D.C. Copeland

‘Play’: the play’s the (meta) thing

D.C. Copeland's newest at Shaking the Tree is a spry leap into artifice and reality, a play about the play of making a play

Play, D.C. Copeland’s aptly named and spryly entertaining new play that premiered Thursday evening at Shaking the Tree, playfully underlines a crucial point: in the theater, there is no such thing as realism.

That is, realism isn’t reality. It’s just another style, artificial like all the rest. Characters live and breathe and do what they do at the whim of an invisible hand – not Adam Smith’s elusive economic balancer, but the hand of an unseen character known as the playwright, who may or may not be in control of the impulses that move her to play the pieces of the play the way she does. The playwright, in this case, is the mother of invention, and she has the audacity to openly display the artificiality of her enterprise while at the same time trying to lure the audience into that emotional complicity with the characters that we call, for convenience, “realism.”

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in "Play." Photo: Gary Norman

Modica (left), Martin, San Nicolas in “Play.” Photo: Gary Norman

A few shades of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author are flitting about the stage, although the characters in Play generally tend to consider the author more of a minor irritation than a crucial element of the action. And Copeland’s play dovetails, in intriguing ways, with a couple of other meditations on self-invention and the inherent theatricality of people’s lives that are on the boards in Portland right now: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Portland Shakespeare Project and Much Ado About Nothing at Post5. Viola invents an artificial reality that slowly aligns with “real” reality in Twelfth Night, as much through the power of language as through the foolery of disguise. Beatrice and Benedick trick the tricksters in Much Ado by following the self-deception of their mutual passion to discover it is the key to the very deep truth that their illusion is, in fact, their central truth: in a “real” sense, they’ve created (or perhaps discovered) themselves. In both plays – let’s say all three, because Copeland’s, too, is very much about the mysterious power of language to create and alter and sometimes destroy life – words are the magic that create and sustain existence out of nothingness.

If that sounds very meta-, well, it is. Like her simpler and much darker The Undiscovered Country, which premiered in May at Defunkt, Play relishes the gamesmanship of theater, and Copeland could hardly hope for a smarter and more vibrant production than she gets in this premiere production, which is directed by John San Nicolas, who also stars in the key role of the Narrator (meta-theatrical plays pretty often have a narrator, so named or not: think Our Town). Some plays are very forgiving: their virtues are so narrative and near the surface that they can survive even mediocre productions. Play is of the more elaborate and particular sort: it’s a loose-jointed yet cunningly structured edifice that everyone involved, from director to performers to designers, must fully comprehend and be in agreement on. In lesser hands, the whole puzzle could fall apart, like amateur Beckett. Play is very much a gamble – that the director and actors will get what’s going on, and that the members of the audience will appreciate having the blueprint created and contradicted and reshaped in front of their eyes.

The illusion of Play is that you can strip the illusion away, revealing all of its working parts, and still leave it intact. The danger is that the audience will see it as mere trickiness, and get bored when the arbitrary wand waves again. It’s very much, though not exclusively, a play for insiders – for artists, who grapple with this issue of reality and illusion every day in their own work; and for avid arts followers, who are fascinated by what it is that artists are about. Except for a couple of points where my attention flagged and I fantasized that I’d dropped in on a grad-school philosophy-of-theater seminar, I was caught up in both the play and the production, appreciating its little twists and plunges and cluster-bombs of comedy and even, though I usually loathe such things, its occasional forays into audience participation (partly, I think, because the audience-participation bits weren’t done earnestly, but with self-deprecating humor: how far can we manipulate you and get away with it?).

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

From left: Green, Groben, Conway, Modica, Martin, San Nicolas. Photo: Gary Norman

