In this, our Age of the Selfie, why shouldn’t the drama be as solipsistic as any other cultural artifact? Hence the proliferation, nowadays, of plays about players and playwrights. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), ever in the vanguard, has served up plenty of these offerings in recent years, especially since the ascension of its new artistic director, Bill Rauch.
The meta-theater trend gathers pace in the opening roster of the Festival’s 2015 season with a Trifecta of stories about story-telling. Two of the plays are hot-off-the-presses, enjoying their U.S. premieres right here in Jefferson State. The third one, though, is over 400 years old, from that original Master of Meta, William Shakespeare.
“Sail Seas in Cockles”
In contrast to the starkly inexorable geometries of “Hamlet,” “Othello” or “Lear,” Shakespeare’s “Pericles” ebbs and wells like an amorphous sea. It’s a tidal flow of improbable coincidences, twists of fate, stock “type” characters, emotional peaks, troughs and breakers. Its locale covers the entire Mediterranean littoral and most of the bounding main in between. Its action spans decades.
For Jacobean and Restoration audiences, this proved a crowd-pleasing formula. The Bard’s later plays (which also include “Cymbeline” and the “Winter’s Tale”) were much performed in Shakespeare’s own century. But, except for “The Tempest,” later generations have found these genre-bending romantic fantasies too — well, fluid — for their taste. Especially “Pericles,” the first and most liquid of the late plays, almost dropped from the modern repertory.
But director Joseph Haj is not afraid to get his feet wet with an ocean-themed and self-consciously stagey revival. He’s gathered the whole sprawling saga into the tight confines of OSF’s black-box Thomas Theater, where scenic designer Jan Chambers uses cyclorama projections, silken billows and gently rocking trapeze platforms to create a suitably nautical ambiance. The effect is like sensing the whole sounding sea in a tight-wound conch shell.
The meta touch comes from the omniscient — and omnipresent — narrator, Gower, who sets up each scene and directs his running commentary straight at the audience. There actually was an historical Gower, a noted 14th century English poet, we learn from the program notes. But, as portrayed here (by Armando Duran), he comes off more like Gordon Lightfoot than Geoffery Chaucer, lilting his lines with the accents — alternately jaunty or haunting — of a sea chanty.
More meta: Haj underscores the theatricality of his “Pericles” by strategically doubling up his actors into starkly contrasting roles. So we have Scott Ripley playing Pericles’ vengeful nemesis as well as his generous father-in-law and the slapstick pander trying to pimp his daughter. Or there’s Michael Hume portraying both the upright Governor of Tyre and a frowzy whorehouse madam. Or Jennie Greenberry portraying both the sultry honey-trap seductress of Pericles’ hopeful outbound cruise and the angelic long-lost daughter who redeems him on his broken, catatonic homeward voyage decades later.
Impressive as these performances may be, they’re overshadowed by Wayne Carr’s tour de force in the title role. In less than two and a half hours, we see him evolve from a cocky fortune-seeker to a hounded refugee to a public benefactor to a fulfilled family man to a shipwrecked castaway to a traumatic stress casualty and finally to a born-again votary of the Goddess Diana. Hard enough to remain even recognizable, let alone credible, through so many changes, yet Carr manages to retain our sympathy throughout.
Paradise[s] Lost & Found
What could be more meta than trying to cram two ostensibly unrelated plays onto the same stage at the same time, with their respective casts and crews bickering over access to props and sets? Especially when the two plays differ so drastically in tone, the one a poignant modern melodrama of exile and nostalgia, juxtaposed against a slapstick retelling of an ancient Chinese fairy tale.
Yet, such is the somewhat overburdened conceit of Taiwanese playwright/director Stan Lai’s “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.” The title itself incorporates each of the two plays-within-a-play. Their casts have double-booked a single rehearsal stage. The “secret love” is nurtured by a hospitalized Mainland pensioner (Christopher Jean) for the long-lost sweetheart of his youth in Shanghai. He still dreams of her 40 years later on his deathbed in Taiwanese exile. As for the “Peach Blossom Land,” it refers to an iconic paradise that a lost fisherman (Eugene Ma) stumbles onto in a 5th century folk tale, sort of a Chinese Rip Van Winkle.
Lai has embellished the classic legend by providing the fisherman with a back story of cuckoldry, all rendered in the raucous and highly stylized manner of Peking Opera clown scenes. Meanwhile, the “Secret Love” is played out in the muted hues of a 1920’s tear-jerker from the old Shanghai cinema. Both plays end with an ironic twist: the fisherman returns, all blissed out from his sojourn in Shangri-La, only to find his adulterous wife and her lover now wedded and bogged down in debts and diapers. And the old Mainland pensioner seems more moved by a fleeting Taipei reunion with his lost Shanghai love than he is by the bedside presence of the steadfast Taiwanese wife of his decades in exile.
By colliding the two stories, I guess Lai aims to bring out subtle philosophical parallels underlying the obvious contrasts. Maybe something about the life-sapping allure of an idealized never-never land in contrast to the hard-earned, rough-edged reality of workaday real-world love.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Stan Lai, aka Lai Sheng-ch’uan, for over 25 years, when I first interviewed him as a daring young director in the intellectual ferment of post-Martial Law Taiwan. Compared with his brilliant innovations back then, the current production — especially in English translation — seems the anodyne work of an established theatrical celebrity struggling to surf the treacherous shoals of China-Taiwan-U.S. cultural diplomacy.
Nevertheless, “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” is well worth a look-see: impeccably paced, studded with stand-out performances and introducing to American audiences an array of intriguingly exotic staging conventions.
Under the Spreading Patriarchy, the Fingersmithy Stands
NewsCaf’s own Candace Brown has ably covered in this space the eclectic genesis of “Fingersmith,” OSF helmsman Bill Rauch’s own directorial offering for the 2015 season. So suffice it to note, for our present purposes, the meta-theatrical dimension of this three hour marathon.
The play is basically a 19th century bodice-ripper (and what magnificently elaborate bodices, thanks to costume designer Deborah Dryden). But it also conveys Dickensian overtones of class conflict, shuttling between the slums of London, a posh country estate and a bleak madhouse (all subtly evoked in scenic designer Christopher Acebo’s multi-level set). The whole engine of the plot is powered by a steamhead of offbeat sexuality boiling just under the veneer of Victorian primness.
The story turns upon the shifting rapport between its three female protagonists. There’s Mrs. Sucksby (Kate Mulligan), a kind of matronly Fagin figure of the Lant Street slum; her pickpocket protege, Sue, a.k.a. Fingersmith (Sara Bruner); and a bookish heiress, Maude (Erica Sullivan). It’s a complex symbiosis. The three women mutually sustain and yet prey upon each other, all while eluding the snares of a con-man toff (Elijah Alexander).
Each of the three acts takes up the story through the prism of one of the three female leads, only to belie whatever we thought we knew of the situation in a suspenseful final scene. And then the next act unravels some of the mysteries with a change of viewpoint, only to upend our expectations yet again with another cliff-hanger. Through this meta-magic of nested narratives, Rauch and playwright Alexa Junge bring this darkling tale to a startlingly humane and hopeful resolution. Rashomon in hoop skirts; not to be missed.