jon kretzu

‘Admirable Crichton’ was an unexpected delight

Portland Shakes' reading of James 'Peter Pan' Barrie's island-shipwreck satire is a neat companion to 'The Tempest'

Who knew that Sir James Matthew Barrie, the man who penned Peter Pan, was such a brilliant and merciless satirist? Well, certainly whomever had the pleasure of catching Portland Shakes’ three-date stint of staged readings of The Admirable Crichton in rep with The Tempest. Barrie’s turn-of-last-century sendup of the British class system is equal parts Pride & Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, and Gilligan’s Island…and Shakes’ treatment was hilarious.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version,  directed by Lewis Gilbert.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version, directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Title character Crichton is the butler in a home owned by one Lord Loam, a well-meaning old rich guy whose half-baked theories of social equality not only annoy his three daughters and his fellow aristocrats, but also frankly creep out his servants. Undaunted, Loam forces his servants and his family to dine together once a month while Crichton ironically bristles, insisting that hierarchy is more “natural” than egalitarianism. The three Loam daughters, their socialite cousin Ernest, and their friend Lord Brockelhurst huffily agree, remarking what an ideal butler Crichton is for maintaining his inferior “place.”

The Loam family embarks on a sea voyage with their butler, a handmaiden, and a priest—which sounds like the setup for a joke, and in a way, it is. Spoiler alert: they shipwreck, and we see their first rough days on a desert island, then jump ahead two years to see how they’re getting on. Though Crichton is consistent in his belief that one man should rule over another, it turns out he’s flexible on the matter of which man should lead. With his “may the best man win” approach, he finds himself the most capable survivalist on the island, and has gradually rearranged the group’s hierarchy beneath him, proclaiming this new order as “natural” as the last.

With the rigors of their final Tempest performance behind them last Sunday, the actors let loose in this comparative cake-walk. Scripts in hand, they twinkled and hammed up the hilarious mannerisms that the wry narrator (David Bodin) described. Matthew Kerrigan, fresh out of his crude and piteous Caliban role, preened and smirked as the foppish, self-satisfied Ernest. Sam Dinkowitz, still playing the fool after a turn as Stephano, drooped his eyes and affected a ridiculous king’s-English lisp as Loam’s dimwitted would-be son-in-law Lord Brockelhurst. Clara-Liis Hillier and Foss Curtis, who’d just played fairies, and Susannah Jones, who’d been Miranda, abandoned their better graces and flared their nostrils in haughty disdain as Loam’s lazy, snotty (proto-Kardashian?) daughters. And emerging ART golden boy Joshua Weinstein, who’d given his role as The Tempest’s prince a Disneyish innocence, regained his composure as the uptight-but-reliable Crichton.

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Crichton, a pre-Gilligan’s Island professor, builds his former masters an implausible new world: a log-cabin lodge with plumbing and electricity, a mill, new animal-skin clothes and hunting weapons—though for some reason, the three women only have one functional skirt among them, and they fight over it as fiercely as over Crichton’s affections. The island’s new king is benevolent to his old boss Loam, who becomes known simply as “Daddy.” He’s less indulgent of Ernest, warning him that he’ll dunk his head in a bucket every time he utters a smug witticism. (Both of those things end up happening a lot; it turns out that the “clever” Ernest is a slow learner.) The women and the priest (Andrew Stearns) adapt more readily, becoming healthy, athletic hunter-gatherers.

But Barrie’s skewed fable doesn’t end there.

Just as the new society is operating (relatively) smoothly, and Crichton has chosen the eldest Loam girl for his bride, a British ship comes to “rescue” the party. Dutifully citing “fair play,” Crichton lights a signal fire to guide them. They promptly return to society, and resume their old roles, conveniently editing Crichton’s heroism out of the stories they tell the papers and their society friends. Once again, it’s he who’s waiting upon them. One thing has changed, though: Lord Loam is no longer fond of fraternizing with the help.

The fact that the plot comes full-circle from shipwreck to rescue is the best reason for Portland Shakes to show Crichton in rep with The Tempest. The second-best reason is that Crichton director Jon Kretzu has a keen nose for pairings. His daring Durang/Crimp combo “States of Emergency” pretty much killed at Defunkt this spring, proving him a great script sommelier. Note: Anon It Moves is currently running Hamlet in rep with Tom Stoppard’s very-complementary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, maintaining the same casting in each. Are great offerings in rep the latest game-raiser among local theaters…or is library-diving for rarer or less-recognized works still the favorite sport? Doesn’t matter. Crichton scores twice.

