For three years, I had the best unpaid position EVER: I was a theatre critic in Portland for Edge Media Network. I’d look through the season’s offerings, make my request to the editor, and they’d arrange tickets for me and a guest to see shows all over the city.
Starting four months after I landed here, I had a window into the cultural, musical, intellectual events of Portland. If there’s a better way to learn a new city, I don’t know it; I had a built-in date night every two weeks or more, with entertainment and conversation topics right at my fingertips. Being out already, and a little dressed up, Tim or other favorite people and I would go for an after-show drink, or ice cream, or a walk around the city, or a plate of toasted ravioli at Gilda’s. It was an absolute joy.
And then it wasn’t. Like everything, it lost its shine. Management at Edge Media changed, and my editor was unceremoniously let go, and the machinations of getting tickets became burdensome and unpleasant right at the time when I was losing my vigor for the sport. I felt like I was repeating myself, becoming jaded, bitter, unkind. That part scared me; the idea of being cruel to a person who is risking total vulnerability on stage just to tell a story horrified me. No amount of theatre tickets and complimentary glasses of wine is worth that.
So I stopped. Life changed. I miss seeing shows, I miss going to the theatre and having my mind expanded, or having a break from the everyday, or having a guaranteed date for the weekend, or just going out for ice cream. Let me tell you, our dating life dropped off precipitously just after that last show. But here are the reviews–well, some of them. What’s here represents 2016 and 2017. The others will be added eventually.
If you’re a Portland performer looking for your name or your show–HI! Welcome. I really enjoyed your work. Don’t stop doing theatre–it may save the world. — MKC
2017 Dec 11 A Christmas Carol
It’s rare that I see any show twice, but Portland Playhouse’s productions of “A Christmas Carol” are something special. Three separate ice storms thwarted my attempts to see it last year, so I was determined to make it this year. I was well rewarded for my determination.
Portland Playhouse is currently undergoing a renovation that has displaced the company for the season, but the Portland Opera opened their rehearsal space at Hampton Opera Center to the Playhouse for this year’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” I was curious what would happen to the play without the charm of the church they turned into a theatre, Portland Playhouse’s usual space, which effortlessly enhances the Dickensian setting. But directors Brian Weaver and Cristi Miles didn’t miss a beat; the black-box rehearsal space transformed into a haunted and haunting space for this timeless story.
What makes Portland Playhouse so special is their ingenuity. Someone at the creative-decision making level has a sense that anything is possible, and they make all those possibilities come true in their shows. For “A Christmas Carol,” a ghost story involving time travel, otherworldly sounds and voices and characters, the Portland Playhouse applies their deceptively simple magic to every moment of the play.
Scenic and lighting designer Dan Meeker populated the spare set with musical instruments and a large cast, and the use of fabric as scene changes, curtains, or to evoke the passing of time is surprising and delightful. The play is staged “arena” style, or surrounded on all four sides by audience, and the lack of vertical staging heightens the dreamlike quality of the play.
Lacking their homey, ancient-feeling church/theatre home, with its exposed beams and creaky floors adding burnished luster, “A Christmas Carol” found a fitting temporary home at Hampton Opera Center.
“A Christmas Carol” was adapted for this performance by Rick Lombardo, who also provided lyrics to original music he wrote with Anna Lackaff. These contributions are a potent part of the show, adding depth and interest to a tried-and-true play. When Marley (Sarah Smith), the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rachel Lewis) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Charles Grant) repeat Scrooge’s earlier words back to him in an accusatory tone, Scrooge’s ugliness stands out in greater relief.
Smith’s Marley is a terror, the chain rattling sending shivers as her voice boomed the warning from the grave. She was awe-inspiring. Lewis is a standout with a sharp energy and beautiful, clear voice adding to her considerable acting skills. Grant is a whirlwind of dramatic flourish, the most joyous and wonderful Ghost of Christmas Present I’ve seen. As the main character, Todd Van Voris is spectacular; his voice, physicality, expressions are peak Scrooge.
The role of music in “A Christmas Carol” is played by everyone in the cast, and what a delight. In a sweet and fitting addition to the character Cratchit (Julian Remulla) plays the violin and sings — quite beautifully. Remulla’s Cratchit has a poetic strength I haven’t seen in others, and the romance between him and Mrs. Cratchit (Claire Rigsby) is a lovely addition to the tale. Rigsby also surprises and shines as Old Joe, the nasty man who pays the scavengers for Scrooge’s discarded belongings.
Three keyboards grace the stage — an upright, an organ and a child’s toy piano — in addition to a harpsicord that made an appearance during intermission. There was a ukulele, a guitar, a triangle, a floor tom (drum), a trumpet and a waterphone (look it up!), and it appeared that everyone in the cast sang at one time or another. And the singing voices of these children! Alice (Lauren Clark) and Tiny Tim (Rainbows Leoniak) sing a duet that turns into a chorus with the other Cratchit children that’s simply marvelous. The music is a wonderful addition to the play, and quite well done.
I’m an unabashed fan of winter holidays, of Christmas in particular, and of “A Christmas Carol.” That means I’ve seen a LOT of performances of this play, and this was by far my favorite of all time. With the flood of two-bit remakes and hackneyed retellings of classic stories on TV and in the movies this time of year, this production of “A Christmas Story” is a lively, textured, intriguing and wholly satisfying presentation of this beloved play.
“A Christmas Carol” ran through December 30, 2017 at Portland Playhouse
2017 Dec 6 A Christmas Memory/ Winter Song
On Sunday afternoon, you could find me snuggled into an intimate theater holding my husband’s hand and trying to hold back tears. Every few minutes in “A Christmas Memory/Winter Song,” another line or phrase or melody twanged a memory, and I melted a little more.
A combination of spoken-word performance and rustic cabaret featuring music about bonds strained by distance, “A Christmas Memory/Winter’s Song” weaves reminiscence with performance in a charming, wholesome and endearing collage. From the log-cabin-esque set to the softly falling snow, the mood upon entering is warm and inviting.
The two main performers, Merideth Kaye Clark and Leif Norby, roam the audience, chatting and asking people about their memories of winter. On the upright piano in one corner, music director Mont Chris Hubbard plays gently, and a balsam incense log cabin-just like the one from my childhood-puffs along on top of the piano. It’s like walking into someone’s living room for a fireside storytelling and singalong.
Soon Norby starts the show with Truman Capote’s essay “A Christmas Memory,” Capote’s recollection from his early childhood of an unexpected and simple friendship based on mutual understanding and the love of delicious secrets. It is a tender evocation of the excitement of preparing for Christmas, especially preparations of homemade items for well-loved friends. The practice of saving monies and gathering materials and secretly, gigglingly plotting the when and how of construction and delivery captures the heart of holiday excitement.
Norby, whose extensive credits include multiple roles in “Astoria,” a shape-shifting turn in “Wild and Reckless,” and the austere doctor in “In the Next Room,” is equal to Capote’s effortless and musical prose. Lines like “Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds,” and “Abner… exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh” rise from Norby as if from his own thoughts. Norby has a gift for becoming whoever he’s playing, in this case, the genteel Southerner with a lilting accent and a keen observational mind.
Merideth Kaye Clark, whose beautiful and faithful recreation of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” happened at The Armory a couple of years ago, takes the lead for the rest of the show. A compilation of songs about longing, loneliness and going home, “Winter Song” travels the length of long winter nights wishing for the warmth of loved ones. From Carole King to Simon and Garfunkel to her original songs, Clark sings true thoughts into music, her warm and expressive soprano filling the room. The rich color of her voice lends itself perfectly to the seasonal music, inviting the listener to sink into their thoughts and feelings. It’s less a concert than a shared meditation on the season.
Clark and Norby team up on several songs, one harmonizing for the other, an appealing mingling of voices. Norby’s trembling tenor is a suitable foil for Clark’s Broadway chops, and their balanced duet bubbles along charmingly. His performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” was a gentle thread of thought, and my decorous husband gripped my hand the entire time, entranced by the subtle and effective harmony and simple delivery of one of his favorite songs. When the duo wrapped with “Homeward Bound,” the room was filled with thoughts of winters past and loved ones waiting for a warm embrace.
Please visit Clark and Norby this season at the Ellyn Bye Studio Theatre, drink a cider or glass of wine, tell them your favorite winter memories and enjoy an evening of story and song. It’s a happy and satisfying way to spend a chilly afternoon, a pause in a season fraught with activity, and a gentle way to reconnect with happy memories. Before you find your seats, please tell them I said hello.
“A Christmas Memory/Winter Song” ran through December 31, 2017 at Portland Center Stage
2017 Nov 27 Belfast Girls
The world’s history of migration is riddled with stories of flight, trickery, desperate hope and enslavement. “Belfast Girls” traces the emigration of five women from Belfast, Ireland to Sidney in 1848. Part of the Famine Orphan Scheme that sent thousands of able-bodied young women to male-heavy Australia, the journey challenges these young women in unexpected ways.
Playwright Jaki McCarrick plumbs diverse human frailty with her five women in the crucible of small quarters. The five each come to the ship from different paths; workhouses, poorhouses, fleeing horrors of the famine. All hope what they find at the end of the three months at sea is better than what they left.
And the circumstances are dire; one is involved in a suspicious death, a couple is sent directly from the workhouse, where they were sent after being arrested for breaking the laws of the day, and the greed-driven famine has made refugees out of millions of Irish. Like the poem “No one puts a child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” desperation drives these women to seek their survival thousands of miles away.
As usual, women bear the brunt of the brutality of famine and economic strife. “We (women) are as the peat: to be used up and walked on.” Hannah (Summer Olsson) and Jane (Hannah Edelson) bicker as siblings scrabbling over petty morsels, a duo that starts in lighthearted banter. “She never said no to an urge in her life,” says one to the other. “Your mouth could fit a whale in it!” These two trade some of the brightest lines in the play, underpinned by a vicious anger that multiplies as the strain of the journey destroys camaraderie, leaving claws and teeth. Olsson delivers a zealous, fearless portrayal of the bawdy and slightly simple Hannah.
Judith, the Jamaican and Irish woman twice unhomed, is the story’s anchor, sturdy and intelligent. She meets an intellectual spark in Molly, who shows her social and political awareness, broadening her horizons with books Molly carried on board. Judith (Anya Pearson) holds on warily to hope, played with keen intelligence by Pearson. When she sees a new world of possibility in the words and ideas of philosophy and social thought, life briefly expands before her eyes. Delicate Molly (Tiffany Groben) upsets the tenuous peace of the quarters by introducing intellectual ideals.
A study in human behavior like “Lord of the Flies,” “Belfast Girls” trains a magnifying glass on women’s history, using the additional lens of Irish diaspora. We hope and plan and strive to change our lives, but when dragged to emotional limits, who we really are is revealed in how we react.
Overlaid on the exposed human nature is the heavy reminder that it is men who caused the strife the women are left to manage or escape. “(Men) run the world!… And look at the world!”
“Belfast Girls” starts slow, unsure on its feet. The puzzling opening moments, in which Judith is onstage in complete silence for a few moments until the music starts playing loudly as she starts inexplicably moving luggage around the stage, felt awkward and confusing. Some lighting cues were odd, not clearly tied to action or plot.
The strength of this play is in the lyrical writing, supported by convincing accents among actors whose confidence grew as the show went on. At its apex, the story is marvelously dispatched, its themes of self-determination and futility wrestling to mutual destruction.
“Belfast Girls” ran through December 10, 2017 at Corrib Theatre, Shaking the Tree Theatre
2017 Nov 13 Mojada
“Men do what men do,” says the sage grandmother in “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles.” But what transpires in this operatic play is a study of what women do, an evocation of the fury a woman can generate when finally and fully scorned. It’s an ode to the power women wield for spurring action, inspiring and stoking greed, and for laying waste to everything in their ruinous path.
Using the meat of Euripedes’ “Medea,” playwright Luis Alfaro built a new story of a woman imprisoned by the horrors heaped upon her, and her ultimate deliverance from that prison through her self-immolation. Edges singed by the depths of Greek tragedy, “Mojada” combusts from the combined fuel of brutality, betrayal and abandonment in the toxic environment of illegal border crossing from Mexico into the U.S.
In “Medea,” famed Argonaut Jason leaves his wife Medea and marries another woman. Medea exacts revenge by killing the new wife plus her own children. These basic facts carry forward in “Mojada,” with a focus on the history that placed Medea in the powerless position from which she eventually strikes out in desperation. Through a Greek chorus/narrator in the form of Tita, Medea’s aunt, the brutal past is explicated; Medea’s father and brother abused her and robbed her of the land in Michoacan that was her birthright because of her gender. On their journey through the desert fleeing to the U.S., Medea is brutalized and raped. These events so damage her psyche that Medea exists in the confines of their small home in the barrio, imprisoned and dependent on Jason’s perseverance to pull them out of this ditch.
Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) has Tita (VIVIS) for companionship and comfort, and news from the world outside her four walls. Tita provides clarity and context in her fourth-wall piercing speeches, providing many of the play’s comic moments. The twinkling VIVIS is a steady foil for the creeping darkness in “Mojada”; like many matriarchs, she offers the distraction of levity, and a steadying voice as the gravity takes over. VIVIS is splendid in this role, reminiscent of Carrie Fisher’s intelligence and bawdy humor. She gets some of the best lines in the show, like “In Michoacan, everyone knows your cheese.”
The extraordinary magnetism of Varela conveys Medea’s strength and vulnerability. Behind her quiet, power is building. Even in Medea’s anxiety, Varela is majestic and compelling, an elegant sorceress waiting to appear. Varela has an irresistible presence, and in her full capacity as the woman scorned, she is operatic, the lyric soprano crying her anguish and anger to the world.
Jason (Lakin Valdez) swaggers into the scene, dirty and spitting, machismo and virility in every strut until he sees Medea’s pain. The energy shifts, and it’s clear in an instant that he fears Medea, or fears for her. It’s a difficult line to walk, and Valdez does it well. Jason’s love for Medea is so evident that the audience cried out at the realization of his betrayal. It was an extraordinary moment of theatre.
Another character who provides necessary exposition with humor is Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), a local street vendor that Tita brings in to be a friend for the isolated Medea. She is a necessary bridge between the old country and the L.A. barrio. “We should look like the old country; plump and full of possibilities.” Rodriguez bounces onto the scene with joy, delivering a comic performance that garnered well-earned applause on her exit. She is the innocence lost, the possibility Medea could never realize under the weight of her trauma.
While there is much to like about “Mojada,” there are a few perplexing weak spots in staging. In a scene with only two or three characters, one would walk away from the others, talking all the while, and stand upstage to gaze out into the distance, a puzzling blocking that doesn’t match reality. People don’t walk 20 feet away from each other while they’re in the middle of a conversation and stare off into the distance. And when Medea’s sorcery is cast onto another character, the depiction is left to lighting and imagination, and is ultimately a disappointment.
“Mojada” is a wrenching, gorgeous wonder of a play. Alfaro took the raw, brutal material of a Greek tragedy and created a potent, gripping play about real people that’s full of surprising humor and magic realism. The resulting cloth pieced from these disparate elements is marvelous.
“Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles” ran through November 26, 2017 at Portland Center Stage
2017 Oct 10 Caught
Sometimes, art is a challenge to the audience; face this uncomfortable truth, or unravel this mystery, or decipher this hidden meaning. Art’s subjectiveness is part of the joy of being an audience member, the comparison of viewpoints a source of entertainment, as we saw with the “Blue or Gold” dress a couple of years ago. What exactly do you see?
Artists Repertory Theatre has made a study of pulling the rug out from under its audience this year, first upending expectations in its brilliant, subversive opening show “An Octoroon.” With “Caught,” the theatre goes even further, challenging the audience to contemplate the underpinnings of their own perceptions.
From the moment you walk in the building, you enter an unexpected space; a gallery full of highly detailed works of art, each with layers of meaning delivered exactingly on attendant placards. There is a strong theme of consumerism among the work, a juxtaposition of Western and Eastern cultures, and a contemplation of the loss of connection and history. The small lobby gallery leads into the performance space, where more sprawling works lead you on a single path to the audience seats.
Conceptual artist Lin Bo is introduced, a Chinese dissident whose work comprises the gallery show. Lin Bo proceeds to tell his story about being imprisoned in China for his rebellious artwork, stating that his work is meant to be an “appropriation of subversion,” an intentional destruction of perception. With earnest charisma, Lin Bo delivers his artistic philosophy; “The truth does not lie in the specific facts, but only in the feeling. Only I can be the arbiter of my own truth.”
“Caught” raises questions about narrative, story, authenticity, and the necessity of truth in artistic expression. Is the idea itself sufficient to constitute a piece of art? Or does the transaction between artist and audience require a middle man, a context of trust? Is there a means of “pure transmission and pure reception” between audience and artist?
These heady ideas are pursued to their extreme ends in this combination performance art and gallery opening. The audience unwittingly plays an active role in this dynamic, shifting from mere observation of the action playing out before them to active self-examination of the role and responsibility of art consumers. Like watching Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling, or seeing the dimensions of a street undulate in the movie “Inception,” the show “Caught” affects a profound and lingering displacement of gravity.
