Bob Hicks


Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.


Friderike Heuer’s spaces between

At Blackfish, the photomontage artist's series "Zwischenräume" considers a world under constant surveillance

In February, metal sculptor Steve Tilden and glass artist Jen Fuller’s collaboration Stories, a series of works rooted in Greek myths, fills the main sections of Portland’s Blackfish Gallery. It’s augmented by Free Fall, a large selection of photomontages by Friderike Heuer based on air disasters (think Daedalus and Icarus), each one incorporating an image from one of Tilden and Fuller’s pieces, as well. Blackfish’s intimate back room gallery is given over to another of Heuer’s photomontage series, The Spaces In Between, dealing with the ever-presence in the contemporary world of surveillance. For the past few months I’ve been looking at the images from Spaces, off and on, and thinking about them. In January I sat down with Heuer, and we talked about the series and the ideas woven through it.


“I want to be alone,” actress Greta Garbo famously sighed in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel.

Fat chance, artist Friderike Heuer seems to reply in her series of montages Zwischenräume.

In Heuer’s world, which is also ours, everybody watches everybody, and there is no true alone.

The images in Zwischenräum – which translates from the German as Spaces, or, as Heuer more loosely has it, The Spaces In Between – are fraught with the realization that we are relentlessly, inescapably, seen. Created with analytical precision from her own photographs and remnants of mostly 20th century northern European paintings, they are teeming with portents of spying and entrapment: infrared cameras, piercing eyes, chain-link fences, metal locks, microphones. Sometimes the implements of surveillance are prominent: brute reminders of conformity through force. Sometimes they’re almost unnoticeable: the hidden persuaders of advertising; the quiet collators of computer and cell phone data mining. Always, they are there, even as the people in these fascinating and nervously crowded images seek to dodge them – to find “the spaces in between,” those private refuges from the probing eye.



Heuer’s 24” x 18” archival jet prints on German etching paper are seductively combined, and narrative but fractured – pieces of story with the plots cut out. Her images, overlaid and manipulated and streaked with lines of paint, are like collages, but not quite. “I do everything on the computer,” she says. “It makes it easier and harder at the same time. What’s harder is making it seem like a coherent piece. In collage, no one expects the jags and breaks not to be there. There’s a fluidity to these that you don’t ordinarily see in collages. People look at them and often don’t see that they’re montages. They’re like paintings.”


From Corrib, a Little Gem

Elaine Murphy's comic drama about three generations of women in an Irish family lives up to its title

The men aren’t there.

Well, they are, but only talked about, never seen. However important they might be in the shaping and sometimes twisting of the lives we see and hear in Dublin writer Elaine Murphy’s fascinating drama Little Gem, the play is about these three women and the ways they form and keep a family: mom Lorraine (Sara Hennessy), grandmom Kay (Michele M. Mariana), young-adult daughter Amber (Lauren Mitchell).

From left: Hennessy, Mariana, Mitchell. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Hennessy, Mariana, Mitchell. Photo: Owen Carey

Shifting points of view easily in a smooth series of monologues, the three women tell a tale of love, loyalty and endurance on the tenuous lower rungs of the working class. It doesn’t hurt that a few good comedy bits are tossed in to ease the tension, from mom’s encounter with the sweating hairy man to grandma’s reluctant adventures with the buzzing vibrator.

Corrib Theatre’s production in the upstairs banquet room of Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub is about as stripped-down as it can be, and that seems fitting for a play about a family of women just struggling (successfully, as it turns out) to survive: a simple low platform for a stage, a wooden chair that can be moved about, a backdrop that consists of a plain wooden frame with a large quilt, that enduring form of women’s art and craft, hanging from it. The quilt defines the warmth of the women’s relationship, and makes the stage a home. The little bar in the next room, where members of the audience can grab a beer or glass of wine before and after the show, makes the space seem both a home and a comfortable pub, an Irish institution that plays a vital background role in Little Gem.

