Bob Hicks

 

As You Like It: Post5’s home at last

The company opens its new Sellwood space with an uneven but exuberant frolic in the woods

It’s the afternoon of the fateful wrestling tournament in As You Like It, and the nasty Duke’s man, fearsome Charles, is kicking young Orlando’s behind. The Duke’s not-at-all-nasty niece Rosalind, who’s taken one look at the young challenger and is smitten beyond repair, leans forward from the crowd and blows a kiss to Orlando, who catches it, swallows it, swells with sudden strength, and kicks Charles into the middle of next week.

It’s an audacious moment, a big-wink, comic-strip spectacle that’s representative of Post5 Theatre’s brash new production, and Rosalind’s kiss might well be aimed at the entire enterprise: This As You Like It is Post5’s first production in its new home in the Sellwood district, and Saturday’s opening-night audience greeted it as a celebration.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here, spreading a little gleeful autumn in the forest. Photo: Russel J. Young

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, gleefully sprinkling  autumn leaves. Photo: Russel J. Young

The opening performance was all of that, and like Orlando’s victory, a bit of a dramatic turnaround, too. Ty Boice, Post5’s artistic director and the director of As You Like It, told the crowd that as of four days before opening, the theater had no chairs. The company borrowed a little more than 100 of them from the neighboring church, and eventually will have to come up with its own. The show, as they say, must go on – and it did.

Like the production itself, Post5’s new space – which takes up roughly half of a handsome church compound at 1666 Southeast Lambert Street, off Milwaukie Boulevard – is a work in progress. The bones are terrific, and for the rest, the basics are in place. Post5 has a performing space that’s bursting with potential, and a nice little bar and lounge in the basement, and the rest will come: Unfinished Cathedral, the title of T.S. Stribling’s 1930s novel of the economic and cultural transformation of the American South, comes to mind. Plus, the place has that most precious of commodities, a big, free parking lot. The space came together in the nick of time, and it gives Post5 a genuine home to grow into gradually, in a lively neighborhood that’s outside the usual performance zone. That’s worth tossing a little confetti in the air.

Post5 approaches Shakespeare with a reckless verve, putting the pedal to the metal and emphasizing the nowness of the thing rather than its antiquity. Boice’s As You Like It is built for speed, made for audiences who come not to worship Shakespeare but to enjoy him. And it’s bound to divide viewers: does it breathe fresh postmodern energy into a creaky old narrative, or does it simply skim along the surfaces of a classic, hauling in easy laughs while the bigger, deeper ones remain untouched?

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5's new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5’s new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

On opening night I found the show winsome, agreeable, a little sloppy, and a little too eager to please: I’d’ve liked more precision and evenness of tone, and less eagerness to adopt any frisky shtick that came wagging its tail down the street. Yes, As You Like It is a frolic. But it also has some high emotional and philosophical stakes. In this light comedy are questions of trust, truth, honor, danger, betrayal, and the categories of love, from brotherly to casual to deeply bonded. Evil and mortality rear their ugly heads, and the play considers the role of aggression and violence in both politics and love.

The balance is tricky: all of this thrums below the surface, and to approach the play like a Lear or Hamlet would be to fundamentally mistake it. But the shadings should be acknowledged, and this production plays the whole thing like a high-school rom-com. Having Charles show up in a Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestling mask (shades of Portland artist Victor Maldonado’s sly cultural interventions), uttering only savage grunts, turns him into a purely comic character and drains the danger out of one of the play’s crucial scenes. That air-kiss further turns the scene farcical. And there are wild variations in performance approach, so much so that I sometimes wondered whether the actors were making deliberate choices or simply hadn’t fully shaped what they were doing. The show’s prevailing mood seems less a specific style than a loosey-goosey anarchy in the woods. I lay this at least partly to the twin stresses of putting on a new show and creating an actual theater from an empty space at the same time.

Yet there’s also that refreshing narrative drive. The play’s well-spoken, and the cast is studded with good performers, several of them younger and brimming with promise. Chip Sherman as Orlando and Isabella Buckner as Rosalind (who performs in her male disguise as a drawling cowboy at home on the range) are engagingly open and well-matched, and Jessica Tidd is a likely sidekick to Rosalind as Celia, the duke’s daughter, who out of friendship flees with her to the Forest of Arden when her father banishes Rosalind on pain of death. Max Maller’s shoulder-shrugging Touchstone works less well for me, deliberately casual yet casual to a fault. The performance that sticks with me most clearly, and seems in many ways the most perceptively formed, is Keith Cable’s as Jaques, the melancholy fellow of the woods, who delivers the “seven stages of man” speech with laconic eloquence and who hints, in his double edge of comedy and moroseness, at the clipped contradictions of a Hugh Laurie.

