Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: Triffle on a cloud, a lobster in the tank

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Carol Triffle is Portland’s most prominent stage absurdist, a quiet comic renegade who makes a virtue of never connecting the dots. Her theater is whimsical, outrageous, so ordinary that it defies the ordinary, stretching it into cosmic pretzel shapes. It’s an anti-theater, almost, bopping narrative on the nose and then ducking around the corner to put on clown makeup and reappear as something utterly different, yet somehow also just the same. At its worst, it falls apart. At its best, it feels a bit like watching Lucille Ball or Danny Kaye caught inside a spinning clothes dryer and howling to get out. Head-scratching occurs at a Triffle show, and the audience can be divided between those who adore the effect and those who simply scratch their heads.

Source, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Sorce, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Francesca, Isabella, Margarita on a Cloud, Triffle’s newest show at Imago Theatre (where she is co-founder and, with partner Jerry Mouawad, creator of the mask-and-costume phenomenon Frogz), is the story, if that’s the right word, of three sisters who feud inseparably, supporting one another through thin and thin. Margarita (Ann Sorce, an Imago vet who’s utterly internalized Triffle’s madcap expressionist style) is the one who won all the beauty contests. Francesca (Megan Skye Hale) is the one who lost all the same beauty contests. Isabella (Elizabeth Fagan), the baby, is the one who seems to have just accidentally starred in a porno film. Isabella’s boyfriend RayRay (Kyle Delamarter) and Margarita’s fella Bob the Weatherman (Sean Bowie) drop in now and again, eager, somehow, to attach to the sisterly scene.

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Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the kindness of strangers and the skin of our teeth

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Here it is, the middle of May, and suddenly Portland’s theater season is entering its final stretch before summer, which brings its own busy theater mini-season, indoors and out. The city’s two biggest companies open shows this weekend, both high-profile American classics and both due for a fresh look.

Flickering desire: "Streetcar" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Flickering desire: “Streetcar” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

On Friday, Portland Center Stage opens its revival of Tennessee Williams’ rough, sensual, groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, which in its 1947 debut featured Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and a smoldering hunk of muscle named Marlon Brando as Stanley. Center Stage has come up with a new Southern strategy, rethinking the play in a thoroughly multiracial milieu, with national players Kristen Adele as Stella, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley, and Diedrie Henry (a onetime regular at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Blanche. Can we depend on the kindness of strangers?

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ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.

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Heidi Schreck dishes the soup

The author of Artists Rep's new "Grand Concourse" chats about writing, acting, soup kitchens, and getting from Wenatchee to the Big Apple

Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.

And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.

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Review: a little flute magic

Portland Opera's "The Magic Flute" kicks off its summer-season gamble with a bright and sly design by the illustrator Maurice Sendak

There were those bright, cartoonish sets designed by the slyly elegant author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, with their intimations of wild things a-wilding and shenanigans in the night kitchen. There were the ornate and occasionally birdlike costumes from a slightly cracked Age of Reason, also designed by Sendak. There was even an occasional rumble of thunder from offstage, like a fuzz pedal on full blast, just to stir things up.

But what struck me most at Portland Opera’s opening-night performance of The Magic Flute on Friday was the large number of children and young people in the Keller Auditorium audience. Mothers came with their young daughters. Fathers showed up with their young sons. I happened to be sitting near a cluster of high school or college students, out on their own, and they were hooting and hollering like they were at an arena rock show. For an opera!

Over his (not quite) dead body: the ladies-in-waiting and Prince Tamino. Photo: Cory Weaver

Over his (not quite) dead body: the ladies-in-waiting and Prince Tamino. Photo: Cory Weaver

The involvement of the late Sendak, a true god of childhood, no doubt had a lot to do with that. (Read Angela Allen’s fascinating account for ArtsWatch of how Sendak’s sets and costumes, created in 1980 and destroyed a quarter-century later in a hurricane, were re-created for this production.) So, I’m guessing, did the fact that Mozart’s opera was sung in English (in a translation by Andrew Porter); and that it is in that subcategory of opera known as a singspiel, which means simply that the narrative is spoken rather than delivered in sung recitative, so that structurally the show is as close to a Broadway musical as to a grand opera. Those things – plus, of course, Mozart’s almost uncannily gorgeous harmonies, which came through clear and ravishing in Portland Opera’s production – conspire to make this a most accessible evening of musical-theater entertainment.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the merry busy month of May

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

If April is the cruelest month (it might not be; we mainly have Tom Eliot’s word for that, and he was a great poet but underqualified as a meteorologist) May is shaping up to be one of the busiest. The calendar’s in almost embarrassingly fertile bloom, with far more going on than any one person could possibly get to. Some of it’s off in the distance a bit: the blend of ancient and contemporary in the choir Cappella Romana’s New Mystics from East & West, May 14-15; Portland Center Stage’s eagerly anticipated revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, opening May 20; a new show at Imago by the contemporary absurdist Carol Triffle, Francesca, Isabella, Margarita on a Cloud, also opening May 20; Mahler’s grand Symphony No. 3, May 21 and 23 at the Oregon Symphony.

But, really, the list for just the coming week is boggling. So let’s get right to it (and keep in mind, this is a very partial selection):

 


 

Cuba's Malpaso Dance Company, Wednesday at White Bird.

Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company, Wednesday at White Bird.

QUEEN, TREY, CUBAN DANCE. An intriguing synchronicity of dance and music arrives in three events from three different companies.

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