Collaborating on this engaging, challenging and peculiarly funny show is director Shawn Lee, who harnesses the disparate lightning bolts of visual, aural, verbal and dramatic sensory input to vivid — sometimes shocking — effect. Working with him are cast members Sara Hennessy, Chris Harder, Greg Watanabe and Dmae Roberts.
Also notable for their contribution to this feat of multimedia incitement are Megan Wilkerson, Luan Schooler, and Rodolfo Ortega. The group creates a seamless presentation of thought, idea, interactive play, and visual and intellectual engagement that defies easy description, and begs to be experienced.
But be prepared to confront deeply held beliefs as you step through this kaleidoscopic looking glass; like the “unexamined life is not worth living,” an untested faith that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” may not withstand the maelstrom of this show.
“Caught” ran through October 29, 2017 at Artists Repertory Theatre
2017 Sept 26 Fun Home
A woman unpacks a box, examining each dusty item as her memory wanders back through their origins, scenes from her childhood and family coming to life onstage. In her faithful unpacking, she seeks clarity in her memories, which are subject to the cloud of years and hurt and confusion, to better understand her father and maybe, by extension, herself.
At Portland Center Stage, the musical “Fun Home” bares one family’s unspoken disappointments and secrets and injuries with loving humor. It is the story of her longing to connect with her father, and the disconnection created by his dishonesty.
This layered, complex story traverses moments in Alison’s childhood, her college-age realization that she is a lesbian, coming out to her parents, finding out her father is gay, and her father’s suicide. This painful history is told with grace and tenderness, with music and lyrics aching with regret, but all laced somehow with wit and fondness.
The Armory’s production of “Fun Home” brings together this work of recreated memories and song with some gorgeous performances and deft and elegant staging. Director Chris Coleman leads the cast through this difficult unpacking with his characteristic dignity and respect for the story.
Scenic Designer William Bloodgood set the show on a sparse set illuminated by large airborne panels with cartoon drawings of house exteriors, somewhat like Bechdel’s drawings, that slide into place above and around the characters, indicating scenes. It’s an engaging, interesting staging that serves to fix the live-action show in the visual aesthetic of a graphic novel.
This is a strong cast all around. Three performers deliver Alison at different ages. Aida Valentine is Small Alison, Sara Masterson is Medium Alison, and Allison Mickelson is Alison (adult). Masterson’s thrilling voice stands out, as does Mickelson’s performance as the center of the family of stories.
Faith Sandberg plays Alison’s mother, Helen. The one complaint about the play is that it gives short shrift to Bechdel’s mother, who was shown in the book to have been pursuing her Master’s degree while raising three kids and performing in theater, but here looks to be little more than a bustling homemaker. But Sandberg imbues Helen with the weary defeat of unhappy marriage. Her performance of “Days and Days” is gorgeous and full of anguish.
As Alison’s father, Bruce, Robert Mammana has charisma and charm, with a lurking anger fitting the character. That liquid-caramel voice makes him especially attractive and adds complexity. The casting of him with the lovely Sandberg as Helen heightens the effect of the appearance of the perfect couple, and the couple’s preference for appearance over reality.
Alison’s brothers, played by Theo Curl and Karsten George, add some levity, and the “Fun Home Commercial” the kids’ record is especially entertaining. Curl, George and Valentine deliver a full-on ’70s retro performance that shows exactly how fun it can be to grow up in a funeral home.
Alison Bechdel wrote the acclaimed “Fun Home” graphic-novel/memoir that was turned into this resonant musical to make some kind of sense of her relationship with her father. Bechdel restored her memories as lovingly and faithfully as her father restored their historic home, carefully revealing details that showed the true character of their family.
This musical is a chance for us to share in her process, to witness her growing understanding, and to have compassion for our own process of unpacking memories. You’ll never have so much fun with someone else’s old “junk” as you do at “Fun Home.”
“Fun Home” ran through October 22, 2017 at Portland Center Stage,
2017 Sept 12 An Octoroon
The challenging and compelling play “An Octoroon” is up now at Artists Repertory Theatre. Loosely, “An Octoroon” is a play about a play within a play about writing a play. But it is so much more, and the dense texture of this show is what makes it so intriguing and worthwhile.
“An Octoroon,” is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ reframing of Dion Boucicault’s play “The Octoroon” from 1859. With bold staging, healthy self-awareness and a phenomenal cast, this production offers a place for examining social constructs. Co-Directors Lava Alapai and Damaso Rodriguez have provided a biting, funny and audacious show with powerful reverberations.
At the center of the play is BJJ (ostensibly the playwright himself), who finds himself “stuck” as a writer and is encouraged to rework a play he admires, so he chooses Boucicault’s melodrama about a one-eighths black woman who lives on a slave plantation. BJJ is played by Joseph Gibson, whose considerable talent is on full display.
Gibson also plays George, a “decent” slave owner, and M’Closky, the dastardly villain. Gibson is lithe and dynamic and absolutely riveting, at one point physically fighting with himself with only one hand, as the other holds the mustache identifying the villain. Fight Choreographer Jonathan Cole pulled off an impressive feat with this fight alone.
Joining him in triplicate roles is Michael Mendelson, who deftly maneuvers between an Irishman (Boucicault), a Native American, and a slave auctioneer. John San Nicolas is a physical marvel as a theatrical assistant, an old slave named Pete and a slave child.
This is a complex play.
The durable Ayanna Berkshire potently fills two largely physical roles, while Kailey Rhodes’ flouncing Southern belle is so coy and cunning butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. In what could best be described as a “chorus,” Andrea Vernae and Josie Seid are Minnie and Dido, two slave women who describe the action in back-porch gossip using today’s vernacular. As a sign at the start of the show reads, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.” Vernae and Seid are the comedic fulcrum that launches this show and helps make it a dazzling airborne wonder of danger and delight.
The melodramatic plot of the 1859 play on which this is based was intended to demonstrate the probative power of photography. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version uses that vehicle to show something much less concrete. “An Octoroon” plays with our perceptions of race and class and cultural identity, and as it juggles these hefty ideas, we get to see them all from different sides, and see ourselves looking at them. Jacobs-Jenkins used “distancing” to remove emotional response, so while this show is fraught with demanding subjects, the effect is intellectualized instead of pulling emotional strings.
This production of “An Octoroon” is a compelling, exciting and stimulating show. The multi-use costumes by Wanda Walden are fascinating and beautifully designed, as they were changed repeatedly by all cast members onstage in the blink of an eye to denote character and scene changes. Music played a powerful role as well, as the fusion of antebellum South with today’s music and language is energizing. Phil Johnson’s composition and sound design added vitality and excitement to scene changes, which became part of the action as the actors danced to the music as the set pieces moved.
It was a daring gamble to produce such a multi-layered, cerebral play with so many moving parts, but this gamble pays off. “An Octoroon” is worth seeing and discussing and seeing again. This is what it looks like when a confrontational play is produced by a skilled production team with an accomplished cast; the result is a living, breathing work of art.
“An Octoroon” ran through October 1, 2017 at Artists Repertory Theatre
2017 Sept 7 Cirque du Soleil: Kurios
On the far north end of Portland, a colorful circus tent popped up a couple of weeks ago. It belongs to Cirque du Soleil, the grand chapiteau under which their traveling show “KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities” is performed all around the country. After several years of wanting to see a Cirque du Soleil show, I finally took this opportunity on a hot, smoky night under a full orange moon.
From the moment you approach the mammoth tent, there is a sensation of time suspended. In the lobby, the largest theatrical producer in the world blends the magic and wonder of childhood carnival memories with polished hospitality and performance. Every inch of the tent interior is kitted out with enormous tent poles strung with elaborate lights, greeters and ushers every several feet, vendors selling themed hats and masks and eyewear. You are encouraged to come in costume, and some in the audience do.
The show begins on stage while people are finding their seats, with characters moving about “preparing.” A carnival barker/ringmaster announces the start of the action, and the dreamlike show begins. The players parade through the audience, marching to a blend of live and recorded music, blurring the lines of polished performance and raw jubilance, a celebration of talents and the coy magic of street performance.
The theme of “KURIOS” is steampunk, a jumbled string of vignettes each highlighting a performer or skill. Jugglers, acrobats, and drummers kick off the show in a dizzying mélange of choreography. So much happens onstage it’s hard to know where to fix your eye, but eventually, you just succumb to the dream and let the colors and wonder wash over you.
Every element of this show is so carefully constructed there isn’t a single seam showing or step out of place, and yet the precision is charming and engaging, never cold. While it’s difficult to discern any through-line of a story in this show, despite Cirque’s reputation for storytelling, the vignettes are so entrancing that the lack of a story eventually doesn’t matter.
The performers in “KURIOS” are, naturally, among the best in the world, but there were some scenes that were particularly moving. The aerialist on the bicycle was mesmerizing, demonstrating strength with such casual flair she flicked a hair out of her eyes while she was floating down hanging upside down from the bike frame.
A man climbed on balanced chairs ever skyward until the collective eye of the audience saw that there was another man hanging upside down from the ceiling “balancing” chairs downward, creating a mirror image of the scene below. A troupe of more than a dozen acrobats somersaulted over each other onto great pyramids built on massively muscled men. Two men swung over the audience’s heads in huge loops of flight at the end of aerial straps, nothing holding them fast except their own hands.
Five other acrobats (like human rubber balls) flung themselves toward the ceiling from a great trampoline, passing each other within mere centimeters, sometimes catching the trapeze near the ceiling and then reaching down and catching another rubber ball mid-flight. Every step and swing is choreographed, the joy practiced and sure, but the effect is immersive, celebratory, and beguiling.
“KURIOS” also explores the enchanting potential of small-scale storytelling. The “ringmaster” shines in his scene of solo performance, an audience participation event in which he tells the tale of a would-be seduction interrupted by the appearance of house pets.
His pantomime is so delightful, pure nonverbal communication, the audience roared. Finally, the deft, delicate finger puppetry, filmed close-up and broadcast sweetly on an old-fashioned dirigible above the heads of the darkened performers, demonstrated Cirque du Soleil’s considerable imaginative gifts, and the tremendous connective power of physical theatre.
Cirque du Soleil delivered on their reputation’s promise of bewitching performances and an evening of pure joy in a world outside of time. Take the time to go to that funny blue and yellow tent near the north end of the highway, and just lose yourself for a couple of hours.
“KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities” ran through October 8, 2017 at Portland Expo Center
2017 May 30 The Importance of Being Earnest
It’s not often that my immediate response from seeing a show is unabashed delight, but Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde earns this and more. From its brilliant casting to the delightfully sparse period sets to the pitch-perfect performances, this winning production is a joy in every way.
In this twist on the well-made play, an infant discovered in a bag at a train station grows up in aristocracy and falls in love with his friend’s cousin. When he announces his intent to propose, her family begins their investigation to suss out whether he is a suitable candidate. The absurd discoveries made in the process of the investigation throw the characters into brief but amusing chaos, and at the end, everything works out better than perfectly and they all live happily ever after. Such is the well-made play.
What sets this production apart is its all-female cast, a decision made in part in response to the recent casting of men in the role of prim and stuffy Lady Bracknell, the aunt leading the investigation into the protagonist. From Stephen Fry to Geoffrey Rush, the use of unattractive males in drag to play an older woman has been a recent hilarity.
This artistic team went a completely different — and wholly welcome — direction; fill all the roles with superlatively talented women and play it “straight.” Given the marvelous performances in this production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” this was an excellent choice.
The appearance of the magnetic Ayanna Berkshire initially drew my attention to this production, and she is fantastic as Algernon; she conveys this brash character with physicality and a subtle shift in energy. As Algernon’s cousin, Jack, Jamie M. Rea, who is new to me, is spectacular; her every syllable precise, projection enormous, her bearing regal and stiff, befitting the character’s social status.
Heretofore unknown to me, Kailey Rhodes plays Gwendolyn Fairfax to vaudevillian aplomb; she is a showstopper. She has the bubbly charm of Debbie Reynolds, delivering lines like “Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you” with ludicrous facial expressions that communicate volumes in the wink of an eye.
Playing two different butlers, Sarah Lucht is similarly arresting. Butlers are often given the best lines in the play, throwaways that the aristocracy they serve typically ignore. Lucht takes these one-liners to their comic heights, adding physical dimension to otherwise staid characters. To my unpracticed ear, her Scottish burr is perfection.
The aforementioned Lady Bracknell is played to the hilt by Linda Alper, who seems to have been born to the role. Austere, perspicacious, and covetous, Lady Bracknell is the nasty aunt in every wealthy family; Alper gives us a no-nonsense Lady Bracknell whose appearance is amusing simply because of her conventional attire, and for delivering lines like, “Nor do I approve of… sympathy with invalids… Illness of any kind if hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.”
Crystal Ann Munoz plays Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, to delightful effect; the scene in which she and Gwendolyn square off is sheer comic bliss.
Rounding out the octet are Miss Prism, played by Vana O’Brien, and Rev. Chausable, the broadly comic JoAnn Johnson, who clearly reveled in her role as the local clergy smitten with Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism. Johnson played Chausable as a bandy-legged fool joyously pursuing his lady.
While I could also see O’Brien as Lady Bracknell, she plays the coy spinster whose foolish actions as a young woman led to the baby being placed in a handbag in the first place. O’Brien and Johnson are wonderful in their respective roles.
Much of the success of this performance is due to director Michael Mendelson. From the brisk pace to the sparse but evocative staging to the clever blocking of scenes, his touch is elegant and subtle. He played the irony of the all-female cast in a highly patriarchal play with a gentle wink and little more, allowing the play to speak for itself. Scenic Director Megan Wilkerson also deserves a nod; this is an intelligent staging with tremendous impact.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a positively delightful show; using a satirical production of a satirical play about the ridiculous mores of “polite” society, it demonstrates how far we’ve come as a society, and given our predilection for vacuous wealthy people, how far we still have to go.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” ran through June 11, 2017 at Artists Repertory Theatre
2017 May 24 Constellations
A beekeeper and a cosmologist meet at a barbeque. The cosmologist opens the conversation with a funny gambit; the reason humans can’t lick the tips of their elbows is because if they did, they’d know the secrets of the universe. The award-winning play “Constellations” opens with this meeting of the beekeeper and cosmologist and spends the rest of the night exploring their infinite permutations.
Based on the hypothesis that we exist not in a universe but in a multiverse, that we exist severally in parallel universes, “Constellations” lays out the strands of those concurrent paths for Marianne and Roland, and provides a sampling of their potential multitudes.
Like our internal recordings of awkward conversations give us the chance to say something witty instead of staring blankly, the repeated conversations in “Constellations” rolls back to an earlier place in the scene or the play, spinning out another possible direction the characters’ choices could take them.
Sometimes fully examined, others just a nuanced alteration, these new lines depict multiple different realities for the characters. It’s like real-time choose-your own adventure with dialogue rewind, except the characters don’t choose. According to the cosmologist, these different realities exist simultaneously, and we are but particles moving through a predetermined path.
It would be easy to get lost in the narrative potential of this scientific premise, but playwright Nick Payne has a light touch with this dense theory. He tells their story out of linear time, but holds the audience in suspense through interrupted lines of dialogue that are brought to fruition many scenes later. The Rolands and Mariannes in these parallel universes are at once identical and fundamentally different from each other, leading to different plots, but Payne focuses on the end point, the inevitable conclusion of the relationship in but one of the possible universes.
The set design by Jason Sherwood for this production is a marvel, comprising a grid that swoops up toward the rafters and down into the footlights, arcing upstage in the middle, so that the actors are walking on a three-dimensional depiction of folding time.
On this backdrop, all possible conversations take place, so the work of shifting into another universe is left to the actors; in this, Portland stage veteran Dana Greene as Marianne and Silas Weir Mitchell, recently seen in “Three Days of Rain” at PCS and, famously, from TV’s “Grimm,” give us appropriately shifted personalities.
It takes skill to make these subtle shifts as quickly as this play demands; like actors in improv comedy, Weir and Greene take each change in stride. In the hands of such capable actors, the play dances through its complex premise with energy and purpose.
For a play based on theoretical physics, “Constellations” twinkles with romance. It is the realization of the daydream about “what if”; what if I had chosen Door #2 instead of Door #1? In a parallel universe, would my love and I still be together? What would I do if I found out I was dying? Would I make the same choices that brought me to this point?
One line of dialogue made me breathless; “Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules.” That I can’t explain quite why is part of the magic of this show; its quirky, out-of-joint delivery, its reliance on sketchy interpretation of quantum physics, its gentle depiction of the irresistible drawing together of two molecules who can’t resist each other’s particles.
Did I want more beekeeping science? You bet. That Roland is a beekeeper is negligible to the plot, and I was hoping to learn some interplay of the science of bees and quantum physics, but this is a small disappointment. For a lovely spring evening of entertainment, see “Constellations” with someone you love.
“Constellations” ran through June 11, 2017 at Portland Center Stage at the Armory
2017 Mar 29 Wild and Reckless
“Wild & Reckless: A New Concert Event with Blitzen Trapper” at Portland Center Stage is a current of energy carrying a story. Called a “concert event,” but more of a rock operetta, “Wild & Reckless” tells the story of young love and addiction through music.