Boice and his designers have made a virtue of the show’s low budget, which fits with Post5’s determination to deliver good theater at a low price: tickets are just $15, and on pay-what-you-will nights, you get to choose, which makes this show affordable for almost anyone. Costumer Cassandra Boice’s designs are bright and cheap and affable, with a touch of logger chic, and tech director Randall Pike’s sets and props are wittily low-rent, from simple hanging sheets to exuberant sprinklings of colorful leaves, flung playfully into the air to depict the changing seasons with a wink that works. The show resolves with an exuberance that overrides what doubts you may be wrestling with. After all, this As You Like It is only a beginning.

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 As You Like It continues at Post5 through December 13. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Bats in the belfry: ‘True West,’ ‘Fledermaus’

Shepard's play and Strauss's operetta bat around ideas about passion and rationality. Oh: and 'Fledermaus' sings, too.

It’s a batty sort of show, Sam Shepard’s True West, and I mean that in the best possible way: a loony surreal flight in the night, a mighty swing of the situational bat, a whack upside your headbone hard enough to take your breath away – as happens to brother Lee, although the choking mechanism’s an old-fashioned telephone cord, not a bat.

Profile Theatre’s new production of Shepard’s swift 1980 cage fight of a play is a fitting capper for its season of Shepard plays, which gives way come January to a fresh season of plays by Sarah Ruhl (Dead Man’s Cell Phone; In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play; Passion Play; Orlando).

Ferrucci and Newman in "True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

Ferrucci and Newman in “True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

But first, True West. In spite of a couple of anachronisms – that wall phone, a manual typewriter that gets bashed within a keystroke of its life with a golf club – Shepard’s viciously comic tall tale holds up well, because its truculent heart is pretty much timeless: brawling brothers, as old as Cain and Abel; intellect versus instinct, as old as humanity itself. Shepard’s tinkered with these themes throughout his career, from his early experimental plays to his mature family dramas and in-between projects such as 1972’s musical horn-locker The Tooth of Crime, which in certain ways feels like a primer for True West.

Adriana Baer directs Profile’s True West with an eye for its swaggering comedy and a major assist from fight choreographer Kristen Mun, who knows a body tackle from a headlock and isn’t afraid to let the plates and foodstuffs fly. The tale is elemental: reason versus passion, or, in ring terms, boxer versus slugger. Austin (a nicely clipped and eventually unraveling Nick Ferrucci) is an aspiring screenwriter, an Ivy League grad with a deal he’s close to sealing as he bats away at a final draft in his absent mother’s home in Southern California, near the desert, where the coyotes yap in the breeze. Trouble is, his shiftless brother Lee (Ben Newman, all reflex and ooze) has shown up unannounced, hellbent on casing Mom’s neighborhood for a few easily snatchable TVs to fence, and pretty much throwing Austin completely off his game.

At first the brothers merely annoy each other: competing and divergent chips off the same block. That changes when the movie agent Saul shows up (Duffy Epstein, in a broadly funny performance dripping with SoCal charm and smarm), ready to ink the deal with Austin until Lee horns in, spinning an outrageous tale about “two lamebrains chasing each other across Texas,” and Saul does a one-eighty. He always goes with his gut, he says. Suddenly Lee’s in, and Austin’s out in the cold.

You can read this tale a lot of ways, and I like to think it has something to do with the creative process: Austin the craftsman, the careful builder, the rationalist, the erudite smith who knows how to put things together; Lee the wild man, the imaginative dreamer, the guy who picks something elemental out of the ether and follows it where it dangerously leads. The two detest each other, and they need each other, because art requires both wildness and craftsmanship: complementary sides of an uncomfortable whole. Like Harold Pinter in pretty much all of his plays, and John Fowles in his novel The Magus, Shepard eschews the notion of the elevating “niceness” of art, arguing instead for something more basic, and roiling, and awe-ful: art as terror, perhaps, but also art as necessary expression of the duality of the human beast.

With Alan Schwanke’s open yet intimate set, Sara Ludeman’s sly costumes (check out Epstein’s Vegas cocktail-bar duds) and Shareth Patel’s yawping, chittering sound design, Profile’s True West looks and sounds good. Dad’s an unseen character, referred to repeatedly in absentia, a drunken wastrel whose impact on his sons remains intense, if in very differing ways. And Mom (Diane Kondrat) shows up late in the game, acting somewhere between befuddlement and pure matter-of-fact.

I’ve seen more psychologically vicious productions of the play. In spite of the strenuous calisthenics, there’s an amiability to this one: neither brother seems truly bent on killing the other. Like Oedipus and his dad, Lee and Austin never quite figure out they’re in this thing together. But they do feel the stirring of a common blood: they lack the viciousness for that final killer blow. If you consider the play as a tall tale, an eternal playing-out of the struggle between reason and the heavy bear who goes with it, that works: same song, billionth verse. And as it’s a song close to the mysterious heart of the human predicament, we sing it over and over again.

Profile Theatre’s True West continues through November 23 in the company’s home space at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Cat and mouse in "Bat": Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on  Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

Cat and mouse in “Bat”: Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

The bat gets the title in Die Fledermaus, although it takes a few tortuous twists of the plot to figure out why: It goes back to a practical joke in which the victim, who was left drunk in the town center, dressed as a bat, is taking a Byzanfiendishly plotted revenge on the perpetrator. If by chance you don’t know this story, don’t worry: Die Fledermaus is about the music and the mood, and the mere facts of the matter aren’t all that important.

