cristi miles

‘Lungs’: She’s having a baby

Third Rail's two-hander about anxiety, parenthood, and the state of the world updates the conversation on love and life

Anxiety is nothing new for us mortals, but the anxieties of our own Age of Anxiety can seem unprecedented. Third Rail Rep has birthed to the stage a prescient look into 21st century parenthood and its particular anxieties with its production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, now playing at CoHo Theatre.

Playwright Macmillan hangs with the in-yer-face theater crowd of the U.K. His work shares the painful honesty of the genre, although he handles the audience with a gentler approach than his peers. He’ll shock you, but only because he’s given a line to a character that reveals some fragment of inner dialogue you’ve experienced at one time or another: the kind of inner conversation that if spoken, would lead to both catharsis and shame.

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Pierce and Miles: modern problems. Photo: Owen Carey

Anxieties? Take your pick. In the few days before Third Rail’s Lungs opened, Portland’s air hung with what felt like beads of red mercury, magnifying the sun and sweeping up fine particles of dust. The cityscape seemed to be a postcard from the dystopian future. Bone-dry streets summoned up the smell of dirt and caked urine and a museum of litter; they showed off the city’s haves and have nots with struggling homeless camps dotting the underpasses. Local news reported that Portland’s air quality index was worse than Beijing’s, and the governor declares a state of emergency.

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PETE takes the ‘Sisters’ to the lab

A new translation and experimental approach to Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" opens on Saturday

I counted myself lucky to see the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s first full production, R3, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It managed to unsettle the play, moving it from a series of plots by the hungry and bloody Richard to a deeper consideration of his language, the flood of words—seductions, persuasions, commands—he spews to get his way.

In my review back in 2013 I concluded:  “R3 gets us back in touch with a lying liar and the lies he tells!”

Directed and adapted by Gisela Cardenas, the production focused on the women characters (the PETE ensemble has three women and one man); it integrated design (set, costume, sound) into the production in interesting ways; and the acting style wasn’t what we’d call “natural” at all. Maybe we’d call it “odd,” though then we’d have to add, “and effective.”

In short, I thought it was a brilliant debut, not least of all because it took on a central play in the Western theater canon and delivered the unexpected.

Amber Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles of PETE in "The Three Sisters"

Amber Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles of PETE in “The Three Sisters”

Beginning on Saturday (August 2), PETE is back with its third independent production, Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, freshly translated and directed by Lewis & Clark professor  Stepan Simek, who taught two of PETE’s founders, Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman, at Evergreen State College. That’s doubling down on testing the group’s approach on the classics; Can they portray the familiar story of a noble Russian family’s disintegration in ways that make it strange and immediate?

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When we met to talk a bit about The Three Sisters, the first question I asked PETE’s four founders—Coleman, Whitehall, Rebecca Lingafelter and Cristi Miles—had to do with that big word in the middle: experimental. Did they mean it in a general way or did they have a specific vector of experiments in mind when they started the company in 2011?

The answer was a name, really, Anne Bogart, and then an example: They had all seen the same Bogart-directed production of Room, a one-woman play starring Ellen Lauren, devised from the writing of Virginia Woolf, especially A Room of One’s Own. Miles, Coleman and Whitehall saw it on the Seattle stop of its tour; Lingafelter in New York, where she was studying theater at Columbia University and deeply interested in Bogart’s work.

“I’d never been in a room with a performer who was that present with me,” Miles said about Lauren’s work in Room. And then they spent several minutes talking about the way the show converted the audience into participants in the event, how gestural it was and yet very contemporary, how deeply embedded movement was in the action. And they all decided that they wanted to try to make theater that did the same things.

That meant approaching theater like Bogart, whose approach to theater is a critique (among other things) of traditional, Method-based theater acting in the U.S., and indirectly, the entire system of making theater here, with its ad hoc acting ensembles gathered for one show at a time for a relatively brief rehearsal period during which they attempt to latch onto the director’s vision of a play. Bogart’s approach is anti-hierarchical, distributing the “vision” of a play into many discrete, creative choices that her company of actors and designers participate in, workshopping different ideas until they find the ones that work.

All of this is worked out in a book, The Viewpoints Book, that Bogart wrote with Tina Landau (of Steppenwolf Theatre Company fame). It’s an analytical and practical approach to theater that Bogart adapted from choreographer Mary Overlie’s ideas about making dance. The “Viewpoints” (six in Overlie’s original formulation) consider the creative potential of nine physical areas (including shape, gesture, repetition, tempo, duration, spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, architecture, and topography) and five vocal ones (pitch, dynamic, accleration/deceleration, silence, timbre). The exercises that make up the bulk of the book are designed to investigate these possibilities and apply them to theater, either existing texts or ones the group is composing.

