DramaWatch: A week for Kabuki, “Rent”, clowns, Johnny Cash tunes and more

Kabuki takes center stage at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Photo: Dale Peterson

THE DOMINANT IMPRESSION of the late, great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima is that of an artist of dark, sometimes twisted brilliance. He is mainly known for novels like The sailor who fell out of favor with the sea and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which juxtapose formal restraint and subtle emotional insight with outbursts of violence, garish splashes of red over elegant patterns. Though perhaps, really, he is almost as well known for the flowery eccentricities of his life, which included the fetishization of death, culminating in his creation of a private paramilitary force, flamboyant right-wing nationalism, and a very public ritual suicide.

But hey – he could also be really funny!

“Mishima’s attitude and goals when writing kabuki plays were very different than when writing fiction,” says Larry Kominz, a professor at Portland State University who translated and directed Mishima’s popular kabuki play The sardine seller’s love web. “Even as his concerns and his politics and everything changed throughout his life, he never gave up loving kabuki and going there, going to plays in Tokyo every month since he was a kid.”

A staunch kabuki fan, Kominz points out that Mishima’s approach in this form was more outward-looking than in his other works. He wanted to support the careers of the actors he admired, help kabuki as an art and industry, and most importantly, please audiences. “That’s why he wrote his most normative works in his kabuki plays.”

And although some of his plays, whether kabuki or contemporary drama such as The black lizard – which Kominz helped the Imago Theater stage in a fascinating production in 2014 – reveling in what he called “the beautiful aesthetic of cruelty”, he turned to the comedic potential of kabuki to create his biggest hit on the stage.

The sardine seller’s love web is a light-hearted tale of veiled identities, inverted class status, and jokes about high and low culture that is reminiscent of Shakespeare in a way The Comedy of Mistakes.

In a loving broadcast of a classic style of kabuki storytelling that includes the romances of feudal lords, Mishima instead gives us a wandering fishmonger, Sarugenji, who embodies a great lord, to get close to Hotarubi, a courtesan he has fallen in love with . but who is far above his rank. Despite his awkwardness in his role, he charms her. But he had too much sake.

As Kominz summarizes in his book Mishima on stage: “The drunken sardine-seller is about to doze off, his head on his lover’s lap, but in his sleep he begins intoning the sardine-seller’s babble. When awakened and questioned by Hotarubi, Sarugenji maintains his false personality by referencing classic poetry. Finally convinced that the young man is in fact a feudal lord, Hotarubi bursts into tears. She reveals that she really is a princess and that she fell in love with a sardine seller when she heard him calling his game in a beautiful voice from her castle tower. She was later kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Kyoto, but she never gave up on her first true love. Princess and Fishmonger reveal their true identities and are united in love.”

Kominz’ production, the completes its short term with performances at Lincoln Hall on Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28, featuring PSU students from its Japanese Studies department as well as guest artists, and is preceded by a trio of curtain dances.


The cast of Jonathan Miller’s “Rent” on the Portland Center Stage. Photo: Alex Lugo

BACK IN SPRING 1997, I was a fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program and about to visit New York for a meeting of the fellows, our academic advisors, and various other people in the arts and media industries. In addition to our panel discussions, museum tours and the like, we had time to visit shows.

Being a music critic at the time, someone suggested that I might be interested in an acclaimed Broadway rock musical by the same name Rent. I had to choose between several options and got the Rent Cast recording to try it out. So, from my snobbish indie rock authority, I decided this was a rock musical by people who didn’t know anything about rock ‘n’ roll and asked for a ticket to something else instead. (Perhaps that was the night I visited Stockard Channing The little foxes.) That means I really, really hated the music.

Yes, but what do I know? This production won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and even Best Score. Oh, and a Pulitzer Prize too.

Loosely based on the Puccini opera la boheme, The show (with book, lyrics and score by Jonathan Larson) has maintained a loyal and passionate following for a quarter of a century since its premiere, partly as a spirited response to the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and as a celebration of the bohemian community.

Portland Center Stage presents it in a production directed and choreographed by Chip Miller – whose fabulous work began earlier this season Gem of the Ocean has reset the low expectations I had in its production after what I felt was a botch of a great rock musical Hedwig and the bad customs.


