Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

Andrea Stolowitz's play about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust is funny, smart, and haunting

Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.

After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.

Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, history detectives. Photo: Owen Carey

What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.

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Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:

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Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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Random order: a trick of fate

Steven Dietz's "This Random World" opens up warm and rueful possibilities (and a few questions) at Portland Actors Conservatory

The question, if you really need to ask one, is this: What is the relationship between randomness and fate? Are they simply sides of the same coin, spinning back and forth in a universe in motion, teasing their onlookers with their brief appearances and near-misses, like streaking Halley’s Comets of human comprehension? Is it all coincidence, or none of it? And on a practical level, does it matter at all?

That is the subterranean (or stratospheric) territory of Steven Dietz’s This Random World, which was a hit last year when it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and has just opened in its West Coast premiere in a swift and appealing production at Portland Actors Conservatory.

Kristin Barrett (left) and Tyharra Cozier in “This Random World.” PAC photo

The beauty of a good Dietz play is that it can explore such theoretical issues with both feet on the ground. Because he concentrates on structure, language, and character – that solid three-legged stool of the well-crafted play – the theme rises gently, tickling instead of pounding, like a wisp of afterthought that’s been carefully planted. And Dietz doesn’t answer his questions, which might help explain why, for all his regional-theater success, he’s never had a play on Broadway. He simply picks them up for closer inspection, and invites the audience in.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Random favors

Steven Dietz's "This Random World," Ronald K. Brown dance, Portland Photo Month, Brett Campbell's music picks of the week, Blitzen Trapper & more

Steven Dietz is one of the most famous American playwrights Broadway’s never heard of. Last year’s This Random World is his 34th produced play, and that’s not even counting his 11 adaptations – an astonishing number, approaching the total of that fellow from Stratford. Many of them have been hits on the regional theater circuit, from the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (where This Random World got its start) to major companies coast to coast. Except New York, where his Fiction, to make a long story short, made it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout in 2004.

“This Random World” opens this week at Portland Actors Conservatory.

There’s little explaining a situation like this. Dietz’s plays are smart, well-shaped, actor-friendly, and on interesting topics, although they tend not to include things like falling chandeliers or singing cats. No matter. Regional audiences like them. A lot. Many of his plays have helped shape the contemporary American theater, and they move from city to city with ease: More Fun Than Bowling, Foolin’ Around with Infinity, Ten November, God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Rancho Mirage, and more.

This weekend, This Random Life gets its West Coast premiere at Portland Actors Conservatory, and there’s reason to believe it’ll be worth a visit. This year’s class at the professional acting school has some very good talent, and it’s coming off a knockout production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. PAC’s talented Beth Harper is directing, and the fine veteran actor Kathleen Worley is a guest artist. Plus, it’s a secret you can keep from the Great White Way while it’s busy reliving Groundhog Day.

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In the galleries: photos & more

April is Portland Photo Month, and it's a wide-angle lens: a First Thursday guide to the month's shows

Snap, crackle, pop: April is Portland Photo Month, with events and exhibitions all over town. Photolucida, which sponsors the annual celebration, has put together a handy guide to several of the photo exhibits.

Philippe Halsman, “Marilyn at the Drive-in,” 1952, gelatin silver print, 10 x 13 inches, Edition of 250. In Augen Gallery exhibit of 20th century photography.

Among the gallery shows are works by such high-profile figures as the 20th century master Minor White (in a continuing show of images of Portland 1938-1942, at the Architectural Heritage Center), Christopher Rauschenberg (photos from Poland at Elizabeth Leach), and a couple of Portland photographers who balance fine-art photography and globe-trotting photojournalism (Corey Arnold and his Aleutian Dreams at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art; Susan Seubert with Not a Day Goes By, an exploration of suicide and the choice between being and nothingness, at Froelick).

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