Bobby Bermea

 

Antonio Sonera’s Badass Hospitality

As the city's new theater season swings into action, Portland's maverick director speaks out about why it's done, and who should have access

Antonio Sonera is the maverick of the Portland theater scene: a wild card, an enigma, complicated and controversial, undoubtedly gifted, knowledgeable and hard-working. He’s been a vital part of the Portland theater scene for 30-odd years, yet in many ways, he’s on the outside looking in. He hasn’t worked at Artists Rep in years. He’s never directed at Portland Center Stage. He’s never worked at Portland Playhouse or Profile or Defunkt. He’s on the Drammy Committee, yet, in those same three decades of doing good — and oftentimes great — work in this town, he’s yet to win a Drammy himself. If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name. El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed. When Sonera works these days, it’s primarily on projects he’s developed or produced.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him about that hiatus; about his company, Badass Theatre; and about the state of theater in Portland. Anyone who knows Sonera already knows he had a lot to say. He’s a man of strong opinions and he’s not afraid to speak them. He’s also a thoughtful man, smart, experienced and perhaps most importantly, he gives a damn. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t deny his passion or commitment.

Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

When World Builders rolled around this June Portland hadn’t heard from Badass in four years, which was too bad. Because when Badass had spoken, people had listened. Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s perception-shattering tornado of a play, was easily the most talked-about theater piece of its season. Sans Merci, Johnna Adams’ brutal exploration of love and grief, contained a trio of outstanding performances, headed by the amazing Luisa Sermol, ripping her soul to tatters and leaving it there on the stage for everybody to see. (Sermol won an award for her work, not her first by any means, and not her first under Sonera’s direction. She’d taken home another Drammy for her work in Boleros for the Disenchanted at Milagro in 2012.)

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Devising ‘Very Poorly Indeed’

Other than that, Mr. Donner, how'd you like the Party? Using devising techniques, a group from PETE creates a fresh take on a ghoulish tale.

It begins, as these things often do, at the nexus between worlds, the juncture, the crossroads of realities, with the audience and the performing area both in light and both in darkness. On the stage, just on the other side of a translucent membrane, a pagan entity (Myriel Meissner) approaches. Something stirs inside the audience, something akin to communal memory or a dream we all share that never quite fades away.

The entity steps through the veil and we see it has the body of a young woman and the head of a deer. It — she — is silent as she walks across the stage in a manner both strange and familiar, and we feel both welcomed and wary as this entity, this being, exists between reality and illusion, life and death, good and evil, God and human. Before long we will encounter snow and ice, want and fear, ghosts and madness, a Trickster/narrator, and a tree adorned with human flesh, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s visceral stuff, viscerally performed by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s training program, the Institute for Contemporary Performance.

As through a scrim, darkly: “Very Poorly Indeed.” Photo: Jeremy Jeziorski

The piece, Very Poorly Indeed, is being presented at CoHo Theater this weekend by PETE and is the culmination of a year of hard work, training and exploration by ICP students Clifton Holznagel, Jonathan Lee, Meissner, Rose Proctor, and Myia Johnson. This is the third year the Institute has been in operation, and the students vary from those new to the stage to those with a wealth of experience. They’ve spent the past school year immersing themselves in a variety of disciplines, including Suzuki and Viewpoints (taught by Amber Whitehall and Jacob Coleman), Alexander Technique (taught by Cristi Miles), and Clown (taught by Philip Cuomo).

It isn’t easy.

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Spotlight On: The Portland Horror Film Festival

In its third year, the Portland Horror Film Festival and founders Gwen and Brian Callahan continue to subvert the dominant Hollywood Horror Paradigm

This weekend, the Portland Horror Film Festival once again will turn the Hollywood Theatre into a morass of thrills and chills and spills of blood. This is only the third year of the festival, but in that time it has grown from two nights to four days, showing more than 40 short films (varying from one to 24 minutes), five feature-length films, guests, shwag, awards and an ever-expanding audience of ghoul-and-ghost seekers.

It’s fun, but more than that, the Portland Horror Film Festival is a bastion of art, of independent spirit, of resistance to the corporate construct that dominates the American landscape. At the PHFF, you won’t find examples of what founders Brian and Gwen Callahan call Hollywood-style “committee filmmaking.” Instead, you’ll see the singular visions of auteurs, “pure” and unadulterated, without the the greatest common denominator or the almighty bottom-line hovering above it all.