Oregon Children's Theater Portland Oregon


Morgan Clark-Gaynor’s Clown as Protest: at CoHo Theatre.

The COHO THEATER STILL is a space for artistic exploration, as this shows CoHo residency projectScreenings of works created through a so-called “semester-long opportunity for artists to develop an idea or revitalize an old project and take it to the next level”.

This weekend’s trio of plays – two available to stream and one to be performed in the NW Portland area of ​​CoHo – offer an intriguing variety. quinn, by Portland Actors Conservatory graduate Xzavier Beacham, is a short film that questions the identity of black men through the imagination of a first-time visit to a sex shop. Claire Rigsby – who has done some good work for Artists Rep and others and is currently employed at the Rent cast at PCS – finds a metaphor for spirit in a kind of string theory – or more specifically in a yarn about knitting and crocheting titled (un)tangled.

And the same boards that have seen such inspired work by the CoHo Clown Cohort (a pet project of former CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, who died last year) will now host Morgan Clark-Gaynors Clown as a protest. Cuomo’s use of the clown toolkit often took a literary approach; Clark-Gaynor’s leaning toward left-wing politics, in this case examining the tensions between class solidarity and individualism. The clown medium certainly partakes in the energy of the in-person performance, but this show can also be streamed live.


THE OUTWRIGHT THEATER FESTIVAL has begun its 10th annual edition with the Fuse Theater Ensemble at The Back Door Theater, the small venue behind the Common Grounds Coffee Shop on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. It continues through June 26 with the premiere of Ernie Lijois The God Cluster plus workshop productions of plays by Eleanor O’Brien and Ajai Tripathi, and readings of screenplays by C. Julian Jiménez and Mikki Gillette.


CONCEIVED BY William Meade and created by Richard Maltby Jr., ring of fire takes the “musical portrait” approach to staging the biography – that is, to outline the course and themes of a musician’s life story through a series of songs. In this case, the musician is Johnny Cash, so the show wisely avoids having any performer take on the task of recreating his stone-pillar voice or the alternate recklessness and sincerity of his persona. Instead, the five-piece cast of the Stumptown Stage at downtown’s Doilores Winningstad Theater takes on such tunes as “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.”


PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL is a popular stage adaptation of a 1990’s meaningless romantic comedy, featuring songs co-written by Canadian “rocker” Bryan Adams. Presented here as part of the Broadway in Portland series of touring shows.

The Flattened Stage

I just recently came across film critic Lindsay Ellis, and while she’s already walked away from YouTube and social media (apparently to pursue novel writing), I think it’s okay to be late to the party. In my opinion, her work combines strong analytical skills, solid research skills, and a sense of voice that balances shrewdness and bite along with the odd mix of passion and fatigue of a discerning consumer caught in a stark, crappy market.

Also, she seems to have a particular interest in musicals, including the fact that they often suffer in the transition from stage to screen. As in this study by Rent:


IN ADDITION TO THE KABUKI GAME The sardine seller’s love web at Portland State University, several other productions are scheduled to wrap up this weekend. they include City without an altar at the Milagro, Oregon Children’s Theater Last stop on Market Street, triangle productions sex on the river, The latest developed work by Hand2Mouth we live hereand, again at Portland State University, a production of Sartre’s silently harrowing No exit.

Second hand news

A few weeks ago, the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to James Ijames, a writer and co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, for a play entitled Fat ham. American Theater Magazine cited the Pulitzer jury’s description it as “a fun, poignant piece that transposes skilfully hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South to explore issues of identity, kinship, responsibility and honesty.” Incidentally, that jury was chaired by Misha Berson, the doyenne of Northwest theater critics and an occasional contributor to ArtsWatch.

The New York Times published both a Q&A with Ijames and last a review of Fat ham, which is only now getting its first in-person performances at the Public Theater due to Covid-related postponements.

The best line I’ve read this week

“…Early on in my life I felt overwhelmed by the world… It was a world that certainly wasn’t worse than average, but it wasn’t much better either, so it wasn’t an inherently overpowering one, one that the strongest characters would give in. No. It found in me a weak respondent, a bad player. I was the kind of actor who specialized in exits.”

– from the essay “Finding a Form” by William H. Gass

That’s all I have now. I will try to do better next time.


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