Portland Opera’s production, which kicks off its 50th season and concludes with performances Thursday and Saturday, is a bit ramshackle itself, not as tight and pointed as it might be yet also overflowing with pleasurable musical and farcical moments. This is operetta, not grand opera, and it’s meant to amuse. It also provides a timely reminder of why the company is switching to a festival-style, summer season beginning in 2016, moving half of its programming into the 870-seat Newmark Theatre rather than the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, where this Fledermaus is flapping around the rafters. The big old hall once again swallows much of the music, muting smaller voices and muffling sounds delivered from upstage. This show needs a light and dexterous balance, and it’s tantalizing to imagine how it might play in the much more intimate and audibly manageable Newmark.

Johann Strauss II’s dreamy, melodic, and approachable score is truly what Die Fledermaus is all about, and both singers and orchestra treat the Waltz King’s music well. But Karl Haffner and Richard Genée provided him with an affable libretto, basing it partly on a French play that also, intriguingly, served as the basis for Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta Trial by Jury.

Die Fledermaus takes place in sophisticated Vienna and True West in the voracious wilds of the American West, but Fledermaus shares a bit of Shepard’s fascination for the duality of the human soul. In a very traditional (and very upper-class) European way, the characters of Fledermaus keep up propriety as they let the beast of their animal urges out to play: husbands prowl among the chorines, wives play push-and-pull with would-be bedmates, housemaids discreetly flaunt their wild sides. It’s as if the characters in True West have come to terms with their duality and brought it into a civilized, carefully dangerous harmony: one roils and boils, within reason.

There are, I think, possibilities in the play that aren’t fully exploited here, and that the economics of regional opera, with its short runs and short rehearsal periods, maybe militate against. But Portland Opera’s Fledermaus delivers on many fronts, from Zack Brown’s traditionally sumptuous sets and costumes to the often fluid acting (stage direction is by Chas Rader-Shieber) and, most importantly, the voices. The women in particular shine: soprano Mary Dunleavy as Rosalinde, the wife who plays a practiced game of cat-and-mouse; soprano Susannah Biller as Adele, Rosalinde’s flirtatious maid; mezzo Jennifer Rivera in the traditional pants role of Prince Orlofsky, the bored Russian zillionaire whose party sets the mechanisms of farce into motion. Daniel Belcher is warm-toned and suitably peacockish as Eisenstein, Rosalinde’s rash and wandering husband; and company followers will be pleased to see the continuing assurance of former resident artist André Chiang as Dr. Falke, the devious and genial bat of the title. Now, on to the belfry. Better yet, to the Newmark.

Portland Opera’s Die Fledermaus concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, November 13 and 15, at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Portland Opera transforms into a summer festival

The venerable Portland institution will turn itself into a festival in 2016, and some questions arise.

After many months of hints, negotiations, and planning, Portland Opera’s announced what might be the boldest gamble in its half-century history: It’s transforming itself into a summer festival company. (Our friend David Stabler has the story on OregonLive.) The current season, which delays its opening until November 7 with the return of the popular operetta Die Fledermaus, begins the seasonal scrunch: Carmen runs in February, and the rest of the productions – Show Boat, The Rake’s Progress, The Elixir of Love – are clustered between May and July.

The 2016 season amps up the seasonal action, dropping back down to four productions and squeezing them into the summer months: two shows in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, two in the much more intimate, 900-seat Newmark Theatre. The Newmark has already proven to be a popular venue for the company, and is valuable in several ways. It costs less than the Keller, so the company can be more adventurous in its programming. It doesn’t demand giant voices, so casting becomes easier. It provides excellent opportunities for the company’s flourishing resident artist program of younger singers. And audiences just like the intimacy of the Newmark, especially compared to the Keller, which general director Christopher Mattaliano described to Stabler as “an airport hangar.”

Pop the Champagne: Die Fledermaus is opening soon, and Portland Opera's celebrating more than that.

Pop the Champagne: Die Fledermaus is opening soon, and Portland Opera’s celebrating more than that.

Like symphonic orchestras, opera companies are struggling to keep afloat in a shifting contemporary cultural scene. Once the opera and symphony were almost the only games in town. Now they’re swimming along with hundreds of other opportunities, and battling the perception that they’re simply out of date. Portland Opera has been in the black for several years, but staying there hasn’t been easy. Mattaliano says the move to a festival season will save about eight percent in operating costs – a significant chunk – and stave off what he described to Stabler as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” But it’s not only about money, although that’s a huge consideration. The shakeup could reinvigorate the company artistically, too.

