Original Practice Shakespeare

Theater to feed your TV jones

"Nesting" enters its second season at the Shoebox, one-upping TV tropes like binge-watching by adding theatrical urgency to the action

The rise of streaming services and TV series released in a single chunk has more or less done away with Hollywood’s traditional pilot season. But until recently, you could find one in Portland: Action/Adventure Theater’s annual Pilot Season showcase was an evening of “pilot episodes” of short, serialized plays, one of which would be selected for a full run the following season.

Joel Patrick Durham’s pilot wasn’t chosen. And in hindsight, he thinks that’s for the best.

Energized by the audience response to his runner-up pilot, Durham (who I met when we worked together with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival) decided to self-produce Nesting at the Shoebox Theater in 2016, along with co-producer Natalie Heikkenen. The response to that was sufficiently enthusiastic that Durham and Heikkenen were inspired to pull another leaf from the television playbook, and come back with something not many plays get: a second season.

Isabella Buckner, Tyharra Cozier an Jacob Camp in rehearsal for “Nesting: Vacancy.” Kathleen Kelly/ KKellyphotography

Like the first season, Nesting: Vacancy — which opens in October on Friday the 13th — will run in four forty-five-minute, sequential “episodes,” two per night. Though the two parts share a setting– an abandoned Portland house– they don’t share a story. In the vein of popular anthology television shows American Horror Story or True Detective, season two will start fresh, with a completely new set of characters. Specifically, a pair of siblings who find themselves squatting in the mysterious house while on the run from a murky past.


ArtsWatch Weekly: a Persian R&J

Outdoor Shakespeare with a twist; more music festivals; Mozart & Bach; an ArtsWatch apology; a profusion of prints

Summer and Shakespeare seem to go together like Abbott and Costello, or toast and jam: You can have one without the other, but somehow they’d feel incomplete. Little danger of that in Oregon, where we get our summer Shakespeare aplenty, often with a twist.


Nicholas Granato as Romeo/Majnun in Bag&Baggage’s “Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun).” Casey Campbell Photography

Consider Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun), an interweaving of Shakespeare’s romance and the 12th century Persian poet Nizami’s epic tale of a feud between families. Bag&Baggage’s premiere opens Thursday on the outdoor stage of the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza in downtown Hillsboro, in a production that B&B artistic director Scott Palmer believes blends R&J with one of its primary sources. “When you read the texts side by side, the parallels between the two tales are really astounding,” Palmer tells ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell. “There’s no smoking gun, but we do know (Shakespeare) was reading Italian sources and those were heavily influenced by Persian masterpieces from the 11th and 12 centuries. There is just no question that Layla and Majnun had a powerful, although indirect, influence on Romeo and Juliet.” Read Campbell’s full story here.


ArtsWatch Weekly: hail & farewell

Dance and dancers on the move, jazz in Cathedral Park, women composers, taiko and Bach, Mozart's spicy little sex opera

Last Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, the line to pick up tickets for Éowyn Emerald & Dancers’ performance ran across the lobby, down a partial stairwell and up the other side, like a restless snake shifting and stretching in the midday sun. Eventually the crowd slithered into the theater’s 450-plus seats, packing the place with people eager to see the company’s final show of contemporary dance in Portland and give it one last cheer before Emerald & Co. move to Scotland, where they’ve scored enthusiastically reviewed successes during two recent appearances at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Emerald, on top of the world in Edinburgh for the 2014 Fringe Festival.

As it happens, the first piece I wrote for ArtsWatch, back in January 2012, was about Emerald’s first show in town as a choreographer, at BodyVox, where she’d been dancing with BodyVox-2. Now here I was again, with a lot of other people, to witness her farewell gig in town. An eagerness bubbled in the crowd, a sense that a fresh contemporary voice was moving on to new things, and ought not be let to slip away without a warm farewell.


ArtsWatch Weekly: a Tempest and an operatic pot shot

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

WELL, SHOOT. The whole thing explodes into a duel, of course, but before that there’s a tangled romance, and a cad’s carelessness, and a whole lot of glorious singing, and, well, why not a wintry tale for a midsummer opera? Portland Opera moves into the cozier confines of the Newmark Theatre beginning Friday night for its new production of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel, and things are looking promising – if not for Onegin himself, who lives to deeply regret shooting his best friend, Lensky, then for the audience. ArtsWatch’s Christa Morletti McIntyre interviewed stage director Kevin Newbury, fresh off his acclaimed world-premiere production of Fellow Travelers at Cincinnati Opera, and discovered his plan to create an Onegin that will resonate with his fellow Gen Xers. Newbury has reset the late 19th century tale in the 1980s, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The “political and nuclear-threatening war of grudges” between East and West, McIntyre writes, helped “to unpack the meanings and individual lives impacted by this new kind of war, which was as visually stunning as it was oppressive and terrorizing.” All that, of course, plus some gorgeous music.

