Wednesday, October 31, 2012

OSF: Animal Crackers

I generally think it's not a good idea to try to out-do the legends. As great as Steve Martin is, Peter Sellers is Clouseau, and I refused to see Martin's remake of The Pink Panther. The Gus Van Sant remake of and the Richard Franklin sequel to Psycho both seemed like bad ideas. Did Hitchcock goof up? Heck, I wouldn't even go see the 2003 version of The In-Laws. What, you're going to do it better than Peter Falk and Alan Arkin? Serpentine, Shel! What's next? Keanu Reeves as Charles Foster Kane?

Now, I recognize that aversion to remakes is a little funny for someone who goes to the Shakespeare Festival every year! After all, the Bard only did 37 plays (more or less) and, barring any amazing discoveries in London attics, there won't be any more. So all of the Shakespeare shows are remakes. We've already seen four or five of them more than once just in the eight year's we've been attending. I'm glad people still do Hamlet even though Olivier played the Dane pretty well. Next year OSF is doing A Streetcar Named Desire, and I don't mind seeing another production, (though I pity the poor fools who have to play Stanley with Marlon Brando peeking over their shoulders.)

Anyway, I had mixed feelings when I heard that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was going to produce the Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers this year. On the one hand, you probably shouldn't mess with Groucho. On the other, the Captain Spaulding role was played by Mark Bedard, one of the flat-out funniest actors among the OSF regulars. On the third hand, the production wasn't really a remake; according to the Playbill it was "reconceived from an adaptation" by Henry Wishcamper.

The show, directed by Allison Narver, did not disappoint. Bedard was fantastic as Groucho, nailing the voice and the look and the walk. He had a bunch of good Groucho gags, but also was nimble in playing off of the audience and ad-libbing. K.T. Vogt, who was hilarious last year in The Imaginary Invalid, was a scream as Mrs. Rittenhouse; Jonathan Haugen was marvelous as both the butler Hives and the art-loving Roscoe W. Chandler.

Two performances came as delightful surprises. John Tufts and Brent Hinkley were featured on the cover of the Playbill in a scene from Henry V. The next night they turned up as Ravelli and The Professor—the Chico and Harpo characters—in Animal Crackers. And talk about trying to out-do a legend! While Groucho was a genius, he's been aped by many an actor. Hinkley did an amazing job taking up the horn of Harpo, who for my money was the most brilliant actor of the brothers, without uttering a word.

Animal Crackers was a lot of fun, and a great exclamation point on our annual trip to OSF. Alas, there are just three performances left; Animal Crackers wraps on Nov. 4. It's playing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

OSF: Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is a fascinating play with layers of complexity and irony, and I would love to see it produced more often. It confounds expectations; there is no wedding, no pivotal battle scene, no coronation, no tragic hero; indeed, no hero at all. Every character is deeply flawed and there is no evolution to higher, better selves or resolution to tragic consequences. It is scathing in its disillusion. The ending is a Shakespearean raised middle finger as filthy, horrid Pandarus bequeaths his syphillis on the audience. Yes, I'd much rather see T&C a few more times than yet another production of R&J.

T&C poses the question: is it worth it? The language is about possession, ownership, buying and selling, contracts and value. Is it worth it to fight over Helen? Is it worth it to sleep with Troilus? Is it worth it to fight for Cressida? Is it worth it to get out of bed in the morning? 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production, directed by Rob Melrose, was set in Iraq, which is obvious and effective. The lassitude and tawdriness of war was convincingly depicted in this play about war that has no battles, just posturing, looting, bargaining, and score settling. Even as the audience was filing in and throughout the play, soldiers were battling boredom by shooting golf balls, gossiping, and generally goofing off. 

There is no hero in T&C, but there is a seer. Pesky Thersites is a clown character brilliantly played by Michael Elich. He is an observer and truth-teller, like so many of Shakespeare's "fools," and this production did not shrink from his foulness and cynicism about men and women and their exploits in war and love. 

Another strong performance was from OSF newcomer Tala Ashe as Cressida and Cassandra. Cressida is between Scylla and Charybdis for much of the play, and the way Ashe played it you could practically see the wheels turning in her head as she tries to navigate the world of men. She also embodied Cassandra's despair at being disbelieved (I wonder how many people realized the same actor was playing both roles). We hope to see more of Ashe in future years at OSF.

Troilus and Cressida runs through Nov. 4 in the New Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Remembering Sid Snyder

I first got word of Sid Snyder's passing Sunday night from Facebook friends in the know, and by Monday morning the news sites had the story. The former state senator and majority leader had passed away at 86.