There are dangers, and inevitable questions. How will audiences adapt? How will the opera keep itself in the public mind during its long off-seasons? Is it marginalizing itself, or focusing itself? We’ll be watching. It’s certainly not the same old same old, and that’s good. Places like Santa Fe and Glimmerglass thrive on a festival system. Can Portland do the same? Will the company evolve into something like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Britt Festivals in southern Oregon, or carve out an identity that’s strictly its own? Will it have the concentration of energy and the variety of attractions that the word “festival” implies? Will it feel like a festival at all without its own grounds? Or will “festival” simply mean business as usual, but only in the summer months? The game’s changing. Can anyone imagine, 20 years from now, a summer season in a beautiful shell in Yamhill County wine country, shared by the opera and the Oregon Symphony, in a more relaxed summer season similar to Boston’s and Chicago’s, and drawing audiences not just from Portland but from the entire West Coast? Well, now we’re just getting ahead of ourselves.

‘Ivy + Bean': It’s musical mayhem

Oregon Children's Theatre stages a winner – and gets caught in Tom Coburn's cynical political machine

Ivy and Bean are a phenomenon, although from my scanning of Ivy + Bean and the Ghost That Had To Go, Book 2 in the wildly popular series of chapter-books-with-lots-of-pictures, author Annie Burrows wouldn’t use a word like “phenomenon” for her young readers. She would, and does, use vivid words like “boogers,” “breezeway,” “squinted,” “Plesiosaur,” “potion,” “burial,” “immature,” “gurgling,” and “cartwheels,” and even “emergency” and “uncomfortably,” so come to think of it, maybe “phenomenon” wouldn’t be out of place, after all: when it comes to playing with the language, Ivy and Bean are no stick-in-the-mud Dick and Janes.

I’m not about to make the case that the Ivy + Bean books are great kids’ lit. Book 2, at least – the only one of the 10-and-counting that I’ve read – has little of the depth and richness of, say, The Wind in the Willows, or Anne of Green Gables, or even the lightly satirical Freddy the Pig books. It seems more like a slyly updated version of such comic serial capers as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, with an anarchic children’s world-view shaped gently by a sympathetic adult mind. Just the sort of thing, in other words, to get impressionable kids keen on reading.

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Caret

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, in the case of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s bright and sassy new production Ivy + Bean: The Musical, keen on watching and listening. Perusing Barrows’ book, with its quick and irreverent drawings by Sophie Blackall, didn’t prepare me for the bright and clattering pleasure this thing could be onstage. Sparked by refreshingly irascible performances by teenage actors Haley Ward as the bumptious tomboy Bean and Madison Wray as the sweetly subversive Ivy, I+B: The Musical is about as much fun as a blood oath signed in spit. And if you don’t think that sounds fun, just try to recall your 8-year-old self.

Scott Elmegreen’s hour-long musical adaptation is based on the first book in the series, the Ur-story, the foundation myth: Bean’s the queen of a cul-de-sac called Pancake Court, Ivy’s the new kid in the neighborhood, and they both know they don’t like each other, until circumstances transpire. The main circumstance, in this case, is Bean’s bossy 11-year-old sister, Nancy, who as played by Stephanie Roessler is a comically conniving meanie with a wicked witch’s cackle. Magical spells ensue, along with buckets of worms, soccer games, earnest but futile attempts to enter the book of world records, and other evidences of the vast and earnest and abruptly changeable universe of the childhood imagination. The creators of Ivy + Bean know one thing, and know it true: in childhood, play is where the most important learning happens.

Young actors David VanDyke, Jonathan Pen, and Sophie Keller capably round out the neighborhood gang, and Bean’s parents are played by Alex Leigh Ramirez and Joey Côté as reassuringly out-of-the-loop presences who are also, in that odd world of childhood independence, reliably there. And as usual at OCT, where I+B continues through November 23 in the Newmark Theatre, production values are crisp. Director Isaac Lamb, musical director Mont Chris Hubbard, choreographer Amy Beth Frankel, costumer Ashton Hull, scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser, lighting designer Phil McBeth, sound designer Scott Thirson, and props master Kaye Blankenship make up a thoroughly professional and technically precise team: young audiences here are enjoying the benefits of a fully fleshed and tightly timed production. I would go to this eagerly oddball, breezily funny show even if I didn’t have a kid in tow. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.

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Opening Ivy + Bean: The Musical was the big deal at Oregon Children’s Theatre last week, but other excitement was bouncing around the playhouse walls, too: Last season’s terrific production of Zombie in Love, which was funded partly by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, gained prominent mention in Wastebook 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma)’s annual excoriation of what he deems the year’s “most outlandish government spending.”

“OCT wears as a badge of honor that the $10,000 we were granted by the NEA for the development of Zombie in Love made the list,” OCT’s managing director, Ross McKeen, said, just slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Coburn isn’t a stupid man – quite the contrary – but he’s an innately political beast, and his annual lists are calculated to feed the frenzy of his reactionary base. Congress needs budget-minders as anchors and guardians of practicality. But Coburn’s annual list is well-known for its laziness and cynicism. There is utterly no doubt that the federal budget contains wasteful line items. Coburn’s list invariably lacks the honesty to ferret the bad ones out. Instead it goes for the cheap and easy, the red meat that makes the partisan dogs roar. It routinely takes things out of context, ignoring, for instance, all of the public advantage to be found in a well-run children’s theater program so it can poke a zombie in the eye. And it works: A video clip from Zombie was featured prominently in a segment on CBS This Morning that reported, with not an ounce of skepticism or basic J-school cross-checking, Coburn’s “findings.” It was one more tiny little nail in the increasingly malodorous coffin of mainstream American journalism.

