Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Category: Theater (Page 2 of 11)

Roe at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A dramatic look back at the shifting truths of history

Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Lisa Loomer’s starkly named new play Roe, which opened in April and runs through the season in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s indoor Bowmer Theatre, tells the story of America’s abortion wars through the eyes of two principal characters, both women.

They are Roe herself, a woman actually named Norma McCorvey, and a lawyer named Sarah Weddington who represented Roe when she wanted to have an abortion and Texas law wouldn’t allow her to have one. They were the winning side in the landmark 1970s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave women the right to have an abortion in this country.

Already this is beginning to sound depressingly like a history lesson, and, I have to say, much of the play, which I saw over the weekend, is a history lesson, and this is not among the play’s virtues. Directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, Roe is stilted and preachy in places, but it saves itself by telling an engaging story – definitely from today’s point of view – about the two women.

Weddington, played crisply by Sarah Jane Agnew, is a young attorney who has never argued a contested case when she is introduced to her new client. McCorvey, played by Sara Bruner, is a hard-edged 21-year-old lesbian who is pregnant, for the third time, and claiming that she was raped.

The dramatic armature of Roe grows out of the relationship between the two women, which is variously exploitative, mistrustful and antagonistic. Weddington sees McCorvey as less a human being than as necessary element for her legal battle; McCorvey, for her part, keeps changing her own account of the case and her role in it.

The play’s main strengths are its agile shifts in point of view, allowing us to examine a moment in history from rapidly shifting perspectives; characters from lawyers to Supreme Court justices talk wryly to the audience about their own obituaries — these events took place so long ago that many of the players are now dead.

The battle, though, is largely predictable, and we know from a myriad of cues which side we are to cheer for (and, in fact, the audience spent much of the performance I saw cheering like football fans for the pro-choice side of the debate).

But Loomer’s tale touches only lightly on the underlying class-war issues involved in the case. McCorvey and her subsequent friends in the pro-life movement – yes, the plaintiff actually changed sides in real life – are, in Roe, always the ones with bad haircuts and drinking problems.

As Roe wraps up, we are treated to a frightening litany of the ways in which the protections of Roe v Wade have been nullified as states have exploited exceptions in the decision. This civics lesson is as dramatically dull, though, as it is politically significant.

The action takes place on a beautiful spare set by Rachel Hauck, making good use of video projections by Wendall K. Harrington.

Roe is one of OSF’s American Revolutions series of new plays commissioned about U.S. history – the same project that brought us the Tony winning All the Way. I don’t see this one headed for Broadway, but it’s an important story, well enough told.

The Winter’s Tale sizzles with icy beauty to finish opening weekend at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A ravishing production of The Winter’s Tale capped off a busy summer opening weekend in Ashland Sunday night at the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, where — for the first time in days — the weather was practically balmy even when the show wrapped up at 11 p.m.

Directed by Desdemona Chiang, with scenic design by Richard L. Hay, the show is utterly striking in its visual separation of Sicilia, the kingdom where the story begins, and Bohemia, where its resolution begins to be played out. In this show, Sicilia is depicted as a formal and austere Chinese Han dynasty court, with the actors all Asian-Americans, while Bohemia is an ahistorical American redneck-hippie setting with bluegrass music and where anything goes.

This sounds artificial, possibly ridiculous, on paper. On stage it works exceedingly well. As the lights come up on what appears to be an empty Elizabethan stage, a gray curtain is closed, and when it’s pulled back again we find the first spare elements of the court of King Leontes (Eric Steinberg), in which he and his wife, Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) are entertaining Polixenes (James Ryen), the king of Bohemia.

And, right off, Hermione’s nearly flirtatious friendliness with Polixenes is already driving a wedge into Leontes’ heart, setting up the tragedy of the play: Her imprisonment and death on account of the king’s unjustified jealousy.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays: A plot so weird it’s impossible to defend, transitioning in a heartbeat from a dark, psychological drama of love and jealousy into a comic and upbeat ending. And yet, it’s one of my favorites, if only because of its weirdness.

This production shines and almost makes sense out of the story; it doesn’t hurt at all that the production is so gorgeous to look at, whether we are in Han Sicily or redneck Bohemia.

Miriam Laube, who played Hermione when the festival last did the show ten years ago, directed then by Libby Appel, does a strong turn here as Paulina, Hermione’s firecely loyal maid.

