Tim Stapleton

Theater notes: TCG and the Tonys

The national theater scene parties down in Portland. Oregonians grab the hardware at the Tonys. The Drammys and PAMTAs are on the way.

The bright-red-lettered lanyards bobbed and weaved and scooted around the lobbies and meeting rooms and stairwells and elevator shafts of the downtown Portland Hilton and Duniway hotels for four days last week, swinging in perpetual motion from hundreds of chests as conventioneers at the Theatre Communications Group‘s annual national conference scurried around the place like cattle on the brink of a stampede. TCG, a sort of think tank and clearing house for the people who run and work in theater companies across the nation (among many other things, it publishes American Theatre magazine, the bible of the nonprofit theater biz), was in town from Wednesday through Saturday, taking in the sights, seeing Portland shows, meeting and greeting and eating and gossiping, and gathering in small and large groups to hash out the issues of the day. Those ranged from matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion – the conference’s major themes – to such crucial behind-the-curtain issues as raising money, adapting to new technologies, producing in small or isolated markets, and how to create or refine a brand.

Regan Linton with Joseph Anthony Foronda in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 production of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Time.” Photo: Jenny Graham

Out of dozens of possibilities on Friday afternoon, I wandered at random into a large room where a breakout session titled “Creative Access: Accommodations for Professional Performers with Disabilities” was going on. It was crowded: a lot of people were interested in the issue. This wasn’t about wheelchair access or seating arrangements for audience members, though those are important matters. It was about, are theater companies creating roles for blind or deaf or limited-mobility actors, and what do those performers need to do their jobs, and what challenges do they face in auditioning, and are there stairs to deal with backstage or bathrooms that aren’t upstairs or downstairs, and if a performer is dyslexic can she get a copy of the script early for auditioning, or if he’s visually impaired can you supply a reader, and is there a dressing room on stage level, and if not, what can you do to create a temporary one? “When I roll into a room,” the veteran actor Regan Linton said, “I’m trying to get across not only that  I’m the best person for the role, but also that I’m a human being who deserves to live.” She laughed to ease the sting, but the point was made.


Note to Self, across time

Adrienne Flagg and actors collaborate on an adventure into identity and character at different stages in life

Imagine for a moment — as most of us have at one time or another — that you could go back in time and talk to yourself at a younger age, imparting hard-won wisdom and warnings. Then there are those moments when you wish you could see things the way you did early on, when you were full of energy and passionate hope, when life seemed simpler.

Just as useful might be the foresight and perspective – at any age – to recognize life’s lessons as they come along. And make a note to self.

All three of those notions course through a fascinating play premiering Friday night at CoHo Theater. Note to Self, devised by producer/director Adrienne Flagg in collaboration with the show’s performers, revolves around the stories of a half-dozen characters, each a composite played by two actors, one younger, one older. Together, these stories form what the show’s website calls “a personal examination of how individuals change and grow over time.”

The cast members range in age from 23 to 80. Some, such as Jane Fellows and Chris Porter, are highly regarded veterans of the city’s theater scene; others have never been in a play before. Male, female, black, white, straight, gay, transgender, etc. – the perspectives are diverse, but ultimately speak less to divides than to commonalities. All have shared stories of their own lives, and together they’ve created a kind of theatrical mosaic that sparkles with reflections on ideals and identity, family and society, love and loss, dreams and disappointments.



The two character known as George – Rabbit carrying Tim Stapleton – during a workshop on the Sandy River. Photo: Brent Barnett

The two character known as George – Rabbit carrying Tim Stapleton – during a workshop on the Sandy River. Photo: Brent Barnett

“Note to Self… take the chance.”

Artistic inspiration often travels mysterious paths, but even so it might come as a surprise that Note to Self has its origins in Shakespeare. Specifically, bad Shakespeare.