If Bob Dylan were to sing in the style of Bruce Springsteen, if the E-Street Band lacked a saxophone, if Pink Floyd collaborated with Gordon Lightfoot to write songs about life and loss, you’d have something close to Blitzen Trapper. Compared elsewhere to Queen and the Grateful Dead, this band seems to be made from threads from some of the greatest bands of all time, but the resulting musical fabric is wholly their own, rich and compelling.
Blitzen Trapper’s narrative songwriting lends itself perfectly to the longer story arc of a musical. It’s hard to call this a musical, though, because it feels much like a storytelling concert. The male lead speaks the first lines of the show, telling the story of where he came from and segueing into a song about those origins. This is how the show goes, in and out of music and lyrics, with very little spoken. The songs are strung together loosely, with only glancing character interaction.
Because Blitzen Trapper was unfamiliar to me, I listened to some of their songs before seeing the show. I wasn’t sold on their songwriting, however, until I saw them live; they are astonishing live. There’s something that happens with their live that isn’t revealed in their recordings, like the uselessness of trying to capture lightning in a bottle.
I’m a sucker for a well-written line, like “Heaven’s right below the hurricane/hell’s in every single flame” or “The open road feels like a song,” or “Overpass like a river at night.” Beautiful nuggets like these pop up in the middle of unusual and mesmerizing melodic and harmonic lines. These are intriguing songs musically and lyrically, and the strength of the songs carries the story.
Eric Earley as the Narrator/Guitarist is the definitive rock star; his demeanor is like Springsteen’s, he’s just there to serve the music, but at a certain point, he gets lost in that music and becomes something else altogether. That’s the moment I live for in live performances.
The other players in the story are The Girl (played by Laura Carbonell, who also plays piano and guitar onstage), The Scientist (percussionist, played by Brian Adrian Koch, who poured delight and vigor into his performance), The Dealer, (Leif Norby, proving he truly can play *any* role), The Professor (Marty Marquis, keyboard), The Kid (Erik Menteer, also on guitar), and Michael Van Pelt on bass and percussion.
The Professor and Scientist serve to inform the audience about the prevailing science of the day; lightning is being harnessed as an energy source, and its residue (lightning dust) is a highly addictive substance around which an entire sub-economy has grown. The Narrator and The Girl fall in love, The Girl becomes addicted to lightning dust, and their lives spiral out of control.
The use of lightning as a narrative thread is genius; it works as an agent in the collapse of society around the couple, as an unstoppable force into which otherwise intelligent people are subsumed, and makes the music, as the voice of that energy, a part of the story. What could have been just another sad story about love lost to addiction becomes (pardon the pun) energized and fraught with peril.
The directors Rose Riordan and Liam Kaas-Lentz staged this show on a bare-bones set that works beautifully for this concert event. With the coolest mobile drum riser I’ve ever seen, the set has the feel of a grungy bar stage, hung with street lamps that frizzle when lightning strikes.
The lighting designer, Daniel Meeker, worked some serious magic throughout. The revolving graphic pools dancing across the stage enhance the feeling of being in a concert, and the actors were lit indirectly, as if wandering in and out of ambient light, like people do in bars or on the street. Late in the show, the music builds to a psychedelic-rock crescendo, and the lightning-strike electrification of the set appears to course through the musicians and actors. It’s a moment of heart-stopping wonder and excitement.
“Wild & Reckless” is a hypnotic, entrancing piece of theater. From the composition to the rock performance to the staging, this collaboration of disparate elements has resulted in something thrilling and extraordinary.
“Wild & Reckless: A New Concert Event with Blitzen Trapper” ran through April 30, 2017 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory
2017 March 29 Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
When Lauren Weedman was onstage in Portland a few years ago, her “People’s Republic of Portland” show was a comedy/dance performance about her time working in Portland, and much of the humor centered around her amusing Portland discoveries. She ended her show with a revealing anecdote about her discovery that her husband had slept with their babysitter.
Weedman has taken that nugget of discovery about her husband and made it into a stand-alone piece “Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” about dealing with devastation with her comic delivery and an ear for impressions.
In typical Weedman style, she shared this story in song and dance intercut with one-sided conversations with her therapist. She gets help with projections from Lighting Designer Daniel Meeker.
Adopting the persona of “Tami Lisa,” a variety show host a la Cher (sans Sonny) with a rockabilly sensibility, like Johnny and June Cash, Weedman tells what it was like to find out about her husband’s infidelity. As Tami Lisa tries to put on her weekly show, she interviews guests between comedy and music performances.
Occasionally, Weedman stops being in Tami Lisa character and shares one-sided conversations with her therapist, so we discover that the Tami Lisa part of the show is her imagination working through the stressful event in her marriage.
Weedman expanded the nervous self-consciousness that permeated her first show in Portland to encompass her alter ego and some of the unseen guests. The phrase “I’m dancing as fast as I can” comes to mind as she sings and plays guitar and exchanges dialogue with Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Tami Lisa’s own ex-husband, the bewildered “Roman” who lost his purpose when he was taken off the show.
The frenetic energy of Weedman’s comedy is shocking at first, but the rhythm of the show quickly takes over, and you’re along for the ride. Tami Lisa is confronted with the revelation of her husband’s infidelity onstage, and for the rest of the show, tries to pretend everything’s okay, that she’s just fine, that nothing will change, that she’s mature enough to interact with her ex-husband with respect.
Weedman is the antithesis of fellow comedian Steven Wright, the laconic absurdist who loses buttonholes. With her shuffling dance moves and rapid character changes, juggling onstage persona with real life persona while she tries to process a personal cataclysm, she’s a whirlwind of effort and thoughts and voices.
This is a ballsy concept, a three-ring circus of a one-woman show, and Weedman executes with characteristic strength and stamina, hopping so effortlessly between characters it’s easy to forget it’s just her doing everything.
From the doltish bass player to the very babysitter at the center of her life’s destruction, Weedman conveys characters in a wide spectrum of humanity. She has a gift for turning her own confusion and heartbreak into humor, letting the audience watch her slow-motion, behind-the-scenes train wreck, showing her own absurdity. “I’m a mother, for fuck’s sake, I gotta class it up a bit.” Weedman makes it easy to become fully engaged, like you’re listening to a good friend tell about the horrifying events in her personal life.
It is her vulnerability that makes Weedman’s shows so affecting. She is every one of us, working through her crap the only way she knows how, humiliating herself and making us laugh, dancing as fast as she can.
“Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” ran through April 30, 2017 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory
2017 March 22 Feathers and Teeth
“Feathers and Teeth” is a carefully constructed horror story about a grieving young girl and her family’s attempt to move forward after her mother’s death. Set in the already drab and unpleasant ’70s, the show uses the “perfect family” tableau as a major plot stirrer, and casts the rebellious pre-teen as an agent of change.
Agatha Day Olson, as the girl, was the main attraction for me. Brilliant as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” I’ve been eager to see her in larger roles. She does not disappoint as Chris, the child of a hippie who struts around in her mother’s old clothes, challenging her spineless father, Arthur, and his ersatz fiancé, Carol, as they leap past the mourning period directly into a new romance.
Arthur, played by another favorite Darius Pierce, is a hapless, confused, easily led father who doesn’t know how badly he’s being used. Sara Hennessy is Carol, the nurse cum fiancé who may or may not have played a part in the death of Chris’ mother.
As Chris pushes back against the too-fast relationship, her father runs over some wild animal and attempts to bury it in the back yard. When the animal carcass is brought into the house, the set becomes covered with blood, and director Damaso Rodriguez clearly reveled in the carnage. But what makes a horror story truly scary isn’t just the depiction of buckets of blood, it’s a pervasive sense of terror of what might be true beyond what we can see. That terror is never apparent in “Feathers and Teeth.”
The moments that connect with true emotion, not surprisingly, are those where Chris attempts to speak to her dead mother. The play drops into her grief — through the talents of Agatha Day Olson — profoundly, and Chris’ anger at her father’s betrayal makes her a wild creature. Even when she’s silent, Olson tells epic tales with her eyes, a stunning ability for a stage actor, who doesn’t get to rely on camera close-ups to show what she’s thinking.
I wish director Damaso Rodriguez had employed some kind of microphone, because the overly-bold effect of every actor shouting their lines blurred the intent of the dialogue. And I was baffled about the choice to make the neighbor boy German; because of his dialect, it was difficult to understand about half of what he was saying, and his contribution of his grandmother’s tale about the fabled monster could easily have been told without the boy having an accent.
There are some wonderful, inventive moments in this play, but I was annoyed more often than engaged. Why do the characters say each others’ names after every line in the same scene? “That’s not right, Arthur,” “I was just saying that, Carol,” “I don’t understand, Arthur,” “Let’s get rid of this pot, Carol,” The characters haven’t lost track of who they’re talking to, have they? I saw no reason either within the play or in the context of camp/horror genre for this abrasive habit, and it continued all the way to the end.
And why did Chris perform the elaborate dance after tying up her stepmother? It didn’t fit her character or further the plot in any discernable way. And why did Carol bleed when she passed out from being sprayed with cleaner or bug spray? I couldn’t piece together answers to any of these questions.
The interruption of my suspension of disbelief gave me plenty of time to admire the set, which was meticulously created in the style of Brady Bunch-era housing. The special effects of the “creatures” (true identities unknown) were fascinating; the voices of multiple chomping/tweeting/squeaking/gnashing nasties in a pot (delivered offstage by Nelda Reyes) were deliciously unpleasant.
And one ultra-gory scene in particular was done to tremendous effect; kudos to Scenic Director Megan Wilkerson, Props Master Emily Wilken, and Rodriquez for creating that viscous demolition. Despite these stagecraft treasures, the play did not deliver on the kind of gripping horror I had hoped for from a cast and crew with these bona fides.
“Feathers and Teeth” ran through April 2, 2017 at Artists Repertory Theatre
2017 Feb 22 pen/man/ship
We are in an age when people of color feel increasingly unsafe, at risk, and targeted. The true pervasiveness of bias against marginalized people has been revealed, and some seek to escape this unleashed enmity; frightened people have crossed the border into Canada and Mexico, leaving behind a place that has proved that people of color are not welcome.
The play “pen/man/ship,” by Christina Anderson, details the 1896 voyage of 17 black Americans to Liberia in search of freedom from the oppressive treatment of people of color in the U.S. Four main characters square off about their experiences in the U.S. and their decisions to leave; Charles Boyd, who organized the voyage; Jacob Boyd, his son; Ruby Heard, Jacob’s friend and sole female on the trip; and Cecil, a crew member who becomes friends with Charles.
Cecil is on the voyage to earn money, after loaning his last dollar to someone more in need than he. Ruby seeks self-determination and freedom; having lived in the cruelty of the South her whole life, she refuses to set foot on American soil again. Charles is secretly in the employ of the American Colonization Society, who has hired him to survey land in Liberia to create a penal colony for black people from America. The only person who learns of this true intent is his son, who keeps the controversial news from the rest of the people on the voyage.
It is Ruby’s story that intrigues me. She is a woman of strength and purpose, a natural leader whose presence on the voyage is questioned only by the autocrat Charles, who assumes that no one will question someone of his intellectual rank. Ruby does, however, and her presence chafes him.
He verbally cuts her often, saying women are intellectually inferior, backing up his statement with “I speak a medical fact that also happens to be my opinion,” “A woman’s mind is a senseless maze,” and “It’s better to live in a desert land than with a vexing and contentious woman.”
Ruby never rises to his bait, confident in her ability and knowledge. Charles hides his tilted morality behind his assumed authority, but the deception does not last.
Andrea Whittle ably takes the part of Ruby, an immovable strength that refutes Charles’ arrogance. Vin Shambry charms as the affable Cecil, breathing life into his “squeezebox” that is mimicked in the sail. As Jacob, DeLance Minefee is sturdy and poetic as Jacob, drawn to Ruby’s quiet strength but loyal to his father; “I love you,” he tells Ruby, “In the most painful way possible. I hate my father in the tenderest way possible.”
Adrian Roberts plays the intimidating Charles with deftness and compassion, giving us a man so convinced of his superiority that he doesn’t know right from wrong. Like King Lear, Charles spirals into a madness of his own making, and Roberts imbues the character with conviction.
Director Lucie Tiberghien has placed this production on an “end stage,” with audience areas on opposing sides of the stage. In the resulting rectangle, a shallow pool of water is surrounded by a wooden boardwalk. In the pool stands a small table and a chair at opposite corners. The sunken pool area acts as the cabin below deck where Charles spends most of his time. The boardwalk is the deck. Above it hangs a sail that lifts and falls as if with the wind.
It’s an intriguing set, but the use of the water remains a mystery throughout, serving neither as symbolism (getting their feet wet in freedom? The ship is sinking? This vessel of idealism is taking on water? “Waiting for Godot”-like surrealism?) nor realistic depiction of life at sea. It does serve to provide some lovely water sounds, but beyond that, its meaning is lost, and its presence a distraction.
“Pen/man/ship” is a marvelous piece of writing, and while the first act is text-heavy, the play asks questions we are facing today. Who decides who gets to put whom in what box? What does it mean to reject Christianity because it’s a tool of conformity? What does patriotism mean? “(This country) celebrates the victories but ignores the injustices.”
Do we continue living within this unbalanced culture or do we leave and seek true freedom? “Hope damages us; doubt is one of the most powerful weapons we have.” These people all have reasons for leaving America, and those reasons have flowered anew today.
Touching on questions of criminality, imprisonment, freedom and self-determination, this tragic play changed the way I look at this country. As many people have begun to realize the onerous influence our historical inequality has had, this play reminds us that these questions demand our attention.
“pen/man/ship” ran through March 5, 2017 at Portland Playhouse
2017 Feb 13 His Eye Is On the Sparrow
Ethyl Waters was a jazz, blues and ragtime singer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a performer of such affecting depth she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her life is traced in “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory. It’s the stirring story of a brutal childhood and ascendance to fame, a life marked by tragedy and determination.
Playing Waters is Maiesha McQueen, last seen in Portland in the magnificent “Ain’t Misbehavin'” a few years ago. “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a one-woman (plus onstage accompanist) show, but the play invites the unseen members of Waters’ life onstage, and we are treated to an expansive and tender tour of Waters’ life.
McQueen has that rare ability to hold a room full of people in the palm of her hand. With a mezzo-soprano capable of big bottom notes and delicate top notes, she is an actor of penetrating talent. This is a quiet play, emotionally intimate, tracing the painful life of a woman from childhood to a triumphant performance at Madison Square Garden.
McQueen takes us through this wrenching story with grace and talent, and obvious respect for Waters’ tenacity and spirit. Her performances of “Am I Blue,” “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” are among the most wrenching I’ve heard.
After she was discovered, Ethyl Waters performed all over the eastern U.S., including states inflicting segregation on people of color. Waters was threatened with physical harm for asking for one theater’s piano to be tuned; in another place in the South, the lynched body of her neighbor’s child was thrown into the lobby where she was performing. Stories that once would have seemed distant and ancient suddenly feel present, urgent in our country’s current state, and Waters’ story, even more moving as a result.
Directed by Timothy Douglas, the play is set in a single room that stands in for the shabby childhood apartment in Philadelphia, a playground, stages large and small, and a dressing room. It was confusing that the show began with Waters and her accompanist strolling out while the house lights were still on. They took their seats onstage without a word, and the accompanist began an overture of sorts, which stretched into awkwardness as the audience was left to just look at Waters sitting on the couch. The moment never resolved in the play, and I could never quite make sense of it. It might have been a nod to tent revival performers, as Water’s eventual collaboration with Billy Graham brought her work and life full circle.
The best moments were when Waters was sharing her faith, first as a young Catholic school student having the rare experience of receiving kindness from a nun; and then singing the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” her beloved and ailing grandmother. Finally, after she has gone through epic highs in life and harrowing lows, she comes back to God literally through the back door of the Billy Graham evangelical crusade and sings to the massive crowd assembled at Madison Square Garden. McQueen conveys Waters’ exultation amid great personal pain in a moment of breathtaking beauty. McQueen’s performance is raw and lavish and divine.
“His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a chance to learn about a great American singer, and to my mind even more importantly, an opportunity to experience the brilliant talent of Maiesha McQueen.
“His Eye is on the Sparrow” ran through March 19, 2017 at the Ellyn Bye Studio at the Armory
2017 Feb 2 Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 3
The last batch of shows I saw at Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival reveal the heart of what the festival is all about: providing a space where new creative projects from local writers and performers can blossom. With the basic idea of beckoning new work to the forefront in a two-week celebration, Fertile Ground makes room for big voices and small.
Two programs taking the stage late in the festival show off the green shoots of creative expression; “Stories from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility” and “Word. Voice.” These shows are the products of workshops in which young people in difficult situations learn playwriting. Whether they write to explore themselves or escape reality, these new writers bring themselves to the page, and, lucky for us, to the stage.
“Stories from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility”, is a reading of plays by youth in custody of Oregon Youth Authority. A production of “Rogue Pack: Young Portland Speaks,” this is a program facilitated by Francesca Piantadosi, who works with a group of gentlemen within MacLaren.