Two classically odd scenes in The Winter’s Tale absolutely shine in this production. First there’s that famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” This bear, let me tell you, is about as big as they come.

And the final scene, in which a statue of Hermione comes back to life, setting up the happy ending, is like stepping into a rich fairy tale. Go see this one and prepare to be awed.




The Wiz: A missed opportunity at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tinman in The Wiz / Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Though plenty of other people did, I didn’t much like The Wiz, which opened last night and runs through October 15 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. While earnest and well enough presented, this revival of the 1975 Tony Award winner lacked a clear reason for landing here in 2016.

The play is an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s famous book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and subsequent blockbuster movie The Wizard of Oz, setting that white, white story in a black idiom. At its best – according to past reviews – the show has worked as an anthem of hope for the African-American community. The production history is interesting: The Wiz nearly shut down for lack of audience until its producers mounted a successful marketing campaign aimed at African-Americans; that led to a four-year run and a blizzard of awards.

None of this cultural background is apparent, though, in the show I saw last night, which seemed deliberately unconscious of its own lineage. It was presented on the big Elizabethan stage without even a semblance of a set – budget problems at OSF? – except for a series of lava-lampish video projections that covered the Globe facade. At times the show felt so small it was like a very clever high school production that had inexplicably landed in a giant venue.

The songs – the best known is Ease on Down the Road – are done in that broad ballad style, with over the top vibrato, that is now familiar from every aspiring young singer who tackles the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game. The singers are all miked, and the sound last night was a blur of over amplification, like listening to a very loud radio.

The best thing to be said for this Wiz is that the costumes, by Dede M. Ayite, are thoroughly fabulous, from the gold lamé dance outfits that channel the Yellow Brick Road to the roly poly, brightly colored munchkins to various darker and more brooding creatures of Oz. The Tin Man is mildly steampunk, the Lion is sultry and leonine, and the Scarecrow is – well, fabulous.

Ashley D. Kelley plays the role of Dorothy with a nice combination of tenderness and bravado. (She will be replaced by Britney Simpson from August 18 to the end of the season.)

J. Cameron Barnett is a loose-limbed, brainless Scarecrow, Christiana Clark plays the cowardly Lion as Nina Simone might have, and OSF veteran Rodney Gardiner, as the heartless Tinman, turned in the best vocal performance of the evening with his What Would I Do if I Could Feel.

Robert O’Hara directs, with musical direction by Darcy Danielson and choreography by Byron Easley. Christopher Acebo is scenic designer, and video design is by Jeff Sugg.

A small annoyance: The frequent wild whoops and over the top applause from company members salted throughout the audience last night often seemed forced when the rest of the crowd was clapping rather more moderately. Let it go, folks. We can figure it out on our own.

The Wiz, in many ways, was the Hamilton of its day, taking an iconic whitebread American story and making it more broadly inclusive. It’s too bad the show I saw last night missed the opportunity to reflect on its own cultural heritage.

Hamlet a winner at OSF opening, heavy metal guitar, ghosts and all

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) descends into madness to a post-metal soundtrack. / Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) descends into madness to a post-metal soundtrack. / Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The best review I can offer of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new production of Hamlet, which opened the summer season last night on the Elizabethan Stage in Ashland, is this: It rained and rained and rained, and it was cold, and I didn’t see anyone get up and leave before the entire three-hour outdoor show was over.

It was that good.

Billed, a little hopefully, as a “ghost story,” which of course Hamlet always is, the production, directed by Lisa Peterson, is a fairly conventional telling of the tragedy, with a bit of a loud metal sound track laid over the script, a few broad stage effects, and a very fine lead performance.

The ghost scenes, involving the dead king, might work better later in the season, when they’ll be played out in the dark, where ghosts belong.

In the tale, young Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, encounters the ghost of his recently dead father, who tells him that his death, far from natural, was murder – by his uncle, Claudius, who has already assumed the throne and married the queen.

Welcome to the original dysfunctional aristocratic family.

Under the pressure of his youthful indecision – Avenge his father’s death? Or not? (And we all know the speech this leads into) – Hamlet descends into strange madness.

It is this madness in Hamlet, as portrayed by OSF veteran Danforth Comins, that pulls the play right along, much more so than the visual effects or the dark post-metal music, as good as it is.

Comins’ Hamlet, so young and so vulnerable as the play opens, only gradually spins off the rails of sanity, becoming just slightly flakier with each appearance until that emotionally gruesome scene where he so alienates his girlfriend, the fragile Ophelia, with his offensive humor that she soon drowns herself.