The production’s simplicity puts the attention squarely on the performers, who meet the challenge with dash, humor, and sometimes shattering impact. Hennessy maintains a sweet and carefully modulated rambunctious center as Lorraine, the harried woman in the middle who is dealing with a rocky work environment, a long-absent deadbeat husband, a daughter who might be going off the deep end, and the surprise possibility of a genuinely good relationship with a decent man. As Kay, the veteran Mariana provides the show’s emotional anchor, downshifting the action to the nitty-gritty of it all: the end of a long and fruitful marriage, the recognition of her own mortality, the responsibility for holding everything together, the tending of the emotional embers so they don’t go out, the warmth and strength that bind the three generations together. It’s a lovely and moving performance. Mitchell, by generational contrast, is a compulsively chattering jumble of nerves as Amber: a little punkish, reckless, combative, vulnerable in spite of herself, left in the lurch by the lout who knocks her up and leaves her with child – the “Little Gem” of the title, the family’s new hope.

The surprising thing about Little Gem is, you get a complete sense of the rising and falling relationships even though no one ever talks to anyone else: until the very end the entire play is told in monologues, each of the three actors taking her turn. Director Gemma Whelan keeps the action clear and swift, paying close attention to the emotional ebb and flow. What emerges is a small wonder about ordinary people’s large lives.


Three points about Corrib and Little Gem:

  • Corrib is devoted to plays about the Irish experience, and in her program notes Whelan points out playwright Murphy’s key role in that regard: “In the history of Irish theatre, female voices have long been absent or marginalized. This despite the fact that Lady Augusta Gregory was one of the founders of the Irish National Theatre – the Abbey, where her plays were produced alongside Synge and Yeats. Teresa Deevy had her plays staged there in the 1930s, and Marina Carr was one of the first women to have her work produced there in the twenty-first century. Elaine Murphy’s latest play Shush played at the Abbey Theatre in 2013, making her the third woman in nearly 100 years to have a play produced by Ireland’s national theatre. The time has come!”
  • Little Gem continues through Feb. 26 on an unusual schedule: Monday through Thursday evenings. Among other things, that allows other theater people to catch the show on their Monday nights off from their own shows.
  • Also from the program: “We dedicate this production to Ted Roisum, (1952-2015). Ted performed in Corrib’s first full production – St. Nicholas – at Kells in March 2013, marking the first time this space was used as a theatre. For Corrib, this will always be ‘Ted’s Space.’ We miss him hugely.” A public memorial service for Ted, the much-loved and admired Portland actor who died of cancer on Jan. 29, will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St.




Ring-ring. Sarah Ruhl calling.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," sparked by Dana Millican's deft blend of comedy and fantasy, pushes the right buttons to start Profile's season of Ruhl plays

A phone rings, and rings, and rings, and exasperatingly, its owner doesn’t answer it. He just sits at his café table, staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought, dreaming of the last bowl of lobster bisque he arrived too late to get.

Or – this might explain things – he’s dead. Dapper, self-involved, acerbic Gordon has been struck down amid pangs of hunger, and even sharper irritation at the young woman at the next table, who is just spooning in the last bite of the bisque he had specifically come to this oddly unstaffed café to eat.

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

That young woman, Jean (Dana Millican), equally irritated at the cell phone’s bleat, eventually answers it herself, and then keeps answering it, over and over, slipping into the shadows and abandoned realities of the dead man’s life as if it were a celestial obligation, or a gift.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the sparklingly oddball first production in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl. This slightly absurdist, slightly comic-book, highly whimsical, and emotionally serious play takes a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, and Millican makes an ideal, engagingly sympathetic contemporary Alice, balancing the role’s cartoon and realist aspects to create a captivating wonderland.


