A.L. Adams

 

A new way to ask “what if”

The Armory's latest play "Constellations" makes "the multiverse" more accessible by adding an age-old element, romance.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, but he’s married.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, but he’s not into her.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, and he’s into her, and their relationship begins. What are the odds?

Nick Payne’s Constellations might be a heartwarming rom-com if it weren’t for the play’s extremely unusual setting—a series of parallel universes that contain potentially-infinite variations of the lovers’ story.

The “multiverse,” as it’s often called, is a trending theory of physics that proposes that the reality we’re living in is basically just one in a stack of non-identical, concurrently unfolding copies of reality, wherein different circumstances play out among the same participants. And musing about the multiverse seems to be hot right now. Science broaches the discussion with The Large Hadron Collider in Cern, created to seek the “god particle”; with Schroedinger’s ill-fated feline; and with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Science fiction (or as some scholars rightfully prefer to call it, “speculative fiction” or spec-fic) uses the theory to buoy its overarching “what-ifs”: What if the world were different than it is? What if the world is different than we think?

A sci-fi state of mind is emphasized—nay, maximized—by the set in this production. A giant raised grid of perfectly-spaced squares (think Tron, The Matrix, or even a honeycomb) curves artfully from backdrop to foreground, from ceiling to floor, waterfalling off the front edge of the stage. A few of its squares function as cubbyholes that offer up props (for instance, pairs of shoes) at appropriate moments, then reabsorb any matter the actors throw into them, like so many scrambled eggs materializing from nowhere in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sound, too, is a crucial component. Each new scenario is cued by a sort of “whoosh, clank,” as if the cubbyholes of the grid are being invisibly realigned and locked into place, opening and closing pathways so new stimuli can enter the space.

Dana Greene and Silas Weir Mitchell in “Constelations”: many possibilities. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye

Standing against this epic gridscape symbolizing the universe’s unseen pattern and flow, Marianne and Roland look strikingly small. But gradually, magnetically, they draw us into their sympathies, and hurtle us toward a heartbreaking conclusion that we keep hoping they can somehow—maybe through a glitch in the matrix?—manage to avoid.

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The Meaningful Manners of Miss Julie

Strindberg's erotic drama probes the link between beliefs and behaviors, and cracks into the rift between rich and poor

One must never leave the theater mid-scene. And certainly not just to go pee. It’s simply not done. Perpetrators must be chastised or shunned.

At Shaking The Tree last weekend, my seatmate violated that firm principle of etiquette at the very climax of August Strindberg’s* drama of manners, Miss Julie. Before the show, she’d chatted with me affably, managing to mention that she’s a homeowner in a pricey neighborhood. But after her faux pas (which included a hoarse whisper, a departure and a return midplay) I could barely look at her. In my eyes, she was fallen.

This real-life scenario actually handily illustrates the playwright’s key thesis: that our notions of social propriety often run too deep for our shared humanity to overcome. Certain social mores are at least baked and sometimes beaten into our psyches from childhood, and whenever someone breaks an ironclad convention—even if no further harm would seem to be done—they can cause intense distress, shame, and pain.

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15 Surprising Satchmoments

If you've studied Louis Armstrong's biography, you'll enjoy seeing it brought to life. If you haven't, this show will be full of surprises.

Sure, you could watch a documentary. Read a biography. Listen to a record or two or ten. If you want to simply learn about the life of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, there’s no shortage of material.

But there’s something special about a one-person bio-play—something less eerie than using a medium to conjure a spirit, but more present and more humanizing than most other media. When an actor breathes life into a figure who once lived, and we listen to their words with fresh ears, it’s a new level of “paying respects.”

Salim Sanchez as Louis Armstrong. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

Respect was something jazz trumpeter and singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong struggled to obtain, probably more than anyone in his position before or since. And in Triangle Productions’ Satchmo at the Waldorf, actor Salim Sanchez credibly and thoughtfully embodies that struggle. Performing a script by Wall Street Journal drama critic and Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, Sanchez portrays three characters: Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser, and musician Miles Davis.