In the eight-week class, they learn character creation, plot, dialogue, and creative problem solving. In the Fertile Ground performance, professional actors read the plays. Jason’s play, “Tree,” about an older tree warning a young tree about the approaching lumberjack, was sweet and sad.
Billy Ray gave us “Al’s House,” a dark invitation into a world of drugs and despair that was unflinching and raw. “Hillbilly Tragedy” was a surprise, playing on the superficial sweetness of Southern charm while the characters murder one another for inconvenience. The breadth of creative thought from these playwrights was impressive, and it’s exciting to see the result of people finding a voice.
Produced by a program called “Play Write,” “Word. Voice” takes a similar path, showcasing the work of high school kids “on the edge” in staged readings by professional actors. From the story of a turquoise marble trying to remove its chipped paint so it could see better, to a discussion between a sunflower and a snake, these plays reveal emotional wounds and a halting but unrelenting effort to connect.
“Word. Voice” used actors familiar to the stages of Portland, some of my all-time favorites (to my great excitement). Darius Pierce, whose uncanny delivery is irresistibly sardonic, gave a water bottle a surprising intensity. Jen Rowe showed off her physical skill as a sunflower following the warmth of the sun.
Seth Rue was the frustrated marble hoping for clarity, and the ineffable Victor Mack the gentle grizzly. Adding to familiar faces was one I didn’t know, the dynamic Mitra Avani as a flower who wanted to join her fellow blossoms in the meadow. I’ll look for her name again.
One of the pieces performed was a song instead of a play, and it was lovely and memorable. Performed by Brooke Dabalos with Tom Chiappari on guitar, this sophisticated melody hinted at a depth of talent from which I’d like to hear more.
The organizer of the Play Write program, Bruce Livingston — a hip Danny Kaye in Birkenstocks — introduced the show with moving remarks about the necessity of reaching toward each other in these divisive times. Getting to end Fertile Ground with his work and that of the MacLaren writers was a comfort after a disruptive week.
These are talented young people whose work deserves to be heard. I am grateful to Rogue Pack, Play Write and Fertile Ground for bringing these voices to a bigger audience and giving these young people space to create and dream and write and perform. Your work is a reminder of the good in people.
Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival ran through January 29, 2017 at assorted venues across Portland
2017 Jan 30 Astoria: Part One
Great storytelling takes the listener to another place — a haunted wood, a rebel base, a classroom in New England — and introduces you to the struggles and triumphs of the people in that world. It connects the listener to people we would never otherwise know and takes us on an adventure with them, and in the process, gives us a new perspective on the world and ourselves.
“Astoria: Part One” is just such storytelling. It’s the tale of the plans of John Jacob Astor, who launched a massive westward expedition to claim the North American fur trade monopoly. Astor’s undertaking represented the chance for the U.S. to take control of the western territory by establishing American trade supremacy in the region if they could beat the British.
In the show, a French-Canadian voyageur scoffs, “These Americans, with their dreams…” at Astor’s seemingly impossible plans. Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman had a dream of bringing the story of Astor’s expedition to the stage, and as theatrical dreams go, this one is massive; take this epic story of an event crucial to the formation of these United States and scale it to the stage.
Somehow, he must show a four-month journey at sea to the mouth of the Columbia River, an overland canoe trip, and a trek on horseback and foot through the Rocky Mountains. Even more daunting, he had to capture somehow the men whose imaginations allowed them to see over the mountain range, beyond the limits of what was known to what they thought might be possible.
Coleman adapted the story from the book “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark, which struck a deft balance between history and context. Using the framework of that well-told story, Coleman built a stage production of big imagination and intimate storytelling.
Astor’s expedition required the construction of complex human mechanisms: finding the ship, hiring skilled leaders for the separate expeditions, selecting the right crews. Coleman had to construct dialogue, characters, a massive and flexible set, adapt music (oh, the music!) from the voyageurs, find and employ accurate dialects across several nationalities and indigenous tribes, and create multi-cultural period costumes, all while telling this ambitious story of pursuit and survival.
These Americans, with their dreams.
Coleman’s efforts are well rewarded, as his show “Astoria: Part One” succeeds with rich storytelling that is at once grand and nimble. A reported 80 characters take the stage, using only 16 actors in this first of two parts of the colossal story. The use of the broken fourth wall, informing the audience directly of ensuing action, gets the show off to a slow start, but once the planning period is over and the journeys begin, the show is all momentum.
It’s easy to get lost in the enterprise and the diverse characters, from Astor to the harsh Captain Thorn to hotheaded Scotsman Duncan McDougall to the Democratic-minded Wilson Price Hunt. The acting in this endeavor is outstanding; Leif Norby as Astor (also as a voyageur and later a wilderness man) is commanding in every role.
Captain Thorn is played by Ben Rosenblatt, whose delivery is so abrupt and coarse it’s comical until he reveals Thorn’s dangerous seriousness. As the indecisive and methodical Wilson Price Hunt, Shawn Fagan’s gentle humanity is evident in every action.
A particular joy to watch is Shaun Taylor-Corbett, magnetic and intense in his “smaller” roles (Astor’s secretary, Second Mate on the ship, and Les Yeux Gris, a member of an indigenous tribe approached by the overland party). Delanna Studi stands out as the sole female in two roles (Sarah Astor and Marie Dorion), where she brings out a boldness that is exciting.
“Astoria: Part One” is a riveting play of epic proportions, a fine-detailed work with a sweeping narrative. From the internecine battles for leadership to the pummeling inflicted by Mother Nature, this play is a three-hour excursion into a dream made manifest by John Jacob Astor.
In this world of period and fantasy miniseries, Coleman has created a spirited story of adventure and survival. It’s exciting storytelling in the hands of a masterful director with a big vision and, like Astor’s, a marvelous dream.
“Astoria: Part One” ran through February 19, 2017 at The Armory, Portland Center Stage
2017 Jan 30 Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 2
With all the troubling events going on nationwide, I didn’t feel much like going to see plays this week, but Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival kept me hopping. I was glad for the intellectual engagement and the reminder that it is in sharing our stories and being vulnerable that we remove the walls that keep us separate. By creating and sharing art, we learn to understand each other and become more connected. And right now, that connection is everything.
I chose shows from underrepresented voices, from people on the margins, because I think it’s important, especially now, to amplify their stories. From a staged reading of a play about a teenager figuring out how to make friends to a monologue of an adult woman recounting her journey to being an actress, almost every show reflected one thought: connection happens when you’re honest with yourself and other people about who you are.
“1980s Teen Musical” was workshopped this week, with 24 actors and four musicians onstage. This is an intelligent and fun story of an isolated junior (Samantha) in high school who wants desperately to escape her life and go live in France for a year. Her mother makes her a deal: if Samantha can make friends with every student in school, she can go to France.
The show is the process of Samantha making friends with her school and the ups and downs of social interaction. There are some ragged moments in the play, and some of the songs need work, but by and large, this is a good musical.
The part of Samantha is new and different in musicals, and that’s interesting. She becomes close friends with a group of geeky boys who are central to the plot, and that’s also interesting. The music is an homage to ’80s tunes, in some places lifting whole riffs from songs like “Sunglasses at Night” and “Borderline,” but that borrowing is done remarkably well.
The enormous cast was very good, with great comic delivery from Brendan Long, William Duff and Carson Walker (the Real Genius Nerds), and probably the coolest mom to ever show up in a musical played by Lisamarie Harrison, who has a great rock and roll voice and spectacular dramatic delivery. And watch for the name Amy Martin, who played Samantha. This girl has serious talent, both as an actress and a singer. “1980s Teen Musical” has some kinks to work out, but I’d be curious to see a staged production.
Jane Comer (Source:http://fertilegroundpdx.org)
Jane Comer brought her monologue “I Am An Actress” to the Festival, a tender and personal story of her mother’s challenging life and her own rocky upbringing. Comer uses music, a slideshow, and oral history to bring this story to life.
This piece was also being workshopped, and as a work of theater, it’s still a little rough in spots, but the moments of raw honesty and insight are quite moving. It almost felt like two separate stories, that of Jane and her mother, albeit joined by Jane’s birth, and I would love to see her mother’s story expand and become a show of its own. Comer is a person of warmth and kindness, and her love for her work and the people in her world drew me in.
In this week-long glow of human kindness was dropped a show that was an unpleasant surprise. “Men Run Amok (or It Takes Balls)” a three-plays-in-one workshop, ostensibly explored men’s flaws in our enlightened world. To a play, however, the show demonstrated a lack of real comprehension, and was thuddingly inappropriate in places where it purported to be showing dawning realizations.
The first play was about two brothers, one straight and the other gay, who are not close as kids, and eventually find some common ground. The conventions of “straight” and “gay” that they used were so shallow and haggard they were meaningless.
I was most astonished at the second, a short play based in Asia, with its unabashed Asian stereotypes, and confused and meandering monologues about the pressures of capitalism.
The final play was an odd pastiche of improv and lecture about how men should behave. Two performers stood out in the three plays; Mario Galeano (as a narrator/tightrope walker) and Kate Rogers (as a male Asian bartender). But the effect of three plays centering on white males who still don’t get it was exhausting. I give them credit for the attempt but would encourage the writers to listen more.
Fertile Ground Festival shows played on stages all over Portland. There were too many great offerings to see them all, but I have a couple more reviews lined up. Watch this space.
Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival ran through January 29, 2017 at assorted venues throughout the city.
2017 Jan 23 Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 1
Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival opened last week, a city-wide festival of performing arts including dance, theatre, staged readings, storytelling and multi-media events. This is a great opportunity to preview little shows that dream of one day growing up to be a Big Show.
Portland’s record snowfall interfered with my plans to see “El Payso,” which was a huge disappointment. I support Milagro’s mission to present bilingual theatre in Portland, and have enjoyed other productions. But weather is a fickle friend.
My first show was a preview of “Nansen of the North,” a Portland Story Theatre presentation. It is a pleasure to hear stories written and delivered by Lawrence Howard of Portland Story Theatre. He’s like your favorite uncle, sitting down after the Thanksgiving meal and telling the history of the family, except his subject is great explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic.
Nansen, his subject this time, is even more fascinating than Shackleton, as Nansen contributed even more to the world (he is responsible for the organization that became the U.N., among many other accomplishments) after his mission ended. The storytelling community in Portland is delightfully robust, and these events are incredibly enjoyable. Howard is a master at storytelling, and I recommend attending any show where he performs.
For more information on his work, visit https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=68047
If Howard is your favorite uncle, “The Free Box” is a bunch of kids playing pretend with a treasure box of dress-up clothes and found items. creating a world of their own. Yocteau Theatre’s Mary Rose and Nathaniel Holder perform a story based on items that have been contributed by the audience on the night of the show. Based on Portland’s famous “free box” tradition, the show explores imagination and showcases improvisational acting skills.
Holder’s talent for physical, movement-based acting is obvious, but it’s Rose’s intelligent and penetrating expressiveness that captured my attention. At times their narrative choices made me uncomfortable, but they managed to provide a through-line in their story, however bizarre the pieces they had to work with. When the actors are joined in their improvisation by the sound and lighting, and all four elements work to create something new right on the spot, it’s exciting-if wholly non-traditional theatre.
For more information, visit http://www.witd.org/headwaters/2017/1/19/yoctotheatre-presents-free-box
This coming week holds many more Fertile Ground adventures, so watch this space for my impressions on new work by local authors.
Portland’s 9th Fertile Ground Festival ran through January 29, 2017 at assorted venues throughout Portland.
2016 Dec 20 Mark O’Connor’s ‘An Appalachian Christmas’
All Classical Portland brought Mark O’Connor and The O’Connor Band to Portland for their annual Christmas concert, “An Appalachian Christmas,” defying the terrible traffic and weather to perform holiday music and pieces from his new album. His band of exceptional musicians delivered his signature music with grace and style, each of the six members a precision instrument performing at their highest level.
O’Connor, known for virtuoso fiddle playing, for his body of Appalachian music, and for those catchy violin tunes used to teach young musicians, has built an astonishing band of high-caliber performers. By his side were Maggie O’Connor, his wife, also on violin, his son Forrest on mandolin, Kate Lee on vocals and violin, Joe Smart on guitar and Geoff Saunders on bass. The communication between the musicians was intimate, in glances and shared harmonies, rhythmic impulses and breaths so subtle it was like the group formed a single organism.
This is music that shares similarities with jazz; the rhythm section holding steady with the chord progressions and keeping beat, soloists creating the melody on top, and the individual instruments conducting conversations and creating a narrative. This could be simply a group of people sitting around riffing off each other but for the extreme skill demonstrated in their playing. Even without knowing the professional pedigrees, the audience is made breathless by the power of the music played for them.
When you collect multiple Grammy winner/former child prodigy/multi-instrumentalist virtuoso (Mark O’Connor), the National Flatpick Guitar Champion (guitarist Joe Smart), a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate in Bass Performance (Geoff Saunders), a state and regional songwriting prodigy (Kate Lee), a violinist who holds a Masters of Music in violin performance from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins (Maggie O’Connor), and Harvard-educated “late-bloomer” Tennessee’s 2014 mandolin champion (Forrest O’Connor), there’s a good likelihood that decent music will result.
But there’s an intensity to this group’s connection that’s different from jazz, and compelling. Be it the speed of the notes or the complexity of the compositions and arrangements, or the magnificent focus of each performer, the resulting dynamic is irresistible.
The O’Connor Band played favorites from the album “An Appalachian Christmas,” including the “Cherry Tree Carol,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Linus and Lucy,” and a penetrating “Carol of the Bells” that caused the audience to whoop with glee.
On vocals, Kate Lee displayed powerful control of her pure and honest voice, soothing with “Slumber my Darling” (I prefer her version to the venerable Alison Krauss), and blowing the roof off the place with her effortless “Ruby, Are you Mad at Your Man?” from the new album, “Coming Home.” And when he isn’t busy making the mandolin dance with joy, Forrest O’Connor provides sturdy vocals on the title track from the album and others, his presence a jolt of electricity.
But the reason we were all there was Mark O’Connor, in all his lyrical perfection. There is no more aching line in contemporary American music than the melody in his Appalachia Waltz, and the joy of his mandolin duet with his son in Macedonia, a song Mark wrote years ago, was pure delight.
O’Connor is a composer and arranger of the highest order, creating intriguing harmonies and rhythms in recognizable folk music. He elevates a music with humble beginnings to impeccable elegance, creating a whole different category. While the instrumentation is traditional in country music, his deft treatment of the songs and choice of performers brings out unexpected elements.
He’s more than a performer; he’s a suitor to the music, to the instruments, a passionate devotee of traditional forms and tools, and his adoration is evident in every note he writes and every chord he plays.
Mark O’Connor has brought his Appalachian Christmas to Portland for the last six years, and I hope he comes again next year, so everyone can hear his remarkable music.
“An Appalachian Christmas” played through December 14, 2016 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
2016 Nov 29 A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration
“A Civil War Christmas” is unlike any holiday or non-holiday show you’ll see, and it is absolutely brilliant. An exciting diversity of musical styles, song selections and arrangements knit together a story that rests lightly atop the energy of the performers.
With fifteen actors ranging in age from youth to elder statesman, crossing gender and race norms to showcase women playing men, men playing horses, and every person on stage in a wheel of continuous motion, “A Civil War Christmas” works like a loom creating a piece of cloth before your eyes.
With “A Civil War Christmas,” Artists Rep has produced a play that is at once a celebration and a lament of our country, fitting in these post-election wallows. The brief: Christmas Eve 1864, when President Lincoln could see an end of the Civil War; when unprecedented political and individual machinations worked to undermine the President; and the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed slaves, who fled north by any means available.
In this mulligan stew of events, Christmas was a time of hope and fear, of reflection and action, confusion about the future and certainty of personal determination. While Lincoln’s aides tried to keep him safe, John Wilkes Booth plotted the president’s kidnapping; Mary Todd Lincoln searched for peace in the season of remembrance; and a mother and daughter ran for freedom across rivers, through the freezing cold, and ultimately to the front door of the White House.
The music of “A Civil War Christmas” is a spectacular body of work. Local musicians from a broad range of cultural and stylistic backgrounds forged a score that connected music from the Civil War era to modern aesthetics, bringing the lineage of our country’s music into great relief. The score is challenging; contrasting lines of divergent songs overlaid on each other, creating dissonance and an urgency to find the resolution.
The performers had the difficult task of singing through the tension of competing notes and melodic lines, singing against other voices and the multiple instrumentalists onstage. This is a demanding work, and it was carried off flawlessly by every person in the show.
To the cast, a true ensemble achievement; congratulations on this radiant play. The remarkable assemblage of Crystal Ann Muñoz, Seth Rue, Val Landrum, Ayanna Berkshire, Susannah Mars, Laila Murphy, Vin Shambry, Andrea Whittle, Kai Tomizawa, Blake Stone, Ted Rooney, Amy Hakanson, Miya Zolkoske, John San Nicolas and Jimmy Garcia bring together these wide-ranging stories and songs into a beautiful whole. The talent represented by this cast is stunning.