Play exists at various and shifting levels of reality: the unseen playwright, who is both the most and least important “character”; the omniscient and a little caustic Narrator; the actor playing a playwright, who seems to be pulling the strings except when they sometimes pull her; the characters the actor/playwright creates; even the audience, which is repeatedly exhorted to respond and get involved. The play begins, skippingly, with a character who decides she’s a playwright (bright and bushy Vonessa Martin, as Flan) and a second character (the arch and ferociously funny Lauren Modica, as Lola) who, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes her roommate. Flan declares; Lola prods; Flan scribbles; Lola argues. An extended family springs to life: best friends Grace (Kelly Godell) and Lila (Keiko Green); Grace’s daughter Rosalind (Tiffany Groben), who undergoes an entire life cycle over the play’s intermissionless 80-odd minutes; Grace’s too-good-to-be-true husband (Spencer Conway), who maybe isn’t so good but then again maybe is; and Joshua J. Weinstein as a sort of stagehand/factotum/handy spare part to be comically employed when the situation arises. The characters stumble, under Flan’s arbitrary hand, through episodes ludicrous and touching, comical and tragic, drunken and sober, furtive and open; and at some point the enthusiasm of the process gives way to something more wearing and heavier for the play’s creator to bear. Things happen to the characters that the playwright (the playwright in the play, and maybe the one outside of it, too) regrets but somehow cannot change: some things, she says, just have to be the way they have to be. Creation, as it turns out, is something weightier than just fun and games. Fantasies take on moral and emotional dimension.

As Copeland and her characters shift between action and commentary, commentary and action, director San Nicolas’s actors hover in a territory between avatars and fully fleshed characters, developing emotional shadings despite the playwright’s insistence that they are mere inventions: imperceptibly, they coax the audience into caring about their fates. This, too, is part of the illusion of the theater: It’s what happens every night onstage, only more baldly, almost perversely, stated in Play. And the actors’ deep dives into their characters, that fusion of the real and unreal that makes good fiction feel so very much alive, is crucial to it all.

It’s an exceptionally strong cast: I was taken particularly by Green’s emotionally confused Lila and Modica’s brassy Lola. And San Nicolas’s Narrator is a wonder, ranking with his outstanding work in the likes of Badass Theatre’s Invasion! and Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat. He’s a stretchy-elastic, caustic, rueful, show-offish, restrained, unpredictably funny conduit of high-voltage energy, connecting everyone to everyone else. It’s ferocious. Then again, it’s only a play.

*

Play, produced at Shaking the Tree by Cracked Nutshell (well, you’ve got to if you’re going to eat the nut), has a limited run of nine performances though August 8. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fertile Ground: one last look

The sprawling new-works festival spawns some hopefuls and the thrill of the new

It’s all over but the shouting (and a few shows, such as The Monster-Builder, Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café, and The End of Sex, that continue their regular runs). Portland’s sixth annual Fertile Ground festival of new works ended its eleven-day run on Super Bowl Sunday – or Groundhog Day, if you prefer – after sprawling across the city and some of its suburbs with the hopes and dreams of hundreds of writers, directors and performers.

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, "The End of Sex." Theatre Vertigo

Jason Glick and Stephanie Cordell, “The End of Sex.” Theatre Vertigo

For some of the dreamers, this was the end, the place where they were either satisfied they’d accomplished what they wanted to or realized they’d hit a dead end. For some, it was back to the drawing board, charged with energy to rework and refine their projects after seeing them onstage. For some, it was a chance to link up with producers or directors. For some, it was the launching of a fully formed new work.

No single person could possibly see all of the shows that were offered during Fertile Ground, although A.L. Adams made a fair stab at it, covering all sorts of them for ArtsWatch. You should check out her incisive and insightful reports. I saw a large handful, too, and decided for the most part not to write about them during the festival’s run. I wanted to get a sense of the festival itself, from its most rough-cut to its A-List attractions. The festival’s appeal, besides the chance to see so much new work, is the insight it offers into the creative process. It’s an opportunity for artists to see their work performed at crucial stages. Often, writers know their new piece isn’t ready for prime time, but having a chance to see it staged even roughly can be enormously helpful in pinpointing what is and isn’t working. A lot of those pieces aren’t ready for critical response: they’re still being formed.

Wherever I went for shows, from Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre to Northwest Academy’s little Bluebox Theater to Artists Rep and a makeshift stage at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, houses were good. Sometimes they were sold out. People were interested. It didn’t matter whether it was a first reading, a staged reading, a low-tech production or a full-out show. Audiences were excited to see the process. In that sense, Fertile Ground is a very Portland event: It asks “what are you doing?,” not “what have you done?”

A few things I saw were still too unformed to write about. Others were in a middle stage, open to a few broad observations. And a few were legitimate, finished shows.

And now, on with the observations (these are not reviews, in the traditional sense) about a few things I saw that stood out for one reason or another.