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Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge

The Armory's darling Canadian romance echoes some classics and charms the family crowd

First love. First kiss. First horseback ride. First World War. When everything’s fresh and innocent and new, it seems like it’s all going to work out fine. We can never go back to those times. Or, pretty please, can we?

Portland Center Stage’s Mary’s Wedding—the first full-length play by playwright Stephen Massicotte—is an idealistic retelling of a small-town romance turned long-distance correspondence, reimagined after the fact as a wistful dream punctured by gunfire. Mary (Lexi Lapp) is a prim, gorgeous, feminine English rose who “dreams of flowers and little babies,” and Charlie (Alex J. Gould), though he modestly refers to himself as a “dirty farm boy,” is more like a handsome clean-shaven Canadian Disney prince. They meet at the outskirts of their families’ respective farms while sheltering in a barn during a rainstorm. They notice each other’s loveliness as they share a horse ride home, and they begin a courtship.

The mating game: Lexi Lapp as Mary and Alex J. Gould as Charlie. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

This is an easy show to enjoy, but a hard one to review without sounding like a condescending cynic—largely because so many elements within Massicotte’s script invite comparison to pre-existing classics. L.M. Montgomery’s characters (chiefly Anne of Green Gables) recited Tennyson very much like Massicotte’s Mary, right down to their shared favorite title, The Lady of Shalott. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town characters were as small-town innocent and romance-prone as Mary and Charlie. Also, the spirits of Wilder’s dearly departed remained free to reinhabit scenes from their pasts, their afterlife neither hell nor heaven but a liminal state of observing from a vantage point physically near to where they lived and died until they gradually detached from life at their own pace. Massicotte borrows this view, too. One line, “Run, Charlie!” even evokes Forrest Gump, and scenes of war-wounded emit fainter echoes of the same.

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Medea brings new meaning to catharsis

Imago presents a gut-wrenching Greek tragedy on a slanted stage

“Does the word ‘catharsis’ have Greek origins?” I wondered as I watched Imago’s Medea. Sure enough—and its meanings have been faithfully maintained: Katharsis and related words imply vomiting, purging or bodily cleansing, with an aim toward purity. When the body is sick, it triggers nausea (another Greek word, for seasickness specifically), and before the body can rest—either in repose or death—it must first expel some poison.

And yet, there’s a natural impulse among “civilized” people to resist the impulse to purge, to contain the inevitable upheaval. Guts clench and wrench. Teeth gnash and throats choke. And in that moment, however brief or prolonged, there’s suspense and tension. In the nausea before the catharsis, sickened people are holding in an ocean’s worth of sorrow. They’re dry-heaving a clutch of tortured sobs before unleashing a torrent. And that, Friends, is the feeling of a good Greek tragedy.

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

For an archetypal figure from antiquity, Medea’s plight is surprisingly universal. The mother of two (played by the always-commanding Anne Sorce) has just lost her cheating, midlife-crisis-indulging husband Jason (played by the equally-formidable Todd Van Voris) to a much younger woman, and it’s driving her crazy. As her ex-husband’s wedding day approaches, she schemes about how to make him pay, deciding that ultimately she’s willing to add to her own suffering in order to inflict her pain on him. Medea, her nursemaid/narrator (Madeleine Delaplane), and a chorus of Medea’s peers spend much of the play in a prolonged reverie of poetic nausea, trying in vain to choke back the forthcoming horrors the scorned woman is about to release. They wail. They moan. They warn. And we wait trepidatiously.

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‘A Maze’ goes the extra mile

Theatre Vertigo's latest show wants extra credit for illustrations, a concept album and more—but in the end, it's all about the story

In a maze, there are bound to be some dead ends. In fact, that’s what you sign up for. Whether there are just enough or too many is open to interpretation, but one thing’s for sure: in Theatre Vertigo’s production of Rob Handel’s A Maze, there are none too few.

“Creating the world of this play has been a gargantuan feat,” writes Nate Cohen in his Director’s Note. “Our team has composed over a dozen original songs, generated more than 50 pieces of visual and projection art, and written a computer algorithm that has generated over 1000 unique mazes.”

