Bennett Campbell Ferguson

 

A bird’s-eye view of terror

With chillingly understated performances and one monstrously masked character, Theatre Vertigo's "A Map of Virtue" will haunt your dreams.

What terrifies you the most? Ghosts? Snakes? Serial killers? Whatever your answer, I guarantee that if you go see Theatre Vertigo‘s profoundly disturbing new production of Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the image of a new monster will be carved into your psyche: a hulking man who wears a bird mask that has wide, circular eyes and a beak as sharp as a meat hook.

It would be foolhardy to say that A Map of Virtue exists solely to frighten its audience—it is also a potent rumination on romance, childhood and PTSD. Yet there is no denying that director Emilie Landmann and her incomparable cast have latched onto the most hellish passages of Courtney’s play and brought them to freakishly vivid life. The result of their efforts is an intoxicatingly intense vortex of pain and fear. As I was sucked in, I both savored the experience and longed to be released.

That was partly because I didn’t know what I was getting into. The opening scenes of A Map of Virtue introduce you to Sarah (Paige Rogers) and Mark (Samson Syharath)—two people who forge an intense friendship through a series of chance encounters—and prime you to expect a moody but relatively lighthearted play about people and their feelings. Yes, there are unsettling references (to a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and the sexual abuse Mark endured as a boy at boarding school), but nothing that prepares you for what comes next.

Paige Rogers (from left), Jacquelle Davis, and Samson Syharath in “A Map of Virtue” by Theatre Vertigo. Photo: KKelly Photography.

A Map of Virtue starts to reveal its true nature when Mark and Sarah and her husband Nate (Joel Patrick Durham) are invited to a party in the countryside by June (Kaia Maarja Hillier), who they have just met. She seems pleasant enough, but when the play’s heroes arrive at June’s house, they find themselves locked in a room, stripped of their phones and guarded by Ray (Gary Strong), June’s gun-wielding henchman (and the wearer of the aforementioned bird mask).

Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.

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Visionary of the afterlife

Milagro's "Alebrijes!" delivers a fantastical chronicle of the life of Mexican artist Pedro Linares.

One of the more contentious topics in art history is how the Mexican artist Pedro Linares dreamed up the sculptures of mythical creatures known as alebrijes. The most likely version of the story is that Linares was commissioned to create alebrijes for a party at the San Carlos Arts Academy. But a more entertaining tale suggests that these beasts came to him in a dream while he was ill during the 1930s.

Robi Arce stars in “Alibrijes!,” Milagro’s latest Die de Muertos production, based on the Mexican artist Pedro Linares. Photo: Russell J. Young

That saga informs ¡Alebrijes!, an eccentric and moving play written and directed by Georgina Escobar and currently onstage at Milagro. An offbeat blend of magical realism and plain old realism, ¡Alebrijes! does not always fully realize its ambitions, but is nevertheless both poignant and excitingly strange—a blast of visual wonderment that pokes fun at the very idea of death without ever fully making light of it.

After a clever present-day prologue, the play introduces us to Pedro (Robi Arce), whose brother Manuel (Matthew Sepeda) dies in a train accident during the first act. Unmoored by grief, Pedro poisons himself in the hope of convincing the powerful La Meurte (Patricia Alivetz) to free Manuel from the afterlife. But his gamble thrusts him into a world somewhere between the living and the dead, forcing him to confront the inevitability of death and his ignored artistic potential.

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Masters of Horror

Guignolfest, Dylan Hillerman and Julia Reodica's 72-hour horror film festival, returns.

When Dylan Hillerman and Julia Reodica were performers at the legendary Portland haunted house FrightTown, they specialized in subjecting people to fantastical terror. Yet in 2013, Reodica discovered a more mundane horror.

“I told her, ‘I had to walk six miles to my new place last night and I’m not getting paid until next week for FrightTown,’” Hillerman remembers. “She was like, ‘Oh shit! You’re gonna die!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m aiming at the Earth and hoping to miss.’”

Sensing his desperation, Reodica offered him a lifeline. “I hadn’t connected with a person in this way in a long time,” she says. “I said, ‘Come hang out with me. I’ve got sanctuary.’”

“She gave me six weeks,” Hillerman adds, “and it turned into a marriage.”

Reodica and Hillerman, partners in horror. AMBERED Photography

That marriage (which Hillerman and Reodica sealed with a promise that they made to each other in Transylvania) has not only transformed their lives, it has been a boon to filmmakers who participate in Guignolfest, the 72-hour horror film festival that Hillerman founded and produces with Reodica. This year’s films screen Sunday, October 28, at the Clinton Street Theater.

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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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