DramaWatch: Back in the saddle again

The sights were so familiar, yet so strange. Amid the cool autumn dusk, cars inched along Southwest Third Avenue and along Clay Street, drivers pausing to drop off passengers then resume the hunt for a parking space. On the nearby sidewalks, long lines of people waited to enter the Keller Auditorium. A buzz that was part sound (idle conversation, passing traffic, the fountain across the street) and part feeling (anticipation!) seemed to charge the air.

Yes, this is what normal used to be — city life, culture, crowds heading to the theater. It all was a heartening sight to see again last week, when a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar played at the Keller. That it was a crowd drawn by Andrew Lloyd Webber was mildly depressing, but no one ever said normal was always good. Face masks and vaccination cards weren’t part of the old normal, but they’re now part of the normative, and that’s most certainly good.

Of course it’s hardly as though cultural life has been entirely dormant or this bus-and-trucker signals its rebirth. But since the grim dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic a year and a half ago, not only has Oregon ArtsWatch’s weekly DramaWatch column been on hiatus, your friendly (well, sometimes) DramaWatcher has been away from the theater scene — what there has been of it, anyway — as well.

On both those counts, mea culpa.

Keller Auditorium in the Before Times, when people crowded together, unmasked and unalarmed. Last week, a touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” brought the performance hall back to life again. Photo: Jason Quigley

As the anxious but muddled reports about a new strain of novel coronavirus began to dominate the news in mid-March of 2020, DramaWatch was preparing to cover lots of exciting work: the launch of Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley’s The Theatre Company; an intriguing collaboration between director Stepan Simek, actor Jean-Luc Boucherot and the medieval-music ensemble Musica Universalis for Hand2Mouth Theatre; a Portland Center Stage production of Nine Parts of Desire directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival new associate artistic director Evren Odcikin; a PassinArt production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars; the deft Elizabethan-themed improv Love, Shakespeare at the Curious Comedy Theater Annex; a reunion of Third Rail Rep and its founding artistic director Scott Yarbrough on the Nick Payne play Incognito …

But then, as American Theatre magazine put it on March 10, “The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t.”

In the following few weeks, as not just theater but so much of American life went into that strange early-pandemic lockdown balanced between hunkering down and hunting for toilet paper, it quickly began to seem silly to report on what was canceled or postponed — everything was. And as for when things might open up again, and how artists and companies might manage the contingencies, so little was predictable, much less certain, that even trying to formulate the right questions seemed futile. Right away it was clear that artists would try to keep working, to adapt production to social-distancing requirements and online video or audio distribution. But I couldn’t gin up much enthusiasm for writing about what felt like merely watching television.

Flummoxed and discouraged, I quit.

In retrospect, I wish I’d been more persistent, wish I’d embraced a spirit of creative adaptation as so many theater makers did (as a recent ArtsWatch article on Jen Rowe and the Theatre Company illustrates). 

All the same…here we are now.

We are in a time of disruption — for good or ill, or most likely both. 

“The new normal,” that phrase we’ve heard so much of in the past year or so, remains multifaceted, mutable, elusive. Live performances will, for the foreseeable future, require face masks and proof of vaccination. Some shows will be in theaters, some will be streamed online, some will offer both options — and what that kind of hybridization of theater means for the quality and character of productions will be an ongoing experiment. Continued postponements or cancellations will be a part of things too, as local surges, varying risk tolerances and myriad other factors complicate the decision process for producers and audiences.

It appears that many theater makers are seizing the opportunities that upheaval brings. Portland Center Stage has remade its board to be more reflective of the community at large rather than its customary clutch of business execs. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has altered and augmented its artistic leadership and its programming palette to continue pushing goals of diversity and inclusion. Theater’s traditionally older core audience might be more hesitant to return to crowded indoor spaces, but at the same time, more digital access points and more diverse forms and subjects might draw in the audiences theaters have been struggling for years to attract. Having to do things differently means being able to do things differently.

As the DramaWatch column returns to regular duty, perhaps change is in order here, too. Feel free to send us your suggestions.

The good ship OSF

Running the Oregon Shakespeare Festival must be a little like steering an aircraft carrier; it’s powerful, sure, but it’s so big and complicated that changing course can be a challenge. Nataki Garrett, who took over as OSF artistic director in August of 2019, has spent most of her tenure steering through a storm. Covid-19 stopped her 2020 season in its tracks just a week or two out of the gate. The 2021 season, which ends this weekend, has combined streaming presentations of past productions and a few newly staged shows, but several projects announced in February did not come to fruition amid continued Covid disruptions.