Ilya Repin, "Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel," 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

Ilya Repin, “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s Duel,” 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons



JULY’S FIRST THURSDAY IS THIS WEEK, and there is considerable to look forward to the monthly gallery walk. (Some galleries open shows on Last Friday or First Friday or according to their own schedules). A few we have our eye on: J.D. Perkin’s Island, an exhibit of the Portland sculptor’s fascinating-looking contemporary busts, coupled with some selected works by the late, great Robert Colescott, at Laura Russo Gallery; Sarah Siestreem’s Winter Work paintings, with Cynthia Mosser’s Beach Body, at Augen; the all-star anniversary lineup at PDX Contemporary in A Stand of Pine in a Tilled Field: 21 Years at PDX; the stylized figures and settings of R. Keaney Rathbun’s Memory and Stone, at Waterstone; and Blackfish’s annual Recent Graduates Exhibition of work from Oregon’s college and university art departments. Also, the Portland Biennial, an ambitious overview of work by 34 contemporary artists, opens Saturday at Disjecta, and should be well worth a long look. And on the north coast in Astoria, K.B. Dixon’s 32 Faces, his black-and-white environmental portraits of well-known Oregon artists in their elements, opens Saturday. ArtsWatch wrote about the exhibit when it opened at Michael Parsons Fine Art in Portland in February.


Stormy weather: a ‘Tempest’ erupts

Original Practice Shakespeare takes to the parks with a light squall of a 'Tempest' and 12 other plays performed in a heady improv style

Those no-good dirty scoundrels (now known as actors, but in Shakespeare’s time as players) would often steal word-for-word whole scenes of dialogue from a rival company’s show. Queen Elizabeth had no bureau for copyright affairs, so instead players were given their lines on little “roles,” or scrolls, soon before a play began. That meant no time for them to brush up their Shakespeare, little to no props, and being on their A-game. A player had to keep a good tongue in his head, or a battery of rotten produce and shouts would be hurled at him from the raucous audience. Each person in the cheaper seats spent about a penny a show – one whole day’s wages, so the play had to be good.

Since 2009, Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has been staging the Bard in this traditional anarchic manner for free in parks throughout the city. This 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has the team of actors bringing to life his celebrated words in 21 performances. Players are chosen shortly before the action begins, so each performance is unique and each interpretation of the role is unique. Original Practice Shakespeare wants you, the audience, to go back to “simpler times:” boo, laugh, mock, applaud. Take the attitude of Mr. Shakespeare’s words: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Throw out all the decorum that your blue-haired grandma worked so diligently to foster in you.

Wizarding in the park: Michael Streeter as in impromptu Caliban. Photo: Christa Morletti McIntyre

Wizarding in the park: Michael Streeter as in impromptu Caliban. Photo: Christa Morletti McIntyre

Sunday’s staging of Shakespeare’s late play the Tempest was held, in great complement to the troupe, at Cathedral Park. In OPS tradition a prompter aids the players, and for this performance the role was filled by Andrew Bray. The prompter follows the script (in the case someone loses their lines), sound effects personnel, and stage directions on the fly. Elizabethan theaters didn’t employ costume designers: instead, the players wore the most expensive (their pocket books could buy) fashions of the time. Original Practice Shakespeare adds to the informality by inviting the audience to participate with a kaleidoscope of costumes. This performance’s Prospero, played by Michael Streeter, wore a faux Kapa Hawaiian shirt and a student-of-Montessori preschool wizard hat, but the fashion disaster only added to elevating his deliveries. He’s a shipwrecked magician on some island, after all.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Hello Drammys, farewell Conduit, back to Bach

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

GET ON YOUR TUX AND YOUR EVENING GOWN (or, this being Portland, your jeans and flannels and Doc Martens): It’s Drammy Time. The 2016 Drammy Awards ceremony, the 38th annual celebration of outstanding work on the city’s theater stages, is ready to rock the Newmark Theatre on Monday, June 27. This year’s festivities will be emceed by a gaggle of hosts – the legendary sketch comedy troupe The 3rd Floor, coming out of retirement for the night.

