Robert Schenkkan

Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Seattle Repertory Theatre review: Falling Victim to History

In Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society, drama gets diluted in historical explanation.

Not even the powerful figures enshrined on Mt. Rushmore could quite match Lyndon Johnson’s unsurpassed ability to impose his will on people and events. The 36th President’s vision and ambition equaled his political shrewdness. The Machiavellian knowledge accumulated over decades as master of Texas’s famously cutthroat politics and the Senate’s byzantine ways equipped him, he imagined, to literally change the world. Inasmuch as the character trait that made him powerful — his hubristic belief that he could through cunning and power politics bend anything to his will — is also the tragic flaw that leads him to overreach, Johnson boasts all the qualities of a tragic hero, and is the most Shakespearean of American leaders.

Like Shakespeare, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan strives to turn history into drama in his two-play LBJ cycle,  All the Way and The Great Society, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and 2014 and are running through January 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre (though the run is sold out). That’s the brief assigned by OSF’s noble American Revolutions project, one of the great achievements of 21st century Oregon arts, which “asks that each play be based in history and explore a moment [my italics] of change. Beyond that, the playwrights choose the content, form, and style of their work.” So LBJ offers an ideal dramatic opportunity for classic tragedy: a seemingly irresistible leader who confronts truly immovable historical forces — and loses.

Surrounded by supporting dramatis personae who would be protagonists in any other drama, ranging from Martin Luther King to the ghost of John F. Kennedy (embodied by his equally tragic brother) to the incarnations of evil Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson’s tragedy would have had the Bard himself licking his quill to thrust it onstage.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

But instead of exploring a moment, Schenkkan chose to explain an era. The battle over delegates at the 1964 Democratic convention during the Freedom Summer turmoil, Johnson’s desperate dance with the equally torn King, his confrontation with racist / opportunist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, his duel with the Kennedys, the passage of the landmark 1964  civil Right Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act (two of the greatest legislative triumphs in American history) and above all, his wrestling with the Vietnam War (and the larger geopolitical struggles it exemplified) … each of those and many others would make for more coherent dramas.

But trying to cram them all into the confines of a single, relatively conventional dramatic structure predictably produces a similar outcome to President Johnson’s attempt to handle them all at once in real life. As a result, Schenkkan’s cycle succeeds better as history than as theater.

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Drammy Awards and Janice Scroggins benefit tonight; Oregon at the Tonys

With two major events in Portland, it's a Monday night to step out

No staying home Monday: It’s a big night out.

Drammy host Isaac Lamb, from his "Defending the Caveman" days. Photo: Jenni Girtman

Drammy host Isaac Lamb, from his “Defending the Caveman” days. Photo: Jenni Girtman

The 36th annual Drammy Awards, celebrating the best in Portland’s theater during the past season, take over the Crystal Ballroom (1332 West Burnside Street) starting at 6 o’clock, with the ceremony at 7 p.m. Actor Isaac Lamb will be master of ceremonies, and he promises surprises. This is traditionally the biggest theater bash of the year in Portland, and it’s open to everyone: free at the door, buy your own drinks. This year, for the first time in several years, the Drammy jurists are choosing a single winner in each category from a pre-announced list of finalists (see the nominees on the Drammy link above), making the awards more in the tradition of the Oscars and Tonys.

For a taste of what’s to come, read Marty Hughley’s profile for ArtsWatch of Grant Turner, who’ll be receiving this year’s Special Achievement Award.

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Janice Scroggins: a joyful noise in her memory.

Janice Scroggins: a joyful noise in her memory.

Another big event tonight is For the Love of Janice: An All-Star Benefit for the Family of Janice Scrogginsstarting at 7 p.m.  (doors open at 6) at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 Northeast Alberta Street. The concert’s sold out, demonstrating both the quality of the lineup and the love and respect Portlanders feel for Scroggins, the pianist and keyboardist who’s been a leading figure in the city’s blues, jazz, and other scenes for decades, died in late May of a heart attack. She was 58. You can read ArtsWatch’s remembrance here. Tonight’s benefit will feature a mighty gathering of musical talent, people who were Janice’s friends and colleagues: Curtis Salgado, Norman Sylvester, Julianne Johnson, Mary Flower, Linda Hornbuckle, Thara Memory, Lyndee Mah, Duffy Bishop, Lloyd Jones, Patrick Lamb, Michael Allen Harrison, Peter Damman, Terry Robb, Reggie Houston … the list goes on and on.

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Congratulations, meanwhile, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for last night’s Tony Award wins for best play for Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, and best actor for Bryan Cranston, who stars in All the Way as Lyndon Baines Johnson. Festival actor Jack Willis originated the role when Schenkkan’s play premiered in Ashland as an OSF commission in 2012. David Stabler has the scoop on OregonLive.

Congrats, also, to the Portland producing team of Brisa Trinchero and Corey Brunish, whose shows pulled in 22 Tony nominations and went home with six, scoring with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and others. Here’s the complete list of winners and nominees, via The Hollywood Reporter.

 
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