Bob Hicks

 

DramaWatch Weekly: Pop-up City

It's a week for short runs, from Chekhov to Twilight in L.A. – plus full-run shows on Patsy Cline, the Irish Troubles, and a sex crime coverup

Pop-up restaurants. Pop-up bars. Pop-up nightclubs, galleries, boutiques, publishing houses, concerts. We’re living in a pop-up world, so why not pop-up theater?

The traditional method of producing is to start a theater company, announce a season, and run a half-dozen shows for several weeks at a time. That still dominates, especially in the nonprofit theater world.

But more and more, quick-hit shows are spicing up the scene. You might not see reviews of them very often, because they’re in and out, here and gone. But a growing number of  producers and performers are taking advantage of short-run opportunities, and it takes a little scrambling to keep up.

What is the Fertile Ground Festival but a massive series of pop-ups? What about a company like Boom Arts, which exists to bring in a steady stream of political or experimental shows from around the world for very brief runs? What about the several play-reading series in town? And it’s not just small lean groups popping up and down. The two biggest theater companies in town, Portland Center Stage at The Armory and Artists Repertory Theatre, are playing the short-run, special-event game, too.

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DramaWatch: First Nations first

The week onstage: A trio of shows by Native American playwrights; some Freddie Mercury; "La Belle" returns. Plus, new seasons news.

With a rising anti-immigration fever sweeping the United States and President Trump’s threat on Tuesday to deploy military guards along the Mexican border until his exclusionary wall can be built, it is well and truly time for this: A trifecta of plays by Native American writers highlights Oregon’s theater week. Once again, now: Who’s interloping on whom?

“Manahatta”: Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) think they are signing an agreement for the Lenape to trade with the Dutch indefinitely. Jakob (Danforth Comins, left) and Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) have other intentions. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The world-premiere production of Manahatta, by Cherokee writer and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, is off and running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. A tale of then and now, it’s the story of Jane Snake, a securities trader who lands on Wall Street in 2008, on the island that was home to her ancestors until they were forced out in the 1600s, and the struggles of her contemporary family in Oklahoma.

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‘La Belle’ steams back

Imago Theatre's mechanically marvelous steampunk-vaudeville retelling of "The Beauty and the Beast" returns from the road for a hometown run

It’s a Monday afternoon in early spring, and the road warriors are back in town. “I don’t know,” Jerry Mouawad says, just a trifle wearily. “We’ve probably played a thousand venues across the country.”

That covers a few decades and a few shows, from Whistlestop, Anystate to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Mostly, it covers variations over the years of Imago Theatre’s splendid family shows Frogz, Biglittlethings, and ZooZoo, and a little bit of Mouawad’s conceptually radical, tilted-stage production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And in the past year it’s included Imago’s newest ravishing visual spectacle, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.

Jim Vadala, Justine Davis: love in miniature. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

La Belle, which opened at Imago to rapturous reviews in December 2016, has had small East Coast and West Coast tours in the ensuing months, including an engagement in November in Santa Rosa, California, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it was one of the first shows to play in the reopened hall after last year’s devastating wildfires destroyed much of the arts center and surrounding town. Now it’s back for another hometown run, opening Friday at Imago and continuing through April 29. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance. If you have, chances are you’ll want to catch it again. As Marty Hughley noted in his ArtsWatch review of the premiere: “Imago’s La Belle is a creature of a rare and wonderful sort, a show you may well want to see over and over again, both to marvel at its graceful mechanics and to soak in its symbolic resonances about the human, animal and spiritual in us all.”

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The Mermaid Hour, approaching

Milagro's premiere play about a transgender 12-year-old and her family takes a while to heat up. Once it does, it radiates warmth and light.

A funny thing happened on the way toward intermission Sunday afternoon at The Mermaid Hour, David Valdes Greenwood’s new play at Milagro: I changed my mind. Radically.

I’d been looking forward to Mermaid, part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program (see T.J. Acena’s smart background story for ArtsWatch). But for much of the first act it seemed schematic, an argument in the guise of a drama, and I found myself observing rather than feeling – yet another issue play, more interested in the issue than the lives. A relatively progressive couple, Pilar and Bird (Nelda Reyes and Jed Arkley) have a transgender daughter, Violet (Jaryn Lasentia), who is 12 years old and pushing for hormone treatment and falling deeply for her best friend, Jacob (Kai Hynes), who’s gay. Bird’s Mr. Negative, and Pilar’s Mrs. Empathetic, and wrong thinking will be corrected, and lessons will be learned, and as people used to say back when telegrams were a thing, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Jaryn Lasentia as Violet and Michael Cavazos as the mermaid. Photo: Russell J Young

And then the ground began to shift. Things got muddy, and messy, and complicated, and the stick figures took on flesh and blood. And by the first act’s closing scene, in which Lasentia delivers Violet’s raw and tender and beautifully written monologue about being a mermaid – neither one thing nor the other but happiest in that in-between hour when her possibilities seem limitless – I was well and truly hooked.

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Ka-ching: Money for the NEA

Bucking the Trump administration's call to eliminate federal funding for the arts and humanities, Congress approves a slight raise for each

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 UPDATE: It’s a done deal. President Trump signed the spending bill into law after first threatening to veto it on Friday morning in a move that “left both political parties in Washington reeling and his own aides bewildered about Mr. Trump’s contradictory actions.”

