Lakewood Theatre

Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.

 


 

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THIS WEEK’S DATEBOOK:

 

Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.

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Oh God, the Carnage

Yasmina Reza's black-hearted comedy about the fall of civilization gets a sharp and lively revival at Lakewood

One thing about a Yasmina Reza play: By the end, masks will be ripped off and something mildly disastrous is going to happen. Another thing about a Yasmina Reza play: Even when things get uncomfortable (maybe even especially when they get uncomfortable) it’s going to be pretty darned funny.

Reza, the French playwright best-known for her hits Art and God of Carnage, is also a latter-day practitioner of the well-made play, that marvel of construction in which a thousand pieces fly into the air, chaotically, and then fall perfectly into place. Her 2009 Tony-winner God of Carnage, which opened over the weekend in a taut and smart revival at Lakewood Theatre, takes a bit of Noel Coward (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters delightfully foolish” part) and a bit of Harold Pinter (the “aren’t these upper-middle-class characters ruthlessly savage” part), stirs them with a little Alan Ayckbourn-style tick-tock timing, and comes up with a rollicking escapist entertainment that leaves an existential knot in the pit of your stomach. Well, that’s them, you might tell yourself a little nervously as you head home after the show. That’s not me. Surely not.

From left: Stacey, Sikking, Alder, Lucht, pal-ish to the bitter end. Photo: Triumph Photography

Director Antonio Sonera, working from playwright Christopher Hampton’s sharp and brittle English translation, expertly puts the pedal to the metal in this hairpin race over the cliff by two sets of nominally civilized couples. Sonera indulges in what might be considered stunt casting if the four actors weren’t individually so good at what they do: The married couples are played by performers actually married in real life. David Sikking and Marilyn Stacey are Michael and Veronica Novak, he a successful hardware wholesaler, she an art lover and liberal firebrand who is working on a book about Darfur. Sarah Lucht and Don Alder are Annette and Alan Raleigh; he’s a high-powered lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone, she’s in expensive shoes and wealth management. If only wealth were all that needed managing around here.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Framing Wordstock, and other tall tales

Hitting the books with Portland's literary festival, First Thursday, gamesmanship on the Oregon Trail, coyote on a fence

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” the movie director Jean-Luc Godard famously said, and that’s as good a prompt as any to remind you that Wordstock, Portland’s annual orgy of all things literary, is coming up Saturday at the Portland Art Museum and other easily walkable venues along the South Park Blocks.

Take a deep breath. The list of writers taking part, local and far-flung, is long, and this is just a few of them: Diana Abu-Jaber, Sherman Alexie, Nicholson Baker, April Baer, David Biespiel, Carrie Brownstein, Peter Ames Carlin, Liz Crain, Monica Drake, Brian Doyle, Zach Dundas, Renée Ahdieh, Rabih Alameddine, Rivka Galchen, Yaa Gyasi, Karen Karbo, Shawn Levy, Gigi Little, Richard Russo, Sallie Tisdale, Colson Whitehead. It’s a veritable library of contemporary writing in the flesh.

Hangin' in the balcony at last year's Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Hangin’ in the balcony at last year’s Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Ah, but what if your story doesn’t have an end? I thought of that yesterday, flying home to Portland from the East Coast, when I boarded a connecting flight in Chicago at just about the time the sixth game of the World Series was beginning. The Cubs, of course, were in the thing, for the first time since 1945, and the Cleveland club (itself a longtime also-ran) was threatening to walk away with the rubies. Spirits were high on the plane as Chicagoans, many of them rabid fans, walked on and began to fill the cabin: It was a full flight, with no empty seats.

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