In the Portland theater world, it seems mid-twentieth-century American artists are "trending." Whether it's PCS recently probing the daily life of painter Mark Rothko, Artists Rep about to unveil a stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short fiction, or Linda Austin presenting a choreographed dance to an (ironically silent) John Cage composition, it seems like everywhere we look, recently canonized American masters in various disciplines are providing a synesthetic springboard for new performance.
Push Leg Physical Theater, having called dibs on painter Edward Hopper, is currently developing and publicly workshopping a series of vignettes with fluid movement and minimal dialogue loosely based on the artist's iconic late-night diner tableau Nighthawks (see image).
Facilitated by Camille Cettina (whom many will remember as a bookish coquette in last season's one-woman show Mr. Darcy Dreamboat) and actor/director Ann Sorce, an ensemble cast have co-written and continue to refine their roles as regulars in a late-night diner: namely, a waiter (Darren McCarthy), two waitresses (Ann Sorce and Catherine Egan), a drunk (Ben Plont) and a journalist (Kenyon Gaskin). The general premise of theatrically riffing on Hopper is not new (see Chicago's Hopper Project, 2010) but Push Leg's material is, and their dramatic goals with the project are actually two-fold:
"We want to incorporate clowning," says Cettina, "but also explore the nuances and the yearning of Hopper's world." At the current phase of completion (clocking in at around a half hour) Hopper-isms like a Craftsman color pallette, quaint, timeless costumes and poses of elbow-leaning ennui reference the original inspiration while the aforementioned clowning provides momentum. A romance between an exaggeratedly size-mismatched couple (Catherine Egan and Ben Plont), a slapstick routine with two men on a ladder that implies the classic joke that it takes more than one to change a light bulb, and a comically unreachable wall-phone are just a few vehicles of surprising levity that may not have been imagined by the original Nighthawks' seemingly alienated, introverted painter. (In fact, one might say Push Leg has more spring in its step than Hopper—if that pun were pardonable.)
At Sunday's workshop performance, Cettina and Sorce hosted a post-show talkback, taking copious notes for the next phase of development in which they'll refinine dialogue, expand the plot and add action sequences, possibly with the help of an additional playwright.
The audience, which proved full of acting peers, chimed in with affirming—if inconclusive—suggestions. "Why call it Nighthawks?" challenged Matthew Dieckman (last seen at Risk/Reward in Something's Got a Hold of My Heart), noting that the painting was a jumping-off point but not necessarily a pervasive motif for the piece. Val Landrum (of Portland Playhouse's Pickathon Shakespeare project) observed that despite Hopper's rep for "melancholy, longing and loneliness, I think of his work as more just 'human'." Phillip Cuomo also offered a few helpful hints, drawing on a demonstrable knowledge of physical comedy that Culturephile remembers from as far back as 2010's The Little Prince.
Slapstick hijinks notwithstanding, Push Leg's Nighthawks in process resembles Hopper's masterpiece in at least one crucial way: the insiders understand much more than the casual passerby. And why shouldn't they? Actors in the theater, like regulars in a diner, go there almost every night.