Theater is a battleground.
As the most atavistic of art forms — live drama in the age of digital clones — theater is in a continual struggle for relevance, now more so than ever. Film is indeed a beautiful medium, but it’s more static than fluid; there will only ever be one Citizen Kane.
Theater, on the other hand, involves a beautiful risk, and that risk is fluid. Theater is a machine of perpetual motion, fraught with all the potential for grace and error of which the human animal is capable.
On any given night, sitting in the audience, you might just witness the best damn Macbeth you’ve ever seen — and then, brief shadow, it is no more. Or you might be subject to an utter fiasco. The anxiety of theater is inseparable from its potential for transcendence. Failure always nips at its heels, and this is what makes it so damn tantalizing.
Theater, in other words, is a continuously renewable product. And each coming season, theater companies attempt a particularly tricky act of artistic jujitsu, balancing commercial demands and audience expectation against issues of artistic risk and the threat of becoming staid, stale and safe.
With community theater, the battle for relevance is complicated by concerns of a fiscal and pedagogic nature — like minor league farm teams in baseball, local theaters are the places where up-and-coming actors (paid modestly, if at all) cut their teeth beside veteran performers, all of them playing on stages and sets that can only hope to rival the imagination, minus the big budget, of lavish Broadway productions.
Sometimes I think Eugene’s theater scene is thriving; other times, I’m frustrated by the conservative choices made by local directors. Obviously, business is business — I get that — but really, who needs to see yet another production of An Enemy of the People or Waiting for Godot?
I realize, of course, that I’ve just contradicted my assertion that theater is infinitely renewable, and I’m okay with that. I do believe that, should the human race survive another century, Julius Caesar will remain as relevant in 2117 as it certainly is today.
And yet, often, when surveying another coming theater season, I get a terrible sense of déjà vu: Didn’t we just see Little Shop a couple years back?
When Lane Community College mounted Irish playwright and modern bad-boy Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman in 2015, I was over the moon (see “Bedtime Stories” EW 11/19/2015). This is a tough, challenging — nay, outright confrontational — play about totalitarianism. It was a fantastic risk for the college; it was a fantastic production.
The battle, then, is for balance: controversy vs. escapism, challenge vs. nostalgia, relevance vs. tradition, money vs. art. Looking at what’s on tap at Eugene theaters this coming year, we see a little of everything: Some old standbys, a couple old saws, endlessly repeated; a handful of productions aimed directly at our current political climate of division, confusion and potential cataclysm; a pair of world premieres; and some interesting standouts.
Here, then, are some of the upcoming productions we’re most looking forward to seeing in and around Eugene as the new theater season opens:
Theater lost one of its greatest playwrights this year when Sam Shepard died in July at the age of 73. Shepard’s uncompromising work — giving voice to an aggrieved, brutalized masculinity driven inward until it implodes in moments of raw vulnerability and unappeasable loss — has left an indelible mark on American theater, and his 1979 off-Broadway play, the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child, will be mounted April 6-28 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre under the direction of Joseph Gilg. One of Shepard’s most powerful and moving plays, it’s a fitting tribute to a legendary talent.
It’s not surprising, in this nightmare Age of Trump, that someone is trotting out a work by Bertolt Brecht, one of several writers who escaped Nazi Germany to land in the U.S., where he did most of his best writing. The UO’s University Theatre produces Brecht’s greatest play, Mother Courage, March 2-17. Other productions of a distinctly political and timely nature include Frost/Nixon at Very Little Theatre (Aug. 10-25) as well as The Crucible, the late Arthur Miller’s historicized fable about the evils of McCarthyism, running June 8-24 at Cottage Theatre.
Cut to those world premieres. OCT is bringing us Andrea Stolowitz’ Successful Strategies Feb. 23-March 11. Stolowitz, a Portland playwright, sets her contemporary version of the 18th-century Pierre de Marivaux farce of the same name in a Willamette Valley vineyard.
Meanwhile, Cottage Theatre is one of six community theaters nationwide selected to take part in the American Association of Community Theatre’s 2018 NewPlayFest, which premieres new work in multiple venues around the country. CT will be running Alabama playwright Joe Musso’s Treehouse Aug. 10-26; it’s a drama that grows out of a line from Shakespeare, “To be or not to be.”
Sadly, that’s it for new work in the coming season.
Yes, Very Little Theatre is doing another Little Shop of Horrors (June 1-23) for you Audrey II fans out there. More substantial material comes to VLT with Matthew Lopez’ The Whipping Man (Jan. 19-Feb. 3), which looks weirdly pertinent to today’s political climate: It’s the tale of a Jewish Confederate soldier who returns home after the Civil War to be greeted by two former family slaves, raised as Jews.
Actors Cabaret, Eugene’s little dinner/musical community theatre that could, offers its usual light musical fare; our favorites might be the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You, June 29-July 28, and Reefer Madness, Oct. 26-Nov. 3.
Finally, for the holiday season, it seems that A Christmas Carol has finally lost its horrifying cachet. (As recently as 2015 you could see five different December productions here in town.)
Instead, Radio Redux, which does live portrayals of classic radio comedy and drama, will stage an abbreviated version of The Shop Around the Corner (whose story was turned into the movie You’ve Got Mail) as part of its Christmas program, which also includes music and story telling (Dec. 8-10).
Cottage Theatre is doing Seussical (Dec. 1-23). VLT’s December show will be The Christmas Foundling (Dec. 1-10), about miners in the Sierra raising a baby boy; Actors Cabaret will mount Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Nov. 17-Dec. 16; The Shedd’s feel-good December show will be Singin’ in The Rain, Dec. 1-17; and OCT has no holiday show scheduled.