Tag Archives: Othello

Link: Imago’s gorgeous jealous fit

Rachael Parrell: the Desdemona dies twice. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

By Bob Hicks

The trouble with being a literary or theatrical icon is that you get into a loop, repeating yourself again and again and again. Think Captain Ahab’s going to catch that whale this time around and become a prosperous maritime merchant with a wife and brood of happy kids? Fat chance.

So, yes, poor Desdemona gets done in again. But because Imago Theatre‘s Stage Left Lost isn’t Othello, at least the circumstances change. And there’s some question about who actually done the deed. Jerry Mouawad’s “opera without words” is a brilliantly accomplished variation on Shakespeare’s themes, meaning that Mouawad and his collaborators aren’t bound by the ordinary rules of literary destiny. As compelling as the show’s emotional and psychological variations are, Stage Left Lost is even more a love letter to the conventions of the theater and a deft rethinking of its central elements: It reshuffles the balance among words (forget about ’em), movement and music to sometimes startling efect. And, of, yes: It puts the audience backstage — stage left, to be precise, from which vantage they view the action from inside out.

You really ought to give this one a shot. My complete review is in this morning’s Oregonian; pick it up in the dead tree version or link to it here.


Rachael Parrell: Desdemona dies twice. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Whose play is it, anyway? On authors and interpreters

Sartre's "No Exit" on the tilt, at Imago Theatre. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Sartre’s “No Exit” on the tilt, at Imago Theatre. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Who wrote that play?

I don’t mean, did the modestly talented actor Will Shakespeare really write all those great stageworks, or was he just a convenient front man for Edward de Vere or some other dandy of the ruling class?

I mean, is the production you just saw actually of the play the playwright intended, or did it get reinvented so much in production that it actually became something else?

Charles Deemer has been gnawing on that bone as it relates to Jerry Mouawad’s critically praised production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit at Imago Theatre — a production that places the actors on an intricately balanced platform that shifts with every movement, echoing the tensions and balances among the characters.

Portland playwright Deemer first raised his objections in an Oct. 18 post on his blog, The Writing Life II. “Imago usually does original work, and brilliantly so,” he wrote. “It does original work here — it’s just misnamed. This production needs a little truth in advertising. It’s not Sartre. It’s variations on themes developed by Sartre. It’s interesting. It’s engaging. It just isn’t what the playwright intended and, as a playwright, I think this needs to be said.”

Deemer then followed up with comments on Martha Ullman West’s recent Art Scatter post about No Exit and a clutch of dance performances. “Composers do variations on a theme all the time and own up to it,” he wrote. “… What if someone went to the theater wanting to see the wonderfully grim original? What’s wrong with grim and cynical anyway?”

Then he added:

Let’s say a director resurrects Christmas at the Juniper Tavern and puts all the actors on roller skates because s/he believes it depicts the fluidity of their life journeys. Would I be amused? Guess.

“Edward Albee once closed down a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because George and Martha were presented as a gay couple.

“I once had the opportunity to ask Arthur Miller what he thought of an all-black version of Death of a Salesman that was done here with Tony Armstrong in the lead. ‘This is not the play I wrote,’ he told me.

“An advantage of the business of playwriting, as opposed to the business of screenwriting, is that playwrights retain ownership of their work. You legally can’t make changes without permission. Consequently I’ve long suspected that many, perhaps most, directors prefer their playwrights dead.”

Theater fans aren’t as volatile as opera fans, and it’s the rage these days in opera circles to boo directors and designers for undermining the music with conceptual approaches. Theater directors have been doing that for years (often, as Charles points out, with the work of dead playwrights who can’t fight back) and are lauded for it.

Interpretation is huge in the theater. But where does interpretation stop and something related but fundamentally different begin? Sometimes it seems like directors and designers use pre-existing works like especially fertile junkyards, discarding what they don’t want and mining them for treasure they can turn into something of their own. Novelists do that sort of thing all the time. But John Gardner didn’t call his book Beowulf. He called it Grendel.

What’s the essence of a play? Is it words? Is it tone? Is it the look of the thing? Or does it shift with every play, according to the play’s own core and elasticity? Putting the actors on roller skates for Christmas at the Juniper Tavern would absolutely change the play into something else. It MIGHT not irrevocably alter The Comedy of Errors.

Continue reading Whose play is it, anyway? On authors and interpreters

Ashland report: fabulous cockroach, deadly deceiver

Sure, Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is a brilliant conception, one of the touchstones of 20th century thought. But when it comes to literary cockroaches, my heart belongs to Archy. A free-verse poet, an ink-stained wretch, a nervous moralist of the demimonde, an insect in love with a slatternly cat, Archy first saw the light of print in a 1916 column by New York Sun journalist Don Marquis, who stuck by the little fellow and his feline companion, Mehitabel, through hundreds of columns and a few book collections until Marquis’ death in 1937.

If The Metamorphosis is a comic nightmare vision of the dehumanizing essence of modern culture, Archy and Mehitabel is a sadly knowing comic ode to optimism, and as such, a much more American tale. Life on Shinbone Alley, the little fetid corner of New York where Archy and his pals hang out, has a mythic quality, and the myth that comes to mind is Sisyphus: always reaching for the top, always falling back into the same old muck, always dusting off and starting the journey again. For Mehitabel the sensualist, hope is just another alley cat away. For Archy the world-wise, despair and joy are almost the same thing, and like a Beckett character but with a good deal more joie de vivre, he can’t go on, yet on he goes.

Archy, as Marquis tells the tale, just showed up one night in the Sun newsroom and, choosing Marquis’ typewriter because the columnist seemed “a little less human” to him than most humans (a race with which he held little truck), proceeded to relate the stories of Shinbone Alley. To do this required a good deal of physical pain. Archy climbed onto the keyboard and flung himself headfirst onto the keys in order to type out his first-hand reports of life on the dangerous but always fascinating streets. He wrote everything in lower-case because he couldn’t hit both a letter key and the shift key at the same time. At least he didn’t have to worry about an editor, and that alone endeared him to the corps of semi-anonymous reporters who flung their own heads against the immutable forces of the newsroom in order to record straight the tragedies and comedies and everyday occurences of the strange boisterous brute that was the big city.

What brings Archy back to mind is a visit to the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, a spiffy space carved out of a onetime Baptist Church building just a couple of blocks away from the grounds of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The cabaret’s current show is a revival of Archy and Mehitabel, a lightly jazzy, hipsterish 1950s musical adaptation of Marquis’ columns. A sly fusion of the strain of sardonic optimism that flavored the United States of both the 1920s and the 1950s (decades in which a lively underworld put the lie to the official order of standardized moralism), Archy and Mehitabel provides a pleasantly raffish break from the shows at the Shakespeare festival and also fits neatly with them: After all, like the classics that the festival embraces, the enduring qualities of Marquis’ cockroach and cat are built upon a masterful scaffolding of words, words, words. (The festival and the cabaret have always enjoyed a sort of cross-fertilization of talent. In Archy and Mehitabel, stalwart festival actor Michael J. Hume is the highly effective taped voice of Don Marquis, setting the stage with brief interludes of narration.)

Continue reading Ashland report: fabulous cockroach, deadly deceiver