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Money makes the world go ’round, as the song from Cabaret puts it, and that includes the cultural world, which seems perpetually a day late and a dollar short in the distribution of it. It tends to be a case of trickle-down in reverse: Because museums and performance organizations generally exist on lean budgets – especially in the United States, where government cultural support pales compared to that in most European countries – ticket prices spike and the artists themselves are often poorly paid.

The museum world has been abuzz about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to charge non-New Yorkers $25 for admission, scrapping a decades-old policy of charging a “suggested” donation that allowed people of limited means (plus a few freeloaders) to engage with great art. The museum responds, in a nutshell, that it has no choice: It has to cover its costs.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey performing “Money Makes the World Go
‘Round” in the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret.”

Ticket prices on Broadway are routinely high enough to scrape the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the sellers’ market for a hot property like Hamilton they soar to obscene levels, mitigated slightly in national touring productions like the one that settled into Portland’s Keller Auditorium on Tuesday. (Look for T.J. Acena’s ArtsWatch review soon, and catch Amy Wang’s interview in The Oregonian with Joseph Morales, who stars as Hamilton in this version and began his theatrical career at Southern Oregon University, playing the Emcee in Cabaret.)

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DramaWatch Weekly: Hamilton-plus

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway mega-hit grabs the spotlight. But Portland and Ashland stages are overflowing with other top bets, too.

Don’t look now, but the two-ton elephant’s about to plop down in the living room. That’s right: Hamilton, the touring version of the Broadway mega-hit, opens on Tuesday, March 20, in Portland’s Keller Auditorium for 24 performances through April 8, and if you don’t have your tickets yet – well, good luck. That pencils out to 72,000 available seats, and most of them are long gone.

So you’re on the outside looking in: How to score a ticket? Lottery, baby! Every performance will have 40 tickets available for 10 bucks each, and you can hit the lottery line for each show two days in advance, starting Sunday for opening night. Here’s the link. Or, you could go through one of the ticket-resale sites and offer your first-born child, your mother-in-law, and a case of Eyrie 1975 South Block Pinot noir.

Shoba Narayan, Ta’Rea Campbell and Nyla Sostre head for Portland with the “Hamilton” national touring company. Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Veteran West Coast theater critic Misha Berson saw the company during its Seattle run before its Puddletown engagement and filed this report for ArtsWatch readers. “Hamilton comes at you at 100 miles per hour, a power vehicle running on all cylinders,” she writes. “It’s the theatrical equivalent of IMAX but all human, all live, and with none of the techno-tricks designed to hypnotize and overwhelm. What seduces you here is a group of mostly black actors in velvet breeches and ruffled shirts, singing ‘I’m not throwing away my shot!’ with a visceral intensity you can feel from the balcony, and an array of drifting, be-gowned young women exhorting you to ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now’.”

Go ahead: Mortgage the house. Or you could get lucky in the lottery.

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Two Trains, hambone not included

PassinArt's revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" delves into the destruction of a black neighborhood. Oh: it's warm and funny, too.

“I want my ham!” a fellow named Hambone shouts as he stands near the entrance of Memphis Lee’s diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. He pauses, gathers energy, then shouts again, louder and more intense this time, in a voice that could shatter steel: “I WANT MY HAM!

In Two Trains Running, PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s new revival at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center of August Wilson’s majestic and surprisingly funny 1990 play, Hambone’s been loudly wanting his ham every day for nine and a half years, since the shopkeeper across the street from the diner promised him one for some manual labor and then offered him a chicken instead, saying he hadn’t done the work well enough to earn the ham.

Hambone, played with brilliant physical intensity and attention to detail by Tim Golden, knows better: a deal’s a deal, and he carried out his end. So every morning he goes to the shopkeeper and demands his ham, and every morning the shopkeeper offers him a chicken instead, and every morning Hambone refuses the chicken and walks across the street to Memphis’ diner and shouts “I want my ham!,” and then sits down while the waitress, Risa, gets him a cup of coffee and maybe a bowl of soup.

We are a people made of rituals, and some rituals stick stronger than others.

Wrick Jones (left) as Memphis, Kenneth Dembo as Wolf, Cycerli Ash as Risa in PassinArt’s “Two Trains Running.” Photo: Jerry Foster

Two Trains Running, like all of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th century, is filled with symbolism and metaphor and tall-tale exaggeration, and it’s structured so musically that you can almost imagine the cast singing it. Director William Earl Ray’s PassinArt actors play the thing a bit like a good blues band, delivering their lines in an array of timbres, tones, and speeds, from the quizzical uptick of veteran Wrick Jones’s Memphis to the mirthful jangle of Kenneth Dembo’s bookie Wolf to the deliberative modulations of Jerry Foster’s undertaker/real-estate player West. If Golden’s booming Hambone holds down the bass line, Jones’s rat-a-tat-tat in Memphis’ angry or exasperated moments provides the snares. James Dixon as the young just-out-of-prison swain Sterling is the slide trombone noodling around the staccato cornet jabs of Cycerli Ash’s Risa, who skitters away a little closer every time she hears that sound. On opening night Saturday director Ray was on book as the old-timer Holloway, having just taken over the role. His voice was still developing: keyboards, maybe, filling in the chords.

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