PETE, which like Bogart’s company (SITI) trains actors and designers in the Viewpoints methods and does collaborations with other companies (earlier this year, for example, the group worked with Portland Actors Conservatory on Opus 3, an adaptation of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata), works from the Viewpoints handbook. That stretches out the time it takes to create and mount a production: Song of a Dodo, PETE’s second production took around a year to create, including a 20-minute excerpt staged in Seattle. And The Three Sisters started workshopping last summer, after Simek (who works with Lingafelter at Lewis & Clark) said, “You should do The Three Sisters—there are three women,” and offered to write a new translation for the company.

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The delightful “strangeness” of R3 emerged from the workshops and exercises as the group attempted to figure out who they really were as a company. Song of a Dodo actually featured the cast playing the birds, soon to be extinct, so yes, good luck with your Method playing THAT. The play started with Coleman’s desire to bring the fruits of a “lamentation workshop” with Marya Lowry to the stage: specifically, the notion that lamentation and revenge feed each other. And it veered from comedy to tragedy, specifically Anne Carson’s translation of Hecuba, as it unspooled over three acts. “Why does Tragedy exist?” the narrator asks at the beginning of the play. “Because you are full of rage…Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

"The Song of the Dodo" was a PETE original.

“The Song of the Dodo” was a PETE original.

So, yes, lamentation, keening, wailing figured in Dodo, and so did bird hijinks, interviews with Nicol Williamson and Katharine Hepburn, and movements that repeated, changed tempo, and formed interesting gestures—just as Bogart suggested. But not that you’d ever actually notice. I didn’t think about it all until PETE pulled back the curtain for me a little bit. That’s because all that Bogart is REALLY doing is setting the stage for creative acts on stage, ones that the company itself discovers in the process of working together.

For The Three Sisters, PETE needed to expand far beyond its four core members—Chekhov’s play has LOTS of characters and subplots going (duels!)—so the company has been bringing its approach to a cast of prominent local actors. I’ll just list them all without comment: If you go to Portland theater much at all, the names will jump out at you. Isaac Lamb, Mike O’Connell, John San Nicolas, Chris Murray, David Meyers, Jahnavi Caldwell-Green, Kathleen Worley, Michael Chambers, Jake Simmonds, and Dustin Rush make a cast I’d love to see in a traditional version of The Three Sisters, let alone an experimental one.

Simek’s idea, according to Lingafelter, is to dispense with The Three Sisters as a play of high feeling, romance and lofty ideas and play it more viscerally and directly related to the circumstances of the play. I’m imagining fewer world-weary sighs, I suppose, but beyond that, I really have no idea what to expect, even after talking to the principals.

Part of the excitement of the production for me is also just to see whether and how the seed of Bogart and Landau’s Viewpoints germinates and grows here, how the community of practitioners that PETE hopes to create starts to affect non-Viewpoints productions, for example. And I’m also interested in how the longer rhythms of PETE workshops work out practically: Can they keep a company afloat if they are only producing a show or two a year and doing a lot of teaching? Or is this actually a better way to go at a time when the arts are marginalized because they are so difficult to make into easy-to-sell-and-consume products? Yes, I’ll be eager to see how that works out.

NOTES

The Three Sisters previews on July 31 and August 1, then opens for its run August 2-17, in Diver Studio in the Performing Arts Building at Reed College. Tickets are $20-$25, with discounts for working artists, students, and seniors.

Review: a shaggy dog romance (with songs)

Love me slender: Third Rail's two-hander 'Midsummer' is sweet-hearted and breezy but slim

Love is in the air these days at CoHo Theatre. But what about that other, less pleasant scent lingering? Oh, that’s just a bit of sick.

Sick, in this case, as a substance rather than a condition. It’s a euphemism in British English for what we might – rather less decorously – call “puke.”

Its presence here, amidst a modest, sweet-hearted two-hander called Midsummer (a play with songs), has to do with the confluence of a wicked hangover, severe tardiness for an important occasion, and some ill-advised physical exertion. But considering that the stuff is merely talked about, not shown, perhaps we can leave it aside for the more palatable aspects of the highly unconventional romantic weekend at the center of this play by David Grieg (with songs by Gordon McIntyre).

Lamb, Miles, and friend. Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb, Miles, and friend. Photo: Owen Carey

The gist of the story is that Bob, an underachieving guy in his 30s who seems best known for his lack of distinguishing features, happens to be in a wine bar at the same time that Helena, a lawyer of questionable personal discipline, has been stood up by her married lover. Impulsively, she offers to share her bottle of wine with him – and the extra drinks, the animal passions, the predictable impediments, the convenient coincidences and the colorful antics take things from there.

The redoubtable Isaac Lamb brings his boyish charm and warm singing voice to the role of Bob, and if you sense a sort of deja vu in watching Lamb play an over-imbibing Brit falling awkwardly into love, you’re thinking of Kiss Me Like You Mean It, from the fall of 2010, back when Third Rail Rep put on its shows in the World Trade Center Theater.

