Relaxing by some hay bales in the shade pre-show, Portland actors Ramona Lisa and Val Landrum swapped trade secrets—tricks for staying in character during the long, tense pauses that certain contemporary plays demand. "Sometimes the script even tells us how many seconds to wait," Landrum noted of a role in Artists Rep’s Circle Mirror Transformation. "You hold an emotion while counting in your head, ‘One Misssissippi, two Mississippi….’" Lisa, too, mastered the discipline of tension-building stillness in her role as Oya in last season’s acclaimed Brother/Sister Series.
But in Portland Playhouse’s debut collaboration with roots music fest Pickathon (which hasn’t routinely featured theater), contemporary method acting would take a breather in favor of breezy summer Shakespeare classic Twelfth Night, accompanied variously by Laura Gibson, Bruce Molsky, and for Sunday’s performance, Casey MacGill. Slackened by the evening heat of the Workshop Barn, a rustic structure with a wood stove that hearkens a country schoolhouse or small-town chapel, the adventurous troupe "played to the room" like the seasoned bluesmen who accompanied them—with slapstick, exaggeration, and plenty of crowd participation.
"We need your help," beamed beatific director Brian Weaver, coaching the audience to a) make storm sounds, b) mime a slap each time a character got smacked, and c) exclaim "Whoa!" at each mention of the name "Cesario." The summer camp style call-response, however silly, was arguably closer than most approaches to the play’s original comedic intentions. After all, Shakespeare scholars are often quick to point out that the Bard was no prude; his comedies especially were penned for the common folk.
Broadly embracing her role as femme fatale Olivia in a figure-flattering blue dress, Landrum batted her eyelashes and cozied up to various band members while frontman Casey McGill crooned playful lyrics and pantomimed pitchin’ woo. Lisa, meanwhile, donned a plaid work shirt and hammed up her gender-bending role as Viola/Cesario with streetwise swagger, even taking a few b-boyish swipes at the rim of her newsy cap.
Frequently dissolving into hootenany dance breaks and clap-alongs, the actors blithely dispatched their tale, making the plot more of a vehicle of merriment than vice versa—but in Culturephile’s opinion, that’s okay. As they stare down a taut, challenging fall lineup rife with tough themes like racial tension (Christina Anderson’s new commission), interplanetary sexual orientation (Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness) and serial killing (Quincy Long’s The Huntsmen), Portland Playhouse’s venerated thesps will no doubt earn their keep. In the meantime, why not indulge in a little summer simplicity? Shakespeare, as usual, said it best: "If music be the food of love, play on!"
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