A.L. Adams

 

DramaWatch Weekly: A test, a lull, lean prose

On Portland stages, it's a week for "Fun Home," Raymond Carver, catching up with "An Octoroon," and checking the horizon

Let there be more than one female character.

Let them talk to each other.

Let them have a conversation that’s less than 100 percent about men.

A.L. Adams

That’s The Bechdel Test, a set of guidelines Graphic Novelist Alison Bechdel sensibly suggested in 1985 as a way to vet narratives for basic fairness. In my theater reviews, I’ve used it—not because it’s a buzzword, I could give a rip—but because when I find myself already bothered by a 2-D plot, applying this test gives me an impartial reason why. #notallmen. See what I did there? Never mind.

Here’s something extraordinary: Alison Bechdel has an autobiographical musical, Fun Home.

What’s more, it’s won a Tony, and I bet it passes the Test. It opens this week at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Aida Valentine (left), Karsten George (center), and Theo Curl in “Fun Home.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Think-piece brinksmen on Bechdel’s level, those whose theories have become common knowledge, rarely produce their own art. Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, rode “The Tipping Point” to the edge, but not to Broadway. Richard Florida, who championed and later renounced “The Creative Class,” never made a musical about it (arguably, The Music Man scooped him). Yet here comes Alison Bechdel—the mind behind the pen that’s pinpointed exactly what was wrong with so many others’ stories—striding into the spotlight* to answer a dare critics-who-are-also-artists hear daily: “Let’s see you try it.”

Okay. Bam. Tony.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Out there, the drama is real

From the news to the stage, A.L. Adams' new column gives the lowdown on a week's worth of action on the Portland theater scene

Holy moly, is this week huge! Here we are in the throes of most theaters’ season kickoff with much too much to cover—not to mention TBA. (Just kidding; of course I’ll also mention TBA.)

A.L. Adams

In local season opening news, PHAME’s got a new executive director, Action/Adventure Theater has closed its doors after an epic five-year run, and Readers Theatre Rep just raised their ticket price to a whole $10 (still worth every penny, I’m sure; they’ll read two Arthur Miller plays this weekend).

How about national news? Anything major? Sometimes (actually, constantly) I look at what themes are playing out on Portland stages and think about how much they resonate with real-life events that are actually happening. If I may:

 


 

The Drama Is Real: Shows that hit a nerve with current news

In the news: Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a repeal of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offers protected status to undocumented persons who’ve lived in the US since their childhood. Meanwhile, onstage: Last weekend, Ingenio Milagro, a Milagro Theatre’s playwright development symposium similar to Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, presented four scripts including Monica Sanchez’s Los Dreamers, the story of “Dreamer” Scoobi.

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In the news: The Oregon Bach Festival is reeling over international backlash after firing their artistic director Matthew Halls in response to an incident one might call “Grit Gate.” The Telegraph reports that Halls was overheard joking with his friend, African-American singer Reginald Mobely, and had made a quip about grits while mimicking a southern accent. Though both Mobely and Halls maintain that the joke was about the South generally rather than a Black stereotype, a white woman who overheard the remark complained to University of Oregon leadership, who summarily relieved Halls of his post. With press outlets in Halls’ native England picking up the story, Grit-Gate seems to have grown into an international incident. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage opened its season last weekend (in a new space) with Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter, a drama wherein an African American student at a primarily white college receives hate mail and the school’s administration struggles to react appropriately, arguably making things worse.

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In the news: Hillary Clinton has just released what is sure to be a polarizing book, What Happened, asking exactly that of her 2016 presidential campaign and taking belated jabs at her opponents left and right. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillary Clinton, of all people, will visit Portland on December 12. See Portland’5 for details.

 


 

Mister Theater: feet off the furniture, kid.

Out There: Shows for explorers

Sweep The Leg: A Karate Kid Musical Parody is happening at Mister Theater, which I didn’t even know was a thing. From the address, it looks like Mister is a neighbor of beloved life-drawing lair Hipbone Studios and belly dance hot spot Studio Datura. (I’m sure it means Mister like “man,” but with this heat persisting into next week and these actors karate-kicking up a sweat, the other kind of “mister” couldn’t miss.) 