Brent Hinkley (left) and Mark Bedard starred in a 2014 production of the Marx Brothers’ “The Cocoanuts” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They and another OSF veteran, John Tufts, will turn their comic skills to a new show, “It’s Christmas, Carol,” opening in November. Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo

The recently announced 2022 season appears less provisional than 2021’s, but it only moves a bit of the way back toward the familiar structure that previously ruled OSF season planning. Instead of four shows opening in mid-February, the season will start with two shows — one in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, one in the Thomas — opening in mid-April. The usual three-show launch to summer on the open-air Elizabethan Stage gets just two productions next year. A total of 11 shows are on tap, as the schedule of recent years would have it, but three of those will be only on the company’s online platform O! Digital Stage. And while the 2021 plan — made amidst the height of the storm — included no live productions of Shakespeare, we have to wait until that June opening of the Elizabethan for next year’s Bard fix (though it is The Tempest, so likely worth the wait).

Meanwhile, 2022 gets a few of the 2021 shows undone by circumstance — August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned directed by longtime OSF contributor Timothy Bond; Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, about historical legacies of racism and gender bias; Unseen, Mona Mansour’s play about an American war photographer in Syria; It’s Christmas, Carol, a comedic turn of the Scrooge written by and starring returning OSF vets Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts (and which opens next month, running Nov. 23-Jan. 2); and Garrett’s multi-episode digital adaptation of Shakespeare’s fascinating Cymbeline.

Under previous artistic director Bill Rauch, the balancing act of aesthetic and social agendas developed a discernible rhythm. Amid all the constraints facing Garrett, it seems too soon to try to typify her approach (it’s also worth noting that a ship the size of OSF takes more than one person turning the wheel). But 2022 does present some contrasts — at one extreme, the seldom-seen King John for Shakespeare completists, at the other, Films for the People, a set of film shorts about Black artists and communities.

Compared to the stately old progression of an OSF season, it looks at first blush like a sort of grab bag, but a potentially illuminating one. And, as new normals go, that might be just fine.

Opening 

“Dancing upright and swinging, his light and exacting footwork brought tap ‘up on its toes’ from an earlier flat-footed shuffling style, and developed the art of tap dancing to a delicate perfection.” That’s how the American Tap Dance Foundation Hall of Fame’s biographical sketch of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson describes the “the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century.” Bojangles of Harlem, a musical tribute being produced by Stumptown Stages, stars Jarran Muse, with direction and choreography by Christopher George Patterson. 

Jarran Muse stars in Stumptown Stage’s premiere production of “Bojangles of Harlem,” a musical about the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Photo: Owen Carey

What could a play titled Family truly be but a dark comedy? The ever-astute director Samantha Van Der Merwe and her company Shaking the Tree present a surreal one-act play by Celine Song about half-siblings haunted by a history of traumas and secrets.

One night only

In a sneak-preview of a work-in-progress, Imago presents a concert of musical selections from  Satie’s Journey, a collaboration between composer Marisa Wildeman and librettist/Imago co-founder Jerry Mouawad about the eccentric musical innovator Erik Satie. Ben España conducts a chamber ensemble of three vocalists along with flute, English horn, viola, piano and percussion. 

Playing around

For all those folks forced into remote work over the past year and a half, Zoom fatigue is real. And yet…it is possible to use that much-maligned platform for good. And for fun.

Scott Yarbrough, formerly Third Rail Rep’s founding artistic director, took to Zoom to do something he loves: reading plays and talking about them with other theater fans. I took part in this summer’s first Play Date, a weekly series of discussions linked to Yarbrough’s scrupulously curated series of plays. He’s my favorite Portland stage director, well-studied especially in modern British stage literature, and a fine, friendly discussion host. “Play Date Volume Two” is about to start, with a reading list including David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh and others. At last check, he still had room for a few more participants. 

The Flattened Stage

A few years ago, when I first took over this column, a friend took me aside after the first installment was published and gently chastised me for my closing sentence, “I’ll try to do better the next time.” She took it as a bit of unseemly self-denigration. That interpretation wasn’t entirely wrong, but I explained to her that I fully intended it to be the way I ended every week’s column, and that it was a borrowing from/tribute to my favorite sports talk show, ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. Thanks Tony and Mike; I’m still trying. 

Best Line  I Read This Week

“When we start a painting, an essay or a love affair, we place ourselves on a continuum on which that thing is also, ultimately, finished. To enter that continuum is, therefore, to do most of the work. The rest is only details. To write a first sentence is, more or less, to write the last. I struggle all the time to make my editors understand this simple truth.” 
– Sam Anderson, in The New York Times Magazine

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

The post DramaWatch: Back in the saddle again first appeared on Oregon ArtsWatch.