Three’s a crowd (and Vanya, too)

The world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's volatile "Threesome" joins the "Vanya/Sonia" party at Center Stage

Things got a little overheated Friday night in the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theater at Portland Center Stage, which might explain what was up with all those clothes flying off those beautiful bodies. Contrarily, the air was a touch chilly in the big bed onstage, where Leila and Rashid were embroiled in some sort of weird passive-aggressive tiff disguised as lovers’ banter. So when Doug strode around the corner babbling like a maniac and swinging his altogether with every bare-naked step, the tension broke, and everyone in the little hothouse of a theater started to laugh. Except Leila and Rashid, who tensed up, if such a thing was possible, even more.

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: and stranger makes three. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: strange bedfellows. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The setting for this little comedy of extreme manners was the premiere performance of Yussef El Guindi’s new play Threesome, a co-production of Center Stage, where it continues through March 8, and Seattle’s ACT Theatre. It’s already a familiar story to at least a few in the prospective audience: it was workshopped in 2013 at Center Stage’s JAW new-works festival.

Despite its opening gambit – Leila and Rashid have invited imperfect stranger Doug over for a swinger romp in the hay – Threesome is a long way off from a sex farce. If it veers that way with Doug’s nervous-nellie overcompensations (smoothly yet fumblingly portrayed by Quinn Franzen, who has a deft way with comedy) it’s sharply counterpointed by Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Dominic Rains). Rashid is clearly far from down with this plan, which he obviously resents. And Leila seems far more interested in scoring political points than in, well, scoring. Poor Doug begins to feel ping-ponged in the middle, the pawn in somebody else’s game of revenge sex. By this point it might come as no surprise that, despite all the showy skin, the sheets do not get overly rumpled.

Feelings, however, do. And attitudes. What builds from this beginning in director Chris Coleman’s production is a structure of sexual and cultural politics, layers of misunderstanding and betrayal, inquiries into the meanings of love, and sometimes scathing observations on the Western/Middle Eastern cultural divide. El Guindi has a lot on his mind, and to me, at least, it’s not always clear how the actions onstage parallel his impassioned scattershot of ideas: all that nudity seems a bit like a come-on for the political propositions that follow, like Doug’s story of the Arab woman luring him into an alley for ulterior reasons. The contrast in Leila and Rashid’s minds between their Arabic backgrounds and their American realities is crucial, but in what ways? Leila’s desire for a three-way might represent a Middle Eastern view of the West as a licentious culture, a place where you can do things you’d never do at home. Then again, what’s home? Cairo, or America? Or it might be her extreme reaction to the Islamic world’s view of the submissive role of women. Doug might represent the ugly American, open and impulsive and friendly but also a little dimwitted and unresponsive to cultural variations and capable of extreme cruelty and stupidity on foreign ground: exotic orientalism rears its unsightly head. Then again, he might not represent anything but himself: after all, as he points out, Leila and Rashid invited him over. And what of Rashid? Is he wrong to expect a little commitment on Leila’s part? Is she wrong to make decisions as if what he thinks doesn’t matter? How open can a relationship be and still be a relationship?

There’s a lot to sift through here, including the nature of imperialism and the culture of rape. And after a somewhat awkward beginning (in what is, after all, an intentionally awkward scene) the three actors carry it through bravely and expertly, with a fine blend of humor and fervor. When things get a little preachy, they preach like they believe it. The play has a string of “reveals,” culminating in a big one that’s clearly metaphorical, but I’m not sure I understand all the metaphors. There’s so much going on that things seem a little muddled. On the other hand, it’s a muddled world that El Guindi’s exploring, filled with contradictions and deep histories and misunderstandings and conflicting priorities. Maybe a little muddle is what it’s all about. The opening night audience gave the performance a standing ovation, and I don’t think it was just for the skin.


From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Meanwhile, upstairs on the Main Stage at PCS, Christopher Durang’s expansive comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is keeping audiences laughing and houses packed. It’ll be hanging around another week, through Feb. 8, continuing the play’s somewhat surprising sweep through the affections of the American theater system, where it’s been the most frequently produced play of the past year.