Kai Tomizawa shone as the 13-year-old stable hand who decides he wants to fight. Val Landrum is defiant and arrogant as John Wilkes Booth, but as the Quaker Army clerk, she was gentle and strong. Ayanna Berkshire brings tenderness and deep sorrow to the mother remembering her only son, lost to the war: Vin Shambry’s passionate intensity seethes through every glorious note (that man has an unbelievable singing voice).
As the protective mother, Andrea Whittle is unflinchingly brave. Susannah Mars brings humanity and compassion to the often misunderstood Mary Todd Lincoln. John San Nicolas delivered a performance as a woman that wasn’t a caricature of femininity (quite a feat!), pathos as the soldier Moses who dies in the arms of a visitor, and the levity of the horse, which he played with obvious enjoyment. Crystal Ann Muñoz was delicate and playful as Rose, childish as the Wormley boy, and sly as the Southern aide to Grant.
Jimmy Garcia, Laila Murphy, Ted Rooney, Blake Stone, Seth Rue and Miya Zolkoske appeared in multiple roles. How these actors switched between roles so easily I have no idea. Garcia was Robert E. Lee in fascinating counterpoint with Ulysses S. Grant (Seth Rue). Murphy as an assistant to the President and a conspirator in his kidnapping (as well as an impressive flutist). Rooney gave us a sweet but troubled Lincoln and, to my delight, the Walt Whitman who appeared at the bedsides of ailing soldiers.
Stone was excellent as the lost son in memory; Rue was all over the place as a soldier, Grant, and a conspirator to kidnap Lincoln. And Zolkoske was the terrified girl lost in frigid D.C. looking for the safety of the White House. Amy Hakanson bears special mention as the onstage multi-instrumentalist, playing violin, mandolin, and cello, as well as a speaking member of the ensemble.
Yes, every single cast member was worth mentioning. This is a collective project whose whole owes its success to the strength of its individual members, all pieces functioning together in a harmonious mechanism delivering its haunting message. As a stand-alone piece of work, it is impressive, but “A Civil War Christmas” offers us a reflection of ourselves, if we care to look at it.
Its intentional blending of musical styles and races, the conscious choice to have women playing male roles, shows who we are now as a society; we are relentlessly intertwined, each individual influencing the other, dependent upon each other for any hope of forward motion. Our ability to succeed lies in this diversity.
“A Civil War Christmas” is a reminder of our turbulent past, and of our determination to create a country for everyone. It serves as admonition to press on, to stay engaged in the process of refining the direction of our society. Even when we are at odds with each other, we have found a way to make room for everyone to flourish.
“A Civil War Christmas” ran through December 23, 2016 at Artists Repertory Theatre,
2016 Nov 9 The Oregon Trail
“The Oregon Trail” is an entertaining jaunt through the task of growing up seen through the lens of the iconic video game titled “The Oregon Trail.” Starting in a middle school computer lab circa 1997 and flipping into live-action scenes from the video game, and back into modern day, “The Oregon Trail” is the tale of an adolescent grappling with intense feelings, the pressure of growing up, and a lack of skills and support to handle her feelings of being overwhelmed.
Using the video game as a means of framing the tribulations of young adulthood was clever and funny. The graphics of the game were projected onto a screen set up to make the upstage area look like a huge computer monitor. Inside this “monitor,” the action of the video game was brought to life on a well-designed set that allowed the characters to “walk” across the country on their way to Oregon.
Downstage, the teenager playing the game-named Jane-roils through the roughest years of adolescence and early adulthood as her video-game counterpart-also named Jane-wrestles with some of the same issues. “Now” Jane works out some of her angst through the game, and “Then” Jane deals with the loss of her mother and trying not to die on the Oregon Trail.
They lead very similar lives.
With a script that’s brash and funny, a cast of talented actors with great comedic timing, and deft set design, “The Oregon Trail” is a fun show, particularly for adults of a certain age group. This is definitely not a show for kids, despite the video game tie-in, but for anyone who grew up playing “Oregon Trail” or came of age in the ’90s, “The Oregon Trail” hits all the marks.
Two small things disappointed: the end of the play is abrupt, and offers no resolution to either storyline. In fact, the arc of the narrative is strangely truncated, and seems hastily finalized, not thought through and brought to a logical conclusion. And I was struck by how oddly situated this show was on the main stage in one of the best theatrical production stages in Portland.
Portland Center Stage has hosted some grand productions, from the stunning “Ain’t Misbehavin'” to the deeply moving “Our Town,” to the delightful “Little Shop of Horrors,” shows with heft and import. “The Oregon Trail” lacks those qualities, its primary thesis never rising to a point of any significance. It’s cute and appealing, certainly, but the meaning derived from the story seems narrow, targeted, not expansive. Its smallness seemed ill-fitted to a main-stage production.
What wasn’t small, however, was the talent represented onstage. Leif Norby delivers the voice of the video game in satisfying ironic banter as well as the part of Clancy, Jane and Mary Anne’s father on the road to Oregon. Sarah Baskin as Now Jane is perfectly angst-ridden and pathetic, making Now Jane a sympathetic teenager instead of just an annoying one. That’s quite a feat.
Alex Leigh Ramirez was wonderful as Then Jane, a confident performer. Mary Anne, who appears as Now Jane’s ultra-driven sister and as Then Jane’s ultra-achieving sister, is handled capably by Emily Yetter in what must be an exhausting costume-change part. Yetter maintained a perky energy throughout, for which she deserves enthusiastic cheers. Chris Murray plays Billy/Matt, the “bro” of the cast, to loathsome effect. He was so good I couldn’t stand him.
For a lighthearted evening of fun, something we are all sorely needing, please see “The Oregon Trail” with my recommendation. You’ll have a great laugh.
“The Oregon Trail” ran through November 20, 2016 at Portland Center Stage
2016 Nov 2 The How and the Why
Two scientists engage in a discussion about the possible evolutionary reasons that human females menstruate and go through menopause. The scientists happen to be a woman who gave her child up at birth, and the daughter she never knew. The title “The How and the Why” represents the principal questions in scientific inquiry concerning evolutionary matters, and refers also to the how and the why of the facts of the younger scientists’ birth.
As a dramatic devices go, this is a doozy, with plenty of material to mine. Women in a field largely populated with men, investigating the evolution of female bodies because they’ve been ignored by male-dominated science, grappling with the issues of reproductive decisions and the ramifications to the lives of the people involved; this is fertile stuff.
So to speak.
It seems niggling, then, to turn my nose up at the resulting play, but I found myself wanting more than just two people talking for two hours. Maybe it was the staging, maybe the uneven performances, but this play made me restless and impatient. These two intelligent scientists could not get out of their own heads, stuck in their cerebral havens and disconnected from their own humanities.
I’m sure that was part of the point, but there were occasions during the show when I just wanted to smack the younger scientist for her immaturity and impulsiveness.
Those qualities are to be expected, and were likely written into the script, as was the repeated Dramatic Flounce Nearly Offstage stopped by the Dramatic Last Word that Made her Turn Around.
Just thinking about it now makes my eyes roll. By the age of 28, I would hope most people don’t threaten to leave a room because they’ve been offended — at least not without realizing, after the second or third time, that they’re being a little dramatic. And yet there she was, throwing her purse over her arm, swinging her long ponytail over her shoulder and heading for the exit. Again. And… again. And… again.
Could you just leave, already?
For a script whose premise hints at the strength and intelligence of women, this play buckles under tropes about emotional women. Under the guise of discussing all the possible angles, “The How and The Why” leads the audience away from the empowering science and possible matriarchal emergence and into the trap of “why women make bad relationship choices that leave them sad and alone.” This is a missed opportunity that fails feminism. The discussions about the science were absolutely fascinating, and deserve a wider audience, but the reductive relational material was tiresome.
Despite the fact that this was two female scientists discussing female human evolution, this play utterly failed the Bechtel test. This was a chance for something more, but it caved under the weight of expectations for female behavior.
A sturdy, intelligent performance by Karen Trumbo gives this play its lone endorsement. Gwendolyn Duffy took the first half to get her feet under her, something she accomplished by speaking her lines loudly enough to reach the back of the auditorium in a 300-seat theatre. For this small venue, she was too loud. While telling a woman to tone it down has societal implications, this specific suggestion is limited to the first-half performance. Post-intermission, the volume was ideal.
I had high hopes about this play, but was wholly disappointed in the product.
“The How and The Why” ran through Nov. 19, 2016 at Coho Productions
2016 Hold These Truths
Some years ago, a young college student defied a race-specific curfew set by the reactionary government. His rebellious act landed him in jail, where he pursued a legal challenge against the government for placing constraints on innocent people like him. The case rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, initially a test case for the ACLU challenge to discriminatory government policy.
In “Hold These Truths,” playwright Jeanne Sakata details the life and legal struggles of Gordon Hirabayashi and traces racial bias in the U.S. along one of its more fertile veins. In the time immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hirabayashi watched his government descend into hysteria and racial prejudice over Japanese citizens.
Washington-born Hirabayashi, a U.S. citizen, believed that the “constitution protects us because we are Americans.” Sitting in a jail cell, he realized the error in that blind devotion. He soon discovered the speed with which a devoted citizen could be stripped of his civil rights without due process of law.
In our current political climate, the possibility of innocent people being sequestered and interrogated for suspicion of terrorism is chilling. The parallels to what happened post-9/11, to the curfews and police aggression toward black people, and to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric are startling, and we would be well advised to pay heed.
A conscientious objector and college student, Hirabayashi was moved to action by his freshman civics textbook. With growing alarm, he stood by as the government rounded up all Japanese people — exclusive of other Asian nationalities — and sent them to internment camps. Finally fed up with the discrimination against people merely for their nationality, he stood against the government’s “barbarity and ruthlessness,” which they excused by claiming military necessity.
A play about such a serious and present threat could be heavy or skew toward dry text, but Sakata’s writing is lively, warm and engaging, and sweetly and surprisingly funny. In this one-man show, Hirabayashi’s intelligence and doggedness are evident in every word, as he tells how his hard-working family and their community went from respected members of their society to being treated like rabid dogs who must be caged.
Contributing to this charming storytelling is the charismatic Ryun Yu, whose easy physicality flows through every character he portrays. From impressions of his mother to ignorant hayseeds threatening to shoot Hirabayashi for petting a dog, to Supreme Court justices deciding his fate, Yu expands seamlessly into each new person.
“Hold These Truths” details just what happens when we allow fear to govern our actions, when we ignore our connections to the people around us and start seeing the physical differences as fault lines. In retelling the story onstage, Sakata is giving us the chance to avoid tumbling into the pit of racial bias and cruelty. Illuminating Hirabayashi’s humble tenacity helps fix the sense of right and wrong in a universe that’s constantly challenging our beliefs. If we cling to our shared humanity, she is saying, we can find our way out of any morally complex circumstance.
For anyone paying attention to politics, this play is an emotional experience. We can’t flinch from stories like these because they help light our path. Sakata shines a gentle light onto a painful and humiliating facet of our history, and from it we can see what will happen if we forget what happens when we disconnect from each other out of fear. “Hold These Truths” should be required viewing for every citizen of a democracy.
“Hold These Truths” ran through Nov. 1, 2016 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory
2016 Oct 11 How I Learned What I Learned
For most of my life, my subconscious habit has been white preference; music, literature, theater, food… when I had a choice, I veered toward the familiar and comfortable, and decidedly away from what was “alien” to me. The national conversation over the last few years has forced me to look at my unthinking choices, and on the advice of broad-minded people who went before me, I started pushing myself beyond what was comfortable.
At first, I *had* to listen to the things that people of color had to say, and then I became intrigued, and now I have developed a preference for voices unlike my own, who talk about lives and experiences vastly different from mine. Listening to those voices, I learn the shape of the world outside my narrow understanding.
It’s because of my ingrained habit of white preference that I had — to my shame — never heard of August Wilson, whose play “How I Learned What I Learned” opened for me the world of Wilson’s lovely and wry insights, his lyrical and expansive poetry and prose.
“To arrive at this moment in my life,” he wrote, “I have traveled many roads, some circuitous, some brambled and rough, some sharp and straight, and all of them have led as if by some grand design to the one burnished with art and small irrevocable tragedies. I’ve carried in my pocket, to bargain my passage, memory and a wild heart that plies its trade with considerate and sometimes alarming passion.”
I hunted for the exact text of that section online because I had to hear those words again. They take my breath away.
In a series of vignettes illuminating Wilson’s path from childhood to his life as a writer, “How I Learned What I Learned” traces lines from seemingly disparate events to a single woven thread of Wilson’s being. With long reflections on the “accident” of being born black, in-depth consideration of living in the black and poor neighborhood, a four-minute walk from downtown Pittsburgh, contemplation of the facts of being a young black man in American society, Wilson’s play was thoroughly unfamiliar and uncontrollably illuminating.
I am of the altogether unbiased opinion that writers are heroes; metaphysical problem solvers who examine life’s offerings and find order, patterns, a way to make sense of our chaos. Everyone tries to do this in his own way, but writers do so with words that can be used to explain this understanding to other people. Wilson pieced together his breadth of wisdom about life in these multiple sequences of words for our mutual enrichment, and we would be wise to listen and reflect on our own paths.
Portland Playhouse has, once again, brought to the stage a breathtaking, thoughtful and intelligent play that has the potential to enlarge our humanity. And for once, I was thrilled that most of the crowd was white because it is white people (myself included) who need to listen, absorb and reflect on what has brought us to this point in our lives, to this point in our individual and collective histories.
In Wilson’s words, “we both, black and white, are victims of our history, and our victimization leaves us staring at each other across a great divide of economics and privilege that each year, each decade, widens into a gulf.”
The ineffable Victor Mack brings August Wilson to life. Mack’s considerable talents of embodied storytelling give this performance the ease of enjoying an afternoon talking to a beloved friend who has the best stories and the warmest delivery. Oh, for a chance to see more of Victor Mack… please, Portland casting directors, are you listening?
When we gorge on material as familiar as white bread, we are losing the chance to experience delectable and nourishing fare prepared by other hands, expressive of cultures other than our own, palate-expanding, generous meals that might change our beliefs about ourselves forever. I have missed August Wilson’s enriching work for most of my life; what else are we missing in our preference?
It’s only words, they say. Words don’t matter. But words have the power to shape lives, as Wilson shows. He pointed to Webster’s definition of “black” (“connected with the devil”) and showed how those words create a space around him and other black people in America, a space that’s left our society divided.
“We are all,” he said, “victims of a linguistic environment.” With words — and just words — Wilson built himself a life in that separate place, a life of poetry in poverty and drama in his quotidian experience.
Words can brand you, as Wilson found out, and scar the minds of people who see you as “other.” In tracing his moral education, he invites us to do the same, and white audiences bear this responsibility the heaviest. People of color are constantly forced to look at the world’s moral grading system, as Wilson shows in his story about being denied an envelope at the bank by the teller who reluctantly, and after extreme vetting, cashed Wilson’s paycheck.
“She looked on a man and said ‘this man does not deserve the same respect other men deserve.’ This is the sin that caused slavery.”
Wilson reveled in the exploration of the “limitations of the instrument,” his instrument being his own voice and words. His joy in creation radiates even through the heavier stories, as he applied each lesson learned to the next experience, stacking confidently the knowledge needed to overcome the next hurdle. Looking back, he traced the crucial lessons through time, seeing how he got to each mile marker. He knew, eventually, how he learned what he learned, but he didn’t always know he was learning it.
We have a chance right now to heed the lessons of our past, to listen to Wilson’s words and see how we learned what we learned. “Art and small, irrevocable tragedies” comprise Wilson’s play, but “art,” for such a small word, comprises the moment of liftoff hoped for in every act of creativity. “Art” is the mirror to our culture, showing us things we can’t see without assistance.
Wilson, and this profound and powerful staging of his play, have given us an opportunity to take a good, long look at how we have all learned what we learned. Please grab this opportunity with both hands, and see “How I Learned what I Learned.” On your way out, thank Portland Playhouse for bringing August Wilson’s work to our city.
“How I Learned What I Learned” ran through Nov. 6, 2016 at Portland Playhouse
2016 Oct 4 The Nether
Playwright Jennifer Haley thoughtfully explores the extreme potential of virtual worlds in The Nether,” running through October 22 at Third Rail Theatre in Portland. Set slightly in the future, when the Internet has come to be known as the Nether and embodies a more robust environment incorporating all five senses, “The Nether” takes us to task for constantly pushing the boundaries of morality.
In this future, “reality” means the physical world solely, and the Nether is everything virtual/digital. The technology that gave rise to sophisticated video games has developed into producing fully conceived realms in which individuals spend the majority of their time. Far beyond the time-suck of the current Internet, the Nether is a place people chose to reside, like moving to a new city or neighborhood. Every experience is cultivated for specific interactive output, geared toward individual tastes and preferences.
Sims, also known as Papa, is being interrogated by Morris, an agent with a Nether-policing institution that has only recently been established. Morris has found out that the world Sims created provides a place for people to engage in something Morris feels is immoral. Sims (whose name seems like a play on The Sims video game, a world in which reality is simulated, and the characters are called “Sims”) insists that everything in his world is legal, that he has followed the law to the letter.