Though the larger Winningstad Theatre downtown is the company’s main home these days, this is the second Third Rail show in a row staged in the cozy CoHo. The recent Gideon’s Knot was a remarkably taut drama bristling with big ideas and tough emotions; Midsummer, well, isn’t.

The play’s most distinguishing feature is the way nearly all of it is delivered over, across and through the Fourth Wall. That is, the two characters enact their story in a piecemeal fashion as they mostly tell it directly to the audience, as though they were especially gifted raconteurs relating it to you over a pint in a pub. For instance, this is how Bob places himself in an early scene: “Black beer in front of him, black thoughts inside of him, reading a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground to cheer himself up.”

There’s something charmingly self-conscious yet open about this as a narrative style, and it fits the sense we get from the outset that we’re watching a couple tell us the unlikely yet magical tale of how they met and fell in love. And since the magic Greig conjures for these two involves car theft, petty gangsters, an obsessive-compulsive child, profligate spending, a sommelier, a gaggle of goth teens, busking with songs by the Jesus and Mary Chain, and an entirely un-sexy bondage scene, perhaps honesty really is the best policy.

The shaggy-dog style of both the action and the telling call for a little breathing room from time to time, and the interludes of McIntyre’s unassuming folk-pop songs – which have Lamb and co-star Cristi Miles strumming guitars and/or ukuleles as they sing – provide just such rhythmic and tonal variation.

The problem, though, is the songs themselves, which sound like wan facsimiles of the Proclaimers and don’t add much to our understanding of the emotional journeys of Bob or Helena, or of lovers in general. As a lyricist, McIntyre seems to have missed the lesson that universality comes from specificity (or at least from an artful blend of specificity and ambiguity), not from generalities. And melodically, the few tunes on offer are simply too bland to bear all the repeated reprises. Having the actors turn and sing straight to us may be meant to increase our emotional connection with them, but instead eventually becomes a bit of a bore.

As for the main story, director Philip Cuomo stages it with a breezy energy but still is hamstrung by its inherent shortcomings. For one, even as likeable an actor as Miles is unable to make the vaguely dissolute but otherwise under-written Helena into a character we really pull for. More importantly, while there’s plenty of entertainment value in the couple’s wild romp around Edinburgh, what Grieg shows us is Bob and Helena each coming to see each other as an escape route from their personal dead ends; and that might well be the basis of a relationship, but it’s not quite enough like love.

Or maybe it’s love still carrying a whiff of sick.

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Third Rail’s Midsummer continues through April 19 at CoHo. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

Jake Street strangles Tony St. Clair as David Heath seeks to intervene./Photo: David Kinder

We have come to expect that our theater will reflect our times, one way or another. These are angry times in America, so an angry “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s comic investigation of love, shouldn’t surprise us.

That’s what the Portland Shakespeare Project, under the direction of Michael Mendelson has given us. Well, among other things, because it’s also delivered a well-spoken, fully committed,  swiftly moving “As You Like It,” too.

Are we angrier now than when Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient satire “Network” declared, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” way back in 1976? Not that I know how to measure societal anger, exactly, but I‘d have to say we are. By a lot. Our sense of fairness has turned into an obsession with power; our sense of justice has transformed into a desire for revenge; and love has become a weakness, a matter for saps.  Rightly, we are angry about it all, and that anger further corrodes fairness, justice and love. Don’t you just love vicious circles?

I’ve seen a few productions of “As You Like It,” and I’ve never seen one quite like this. Usually, I leave thinking they have emphasized the “spunky” part of Rosalind, among Shakespeare’s greatest heroines (with Juliet, Viola, Cleopatra and Imogen), at the expense of her wisdom and depth of feeling. And sometimes, I think they’ve taken the comedy in the forest all the way to “Hee Haw,” which was a cornpone variety show back on the cusp of the ‘70s. But anger? Not so much.

We get a dose of it right at the beginning, when Orlando (Jake Street), the wronged younger brother, gets a good solid choke hold on his brother Oliver (Tony St. Clair), and muscles and veins start popping. And that carries over to the wrestling match that Oliver has fixed to eliminate Orlando: We’d call it a cage match to the death. This isn’t comic violence, not at all.

The villains, Oliver and the usurping Duke Frederick (Pierre Brulatour), are angry, of course. But so is the jester, Touchstone (Darius Pierce), whose dry wit blows up into a Saharan windstorm that threatens to take the flesh off the bones of a rival in love. And even Rosalind (Cristi Miles), whose doubts about and yearning for Orlando leads to temporary hysteria (as love often will), pushes into the Red Zone, projecting a bitterness in the process. And she takes her playacting with the spatting couple Silvius (Andy Lee-Hillstrom) and Phoebe (Dana Millican) into real aggravation.