McKeen continues: “Like a schoolyard bully, Coburn goes after the art geeks and science nerds in a report that is profoundly anti-science, anti-culture, and anti-intellect. The programs he cites are presented without context or any effort to understand their broader public policy goals. Are scientists really studying the effect of Swedish massage on rabbits because they like rabbits and are silly people? Or might they be trying to determine if massage is an effective (and less costly) alternative to painkillers and surgery in an effort to reduce health care costs? Coburn and his ilk don’t care.”

Dear readers, I don’t want to get all political on your heads. Honest people can honestly disagree. Honesty, unfortunately, is the vital element lacking in Coburn’s reports. If you tell me you don’t believe it’s the government’s role to spend money on arts and cultural matters, I will disagree with you but respect your opinion and understand your point of view. That isn’t what Coburn does. He stacks the deck and plays to the crowd. And he’s lazy about it: He doesn’t bother to check his facts, because he knows the facts are highly likely to undermine his case. How many hours of Coburn’s staff’s time go into the making of this annual charade? Why does that wasted money never make his list?

On Saturday afternoon, when I went to see Ivy + Bean, I ran into Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who told me that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) had jumped on the bandwagon and tweeted something snarky about Zombie in Love. I was sorry to hear that, because at one point I had thought McCain was at the least an honest man. That, of course, was before the profound silliness of l’affaire Palin.

It’s one thing for Ivy and Bean to let their imaginations run amok. But they’re 8 years old, for crying out loud. Isn’t it well past time for Coburn and McCain and pals to just, well, grow up?

Into the woods, fangs flashing

Defunkt's "In the Forest She Grew Fangs" prowls the city's mythological October bramble with intense style

Must be the season of the witch. And the zombie, the wicked stepmother, the grim reaper, the wolf.

October’s oozing with mystery and horror in Portland. Zombie apocalypse in The Last Days at Post5. Dark musical fairy tales in Into the Woods at Beaverton Civic. Young Frankenstein zapping for laughs at Lakewood. The Turn by The Reformers mashing up The Turn of the Screw and The Shining in a Buckman district living room. The Day of the Dead coming up soon in !O Romeo! at Milagro, a plague at Shaking the Tree in The Masque of the Red Death, all sorts of scary stuff at BodyVox in its annual BloodyVox. In her exhibition Grimms’ Hooks at Froelick Gallery, veteran Portland painter Katherine Ace dives deep into the murky psychological waters of the Grimm tales, in their savage, pre-sanitized versions.

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Into this creepy autumn bramble steals Defunkt Theatre’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs, an intense and hypnotic little show that lives up to the promise of its terrific title. Defunkt’s new production, in the steamy little boiler room of the Back Door Theatre, is the West Coast premiere of Stephen Spotswood’s updated riff on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and it’s got all the archetypes in American-backwoods small town form: the grandmother, a chain-smoking auctioneer who lives in a double-wide and laments the loss of the boy who claimed her virginity; the wolf, who’s been bumped around a lot and is really misunderstood; the hunter, who’s on the high school football team and has a mad crush on the new girl in town; and Red herself, who couldn’t keep on the path if it had a chain-link fence on either side.

In the Forest is notable partly because director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard and his cast and designers use the compact Back Door space so well. Actors sit around on the risers, pop in and out from entrances running through the seating areas, sometimes lock onto a spectator, gazing deeply and intently, almost nose to nose. Video design by Klaus-Vineyard and some imaginative animation by Amy Kuttab help Max Ward’s set play much bigger than it is. The whole thing has an intimate hothouse effect, as if the story just grabbed you by the throat and pulled you in for a good theatrical mauling. In short, the show turns technical disadvantages on their head and makes them part of the appeal.

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, "Brother & Sister," 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, “Brother & Sister,” 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Spotswood’s story is an even bigger attraction. It’s the Little Red Riding Hood of old, but never slavishly so: it lurks in the background, a suggestion mostly, until it leaps out and claws its way into the action. Spotswood adeptly balances familiar scenework with a storyteller approach (storytellers, plural, actually: much of the tale’s told by the wolf, but sometimes it passes to granny, or the hunter, or Red). And for a story with such a gothic sense of good and evil and retribution, Spotswood’s version is surprisingly subtle and complex. If (almost) nobody gets out of here alive, nobody gets out unstained or totally stained, either. On one level the play’s “about” bullying, but it approaches the subject by the side door, never preaching, never giving “lessons,” working by suggestion and insinuation. We see layers and levels of abuse, some of it malicious, some of it thoughtless, and the silent scars that run as deep as claw-slashes across a face. I don’t mean to belittle this play by saying it’s a good one for high school audiences – I mean to compliment it, and to emphasize that it’s appealing for adult audiences, too. I also recognize that few high-school drama departments are likely to produce it: after all, it has swear words, and talks about sex, and Parents Might Be Upset.