When Durang’s comic riff on Chekhov opened at Lincoln Center in 2012 the New York Times’s Ben Brantley called it “a sunny new play about gloomy people,” and that seems about right. Brantley also noted that it lacks the punch of some of Durang’s wilder, more acerbic plays, and that seems right, too. You can think of it as a bit like Durang’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness: not his greatest play, but warm and uncharacteristically optimistic and pitched straight to the mainstream theater audience’s sweet spot. Nothing wrong with that, and sometimes, frankly, it’s a blessed relief.

Director Rose Riordan’s Center Stage production is sweet and charming in a baroque, chamber-music sort of way, just outrageous enough to tickle your funnybone without seriously disturbing any deeper areas of the psyche. As several reviewers have already noted, Sharonlee McLean is an absolute stitch as Sonia, the terminally bored adopted sister who has an unrequited crush on definitely-not-blood-brother Vanya, who happens to be gay. Well, that’s life.

I was also, I decided after a bit of reflection, taken with Eden Malyn’s fey, Carol-Kane-in-ditzy-mode performance as Nina, the fresh young thing from down the road. Nina really seems the most level-headed, sensible one of the bunch, and you might therefore expect a level-headed, sensible interpretation. But actuality and appearances are so often a mismatch, and I like that Nina’s practicality comes in an otherworldly package: why not? I’ll also note Andrew Mellon’s rendition of Vanya’s late-in-the-play unshackling from his lassitude to deliver what can only be called an extended existential rant. It’s the scene that shakes things up, a bit – not as astonishing as Valere’s bone-shattering, 15-page monologue in David Hirson’s La Bete, a play that already rocked the boat of expectation by being delivered entirely in iambic-pentameter rhyming couplets, but enough of a shakeup to remind the audience that this is, after all, Christopher Durang, and the ordinary way of doing things will be deviated from. (Including, it seems, the commonly received ban on ending a sentence with a preposition.) A little deviance in the theater isn’t a bad thing.


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Ted Roisum, 1952-2015: a giant falls

The brilliant longtime Portland actor dies at 62, leaving a distinguished legacy both professional and personal

UPDATE: A memorial celebration of Ted Roisum’s life will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., Portland. The timing will allow as many theater people as possible to attend without conflicting with performances or rehearsals.


Like a few other giants, Ted Roisum was surprisingly small in person: lean and compact, short, somehow tough and fragile at the same time, with a large and perpetually questioning head that overwhelmed his wiry body.

Yet giant he was, with a voice that rolled like God’s at the creation of the universe and trembled like Job’s in the face of a plague of locusts. On a stage, he simply grew.

Robert Theodore Roisum, one of the finest actors Portland has known, died in a Portland hospice on Thursday, January 29, 2015. He was 62.

Roisum in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas." Photo: Win Goodbody/Corrib Theatre

Roisum in Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas.” Photo: Win Goodbody/Portland Theatre Scene

His longtime friend Louanne Moldovan reported that three weeks ago, experiencing severe abdominal pains, he went to an emergency room, where doctors discovered cancerous tumors throughout his body. He had had a melanoma removed about a year earlier, and neither Ted nor his doctors realized the cancer had metastasized to his lymph system, Moldovan said.

Word spread quickly in the city’s theater circles, where Roisum was held in deep admiration, respect, and, often, a touch of awe. “Today the world lost one of its rare and beautiful souls,” actor Luisa Sermol wrote in a Facebook post. He was, she added, “a man of brilliant mind, passionate talent, and gentle heart.”

Ted was all of that, and more. He did a little bit of film and television work – including small roles in the likes of Mr. Holland’s Opus and the series Under Suspicion and Nowhere Man – but he was a man of the theater, and from the mid-1980s on, mostly on Portland stages. A show with Ted in it was almost automatically an event.