Ouch. Those are three primary characters — Rosalind, Oliver and Touchstone — and their collective anger changes the ecology of the production. So, Jacques, the melancholic philosopher, has a little snarl to go with her brooding (Jacquez, usually a man’s role, is played by Jill Westerby here), and the irony of Rosalind’s dear cousin Celia (Melissa Whitney) sounds harder-edged than it ordinarily would.

Instead of a meditation on various sorts of love, which  ultimately  involves a certain sacrifice of self, this “As You Like It” moves love to the side and focuses on the dissonance around it, the selves competing with each other.

In a gentler time, more concerned with the textures of love, this would be unthinkable. In my preparation for this production, I stumbled upon a collection of letters by Helena Faucit, one of the great British stage actors of the 19th century. “On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters” is a delight, a close reading of  parts that made Faucit famous, including Rosalind. Although the language is from another era, her observations are close to the heart of her acting,  at least as close as the reflections of any actor I’ve ever read. And her take on Rosalind, which runs dozens of pages, is instructive.

Here’s part of what she says about the most famous scene in the play, when Rosalind, disguised as a boy, meets Orlando in the forest of Arden and understands, from the love poems to her he has left on the trees and from overhearing him, that he loves her as much as she loves him. It’s a little long, but I think Faucit’s description of her inner state is worth reading:

“The situation, in its very strangeness, was so delightful to my imagination, that from the moment when I took the assurance from Orlando’s words to Jaques, that his love was as absolute as woman could desire, I seemed to lose myself in a sense of exquisite enjoyment. A thrill passed through me; I felt my pulse beat quicker; my very feet seemed to dance under me. … Speak to Orlando she must at any hazard. But oh, the joy of getting him to pour out all his heart, without knowing that it was his “very Rosalind” to whom he talked, of proving if he were indeed worthy of her love, and testing, at the same time, the depth and sincerity of her own devotion! The device to which she resorted seemed to suggest itself irresistibly; and, armed with Shakespeare’s words, it was an intense pleasure to try to give expression to the archness, the wit, the quick ready intellect, the ebullient fancy, with the tenderness underlying all, which gave to this scene its transcendent charm.”

The “tenderness underlying all” — the language of love in our time is relatively impoverished compared to the language of Faucit’s. Sure, Faucit saw the need to test love, but I’m not sure she saw it as a threat to the self.

I’m not being prescriptive here. I think a 2011 version of “As You Like It” risks seeming hopelessly archaic if its Rosalind tracks along with Faucit’s. The Portland Shakespeare Project’s production is true to its time. It does the play the honor of treating it as a living document, not a museum piece. It chooses not to impose a gauzy scrim between us and Arden wood, where cute lovers and cut-up rustics act the fool in harmless ways.

That takes attention and hard work, and the cast, top to bottom, attacks the details with verve. The major roles, occupied by Miles, Street, Pierce, Whitney and Westerby, are beautifully spoken at times and alive second by second, provocative second by second. They never surrender to the conventions of the play. And the supporting cast follows suit — David Bodin’s Corin, for example.  The direction of the production makes Phoebe much more difficult to play — she can’t do a Daisy Mae — and Millican makes sense of her, at least until the end, when Shakespeare wraps things up with swoop.  Director Mendelson keeps the pace up by asking the actors to enter the stage a few beats before they actually should enter, a device common enough in choreography but rarer in theater.  Good idea!

As I left the theater, my friend suggested that the play itself was deficient, that it was “nice” enough, he supposed, but that nothing profound was at stake.  I didn’t say anything intelligible in reply, but now I’d offer that in “As You Like It,” love itself is at stake. I want the audience to clap if it still believes in love. I want the actors to act as though love is still a possibility. I want Rosalind to discover herself in love, become wiser and wittier in love than out, to nourish those she loves and in turn find nourishment from them.

But these are angry times. We turn our anger on ourselves. We lose the thread. It’s hardly as we like it — and that only makes us angrier.

NOTES

Need a little “As You Like It” plot refresher? It’s a story simply told. Rosalind is the daughter of the banished Duke, who has fled to the Forest of Arden, banished by his brother Frederick. When Frederick banishes Rosalind, too, she and her friend and cousin Celia (Frederick’s daughter) head for Arden, too, along with the jester Touchstone. But not before Rosalind and Orlando  fall in love at first sight! Orlando has a problem, too, a brother (Oliver) who has denied him his inheritance and seeks to eliminate him entirely, and he slips away to Arden, too.  In Arden, Rosalind, disguised as a boy, runs into the love-addled Orlando, and in that guise puts him to the test. Meanwhile, other love affairs entwine like so many vines in the forest. It’s going to take quite a magician to figure it all out, but maybe, just maybe, Rosalind has the right wand to make it work.

 
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