The Admirable Crichton is less obscure than, say, Readers Theatre Rep’s retrospective of forgotten Irish playwright Theresa Deevy, or Bag & Baggage’s discovery of never-before-performed Love’s Labour’s Lost adaptation The Students. Crichton was popular enough to inspire a 1957 movie, and has seen the spotlight as recently as 2011 in Ontario, Canada’s Shaw Festival. Still, compared to the universally known Peter Pan and The Tempest, it remains a hidden treasure.

Review: Defunkt Theatre’s ‘States of Emergency’

Sure, Crimp is twisted and Durang's deranged … but Defunkt doesn't shy from tough shows

Midway through the second act of Defunkt Theatre‘s Fewer Emergencies, Steve Vanderzee’s alone onstage. His voice is as deadpan as cast iron, his face as vacant as a waxwork, and he’s describing a school shooting: “He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head. Child C … flinches away. Flinches away?”

The actor falters, jerks his head, squints, begins his recitation again:

“He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head…”

In my chair, I start to feel unsettled. Have I left the teakettle on? Should I make a run for one of the theater’s three exits? Is my home burning down while I sit here squirming? Damn you, Vanderzee, you’re actually scaring me….

White and Vanderzee in "Fewer Emergencies." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

White and Vanderzee in “Fewer Emergencies.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Defunkt’s season-closing suite, States of Emergency, is comprised of two plays in rep: Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation. Fair warning, Crimp is twisted and Durang’s deranged — and Vanderzee plays a convincing psycho killer in each show. Though Emergency‘s generally suspenseful and Vacation rings comic, the shows are two peas in the same rotten pod. Spoiler alert: humanity’s hideously flawed.

Behind every great homicidal maniac, it seems, there’s a blithely monstrous woman, and each of these plays has one sick mother. Fewer Emergencies‘ “Mummy” (Angela White) and Vacation‘s Mrs. Sizemagraff (Jane Bement Geesman) are so mired in denial and so sozzled on booze and self-congratulation that they’re content to watch their children suffer. “What he’s losing in blood, he’s gaining in confidence!” exudes Mummy, stretching out her arms and grinning gloriously under pained brows to pantomime the time she coaxed her son — freshly shot in the legs — to crawl to her. Mrs. Sizemagraff pauses from preening, drinking, and wooing sexual predators off the street to flip her hand dismissively at her molested daughter Trudy: “She’s worthless! … No, she’s wonderful!” [guzzle, primp, pose]. Happy Mother’s Day, Portland.

Murderers, mothers … and the similarity doesn’t end there. Each show also makes space for the proverbial Peanut Gallery — a handful of generic voices that, for no specific reason, offer their opinions and try to shape the greater story. Both scripts wax particularly poetic about small pleasures (a child’s toys, the sound of the ocean, TV) while ignoring major atrocities (rape, destruction, dismemberment, death). And in both cases — believe it or not — this sensory rhapsody almost sways us against our better judgment. Mother’s right, the voices are appeased, nothing’s wrong, we should just relax and stop screaming.

Fewer Emergencies doesn’t explicitly call for anyone to play specific roles; it’s written in third person with no stage directions or character names, allowing very flexible interpretation.* However, after much workshopping, Defunkt director Jon Kretzu asked White and Vanderzee to embody the characters their lines were describing. Suddenly, what could read as detached postmodern commentary is brought to life as full-blown psychodrama. Subtitled scene breaks and lighting shifts from cool ultraviolet to deep red also help us parse Crimp’s cryptic text into a series of events.

Beyond Mummy and the shooter, the other actors don’t register as characters, per se. More like a chorus in the round, they burst in to clarify whatever Mummy says, contributing a general ethos of speculation and inaccuracy. While we often see an unreliable narrator, we rarely see one vetted for honesty by semi-anonymous agents onstage. It’s vaguely comparable to courtroom drama, but nonetheless a unique conceit. It’s also poetic, causing dialogue to flow into a regular cadence of repeated echoes, pauses, and rejoinders. Eerily, Vanderzee’s monologue progresses with the same halting structure, unaccompanied by “the voices.” “Don’t help me!” he repeatedly snaps, even though no one is. Perhaps he’s killed all of his detractors and interjectors by this point?