The few and far between

Long-haul trucking, short-haul emotions, millennial paranoia and powerhouse acting drive the action in CoHo's "The Few"

We’re in a trailer at the end of a century. Star-crossed lovers meet again, and mourn among the ruins of what could have been. Here, in this not-quite-contemporary castoff of a place, CoHo Productions and co-producers Val Landrum and Brandon Woolley have brought MacArthur Fellowship and Obie award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few to the stage.

The trailer is an off-the-cuff irritation of cheap floral print wallpaper, a child’s search for comfort with the long-time fleecing of design. It’s not rare: there’s a whole slate of American aesthetic in the Walmarts, Targets, and Tuesday Mornings that reproduce designs almost ad hoc, but without the energy of the originals. The rub, the real issue, comes down to not having any time. Our great American sage, Benjamin Franklin did not write his Poor Richard’s Almanac without bearing in mind that time and money are always in equal competition. While The Few barely shows the anxiety and paranoia surrounding the end of 1999 with the feared computer collapse of a system we barely understood, it captures the way in which time is fleeting between people. The ’90s was a hyper decade, when analog became digital, and the play asks as an undercurrent: if our historians, cultural, art, history can barely keep up with the new paper trail, what happens with our emotional history? That backwater, the mystery that inflects a meaning into the facts: where do the minutes of our soul confessions go, as time makes its mean parade?

Landrum, Sohigian, O'Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

Landrum, Sohigian, O’Connell: the few, the proud, the long haul. Photo: Gary Norman

The Few features a powerhouse of Portland talent in acting, direction and all of the behind-the-scenes work that makes a play. The plot is simple: an old lover returns, only to find out you can never go home.


Still waiting after all these years

Northwest Classical's "Godot" sits out Beckett's Big Questions vividly and with comic gusto

Gogo’s feet stink. Didi reeks of garlic. And, no, Godot never does show up. These are three unassailable facts about Samuel Beckett’s maybe and maybe not absurdist Waiting for Godot, which opened Friday night in an itchy and morosely funny revival from the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. Otherwise, the play’s so open to interpretation that actors and academics, after a drink or three, have been known to break out in fisticuffs over its meanings.

Is it a comedy or a tragedy? (Beckett called it, in its English version, a “tragicomedy”). Is it Christian, or existentialist, or something else? Is Godot really God, or simply an absence, or perhaps both? Is the play snarly, like Pinter, or sympathetic, like Wilder, or something entirely its own? Godot is a bare architecture, sparse and clean in the making, free-floating and yet fiercely rooted, and as it lacks particulars of time and place and even intention, it’s a play for all seasons. Lay over it what you will: you might be right.

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest

Alder (left) and Byington: ever on alert. Photo: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

I happen to be of the baggy-pants school: I see in Godot ripples of the English music hall and American vaudeville and the great early movie comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Max Linder, and, closer to the time that Godot was written in 1949, Jean-Louis Barrault, the great sad mime from 1945’s Les Enfants du Paradis. As great clowns tend also to know the deepest hearts of innocence and tragedy, Godot for me is perhaps the most pristine of all stage comedies. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite: the thing can seem a little overstated and pretentious, and it can drag on, depending on how it’s done. It does mean it’s a benchmark.


Reverend Buckhorn (Michael Fisher-Welsh) gathers the flock in "Holy Ghosts." Photo: Gary Norman

Here’s what theater really ought to do: transport you to another world.

Doesn’t need to be with exotic sets and costumes, although an occasional Cats or Lion King isn’t a bad thing. It might be nothing but a single actor on a naked stage, carrying you on a journey. The journey might be to somewhere you’ve never visited, or to somewhere you’ve seen a thousand times, but never quite this way. And what if – what if – it reveals that the exotic and the commonplace are eternal bedmates, sleeping side by side?