Guitarist Scott Kelly, founder of the Oakland metal band Neurosis, provides the brooding soundtrack from a prominent nest in the theater facade just above the action. (He also steps into the play itself as a gravedigger in the Yorick scene.) His guitar work, rough and often shapeless, provides a sonic window into Hamlet’s state of mind.

Michael Elich and Robin Goodrin Nordli make a fine, chilling couple as Claudius, the fratricidal new king, and Gertrude, the disloyal queen. Their mutual understatement of their roles emphasizes the basic, quiet evil – the thing that is rotten in this state of Denmark – that drives the play to its bloody conclusion.

Derrick Lee Weeden is a wonderfully pompous Polonius, spouting aphorisms by the bushel until his accidental killing by Hamlet.

Jennie Greenberry is a refreshingly different Ophelia. The role is so often played as a wispy, almost whiny character, making you wonder exactly what it is that Hamlet sees in her. Greenberry plays her with solid verve, a woman worthy of a prince.

The overall look of the play – simple set by Laura Jellinek, generic monochrome costumes by David C. Woolard– is spare to the point that it whispers budget cuts rather than artistic vision. The lighting, by Japhy Weideman, is interesting, relying a lot on follow spots, which occasionally pop the show into a vaudeville dimension, sometimes heightened by Comins’ use of a floor microphone as though he’s become a slightly cheesy cruise ship entertainer.

The best of those microphone moments comes in the famous soliloquy. Rather than say the words himself, Hamlet handed off the mic to a woman in the front row of the audience. “To be or not to be!” she said, and the audience roared.

I’ve seen Hamlet a bunch of times. This production, post-metal music, too much fog, ghosts and all, did the best job I can recall of laying out the entire, slow-burn tragedy in its steady and inevitable sadness.

Off to Ashland. Bringing rain gear. And an update on the Shakespeare translation project.


OK, this was not the weather forecast I was hoping to see the day before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens a new batch of plays in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre this weekend.

Did I mention outdoor? As in, exposed to the sky, the moon… the rain? From bitter experience, I’ve learned to pack for the summer openings in Ashland as though equipping myself for a backpacking trip in the mountains. This trip — see all that rain marked on the chart for Friday? — will be no exception.

On the sunny side, there are all those plays. At the Elizabethan Theatre, assuming I don’t succumb to hypothermia, I’ll be seeing Hamlet Friday night, The Wiz Saturday night, and The Winter’s Tale on Sunday night.

Directed by Lisa Peterson, Hamlet appears to be a straight-up production of the classic, sword play and all. The Wiz is directed by guest director Robert O’Hara, whose website I like because it calls his bio page “dirt.” Finally, Desdemona Chiang, who’s been with OSF for three seasons, is directing The Winter’s Tale; this is probably the outdoor production I’m most looking forward to seeing, as the play itself is so strange. It’s her directing debut at the festival.

I’ll also be picking up two other shows whose openings I missed: Vietgone, directed by May Andrales, and Roe, directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch. Vietgone is in the small Thomas Theatre; Roe is in the Bowmer.

Meanwhile, I checked in with Lue Douthit, the veteran festival dramaturg who is heading up the slightly controversial Play On! project, in which OSF — based on a grant — is hiring 36 playwrights to rewrite the entire Shakespeare canon into contemporary English.

Here’s what she had to say:

Play On! is steadily approaching our one year anniversary! We are so excited to report that the project is well under way. Our playwrights are all busily writing, aided by their trusty dramaturgs, as we all work toward the first deadline of the project. First drafts of the translations are due on October 31, 2016. Many of our playwrights have also jumped ahead of the schedule and are well on their way. We’ve had many exciting readings and workshops as we continue to develop these scripts. We expect that 2017 will be our busiest year in this three-year commitment as we attempt to produce developmental readings for all of these plays.

