as you like it

ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

 


 

A FEW THINGS HAPPENING THIS WEEK:

Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.

Continues…

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

Timothy Fodge and Caitlyn Lushington play Orlando and his disguised love interest Rosalind.

When I first determined to check out the “immersive” As You Like It at The Steep and Thorny Way To Heaven, I’m pretty sure I based my expectations entirely on works I’d seen there before. In this private event space, I once attended a fairy-themed vaudevillian variety show with venue co-host Megan Skye Hale emceeing for a kettle-drummer, two masked mimes, two belly dancers and an aerial acrobat. More recently, I also caught a rock revue performed by venue co-host Myrrh Larsen and inspired by Hades and Persephone, where the mythic characters pursued each other through a torrid contemporary dance that started onstage and then rampaged through the audience.

So when I heard the space would host a Shakespeare play, I wondered what we might see: A juggling Touchstone, chanting punchlines between catches? A quick-changing Rosalind, flashing rapidly between a ballgown and a tux? An aerialist Phoebe, dangling just above the shepherd Silvius’s furtive grasp?

As it turns out, Speculative Drama & Susurrations actually plays this production pretty straight and narrow—not too steep or thorny—with what would qualify as a unique and engaging treatment, but not a wild and wacky reimagining. What the play does deliver are some new faces, some fun variations, and an excellent option for date-night Shakespeare comedy. Get the Montage to sculpt you a swan, then walk a couple of blocks to this show.*

The wardrobe is Doc Marten Neo-Victorian. The set is minimal, just a black background, but with a cool catwalk installed along stage right. The blocking is dynamic and often comic, the diction is precise, and the couples’ “meet-cutes” are appropriately funny and fawning.

Orlando is Tim Fodge, a Newberger making a worthy Portland debut. A Kenneth Branagh/Kevin Klein type who looks best in a beard and comports himself with eloquence, pomp and mischief, Fodge probably has a past and is safely assured a future in Shakespeare, but could yet develop more range. Even when he’s exiled from a kingdom and attacked by a lion, we never believe he’s in any danger. Enso Theatre Ensemble’s Caitlin Lunshington as Rosalind is over-the-top adorable, dimpled and enthusiastic and, when necessary, coy and sly. Her best moves include an impressive cartwheel out of Orlando’s arms, and a 1950s “boy adventurer”-style Ganymede, with hands on hips and a twinkle in the eye, a la Davy Crockett or Peter Pan. Megan Skye Hale, also the show’s A.D., plays Rosalind’s cohort Celia with matching gusto.

Readers Theatre Rep’s Wendy Wilcox plays a stately female version of the banished Duke Senior (timely, with Hillary’s rise), while Jacques (whom recent productions including this one puzzlingly insist on calling “Jay-Queeze,” like some B-list rapper) is portrayed here not as a straight sad sack, but rather a preening and arch gay man flourishing a fan, more in love with the poetry of his own laments than actually aggrieved by them. A few characters, Audrey, Charles, and William, are omitted, with Charles still referenced but never seen onstage and the other two struck completely from the script. Audrey’s omission leaves Touchstone without a lover, giving Jacques’ eager recounting of meeting him a more twitterpated tone. Jacques also seems to take more than an artistic interest in his accompanying troubadour, Amiens—a take that seems new, but also plausibly may hark all the way back to the original Elizabethan all-male-player tradition. “Play me songs all day to soothe my spirit?” Please. That is flirting. Jeff Desautels, who plays both Amiens and Oliver, sports a similar scarf and demeanor in both roles, but cultivates more chemistry with Jacques than with Celia, which piques the imagination. YOCTOtheatre’s Sean Bowie as Touchstone is given less than usual to do, but dispatches it admirably; Caitlynn Didlick, a recurring performer at Steep and Thorny, plays a relatively mild-mannered and understated Phoebe; and PSU theater student London Bauman makes a sympathetic Sylvius.

Though nobody’s spinning from the ceiling, this is a worthwhile spin on Shakespeare comedy As You Like It—and as it happens, I do.

*Because of the space’s status as a private venue, reservations are required.

As You Like It: Post5’s home at last

The company opens its new Sellwood space with an uneven but exuberant frolic in the woods

It’s the afternoon of the fateful wrestling tournament in As You Like It, and the nasty Duke’s man, fearsome Charles, is kicking young Orlando’s behind. The Duke’s not-at-all-nasty niece Rosalind, who’s taken one look at the young challenger and is smitten beyond repair, leans forward from the crowd and blows a kiss to Orlando, who catches it, swallows it, swells with sudden strength, and kicks Charles into the middle of next week.