Morris pushes, accusing Sims of offering a virtual reality in which the residents engage in pedophilia. Sims insists that all participants are over 18, citing his policy of background checks and age verification. The “children” interacting in the virtual reality are, in fact, adults behind the profile. Morris insists that doesn’t matter, that Sims is normalizing pedophilia, and encouraging people to pursue immoral behavior.
“The Nether” presents the ultimate conundrum; how far do we want our laws to reach into human behavior? Do we police thought? Do we monitor and punish thoughts that we deem immoral? In a virtual space, where everything is essentially make-believe, where do we draw the line? Or do we even draw a line?
This play started an internal argument for me that still hasn’t resolved. The idea of pedophilia is so disgusting I had to look away from the stage when contact seemed imminent, and yet the idea of an external agency policing imagination is revolting. “The Nether” doesn’t suggest a solution, it only plots a path into the future based on our current trajectory, and asks us to take a good hard look.
Chantal DeGroat is the stern Morris, investigating Sims/Papa, played by Michael O’Connell. DeGroat is wonderful as the moral line daring everyone to cross; buttoned up in every way, she cedes no ground. O’Connell’s Sims is intelligent, straightforward, and matter of fact. O’Connell is loose but calm, giving Sims an air of a successful businessman.
Josh Weinstein is Woodnut, an agent sent by Morris to infiltrate Sims’ world. Del Lewis capably plays an older man who visits Sims’ virtual world and plays the part of a child. The child is embodied in this show by Agatha Olson, a young actress who shimmers every time she steps onstage. Olson handles the difficult subject matter with ease, conveying the mundane nature of this pragmatic world. This is an actor who can clearly handle whatever the part demands, and then some. Watch for her.
“The Nether” is discomfiting, thought-provoking, and, as we inch closer to realizing such technology, an important conversation. Indeed, the question of policing morality is one we must address as a society, and playwright Haley forces us to consider what, exactly, we are willing to live with as a bright moral line, and how we make those decisions.
Third Rail Theatre consistently and deftly pushes boundaries of creative thought. This is an intriguing play that is beautifully executed and performed, and well worth your time.
“The Nether” ran through Oct. 22, 2016 at Imago Theatre
2016 June 28 The Skriker
When you go to see “The Skriker” — and I suggest that you do — don’t sit in the top row, and don’t go alone.
“The Skriker” at Third Rail Rep is an unleashed exploration into madness, an inside, immersive look at what it’s like to be gripped with paranoia, stalked by spirits with evil intent, or teetering somewhere between magic and mental illness. “The Skriker” makes no claims about reality vs. perception, only presenting the story as complete and factual, but the line is intentionally blurred.
The play opens in the dark, with a character loping around the back of the audience making pig-like noises, lit only by a headlamp. It gallops onto the stage where a lone figure emerges from the dark and delivers a lengthy soliloquy combining gibberish, rhyme, warnings, and invitations, conveying a dark plot for exacting revenge. Playing on singsong spells and nursery rhymes, the confounding text makes a sort of sense, when heard as a whole, peaks and valleys expressing intent.
A young woman, Josie, suffering from confinement in a mental ward, is visited by Lily, who is pregnant. Josie indicates she did what she did, which appears to have been killing her baby, because she had to. Her language slips in and out of “normalcy,” and neither Lily nor the audience know for sure what to think. When Lily leaves, Josie is visited by the Skriker, who is clearly responsible for Josie’s torment. The Skriker grants Josie’s wish to have the Skriker pursue Lily instead.
And so back and forth, the two are pursued by the Skriker, and attempt everything they know to satisfy the Skriker’s demands. The Skriker is alternately human-appearing and wraith-like, always manic and greedy, luring the two with a combination of wheedling and hypnosis, enchanting them into complying with her demands.
Some explorations of madness prefer the external view of the experience, observing with pity the person losing their grip on reality. “The Skriker” is saturated with dreamlike surrealism, frightening in its nightmare quality and in its overwhelming physicality. The play boasts a cast of ten total actors, some playing multiple roles; only three actors speak lines.
The other seven parade as mystical, misshapen, threatening characters; a man with a horse head, a person built to resemble a human tree, an unidentifiable beast with a beak/horn. These creatures participate in a Bacchanalian feast in the underworld with the Skriker, the collective effort to lure Josie to their den of ruin.
The Skriker itself is played in a tour de force performance by Sarah Yeakel, whose dialogue is so confounding I cannot imagine how she kept it all straight. She portrayed the charismatic lunacy with great abandon, and I found myself thinking of the same physical mania in Molly Shannon from SNL, only quite over the edge. Yeakel was captivating and terrifying.
Caitlin Lushington played Josie, a whip of a girl itching to get out of her skin. She played fear and anxiety and confusion with high energy. Madeline Shier was Lily, either Josie’s friend or her sister, and her appearance was calming and motherly, a protective influence on Josie.
The set, lighting, costumes and sound designers did an exceptional job creating a world of fear and chaos around the tiny center of “reality.” The underworld — though sparsely decorated — was a truly frightening place and I had an overwhelming urge to get the hell out of there.
Director Chelsea Burwasser used physicality and the tangible to create a world between myth and belief, and she did so to powerful effect. With threads of quaint fairy stories woven with tales of magic and mystical explanations for human events, “The Skriker,” in all its confusion and chaos, delivers a taut examination of the stories we tell ourselves to understand our world, our sorrows, and our madness.
Just find a comfy seat somewhere in the middle center.
“The Skriker” ran through July 2, 2016 at Third Rail Rep
2016 May 31 Skin Of Our Teeth
“The Skin of our Teeth” is a play that is not often produced. It has so many cast members and so many design challenges that theatres opt not to invite that complexity onto their boards.
Adding to the heft of the physical pieces is the devilishly intertwined “plot” wrought by Thornton Wilder, his characteristic self-awareness regularly bleeding through the fourth wall. This is the Schrodinger’s Cat of theatre: the people onstage are simultaneously in and not in a play.
I’m a fan of Thornton Wilder. His play “Our Town” managed to make me profoundly glad for the life I have, for the time I have to live it, and desperately aware of the futility of that life. Unlike many existentialists, who veer into the muck of despair and wallow, Wilder finds that perfect balancing point of joy and despair, the fine needle’s point fulcrum on which these warring feelings carefully rest. It’s an opportunity to examine how we spend the time we have, and make choices to elevate what’s really important.
In “Skin of our Teeth,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the elements requiring intellectual juggling are so massive, the number of them so overwhelming, a deft hand is required to hold all of it aloft. At Artist’s Repertory Theatre, an attempt was made at staging this behemoth. At times, the effort sails along effectively, if not lyrically; at other times, it buckles under the weight.
The plot, if I may awkwardly summarize, is this: a family that lives in a New Jersey suburb is constantly worried about their survival, unsure whether they will weather the coming apocalyptic storm. They are beset by dinosaurs, woolly mammoths (who require milking), an approaching Ice Age (glacier reports provided on the nightly news), and have endured plagues of Biblical proportions.
The father is on the verge of great discoveries, including the entire alphabet and the wheel, which he brings home, along with bags of groceries, which he gives his kids as a toy. The mother is a pearls and crinolines woman, with a tight grip on her children’s development and a loose grasp on her husband’s affections.
There is a housemaid, dressed alluringly in a short skirt and black stockings. It is she who vies for the husband’s affections, and she who provides the fourth-wall-breaking commentary throughout.
The play shifts to a post-Ice Age election year, in which the father is running for office, having successfully discovered many important things. A flood comes, requiring two-by-two salvation of all the animals, and of the family, and of the maid.
It shifts again to a post-apocalyptic age in which the wife has bunkered down with her daughter, who has given birth to a child they both protect and care for.
The themes of family, of gender roles, of the futility of expectations in the face of truly important events, of the endlessness of humanity, of courage in the face of challenges, all battle for attention.
There was a distinctly feminist thrust to this production, or perhaps it exists in the original work, but it’s difficult to say, since there was a significant amount of improvisation apparent in the play. There are also themes of parenting, infidelity, love, marriage, maturity… there’s a lot to unpack in this show. A. Lot.
With the considerable talents of Linda Alper, Val Landrum, Don Alder, Sarah Lucht and Vana O’Brien, and the clever and thoughtful design of Megan Wilkerson (Scenic Design) and Kristeen Willis Crosser (Lighting Design), there is much to buoy this production. The appearance of Lauren Modica, with a voice that sends shivers up the spine, was particularly enchanting.
Indeed, there’s much to admire about this production, not the least of which is the initial decision to make the attempt in the first place. The set and lighting designs are, in themselves, a marvel; the use of live video alongside live acting amplifies the sense of the surreal, placing the story in yet another dimension.
While it’s a lengthy production, it’s worth staying seated during an intermission (there are two!) to watch the stage hands change the scene. In fact, watching the change of scene enhances the message of endlessness; “here we go again, same stuff, just in a different arrangement.”
I am sorry to say, however, that this production didn’t get off the ground as I would have hoped. Perhaps it’s the fault of too many moving pieces in too small a space, or the weight of its self-awareness that remains in the “hey, we’re in a play!” category and never reaches the wry self-effacing humanity I suspect is embedded in the original material.
Wilder’s adventurous spirit in plunging into unknown territory is exciting, and this kind of fractured-expectations material is thrilling. But *something* prevents this absurdist leviathan from lifting off.
“The Skin of our Teeth” ran through June 19, 2016 at Artists Repertory Theatre Alder Stage
2016 May 18 Into the Beautiful North
“Into the Beautiful North” at Milagro Theatre is an epic quest story unabashedly based on The Magnificent Seven. A young woman in a small town in Mexico decides to go to the United States to bring back her father from Kankakee, Illinois, and recruit six other men back to Mexico to save her town. In the process, she exposes the corruption of Mexican police, the quandary of the border crossing, modern dilemmas of poverty and technology failures, and along the way, discovers the person best-equipped to save the town is her.
Adapted by Karen Zacarias from the book “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Alberto Urrea, the play follows a young woman of considerable grit, Nayeli, whose father left for a better life in America many years before. When Nayeli gets pushed around by “narcos” at her job at an internet café, and her boss’ computer is confiscated, she decides it’s time for action. With her best friend Vampi and café-owner Tacho, she hatches a plan.
The support of her aunt, whose recent election to mayor of the little town further spurred Nayeli’s confidence in her plan, so she scrapes together meager resources and hits the road with Vampi and Tacho. An arduous bus ride takes them to Tijuana, where they encounter the chaos of the drug trade, prostitution, and the desperation of border crossing.
They crawl through a hole in the fence for the first attempt, and for the second attempt, follow a guide (Atomiko) through a tunnel. Tacho is arrested, but the others are allowed to go. Eventually, the remaining trio makes their way to San Diego, where they obtain a vehicle and head up to Illinois.
“Into the Beautiful North” covers a lot of ground. From poverty to corruption to misogyny to the power of being female, the play brings to life the extreme difficulty of life in Mexico, and the pride and determination of its citizens. “You don’t think every Mexican has a hard-luck story?” With a touch of magic realism and a hint of madcap adventure, there is humor amid the grim circumstances, and celebration when Nayeli succeeds brilliantly in her plan to save the town.
Michelle Escobar plays Nayeli with enthusiasm and physicality. She leads her gang of misfits with purpose, conveying the charisma of a true leader. As her Tia Irma, Bunnie Rivera shines with easy confidence, every bit the leader setting an example for her niece. Vampi, played by Michelle Caughlin, is a quintessential brooding teen, clad completely in black.
The standout of the show for me was Anthony Green, who played Chava/Ensemble. Fluctuating between several accents and demeanors, Green has an intriguing ease onstage, a fluidity and timing that reminded me of Lou Costello.
This is a funny show, strange in its physicality, surprisingly brutal in its depiction of life in rural Mexico. It’s also a show about finding who you are in the world, and how family is formed beyond the boundaries of genetics. Nayeli thinks the town needs men to save the day, but she is the hero; she thinks she needs her father, but discovers that family isn’t genetics, it’s the people who make you better just by being around you. As her aunt wisely advised, you “Choose the ones who will cheer for you to become the woman you want to be.”
Milagro Theatre is bold, thought-provoking, unconventional storytelling in voices muted in our society. The company manages to tell a story unlike others you’ll see in Portland, bringing to center marginalized perspectives. Of the many beautiful theatres in Portland, I hold a special place for the crucial work being done by Milagro.
“Into the Beautiful North” ran through May 28, 2016 at Milagro Theatre
2016 May 11 Grand Concourse
In “Grand Concourse,” playwright Heidi Schreck takes a hard look at faith, mental illness, and finding your place in the world. Through the prism of a soup kitchen, where people come to find sustenance, Schreck considers the duality of helping and needing help, and how we each go about handling life’s sorrows.
The soup kitchen is run by Sister Shelley, a nun whose faith in God has wandered away. We meet her in the midst of trying to chase it down, a methodical attempt to restart the habit of prayer and reliance on her faith through a sort of interval training; she sets the soup kitchen’s microwave timer in increasing increments. Like trying to start a dead engine, she looks for a click, a spark, for something to catch in one of these attempts. The timer always dings before the right words reach her lips.
Shelley soon meets Emma, a young woman looking to volunteer. Despite Shelley’s reservations about her, Emma jumps in with both feet. Emma’s enthusiasm rushes into the kitchen, knocking things over, taking people by surprise. Oscar, Shelley’s handyman/strong-arm assistant, is wary of Emma too, but her energy eventually overwhelms him too. And when Emma meets Frog, one of the homeless people served by the soup kitchen, the combination of their unbridled personalities sparks another different energy.
“Grand Concourse” shows the effects of living with people with mental illness. Emma’s diagnosis is never made clear, but it appears that she is living with some form of bi-polar disorder. Frog has boundary issues, is paranoid, and becomes angry and violent when his emotions are out of control.
Shelley, the stability in the storm, is handling depression while she’s trying to manage the varying personalities in her circle. Oscar does his best to stay disengaged, but eventually finds himself tottering from the effects of people’s out of control emotions.
While serious, “Grand Concourse” has funny moments, rather like life does. “Jesus loves you, but you’re making it hard for him!” In encountering people who are out of balance, how do we maintain our own emotional regulation? Shelley, overwhelmed with grief at a recent loss, rose out of her own need to help Frog when she realized that he needed more than she did that moment. Shelley’s coping method is to make order in chaos, but having lost touch with her guiding faith, she founders. Each character is affected by the fluctuations in their world.
Occasionally, an actor shows up with such a magnetic presence and profound talent that you can’t take your eyes off of them. This is the case with Ayanna Berkshire, who plays Shelley with a weary determination, the moral compass who isn’t so sure she should be guiding anyone. Berkshire is an actor I want to watch again and again.
Emma, played by Jahnavi Alyssa, is a ball of electricity, whose entrance on stage caused the room to crackle. Her portrayal of manic behavior was immediately recognizable and discomfiting. Allen Nause played Frog, a charming “character” who sells joke books and steals from the refrigerator. He’s the guy you’re never sure about, and Nause imbued Frog with a bouncing unpredictability.
John San Nicolas rounded out the quartet as Oscar, the friendly and good-looking handyman who jokingly propositions his nun coworker every day. Nicolas performs a kind of up-close magic with his expressions, sharing his character’s thoughts with the subtle lift of an eyebrow.
Playwright Schreck gave the audience a lot to unpack in this play. Who are we helping when we live to serve? How do we trust people we’re unsure about? How do we react and respond to unbalanced people? What does forgiveness mean? These themes have rumbled around in my brain, as unresolved for me as they were for the characters.
I applaud the fact that there is no tidy resolution to this play, that our expectations for these people’s behavior are undermined by realistic actions. “Grand Concourse” is thought-provoking, funny, and at times painful, because it’s so much like real life. It reminds you, though, that “people are fucked up, angels and assholes,” and the best we can do is look at them with gentleness.
“Grand Concourse” ran through June 5, 2016 at Artists Repertory Theatre
2016 April 19 The Pianist of Willesden Lane
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is the story of a Jewish girl named Lisa in 1942 Austria whose family sent her, with the one ticket they were able to acquire, on the Kindertransport to England. This decision saved Lisa’s life, but separated her from the family and life she loved, abbreviating her plans to become a famous pianist.
Mona Golabek brings this story, her mother’s story of surviving the horrors of Hitler, to the stage at Portland Center Stage, shining a gentle light on a critical stage in her family’s history.
The moment in time was a fulcrum for Lisa and for the world; Austria was not yet fully under the control of the Nazis, so the home Lisa left behind was intact in her memory; serene, loving, safe. Like a lifeboat shuttled away from a ship just before a torpedo hit, Lisa got away just in time.
But her timely escape didn’t lessen her pain at separation, or her constant sorrow missing her parents and sisters. While managing tremendous uncertainty, the 14-year-old returned time and again, like a compulsion, to the comfort and understanding of playing the piano. When she played, she could be with her family in her mind, as her mother promised when they parted. “Stay with music-never stop playing. I will be with you in the music.”