The cast confessed in talkback that all these asides, stops, and starts made Emergencies particularly hard to memorize … even hard to connect with artistically until they created secret “backstories” for the fluid supporting roles. Unofficially, they’ve dubbed Lori Sue Hoffman’s character “Pippa” and assigned her her own secret reasons for grilling Mummy with what seem like caseworker questions. They’ve also posed Matthew Kern as Mummy’s protective and somewhat complicit husband. Corey O’Hara**, a wild card who chimes into the dialogue with no apparent story-related character, gets his moment leading a brilliant singalong of a self-penned melody with a banjo. Unfortunately, these tacit character designations intrigue without fulfilling — which means, in effect, they distract. Kern, especially, spits every line with such significance that we’re tricked into thinking we’ll learn more about his character. Since we never do, it’d be better if the Defunkt mainstay and self-confessed Crimp super-fan would lean back and let the story shine.

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in "Betty." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in “Betty.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Betty’s Summer Vacation establishes an atmosphere of lighthearted leisure (beachfront cottage, bathing suits, cute-guy roommates, funny friend) and pours in a grab bag of mingled humor and horror (a cartoonish rapist/flasher in a trench coat, a lovably shy killer, a grown woman who talks to a doll, walls that eavesdrop and laugh at the characters) to lock the audience in stunned uncertainty. There’s no such thing as an appropriate audience reaction to any of the stuff that happens in this show — a fact that’s made even plainer when “the voices” point it out: “We’re very disturbed. We’re not sure we feel like laughter.”

The performances are caricatures, drawn broadly but aptly by character actors. Betty (Allie Pratt) is the “voice of reason,” sharing a vacation rental with her chatty, disturbed friend Trudy (Kelly Tallent), sexually insatiable surfer bro Buck (William Poole), and the quiet, uptight Keith (Vanderzee). They’re soon encroached upon by the cottage owner, Mrs. Sizemagraff (Geesman), who turns out to also be Trudy’s mom. Making herself at home immediately, Mrs. Sizemagraff invites a truly rogue element: Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher she met in the park (Joe Healy) … and … ahem, mayhem ensues.

Steeped in pop-culture reference, the script name-drops its inspirations directly: David Mamet’s Oleanna, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, CourtTV, and all of the high-profile trials from contemporary memory — Bobbitt, OJ, Clarence Thomas, you name it. But the closest we get to justice is a living room mock trial, where the increasingly bizarre Mrs. Sizemagraff takes over and both interrogates and defends herself.

Wait…isn’t “mock-CourtTV” redundant? Does a mockery of a mockery of justice work like a double negative in a sentence? Do the two layers of facetiousness cancel each other out to make a noble statement? Hard to say, but Durang thoroughly explores the form. Summer Vacation, I must say, feels long, forcing the audience to persist in its decision to laugh or not laugh at off-color jokes that recur and escalate literally ad nauseam. (“We feel sick. Bluuurrrghhh,” comment the ever-present voices.) This is Durang at his most cynical, and that’s really saying something. However, the show is saved by one major late-breaking surprise, and by Betty’s uncannily vulnerable, charming closing soliloquy.

Defunkt’s States of Emergency diptych is not for sensitive souls with susceptible guts. It comes with trigger warnings galore. Still, there may be some redemption, some catharsis, some context. After all, “no emergencies” would be unrealistic. So we try for fewer … with more wry laughter and dark fascination on the side.


* The same was apparently true for Theatre Vertigo’s Pool (No Water), which, according to director Samantha Van Der Merwe, could also have been done without direct character portrayals…but seemed much richer for them.

** Also a playwright, O’Hara co-wrote and acted in Fertile Ground standout Middle Names.




Modernizing classical music, traveling to the theater

Kenji Bunch talks about the condition of classical music and "All the Way" opens on Broadway

We keep coming back to certain debates. One of them has to do with the future of classical music, by which we mean “music consciously connected to the long “serious music” history in the West.” I suppose. Any definition cries out for yet more definition, specifics, details. However you parse it, though, the financial problems at the major classical music institutions and our sense that the form isn’t as central to the culture as it should be seem to become more acute by the day. So, today’s News & Notes relates to that ongoing discussion. And we’ll take a peek at the reviews for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival-commissioned, Bill Rauch-directed Broadway show, All the Way, which stars Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson, and we’ll link you to Portland’s traveling theater man Jon Kretzu’s latest travels.