drammyslogo_printcmykThe Drammys always include a little backstage drama, and this year’s nominations have generated some heat among theater insiders, both for shows that were nominated and shows that weren’t: some shows have fierce partisans. That’s not unusual, though the temperature might be a little higher this year. The fireworks might add some spice to the ceremony, or everything might burst into daffodils and roses. Enthusiasm usually runs high. One thing bound to spike interest is the addition this year of an awards-ceremony-in-the-awards-ceremony: the equity advocacy group Age & Gender Equity in the Arts will announce $30,000 in grants for equity projects. Jane Vogel, AGE’s founder, reveals the whys and hows in this story for ArtsWatch.


Tim Blough is the fallen king in Portland Shakespeare Project’s “King Lear.” Photo: David Kinder

Forget the rattle. Forget the roll. This summer in Portland, it’s pretty much all Shakes, all the time.

Has there ever been a season of so much Shakespeare, or so many variations on the theme? While the Oregon Shakespeare Festival holds down the heavyweight fort in Ashland with As You Like It, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida and the freewheeling adaptations Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella and The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, Portland and environs have been going Bard-crazy with a variety of approaches, from fundamentalist to barely recognizable.

How do we love the Bard? Let us count the ways.

  •  Northwest Classical Theatre just finished Measure for Measure.
  •  Bag & Baggage scored with Kabuki Titus, a radically reimagined outdoor staging of Titus Andronicus.
  •  Portland Actors Ensemble has been touring a production of Hamlet, including a stop at a cemetery, which might be preferable to a dank and drafty castle and has the requisite ghost.
  •  Portland Shakespeare Project opens a King Lear set in a contemporary nursing home on Wednesday.
  •  Out at Milepost 5, Post5 Theatre is in the midst of an outdoor Shakespeare fest with more shows than you can, well, shake a spear at, and has a final showing of its own Midsummer Night’s Dream on Friday, July 20.
  •  And as Marty Hughley reported, even early August’s Pickathon music fest is going to mix in three nights of Portland Playhouse’s Twelfth Night with all the banjos and guitars.

If we’ve missed the Shakespeare show you’re in, we apologize: We only have so many fingers.

Over the weekend I took in two Shakespearean variants: Portland Shakespeare Project’s Lear’s Follies, a world-premiere reimagining of the theme by C.S. Whitcomb that will continue in rep with King Lear; and Original Practice Shakespeare’s Much Adoe About Nothing, part of a hectic outdoor rondelay that also includes As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsommer Night’s Dream and Twelfthe Night (spellings as in the First Folio). I saw Much Adoe at Laurelhurst Park, but the shows are moving around town.

Amid all of this action it’s tough to shake the idea that Shakespeare’s becoming almost more source material than sacred text. Like Greek mythology for visual artists and playwrights, or like the Great American Songbook for jazz innovators, Shakespeare’s plays are serving more and more as springboards for reimaginings – stories so well-known, at least in certain circles, that they become raw material for new creations. Scott Palmer’s Kabuki Titus for Bag & Baggage is a good example: the story was slimmed and reshaped so much that Lavinia became the central character in her father’s play, and the style took more cues from the poetry of silent film than the traditions of the Elizabethan stage.

Of course many productions – probably most – are still rooted in the language of the plays. But considering the radical differences in cultural attitude and intention that 400-plus years have wrought, the idea of achieving any sort of “true” Shakespearean approach becomes increasingly more elusive. You really can’t go home again, and to attempt historical accuracy is simply to map out a fiction of the past.

That’s absolutely true with Original Practice Shakespeare. I’ve heard people argue angrily that OPS doesn’t do “real” original-practice Shakespeare, and it seems a silly thing to get upset about. Of course it doesn’t. So what? Artistic director Brian Allard and company have latched onto a not generally known historical accuracy: Elizabethan actors often knew only their own parts, and sometimes went onstage without knowing what was going to unfold, because they’d never read the entire script. From that they’ve built an unassuming, entertaining and accessible performance style. It involves a broad wink to the audience, a good deal of improvisational skill, and liberal borrowings from the likes of ComedySportz: shows include a referee who carries a whistle and isn’t afraid to use it to stop the action and send the actors into some sort of off-the-cuff improv goof.