Romulus Linney created just such an exotic familiarity in 1970 with his Appalachian religious drama Holy Ghosts, a tale that shoves straight through the long and storied history of revivalism in American religion toward one of its most extreme conclusions: holy-roller snake-handling. Garry Wills writes about revivalist fundamentalism as a phenomenon in his fascinating 2007 book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Linney’s sweet believers live it as a personal reality. As the good and lusty Reverend Buckhorn puts it, “Well, what is real religion? One thing I know, it don’t have no beginning and it don’t have no end. It is happening all the time, and tonight I hope it will happen to us.”

Instead of treating his story as a freak show, Linney cuts to the causes and benefits – poverty and loneliness on one hand; acceptance, love and group identity on the other – and every now and again, once he’s lulled you, he shakes you awake again to remind you this is a cult, and a pretty weird one, at that. The church’s cultishness makes its people, who are the play’s heart and soul, no less likable – maybe even more so, because it reveals the emotional logic and essential quest for goodness beneath their radical beliefs. And it brings home the isolationist mentality of extremist groups: all will be wonderful, if only you do exactly as we do. In a world cleft by combative politics and fundamentalist fervor, Linney’s hardscrabble Appalachia doesn’t seem so far away at all.

Holy Ghosts is smart and lively and theatrically engaging, a rollicking American spiritualist tale in the loosely scattered tradition of Elmer Gantry, Friendly Persuasion and Wise Blood. And in its latest Portland production it’s getting a performance that coaxes out an overflowing baptismal font of oddball yet astute charms.

Apt name: Emery John Frazier as Carl Specter. Photo: Gary Norman

You could divide the audiences for Portland Actors Conservatory’s new production into two parts: those who hum along to the old-time hymns and gospel tunes being played on the piano by the proper Mrs. Wall (Cate Garrison) and those who don’t know The Old Rugged Cross from the Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow.

I have it from the horse’s mouth that before rehearsals began, some of the actors themselves hadn’t made the gospel hymnal’s acquaintance. Yet by opening weekend they were in full foot-stomping spirit, for which ample credit must go to director Beth Harper, musical director Andrew Bray and, presumably, God Almighty.

I don’t mean that mockingly. I’ve known the people in this play, or people very like them, and I grew up singing their songs, whose words and harmonies sweep back on me like inescapable yet strangely welcome ghosts. We are who we were, no matter how much more we become. And these are vivid, vivid people in vivid, if peculiar, circumstances.

Music is at the soul of the revivalist spirit that haunts Holy Ghosts, and poisonous snakes, the successful handling of which signifies faith and glory to the true believers of the theatrical congregation, are in its grip. Linney’s play is Southern Gothic, and from a rationalist perspective its characters are as nutty as a Truman Capote fruitcake – who are these people, and why are they doing this insane stuff? – but they also follow a rigorous logic of the heart. The craziest thing about the play is how it gets inside fanaticism and allows you to understand and even sympathize with it, or at least with the people who turn to it for solace.

Holy Ghosts isn’t only historical or Southern-regionalist. These snake-handlers aren’t so different from the Oregon faith-healing advocates who regularly land in court for entrusting their children’s health to God instead of medicine, even when their children end up dying from preventable causes. And how many steps removed are they from the fanatical fundamentalists raining violence on the world, or for that matter, from the saints whose images line cathedral walls? Sometimes fanaticism is only a half-step to the side of heroism and the commonplace. Sometimes it’s benign. Sometimes it’s dangerous.

Blue state urban bubble-dwellers really ought to see this play, and not to poke fun at the red-state rubes, although the drama has some very funny scenes, but to get inside some pretty interesting skin and begin to understand the culture wars from a different perspective. Among these fervidly holy men and women “value politics” isn’t a matter of partisan tactics but of everyday life. And don’t think you’ll always know what the values are: In the Actors Conservatory’s production, black and white people are equals in the eyes of the Lord, and so are gays and heterosexuals. Not exactly earth-shattering propositions, unless you look around the country these days.