Wanderlust: a theater director trots the globe

Portland's Jon Kretzu reports back on shows in NYC, London, and Stratford: first of a series


Travel has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I have always loved the excitement of traveling to other cities and making them homes away from home. It’s impossible to  imagine a year going by without multiple visits to the places I love and seeing friends, old and new, around the globe. My work in the theater has also been inspired immeasurably by these sojourns. How bereft I would be to not get to New York City or London (or my more recent new city-friends, Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Stratford – all of them a stone’s throw from each other in the beautiful province of Ontario) to see the glorious, and sometimes instructively abysmal, work in their theaters and opera houses.

This is the first in a series of reports about my personal wanderlust, with suggestions of what to see – or miss – on your own travels to the major fine arts centers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and our lovely neighbors to the North. As artists, we owe ourselves the multiple joys of getting out to see the work of our family of colleagues. It is both inspiring and essential to the art of creating new work and exploring new artistic vistas.

It’s also a helluva lot of fun.


New York City has been my beloved mistress since I was 21. That was the year I first saw its wonders, and it was love at first sight. The thrill of Broadway: my first show was the original cast of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou on that gargantuan Victorian factory setting at the Uris. Wow, what a way to start. It was on one of those school trips with my Drama Club, and I vowed to get back asap without the club. I started going there on my own the next year, beginning to know the exquisite pleasure of apartment-sitting and couch-surfing as I began accumulating my ever-growing stock of favorite walks, favorite sights, favorite restaurants.

Broadway's TKTS booth, where prices get a breath of fresh air. Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons/2008

Broadway’s TKTS booth, where prices get a breath of fresh air. Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons/2008

There is simply no way to tire of NYC. I always feel welcomed by its grand, ourageous beauty and power and loving embrace, as if by a very old and dear friend who is ready to stimulate me, challenge me and give me yet another series of wildly divergent and entertaining memories. I have thought about living there many times – but it would be like marrying your mistress. I would rather return, as I do now, four or five times a year to bask in its sooty glow and catch up on whatever is unmissable this week.


Puccini’s Lost Valentine

PSU's "La Rondine" revives an operatic rarity

Anna Viemeister as Magda and Zachary Borichevsky as Ruggero in "La Rondine." Photo: Joe Cantrell

Anna Viemeister as Magda and Zachary Borichevsky as Ruggero in “La Rondine.” Photo: Joe Cantrell

By Angela Allen

Everybody knows his “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Tosca,” but why is Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”), which opens Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, so rarely seen or even heard of?

“[“Rondine” allows] “no easy outs,” says starring tenor Zach Borichevsky. “No one dies or threatens to kill anyone, no deus ex machinas save the day at the end. There is no such intervention of fate: The climax rests on the decisions and conscious actions of the lovers.”

“La Rondine” also defies easy categorization, doubling as opera and operetta, light and dark, comedy and tragedy. Puccini-lovers call it a “lost valentine” to yearning, passion and the puzzle of love where pieces don’t quite fit. Smitten sailors, a snotty Parisian poet, kissy kisses, and lonely café women turn up, but the opera – which Puccini changed several times, even inserting a suicide at the end of one of the revisions – refuses to wallow in sentimentality or succumb to one of those typical over-the-top opera plots.

But “Rondine” does offer other Puccini pleasures. Gloriously melodic music (listen for polka and waltz motifs), somewhat silly drama and libretto, and themes of ill-fated love suit the cast of energetic undergraduates, graduate voice students and its two stars, lyric tenor Borichevsky and soprano Anna Viemeister. Their voices combine in sublime duets – not to mention smooches. One kiss lasts at least a minute, giving the chorus plenty of time to comment on the love fest during its duration.


Jon Kretzu looks back fondly at his Artists Rep years

ART's former associate artistic director talks about his 19 year at the company collaborating with Allen Nause

The ART creative braintrust, Jon Kretzu and Allen Nause

The ART creative braintrust, Jon Kretzu and Allen Nause/Michael Wilhelm

When Allen Nause announced he was retiring from Artists Repertory Theatre last year, all eyes turned to Jon Kretzu, who has been his associate artistic director since 1993 and has directed some 50 plays for the company. Would Kretzu stay or would he go? Well, in November, just before the company announced that Damaso Rodriguez would be the new artistic director, Kretzu announced that he was leaving his artistic home of nearly 20 years.

