Tag Archives: Horton Foote

Watching paint dry? Taking my Foote out of my mouth

From left: Val Landrum, Jane Fellows and Jacklyn Maddux in "The Carpetbagger's Children" at Profile Theater. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

Here’s a story about the playwright Horton Foote, told by his daughter Daisy Foote and reprinted in the program for Profile Theatre‘s new production of his play The Carpetbagger’s Children, which opened Saturday night:

A few years ago a playwright friend and I were having dinner with my father. My friend had just seen “The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Lincoln Center Theater, and he casually asked my dad how long it took him to write the play. My father, even more casually, answered that it took him all of ten days. At that point, my friend looked like he might throw up all over the table and I might start crying, so my father took pity on us and added, “But I had been thinking about it for a very long time.”

Well, of course.

Stories take time — a lifetime, sometimes — and the actual setting down of them can be simply the culmination of a very long process, the plucking of the fruit from a tree that took years to mature and finally produce. It’s a little like the oft-told story of the “overnight success” that took twenty years to achieve.

But in Foote’s case (he died last March, 10 days shy of his 93rd birthday) it’s not just a matter of long experience bringing forth a story. It’s a matter of long experience in learning how flexible the theater can be, too. The Carpetbagger’s Children, for all its apparent traditionalism, breaks all sorts of rules about the stage — and it breaks them exceptionally because it’s learned the exceptions to the rules.

This is a memory play, and it’s told by three actresses, and “told” is the correct word: They take turns delivering long, carefully wrought soliloquies, speeches that overlap in theme and content (told by each sister from a slightly different point of view) but never overlapping in delivery. There is no dialogue, no pretension of ordinary conversational speech patterns, no give and take, except in the incidental clashes in the way the stories are told.

How could something so “undramatic” be so gripping? Because Foote knew story, and he knew the surprising elasticity of the theater, and he trusted that good performers would know how to bring life into the words that he put down. Remember, this is the guy who wrote the screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. Not ordinary tales. But that’s the beauty of the things.

I once commented in exasperation that watching a Horton Foote play was like watching paint dry. I don’t think I ever actually wrote those words for print, which is a good thing. I don’t even remember what particular incident inspired them. It must have been, I can only hope, a particularly ham-fisted production of one of his plays. Because although nothing much “happens” in a Foote play, at least in the sense of slam-bang Hollywood action, worlds turn, as they do in Chekhov.

The director of Profile’s production, Jon Kretzu, has a longtime affinity for Chekhov, and it shows in the way these three able actresses turn softly (and sometimes harshly) on a dime. If the journeys they take are largely internal, they have external effects. This is the story, in a way, of a Southern empire crumbling, more quietly than the crumbling empire of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which opens in revival later this month at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) but crumbling nonetheless. And that’s a fascinating, troubling, sometimes even exciting thing to see.

Briefly: A young Union soldier, fighting against the Confederates in Texas during the Civil War, likes what he sees and comes back, after the war, as a reconstructionist. Through shrewd business dealings and the aid of the triumphant Republican apparatus, he amasses a fortune in money and land, which he considers his offsprings’ duty to hold together. It’s up to sisters Cornelia (Jane Fellows), Grace Anne (Jacklyn Maddux) and Sissie (Val Landrum) to achieve that as the decades roll on.

Well, they can’t. Surprised? But the effort shapes each, and several other characters alluded to, in intense and often warping ways. That’s the way of the world. And without going into more detail, the plain old brutal way of the world is what the play’s about.

With Tim Stapleton’s simple but familiarly domestic in-the-round setting and DeeDee Remington’s spot-on costumes, it’s a handsome production. The three stars settle with warm fury into their characters. Nothing much “happens” except life and death themselves.  And paint does not dry.


PICTURED: Val Landrum (left), Jane Fellows (center) and Jacklyn Maddux: the carpetbagger’s daughters. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

Saturday scatter: too little time, too much to do

Josh Kornbuth brings a contemporary edge to Ben Franklin. Photo: Owen Carey

Josh Kornbluth bringing a dash of deceptive comedy to Founding Father Ben Franklin in his solo show in Portland Center Stage’s basement. Photo: Owen Carey

We have truly entered fall, and it’s not just the fireplace weather that tips me off. The sad truth is, suddenly Portland’s jumping with things to do, and Mr. and Mrs. Scatter just can’t jump high or fast enough.

