Theatre News - Criticism: March 2008 Archives
In early February, a student veterans' group at the University of Oregon produced a show that was very much based on "reality," a show that might be called a work of nonfiction. The play, called Telling, featured the stories of the actors and other veterans who were students at the UO. More than 20 student vets spent the summer talking about their experiences with two writers (one staff member and one grad student). The students then took a fall-quarter course on stage movement and acting with the chair of the theater department, who signed on to direct the play. They started off winter quarter with intense rehearsals of the script the playwrights produced. The play ran for three performances in Eugene's Veterans' Memorial Hall (where Ken Kesey used to hang out, back in the day, or so they say).
Some of the veterans who acted in Telling were anti-war when they entered the service, and some are anti-war now (but certainly not all of them). Some of them didn't serve in Iraq or Afganistan. Their politics aren't cohesive, and there's a range of ages, experience levels and backgrounds. They told me that the recorded play would eventually be up on their website (though I haven't found it yet), where you can also read more about each actor and her background, should you want to.
I wrote a cover story in advance of the play for my paper. I attended three or four rehearsals, read the script and interviewed the students, the playwrights, the director and a writer who acted as a "consultant" for the process. Though the play itself had a variety of rough moments -- thanks to the demands of melding two dozen veterans' stories into some sort of narrative to be performed by 10 people, few of whom had any acting experience -- I found the entire experience both infuriating and moving.
A week and a half ago, journalist David Wright published an essay about the play on Inside Higher Ed. Although in my piece I record two actors jokingly referring to taking the play to D.C., I now hear this may not have been a mere rumor. And the goal of the playwrights and some of the student veterans is to export the model to other campuses -- to help other student veteran groups find some way to connect with the rest of campus. I'm glad they're getting some national attention for this process of producing art as a way to build community dialogue, But as a theater reviewer, I wonder if I have been in some way spoiled by my immersion in this story for other plays about the Iraq War.
Vasantasena (center, Miriam A. Laube) jests with her servant Madanika (Eileen DeSandre) and her confidant Libertine (Tyrone Wilson). Photo by David Cooper.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival first opened its doors in 1935, when English prof Angus Bowmer ran three performances in a "festival" over the Fourth of July weekend, two of Twelfth Night and one of The Merchant of Venice. WIth a hiatus for WWII, the festival has been running since then. Funny story about the first one, recounted at every Backstage Tour (the backstage tour is most tremendously fun; I've been on, I think, four so far and will go again this year): The city government worried that the Shakespeare plays wouldn't make any money and decided to run a boxing match during the day to make up for projected Shakespeare losses. Ennnh! (Buzzer sound.) The boxing match lost money; the plays made money -- and the plays bailed out the boxing losses.
The OSF runs 11 plays (four Shakespeare and seven by contemporary or "classic" playwrights) a season, in rep, on three stages, with 783 total performances during the February-November runs (not all plays run at all times). There aren't usually boxing matches although, of course, any production of As You Like It contains the Orlando v. Charles wrestling match. Ashland's just off of I-5, 3 hours south of Eugene and about 5-6 hours (your mileage may vary) north of the Bay Area. It's 19 miles from the California border, and most of the OSF's patrons come from Cali (something like 45 percent, with 35-40 percent from Oregon), so it's no surprise that many of the plays (last year's Tracy's Tiger and Distracted and this year's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, for instance) contain many, many California references. The audiences laugh a lot; Oregonians like me get annoyed but understand. You can see clips and listen to longer info pieces here.
In any case, info dump aside, the OSF has never produced a "non-Western" play. Not as in non-Gunsmoke or something, but as in non-Western-literature play. Until now.
I had to laugh out loud when, after a brilliant "Daily Show" segment on Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race, Jon Stewart dropped the yuks for a moment and said (to paraphrase): "And so it is that a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as if they were adults." Stewart hit the nail on the head. Although I haven't had a chance to watch Obama's speech in its entirety yet, from what I have seen, it was an honest, direct and nuanced attempt to grapple with a complex problem.
All of this leads me to something I had meant to blog about a couple of weeks ago, when I saw a preview performance of Madison Repertory Theatre's current show, Thomas Gibbons' "Permanent Collection." The show blends art-world and racial politics as Sterling North, a black corporate exec, takes on the directorship of the Morris Foundation, which houses a priceless collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, as well as some little-displayed African art. North's desire to incorporate more of the African pieces into the displays rankles the museum's white director of education, and controversy ensues.
After the preview-night show, I felt invigorated in way that, frankly, I rarely do when leaving the theater. Sure, there are good plays to be seen in Madison, but this seemed to me an almost perfect blend of entertainment with meaty ideas. The production was fiery, at times funny and offered characters with real moral complexity. It's a play on race and culture that treats the audience as if they were adults, capable of seeing the merits of each character's position from shifting angles.
I was previously unfamiliar with this play, and I'm glad Madison Rep chose to make it a part of its season. Madison is a changing city but its older generations - you know, the people who are more likely to go to professional theater - are largely white. We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened, progressive place, and to a good extent I think Madison is, but anyone who doesn't believe that they have blind spots regarding race is probably fooling themselves. In that way, I thought Madison's Rep choice of this play was especially well suited to its community. Being entertained and being made to think - in equal measure - is, for me at least, a perfect night at the theater. And if art, as well as political speeches, can move forward our national dialogue on race, I think this is the sort of play that can accomplish that.
For some local reviews of Madison Repertory Theatre's production of "Permanent Collection," see Isthmus, the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal. The show runs through March 30 at the Overture Center for the Arts.