We have also had the joy of seeing one of these scripts in production as Orlando Shakespeare Theatre produced Ellen McLaughlin’s translation of Pericles in February of this year. In the spring of 2017 audiences at the University of Utah will have the opportunity to see Tim Slover’s translation of Two Noble Kinsmen, and plans are underway for a possible production of Kenneth Cavander’s translation of The Tempest at a major Shakespeare festival sometime in 2017. We have received many inquiries from various theatres around the world looking to play a role in developing this work, and we are excited to be partnering with many of them. In September we will be welcoming 12 of our playwright and dramaturg teams to Ashland for a three-day convening to share and discuss the work of Play On!. So far, OSF has engaged roles for 192 actors, 9 directors, 12 producers, 13 stage managers in 16 workshops and readings and one production at 15 different professional and educational theatre institutions in 10 cities across America. Including our 36 playwrights and 37 dramaturgs, we’ve engaged more than 290 people in paid positions so far. With the bulk of work still ahead of us, we are excited to watch that number continue to rise.

So, I asked, will we be enjoying any of these new plays in Ashland any time soon?

In regard to seeing these translations on stage at OSF…we don’t know! We plan our seasons so far in advance (planning for the 2018 season is about to begin) and so many of these scripts will not be completed for another two years. We do plan to have staged readings for the public of some of these scripts. There is a staged reading of Kenneth Cavander’s translation of Timon of Athens in the works for this fall that will be open to the public. More details will be released about that soon. But as for when or if OSF will be producing any of them in full remains to be seen. We certainly hope to see one or two up on its feet for audiences at some point! But as an organization we are very much committed to producing Shakespeare in the original language, so any production of these translations would be in addition to the Shakespeare we produce and not as a replacement. Stay tuned for more!

OK, I have to go pack my rain gear now.








Scapino! brings zany comedy to Cottage Theatre


Tony Rust is a downright masterful comic actor. He could make your prim aunt Bertha wet her pants with his fluid, zany antics on stage, and he might possibly even raise a laugh from the dead, so long as the dead were at least a little bit fond of physical comedy.

But don’t take my word for it. Go see Rust’s terrific performance as the lead in the comedy Scapino!, which opened tonight and runs through June 26 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove.

The play, written in 1974 by Frank Dunlop with help from Jim Dale, is a contemporary adaptation of a 17th century Moliere farce in the broad Commedia dell’arte tradition. Don’t for a moment let that historical stuff scare you off.

Basically this play is a convoluted sit-com about Scapino, a wily streetwise trickster, and his insane, corrupt machinations to save the love lives of two young couples in their rough waterfront home in Italy.

Farce is funny, and done right it’s brilliant, with jokes piling on so fast you run out of breath laughing. And in the second act of this slightly uneven show, Rust pulls out all stops in a lengthy side-splitting scene in which he continuously beats up Geronto (Mark Allen), the corrupt father of one of the friends, who is hiding in a sack from imaginary enemies.

To create those enemies, Rust channels a wild combination of Robin Williams impersonations and John Cleese absurdities in a relentlessly quick stream-of-consciousness session that repeats the same schtick three times, the last time with the audience’s delighted connivance. The play is worth seeing for this scene alone.

But don’t skip the rest.

Sixteen-year-old Kyle Carrillo-Enders was a stand-out as Sylvestro, a sidekick. That kid’s got a future in theater. Randall Brous, as Leandro, and Jon Deline, as Ottavio, are well matched as the two friends with love and money troubles.

Amber Brower does a fine job as Giacinta, the apple of Ottavio’s eye, as does Tracy Nygard as Zerbinetta, the apple of Leandro’s.

George Comstock is making his directorial debut with this show, and he pulls it off, with some problems. The main trouble is that farce requires perfect timing, and the pacing was muddled in places tonight, though more often it came together splendidly.

The waterfront set, by Comstock and Alan Beck, is cleverly done, with multiple levels through which the action can race – and on which Natalie Tichenor can dazzle the audience with her skills as a roller skating waitress.

Spamalot cooks right along at Very Little Theatre

Screenshot from 2016-05-26 22:40:37

Why is Spamalot so darned funny? The original movie is as old as avocado appliances and shag carpeting. Like almost everything else from the 1970s, it should by all rights feel awkward and out of date when done today.

The Broadway musical, of course, is new, after a fashion. The stage version was patched together in 2004 from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so it’s more or less contemporary while still maintaining the British comedy troupe’s deep sense of absurdity.

For whatever reason, Spamalot still works and works wonderfully, as you can see for yourself through June 5 at Eugene’s Very Little Theatre. The VLT is doing a straight-up version of the musical, with all our favorite characters — the quadruple amputee Black Knight (as in, “Twas just a scratch!”), the Knights of Ni, and the Lady of the Lake. Not to mention those splendid Python tunes, from “Not Dead Yet” to my all-time favorite, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Oh yes — and dancing girls and a killer rabbit.