Back Fence PDX This storytelling showcase regularly presents a solid roster of raconteurs, and this installment includes “Portland’s Funniest Person 2017” Caitlyn Weierhauser, aptly-named web series star Ben Weber, sketch comedy specialist Andrew Harris, cultural competency consultant Bealleka, and retro glam cult novelist Jennifer Robin.

Under The Influence: All Trumped Up Ernie Liloj must be “tired of winning.” After his original musical Under The Influence earned two Drammies in 2015 (Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Musical) he seems to have asked, “What would really put this over the top?” What puts anything over the top? A dollop of Trump, of course. A cast that includes two alums of Post5’s legendary clown shows, Ithica Tell and Jessica Tidd, should feel right at home at the Funhouse Lounge, a venue complete with a themed “clown room.”

 


 

This week at TBA

 Now onward to PICA TBA:17 (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival), whose program I’ve perused and—just as my ArtsWatch colleague Jamuna Chiarini did for dance—I’ve plucked all of the remaining theater works from the schedule and linked them here for your ease. Less easy for me, and I’ll tell you why: this calendar is chockfull of crossover acts, most especially performance artists who infuse their theatrical pieces with varying amounts of original music.

 Are such shows concerts, or are they theater? Yes.

Will all performance artists be required to write their own music from now on? I hope so. Discuss.

 TBA performances this week include several appearances by Saudi artist Sarah Abuabdallah, three Sigourney Weaver Jam Sessions by Manuel Solano, an evening with singer/monologuist Joseph Keckler, the pop song/deadpan storytelling pairing of Half Straddle‘s Ghost Rings, Cvllejerx throwing a Super Tantrum, and the “psychoacoustic” thralls of Sound et Al.

My must-see is longtime Portland music scene fixture Holland Andrews (of Like a Villain, Aan, and Samadams), who, having lately completed an artist residency in Paris, will present collaborative work with Alain Mahé that interprets Dorothée Munyaneza’s interviews of Rawandan rape survivors following the country’s 1994 genocide. Obviously something to scream about, but also worth getting further context from a follow-up conversation; Sunday’s show will be followed by a talkback. For more femme-empowered protest music, check out Retribution, Tanya Tagaq‘s “howling protest” in defense of indigenous and human rights, or party your catharsis out with Demian Dineyazhi‘s Death Dance, a brown/indigenous punk statement that doubles as a “sweaty celebration.”

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Whew! That’s all the drama I have for this week. Hand me my mister.

 


 

With this column, the sharp-witted and sharp-eyed A.L. Adams begins her weekly look at what’s happening on Portland’s theater stages. Look for DramaWatch Weekly every Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

Deep End Theater: funny without trying

Domeka Parker's new improv company teaches performers to enjoy every moment and to act authentically, not just race to the next punchline.

The improv begins before the teacher even gives the go-ahead, and it seems to happen by accident. The students are standing in a circle, taking turns saying their name and when and whether they’ve tried improv before. When one student says “Never,” the teacher exclaims, “Oooh,” wagging her hips in a little happy-dance.

“Oo-oooh!” echoes the group, mimicking the hip-waggle. For the next student, they take it further: “OOOOoooo–ooh!” Eventually, each introduction is followed by a long, enthusiastic chorus of “OOOOOOOOoooo–oooooh!” and a veritable dance party. Hence, introductions take forever, but incorporate a warmup.

A beep from the kitchenette breaks the spell. “The coffee is done!” chirps the teacher. “The coffee is done!” sing her new acolytes.

Deep End ensemble members Malcolm McClinton, Talon Bigelow, and Elena Afanasiev, in “Level Up” class. Photo: Ken Bryan

Spontaneous and loose as this scene may seem, improv instructor Domeka Parker knows exactly what she’s doing. She was born and raised into theater by parents (Scott Parker and Victoria Parker-Pohl) who started some of Portland’s first comedy troupes, Savoir Affair and Waggie and Friends, and she’s has been performing since 1986, teaching since 2008, and touring internationally since 2013. And now, Parker has a theater company of her own, offering beginner and advanced improv training as well as hosting events and shows.

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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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