It’s an audacious moment, a big-wink, comic-strip spectacle that’s representative of Post5 Theatre’s brash new production, and Rosalind’s kiss might well be aimed at the entire enterprise: This As You Like It is Post5’s first production in its new home in the Sellwood district, and Saturday’s opening-night audience greeted it as a celebration.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here, spreading a little gleeful autumn in the forest. Photo: Russel J. Young

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, gleefully sprinkling  autumn leaves. Photo: Russel J. Young

The opening performance was all of that, and like Orlando’s victory, a bit of a dramatic turnaround, too. Ty Boice, Post5’s artistic director and the director of As You Like It, told the crowd that as of four days before opening, the theater had no chairs. The company borrowed a little more than 100 of them from the neighboring church, and eventually will have to come up with its own. The show, as they say, must go on – and it did.

Like the production itself, Post5’s new space – which takes up roughly half of a handsome church compound at 1666 Southeast Lambert Street, off Milwaukie Boulevard – is a work in progress. The bones are terrific, and for the rest, the basics are in place. Post5 has a performing space that’s bursting with potential, and a nice little bar and lounge in the basement, and the rest will come: Unfinished Cathedral, the title of T.S. Stribling’s 1930s novel of the economic and cultural transformation of the American South, comes to mind. Plus, the place has that most precious of commodities, a big, free parking lot. The space came together in the nick of time, and it gives Post5 a genuine home to grow into gradually, in a lively neighborhood that’s outside the usual performance zone. That’s worth tossing a little confetti in the air.

Post5 approaches Shakespeare with a reckless verve, putting the pedal to the metal and emphasizing the nowness of the thing rather than its antiquity. Boice’s As You Like It is built for speed, made for audiences who come not to worship Shakespeare but to enjoy him. And it’s bound to divide viewers: does it breathe fresh postmodern energy into a creaky old narrative, or does it simply skim along the surfaces of a classic, hauling in easy laughs while the bigger, deeper ones remain untouched?

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5's new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5’s new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

On opening night I found the show winsome, agreeable, a little sloppy, and a little too eager to please: I’d’ve liked more precision and evenness of tone, and less eagerness to adopt any frisky shtick that came wagging its tail down the street. Yes, As You Like It is a frolic. But it also has some high emotional and philosophical stakes. In this light comedy are questions of trust, truth, honor, danger, betrayal, and the categories of love, from brotherly to casual to deeply bonded. Evil and mortality rear their ugly heads, and the play considers the role of aggression and violence in both politics and love.

The balance is tricky: all of this thrums below the surface, and to approach the play like a Lear or Hamlet would be to fundamentally mistake it. But the shadings should be acknowledged, and this production plays the whole thing like a high-school rom-com. Having Charles show up in a Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestling mask (shades of Portland artist Victor Maldonado’s sly cultural interventions), uttering only savage grunts, turns him into a purely comic character and drains the danger out of one of the play’s crucial scenes. That air-kiss further turns the scene farcical. And there are wild variations in performance approach, so much so that I sometimes wondered whether the actors were making deliberate choices or simply hadn’t fully shaped what they were doing. The show’s prevailing mood seems less a specific style than a loosey-goosey anarchy in the woods. I lay this at least partly to the twin stresses of putting on a new show and creating an actual theater from an empty space at the same time.

Yet there’s also that refreshing narrative drive. The play’s well-spoken, and the cast is studded with good performers, several of them younger and brimming with promise. Chip Sherman as Orlando and Isabella Buckner as Rosalind (who performs in her male disguise as a drawling cowboy at home on the range) are engagingly open and well-matched, and Jessica Tidd is a likely sidekick to Rosalind as Celia, the duke’s daughter, who out of friendship flees with her to the Forest of Arden when her father banishes Rosalind on pain of death. Max Maller’s shoulder-shrugging Touchstone works less well for me, deliberately casual yet casual to a fault. The performance that sticks with me most clearly, and seems in many ways the most perceptively formed, is Keith Cable’s as Jaques, the melancholy fellow of the woods, who delivers the “seven stages of man” speech with laconic eloquence and who hints, in his double edge of comedy and moroseness, at the clipped contradictions of a Hugh Laurie.

Boice and his designers have made a virtue of the show’s low budget, which fits with Post5’s determination to deliver good theater at a low price: tickets are just $15, and on pay-what-you-will nights, you get to choose, which makes this show affordable for almost anyone. Costumer Cassandra Boice’s designs are bright and cheap and affable, with a touch of logger chic, and tech director Randall Pike’s sets and props are wittily low-rent, from simple hanging sheets to exuberant sprinklings of colorful leaves, flung playfully into the air to depict the changing seasons with a wink that works. The show resolves with an exuberance that overrides what doubts you may be wrestling with. After all, this As You Like It is only a beginning.

