Tanya and the Duchess: How to kick a man’s world in the teeth

Both Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre started the year off right with sharp, boundary-pushing world premieres. They both starred women, and what women they are — powerful, revolutionary women with enough sass and moxie to kick back and kick back hard.

“(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi,” Artists Repertory Theatre: OK, that one doesn’t sound like a world premiere. Didn’t John Webster write that around 1612 or so, a creepy revenge play that leaves the stage littered in corpses (well, fake corpses — this is the theater, after all)? Why, yes, he did, but Joseph Fisher has adapted it to contemporary purposes, moving it to the present day, slimming it down to seven actors and emphasizing the personal moral choices the characters make, which are more complex than Webster’s principals face. And I don’t think a sentence of the original Webster makes the jump.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though I did miss Webster’s delicious description of the evil, remote Cardinal at the beginning of the play: “The spring in his face is nothing but the engend’ring of toads,” the steward Antonio says. Honestly, there’s nothing approaching that in Fisher’s version.

But Webster’s version is more about the machines of revenge than individual choices, and though Webster’s Duchess is still an interesting character, Fisher and director Jon Kretzu give her majesty. Not the majesty of pure innocence, either. They makes her world-weary and media-savvy, someone who knows her effect on others, the people of Amalfi who love her, and how she can use that to her advantage as she defies her evil brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, a violent psychopath, who loves her in an unseemly way.

So, yes, a complex character and one who won’t back down when the torturer, Bosola, approaches her intent on snipping off one of her digits. Yikes!

Sara Catherine Wheatley makes this Duchess ripple with sexual power and the trappings of wealth and power and then strips her down to the basics, to the identity she won’t abandon, no matter what. Her torture scenes with Chris Murray as Bosola could have been unwatchable, but they become the heart of the play, a matching of wits and wills, that makes sense of the blood that will flow.

Both Todd Van Voris and Jake Street as the Cardinal and Ferdinand have meaty (if one-dimensional roles) that they embrace fully. And Nicholas Hongola as the narrator/tipster Delio, Camille Cettina as the Duchess’s servant Cariola and Vin Shambry as Antonio all have excellent moments.

But what you are going to remember is the Duchess in her long red evening dress, dancing toward her fate.

Tanya knows sign language! /Patrick Weishampel

“The North Plan,” Portland Center Stage: Fisher has his Duchess, who has endured the depravities of her dead husband and her brothers and emerged intact. Jason Wells has Tanya Shepke, an Ozark gal with fire in her belly, a few outstanding warrants, a sharp tongue and a foul mouth. And yes, she does know how to handle a firearm, thank you very much.

As the play begins, Tanya has managed to talk herself into jail, because that’s what she does — talk herself into trouble, no matter what, a spew of language that is both revelatory and hilarious. Her jailer, Shonda, tries to keep her composure and so does the Chief, but come on, Tanya is just a little too much, especially given the circumstances — martial law has been declared in the United States and a Right Wing cabal is attempting to take over. The Chief, even in this small Missouri town, has some serious government business to attend to, especially when Carlton turns up.

Carlton has a list of the people the cabal is going to arrest and dispose of, millions of them, but he can’t get the Chief to listen, maybe because the Chief is part of the cabal? Anyway, he attempts the impossible — to break Shonda’s sense of duty and to have enlist Tanya in the revolution. Both are hard, but the latter seems impossible. How can you possibly have a conversation with the motormouthed Tanya long enough to enlist her in anything?

“The North Plan” is funny and deeply political (so is “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi” for that matter), but the main thing it has going for it is Tanya and Kate Eastwood Norris, who plays Tanya with the right mixture of cunning, pathos, fury and pure country stubbornness and then jolts her into life with an electric performance that lights up the stage.

Not that she doesn’t have help. Ashley Everage as Shonda finds a nice line, one that emphasizes her “correctness” but makes her conversion seem genuine. Brian Patrick Monahan as Carlton takes the frustration we’ve all felt at trying to convince someone of something improbable but true and forms a real character out of it. His byplay with Norris is a highlight of the show. Tim True as the Chief is terrific at stringing along the two federal agents who arrive to take custody of Carlton as he tries to get what’s really going on. And Blake DeLong an Fredric Lehne add a nice comic dimension to their characters, even though they’re the bad guys.

A warning to future directors of the play: It would be easy for all the characters to lurch into stereotype. Director Rose Riordan manages to help the actors find enough texture and complexity to keep this from happening.

Maybe you find yourself in conversations about the paucity of strong women’s roles in Hollywood? If you are, the antidote is in a theater near you, where strong, smart, funny women await you.


A version of this story first appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page.

Bob Hicks reviewed both of these plays last week for ArtsWatch.

As world premieres of productions with local ties, these two plays are part of the Fertile Ground festival.

A little taste of Tanya:

sh*t tanya shepke says from Portland Center Stage on Vimeo.

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