Bennett Campbell Ferguson

 

Defunkt’s dark dance of connection and rejection

"Slipping," an intimate drama by Daniel Talbott, is an overpowering vortex of yearning and grief -- with a shot of redemptive love.

Two men meet in a cafe. One is dressed in a stylish overcoat, the other is wearing a baggy sweatshirt. Much time has passed since they last saw each other and while their mutual adoration is clear, a cloud of awkwardness and regret looms over the encounter. Clearly, something happened to them—something that wrenched them apart.

Slipping, a moving and fearsome play by Daniel Talbott being produced at Defunkt Theatre, is the story of that something. It’s a brisk deep dive into the inner lives of two gay high schoolers that is sometimes painful to behold. The tale deals with death, self-mutilation and emotional abuse, and if you expect Talbott or director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard to address those topics coyly, prepare for a severe shock when the darkness of the theater is pierced by the gleam of spilled blood.

Yet while it can be tempting to recoil from Slipping, you shouldn’t. The play’s vigorously original writing, magnificently transportive imagery and fearlessly realistic performances combine to create an experience that is as unforgettable as it is overwhelming. The journey may shake you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking—quite the contrary.

Clifton Holznagel and John Corr as young lovers in Defunkt Theatre’s production of “Slipping.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Slipping is set primarily in Iowa, where Eli (Clifton Holznagel) has moved with his mother Jan (Paige McKinney) following his father’s death. At school, Eli is fiercely withdrawn—he hides behind a figurative suit of armor made of headphones and cigarettes. Yet one classmate takes the trouble to bash his way through: Jake (John Corr), who initially presents himself as steadfastly heterosexual and is rapidly revealed to be anything but.

As Eli and Jake go from arguing in art class to hanging out at the local AMC Theatre to making love, we see the beginning of a romance that is remarkably immune to cliché. If you think that Jake, a macho baseball player, will be shy about coming out, think again — he barely shrugs when the school learns of his love for Eli. Similarly, the play is mercifully free of hate crimes, despite its red-state setting. Slipping is a love story that insists that gay men have the right to the same familiar struggles — father issues, commitment issues — as straight men.

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The Anonymous Diaries

Anonymous Theatre loves keeping secrets. One actor shared a few.

A few weeks ago, I met and interviewed an actor at a coffee shop near Waterfront Park. They were charismatic, stylish and radiated supreme confidence and generosity. I would have relished the chance to find the right words to capture their personality, to make readers feel as if they had been sitting at our table with us.

But I can’t do that. I can’t tell you their name. I can’t describe their clothes. I can’t say whether they are a woman, a man or non-binary. Divulging those details would spoil the surprise of their performance in the Anonymous Theatre Company’s upcoming one-night production of William Shakespeare’s hippie-before-they-were-hippies romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Anonymously, they twirl: William Blake, “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” circa 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.5 inches, Tate Britain. London.

Anonymous was founded in 2002 and has since tackled myriad theatrical landmarks, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet while the plays they produce are often familiar, the way they produce them is revolutionary—until the curtain rises, the cast of each production remains a secret, even to the actors involved.

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Still Dancing, Still the Queen

Broadway Rose's "Mamma Mia!" is a not-so-guilty pleasure

I was eating a veggie burger and chatting with two fellow journalists when the subject of guilty-pleasure music came up. This was a few weeks ago and for a moment, I debated whether I should reveal the truth. But eventually, I summoned the courage to say it. “I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure because I don’t feel guilty about it,” I told them, “but I love ABBA.”

I expected to be tossed from the room with French fries shoved up my nostrils. That didn’t happen. Instead, one of my friends simply said something along the lines of, “If you’re going to go for cheese, you may as well go for the king of cheese.”

Laura McCulloch, Peggy Taphorn, and Lisamarie Harrison in “Mamma Mia!” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

That sums it up for me. ABBA, the Swedish pop group of chart-topping, Broadway-busting fame, is fueled by giddy electronic beats and a feverish sentimentality that makes their songs easy to mock—and makes them a giddy joy. It’s addictive music, but it’s more than that. It’s a sound that reverberates with contagious glee and romance, making you think of swirling disco balls, heartache, Molly Ringwald, and prom night.

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Improv meets ASL

Jay Flewelling and Blake Wales want to unite deaf and hearing audiences

When actor Blake Wales first watched a performance by the improv comedy group J Names, he was deeply impressed. There was just one problem. He wished that his father, who is deaf, could have the opportunity to enjoy the show.

“I remember thinking, ‘This would be amazing if my dad could laugh with a hearing audience,’” Wales says. “That’s something a lot of deaf people don’t get to do.”

Now they can. Since last year, Wales has been working with J Names—and the group’s founder, Jay Flewelling—as an ASL interpreter. It’s a challenging and rewarding job that takes all of Wales’ skills as both an ASL speaker and an improv performer (as play-goers who attend the group’s Friday show at Curious Comedy Theater can see).

“’This is amazing. Why aren’t more people doing it? When are you doing it again?’ Those are the questions that I get after I do a show with J Names,” Wales says. “Hearing that need just made me more inspired to respond to it.”

The J Names Group. Photo: Andy Batt

J Names is one of the best-known improv groups in Portland, and Flewelling—who has also worked with Wales at Oregon Children’s Theater—jumped at the chance to expand their audience. “No one has been as excited about this as Jay has,” Wales says.

