Bob Hicks

 

August Wilson or zombies, the kids are alright

Student monologues from Wilson's great plays, and a sprightly Undead musical at OCT, reveal a generation of actors on the rise

The kids are alright.

I’m thinking of the kids (the verging-on-adults, really) onstage at Portland Center Stage Monday night for the regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition: fifteen of them, coolly and beautifully delivering short monologues drawn from Wilson’s brilliant Century Cycle of plays to a packed and cheering house.

And I’m thinking of the kids in the Tuesday morning audience at the Winningstad Theatre, watching a cast of mostly high-school actors in a performance of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s world-premiere musical, Zombie in Love.

 Zombie first, on the theory that when you’re Undead pretty much everything breaks against you, so go ahead and cut to the front of the line for a change. No, no, I insist.

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A roomful of foulmouth, a hatful of funny as hell

Artists Rep's 'The Motherfucker with the Hat' blows the lid off decorum and lights up the stage

OK, let’s just get that title out of the way right off the bat: The Motherfucker with the Hat.

 Take a deep breath, gird your damn loins, say The Word three more times.

Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 There, now. Did the sky fall in? Did you just put a down payment on a one-way train trip to the Hubs of Hell? Feel like washing your mouth out with soap? Or is this just linguistic business as usual?

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

Truth is, The Word’s just the beginning in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 dramatic comedy, which is a roomful of foulmouth and a hatful of funny as hell. It rains obscenities like an avalanche of Richard Pryor, like a World Wrestling Federation smackdown, like a construction crew on lunch break, like an editorial meeting at the Dictionary of Urban Slang. Mr. Angle and Mr. Saxon would feel right at home in the play’s coarse company, cutting straight to the chase while the Norman invaders were obsessing over how to brew a proper cup of tea.

And the greater, maybe more surprising truth is that, despite its not-so-casual scatological streak (surely the play’s title is a bigger draw for potential audiences than a turn-off) MoFo is an old-fashioned kind of play – a literary play, one that succeeds not just on the basis of its theme or the quality of its performances but also because of its tightly written, carefully constructed language. Its dialogue is a poetry of the streets, as precise and besotted with sound as the linguistic inventions of an Elizabethan comedy. It’s like music: a symphony for concrete pavement and tenement floorboards and rooftop pigeons and broken dreams. It takes a lot of discipline to create something so free and loose.

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Review: Lighting ‘A Small Fire’ at Portland Center Stage

Adam Bock creates an abrasive, funny, and tender modern riff on the tale of Job

Think of Emily Bridges as a modern-day Job, if instead of being a “perfect and an upright man,” Job were a hard-boozing, foul-talking, hard-hatted, exasperatingly impatient construction-company boss who’s so tough and abrasive her own daughter can barely stand to be in the same room with her. In Adam Bock’s play A Small Fire, just opened at Portland Center Stage, Emily’s all of that, and like Job, she suffers a series of rapid-fire plagues that come crashing down on her head. Well, unlike Job, who was spared personally while all of his treasures and the people around him were destroyed. Emily’s friends and family feel some of the pain, too, but the brunt of the damage falls squarely on Emily herself.

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

At first that seems fitting, if a little overboard. After all, Emily’s an unpleasant person, a Type A in overdrive who’s unduly irritated by anything and anyone who gets in her way. But as the play progresses and some mysterious medical condition turns Emily into a bedridden isolationist  – like the famous monkeys, she sees, hears and speaks no evil, or anything else – a little sympathy begins to seep in; a little self-awareness, possibly, on the part of the audience: what if you were locked inside yourself, your mind working clearly but unable to communicate in any way other than a “yes” or “no” squeeze of the hand? Did Emily, like Job, do anything to deserve this? Is “deserving” even part of the equation?

 A Small Fire (the title refers to a mishap in the kitchen, a little thing near the opening of the play that signals disasters of much more moment to come) moves swiftly and compactly, a quick 80 minutes without intermission, and while it seems to spiral downward in that time it also ascends, or resolves: we arrive at a place of better understanding, which is also deeply mysterious and irresolvable. There are subtleties here, little turnings and revelations, and despite the horrible things that happen, a good deal of gentleness holds sway. In a way, Emily stands in for all of us, at least emotionally. Her losses reflect ones we’ve experienced ourselves, or ones we’ve stood around more or less helplessly and watched other people endure.

