Saturday night after seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Petrouchka/Carmen double bill, with its anti-authoritarian Petrouchka (it’s amazing what one free puppet can do!), I hiked to the Max stop down Southwest Third Avenue. A few Portland Marathon people were looking over their preparatory work for the race on Sunday, and right next door, the Occupy Portland protesters were dancing on the one hand and entreating passing cars to honk in support of their cause on the other.
A few blocks down, I knew opening night of Gem of the Ocean, part of August Wilson’s profound dramatic investigation of African-American life over a full century, had opened in Portland’s version of the World Trade Center, courtesy of Portland Playhouse. So, cars were honking, crowds of various sorts were spilling onto the streets (and may I say that a ballet crowd dresses up nicely!), the tent camp was bustling and the bullhorn was intoning. And right there in the center of Portland’s downtown, I thought, “This is the middle of the middle.”
And then I thought about it all a second more, and I realized that Portland was wriggling and writhing, sometimes burrowing in and sometimes displaying its plumage, from the Sandy River to the foothills of the Coast Range and down the Willamette Valley to the roadhouses and theaters and pick-up bars along I-5. So the very idea of a “Weekend Wrap” made me laugh. There’s simply no way of getting my butcher paper around this much fish, let alone get it tied off.
But we digress…
No Man’s Land, Artists Repertory Theatre: In case you missed it, William Hurt is the star in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. This is his fourth play with ART (including last year’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), so the audience’s Hollywood gawk factor has subsided a bit, I think, and for me, anyway, the role of the down-and-out poet/hustler Spooner is a perfect one for him. Those Hurt mannerisms — from the sudden blurts of language to the back arched like a toreador — enliven Pinter’s bleak “comedy” considerably.
“Comedy” is in quotes, because though it has some very funny lines, it’s pretty sad stuff, full of sad characters and headed toward death, literally or figuratively. Yeah, Pinter is like that, but he wrote this play as his marriage to Vivien Merchant was dissolving (and before he’d made serious contact with Lady Antonia Fraser) and after an unsatisfying stretch of writing that included the screenplay of “The Last Tycoon.”
This particular production is physical, funny, depressing (in a good way), a bit menacing (necessarily), oddly balanced in an instructive way (primarily because Hurt endows the “weakest” character with so much power) and well-acted (Allen Nause, Tim True and Hurt’s son, Alex Hurt, join William onstage). It also comes with a surprising twist at the end that throws Pinter a little lifeline. Would Pinter himself have considered that just sentimental or would he have appreciated the gesture? I have no idea.
If you like your theater intense and dark and your comedy on the bitter side, “No Man’s Land” is for you — as it was for me.
Petrouchka/Carmen, Oregon Ballet Theatre: No, this isn’t a mash-up! OBT commissioned Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a new version of Petrouchka, which Sergie Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered 100 years ago with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Mikhail Fokine. And OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell himself took on Carmen. They both used the same ace design team of Mimi Lien, Mark Zappone and Michael Mazzola (sets, costumes, lights, respectively), so they shared some elements — big movable props/screens that shaped the stage and marked new scenes, dramatic lighting design, and of course the company of dancers, who looked fabulous on Saturday night, swift and exact and committed.
I thought Fonte had the better assignment. Two reasons: 1) American audiences are far less familiar with Petrouchka than Carmen; 2) No offense to Bizet, but Stravinsky’s score has far more textures and at the same time is less “specific,” for cultural reasons. So, Stowell is going to have to play with Spanish motifs (flamenco and bullfighting, for example) at least a little, because they are in the score. Fonte is freer to re-invent the story of the puppet who wants to be a real boy —oops, that’s Pinocchio! — er, man. And his adaptations are less likely to raise eyebrows (the villain of the original is a “Moor,” replaced here by an evil doppelganger of the puppet Petrouchka. He takes full advantage with a vividly conceived story told through a choreography that takes advantage of his talent for engaging large groups in interesting ways. And his use of Lien’s set is deeply integrated into the story.
Stowell’s primary gift is making duets, and so those are the best moments of his Carmen. He also really understand his dancers, so his choreography emphasizes the lightness and speed of Xuan Cheng, for example, and contrasts with the sensuality of Alison Roper, who plays Carmen.
I’m always going on about Roper, but, honestly, we are seeing a great dancer at the height of her career, both wise in the ways of dance and strong physically. While we’re handing out bouquets for dancing merit, I should mention Brian Simcoe as Petrouchka, Lucas Threefoot as his double and Yuka Iino as their love interest, then Chauncey Parsons as Don Jose, Brett Bauer as Escamillo and Artur Sultanov as both the Conjurer in Petrouchka and Death in Carmen.
Gem of the Ocean, Portland Playhouse: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean fits into the beginning of his 10-play cycle. It has the 287-year-old Aunt Ester, two characters who worked to free slaves via the Underground Railroad, an evil lawman/landowner who has turned against his people and his sister, a seance, a moral dilemma, a fire and a death. It also has a lot of talking, mostly about the nature and limitations of freedom, because it’s set close enough to the Civil War (1904) for African Americans to think about slavery as the condition of the parents, if not their own former condition.
This conversation comparing, for example, an economic system that tricks workers into a “contract” that in fact alienates their basic rights to slavery itself is painful. (I thought of the protesters in the park and our own financial system, which has failed us in so many crucial ways, not to get into a political debate or anything — theater invites us to think along with it, after all.) And I have no idea how current it was in 1904, though I suspect it was VERY current indeed. “You can put the law on the paper but it don’t make it right,” Aunt Ester says at one point, and the play is partly an investigation of laws that aren’t right and the obligations the free man and woman has living in a society full of bad laws.
Portland Playhouse and director Brian Weaver have gathered some of city’s very best African American actors for this production: Brenda E. Phillips as Aunt Ester, Andrea White as Black Mary, Kevyn Morrow as Solly Two Kings, Vin Shambry as Citizen Barlow and Kevin Jones as the villainous Caesar Wilks. They enter Wilson’s language play and turn it into flesh and blood (though that’s implied by the text, too), and pretty soon, I felt as though I was luckily overhearing some crucial oral history.
Zugzwang, Imago Theatre: Since 2009, Jerry Mouawad has made five of what he calls “Opera Beyond Words,” meaning scriptless movement pieces that tell a story. Which I suppose you could call “dance,” except that they don’t really come out of a dance tradition. They are closer to mime, but more abstract maybe. The first of these was the brilliant “Apis,” set in a military prison/bees nest. Really, yes, you had to be there.
Zugzwang (it’s a technical chess term, though Mouawad uses it to mean a situation in which there are no good choices) reminded me of the poker scenes in the James Bond thriller Casino Royale and the caper comedy Ocean’s 11, with the wonderful Greg Bielemeier playing Bond and George Clooney. Mouawad and company (which also includes Imago’s co-artistic director Carol Triffle) have choreographed a couple of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra songs, devised a couple of high-stakes poker games, constructed a labyrinth that leads to a chamber protected by lasers and created an operating room, all in the same story.
Will Bielemeier get out of this alive? What hand is he really holding? Will it matter? And can Mouawad keep your attention for this story-with-no-words? Well, he certainly kept mine.
I’m going to be getting back to several of these shows on Oregon ArtsWatch during the next few days. Join me there, if you like?