In their mind, they’re providing a “service to the audience by exposing them to movies they might not otherwise see; and serving the filmmakers by putting them in front of audiences they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own.”

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Spotlight on: Eisele & Stone

The two young stars of Lauren Gunderson's "I and You" at Artists Rep have talent to burn, and nothing to fall back on but each other onstage

Emily Eisele and Blake Stone are making their move. When you meet these bright and talented young actors the energy coming off them is palpable: youth, excitement, the new epiphany of their own creative power. Together, they comprise the entire cast of Artist Repertory Theatre’s final show of this season, Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, which opened Saturday.

After a season of fire and brimstone, epics and politics, illusion and disillusion, I and You is something entirely different – and yet, of a piece. It’s a quiet play, but its victories and connections are no less profound for that. Gunderson, “the most produced playwright in the country,” writes in her program notes that Anthony is African-American and Caroline is white but then says, “The race of each character can be altered. The only essentiality is that the characters not be the same race.” It’s a quiet statement, fully in keeping with the rest of Artist Rep’s season but not as in your face. Eisele and Stone are the perfect vessels for such a message, laden as they are with talent, charm, and charisma in abundance.

Emily Eisele and Blake Stone in “I and You.” Photo: Russell J Young

Eisele (pronounced eye-slee), a native of Fort Collins, Colorado, lived in Portland for about five years. Though she hasn’t had a lot of formal training, she’s been learning her trade on the boards since she was a kid. When she arrived in the Rose City she knocked around for a couple of years, not really making any headway until she became an apprentice at Third Rail Repertory. Her year at Third Rail proved a game-changer. “It was a great way to meet other young passionate artists that wanted to collaborate,” she says. “I was really lucky my year because the majority of us were really dedicated and really wanted to be there and created a lot of our own opportunities together and that’s built a lot of lasting relationships for me.” Along the way, and since then, Eisele has starred in Band Geeks at Broadway Rose and made her Artists Rep debut in last season’s American Hero. Since that production, Eisele has chosen to take her talents to Chicago and make a name for herself there.

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Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis

At Oregon Children's Theatre, the actor takes a swing at playing the great Cassius Clay on the way to becoming the greater Muhammad Ali

The day I met with La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the star of Idris Goodwin’s And In This Corner: Cassius Clay — The Making of Muhammad Ali, opening Saturday at Oregon Children’s Theatre, he had just come from teaching middle schoolers about the eponymous character of his piece, a role that has significant meaning for him. Ellis is uniquely suited to the role of teacher in this instance. Though Ali had retired a decade before Ellis was born, the boxing legend was a family hero.

“When I was growing up, in my house, my momma had posters of all these great black people, men and women, both here in America and elsewhere, and one of the main ones, one of the most consistent ones was Ali,” he said. “My momma loved him, my grandma loved him, my grandfather loved him.” Indeed, for Ellis, Ali forms the third corner of a personal trinity that also includes Malcolm X and Bob Marley. “What I learned from (Ali) is, ‘Live your life like it means something to you. Be great no matter what somebody else says. Do what you want to do’.”

LaTevin Alexander Ellis, fists first. Photo: Owen Carey

Ellis, who grew up in Perry, Florida, and graduated from Florida A&M with a theater degree, came to Portland in 2014, one of many good young performers to join the city’s acting pool through Portland Playhouse’s apprentice program. If you know him at all, you know that his artistic life and political sensibility are deeply entwined. He’s the founder and artistic director of Confrontation Theatre, which aims to produce “engaging and challenging theater through the exceptionally unique Black perspective.” Somewhere, somehow, some part of his brain is always on the situation of black people in this country and what he can do about it.

This is also something he respects about Ali: “He was one of the first black men that I knew about that was a great athlete and who was not silent about the mistreatment of his people and his culture.” If you paid any attention at all to the anthem protests of this past football season, you know that such a stance does not come without cost. Now, imagine if you’re actually abstaining from joining the military when called upon. For this stance, for his outspokenness, for his visibility, the price for Ali was high. He was stripped of his championship and his livelihood for three of his prime fighting years, with the possibility of prison even hanging over his head.

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Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”

It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”

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