Sunday, April 28, 2013

Three Plays in Ashland

FOR A NUMBER of years, since September 2001 in fact, we've been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions in this southern Oregon town. Until last year, in fact, we'd be in residence for a solid week, sharing a rented house with three other couples, friends we've come to know pretty well in the course of attending plays, discussing them, agreeing, disagreeing, persuading, failing to persuade.

Alas, tempus fugit; that social habit has run its course, though we remain good friends back home in California. For some of us the Ashland experience has lost some luster. I've complained my own share, God knows, about a number of the productions. And for the first time in years, we're not seeing everything this year, not even close to everything.

We are making two trips on our own this year, returning in October for Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and two new plays. And this weekend we've seen three others, with varying degrees of success — ending, I'm happy to say, on an almost unqualifiedly high level.

Friday night we saw August Wilson's play Two Trains Running. We've now seen more than half his ten-play "Centennial" cycle of plays centering on the black experience in Pittsburgh, PA, one play set in each decade of the 20th Century. This is of course a significant cycle of plays, and some of them — notably Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — strike me as unequivocally successful, plays that deserve to stay in the active repertory.

To judge from the current OSF production, Two Trains Running is secondary. The sixth play in terms of order of completion, it's set rather statically, in a down-at-the-heels restaurant threatened with condemnation for an urban redevelopment project. It's 1969, and the bleak coalition of real-estate development and misguided cultural do-goodism has begun the final assault on the flourishing if marginalized black culture that flowered in the Harlem Renaissance and in other American cities from Baltimore to Portland.

In spite of one of OSF's major actors, Kevin Kenerly, who brought detail and energy to the role of Sterling, and Bakesta King's unforgettable portrayal of the waitress Risa, something seemed flat about the performance we saw Friday night. I think the fault lies in the script, which is oddly formulaic and abstract, lacking the memorable characterization of other Wilson plays. Tyrone Wilson was quite moving as the holy fool Hambone, and the rest of the cast did what they could with their lines and direction.

Lou Bellamy makes his OSF debut with this production: he's specialized in Wilson, directing more productions than any other director. He notes that Two Trains Running is true ensemble theater: "it refuses to allow the isolation of any one character." I see this as Wilson's most Chekhovian play; the ensemble depends on the "isolation" or, better, the detailing of each of these characters as they weave through the fabric of the dramatic situation. I suppose I should see another performance.

A FEW YEARS AGO OSF began a new annual feature: a musical is to be done on each year's program. The first out was Enter the Guardsman, and it was triumphant. So was She Loves Me, another neglected standard (based on the Molnar comedy The Shop Around the Corner). Other attempts have been less successful, including The Music Man and a disastrous vulgarization of The Pirates of Penzance.

This year's musical is an adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece My Fair Lady. I didn't want to see it, as it's being given with two pianos rather than the marvelous original orchestration, but I was roped into it. In the event, the piano transcription was reasonably successful (though the violin added every now and then was problematic, being flat far too much of the time). The real problem was the direction.

Amanda Dehnert apparently specializes in mistreating scripts. Last year she cast a woman in the title role of Julius Caesar, throwing in a Kabuki actress for good measure. This year — well, let her make her own case:
While there is something tidy in the relationship of the alive-ness of the theater (risk and reward) and the experience of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins (what they risk, lose, and gain), this tidiness bothers me. Life isn't neat and theatre isn't clean. Life is messy, so should theatre be…
But of course George Bernard Shaw's plays are the epitome of well made plays, and Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of Pygmalion into My Fair Lady is notoriously impeccable. The play is about artifice, and makes its point brilliantly by being artifice itself. It is never vulgar, or slapstick, or in our face, not even — perhaps not especially — in the sections depicting the, ahem, lower classes. Alfred P. Doolittle is, as Higgins says, a philosopher, not a clown.

The Alfred in this production wrestles with direction that belongs in a Vegas club, not an intelligent theater; and to his credit Anthony Heald salvages his role at the end of the night. David Kelly finds a sympathetic Pickering, too; and when he's not made to do incredibly stupid things, Ken Robinson gets more sympathy than the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill usually deserves.

Otherwise, the women provide the best moments in this production. I thought Rachael Warren was an unusually deep and thoughtful Eliza. The marvelously named Chavez Ravine was delightful as Higgins's mother; so was Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Freddy's.