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in "Greek," 1987

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in “Greek,” 1987

After a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the early 1980s he came of age in Portland in the ’80s and early ’90s in a series of brilliant performances, including Steven Berkoff’s scabrous Greek, in a legendary production with Vana O’Brien, Keith Scales, and Dee Dee Van Zyl. He had a taste for classic 20th century American dramas: Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses (all three with O’Brien as his wife), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. He dug deeply into Ibsen in The Master Builder, and Yeats in The Cuchulain Cycle. More than once, he played Lear (including one production that had him playing him not as a king, but as the commissioner of baseball). Such savage roles seemed to wring him dry onstage, and the audience with him, without dipping into histrionics or melodrama: his performances were too true for that.

Roisum’s remarkable, reverberating voice is what struck audiences most immediately. Marty Hughley, reviewing his Lear at Northwest Classical Theatre Company last year for ArtsWatch, wrote that the sound of his voice was “like weathered mahogany. Indignation burns and churns in him like magma. There is bullying and bitterness in this Lear, but also biting wit and touching tenderness, self-pity and self-awareness.”

The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places. In person he was a gentleman, with an engaging curiosity and flashes of dry humor and, it seemed to me, some of the uncertainties that so often plague exceptionally creative and sensitive people. He had doubts, and the doubts seemed part of what made him brilliant onstage. Always, there were questions. Always, there were shadings. Always, there was a part of himself in whoever he played.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Ted took a few lighter roles, even swashbuckling in a children’s-theater adaptation of Treasure Island. And he sometimes stepped into musical-theater productions: he had a distinctive sense of rhythm in his voice and movements. But even on the musical-comedy stage he tended toward darker roles – as Jud, for instance, the haunted outsider in Oklahoma! who gives the play the sort of disquieting anchor that Malvolio provides in Twelfth Night. The same was true in comedies. Amid the hijinks of Vitriol and Violets, a play about the Algonquin wits, he broke into a brief, chilling scene as the doomed Bartolomeo Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy.

He also had an eye for the new or unusual, and for the familiar cast in an unusual light. He and David Cromwell starred at Portland Center Stage in the 2003 premiere of Steven Drukman’s post-9/11 comedy Another Fine Mess as a couple of baggy-pants gents, à la Gogo and Didi, creating a backstage world very like the large one beyond the theater – a tour-de-force blending of the sheerly theatrical and the starkly political.

His 1993 show Variations on a Bard, directed by Moldovan, teamed him in scenes from Shakespeare performed to improvisational accompaniment by three jazz musicians. “Certainly, tragedy becomes Roisum, who carries a dignified sadness in his voice and bearing,” I wrote in reviewing the show for the Oregonian. “But lurking below the obvious are the makings of a first-rate comedian – a truly Shakespearean kind of fool, who knows much and makes light to illuminate the dark. With his bold features and elastic expressions, Roisum suggests the duality of the great French actor-mime Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise, creating peals of laughter while his heart breaks.”

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Certain roles simply resonated with Ted. He played Conor McPherson’s bitter theater critic in St. Nicholas three times: in 1998 for CoHo, in 2002 for Cygnet, and in 2013 for Corrib. Barry Johnson, reviewing the 2013 production for ArtsWatch, wrote of Roisum “leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.” Reviewing the 2002 production for The Oregonian, I observed: “… it’s hard to imagine any actor who can bring life to that spiritual exhaustion better than Roisum. With his deep whiskey voice and sharp cadences he approaches McPherson’s script as if it were music: every note has its meaning, and every note comes clear only in relationship to the notes that come before and after.”

That was the way he approached his work onstage: like music coming clear as it falls into place with the rest of the score. He was, indeed, a giant. Onstage and in his personal life, he made people care.

“Teddy was my friend, my co-actor and, at one time, my onstage husband,” actor Katherine King wrote on Facebook. “I am very glad that he is no longer suffering, but I am very sad for all of us who will miss him so very much.”

Teddy, rest in peace.







FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.



Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.


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