I was fortunate enough to work with and for Sid at the Washington State Senate during the 90s. There are probably at least 127 million stories about Sid, starting from his humble beginnings as an elevator operator through the time when he was one of the more capable and powerful leaders in the state. Most of the accounts of his death (this one from the Aberdeen Daily World is more in-depth than most I've found) mention the time in 1997 that he quit in a huff because the opposition party wanted to change the rules in the middle of the game.

That's the first story I thought of, too. It was great political theatre, and by most accounts it was a genuine response to the situation. The "quit" didn't stick; either his legislative assistant never submitted his resignation letter, or the governor did a return-to-sender. In any case, Sen. Snyder was back at his desk within a week or so. Here's a link to that story from

When I worked for the Washington State Senate I recorded
all of the floor speeches in case some radio station needed
the audio for their newscasts. This one, with the scribble
"Sid Quits", was so memorable I held onto it. I only wish I
had a machine that would play it. We used to get all of our
music this way, kids!
I felt certain I had a video of his great resignation speech; I recall him thundering, "This is a travesty!!" It turns out I don't, and TVW online archives only go back to 1998. I do have an audio recording. It's on a cassette, and it turns out that I no longer have a machine in the house that will play it! There's one in our car, a 2007 Acura TL with an XM radio, a jack for the MP3 player, a CD player, and a cassette deck the punk fine young man who sold us the vehicle said was there "for old business guys." Well, guilty as charged. I have a bunch of stuff on reel-to-reel, too (including an unbleeped version of Tommy Lasorda's what-did-you-think-of-Kingman's-performance tirade), and some old radio carts. Might have to hit eBay or the antique stores to find some players!

Anyhow, my personal favorite Sid story happened perhaps five or six years ago, maybe a little more than that. My sweetie, the official scorer, and I often spend quality away time at the Shelburne Inn in Seaview, Washington, which as it turns out is right across the street from Sid's Market, a grocery store owned for many years by Snyder. On this particular visit, I popped across the street for some provision or other. It was after dark as I recall, and yet there was a familiar, 80-ish man restocking the vegetable oil shelf. As I approached I observed that, "They've got you working late tonight, sonny!"  Sid and I ended up chatting for about 45 minutes, right there by the shortening. He knew every customer who passed by, and for most of them had a story about how he'd torn up the family's tab when jobs were scarce or some such act of kindness. Sid said he'd been considering selling the store, but thought he might wait until a couple of his managers, who'd been on board for decades, decided to retire.

That's what you need to know about Sid Snyder: a kind and generous soul, a fantastic raconteur, a great employer, and a tremendous asset to his town and his state. I feel fortunate to have known him, and send my deepest sympathies to his wife (61 years!) Bette, his family, and everyone whose life he touched. That's most of us.

Godspeed, Senator Snyder. If they use Robert's Rules in heaven, they'd better be on their toes.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

OSF: As You Like It

When it comes to productions of Shakespeare's As You Like It, my Sweetie, the official scorer, has expectations for Rosalind that may be slightly unrealistic. As near as I can understand it, she wants Rosalind to be sort of a combination of Emma Peel, Marie "Slim" Browning, Harriet Vane, Annie Savoy, Wonder Woman, Oprah, Pussy Galore, and Elinor Dashwood. That's going to be hard to pull off, though I'd be happy to give Diana Rigg or Lauren Bacall a shot at the part.

Peter Frechette as Touchstone in OSF's
As You Like It. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Erica Sullivan is no Diana Rigg or even Barbara Feldon, but she did a fine job as Rosalind in this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of As You Like It, directed by Jessica Thebus. Christine Albright was great as Celia, Rosalind's best friend and cousin who is banished from the court by the very crabby and paranoid Duke Frederick, played with menacing zeal by Michael J. Hume. Wayne T. Carr was a wonderful Orlando, steadfast in most of his affairs but on the clueless side when it comes to wooing and writing poetry that he leaves tacked to trees all around Arden Forest.

In addition to Sullivan, who goes undercover as a man, Ganymede, when she and Celia flee to the forest, Thebus flips gender roles on two other characters. Kathryn Meisle had the sort of stage presence Sweetie wants from Rosalind in her portrayal of Jacques, the melancholy philosopher; Kimberly Scott was a riot as Charles the Wrestler, who loses in an upset in a hilarious bout with Orlando early in the play.

One disappointment was missing Howie Seago in the role of Duke Senior. We've seen Seago, a deaf actor, many times over the last several years at OSF and have always enjoyed his performances. He was particularly great as the ghost of Hamlet's father in Hamlet a couple of years ago. It's clever the way Seago's characters use sign language, and others in the play translate. The Duke's role was understudied admirably by Jonathan Haugen. Seago was unable to appear in Henry V later in the week, too. We hope that he is back soon from whatever kept him out last week.