But mostly I want to talk about this sparkling cast of young actors, anchored by veteran Lauren Modica’s bruising, caustic, tough, vulnerable, and almost inordinately funny performance as Ruth, the grandmother, who’s something of an outcast in her hardscrabble little town, lost in the bitterness of her own past, and helpless to reel her granddaughter in from the deep end of an increasingly fraught teenage life. Modica’s spot-on performance pulls the story deep into mythic territory, and lends weight to the sharp work by the younger actors, who are led by Marisol Ceballos’s prowling, meek-but-feral performance as Lucy, the girl who gets picked on and picked on until the worm turns. Gabriel Isaac Lakey is appealingly open and clunky as Hunter, a guy balanced clumsily somewhere between jock and nerd; Tabitha Trosen is brash and funny and ultimately vulnerable as Jenny, the fish-out-of-water California kid who finds herself stuck in a hillbilly backwater; and Kitty Fuller, R. David Wylie, and Annie Ganousis make up an adaptable and exemplary chorus. This cast is one more evidence of the recent flowering of good young performers in town, arriving at Defunkt from such training grounds as Staged!, Portland Actors Conservatory, Northwest Academy, the University of Portland, and Portland State University. The talent’s good, and it’s being taught well.

In the meantime, it’s a Grimm world out there – or a Charles Perrault world; the 17th century French fantasist seems to be the first to have written the Little Red Riding Hood story down. Spotswood has done a neat job of recalibrating it for the 21st. And some things don’t change. In the Forest She Grew Fangs taps into the violence and wildness of the soul, rising and falling like the heartbeat of humanity.

Carl Larsson, "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest," 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

Carl Larsson, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest,” 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

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Piano, playing a discordant tune

Portland Playhouse's volatile and rhythmic 'Piano Lesson' continues the city's potent string of August Wilson revivals

Boy Willie is a motormouth. Words flow out in torrents from actor Bryant Bentley in The Piano Lesson, a high-octane flood of language and braggadocio that fills the little Portland Playhouse stage and rebounds around the room.

His sister Bernice bites her tongue. There’s a torrent inside her, all right, but in Chantal DeGroat’s fine performance, she’s all dammed up and about to explode. When Bernice does talk it’s in a clipped sharp staccato, an exasperated seething, a denial that is also, in August Wilson’s brilliant theatrical universe, an affirmation of something that’s left mostly unspoken but is the most important thing in the room: the vital role of tradition – personal, cultural, and political – to a sense of self-identity and self-worth.

In the cards: from left, Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, "ranney"

From left: Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, “ranney.” Photo: Brud Giles

Directed with a pulsating sense of the play’s rhythmic structure by the talented Kevin Jones, the Playhouse’s new Piano Lesson continues a deep and satisfying run of Wilson revivals in Portland in recent seasons. It won’t be long before Wilson’s entire ten-play cycle of African-American life in the 20th century will have been performed in town (the Playhouse itself has produced six), and that amounts to a gift to the city. Wilson was the last of the century’s great traditional American playwrights – Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill – and the only one to approach the subject of America from the perspective of its black history and culture. That makes him fundamentally, radically different from the others.

Like so many of Wilson’s plays, The Piano Lesson – which debuted in 1990 and is set in the Pittsburgh of 1936 – is steeped in music, in this case the blues and stomps and hollers of the agricultural South. Like almost all of Wilson’s plays it revels in a meandering, storytelling narrative style, getting at things allusively and stating themes and variations like a musical composition. And like Gem of the Ocean and others, it has a vivid supernatural streak, the past gathering itself like a reanimated character given the breath of life: In The Piano Lesson, a ghost shakes the house.

One of the deep pleasures of Wilson’s plays is the sense of community, of intensely close family whether squabbling or not, that he sets up. Characters have long and winding interconnections; mutual histories; habits and rituals and transgressions that make up the atmosphere of the tales. Watching a Wilson play is like dropping in on a microculture and slowly figuring out how the whole thing works. The fissures in the plays’ structures may drive the characters, but the characters drive the action, and that makes casting crucial.

Jones has done the job well. Bentley is a barely containable effusion of energy as Boy Willie, who’s come north to Pittsburgh determined to sell the family piano so he can buy a plot of land on the old plantation where the family once were slaves. He’s as stubborn as a mule with twice the kick, but maybe not as much as DeGroat’s Bernice, who’s determined to keep the piano, even though she refuses to play it anymore, because it represents the family’s history and soul. Around these two swirl a vibrant supporting cast that includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Doaker, the even-tempered uncle who has a solid job with the railroad and owns the house where Bernice lives; Mila Faer as Bernice’s young daughter; Seth Rue as easygoing Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick who arrives with him in a broken-down truck loaded with watermelons to sell in the city; Ronald Scott as Avery, a minister who is patiently courting the reluctant Bernice; a big-spirited actor called “ranney” as Wining Boy, Doaker’s older brother and a onetime pianist who bounces around the country in faded finery, entertaining friends and family and softly sponging as he spins yarns of yesterday; and Carmen Brantley-Payne as Grace, an outsider who catches the eye of Boy Willie and Lyman alike. Plus, of course, the invisible but very present ghost of Sutter, heir to the old family slave owner, who has recently taken a mysterious and fatal tumble down a well. All in all, it’s a fascinating group to spend an evening with, volatile and balanced in texture and timbre, like a good blues band.