The piano was an escape and a means of moving her life forward; at her first “foster home” in England, upon hearing that she was forbidden from touching the piano, she left in the middle of the night, unwilling to live without the keys under her hands. Upon entering the hostel in London where she was sent next, she ran immediately to the piano and began playing; her music brought to her side the children who would be her family for the next three years.
At her job sewing uniforms, she saw stitching like runs on the piano, each piece sewn a phrase of a great line of music. After work, she would run to the basement of the hostel where the piano had been moved and practice long into the night.
When she was advised to audition for the Royal Conservatory, she objected that she had no piano teacher to guide her, no repertoire to prepare. Her hostel mates chose to push her themselves, acting as rehearsal masters, putting her through her technical paces for months until she was ready. After winning a scholarship to conservatory, Lisa started a job playing piano at a London hotel, where she eventually met her husband.
At every turn in the road, she followed music, and it took her to her life.
In this affecting one-woman show, Golabek performs in her mother’s voice and with her mother’s hands on a gorgeous concert Steinway grand flanked by giant picture frames showing her family and events at the time of the story, images that move with the narrative and the music.
Golabek’s tenderness for her family gives her an open channel to their strength, determination, to the flicker of hope her mother used to keep herself alive. Lisa’s piano teacher in Vienna told her of music, “I do this so that through all of our dark times, we never forget our humanity.” It is that humanity that Lisa uses to inform all of her decisions.
As a classically trained pianist and former piano teacher, I must confess to being powerfully moved by “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Its message of clinging to what makes you who you are; especially amidst hopelessness, turning to the pieces that define and comfort and express your pain and joy reverberated viscerally. In the darkest time in history, at a moment when the world nearly slipped into the grasp of the worst of human nature, Lisa protected her music ferociously. In turn, the music kept her safe, kept her moving ahead, kept her from giving in to despair.
At her victorious debut concert, Lisa played Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” a piece full of tumult and passion whose final flourish is joyfully defiant. The melody of that concerto entwines with Lisa’s story; there is terrible darkness, trouble that threatens existence, but chance and persistence and strength push you through to moments of grace. Golabek tells a poignant story about her family and, more potently, about the human capacity for survival.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” ran through May 1, 2016 at Portland Center Stage
2016 April 13 Blue Door
If the point of art is to make the viewer examine herself, then “Blue Door” succeeds powerfully. “Blue Door” is an unflinching examination of the heart and mind of a black man who is a successful mathematician and professor. The play takes a painful journey into the professor’s family-and his own-past, bringing his insomniac meanderings into the light where all of us, together, can look at how everything fits together. And the final image, while beautiful in its rawness and depth, isn’t pretty.
The dreamlike staging of Tanya Barfield’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play is an opportunity to spend some time in another person’s subconscious, to witness the waking dreams that lead him to his truth. The audience enters the room while the professor, Lewis, is onstage, trying and failing to sleep.
When the lights go down, Lewis’ dreams come to life, three-dimensional people who recall for him the forgotten and neglected past that shaped who he is. Lewis’ conversations with his past, with the dead ancestors whose painful lives Lewis would prefer to forget, frame the painful journey of Lewis’ awakening.
The audience is a part of Lewis’ imagination, and part of the text of the play; a group of white people assembled to watch Lewis work though his understanding of his place in the world. The audience, real and figurative, features in Lewis’ dawning comprehension; always aware of how he appears, particularly to white people, he has chosen his path carefully in an attempt to avoid the fatal missteps of his forbears. His examination of his history eventually reveals that no amount of caution will offset the dangers faced by a black man in this culture.
Lewis’ nighttime visitors include his brother, grandfather, great-grandparents, his father, and ancillary characters in their lives. Lewis is played by Victor Mack, a seasoned actor who compellingly conveys stillness and gravity in the midst of his character’s uncertainty and fear.
All other characters are played by Seth Rue, who brilliantly embodies children, adults, multiple regional accents, and shares each different personality as if that’s the only thing he’s got going on. Rue switches between characters and ages in a flash, utterly convincingly. His performance is astounding. I will be looking for chances to see both of these fine actors again.
In a city like Portland, with its dueling characteristics of “very white city” and “very progressive political city,” this play is particularly important. It’s decidedly uncomfortable to sit with the weight of history that Lewis grapples with, disquieting to be surrounded by the pervasiveness of pain and mistrust and fear, but that is, I suspect, rather the point: this is the fraught existence of being black.
The moment at the party that Lewis reenacts for us, when the white woman at the university tea party can’t stop staring at his hands, when Lewis realizes his unavoidable blackness is the trigger for uncontrollable fear, is sickening and shaming. In that moment, I saw how pervasive and stifling it must be to carry the weight of not only your own individual successes and failures, but also the expectations and accusations and misapprehensions of an entire culture — and to have to carry that everywhere you go. The gravity of that realization was crushing; there is no way for me to contemplate the weight of the experience itself.
Barfield has crafted a play so honed and refined that every word is set perfectly in place and leads to the next grouping logically, like long-form poetry or a symphony. “Blue Door” is a difficult play to see, if you have any awareness of the social-political climate of our country, but so necessary for our understanding of that world. What an opportunity for Portlanders to understand what life is like for someone without the privilege of white skin. Take this chance to see “Blue Door.”
“Blue Door” ran through April 24, 2016 at Profile Theatre
2016 March 8 Stupid Fucking Bird
When I went to see “Stupid Fucking Bird,” all I had was a general sense that it was a show based on something from Chekhov. Having never read anything from Chekhov (stop reading now if my lack of literary breadth offends you), I was concerned I might not understand the show.
There was no need to worry.
From the moment I sat in my seat and observed the set with the heavy wall of a backdrop decorated with enormous photos of Chekhov, the smattering of chairs, and an electric amplifier, there was a sense of openness: it’s all laid out right in front of you. When a young man strides to the very edge of the stage and blares angrily “The play will not begin until someone says ‘Start the fucking play!'” the gig is up: there is no room for preconceptions.
In three acts, Aaron Posner’s play “Stupid Fucking Bird” is both a criticism of Chekhov’s vaunted play “The Seagull” and an excavation and restructuring of the bones and meat of the story. Posner presents us with seven characters whose lives intertwine and detach at intervals; Conrad, a young tortured playwright, and Nina, his ingénue; Dev, Conrad’s friend, and Mash, who is not-so-secretly in love with Conrad; Doyle Trigorin, the famous writer whose presence gilds everyone in awe, and Emma, a famous actress who also happens to be Conrad’s mother; and Eugene, Emma’s brother. There is a theme of unrequited love and longing, of surety that the thing just out of reach is that thing that will make you perfectly happy, and, in the older characters, a wistful acknowledgement of the folly of believing that the grass is greener in any pasture but your own.
The intricate lives of the characters are but one element of the layered play. Conrad, in his youthful fervor, seeks to break the boundaries of traditional theatre, and create “new forms” of art with his work. The show the group has assembled to see is his attempt to eliminate artifice and communicate his profound existential viewpoint. His play, however, is not well received, as those in attendance dismiss the young man’s efforts as self-serving and grandiose.
“Stupid Fucking Bird” hews to the plot of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”; Nina falls in love with Trigorin; Conrad attempts suicide in his grief over losing her; Trigorin eventually comes back to Emma, Dev and Mash find contentment — if not mutual joy — in marriage; Conrad’s play (THIS play!) achieves mild success, leaving Conrad to ponder the point of artistic endeavors that leave one always striving for the next, better success. Eugene appears to be the only sane or balanced one of the lot, he in his later years and declining but somehow still happy with his life.
Beyond the plot and characters, however, this show deserves a wholehearted endorsement. The meta, self-aware writing is spectacularly funny, even to someone unfamiliar with the source material. From the first moments of the show to the last, the words move lyrically through character and plot development smoothly, with wisdom and irony and intelligence.
The performers were each similarly gifted, from the deliciously love-muddled Mash (the compelling Kimberly Gilbert, who originated the role) to the convincingly arch and loathsome Emma (Kate Eastwood Norris). Ian Holcomb as Conrad radiates angst, a Luke Skywalker-churlishness that made the back of my hand twitch. Cody Nickell (Trigorin) exudes charisma, leaving me to wonder how a director goes about casting for such a characteristic.
I was delightfully surprised to see Darius Pierce (Dev) again; his performance in last fall’s “The Realistic Joneses” was a standout of the season, and this performance makes me eager to see him again and again. He brings an intriguing mixture of sharp comic timing and dramatic intensity.
I was curious to note that a large number of the people involved in this production, from cast to lighting designer, came from or had association with a D.C.-based group Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, including Kate Eastwood Norris, Katie deBuys, Cody Nickell and Darius Pierce, who all originated the roles in D.C. It makes sense, since the play was developed and premiered there. As a proud Portlander, I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t a “locally sourced” (Vegan? Gluten-free? Cruelty free? Well, a fake bird DID fake die) production.
Playwright Posner was raised, reportedly, in Eugene, so I suppose his roots are inextricably Oregonian. Perhaps that’s what gives his words such quirky flight: his directness and seamless interaction with the audience gives the play a raw and lively temperament, creating a wholly unexpected and new theatre experience. And that, clearly, achieves what Chekhov was advocating: a new form of art, shedding all subtext in favor of stating our wants and needs and aversions outright and letting the consequences fall where they may.
It’s a powerful new way of interacting with the world, one that deserves exploration and attention and, if we can manage, adoption into our own ways of thinking. While you can, please go and see “Stupid Fucking Bird” and let its boldness and humor and intelligence wash over you.
“Stupid Fucking Bird” ran through March 27, 2016 at Portland Center Stage
2016 March 2 PDX Jazz Fest
Ten days of superb jazz at the PDX Jazz Fest wrapped up Sunday night, with the performance by John Scofield and Joe Lovano at Revolution Hall. This year’s festival focused on the music of John Coltrane, and included a performance by Coltrane’s son, Ravi, and included more women performers than in previous years. Performances were packed with fans in this jazz-hungry city.
Sullivan Fortner kicked off my festival, with his solo piano performance combining standard tunes and his own compositions. Fortner is the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianist Association, a pianist of incredible variety and skill.
With his use of cascading descending thirds, flourishing arpeggios resolving briefly and returning to dissonance, and a lighthearted syncopation, Fortner’s style is intriguing and lush. He is simultaneously without concern for rhythmic structure and existing beautifully and wholly within it.
Fortner’s execution is much like that of Brad Mehldau, thoughtful and specific, but ranging more widely on the keyboard. Clearly classically trained, his string-of-pearls runs on the high keys are like flowers blooming, and he is respectful but inventive in his performance of classics. He has the feel of a pianist who spent a lot of time examining the multiple possible inversions and playing with how they fit together, like puzzle pieces. Some of his runs feel impossible complex, but when he does them, are incredibly clean.
He is a pianist who understands subtlety, who listens to what the music has to tell him. His combination of the Ellington/Strayhorn’s tunes “Single Petal of a Rose” and “Star Crossed Lovers” demonstrates his willingness to hear what the music has to say. Of his process, Fortner said “I submit myself humbly to the music and reveal myself, flaws and all.”
Dianne Reeves was my next stop, a singer so sumptuous and elegant she is in a category of her own. With influences from R&B, reggae, and Latin music, Reeves brings her powerful vocal range and control to standards and jazz arrangements of popular tunes to moving effect. In her careful hands, even familiar music becomes something completely new, a cool, joyous rendition that is a reflection of Reeves herself. Even “sad” tunes like “Stormy Weather” are underpinned with Reeves’ emanating glow.
The musicians she played with — Paul Martin on piano, Reginald Veal on bass, Romaro Lumbabo on guitar, and Terreon Gully on percussion — were as glorious as she, and Reeves stepped back several times so the individuals could shine on their own. As a quartet, they sang in a unified voice, playing off each other perfectly, tight and intertwined.
As individuals, each is a virtuoso. Reeves is one of the greats of vocal jazz, with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and not content to rest on her laurels. Her album “Beautiful Life” won the 2015 Grammy for best jazz vocal, and we were lucky to hear selections from that recording. Dianne Reeves is a beautiful revelation, a gift to music.
I was not as enthusiastic about Orrin Evans, whose trio played with saxophonist JD Allen at Jimmy Mak’s. Evans’ brash, boundary-pushing performance challenges the audience, but instead of inviting the audience to rethink preconceived notions about jazz, Evan’s trio made bold statements. Where jazz often uses space and time to communicate thoughts, this group left no space unfilled, forcing sound into every nook and cranny of the measure.
Evan’s keyboard style is hypnotic, with his dancing and limber playing. The trio deconstructs the idiom to discrete parts, and it is in the reconstitution that the listener uncomfortably sits. His bass player, Luques Curtis, brought a smoothness, but the percussionist, Mark Whitfield, Jr. matched Evans’ challenging style beat for beat.
With a startling resemblance to Buddy Rich, Whitfield played every beat at its loudest possible volume, brushing back the listener from even the attempt at leaning in. As a group, the effect was aggressive, which I suspect is part of the point of the musical exploration. But in an intimate venue like Jimmy Mak’s, the performance was off-putting.
That might have had something to do with Jimmy Mak’s ineptitude in house management. About fifty seats are “reserved” and the rest of the house is “general admission,” but they clearly oversold the GA “seats,” as there were no “seats” for most of the audience. For $20 a person, Jimmy Mak’s requires that you stand squeezed into the hallway leading to the bathroom, two rows deep, to listen to a two hour show that you can barely see, while ten seats sat empty in the middle of the floor an hour into the show.
Some GA seats were in another room, completely out of sight of the stage. The wait staff was constantly reminding people to not step into the “reserved” area, which was nearly impossible, since you had to move to allow people to pass behind where you were standing. It was an annoyance on top of the challenging music, and the combined effect was overwhelmingly negative.
Rounding off the week was John Scofield with Joe Lovano. This architect of jazz guitar thrilled the audience with his rock-infused playing, bringing to bear his nearly forty-year career blazing trails in the jazz-fusion medium. He also challenges audiences, leaping from jazz to rock to blues, playing with space and fury.
Scofield is a master, unparalleled in today’s jazz-guitar field, and his work with Lovano is mesmerizing. His percussionist Bill Stewart was exquisite, playful and powerful, and Ben Street on bass formed a stable basis for the musical experimentation. In witnessing Scofield play, the listener is reminded of his virtuosity of rhythm guitar. Playing in support of his co-headliner, he displayed a subtlety and nuance rivaled by few. Getting to see such a performer is a rare joy.
PDX Jazz Fest is an annual event bringing thousands of people out in the dark February rain. Next year’s performers are not yet lined up, but it is sure to be a spectacular week of music.
PDX Jazz Fest ran February 18-28, 2016 at venues across Portland.
2016 Feb 16 CockTales
In a converted rail yard building resting next to the tangled strands of tracks north of Lombard Street in North Portland, Yocto Theatre brings to stage “CockTales,” an unexpectedly intelligent and thoughtful examination of all things penis. Like “Vagina Monologues,” to which “CockTales” owes its seed of an idea, “CockTales” explores experiences common to penis owners.
From the opening number riffing on Gregorian chant, with lyrics in Latin (transcribed for the Latin impaired) about an ill-advised decision to send a dick pic (“Why isn’t it called ‘Junk Mail’? Missed opportunity.”) “CockTales” leverages the giggle-snort humor associated with the phallus to deliver the everyman message about the embarrassment of being a male.
Completely lacking in swagger, “CockTales” is an amalgam of stories submitted to the author and turned into vignettes and original songs, by turns painfully awkward, self-deprecating and satirical. The show is well-written, very funny and offers a glimpse behind the curtain of male bravado.
Perhaps because one of the first vignettes centered around boys learning to be ashamed of their penises (whose priest gives them the pnemonic device Touching is Terribly Sinful, or TITS), and to fear any potential pleasure awaiting to be found there, it was easy to see each of the men onstage as the little boy they once were, to understand their burden under the construct of maleness imposed on them by our highly gendered society.
Surprisingly, the stories didn’t include much from the gay perspective. The only non-cis story included was of a man in a life drawing class who has an awkward response to seeing another man — the model — naked for the first time. It would be interesting to hear a more thorough exploration of the non-hetero male experience, particularly considering how respectfully the writers addressed the other stories.
There was also an un-selfconscious patriarchal bent to the stories, which is to be expected from a play about penises. When women are mentioned, which is infrequently, they are described as harsh, portrayed as aggressive, or objectified. There’s a sense that, while the veil is lifted, men are still wary about letting their guard down around women, who could be — and often, are — dangerous. Even this made me compassionate about the experience of being a man; these stories expressed a significant amount of confusion, fear, and anxiety about what it means to be a man, and the difficulty many people have in navigating those waters.
Having grown up with three older brothers, I would never have guessed that what lay behind the machismo was utter panic.
The musical numbers, all original songs by Stan Janz, lift the sometimes weighty subject matter and provide a different perspective. From the brilliant Gregorian chant, to the bawdy and fast-paced rap listing common and uncommon colloquialisms about the penis, Janz and company have created some insightful and very funny songs. It was hard to catch all the lyrics because the audience was laughing so hard.
