shaking the tree theatre

Portland theater: victimizing women

Well intentioned adaptations of Greek theater classics undermine the originals’ dramatic power


Once upon a time, a spoiled sorceress, the apple of her father’s eye, fell in lust with an equally self-absorbed foreigner. The beautiful brat paid no attention to her father — the king’s — warnings. The foreigner, on a quest to steal treasure from their kingdom, seduced her with the cunning of a Greek. The barbarian sorceress cast magic spells on the dragon guarding the treasure, allowing the cad to steal the Golden Fleece and flee. The besotted sorceress joined him, securing their escape by murdering her own brother. She sprinkled his fingers and toes into the ocean, slowing the pursuers to pick up the pieces to bury.

Fast forward ten years and two kids later. Now no longer a princess but a mistrusted stranger in a Greek land, Medea thinks Jason will worship her just as her father did. But the middle-aged status seeker, tired of the “skila’s” (bitch’s) shrill tirades, pulls off one more cunning trick. He convinces the king of Corinth to allow him to marry his beautiful young daughter. 

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. Photo: John Rudoff/Polaris Images.

My Greek grandmother pauses. Kerchief tied around her head, kitchen apron, thick black grandma shoes. Ankle-less squat feet. We’re sitting on the back stairs of her house, her black olive eyes as crazy as Medea’s. She tortures me with anticipation.

That’s the Medea telling her story in my Greek grandmother’s crazy eyes. That’s the Medea Euripides brought to the playgoers in 431 b.c.

That’s the Medea you read about in the news, like Diane Downs who shot her own kids.

We hate her, we fear her, but we reverberate because she’s buried in each of us.

The Medea we got in Imago Theater’s recent production of Medea is NOT that frenzied vibrant living Greek murderess. Imago gave us static lines that thudded through the continual andante pace. I knew we were off to a bad start when the Nurse trudged in ritualistically. Euripides starts the play like a gunshot. The nurse in a tizzy, wringing her hands, worries that her mistress will do something really really awful SOON! Greeks don’t trudge. We wring our hands, fret and talk fast!

This Medea isn’t the only example of modern productions and adaptations sapping the originals’ artistic vitality in a misguided attempt to bring a modern feminist angle to ancient classics. Last year, Shaking the Tree Theatre used Edna O’Brien’s adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, which turns Iphigenia into a sacrificial victim by deleting lines where she admonishes her mother to suck it up, and that show Iphigenia as headstrong an outlier as is her father, Agamemnon.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m worried about what I’ve heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Medea adaptation (Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, continuing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through July 6) with playwright Luis Alfaro’s script telling an immigrant’s story.


Theater for Barbarians

Portland productions of Greek theater classics tell us more about contemporary America than ancient Greece


In the midst of her Medea-like rage, I attempted to calm the beautiful, passionate Greek mother of my teen-aged piano student. “Stella!” I snapped, “I am trying to keep you from killing your son and feeding him to his father for dinner tonight!”

We laughed. But we also acknowledged the unfettered emotional intensity impossible for Greeks to suppress. Family killings in retribution for other family killings (and curses) come alive in Greek mythology and Greek drama because Greeks feel viscerally/violently, and express it to each other cleanly, graphically, without shame. There are no hidden meanings, there is no irony. There are consequences for our unmitigated impulsive behaviors and in Greek theater they play out Quentin Tarantino brutal and David Mamet blunt.

We probably can’t replicate the inside of another time and culture’s heads. That’s okay, because for me, it’s fascinating insight into our own when we try. This season, I’ve seen several Portland adaptations of Greek classics that revealed insights into 20th and 21st century American culture via their contrast with the approaches and emotions of the Greek originators of theater as we know it. And last week, I finally found one that gets closer to the Greeks!

Antigone 2.0

In last fall’s The Antigone Project, Profile Theater gave us five contemporary writers’ skits inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone story.

1. Hang Ten by Karen Hartman — a fun fast opener with lots of energy about surfer girls and guy falling in love. Kind of like early Aaron Sorkin dialogue.

2. Medallion by Tanya Barfield — A mother seeks some sort of remembrance for her dead son’s sacrifice from an angst-ridden Colonel Klink.

3. Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich — Cool rope trick. The concept of setting the story as a virtual experience — watching an actress hologramming Antigone imprisoned, left to die — with a 21st century docent guiding us was fun. Maybe that’s all it had to be. Too long.

4. A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage — Village woman makes the choice to believe in a stranger’s love, overriding her own good sense. He disappears. She’s condemned to die by stoning. Her horrified friend presses her to run away.

5. Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa — Future meets past as the dead Antigone in Hades reads about our world in unfinished books that update continuously while her sister, who chose life over an ideal cause to die for, lives the catastrophes Antigone reads….

Profile Theatre’s ‘The Antigone Project.’

Sophocles’s Antigone, one of his earliest plays, is a ham-fisted Tarantino extravaganza that accelerates to cataclysmic catharsis. It’s a summer blockbuster, perfect for audiences looking for surly, comic-book lines flung back and forth by two-dimensional characters and death. Lots of death. Plot: Antigone tries to convince her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, to overlook her killed brother-turned-traitor’s attack on Thebes and to give him a proper burial. Uncle won’t relent so it all ends in tears death.

When I lived in Greece during Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, all hell broke in America over this misuse of power — an older male superior over a younger bimbo. Greece laughed at us, pointing to her own prime minister who on television exited planes with his hand held up to help his young bimbo mistress down the stairs, his American wife left at home. The two cultures could not understand what the other culture saw, felt, reacted to.

Ditto Antigone. Greeks forged a kind of hyper-realistic drama that hinges on capturing character in depth. We’ve been practicing this ability for as long as we’ve gathered with our Greek friends for gossip; greeting the coffee klatch with Pion thavoume simera?”  (“Who are we burying today?) We bury our friends and enemies with insightful malicious character assassination, we psychoanalyze, we spill our guts. And then we write a play about it. (Something we never do is ostracize those we gossip about; they still remain within the family.)

The difference between a gathering of Greek friends in Athens and a gathering of American friends here is the difference between 4Chan and Facebook. Like 4Chan, Greeks will rip you apart if you’re emotionally insincere, articulate-but-stupid, spineless.


Shaking the Tree’s ‘Head. Hands. Feet.’: Not so grim fairy tales

There will be blood in Portland theater’s “Tales of Dismemberment” but not all the body parts add up.

As you enter the theater, actors clad in neutral grey courteously greet you, lead you to a basin, and solemnly help you wash your hands. The splashing water provides the only sound in the hushed, neutral-colored space dominated by pale bluish greys — the better to contrast with the blood that will flow in Shaking the Tree theatre’s annual Halloweenish horror show.

Actually, the gore isn’t portrayed realistically but symbolically; Head. Hands. Feet. is by no means a fright fest. In fact, the first half consists of fairy tales, although anyone’s who’s read non-Victorian-sanitized ancient tales knows how really, ah, grim and gory they can be.

They can also seem pretty backward from a 21st century perspective, often punishing characters — particularly females — who transgress social norms. Accordingly, all three devised stories — and the adaptation of a classic Greek play that occupies the show’s second half — to some degree sanitize their models to make them more progressive/feminist/modern and, well, Portland than the originals.

Shaking the Tree Theatre's Head.Hands.Feet.

Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Head.Hands.Feet.

While that updated sensibility may make the stories seem more suitable to today’s audiences, it sometimes also makes them a shade too comfortable, at the expense of the dark reality they caution us about — not too different, ultimately and ironically, than what the Victorians did to those dark stories. It’s almost like thinking the world is like what we saw at the Democratic convention, and just ignoring that other one — the real horror show of last summer. At times, the apparent attempts to bring out more contemporary perspectives on these ancient tales actually undermine the modern moral stance these adaptations are trying to advance.

Nevertheless, as with any production involving the Portland theater power trio of imaginative director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and irresistible actors Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan, you should see Head. Hands. Feet. — though not to be terrified, but to have your terrors cleansed.


Masque of the Red Death review: Partying with Poe

Shaking the Tree Theatre's collaboration with Playwrights West puts a modern twist on classic horror.

Masque of the Red Death begins even before you enter the building, when masked actors greet you, intentionally a little too enthusiastically, at the door, welcoming you to the festivities. The greetings continue as you ascend the stairs to the box office, where you’re handed a fetching, delicately detailed black or white mask of your own and ushered into a large space occupied by a few dozen other masked patrons, mingling with similarly masked actors (so that it’s hard to tell who’s in the show and who’s paying to see it) encouraging us to dance and loosen up, have a good time. It’s like walking into a crowded party filled with vaguely creepy strangers — an ideal Halloween production.

Kerrigan and Thompson in "Masque of the Red Death." Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan and Thompson in “Masque of the Red Death.” Photo: Gary Norman.

That’s the frame director Samantha Van Der Merwe has constructed for Shaking the Tree Theatre’s ingenious collection of eleven episodes written by local Playwrights West authors, all based on stories by the great American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Reminiscent of horror anthology films or TV shows like Rod Serling’s old Night Gallery series, Masque drops us into Poe’s classic 1842 title story, involving a party, a plague, and a prince indifferent to the suffering of the 99%. (The writers shunned overt contemporary references to Ebola and today’s accelerating inequality, but they resonate anyway.) Van Der Merwe cleverly repurposes the original story’s setting — the party happens in several rooms of different colors — to provide the respective venues for each playlet.