All in all, As You Like It was a pleasant romp in Arden Forest. There's just one week left to see it; the show runs through Oct. 14 on the Elizabethan Stage in Ashland.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Otis Redding and Sarah Palin walk into a bar...

We're often in Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival this time of year, which means every four years our mostly news-free vacation intersects with the presidential debates. One of my favorite stories is from four years ago, when Sarah Palin tried to get us drunk. It was the night of Palin's vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, and a generous bartender at a now-defunct joint called T's bought a round of tequila shots for the house every time she called John McCain a maverick. The story of the rest of the night remains a little hazy.

I didn't think about this anniversary until last night, when we were enjoying a nice dinner at Liquid Assets Wine Bar, a favorite haunt in the city, and in the background, from the bar in the back, the sounds of Obama and Romney could occasionally be heard.

Fortunately, we couldn't hear the debate too much because the musical soundtrack was also playing in the restaurant, and it was usually loud enough to drown out the less pleasant noise from the bar.

Otis Redding is no Sara Bareilles or Sarah Palin.
As it happens, one of the songs that played was a cover of the Otis Redding classic "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay". The recording wasn't familiar to me, nor was the voice. An Internet search didn't prove very fruitful; Wikipedia lists quite a number of artists who have covered the tune, with someone named Sara Bareilles the only woman among them. So maybe it was her. The Wikipedia article pegs her style as "slightly edgy, stompy piano-based pop rock that incorporates jazz and soul, with Bareilles finding inspiration from singers such as Etta James and Sam Cooke." While I wasn't hearing anything of the sort in this particular recording, it was kind of OK. I suppose. Better than the debate, in any case.

Now, I hardly ever eavesdrop at restaurants. It is usually fruitless to do so these days, anyway, as so many diners spend more time gazing at their electronic devices (probably looking up who covered Otis Redding songs, lol) than talking with each other and giving neighboring tables dialog to steal. But, as "Dock of the Bay" played on, a guy at the next table observed, "That's not the original artist."

Nope. Not even close. But it made me wonder if the former vice presidential candidate had stopped by earlier in the day.

And that's how I was able to work Sarah Palin and Otis Redding into the same blog post.

OSF: All the Way and Party People

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival took us back to the 1960s and the civil rights movement with two marvelous world premiere plays commissioned as part of American Revolutions, its U.S. history cycle. All the Way was written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, and Party People was written by UNIVERSES and directed by Liesl Tommy.

Jack Willis as LBJ. OSF photo
by Jenny Graham
All the Way is the story of the first 11 months of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through election night, 1964, when LBJ swamped Barry Goldwater. It's a fascinating study of Johnson, played brilliantly by Jack Willis, and portrays the hardball politics it took to pass the Civil Rights Act and the challenges LBJ faced on the way to the nomination that summer.

LBJ is an interesting character. He won passage of the civil rights act through pure force of will and political skill, and many of the programs this year's candidates are arguing about sprouted from his presidency. Yet he was clearly a flawed individual, and his handling of the Vietnam War was ultimately his undoing. The play portrays a moment after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, after which Johnson supposedly proclaimed, "We have lost the South for a generation." Sure enough, in 1964 LBJ won by a landslide, with Goldwater getting just 52 electoral votes, from his home state of Arizona and the rest from five states in the deep South. It's been more than a generation, and they haven't flipped back.

The set was clever and changed deftly from office to hotel room to Senate floor to campaign trail to convention hall. The acting was top-notch all around, but in addition to Willis I'll single out two other great performances: Richard Elmore was truly creepy as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Jonathan Haugen terrific as Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Christopher Livingston at Malik. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
Party People is a fantastic play created by UNIVERSES, a theater collective including Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp, and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja. They, along with a host of OSF company members, tell the story of the old veterans of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, through the high-tech lens of today's hip-hop generation. 

Young men Malik (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz) pull off a reunion of the Panthers and Lords at an art gallery exhibit that tells their stories. They use multiple video cameras and screens, hip-hop, gospel music, spirituals, dance, and recorded interviews artfully interspersed to tell the stories of the oppression and racism the two groups were faced and were fighting. It also revealed lingering tensions between the groups and their members, even a generation later, as the old leaders had escaped the limelight but were still fighting the fight, and being watched by the FBI.

There's some great musical talent in the cast. Sapp, Ruiz-Sapp, and Ruiz are good. We're always taken aback, too, at the musical talent of Michael Elich. When we first saw him he was kicking butts as Aufidius in Coriolanus back in 2009, but he's a musical guy, too, playing Harold Hill in The Music Man and the pirate king in Pirates of Penzance.  