Chris Pinto directs a big cast for this show, which is as good-hearted as it is funny; in fact, maybe that good-heartedness is the biggest change in seeing Python humor after a few decades of exposure — what one seemed so darkly subversive years ago is now sweet and belly-laugh funny. No matter. Pinto’s pacing is even, if sometimes slightly bland; let’s just say he doesn’t stand in the way of a good joke, and that’s just fine.

Shawn Bookey plays a creditable King Arthur, who is off in search of the Holy Grail in this medieval drama; Fehmi Sami Yasin is charming as Sir Galahad. Jennifer Parks is a perfectly sultry and brazen Lady of the Lake, a character  who swings into meta mode now and then to complain about getting enough exposure in the show; she also does a perfect parody of an over-the-top amateur singer, the one we’ve heard belt out so many national anthems over the years.

My favorite of a very good cast was Michael P. Watkins, as Patsy, Arthur’s horse; Watkins has just the right bland expression to pull off the Monty Python humor with complete authenticity.

So this Spamalot is funny and fun and true to its sardonic roots. The public is already loving this show — it looked sold out tonight on a weeknight — so get your tickets soon if you mean to go.




Chekhov this one out: ‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike’ at OCT

Josh Francis and Storm Kennedy in Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike. Photo/Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Storm Kennedy and Josh Francis in ‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike.’ Photo:Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Christopher Durang’s ‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike,’ which opened tonight at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, seems at first blush like one of many inside-theater Chekhov spoofs — including Aaron Posner’s ‘Stupid Fucking Bird,’ which kicked off the OCT season last fall.

As the lights come up on this show, we’re treated to yet another perpetually dysfunctional family that lives in a house overlooking a cherry orchard, and whose members talk about seagulls. And herons. And turkeys.

OK, yeah, we get it. And it’s all pretty funny, for a while.

But just about the time the joke starts to wear a bit thin, a real play kicks in, and somehow this group of characters (four of whom borrow their names from Chekhov plays) begins to act out a real drama within a most unlikely comic parody. Yes, Vanya and Sonia, the adoptive brother and sister played by Russell Dyball and Nancy West, are utterly miserable in their claustrophobic household. And, yes, the arrival of their sister, an over-the-hill but financially successful actress named Masha, played perfectly by Storm Kennedy, serves only to focus their familial suffering — especially because she has brought her latest little boy toy (Josh Francis) along with her luggage. And, yes, the beautiful young Nina (Hailey Henderson) becomes a lightning rod for everyone else’s unobtainable sexual desires.

But where ‘Vanya’ et al. veers away from Chekhovian futility is in the brilliant shine that its individual characters offer. Masha, the Norma Desmondish actress who controls the family pocket book, is the key role, and Kennedy is rightly given top billing in the program. Much as she did last March in “The Quality of Life” at Very Little Theatre, Kennedy dominates the stage for much of the play with her easy presence — a slatternly combination of fading sexuality and hard-edged manipulation. Masha’s fifth marriage has just ended, her movie career has hit the skids, and the theater career she dreamed of never happened. She contents herself with being insufferable to her grown brother and sister, who live, jobless and lifeless, in the family home on Masha’s movie income, where they are taken care of by a magically prescient housekeeper, the aptly named Cassandra (Donella-Elilzabeth Alston).

As good as Kennedy is, some of the best bits of the play come in sparkling eruptions from the other players. Alston, as the psychic housekeeper, uses a voodoo doll to great advantage. Francis, as the chiseled airhead  Spike, had the audience, and me, in stitches with his reverse striptease, which completely captivates everyone else in the neurotic household. Henderson, as the young, starry eyed aspiring actress, is sweet and loveable.

Nancy West’s Sonia, a forgettable wallflower in Act I, suddenly emerges as a powerhouse in Act II when she begins to channel Dame Maggie Smith, the real-life actress, and begis to find her own real life.

I especially loved Russell Dyball’s extended monologue on the challenges of change. Incensed by Spike’s clueless texting during the first-ever reading of a play he’s written, Dyball’s Vanya goes off on an extended paean to the past — dial telephones, printed books and single tasking — that was the single greatest moment of the show.

This is a sweet, sharp, funny and sad tale, very well told. OCT’s Tara Wibrew directs, giving the actors plenty of room to explore this layered story, which is played out on a realistic set, showing a suburban eastern household, by Jerry Hooker.