After the audience members all arrive, the party’s host, Prince Prospero (wittily played by Matthew Kerrigan), takes charge, explaining that we’re all here to be entertained as a relief from the plague raging outside, and we move to our seats. As at any party, some of the encounters turn out more interesting than others. Claire Willett’s static “The Demons Down Under the Sea,” inspired by Poe’s Annabel Lee, dissipates the opening slot’s anticipatory tension; despite the actors’ best efforts, the poem resists drama. But the next scene, Andrew Wardenaar’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” ratchets it up again via the most minimal means of all — darkness — using only intermittent low strobe lighting (on Joseph Gibson, who carries the solo role mostly unseen) and a fiendishly clever low-budget method of evoking the scurrying of rats all around the audience. Moving the audience literally into the midst of its laudanum-fueled action raises the claustrophobic tension of Steve Patterson’s ending glimpse of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Such smart directorial touches abound in a production that, though devoid of extensive props and special effects, nevertheless mostly succeeds in immersing us in Poe’s eerie world.

Van Der Merwe’s originality even extends to that usual dead zone, the intermission. Instead of shuffling around the lobby, idly chattering with strangers and sipping coffee, the audience is directed to the wine bar across the street, which admittedly breaks the spell but at least maintains the dark party vibe. Then, light-saber wielding ushers guide them back to Poe’s world for Act 2, which opens with the next installment of Patrick Wohlmut’s framing “Masque.”

Joseph Gibson in "Pit and the Pendulum." Photo: Gary Norman.

Joseph Gibson in “Pit and the Pendulum.” Photo: Gary Norman.

In fact, concept and direction actually prove stronger than Poe’s source material, which seems longer on evocative language and atmosphere than on actual drama. Even the otherwise entertaining adaptations of relatively stronger stories, like Aleks Merilo’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (in which you can’t tell the doctor from the crazy patients, the inspiration for plenty of 20th century writers) and Matthew Zrebski’s “Tip of the Finger” (from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not the whole story) drag. And despite Amanda Cole and Nicole Accuardi ‘s delightful comic turn with Gibson, “The Spectacles” shows why Poe is most remembered for horror rather than humor.

The show excels when it sprinkles 21st century irony and references (Madonna, Led Zeppelin, etc.) over Poe’s overheated 19th century romanticism — most prominently in Kerrigan’s commanding performance as Prospero and as the author himself in Ellen Margolis’ “That Smell,” inspired by Poe’s too-short life. Kerrigan strikes just the right balance between it’s-all-a-joke playful, seductive, and sadistic. His spontaneous banter with the audience flickers in and out of Poe’s world and into our own, keeping his scenes feeling fresh and modern instead of musty macabre antique.

Along with Kerrigan’s triumphant performance, Beth Thompson’s riveting embodiment of death personified is even more impressive considering that she spends the show behind her Death mask. Though the acting is inconsistent, other players — especially Katie Watkins, Joshua J. Weinstein and Andy Lee Hillstrom, who in Debbie Lamedman’s “Pluto” somehow makes you think a mousy milquetoast could be capable of uxoricide and, er, kittycide — turn in some good work in one or more roles.

Granted, the play’s oscillation between past and present sensibilities, between wry, even tongue-in-cheek camp, and horror, sometimes muddles the emotional impact of a given scene. Moreover, sometimes the narratives didn’t quite add up, maybe because omitting exposition kept the pace pounding, and the playwrights assumed that we’d fill in missing details from our memories of the stories. In any case, the more you know (or remember) of the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy the show. Even the slightly clunky ending of the framing “Masque,” which also wraps up the production, succeeds more in tying up loose ends than providing a taut climax. But it’s Kerrigan’s sly acting and Van Der Merwe’s creative concept that really make this Poe party one of the season’s most memorable productions.

Just as the show begins before you enter the door, it also ends with a shudder after you walk outside, as a spooky figure keeps a promise made at the end, transfixing exiting patrons with a cold, implacable stare as they leave the theater, but not the memory of Poe’s eldritch world, behind.

The sold-out run of Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Masque of the Red Death, which ends November 22, makes a fitting death rattle for the company’s old space as it moves into new digs with its next production. But let’s hope this collaboration between some Oregon’s best playwrights and one of its most inventive theaters lingers even longer. Whether they bring back Poe again, or Lovecraft or Stephen King or even originals by Oregon authors, maybe this party play could become an annual Halloween tradition.

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