Arabian Nights: Post5’s Ensemble Talent Show

Grooming a mutant strain of super-actor.

Don't let this image fool you; PostFive's latest features 16 stars, not 2.

Don’t let this image fool you; PostFive’s latest features 16 stars, not 2.

“Are the girls here for killing?” bellows PostFive fight captain Sam Dinkowitz as actresses tumble onstage for a last-minute run-through of their opening scene. It’s a lurid shadow play behind a red curtain, and Sharyar (Gilberto Martin del Campo) briefly mimes sex and murder with each woman, tossing them all under a curtain where they roll into an expendable heap. Even this intense introduction to “Arabian Nights,” Mary Zimmerman’s redux of the Persian legend of Scheherazade (Nicole Virginia Accuardi) is a little tongue-in-cheek. It would have to be, with a cast that—besides its leads—looks about as Persian as Barbara Eden.

Though the material is relatively frivolous (especially compared to Portland Playhouse’s concurrent Eastern-gazing “Mother Theresa is Dead”) for PostFive’s purposes, the two-hour, 16-actor show that contains multiple stories-within-a-story becomes the perfect vehicle for a young ensemble to trade off SHOWING off. Easy enough to follow, and egalitarian enough with its spotlight, this play gives the troupe as a whole more opportunities than earlier-season offerings “Macbeth” (which revolved around lead actor/artistic director Ty Boice) and “Spectravagasm 2” (which slightly obscured the actors’ talents in a wash of psychedelia, absurdism, and inside humor). Having labored under little scrutiny these past two years, PostFive emerges from its 82nd-Avenue cocoon ripe for acclaim, and “Nights” is its debutante ball.

Cuomo The Clown

My first memory of the show’s director Philip Cuomo was as an actor in Shaking The Tree’s “Little Prince“. Opposite a young actress as the Prince, Cuomo took on most of the show’s supporting roles, including the Prince’s friend the fox and the story’s various planetary inhabitants (each absurdly personifying a school of human philosophy). Seasoned by Imago Theater’s signature movement arts, Cuomo threw himself into each cartoonish caricature, batting at imaginary ear-fleas, wafting around gracefully in a spherical “planet suit,” and switching with ease between exaggerated, comical dialects. “He’s such a CLOWN,” his Portland Actors’ Conservatory protegee Boice has noted—not condescendingly, but reverently. Since that stint in “Prince,” Cuomo has apparently proliferated his gifts to a host of PostFive company members and PAC alums. In “Arabian Nights,” we get a whole roomful of clever clowns, a la Cuomo.

“Auteur Anne Bogart has a saying:’become the editor’. That’s what I tried to do with these guys,” the director explains, recalling how he challenged the cast to break into small groups and “make their own” camel, boat, and even elephant through acrobatic collaboration. The best innovations went into the show, eliminating the need for some cumbersome props. Other personal PostFive touches include an original score (part Arabesque, part vaudevillian) written and performed by Chris Beatty and Sarah Peters with some ensemble sing-alongs.”The script didn’t come with a score, so we figured ‘Why not make one?'” says Cuomo.

The Young Bloods Are Coming

A few weeks ago, a short Mercury profile of PostFive artistic director Ty Boice met an angry snapback from Mercury reader “Juliette,” who decried the rise of “new theater companies” in Portland when perfectly good ones had existed already. She suggested “an exposé” of the movement (implying that it might unearth a New Theater Company Conspiracy). At the time, I laughed and dismissed her fear. But in light of new collectives’ latest efforts, a few more “Juliettes” may go on metaphorical suicide watch.

Between PostFive and Action/Adventure (who tend to share some personnel), I perceive, if not a conspiracy, at least a renaissance. Shoebox-sized spaces filling up with audience that’s over 10 and under 50. Tireless physicality and an ebullient sense of humor. These two newish companies are reminding me (in a way their PDX predecessors didn’t) of Victoria, BC in the early 90’s, where I first learned what small theater was supposed to be: meritocratic, accessible, adventurous and tireless. There’s a sense (especially among the somewhat rent-relieved denizens of Milepost5) that these actors live lean enough to transcend workaday concerns and commit completely to their disorienting artistic processes. I would not be surprised if they literally roll around in a pile all night until a scene’s pieces fall into place. These guys don’t seem like baristas reading a role; they’re actors who eat and sleep on their theater floor.

Subcultures, Converge!

If there IS a small theater renaissance—and you’re welcome to debate it— it was most likely fed by a network of tributaries from other peaking performance subcultures. Around PDX Pop, indie rock’s gradually crested. At Helium, Curious, and Bridgetown, comedy has burgeoned. With Wanderlust, burlesque, and to a certain extent Imago Theatre, vaudeville and mime/movement have boomed. And over at Portland Playhouse, small theater finally forged past-due inroads into cultural diversity. It was only a matter of time before upstart theaters reaped some spillover from these eclectic and overflowing talent wells—and PostFive courts just such an interdisciplinary infusion.
Jessica Anselmo, Cassandra Schwanke, Beth Summers and Sascha Blocker do a few bellydance moves. Choreographer Chip Sherman leads a series of elegant, mysterious mudras. The group sings along competently to much of the score, Glenn McCumber’s ululating tenor especially transcends. The cast’s general mastery of dialect outshines Portland Playhouse, and their stage-fighting is tighter and angrier than Artist Rep’s. Seemingly eager to expand their comedy chops, too, the theater’s even hosting a post-play standup showcase. Under the dual vision of young buck Boice and old pro Cuomo, and breathing deep draughts of Portland’s performative air, PostFive may be germinating a new hybrid super-strain of mutant actors who sing, joke, prat-fall, guitar-play, bellydance, and can subsist with a shared kitchen out on 82nd. They’re as hearty and apocalypse-ready as cockroaches. Look out.

As theater companies that multi-task are growing, the ones that have long stuck to their guns (with all due respect, Profile, Vertigo, CoHo) are forced to re-tool and compete in a suddenly fuller pool. Juliettes, don’t fret. It’s nobody’s fault, just a natural adaptation. With our town’s Portlandia tourist influx, eventually everyone will get a bigger audience.

A room for improvement.

PostFive’s actors shine so brightly, they ALMOST blur out their surroundings: a bright turquoise Disney’s-Aladdin-ish stage dressing that’s less Bedouiun than bedroom-set. The backdrop, when dimly lit, is passable, but the teal pillars in the foreground and the bulgy draping of silken saris (a dorm-roomish attempt to hide exposed venting and drainpipes) are, forgive the term, “fugly.” Less would be more. Better would be more. But this level of craft does a discredit. Hopefully some pinch-hitting set-subduers will jump in and release this play from its tacky trappings mid-run.

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