Unlike actual Chekhov, this play wraps up tidily, and perhaps a bit too optimistically. We can forgive a happy ending, though, on account of the sharp witted suffering we enjoyed while getting there.

“Vanya” runs through June 11.












‘I Love You, You’re Perfect’ … A Nearly Perfect Musical at ACE


“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” which opened tonight for a three-week run at Actors Cabaret of Eugene, is as sweet a musical as I can recall seeing. The perennial Off-Broadway hit premiered at the Westside Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen in 1996 and then ran more or less forever around the world.

The ACE production, directed by Anthony Krall in his debut as a director, and featuring an ensemble cast of regulars at the little downtown musical theater, is a sharp and good as any show I’ve seen there. And funny. Did I mention funny? As I sit here and write this, my cheeks are still sore from smiling way, way too much for the last two hours. It’s that good.

This is not a traditional well-made play. There are no lasting characters in this show, and no plot. Instead we are treated to a series of short vignettes, which take us from the youthful days of lustful and lonely dating through 20- and 30-something romances and breakups and re-unitings to the full-on penitence of family life to the final confusions and ambiguities of old age.

And we’re all lost at every point along the way. “All the years, we’ve been through,” sings a more or less happily married middle-aged man to his wife at one point. “Once again, who are you?”

The play can apparently be done with as few as four actors. The ACE production uses fourteen, and that feels about right for the show. If I had to pick one actor from the ensemble to comment on, it would be Brent Anderson. His comfortable depiction of of the trials of old-age romance feels perfectly right.

The very simple set is by Joe Zingo, and costumes are well done by Mary Jensen.

The show is neither timely nor postmodern nor political nor incisively relevant. What it offers, rather, is a perfectly comfortable and affectionate and brilliantly funny and entertaining treatment of the eternal human quagmire of romance, love, marriage, divorce and, well, what the hell do you do when you’re both finally staring death in the face?

Go see it.

Blackberry Winter at OCT: A virtuoso solo performance redeems a challenging play

Erica Towe as the White Egret and Mary Buss as Vivienne in Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter

Erica Towe as the White Egret and Mary Buss as Vivienne in Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter

Actress Mary Buss, as the always sassy, slightly southern,  hard-bitten and vulnerable middle-aged daughter of a recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient, captures our attention from the moment the lights come up on Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter, which opened its rolling world premiere tonight at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.

Buss’s Vivienne — really, the only character in this 90-minute show — is quick witted, occasionally foul mouthed, aggressive, flirty and funny as she tells the hopelessly sad story of her mother’s descent into mental darkness, and the life wreckage that all that entails.

The poignant moments pile up quickly here, one on top of the other, as Buss works her way through an extraordinary long monologue, facing down an unopened letter — it came from the assisted living facility where her mom resides — that almost certainly gives the bad news that it’s time to move her mother to a nursing home. All the while, Vivienne is wrestling with glimpses of her own childhood through her mother’s failing memory.

Buss is quite an actor. I’ve  not seen her before, but she’s worked at OCT in the past, with such substantial roles as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. A professional with an Equity card, she works in Oklahoma City in both theater and film. And without her, I don’t think this show would have been even vaguely possible.

That’s because this is a very difficult play. It’s essentially a 90-minute soliloquy about suffering and loss — an unrelenting recipe for disaster if it’s not lightened up by something. (I’d say cue the Alzheimer’s jokes, but there aren’t any.) Yockey’s language is rich and splendid, to the point that early on a recitation of a coconut cake recipe is magnificent. And Buss’s acting provides an occasional counterpoint to all the misery. But we need more substantial relief, some kind of emotional contrast.

What playwright Yockey uses for leavening here is a play within a play, Vivienne’s imaginative effort to tell a creation myth about where this particular form of suffering comes from. The tale, performed in three short acts by Dan Pegoda, as the Grey Mole, and Erica Towe, as the White Egret, is sweet but not very satisfying. The best part is the video projections, like a moving version of a good children’s book, by Tim Rogers that help tell this cute but awkward story.

The fable device works well enough, as far as it goes, but the play could use another character or two. As good as Buss’s performance was — and it was absolutely compelling in places — an hour and a half is just too long to hang on to such a tale of woe.

But I’d say go see this one, if only to see Buss pull off something just short of a miracle.








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