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And the Drammy goes to …

Broadway Rose, "Tender Napalm" and a not-so-friendly gong rule the Portland theater scene's 2018 Drammy Awards

How about that gong? This year’s Drammy Awards ceremony Monday night at The Armory may have been an epic affair packed with tearful acceptance speeches, technical difficulties and even bingo, but the unofficial star of the night was the golden, disc-shaped gong that was on hand just in case any long-winded winners needed a nudge to get off stage.

In many ways, the gong embodied the spirit of the show, which honored the best achievements on Portland area theater stages in the 2017-18 season: It was playful, but added a simmering tension to the night. The show was two hours shorter than Artists Rep’s Magellanica (which should have been a contender, but Artists Rep, like Portland Center Stage, doesn’t participate in the awards) but felt longer and didn’t exactly spread the wealth around (at times it felt like the Drammy Committee’s main goal was to honor Broadway Rose and Broadway Rose). But there were entertaining, human moments as well, thanks to some powerful speeches as the comedic verve of host Claire Willett.

Lisamarie Harrison as Morticia in Broadway Rose’s “The Addams Family,” winner of the best musical production Drammy. Photo: Sam Ortega

So who won? The aforementioned Broadway Rose took home an armload of prizes for two musicals, The Addams Family (best production/musical)and Trails. Dancing Brain’s Tender Napalm also dominated with awards in, to name a few, the best production/play, directing, acting, and fight choreography categories. And the biggest loser of the night was easily Donald Trump, who was the subject of several oblique but unmistakable criticisms (side note: did the night really pass without a single thank you to Ronni Lacroute?).

At the end of the day, what I savored the most were the moments that peeked through the show’s structure. I’m thinking of Trisha Mead’s fearless onstage reckoning with her mortality (Mead founded Fertile Ground, which received a special achievement award). I’m thinking of Charles Grant winning best actor in a musical for his performance in Oregon Children’s Theater’s A Year With Frog and Toad and describing the letter that a young black girl who saw the show sent him: “Dear Frog: I love you and you are dark-skinned.”

And then there was Fertile Ground Director Nicole Lane, who delivered the best line of the night: “Please don’t gong me, Agatha.” It was a perfect moment because it was a reminder that the Drammys are capable of delivering the kind of onstage action that makes them an entertaining play in their own right.

The nominees and winners in each category, with the winner listed in boldface:

 

Best Actor in a Musical

Charles Grant, A Year with Frog and Toad, Oregon Children’s Theatre

John Ellingson, Cinderella, Northwest Children’s Theatre and School

Joel Walker, Trails, Broadway Rose Theatre Company

James Sharinghousen, A Year with Frog and Toad, Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

Best Actor in a Play

Josh Weinstein, Tender Napalm, Dancing Brain Productions

La’Tevin Alexander, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, Oregon Children’s Theatre

Wrick Jones, Two Trains Running, PassinArt: A Theatre Company

Ted Rooney, Quietly, Corrib Theatre

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Laughing at the end of the world

Carol Triffle's apocalyptic comedy "Fallout" at Imago is a show of quirky madness with a heap of questions hanging like a mushroom cloud

What is Fallout? I suppose the term “end-of-days comedy” fits. Yet that seems too narrow for a play about war, friendship, sexual awakening and the adverse effects of nuclear ash on human hair. Written and directed by Imago Theatre’s renowned absurdist Carol Triffle, Fallout is a play far grander in scope than the cramped room where it unfolds.

In an era awash with self-important tales of heroines and heroes nobly braving the apocalypse, the idea of Triffle (co-founder of Imago and co-creator of the legendary Frogz) journeying to the end of the world armed with her trademark anarchic wit sounds inviting. Yet despite the healthy amount of chuckling in the audience on the night I saw Fallout, the play struck me as emotionally aloof and scattershot. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a cereal box stuffed with many disparate brands.

Kyle Delamarter: crazy like a fox, or just crazy in a foxhole? Imago Theatre photo

Fallout begins in a bomb shelter that a bumbling drifter named Bobby (Kyle Delamarter) has molded into a relatively cozy home. It’s not immediately clear whether Bobby is hiding from a nuclear war or is simply a reclusive lunatic (a scene where he muses nonsensically about snake bodies encourages the question). Yet he seems to have settled into a routine that consists of playing his out-of-tune guitar, writing in his diary, and dreaming of either going to college or dying (don’t look for logic in his thinking).

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Last Party at the Kit Kat Club

Getting hot and bothered in the Funhouse Lounge: Fuse Theatre Ensemble's "Cabaret" balances glamour and grit.

“The party is over.” Those words burst out of a character’s mouth near the end of Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s new production of Cabaret, striking an ironic chord. What, you may ask, is Cabaret if not a party? Isn’t it all about cheery show tunes, bowler hats and being called “old chum”?

Yes and no. Part show-business extravaganza, part queer manifesto and part requiem for pre-WWII Germany, the 1966 musical edition of Cabaret (which adapts Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin and John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera) is a tornado of energy charged with both glee and grief. And while Fuse’s production sometimes struggles to weave a coherent path between those dueling emotional poles, it is nevertheless a rousing night of theater that ends on a powerfully tragic note.

Alec Cameron Lugo as Clifford, Gwendolyn Duffy as Sally Bowles. Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Cabaret is fueled by one of the most enduring mythological archetypes: the young man who enters an unfamiliar and alluring world. In this case, the man is the American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Alec Cameron Lugo) and the world is Berlin during the time of the waning Weimar Republic. There, Clifford becomes fascinated with the maniacally intense English singer and dancer Sally Bowles (Gwendolyn Duffy) and her performance arena of choice: the Kit Kat Club, where straight, gay and trans performers alike are given carte blanche to express their identities in an inferno of music, movement and joy.

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