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Fight night: Unraveling ‘Gidion’s Knot’

Boom! Third Rail's new two-hander is like a boxing match in a fifth-grade classroom.

Whatever else a two-hander play happens to be about, it’s almost always about a fight. It could, of course, be about two people united in blissful harmony, but then it wouldn’t be a play, because plays imply action, and action implies conflict.

So let’s place Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ intermissionless hour-and-a-half drama pitting a fifth-grade teacher against an upset mother, inside a metaphorical boxing ring. The fighters land lots of blows, parry quite a few, and show off some fancy footwork. Something primal’s going on, an intellectual bloodlust that gets in your nostrils and stimulates your lower brain. Sock it to her!

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Amy Newman as Heather, the teacher, and Dana Green as Corryn, the mom, are good fighters in Third Rail Rep’s new production of Adams’ play, which debuted in 2012 and is a hot property right now on the resident-theater circuit. It’s a pleasure to watch them move around the boxing ring, which at the intimate CoHo Theatre, where Third Rail’s production is being mounted, consists of a brightly decorated schoolroom complete with desks, board displays (the class has been studying ancient mythologies), inspirational statements and pinned-up papers: scenic designer Kristeen Crosser makes you feel as if you’ve walked straight into an after-school parent/teacher conference. Green and Newman are good tacticians, sweet scientists of the acting ring. I admire the skills they and director Michael O’Connell reveal as the fight goes on, especially the way they use long beats, Pinter-like pauses, to ratchet the suspense and play up the emotional undercurrents of what swiftly becomes a horrendously uncomfortable encounter. The writer and performers are adept at turning up the heat and delivering a chill.

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Love and Mao in the miracle days

Defunkt's 'Hundred Flowers' finds romantic comedy and complications as a plague floats away

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Chairman Mao said.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, Franklin D. Roosevelt said.

Don’t trust the flowers. They might be snakes, waiting to bite you on the butt, Puppy said.

 

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Maybe you’re not familiar with the wit and wisdom of the people’s philosopher Puppy. He’s a smart-talking paraplegic author of gay Marxist porn, the unlikely and clingingly adorable central character in David Zellnik’s equally unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, which is getting a winsome, sexy, and emotionally perceptive performance at defunkt theatre. A wheelchair-bound Matthew Kern, wheedling and wisecracking and alternately acting the wise guy and the yearning fool, becomes the fulcrum of the tale, which is about what happens when you’ve been living under a death sentence and it’s suddenly lifted.

Strictly speaking, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom isn’t a post-AIDS play, because AIDS and HIV are still with us. But they’re vastly different from what they once were, and Zellnik’s play is set at the dawning of what seemed at the time an almost unbelievable new age. It takes place in the mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors began to tame the effects of HIV and suddenly offered a new lease on life to millions of people who had been facing almost certain wasting-away and premature death. In gay communities, it was a giddy and almost magical time, and maybe even a little fearful: Where do we go? What do we do?

Puppy, for one, is hopeful but wary. Better the devil you know, perhaps, and he sees in the promise of HIV drugs an ironic connection to Chairman Mao’s “hundred flowers” campaign. In 1956, the same year that the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising, Mao seemed to take an opposite, more benevolent, tack in China. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he proclaimed: let a multitude of ideas loose to contend in an open intellectual and political market.

For a while, Chinese citizens took him up on his offer. Then Mao cracked down, arresting dissidents who had spoken out and sending many of them to forced labor camps. As he later bragged, he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”

The snakes in Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom seem mainly in the mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. The play’s romance strikes off in several directions, but centers on the partnership of Jake (Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), who had been resigned to dying together but now, thanks to drug treatment, are becoming healthy again. The trouble is, Samson has some troublesome side effects and spends a lot of time on the road; and Jake’s in a torpor, semi-paralyzed emotionally and unable to get up and do much of anything: he still can’t quite believe he’s not dying. Add Chip Sherman to the mix in several roles – most notably as a sexy shoe salesman who insists he’s straight but likes to fool around with guys – and the action becomes desperate, funny, and surprisingly moving. Protease inhibitors might be miracle drugs, but they’re not miracle workers. When you come back to life, you also come back to its many complications.

Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact. The cast’s quite winning, and the talented director Paul Angelo keeps the actors on their toes, nimbly navigating the rapids of sentiment, sheer comedy, sly raunch, and genuine emotion. Nothing to fear but fear itself. And fear has fangs.

 *

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom continues through March 22 at defunkt, in the little Back Door Theatre behind Common Grounds coffee shop at 4319 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Ticket and schedule information is here.

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The poet in twilight: Neruda before the fall

Milagro's 'Ardiente Paciencia' is a sweet lovers' tale before the outside world lowers the boom

To quote the flower-selling daughter of a well-known Cockney philosopher and man-about-town, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! … Is that all you blighters can do?”

Andrade, Samayoa, Mendoza: the poet and the lovers. Russell J. Young Photography

Andrade, Samayoa, Mendoza: the poet and the lovers. Russell J. Young Photography

Well, no. But even among the most poetically besotted, there are times when life moves beyond the magic of words, and speech should stop. Such a moment arrives, in Antonio Shármenta’s play Ardiente Paciencia, when the young lovers Mario and Beatriz drop their pretenses and their speaking and a good deal of their clothing, and do a slow sensual dance, rolling a fragile raw egg over each other’s bodies in looping patterns that may be like writing and are definitely about feeling and touching and just being. As Miss Eliza Doolittle wouldn’t have had to say if Freddy Eynsford-Hill had had half the gumption and animal sense of Mario the postman, just shut up and show her.

Words are central to Ardiente Paciencia, which has just opened at Milagro Theatre, and which revolves around the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the latter years of his life but mostly before the 1973 right-wing coup d’état by Augusto Pinochet and his troops. That other, earlier, September 11 atrocity overthrew Salvador Allende’s elected Socialist government, with which the longtime Communist Neruda had been allied, and inaugurated decades of repression in a nation that had been a comparative beacon of democracy in South America.

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Venice in the balance: 300 years of art & music

The Portland Art Museum's big new slice of history finds the art in the music and the music in the art

The Portland Art Museum’s lovely new exhibit Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music has many keys, and not quite at random I’m choosing this one to unlock it: a modest but beautifully detailed brass sackbut, minus mouthpiece, from the latter half of the 16th century.

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, "The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas," c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, “The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas,” c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

I choose this piece not only because “sackbut” is an undeniably fun word to type, but also because this exquisite antique musical instrument, an ancestor of the modern tenor trombone, is representative of the superbly measured charms of the exhibition as a whole. Like Pietro Longhi’s warm and slyly funny painted domestic scenes, or Tiepolo’s paintings of celestial coronations or artists at work, this anonymously crafted sackbut is evidence of a culture that believed in nuance and stability above bold revolutionary sweep. It was a conservative society, in the cultural rather than political sense, much more comfortable with the interweaving conversation than the elocutionary shout.

Compared to the modern trombone, the sackbut is small. This example has delicate tubing and a bell that opens elegantly, a funnel of perfect proportion to unleash a soft and rounded yet commanding tone. The brass is cunningly and lovingly worked, ornamental yet restrained. The instrument seems a masterwork of form and function, scaled not to the expanses of symphonic concert palaces but to the intimate warmth of the chamber hall.

Proportionality and balance are hallmarks of this exhibition, which originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is showing in Portland, its only stop in the United States, through May 11. Drawn from 49 lending sources – including the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s National Gallery, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna – it offers a glimpse into the aspirations and achievements of the thousand-year Venetian Republic during its final three centuries, until 1797, when Napoleon came knocking forcibly and the doges decided to surrender quietly rather than embroil their city-state in a probably unwinnable war. Most of the 120-odd works on display are modestly sized, essentially domestic in scale, and they tend to speak quietly, in the struck and plucked unamplified reverberations of the Baroque temperament. They’re best absorbed slowly, personally, at a pace and perception that dials down to their own until it can broaden as it enters their scale. Nothing’s in a rush. The secret is to take some time with them, so you can enter into the leisurely and richly burnished patterns of their world.

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