally understanding that choice at the moment it occurs, something hasn’t quite been set up properly. Still, especially at a time when homelessness seems to be more abundant around here than compassion, Grand Concourse is an important show that should be seen right now, as is.

At the matinee performance I saw, a much larger than usual portion of the somewhat stunned audience stayed to talk to the actors, asking genuinely difficult questions as they assiduously tried to work out what they’d just seen and how it reflected reality. Those who’d had the most experience with people in these situations seemed the most sympathetic to Schreck’s unflinching portrayal. Instead of comforting correctness, Grand Concourse offers real life in all its sometimes discouraging messiness. Little is resolved, but much is learned, by characters and audience alike.

Ultimately, as both Emmas learn in these two plays, nothing (mental illness, religion, good intentions, nor the illusions of theater) can protect us from the irresistible force that, if we’re to ameliorate it, must be confronted squarely in all its obstinate indifference: reality. Grand Concourse doesn’t flinch from this tough task, and neither should we.

  • Grand Concourse continues through June 5 at Grand Concourse continues through June 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage, 1515 SW Morrison Street, Portland, with Oregon Food Bank benefit performance on Tuesday, May 17. 503-241-1278. Ticket and schedule information here.
  • Read Bob Hicks’s ArtsWatch profile of playwright Heidi Schreck.
  • Read Adam Greenfield’s insightful interview with Schreck on the occasion of Playwrights Horizons’ premiere of Grand Concourse.
  • Read David Adjmi’s interview with Schreck on the occasion of the debut of Creature in 2009.

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