That was fitting: Nause and Kretzu may have been something of an odd couple, but like Oscar and Felix, they were an enduring one. And after all these years, it would be hard to imagine one staying on after the other left.

I can’t say I saw all the plays that Kretzu directed, but I saw a good number, some of them among the best experiences in theater I’ve had in Portland: “Breaking the Code,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”, “Keely and Du,” and well, I could go on. I saw many of his first shows at Artists Rep’s old home in the YWCA on Southwest Tenth Avenue and then more in its present home on Southwest Morrison, a building the company bought and remodeled into two delightful theater spaces over the years.

Kretzu added a lot to ART and to the culture in Portland generally. Three things that stood out to me:

He followed New York and London theater closely and kept the company and the city in touch with the major plays and stylistic changes happening in those theater centers.
He worked frequently with smaller companies in the city, often very successfully, and that exposure to new actors in the city kept ART’s casts fresh and interesting, besides creating a sense of collegiality in the community.
His own productions were (and are) thematically inventive and visually engaging, lyrical even, and the experience of them was frequently poetic, a nice balance to the psychological realism of Nause’s shows.

I talked to Kretzu before the holidays and a couple of days before he was to undergo a medical procedure (which went just fine). Nonetheless, he was his usual affable self. I’ve seen him upset only a very few times, and those were when he was worried that Portland wasn’t taking its theater in general seriously enough. I have edited our interview and trimmed it a bit for ease of mental handling.


OAW: The first show you did for ART was…

JK: “The Artificial Jungle,” Charles Ludlum, the summer of 1993 with Sarah Lucht, Vana O’Brien, Grant Byington and Duffy Epstein and another actor who went off to clown college and became a clown for Ringling & Bros. and that was the last I heard of him. It was great fun, I loved that piece.

OAW: And that was before you became Associate Artistic Director?

JK: Allen [Nause] created the position for me right after that. It went very well; it sold a lot of tickets.


Kretzu and Artists Rep part ways

The longtime director's departure signals big changes in leadership

Jon Kretzu, associate artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre for almost 20 years, is leaving the company, the theater announced Friday afternoon. Artistic Director Allen Nause created the position for Kretzu shortly after Kretzu directed his first show for Artists Rep, Charles Ludlam’s “The Artificial Jungle,” in 1993. Since then Kretzu, one of the busiest directors in town, has directed 50 productions for Artists Rep in addition to many others in Portland and nationally.

Jon Kretzu

Kretzu’s departure isn’t a surprise. It anticipates Nause’s own long-announced retirement at the end of the current season. Artists Rep is in the final stages of choosing a successor to Nause, and Kretzu’s announcement clears the way for the new artistic leader to put his or her stamp on the company. Nause and Kretzu were long considered a smooth-running team. During their time together at Artists Rep the company has solidified itself financially, expanded into its current two-stage home in the West End, and positioned itself near the center of the city’s theater scene. Its impending change of artistic leadership puts it at a crucial crossroads.

Kretzu will direct Artists Rep’s next show, a remounting of last year’s holiday hit “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.” His many shows for Artists Rep have ranged from American classics such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” to topical plays such as “The Normal Heart” and “The Laramie Project” to musicals such as Sondheim’s “Assassins” to world-premiere adaptations of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (Tracy Letts) and “The Cherry Orchard” (Richard Kramer), in addition to contemporary hits such as “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “Buried Child,” and “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”

“Jon’s contributions to Artists Rep are simply immeasurable,” Nause said in a press release. “We have worked side-by-side to craft the artistic voice of Artists Rep over the past 20 years. Jon always brings a unique, incisive perspective to his work. Jon was always my favorite director to work with as actor. He is a dear friend and brilliant collaborator whose artistic aesthetic has significantly shaped Artists Rep into the premiere regional theatre company that is 30-years strong today.”

The release quoted Kretzu: “After nearly 20 years and the thrill of creating 50 productions for Artists Repertory Theatre I feel it is time to follow Allen and leave my position at the theatre to move on and grow artistically devoting myself fully to working on new projects in different venues and explore new cities. Allen and I are a team and I really cannot imagine continuing on as an Associate Artistic Director with anyone else.”

Kretzu will stay busy. He has several directing projects lined up for the next 18 months, in Portland and elsewhere, onstage and on film. And, he said, he’d love to be a guest director for Artists Rep.

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