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

The piano is the play’s bone of contention, and yes, it’s a Metaphor, with a capital “M”: materialism versus spirituality. Carved with the faces of ancestors, imbued with the history of the family and its slavery past, it’s an emblem of the bloodline and the culture. Doaker and Bernice, like so many others, have abandoned the South and moved north in search of better lives, but she’s kept the piano with her as a reminder of what was, a repository of cultural memory. Boy Willie has stayed country and is determined to farm the land as a free man that his family once farmed as slaves. The way to do that, he’s decided, is to sell the piano and use the money to buy the land: in essence, trade in tradition to build a new, better, tradition. He makes his utilitarian case well, with a persuasive pragmatism, and yet the air’s heavy with the nagging suspicion that somehow he’s wrong.

The disagreement is about much more than a piano, of course, although Wilson’s choice of a musical instrument as a stand-in for African-American collective memory seems apt. The tale has similarities to the Biblical story of Esau, the hairy hunter who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage: It seems foolish in hindsight, but Esau was a practical man, and he was famished, and on a purely physical level, buying a meal was the practical thing to do. These are the questions, it seems, that The Piano Lesson poses. How do African Americans (or anyone, for that matter) move forward without also holding onto their past? Without their shared culture, how can they know who they are? Of what use is the past? If we don’t use it, what have we lost? What tradeoffs are necessary or inevitable to move ahead?

In The Piano Lesson, the answers blow through the house like a stalking ghost. And the wonder is, it provides a rollicking good time.

 *

It’s a good season for black theater in Portland. Portland Center Stage is basking in the glow of a fine production of the musical Dreamgirls, which has some intriguing parallels to The Piano Lesson: did the Supremes and their Motown sound sacrifice too much of traditional black music in their reach for crossover success? Staged! musical theater’s Parade, set in Atlanta during the early 1900s, addresses the cultural and political corruptions of the slowly emerging South and, although it has Jewish protagonists, it includes four good African American roles. Roberta Hunte and Bonnie Ratner’s My Walk Has Never Been Average, about black women working in the construction trades, keeps popping up. And Artists Rep has rolled into the new season with Lynne Nottage’s fine and probing Intimate Apparel. If this is Portland’s new normal, three cheers.

*

The Piano Lesson plays through Nov. 2 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott Street. Schedule and ticket information is here.

Note: This review was made possible in part thanks to support from our partners at Artslandia!

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At Center Stage, a Dream Supreme

"Dreamgirls" isn't the story of the Supremes, exactly. It IS a high-gloss musical-theater knockout.

Now, that was a standing ovation that really meant it. When Friday’s opening-night crowd at Portland Center Stage leapt to its feet at the end of Dreamgirls, there was none of that reluctant “oh, I suppose so” or “it’d be churlish to stay sitting” or “if I don’t stand up I won’t see the curtain call” business. This standing O was heartfelt and spontaneous.

Little wonder. Director Chris Coleman and his cast, drawn mostly from around the country and including several performers with deep Broadway tour experience in Dreamgirls or other shows, had just pulled out the stops and pumped fresh life into this 1981 multiple Tony-winner, which had previously stormed back to popularity in 2006 when its movie adaptation catapulted Jennifer Hudson to stardom.

L-R: Rodney Hicks (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Tyrone Roberson (Marty), Mary Patton (Deena Jones), Nattalyee Randall (Effie Melody White) and Lexi Rhoades (Lorrell Robinson). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

L-R: Rodney Hicks (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Tyrone Roberson (Marty), Mary Patton (Deena Jones), Nattalyee Randall (Effie Melody White) and Lexi Rhoades (Lorrell Robinson). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Center Stage has been making a habit in recent seasons of producing big paeans to musical-theater history (in addition to several new musicals), from Cabaret to Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Sunset Boulevard, a sterling black-cast Oklahoma! and last season’s fine Fiddler on the Roof. From a strictly performance viewpoint, Dreamgirls might just take the cake. It’s a pleasure to see a show with true Broadway sheen performed on the smallish but ample Main Stage at The Armory rather than in the cavernous Civic Auditorium, home to the Broadway Across America touring series. Center Stage’s home space is big enough to capture the energy that a Broadway musical demands, and small enough to make the experience intimate and personal.