Balancing quiet, fragile observational pieces against broad humor made “CockTales” an incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theatre. There is some near-nudity, saved only by the strategic placement of a murse, but again, it is used to comic effect, as male nudity is always funny (but female nudity is always sexual-a subject that could be explored in a “Vagina Monologues/CockTales” crossover show. Hey playwrights, here’s your free idea!).
This is one of the rare shows I’d like to see again. I was sorry my husband couldn’t come with me, because in addition to the humor, I’d love to discuss some of the things that came up in the show. Do men REALLY have a zone defense near their midsections? Do grown men in bathrooms seek to compare penis size? Do they really refer to their body parts as “back door keys”?
With these and other questions on my mind, I heartily recommend you brave the railyard theatre setting that suggests you might have been lured to the home of a violent serial killer and see “CockTales,” and enjoy the hell out of yourself. Have a drink, bring a friend and marvel at the show’s ability to bring understanding for people who are burdened with the almighty phallus.
“CockTales” ran through Feb. 21, 2016 at Headwaters Theatre
Kelly Bosworth To Play Winterfolk XXVIII Festival
Kelly Bosworth approached the table with her guitar slung over her shoulder, looking more like a hiker ready for a day in the Columbia Gorge than an up-and-coming Portland singer/songwriter.
“I thought maybe I’d play for you here,” she joked, looking around the full coffeehouse.
And it would be a perfect place for a sampling of her music, but we weren’t there for a performance. Bosworth had agreed to sit down to talk songwriting, folk music, and her abiding love for Patty Griffin.
Bosworth will be featured in the upcoming Winterfolk performance, February 20 at Portland’s Aladdin Theatre. As their emerging younger artist, Bosworth is steeped in the tradition of music passed person to person, and shares her own songs in the same open spirit.
As a child, Bosworth begged her parents for piano lessons for five years. Once they caved, she studied classical piano twice a week, for seven years. Her father eventually decided to expand her musical horizons — and his — and taught himself to play the bass while sharing with her his favorite folk music in family singalongs every weekend. Those singalongs became neighborhood gathering places, and a touchstone along her musical path.
Being a professional musician wasn’t Bosworth’s original plan. She studied political science at Grinnell College in Iowa, with a focus on income inequality, worked in social services in New York. She came back to Portland and worked for a non-profit community development organization. Because she had gotten so much from her parents and her experience, she was compelled to work helping other people improve their lives.
Music continued to play a part in her life, and a job singing choral music looked like it might turn into a new career. But when a nasty cold lingered, a doctor suggested that her voice would be compromised, and she recalibrated, turning from choral music to folk, a more forgiving medium for a stressed voice.
“I knew,” Bosworth says, “that I couldn’t treat my voice as infinite, that I had to be intentional about what I do with it.”
It was the loss of her father that turned her to songwriting. The process, she said, of “going to my pain and finding healing in it,” brought her musical training and experiences into alignment. With echoes of Hank Williams, who wrote, according to Bosworth, “sad songs that mean something,” she is not afraid to explore the darker side of the human psyche.
With influences from Gillian Welch to Patty Griffin, Bosworth gathers American voices in the folk Appalachian/Bluegrass/Americana/Singer-songwriter tradition. An obsessive Beatles fan as a kid, she also lists Dixie Chicks among her treasured icons, a group that, for her, veered from the country music path to a more independent strain of thought. Griffin’s “unapologetically dark” songs appealed to Bosworth.
Songwriting was Bosworth’s path through her own darkness, as after the loss of her father, she wrote to understand what she was feeling, and would play those songs for her mother and sister, which in turn helped them with what they were going through. A community of songwriters in Portland has guided her on her path of songwriting as truth telling.
“We write,” Bosworth said, “to tell our experiences. It’s not about writing a hit song, it’s about saying something.”
That same humility helps her break through her hesitancy about performing.
“Growing up playing music, I never understood the motivation of getting up on stage. It seems so selfish, so conceited. But as I expanded the circle of people (I was playing my songs for), I had to redefine what performing meant. Getting up on stage doesn’t have to be a selfish act; I want to give something of myself,” said Bosworth.
The musical gatherings in her childhood home helped shape the musician she would become. The intimate evenings gave her a community in which she grew her chops, learned the music passed from one singer to another, soaked in the traditions of Appalachian music and bluegrass, and learned how to share something of herself with an audience. The loss of her father, so important to her as a person, and central to her musical heart, led her to finding her own voice as a writer; the gatherings became her first audience, her first attempts at performance, humble and raw in her own living room.
Bosworth’s connection to community — both as a recipient and provider of support — infuses her choices. With fellow songwriter Richey Bellinger and bassist Bernardo Gomez, she has a trio called Kelly and The Bells, and an album due out later this year. She tours when she can, playing in cities where her friends live so she can see them and get her music out at the same time.
She also teaches at a couple of music schools locally, “in the new economy of musicians,” cobbling together a life singing and writing and performing enough to make it all worthwhile. She loves to teach, to share the love for music that was shared with her, but there’s that moment on stage when, she said, “I’m nervous until everyone laughs together, then we’re all having the same emotional experience.” That moment of connection is her bellwether; this will be a good night.
Bosworth has a warmth and kindness that resonates in her clear and compelling voice. The whole process, she says, is about trying to integrate different pieces into an understanding of yourself. In her songs, in this voice that she discovered, she’s sharing that growing understanding, from darkness to light, wherever the path leads.
Winterfolk was held from 8-11 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 at The Aladdin Theater
2016 Feb 2 Portland’s 8th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 1
Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival, a celebration of original works from Portland artists and actors and creators, just wrapped up on Sunday. It was a 10-day whirlwind of shows from fully staged productions to spare readings of new plays. The variety made it difficult to choose, so I narrowed down my selections to plays by underrepresented voices; people of color, community or neighborhood productions, and women.
“Broken Promises” at Milagro Theater was precisely the kind of storytelling I hoped to see, a discussion of the reality not often examined in traditional theatre. A joint production with Planned Parenthood, “Broken Promises” focuses on four Latino high schoolers looking for their way out of the life of poverty that seems to be their destiny.
In dialogue that moves fluidly between Spanish and English, the story moves quickly from introduction to central conflict; a young woman who follows a path of seemingly easy money and becomes hopelessly ensnared in sex slavery. Without flinching, without pulling punches, “Broken Promises” delivers the painful truth about pervasive income inequality, and provides a view into the perpetual struggle faced by many segments of our population. Well acted and well written, “Broken Promises” deserves a wider audience.
“Frankenstein: A Cabaret” caught my attention early, as the thought of a musical/comedy/humorous staging of the famous story was intriguing. It’s in a small space on a small stage — too small to contain its big ideas. From the moment you arrive at the east-side industrial area theatre, queuing up next to an over-full dumpster, to the awkward seating arrangements squeezed into a space that attempts to include a full bar, a stage with a mountain peak, a six-piece band, and a twelve-person cast, the event feels congested, packed.
An ambitious performance aiming to dissect historical constructs around the feminine, creativity, transformation and desire adds to the confinement. It’s a boisterous show, humorous and thoughtful, that grabs threads from multiple and diverse trains of thought and attempts to weave them into a cohesive whole.
Unfortunately, what results is rather like Frankenstein: a creation that has neither beauty nor intelligence, and in its lack of congruence, is rather off-putting. I applaud the moments of insight and beauty, some curiously haunting original music, and strong and memorable performances. But the show needs an editor, STAT.
A late addition to my calendar was a workshop by Box of Clowns, presenting “The Mustache Party: The Salvador Dali Show.” It was my first surrealist clown show, and as an initiation into a world I never knew existed, it was baffling, humorous, curious, and amusing. For a bunch of clowns feting a genius artist, the show was remarkably un-self-important.
It was like watching a production by eight-year-olds in the backyard, kids striving to make connections between their childlike wonder and big important themes of existence, and watching them play was at once delightful and thought-provoking. As little as I know about Dali, I can only surmise that the playfulness combined with existential themes strikes precisely on his raison d’etre.
Rogue Pack, Young Portland Speaks brought meaning to the whole festival for me. Their performance of “Bob: #MiddleSchool #Tweensandteens,” which was #writtenbyportlandyouth and performed by kids in middle school and high school, was the raw material from which theatre festivals are created. The desire to tell our stories, to find our own voice in the crowd of voices, and the willingness to take the risk and share those stories with an audience of strangers is most evident in these young people.
From foster homes to abandonment, the stories gave insight into their very present pain and experiences. A number of the young performers admitted later to wanting to become writers or actors, and I hope they do. I want to hear more from them. The world needs voices like theirs: strong, injured but determined, unusual. Please keep creating, kids.
From storytelling to storytelling, this time a tale of an exploration to the South Pole. “Shackleton, The Untold Story,” created and told by Lawrence Howard of the Portland Story Theater, was a gripping tale told by a single storyteller over two hours and fifteen minutes. Howard, a lifelong scholar of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, presented the supplemental story of the Ross Sea Party, whose task was approaching Antarctica from the other side, setting caches of supplies across the continent for Shackleton’s crew to use as they traversed Antarctica.
As these things happen in the frozen seas, both Shackleton’s party and the Ross Sea party encountered horrible and extreme conditions, leading to the abject failure of both their attempts. For two hours, a packed house of 200-plus people of all ages listened in rapt attention to the detailed, well-researched story unfold of exploration and determination in the face of certain death. I felt like I would never be warm again.
Howard is a master storyteller, and told of his post-cancer-treatment realization that he must complete his dream of telling the rest of the Shackleton story while he still could, before the chance slipped away. He was another reminder of the importance of finding your voice and sharing stories that are important, even if you think they’re only important to you. It was a powerful performance, an evening recalling the oral tradition of community entertainment, and I will never forget it.
From spoken stories to wordless expression of our shared humanity, our next event was “Between Worlds” by Echo Theater. This was another first for me, seeing aerial and circus arts, and it was sheer magic. The performers bring such strength and grace to bear in the process of storytelling that the overall effect is hypnotic. To a person, the performance was flawless. Comprising three companies, each with its own performance, “Between Worlds” was thrilling and exciting and I wish I could go see it again right now.
Briefly, the presentations were a cautionary tale about the seven deadly sins (who knew Sloth could be so beautiful?); a fantasy about a “Superhero Old Folks Home” (my husband and I both cried at the Aquavelvet ghost haunting her dying husband); and “Hero’s Journey” by Tempos Circus, an acrobatic-dance performance of astounding strength and balance. The lines between traditional ballet and acrobatics/aerial arts are beautifully blurred.
And thanks to the “Superhero Old Folks Home,” I may never want to see another opera if it doesn’t include an aerial aria.
Capping off my week of performances was “The New Vaudeville,” by Elaborate Alibi Theater Company, featuring The Affable Gentlemen. I was psyched about this, as I’ve never seen a vaudeville show and my husband is a big fan. Go figure. Alexander, Master of Marvels, provided my first experience with a magician, and I was (predictably) entranced. I like to think I can reason things out, but after the first two sleight of hand, I just gave in and watched, mesmerized.
The pacing of the show was haphazard, though the troupe gave a fine effort at staying in character throughout. I found that the storytelling episodes slowed the momentum of the evening, and brought the tenor of the room down from lighthearted fanciful entertainment to ponderous, overly long tales of woe. More comedy, please! The Famous Haydell sisters delivered on bawdiness and charm. Staging this at the vaunted Clinton Street Theater was a marvelous idea, but the show itself needs to be tightened, more brisk.
The Fertile Ground festival is a chance for unknowns and lesser-knowns to have their shows produced, promoted, and seen. There were many, many more shows I wanted to see than I could physically attend, and I look forward to the chance next year to pick a whole new set of new material to watch.
It’s exciting to see some variety in Portland theatre, particularly at a time when the city is considering its arts future. Our city’s strength is in its diversity, and we would be well advised to nurture and encourage new and emerging artists. Fertile Ground is a marvelous demonstration of our city’s artistic depth.
2016 Jan 19 The Yellow Wallpaper
For any woman who has been put in her “place,” told to be quiet, told to stop being emotional, CoHo Theatre’s production of “The Yellow Wallpaper” should carry a trigger warning. The story of an intelligent, independent woman whose shining intensity is subsumed into a proscribed, limiting role, complete with confining behavioral expectations, is painfully familiar.
Originally a short story by the great feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who also wrote the novel “Herland”), “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been adapted for the stage by Sue Mach. Set before the turn of the last century, the story probes the ultimate result of cutting a woman off from intellectual and spiritual fulfillment.
This is the world premiere of this play, which was brought to life by Portlanders Mach and Grace Carter, whose vision is responsible for the adaptation of the story. It is a tale that resonates today, when women continue to fight for the right to thrive on their own terms, and to separate themselves from the limitations imposed by traditional gender roles.
Carter also plays Charlotte, a woman whose forthright intellect and curiosity snares the interest of John, a physician who is delivering a lecture on the psyche. John is intrigued by Charlotte’s passionate pursuit of knowledge, her quicksilver wit, and her determined independence, and her need to understand her world through her writing. He falls madly in love with her, proposes marriage, and she agrees, in spite of her misgivings about what she will give up when she becomes a wife.
The pair appears next in a house they’ve taken for the summer, a place for Charlotte to rest after a recent strain. John’s sister Jenny has accompanied them, acting as nurse for Charlotte’s recovery. The story unfolds at this summer house, in the attic room in which Charlotte is supposed to recuperate, the room she immediately dislikes; the room decorated with horrible yellow wallpaper.
In this lean production, whose stage holds merely a bed and a door, each tiny detail holds meaning. The costumes are particularly expressive: John wears a morning suit, with its cutaway coat and high collar showing fitting formality for a physician. Charlotte, in stark contrast, wears light, unstructured linen, still appropriately modest for the age, but prioritizing comfort and ease of movement over appearance. The hem of her blue skirt is unfinished, raw, but linen looks good in its natural state, unfussy. It’s perfect for Charlotte’s personality.
John’s sister wears a high ruffled-collar satin shirt over a heavy plum taffeta skirt, even though it’s summer. While she and Charlotte are friends, they are very different. Her clothes reflect the fact that Jenny embraces the traditional female role; archetypically feminine, restrictive, conforming not to the environment but to societal expectations for a woman of her station.
Carter’s portrayal of Charlotte is convincing from end to end, a woman of great mental abilities and creative purpose driven to sorrow and eventually broken. Chris Harder as John is a brusque, loving, well-intentioned doctor who really only wants to take care of his wife.
The reason for Charlotte’s seclusion isn’t clear, either in the story or the play: she’s apparently given birth to a son, Thomas, and there has been some intervening event that set off alarm bells for her family. She’s described as having a “nervous condition,” and her only task is to rest and stay away from stimulus.https://a09fda36a484f9eb47ff29a33d4bb6d5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But vibrant Charlotte begins to lose her stability in the hours of silence, and her system goes into withdrawal. Without anything to read, or anyone to talk to, or anything of substance to do, her mind drifts farther and farther from herself. She is forbidden from writing, although she sneaks a notebook and writing utensil out of her pocket the moment she’s alone.
It is not long before Charlotte’s mental stability crumbles. The unspecified event has clearly given her an emotional load to carry, and her imprisonment has removed all of her tools for dealing with that load. Her system starts to break down, and soon she is seeing figures in the awful wallpaper and becomes convinced there is someone nearby, just out of her field of vision.
The staging of her devolution into instability is haunting, putting the audience into the center of the mental assault. From just offstage, we hear knocking and out-of-tune humming. As she rockets into the depths, the humming and knocking become invasive, like the soundtrack to a horror movie.
Interspersed with interruptions from John and Jenny, which are silent and calm but tense, like the air before a storm, the scenes of Charlotte’s spiraling are gripping and frightening. An actual figure appears behind the wall, entering reality and space, and the approach of the figure becomes more obvious as Charlotte goes farther into her illness. Dread precedes the figure, like an odor or a dim light.
Peak silent misery is reached when Jenny comes to wash Charlotte’s hair, which has gone from informal to chaotic. Without a word, Jenny draws Charlotte to the bowl, and the women kneel together as Jenny gently washes her friend. Charlotte responds with anguished tears, touch and tenderness acting as a release valve for her terror and pain. This lasts only a few minutes, and Jenny tenderly holds Charlotte for a moment after the hair is finished, and then she leaves her to her madness.
If there is a complaint about this play, it is that the time spent on the descent into madness is so overwhelming, so much more involved than the time spent getting to know Charlotte and love her for who she is. It is assumed, after our brief introduction, that Charlotte is an amazing person, but we aren’t given a chance to invest in her.
While this is a dramatization of a short story, the playwright has already taken some liberties with the story in giving us the background information of how Charlotte and John met, which is not part of the original. The process of going mad is saturating and thorough in its detail, but we are severed from the effect on this person because we never really knew her.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a compelling, sometimes disturbing look at what happens when our true selves are denied. Let this stand as your warning: the tragedy of this story will remind you of the times you were forced into a box for someone else’s comfort. While mental health can’t be guaranteed by access to a library and a notebook and pen, “The Yellow Wallpaper” guides you to the terrifying result for one artistic mind starved of its necessary nourishment. Be prepared.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” ran through Feb. 6, 2016 at CoHo Theatre,