We're typically skeptical of the use of high-tech effects in theater,  tending to prefer to let people tell the stories. The whiz-bang is sometimes used as a crutch, or employed for no discernable reason, but this production used such tools liberally and it worked. Ruiz was creepy as a clown who was the MC of the reunion and dug at the foibles and contradictions of pretty much everyone in the room. The set was a pretty simple stage with multi-level metal scaffolding at one end, with the word REVOLUTION in big, lighted caps at the top and multimedia screens behind the scaffolding. The show was engaging, fresh, exhilarating, and thought-provoking.

Party People runs at the New Theatre and All the Way at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through Nov. 3. See both for some great perspectives on one of the more interesting and challenging eras in U.S. history.

Props to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its commitment to American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The 10-year program will commission as many as 37 new plays--the same number in Shakespeare's canon--about key moments in our nation's history. Two other plays have been produced in the series: American Night in 2010 and Ghost Light last year.

OSF: Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella

When I was in college, my boyfriend and I had a date to go to a faculty piano recital. When we told my father where we were going (expecting to impress him for being so grown up and "cultured"), he said "meh" (or whatever the then-equivalent was), to our surprise. He dismissed the recital saying we weren't going to hear anything beautiful, and that it was just going to be artists working out their own technical studies and pet projects and trying to impress each other.

He was right. We left at intermission.
L-R: Miriam A. Laube as Medea, Laura
Griffith as Cinderella, and Jeffrey King as
Macbeth. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.

Which brings us to Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (MMC). This is a project of Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch's that he's been working on and thinking about and staging occasionally since college. It's three productions of three discrete plays staged in an elaborate cut-and-paste ping-pong mash-up of scenes. Think three of your favorite movies playing in split screen at the same time with someone else constantly pushing pause and play and flipping between full screen and split. Yeah. Pretty fucking annoying.

Look, we get it. We really do. The insights, counterpoints, rhythms, and themes (hey look! all three plays have kings in them! look! children are discarded in all three plays! look! women are disappointed by men! look! sisters!); the gender and identity stuff; the homage to theater and its forms, especially "populist" theater (whatever); the challenge to the audience to listen and choose; all of that. We do get it. We got it in the first 20 minutes. (The play lasted 180.)

I don't mind being challenged at the theater, intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, I love it. I'm not just looking for "entertainment" as the word is used when accompanied by a sneer. But I do expect art.

Juxtaposition isn't art.

You have to make something with your materials. I can talk to people whose families taught them to make paella and I can source a lot of really fresh, seasonal, top-notch ingredients and I can carefully season my pan and I can lay out three different recipes for paella side-by-side and maybe do a blog post and a video about what I've learned, all of which may prepare me to come up with inspiring and fascinating possibilities for my very own creative interpretation of paella. But until I cook it up in a pan, it's not good to eat. 

You can put a man and a woman right next to each other but unless they make love, they aren't going to make a baby. Unless they use fertility technology, which sounds like about as much fun as MMC (test tube theater). 

You get the idea.

Nothing was created here. It was smart, clever (too clever by half), technically complicated and brilliantly executed. I can imagine that it was stimulating for the artists involved. But in the end, it was just an intellectual exercise, a technical study, an academic endeavor, produced on a very grand scale. No story was told, no characters were created or developed, and whatever was lovely or moving about it came from the individual plays and the valiant performances of actors trying to act while someone else on stage from a whole different play was talking. (Or singing. Ugh.) 

(For an example of a play that does create something while imaginatively placing canonical plays and characters in new situations, we thoroughly enjoyed The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, directed by Bill Rauch here at OSF in 2008.)

The pity is that we think there were a couple of really fine productions buried in MMC. I would love to see Madea staged. Jeffrey King and Christopher Liam Moore were amazing as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. Please stage that Macbeth. And while I don't have much interest in Cinderella, I'm looking forward to seeing much more of the actor who played her, Laura Griffith, and godmother K. T. Vogt later this week in Animal Crackers.

But here's my final word: I'm willing to have a clunker now and again (not too often...these tickets are expensive) if it means we also get plays like Party People and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler and Equivocation. Rauch is bringing OSF into the 21st century and clearly attempting to broaden its audience, and taking some risks to do so. And if this kind of exploration and study and experimentation helps Rauch and all the other artists involved do what they do so well (most of the time), then I'm all for it. But it's kind of like sausage-making. I just don't want to watch it.

MMC plays in the Angus Bowmer Theater at OSF through Nov. 4.