Jonathan Haugen seemed miscast to me as Henry Higgins. Of course anyone in that role has to deal with the specter of Rex Harrison, whose inimitable way with the script and whose authority as an irascible charmer are virtually unique. Haugen enjoyed the role, and often found real character in it, but seemed smaller than this production, noisy and violent throughout, demanded.

O UR VISIT ENDED with a first-rate production and performance of another masterpiece, Tennessee Williams's 1949 A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, Christopher Liam Moore completely trusted the script, directing a performance relying on its insight and poetry and on the fine individual and ensemble acting of the four principals.

Danforth Comins, as dependable a trouper as OSF has, was a magnificent Stanley, balancing the pure animal with mental intensity. Nell Geisslinger was sympathetic throughout as Stella. Kate Mulligan grew throughout the performance as Blanche DuBois, propelling the fragility and fatigue of the opening scene toward the madness and overwhelming tragedy of the close. Jeffrey King found plenty of detail in the role of Mitch, elevating it to a level of dramatic importance almost as high as the other three.

There were problems: the music was too loud and demanding; the set a little unfocussed and fussy; the supporting roles of neighbors and poker-players a bit too strenuous. But the rest of the production, and the portrayals of the central quartet, were so well done those problems receded almost out of memory.

Moore's direction of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 2010, was haunting, powerful, and beautiful. This Streetcar was nearly as triumphant. I hope his work points the OSF future, and Miller's proves to be a momentary detour.

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Saturday, April 06, 2013

Iberia, 4: three encounters in Zamora

WE WERE LOOKING OUT over the river Douro, subsiding from last week's high water but still boiling along carrying a fair quantity of soil with it, brown and busy, though under fair blue skies and scudding clouds, when we heard a lot of shouting and carrying on behind us up the street.

Three boys, ten or twelve years old, came charging around a corner and down our way, too much involved in their own importance to recognize ours, or even, at first, register our presence at all. Our world was charged with distance and contemplation, memories and detail; theirs was apparently filled only with their own noise, and the immediacy of their moment, their presence.

It was funny, I thought; not that long ago, back at our hotel, watching with some relief as a busload of touring American teen-agers pulled away, we'd reflected that it was only the American youngster who was noisy and unheeding. In our comfortable hotel bar the Americans sat in twos and threes at tables meant for four, leaving us four to sit at the bar. Worse, imstead of comversing quietly at their tables, they called to one another at several tables' distance, making it impossible for us to talk among ourselves.

Spanish young people seemed brought up to be considerate, judging by those we saw in museums and restaurants. Removed from the presence of their elders, though, apparently, they are as rambunctious as any of ours. These three on a quiet street in Zamora, for example suddenly, though, they realized we were watching them, and they fell into a momentary confused and perhaps even embarrassed silence. Quickly, though, they had to save face.

The boldest of them addressed me, in Spanish, using the familiar tu: Turista! Are you German? No? Well, English then?

I told him politely that I came from California, but that my brother was Australian. They seemed to find that strange and amusing. They backed off and eyed us speculatively, heads at a bit of an angle. It felt like a moment out of Penrod and Sam, or Tom Sawyer.

Then the leader addresses me again: Do you want to see a strange thing, one of the local customs of Zamora? He broke into a fast shuffling dance-in-place for a couple of beats, then amazingly turned his back, dropped his pants, and looked at me from between his legs for an instant, before running full speed, pants hitched back up again, to the end of the street up the hill.

Bravo, I called to him, you looked just like one of the devils carved on a capital in the cloister! He seemed not to like that, for he picked up a stone about the size of a walnut and launched it at me quite accurately, hitting me on the leg.

I picked it up and made to throw it back at him, but all three had disappeared.

We turned back to our prospect, then walked on. After a few minutes, though, when we rounded a corner at another street, there they were again, coming our way. There were other men and women on this street, locals it seemed, and when they saw us they immediately turned tail and ran away, without making a sound. We never saw them again.
§ § §
NEXT MORNING we decided to visit the Museo de Semana Santa, to learn more about the Holy Week processions of penitents we'd been seeing, and to marvel at the huge, intricate, sumptuous, and amazingly lifelike sculptural groupings on the carros — "floats" being far too trivializing a word for them — that are carried through the crowded streets by up to forty men, all hidden from view beneath the platforms, also intricately carved, on which they stand.