*

Theodore & Di, by David Berkson, Readers Theatre Repertory at Northwest Academy.

Berkson’s comic drama was a stripped-down but fully formed play, and one of the most interesting things I saw at the festival. It’s a boy-meets-girl tale (online, of course; we live in modern times) about a young film-school grad and a guy who works at a video store – one of the last, superbly and obscurely stocked indies, although he’s mostly into the porn selection. Theodore and Di are the ultimate odd couple. She’s smart and ambitious and bored with her job; he’s low-key and passive and has utterly no filters. It’s his very strangeness, his little-boy openness, that seems to attract Di, very much against her better judgment. Berkson’s script is sharply crafted and brittle: with the wrong actors, everything could fall apart. But Andy Lee-Hillstrom and especially Elizabeth Garrett get it exactly right. She has the tough task of suggesting Di’s conflicting fears and desires and sense of adventure, the emotional confusion that adds up to an unlikely attraction, and she does it beautifully. The author directs the show himself, which isn’t ordinarily a good idea, but in this case seems to have been: Theodore & Di demands a delicate balance, and Berkson knew what he wanted. Good supporting performances by Christie Drogosch as Di’s best friend and Jeffrey Arrington as one of Di’s old boyfriends round things out well. I’d like to see this show move on to a full run.

*

The Temporary Man, music by Scott David Bradner, lyrics and book by A.R. MacGregor, Lakewood Theatre.

This musical revolving around a hostage crisis inside an upscale restaurant is rough, with lots of unresolved issues. For one thing, does this apparently bustling business truly have only three tables? How can the disgruntled fired employee hold off all of the other tables, and everyone in the kitchen, too? And in the second act the play veers oddly into religious-symbolic territory, with its central character taking on Christlike sacrificial qualities. It’s laid on pretty thickly, where suggestion would work far better. But Bradner writes good songs, in something like a Jason Robert Brown mode, and MacGregor is an adept lyricist. Significantly, they’re both young, and their partnership seems like a good one. This play has a long way to go, mainly but not only on the book itself. But I like the partnership, which could prove more important than the play.

 *

Carter Hall, by Claire Willett, “Flash Reads” series at Artists Rep.

This faerieland fantasy is too long and a bit imbalanced and maybe even a little unsure of what its ultimate medium ought to be, and it’s a very good bet that Willett knows all of that. This is the first time on its feet for a sprawling and ambitious project that’s in its early stages, and the “Flash Reads” series provides the writer an excellent opportunity to see where things stand and where they might go next. Carter Hall is based on the old Scottish tale of Tam Lin, kidnapped by the faeries and made into Queen Mab’s lover, and his eventual escape back to the topworld, and the question of changelings and of mercy and compassion and those other things that distinguish the human from the faerie world. Willett mixes in storytelling folk songs from Steeleye Span, and adeptly balances the modern and the ancient, and raises questions of spirituality without proselytizing, in a manner similar to the children’s authors Eloise McGraw (Moorchild) and Madeleine L’Engle (the Wrinkle in Time series). Carter Hall is at a tender stage in its development, but it’s obviously a project with great promise. During the reading’s first act I kept thinking, “Cut, cut, cut!” During the second act I switched to, “No, this is a tall tale, and it wants to ramble.” And that made me wonder whether it might fit more naturally as a novel than onstage. But it’s really too early in the process to make that sort of judgment, and Willett’s task is to make it fit whatever medium she chooses. There’s lots of work to do. But it’ll be fun to track Carter Hall’s progress.

*

The Truth According to Rose, by D.C. Copeland, Independent Publishing Resource Center.

Rose is the second of two short one-acts by Copeland. The shorter, opening Merrily Down the Stream, the on/off sort-of love story of a couple of high school kids, is more scant than Rose, which is the absorbing tale of an older woman dealing with the death of her husband and her own flagging desire to hang onto the world of the living. It’s a sensitive, nuanced piece, intensely observed, and in this reading the veteran Vana O’Brien inhabits it beautifully: an ideal match of performer and role. Alana Byington directs with a sure soft touch, and good support comes from Scott Parker as Rose’s husband, dropping in like a gentle ghost, and Marc Hakim as Rose’s grown son, who tries with equal gentleness to nudge her back into the everyday bustle of life. Again, it’d be good to see this get a longer run.

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