Portland playwright Sam Gregory falls hard for a 17th century courtesan
Portland playwright Sam Gregory isn't exactly a household name, but in career terms this is Act 1, Scene 2.
Gregory appeared with a flourish and an award-winning original play, 'Mary Tudor,' for CoHo Productions in 1999. He returns now with the first part of a trilogy on the 17th-century French courtesan Ninon de L'Enclos.
At a photo shoot on the CoHo stage, Gregory jokes easily with Emily Sahler Beleele, his choice for Ninon. He's a big bear of a man, with the demeanor and booming voice of a young Orson Welles. With his measured delivery, he can only be a thespian. The buxom Beleele slips easily into character, fluttering her eyelashes and snapping her fan.
'I have so much fun with this role,' she purrs musically. 'When I'm telling off the prince (Leif Norby) and we've had high schools here, they applaud, and I heard one voice say, 'You go, girl!' '
'Child of Pleasure' is the story of how Ninon's wayward father returns from exile and the impact he has on her Paris salon of witty and ambitious friends.
In focusing on a woman who was known for her wit, compassion and remarkable political skills, Gregory plays into his own strengths as a writer.
His models as playwrights were George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and Gregory creates the same dense and witty conversational jigsaws that sound normal but really fall into 'what I would have said if I'd thought of it 10 minutes earlier.'
You might complain that nobody talks like that, and it's a pity there isn't more of it.
Isabella Chappell is a veteran Portland actor who was on the Portland Drama Critics Circle committee that honored 'Mary Tudor' with three Drammy awards.
'Sam's very talented. I'm surprised he's still in town,' she says. ' 'Mary Tudor' isn't Broadway material, but I haven't a doubt he'll get there eventually.'
It will have been a long and practically Dickensian road for Gregory when he does. Now 34, he's been working office temp jobs for as long as he can recall, living with his retired dad, William E. (Sam is William S.), in Southeast Portland and writing religiously one hour a night after dinner, on the published advice of his hero Ray Bradbury.
In the last 14 years Gregory has completed 42 plays, 'starting with a 360-page blank-verse epic set in a post-nuclear holocaust, which was abysmal!' Since then, he's covered a wide range of both contemporary and historical dramas, comedies and farces, but this is only the second play to be produced.
'I don't have a murder mystery, and I should have one of those,' he said.
Gregory's latest work is a two-person play about Winston Churchill and the radio actor who delivered many of his World War II radio speeches, starring Keith Scales. It was commissioned by the Chartwell Society, a Churchillian fan club in Portland, and will be read one night during the run of 'Child of Pleasure.'
Gregory mostly reads historical research, which adds texture to his plays, and stumbled onto an anecdote about Ninon de L'Enclos, which got him started on her story. She lived from 1620 to 1705.
'I read that at the end of his life Cardinal Richelieu had offered her an enormous sum of money to sleep with him Ñ the most feared man in Europe Ñ and she had turned him down,' he says.
By the time Gregory had fallen in love with his subject and started writing, he discovered the story was fictitious but had enough other information to remain intrigued and continue.
A chance meeting with CoHo Productions founder Gary Cole in 1995 led to the eventual production of 'Mary Tudor' but also connected Gregory with Beleele.
'She was cast as maid No. 2, and she just blew me away, she had such a fabulous quality of humor and sensuality,' he recalls. 'And I thought, 'There's something strange about Portland theater if someone this talented is getting supernumerary roles.' '
For her part, Beleele, who is 37, is thrilled to have a part written with her in mind.
'Sam writes phenomenal characters Ñ women in particular. It would be a fantasy of mine to work on the entire cycle,' she says.
The production has generated considerable buzz; the play opened Jan. 24 and has been extended into mid-March. Gregory already has written the other parts of the trilogy.
Part 2 is 'Lift Up Your Hearts,' the story of how Ninon falls out of favor and is incarcerated in a nunnery. Queen Christina of Sweden is on her way to Rome having renounced her crown to become Catholic. She concocts a plan to spring Ninon, but does Ninon want to go?
The third play is 'Questions of Love,' in which Ninon finally decides to have a child by one of her many lovers, and complications ensue.
Gregory's dialogue in 'Child of Pleasure' sparkles with zingers. Consider this exchange between Ninon and her father, Henri, after the latter has picked a street fight with men singing songs supporting Cardinal Mazarin.
Henri: 'They were a rabble supporting a despot.'
Ninon: 'They were working men relaxing in front of a tavern.'
Henri: 'You were not there.'
Ninon: 'Ample descriptions and my own good sense form my opinion.'
Henri: 'They had to be taught a lesson.'
Ninon: 'What, that old men shouldn't make fools of themselves in public? Do you think they'll remember it when they're old?'
The shadow that hangs over their relationship is eloquently examined: Ninon's father ran off with his mistress when she was a child. After another fight, Henri decides to leave Paris and is chided by Ninon for deserting her again. Gregory ties the knot between them tightly in the following exchange.
Ninon: 'I want you here.'
Henri: 'No, you don't. You don't know me.'
Ninon: 'How can I, if you're always leaving?'
Henri: 'If you would know me truly, examine your heart. Half of it is mine.'
Curt Hanson, a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays Henri with appropriate swashbuckling and is delighted with his part.
'The words seem fairly normal, but the way Sam puts them together is wonderful,' he says.
Cole says he was surprised to get the chance to do 'Child of Pleasure' after the success of 'Mary Tudor.'
'That play put us on the map,' he says. 'I thought it would do the same thing for Sam's work, but it didn't. But this play is even better.'