Dreamgirls is a backstage musical, and although it’s a pop-music stage, not a theater or burlesque hall or movie one, that old familiar bitch goddess success plays a major uncredited role. The play follows in a tradition that ranges from Show Boat (which Lakewood Theatre produced in an intimate version last season, and Portland Opera will give the full-out treatment later this season) to 42nd Street, A Star Is Born, Gypsy, and A Chorus Line – with one big difference. Unlike Show Boat, which approaches American race issues from the side door, Dreamgirls meets them head-on – or rather, keeps them at a constant simmer, just below the surface of the show-biz melodrama, and occasionally boiling over, so they can’t be ignored.

Dreamgirls is not not not the story of the Supremes – certainly not – and has the minor differences in detail to prove it, but you’ll be forgiven if you plug in names like Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Cindy Birdsong, and Motown boss Berry Gordy. Besides and maybe more important than being a show-biz fictional bio, it’s an investigation into the bumpy integration of American popular culture – and not just what was gained in the process, but also what was lost.

In the hands of Gordy stand-in and calculating impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (a coolly impassioned Rodney Hicks), molding the Dreams is a way to throw open the windows of pop music to black performers and bring them the riches and fame they’ve been denied. He has a plan, and it’s his way or the highway, which is where much of the trouble ensues. The price, in Curtis’s calculation, is smoothing out the wrinkles in black music, making it more appealing and less threatening to crossover audiences. The path is replacing the Ballard stand-in Effie White (a terrific Nattalyee Randall) – a diva in the gutsy gospel/blues/R&B tradition that also spawned Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner – with the luxuriantly smooth pop sounds of Ross stand-in and former backup singer Deena Jones (Mary Patton). The marketplace gains are obvious. In Tom Eyen’s book and Henry Krieger’s score, which necessarily simplify what was a complex process but get the broad strokes right, the artistic losses are clear, too. Something innately cultural, a sense of this being black music created by black artists for black audiences, is lost in the economic and social exhilaration of the crossover: Dreamgirls carries a sense of regret something like that in the 1976 movie comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, about the impending breakup of the old negro baseball leagues as the color barrier falls. (Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s main producers was … crossover king Berry Gordon, for Motown Productions.)

Dreamgirls’ first act, which is essentially the Dreams’ creation myth and concentrates on Effie’s voice and story, is stronger than Act II, which traces the rise of the Motown sound and the group’s eventual breakup. It’s a built-in problem that the predominantly R&B sound of the first act is more interesting than the predominantly pop sound of the second act. That’s counterbalanced by Effie’s return in some key scenes and the continued presence of Jimmy Early (in a puckish and utterly entertaining performance by David Jennings), an untamable and seductively roguish singer with a bit of James Brown in his DNA. Patton’s strong and dignified performance as Deena is key here, too: it’s important to remember that the Supremes were a genuine phenomenon, and Ross was a captivating diva, even if, like me, you find their music more formulaic and less interesting than the more freewheeling and creative music they supplanted.

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

And this show is solid. It’s tough to find a weak link in the cast. Make that impossible. Lexi Rhodes and Antoinette Comer as the other Dreams, Calvin Scott Roberts as Effie’s brother and Dreams songwriter C.C. (think Smokey Robinson, sort of), and Tyrone Roberson as Jimmy’s more cautious original manager also stand out, as does the singing in general: you could attend this thing strictly as a concert and have a great night out.

The show looks and sounds terrific. The ever-reliable Rick Lewis leads a vibrant and perfectly balanced nine-piece pit band, Kent Zimmerman’s choreography is witty and suggestive of the story’s times, G.W. Mercier’s turntable set lends the action a rhythmic pulse, and Sydney Roberts’ costumes look like a million bucks. I don’t want to know how much they actually cost: it might shatter the illusion.

The real story of the Supremes is sometimes tougher and more tragic than Dreamgirls’ fictionalized – dare I say, smoothed out? – version. In real life, the ousted founding member doesn’t return, as Effie does in Dreamgirls, for a feel-good final concert with the old gang. Florence Ballard, broke and sick after a failed comeback attempt, died of coronary thrombosis in 1976. She was 32. That part of the story doesn’t have crossover appeal.

Still, there’s fact. There’s fiction. And there’s something, like Dreamgirls, in between. Standing O for that.

 *

Right now, Portland’s in the midst of a musical-theater renaissance. La Cage aux Folles is bringing out the laughs and tears in the Newmark. Triangle’s wrapping up a lauded production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, tick … BOOM! Broadway Rose is coming off a pair of summer hits with The Music Man and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Clackamas Rep with a solid Carousel. Lakewood’s in the midst of Young Frankenstein, and gearing up for a November production of the lovely and all too rarely produced She Loves Me. And in the intimate Brunish Theatre above the Newmark and Winngstad theaters, Staged! is delivering an impassioned, don’t-miss-it chamber production of the startlingly fine Jason Robert Brown musical Parade, based on the infamous Leo Frank murder case a century ago. Keep on your toe-tapping shoes, Portland. Looks like you’ll need ’em for a while.

NOTE: This review is possible in part thanks to our partners at Artslandia!

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