There’s nothing belittling or cartoonish in the colorful congregation that flocks to Linney’s little pentecostal church. Linney himself explains them well in a 1987 interview from the New York Times:

”The play is funny,” he says, ”but it’s not a satire. It takes these rural people very seriously. It deals with people who, I think, are very desperate. Their religion is not a small thing to them, their humanity is not a small thing to them. The two things are very much mixed together. It’s not a matter of an actor getting on stage and making fun of a country bumpkin; it’s a matter of trying to understand very deep feelings of people who are themselves at the bottom of American life. You can’t get much further down, as far as rural American is concerned, than a lot of these folks. And yet they feel, through the extreme cathartic experience that they go through in these services, they feel recognized by some great power.”

Linney has a way of bringing you up short. It’s one thing when you discover a young runaway wife is planning to marry the gray-haired preacher father, not his handsome son: May and December have met many times before. It’s another thing to learn that preacher father has already buried six hard-working wives and scattered something in the neighborhood of 17 kids across the countryside. He is, as they say, charismatic. He also seems scarily biblical and patriarchal, an Old Testament lord and master of his clan. Yet in the clinches, as it were, he can be as gentle as a lamb of God.

Cancer Man (Tim Stapleton), Nancy (Katie Butler).
Photo: Gary Norman

Among director Harper’s grandly cast collection of oddballs and fanatics,
three are crucial to the driving of the plot: Katie Butler as Nancy Shedman, the innocent and fiery young wife who has fled her young husband into the arms of the patriarch; Jeffrey Arrington as her hot-headed and sometimes two-fisted husband, Coleman; and veteran Michael Fisher-Welsh as Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr., the patriarch. Arrington’s Coleman, who has pursued Nancy to the church with his divorce lawyer (a wonderfully fleshy and seedy Jim Davis) in tow, is a pistol itching to go off, and when he and Fisher-Welsh go at it it’s almost like God and Satan getting testy with each other in The Book of Job. Somebody’s going to win this argument, and it might be surprising to find out how it all works out.

The three performances seem ideally calibrated: the true believer, the unbeliever, the wavering aspirant. Butler and Arrington, both conservatory students (as are most of the cast), hold their own remarkably well in a company anchored by veterans Fisher-Welsh, Davis, Garrison and Tim Stapleton as Cancer Man (yes, there’s a character named Cancer Man, and he’s quite amazing). But then, pretty much everyone fills the exotic bill well. Holy Ghosts is one of those well-crafted plays where the first act ends exactly where the first act ought to end and everyone in the cast gets a knock-’em-dead moment in the spotlight (that’s why actors love to be in them). And Harper (who grew up in Tennessee and knows this territory) is a director known for her skill at creating a genuine, almost musical, ensemble on stage. In a Harper show the good stuff happens in the space between the performers, where the energy meets.

Stuff happens. Revelations are made. Anguish and humor rear their ugly-pretty heads. Lives even change. More than that I see no need to tell, except maybe for this: The snakes do come out to play. And you don’t want to be sticking your hand too close. You could be transported.

One more thing does need to be told, and that is that you really ought to take time to absorb Faith and Work, the show of paintings hanging on the lobby walls. They’re by the multitalented Stapleton, who is terrific as Cancer Man and is also the conservatory’s resident scenic designer. He grew up in Kentucky coal-mining country, and the portraits in this exhibition are of family members: his uncles, father, grandmother, others.

From "Faith and Work," paintings by Tim Stapleton.

Crosses of Calvary show up. A canary in the mineshaft. The hand of God. A rail of a woman with the face of an old soul. Coal-stained faces of miners, hard-working men, variously proud and stoic and trouble-brewing and jovial and dignified and wearily ready to rest and start it all again. Stapleton homes in on eyes, which leap with independence and personality. These are the faces of tradition and hard-laboring poverty, and they provide the base, if you need one, for understanding the soil from which Holy Ghosts has sprung. We may (or may not) be the world’s richest nation. But as George Orwell has pointed out, some pigs are more equal than others. And some are left to shift on their own – with a little help from their Friend. In a way, these paintings are holy ghosts, too.



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