Did they? Because the presence of multimedia works within the play is significantly subtler than those metrics suggest.

“This play demands this level of creative output…”

Does it? An apter word might be “inspires.” This cast and crew may have decided to do a few extra laps of legwork, but their process hasn’t drastically changed the outcome. More on that later.

Kidnap victim Jessica (Kaia Maarja Hillier) leads a complex life in the dual realms of captivity and fantasy at the center of “A Maze”. Photo: James Krane

At the end of the day, the make-or-break elements of this play are story and acting— particularly between the two characters whose relationship is the most bizarre and fraught. Kaia Maarja Hillier plays Jessica, a kidnapped teen, and Nathan Dunkin plays her longtime captor. He’s using her as his muse in a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game, which she obliges and guiltily enjoys. As she teeters on the cusp of sexual maturity and he grapples with the imminent consequences of his crime, holy Stockholm, does their situation get sticky. Their dynamic is riveting, really, and it forms the core of the story.

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Matt Haynes explains The Pulp Stage

Since 2010, The Pulp Stage has been serving up sci-fi and suspense scripts á la carte at small venues. Their founder sheds light on their process and vision.

Be forewarned: This Thursday (April 20), if you find yourself in O’Connor’s Bar on Capitol Highway, you might lose yourself in a bizarre parallel universe. The Pulp Stage—a scrappy cadre of theater nerds deeply devoted to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense—will present a reading of Francesca Piantadosi’s Galaxy Blink, the story of a woman attempting to manage two men’s cosmic delusions while sometimes wondering if she’s actually the crazy one.

The Pulp Stage has been a blip on Arts Watch’s radar for some time, but we were curious to learn more. We asked founder and artistic director Matt Haynes to explain.

How long has The Pulp Stage been going, and what first got you started?

We did our first showing in Winter of 2010. I was inspired by a lewd, ultra-violent story that my brother had written for a music magazine. [Adam Haynes has a credit as screenwriter for the film The Pleasure Drivers, which features Meat Loaf and Billy Zane among others.] I thought his story could be really easily adapted into dialogue and narration. The Fertile Ground Festival of New Work gave me the perfect platform by which to mount my first production. I’d only worked as an actor and teacher previously.

Francesca Piantadosi’s “Galaxy Blink” on The Pulp Stage, April 20.

Where’s the biggest or most public, and the smallest or most private, place Pulp has performed?

Biggest public… so far, I would say Hipbone Studio with an audience of up to 60. Smallest, most private? A small living room.

Is theater etiquette different in a bar than in a playhouse space? What are pros and cons of each?

The big pro of a show in a bar is that you’re essentially conjuring the trip together. People are hanging out, drinking, munching and listening, and before you know it, everybody is transported. That’s the raw magic of theater right there. Plus, you usually get great deals on rentals, since you’re bringing in bucks for the bar.

Cons? With our shows, the audience needs to be hyper-focused on the words or they’re going to lose the story. And when you’re in a bar … well … sometimes patrons can treat the performance like music where you can move around, chat, drift in and out of listening (which I’m sure many musicians don’t like either). So our ideal venue has a bar feel, but a playhouse focus. The Vault at O’Connor’s—the location of our next show—really works that way. And we do modify our pieces to fit venues. With bars or public spaces like libraries, you usually want to go for the the broad and funny pieces. If the audience is repeatedly laughing, they’re repeatedly sending focus to the performers and the story. Galaxy Blink is funny, but it also has a lot of realism. We can do a “quieter” piece like that in the Vault at O’Connor’s.

How would you describe Pulp’s vision and repertoire? Has it changed over time?

The original format was staged readings, where you had script in hand but also had some light blocking, costumes, light design, sound design et cetera. In 2013, after taking the full reigns as producer (my co-producer had been Brian Allard up to that point), I realized just how much work it took to mount these shows … most of which were only going to play for one night. So I stepped back and thought about the ultra-violent story that got us going for 2010 … the final draft was built to be this really, really simple form of readers’ theater. You wouldn’t want to stage it with any elaboration, it was storytelling … with dialogue. What if we built more and more scripts like that? Super easy to produce and super fun for audiences and performers? Sort of like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. So we took that path, and now we develop plays in the form that we call “Prime”: just the words.