OPS grows facial hair. Graphic: Mike Wallace

Actors in OPS shows are equipped with small scrolls that include only their own lines and cues. (This was common practice in Elizabethan times, the company contends, so bit actors couldn’t take a full script down the street and sell it to a rival theater operator.) The referee also acts as prompter for those inevitable moments when things fall apart, which provides a good part of the fun for the audience. It’s a conceit, of course: most of these actors know their Shakespeare pretty well, at least in general terms, and anyone who thinks the performers don’t know the plots of Much Adoe or Romeo and Juliet must be deep into gullible’s travels. But again, so what? The theater lies all the time. It’s called storytelling. And it’s true that knowing a play’s shape isn’t the same as knowing it line for line. Those cues are real.

The shows are also un-“original” in that, unlike the all-male performances on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, men and women mix freely in the cast. In Much Adoe an actress, Beth Thompson, even plays the male villain, Don John. Again, it’s not really important: life moves on. “Original practice” is simply a created style, and it’s no more “original” than naturalism is “natural.”

What you get out of all this is a freewheeling, sometimes slapdash approach that nevertheless breathes a lot of vitality and quick-witted freshness into familiar material. It’s like watching a clown do a pratfall: clumsiness can be exuberant, especially if the stumble has panache. And often enough something happens in the moment that’s inspired. I suspect original practice works better with comedy than tragedy, where the winks and tricks could devolve into lampoon.

Much Adoe featured some good, quick-witted performances. Jamie M. Rea and Allard were well-matched as the sharp-tongued lovers Beatrice and Benedick; Elizabeth Daniels was warm and funny as the maid Margaret; Gary Strong brings an Oliver Hardy gracefulness to the clownish constable Dogberry; Kenneth Sergienko leaves you scratching your head, as usual, over what a twit Claudio must be. At the end, the cast circulated among the crowd holding a hat (a bucket, actually) for contributions. Not sure that’s original practice. But it’s been around for a long, long time.

 Much Adoe sticks to the script. Lear’s Follies, at Portland Shakespeare Project, radically rewrites it. Whitcomb’s eight-character play transports the story of Lear to an American Southern tobacco plantation in the late 1920s, as the Great Depression is about to hit, and turns the ungrateful sisters Regan and Goneril into sons. It involves Wall Street offices and hobo trains clackety-clacking across a silent-movie stage, and of course a great wind blows, bringing madness and redemption in its wake. Yet this is also very traditional American theater, an everyman tragedy in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

Washko, Andersen in “Lear’s Follies.” Photo: David Kinder

Director Michael Mendelson has assembled an excellent cast, led by veteran Tobias Andersen’s fierce and vulnerable performance as Colonel Leroy King, a legendary farmer-businessman who fought for the South in the Civil War and afterwards built a tobacco empire from out of the ashes. Gary Norman and Gavin Hoffman are his duplicitous sons, embittered because the colonel’s held tight to the reins of the family empire into his 80s, and Melissa Whitney and Katie Butler are their acquisitive wives. Amanda Washko, who is new to me, gives a subtly riveting performance as Corey, the Cordelia character; old pro Dave Bodin brings a sturdy candor and generosity to Kent, the family doctor; and Matt Smith brings a compelling, strangely offbeat sadness to the Fool’s role as Jonesy, an old vaudevillian who’s lost his way.

The overlay of classic American cultural tensions onto Shakespeare’s tale of a foolishly fallen king has intriguing reverberations and underscores the sort of questions that a good production of Lear inevitably raises. What sort of relationship did the old man have with his kids to inspire such contempt? Why shouldn’t he retire (tell that to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles)? Does power make people unduly susceptible to flattery? Is power blind to simple truths? The more you know about the source play, the more Lear’s Follies resonates.

In addition to its strengths the show has some drawbacks, which isn’t unusual with new plays. The ending is curiously tentative and flat, and there are pacing problems: the thing needs more action. Much as I like Smith’s performance of Jonesy as a kind of beaten-down Sad Sack, I wonder if the play wouldn’t benefit from a more aggressive approach: the Fool as showman/narrator; not precisely like Joel Grey in Cabaret but something along those more assertive lines. And there’s a stretch in the second act when Whitcomb wonders aloud on the nature of narrative approaches: better to keep that in her head and let the characters tell their own stories. Is a little rewriting called for? Yes, I think so. Is it worth it? Absolutely. And it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays with the “real” King Lear that opens this week.

That’s assuming that any Shakespeare is “real” these days. It’s a pretty mythical landscape out there.

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