We’ll miss the great Mikhail Baryshnikov and dancing partner, Ana Laguna, and we feel very bad about that. Our friend and cohort Martha Ullman West filed this terrific review of the White Bird show in this morning’s Oregonian.

Just last night we missed several one-time-only musical opportunities: the Portland Jazz Orchestra‘s Buddy Rich show; Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya; the promising-looking Paris Guitar Duo; Portland Vocal Consort‘s evening of Handel and Haydn.


We did see monologuist Josh Kornbluth’s opening-night performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged in the intimate basement space at Portland Center Stage, and given that you can’t see everything, it was a pretty good choice. Kornbluth and Ben will be playing the basement stage through Nov. 22, and I hope they get a good, packed run.

Kornbluth seems a little bit like a more extroverted, less dyspeptic Wally Shawn. He plays the nebbish role to the hilt, borrowing freely from Borscht Belt comic history and the vein of intellectual New York Jewish-radical neorosis that Woody Allen mines so freely. Starting with comic traditions that have served entertainers as diverse as Mort Sahl, Buddy Hackett and Neil Simon so well, he transforms them into a seemingly free-flowing riff that eventually doubles back on itself and makes structural sense.

To hear Kornbluth tell it, he became interested in old Ben when he looked into the mirror one day, inspected his receding hairline, and realized he’d come to look like the Founding Father. So why not do a show about him?

Like a lot of successful one-person shows, Ben Franklin: Unplugged takes its audience on a dual journey: one into the psyche and obsessions of the performer himself, the second into the performer’s discoveries about his external subject — in this case, Ben.

The link is fathers and sons: Kornbluth’s unresolved relationship with his own father, who died when Kornbluth was in college, and Franklin’s tortured relationship with his illegitimate but favored son William, who seemed the apple of his eye until the two took opposite sides on the issue of the Revolutionary War: the father the unrepentant radical, the son the extreme and sometimes ruthless loyalist.

Along the way Kornbluth creates a marvelous supporting character in the aged, accidental scholar Claude and unearths little pieces of fascinating biography in search of “my own Ben Franklin.” The wry blend of famous-man biography and obscure-entertainer autobiography makes for an engaging evening.


Other stuff to keep you eyes on:

La Boheme. Tonight is the final performance of Portland Opera‘s lively, fresh and winning production of the Puccini favorite, which Art Scatter wrote about here.

A Chorus Line. Musical-theater history at Stumptown Stages. How does this groundbreaking backstage show hold up after 34 years? Mr. Scatter will be there tonight to find out.

The Trip to Bountiful. Profile Theatre kicks off its season of plays by Horton Foote, who died last spring just shy of his 93rd birthday and who is perhaps best-known for his superb screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Becky’s New Car. Steven Dietz’s comedy opened last week at Artists Rep, but I haven’t caught it. I like Dietz, though: He’s been turning out good, well-shaped plays for regional theaters for many years.

A Country Doctor. Somehow Defunkt Theatre‘s season opener slipped past me. I don’t know this play — it’s an interpretation of the Kafka story — but it’s by Len Jenkin, another writer who’s always worth a shot.

Jon Kimura Parker and the Oregon Symphony. Pianist Parker performs Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and the orchestra plays Bartok’s Divertimento for string and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1 in what could be a bell-ringer of a season-opening concert series Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Symphony violist Charles Noble, on his music blog Daily Observations, was enthusiastic about rehearsals.

Haochen Zhang. This year’s Van Cliburn winner plays Ravel, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Mason Bates in a Portland Piano International performance at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Newmark.

San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble. Don’t know this touring group, but the program of Latin American sacred music sounds intriguing. 7:30 Saturday at University of Portland‘s Buckley Center, 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Salem.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The Southwest troupe performs pop-savvy Twyla Tharp’s Sue’s Leg at a White Bird performance Wednesday in the Schnitz.