It’s important to differentiate what we do from workshop readings (where usually someone sits on the sidelines and reads the stage directions out loud). Workshop readings can sometimes be even better than the fully staged show, but the audience will always be in a split-minded position: “I’m enjoying this reading, and at the same time I know this is not the full actualization of the piece.”

How do we make ours different? We take physical actions out of the scenes (like the Greek plays where the fight builds in a battle of words, followed by blood and guts flying all around offstage), or we keep the action and have that be deliberately narrated, storytelling-style (as opposed to actions being listed, as with stage directions). This way, the audience is in a position to fully enjoy the show for what it is, and what it was always intended to be: verbal storytelling.

What’s your process, and what are your criteria, for picking plays?

The story needs to be something that could qualify as science fiction, fantasy or suspense (and suspense’s  permutations, like mystery or horror). And the story needs to have characters who are trying to get something from each other in every scene, using their words to do so. So, for example, the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey would certainly qualify as great science fiction, but  there’s no dynamic tension between characters; Dave just goes on the ride. The revealing of other worlds can be a big part of pulp genres, but you have to have characters giving and taking … and the stakes need to be survival-based.

How do you choose readers/actors?

We regularly host test reads of new material. Actors come and read pieces then give their feedback afterwards. It’s a real win because we get to learn how effective the play is and at the same time we get to know how the actor reads and how they might fit into one of our later shows.

Our pillars for an effective actor are (in order of priority)

-Do they speak clearly and at a decent volume?

-Do they seem grounded in their bodies when standing and delivering a story?

-Do they seem “real”: Are they getting behind the character’s wants and pushing?

-Do they have range?  Not as vital but helpful when we do evenings of multiple plays.

Are your playwrights hoping to get their shows fully staged, or read in other cities/markets? How does Pulp facilitate that process?

When a play looks like a good fit, and once it has been through our formatting method, we’re able to put it up on the stage and do so very quickly. All we need to make our plays happen is a quiet, contained space, an audience, actors and scripts—usually loaded up onto digital tablets. When a piece works, we often stir it into other showcases that we tour around, almost like a band’s set list. So that helps get the word out about the play even more.

We can’t offer development toward full staging (or what I like to call “traditional staging” because, within what they are, our plays are fully staged) but often we can serve as an acid test for the dialogue: How clear is the story with just the words? How can the context and the stakes be clearer with just the words? All this is good muscle building if and when the play goes the other direction to the land of sets, props, costumes, etc.

What are your 366 Audition Monologues [published on The Pulp Stage Site] all about?

I’ve wanted to create a play that was made up of monologues. What a great tool that would be! Entertaining as a show, and useful fodder for auditions. I didn’t consider myself a playwright, so I decided that a good confidence-builder would be to write a monologue a day for a year—leap year in this case. So I just went ahead and did it, figuring I and readers didn’t have anything to lose. Some of the monologues work better than others, as I’ve found out in test reads, but they all have characters trying to get something from someone (as opposed to monologues that are reflective, and thus harder to act in isolation) and all are gender-flexible. And there’s a good helping of monologues that can work for under-served age groups: Teens and older adults.

What’s on your immediate itinerary and wish list for the next season of Pulp?

Gigs, gigs and more gigs. Gigs teach us so much about the effectiveness of our format and how to increase that effectiveness. The company dream is to have a thriving publishing wing for our kinds of plays. Wouldn’t it be great if small communities and schools had kick-ass shows that need only a little push to get rolling? So with the gigs, we serve our audiences, build our network of supporters and learn about how to produce scripts that are what we like to call “easy tools for delight.”

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See Pulp Stages present Galaxy Blink this Thursday, April 20, 7:30pm at the Vault of O’Connor’s, 7850 SW Capitol Highway.
“Suggested donation: Sliding scale up to $10. Patrons who wish to drink and dine are advised to arrive no later than 6:45.”