*

 As You Like It continues at Post5 through December 13. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Where can you find the Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year?  On the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, of course.  Three of them, including  two of the very best, “As You Like It” and the conclusion of the Prince Hal trilogy, “Henry V,” as well as that bit of silly business, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” here moved to the present day U.S. and retitled, “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,” by adapter Alison Carey and director Christopher Liam Moore.

That’s really why I was in town, those three shows, the heart of the summer season at OSF. I haven’t seen the other two of this season’s Shakespeares, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Troilus and Cressida,” so I can’t talk them one way or another, though ArtsWatch’s Suzi Steffen wrote about “R&J” (among other shows) this spring. But I did see “Animal Crackers” and “The White Snake,” maybe the two most lovingly reviewed shows this season. I completely understood why.

I’ll do these in the order I saw them, which happens to be the reverse order of how much I liked them.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa”

I don’t think anyone believes that “Merry Wives” is good or even average Shakespeare. It’s the lightest of romantic comedies, with nothing special to recommend it, although a great and comic Falstaff can sometimes raise it a notch or two, and there’s nothing BAD about it, really. That means that like “The Comedy of Errors,” no one is going to go all purist on you if you fool around with it.

Which Alison Carey and Christopher Liam Moore do, re-writing it (though following its plot contours) to situate it in Windsor, Iowa, after Presidential candidate Senator John Falstaff has lost the Iowa caucuses there. The idea of Falstaff as a Senator might be more hilarious if Senate wasn’t presently populated by a number of Bozo the Clowns.  His great appetite for women and money (if not in this case, wine) would just make him one of the boys.

Carey and Moore are actually respectful of the original story, despite their play; they certainly know their Shakespeare.

Pistol (Joe Wegner) and Nym (DeLanna Studi) react to Senator John Falstaff’s (David Kelly) plan to raise money/Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In this Iowa, gay marriage isn’t just legal; it’s preferred. And the Wives and lovers are just as likely to be lesbians as heteros. And instead of turning those wives against their husbands, Falstaff resolves to make them change sexual teams altogether. Somehow this involves the transfer of money. Here’s the logic train.

  1. Turn lesbians into heterosexuals.
  2. ???
  3. Money!!!

Anyway, this joke is pretty funny, and so is a lot of the show, which I wouldn’t have thought before I went, but there you go. A lot of the credit goes to the actors, who pile it on broadly, because to pull back for a second would sink this fragile vessel. David Kelly’s Falstaff, Kjerstine Rose Anderson as a chainsaw artist, Robin Goodrin Nordli as a professional golfer, Gina Daniels and Terri McMahon as the scheming Wives, all caught my eye, but everyone was bailing away as fast as they could! Now, if you really want farce, “Animal Crackers” is your best bet this season, but this “Merry Wives” tickled me, too.

“As You Like It”

Sometimes I think “Twelfth Night” is Shakespeare’s most perfect Romantic Comedy. As improbable as it all is, all its parts are logical AND hilarious. But then sometimes I go for “As You Like It,” because it puts the accent on the Romantic part of the equation, and its thinking about love is so interesting.

Touchstone (Peter Frechette) entertains Rosalind (Erica Sullivan) and Celia (Christine Albright)/ Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In this version, directed by Jessica Thebus, just about all of its elements are in fine working order, including the great clock-like contraption that presides over the action from the second tier of the Elizabethan Stage. It’s musical and beautifully sung; it’s funny without losing sight of its object, which is the nature of love; and it’s well acted, pretty much top (Erica Sullivan as Rosalind, Wayne T. Carr as Orlando and Christine Albright as Celia) to bottom (the pastoral and comical hayseeds).

I’ve seen BETTER versions of this very popular play, mostly driven by transcendent Rosalinds or Touchstones, mind you. But this one is representative of what the Shakespeare festival does best—tell a great story by a great playwright with close attention to each line by very talented actors  and augmented by stage effects both subtle and grand. What’s not to like?

So yes, if you’re finding you need another encounter with Rosalind, by all means, this is your show.

Two things I’d like to talk about briefly, one concerning the play and the other, this production.

One of my general premises is that we each encounter a play (or any work of art) singularly, personally, seeking something that is useful to us. And because what we find useful changes, we notice new things in something as complex as “As You Like It.”