Seeing a well-dressed rather purposeful man on the street as we walked in the general direction of the museum I asked for directions. I do this even on the rare occasion when I already know the route; I like the opportunity to hear the language, and to practice brutalizing it a bit myself.

It's just up the street a bit, he said, I'll show you; come with me, I"m going there myself. And so he was, and so we did; and then we spent an bour or so with perhaps fifty enormous carros, taking in the entire story of Holy Week, from the triumphant Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem, through the Garden, the Betrayal, the Crucifixion and ultimately the Ascension.

It's a long time since I studied these stories, sixty-five years at least, but they seem to have stuck with me. It was amazing how many details came back, and how much significance they could suggest, if I forgot about some of the other things I've learned since. The function of these tableaus and rituals was immediately clear: not only was I reminded individually of the religious teaching I'd received; I was also cemented, so to speak, into the society of all the Christians, lapsed or faithful, gathered around me.

And it wasn't only the carros and the penitents that had this effect. Paintings and sculptures in the churches perform the same office. I was never a very good student of the Bible, but a surprising amount of even the Old Testament comes back to me as I look at these paintings of Noah or Abraham or Lot and his daughters or Judith and her servant, just as the tapestries we saw elsewhere, rich depictions of Hector and Achilles, say, trigger recollections of long-forgotten details in the Iliad.

Several hours later, on our way back to the car, we met our helpful guide again. He called out something I didn't catch, and as we drew closer I apologized that I don't understand Spanish. Yes, you speak Spanish, he said. No, I said, I speak a very little Spanish, but I don't understand it. no comprendo Español.

Sí, comprende, he insisted, and went on, always in Spanish, asking us if we'd see, the Castillo, if we'd enjoyed it, if we didn't agree that his city was a very beautiful one.

Yes, I tried to say, we enjoyed everything about Zamora. Well except that there were some boys — jovenes — who seemed a little…

But Spanish failed me utterly at that point. incivil? he asked helpfully. Sí incivil, un poco, I answered, aand was glad I couldnt emember the words for "throw" and "rock."

Oh, well, los jovenes, theyre the same everywhere, the mn said; I'm glad you enjoyed our city; do come again…
§ § §
NEXT MORNING, on our way out of town, we stepped into a yardage-goods shop, attracted by the unusual fabrics displayed in the shop window. There was a faint and agreeable fragrance of good cigar in the air; I thought how nice a jacket cut from one of his woolens would be.

He seemed amused. That four tourists, obviously traveling without a sewing machine, would be so interested in his wares, and, smiling, asked us if we'd liked Zamora. I told him I was struck by the elegance of so many of the women we'd seen in the city; he seemed happy I'd noticed.

Somehow the subject of flamenco came up, and he quickly disavowed any local Interest in the art. The local dance was more a quick shuffle, first one foot, then the other, in place, without actually moving the upper body, exactly as the naughty boy had demonstrated, though with considerably more dignity. The man was a little hefty, in a sober, well-dressed way, and shuffled rather seriously; then smiled indulgently at himself, and self-deprecatingly at us.

The dance originated in imitation of the footwork of the torero, he explained. Ah, I said, is the bullfight still important here in Zamora?

He was a little incredulous. Yes, señor, of course, it is what makes us Spaniards. He expounded further, answering further questions. Yes, it is important to nearly all Spaniards, young, old, poor, well-to-to. Of course, there are some who object, there is the occasional demonstration, but it is a very small minority. He shrugged. There will always be some who refuse to belong, who reject their culture.

The corrida is central to our culture, he continued, it is what makes us Spaniards, has always been at our center and our roots. In every city there is the Plaza de Toros, and everyone can go there.

We got in the car and drove to the border, through beautiful heath in bloom, and thin pine forest that made me think of Arizona. I thought about Christianity, and the saints, the stories, tauromachia, cultural history, national pride and identity. The Spaniards sometimes speak of going to Europe on holiday. The Roman Empire, some of the time, seems more Spanish, or at least Iberian, than European. I think it best if all these cultures, and the cultural and historical moments that define them, are allowed their distinctions, allowed to coexist in mutual enrichment, like the differences in climate and terrain, from which they spring.

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Location:Rua da Alegria,Porto,Portugal