What I noticed this time was the following exchange:

Touchstone: The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.
Celia: By my troth, thou sayest true, for since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show…

And I read it as an argument for freedom of speech and of the press, with the press playing the part of the Fool. The Fool, in Shakespeare at least, speaks truth to power, with a comic twist of course. When the Fool is silenced, the folly of the powerful grows. Uh, yes.

I’ve heard some rumblings that  having a deaf actor, Howie Seago (in his fourth season at OSF), play Duke Senior, was a distraction to some reviewers and audience members. He speaks in sign language, which must be interpreted for the audience, after all, and he must be signed to as well. That means when he’s onstage, a lot of gesturing fills the space. I understand this point; the rhythm of things does change.

But there’s a compensation: The sense of the language is underscored, deepened, given color and emphasis, by the signing, in the same way that an especially gestural actor can add to the meaning of her lines. This is an older way of acting, 19th century, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, surviving in our century somewhat via classical ballet.  After a moment of hesitance, I grew to like it, even depend on it a little.

And it fit into the very physical production that Thebus staged. This “As You Like It” is full of gestures (of the hands, arms and face), physical acting and comedy, as it seeks to clarify those antique lines about love and set up the comic sucker punches and one-liners. Somehow, the signing just seemed to fit in to the general flow.

Maybe, if I had to, I would make the argument for the inclusion of Seago from an ideological preference for more diversity on stage. But for myself at least, I didn’t have to. The choice can be defended pragmatically and dramatically. The same goes for his role in “Henry V.”

John Tufts as Henry V/ Photo by Jenny Graham

“Henry V”

The evening of “Henry V”  a storm cell blew over Ashland, and for about an hour pelted us with heavy rain, until about a half-hour before the performance. The audience for a Saturday night was noticeably spotty, including most of my row. But most of us knew the drill and had come prepared for water, so when the rain re-materialized a couple of times during the performance, we settled in and tried to make sure we were guttering the rain away from our persons. The only real problem was audibility: That much rain hitting that many plastic ponchos raises quite a clatter.

So we sat, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” huddled together, ready to repulse the decadent and boastful French as they sought to overwhelm our shaky claim to the throne of France by force of arms. We might be soggy, but we were stalwart.

Fortunately, we had a good King Harry to lead us into battle, John Tufts (who played Prince Hal in the recent OSF versions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2), he of forceful voice and powerful frame (only partially covered by a tank top which must have been dripping when he went offstage).  And director Joseph Haj, with a traditional Henry V in place, takes the play down the traditional course, with smart trims to the text and a clear, unsentimental reading of the battle scenes (first the siege of Harfleur and then the triumph of Agincourt).

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, though, the account of King Harry’s triumph constantly subverts itself, and Haj doesn’t flinch, giving Harry’s harrowing speech at Harfleur space and time to undermine any pretense of Harry’s moral superiority in a fantasy of rape and child-killing (“Your naked infants spitted upon pikes”), “While the mad mothers with their howls confused/Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry/At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.” And he has Harry execute his old drinking partner Bardolph with his own hands. Think of it as the “Game of Thrones” version of “Henry V”?

It’s a great play, honestly, and if you disagree, maybe this production will turn you around, because it’s so well-acted and conceived. I enjoyed Richard Howard’s argument (as the Archbishop of Canterbury) for war and Henry’s claim to the throne of France, so like a pedant. Brooke Parks as Katherine, Princess of France, and Judith-Marie Bergan as her maid, made sharp work of the comic English-learning scene, conducted in a bathtub filled with bubbles (and more water by the second!). Katherine’s wooing scene with Henry was also delightful: Tufts is a great straight man for her reactions.

I could go on, but just a couple more. U. Jonathan Toppo’s Pistol picked up the pace and intensity of things whenever he set foot on stage and gave shape to the parallel story of the little band of Eastcheap brothers who’ve enlisted for the war after the death of their mentor, John Falstaff.  And finally, all of the action is accompanied by a live percussion performance by Kelvin Underwood, an excellent effect, or rather series of effects, because he coaxes eerie squeaks as well as martial drumming from the instruments at his disposal.

****

So that’s it for the summer shows, a good group. Because I didn’t make the trip to Ashland last year, I was a bit startled by the evolution of the company. It has lots of young, new “stars,”  and I found myself enjoying this generational shift, even as I enjoyed the turns by the company veterans. And yes, I even liked the rain…

NOTES

Critic Marty Hughley favored “As You Like It”  over the other three plays in his review as did Bob Keefer of the Eugene Register-Guard. Of course, they didn’t see the wet T-shirt version that I saw.

 

 
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