Bobby Bermea

 

David Mamet, plowing through

Why, in the #me too age, revive tough-guy Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"? For Asylum Theatre's Jason Manicchia it's the thrill of the language.

David Mamet.

The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.

But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.

Brianna Ratterman and Jason Maniccia, sealing the deal. Photo: Gary Norman

So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.

Continues…

Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

Continues…

From ‘Hands Up’ to ‘Cop Out’

Red Door follows its show about racial profiling and police violence against African Americans with a deep delve into the cops' own lives

Two years ago the August Wilson Red Door Project started its run of Hands Up, and it made the rest of Portland theater seem damn near frivolous. It was bare-bones theater, as fundamental as it gets. Set, pictures of victims of police shootings strung along the back wall – and maybe a chair. Lights up, lights down. Costumes, everyday clothes. Sound, at a minimum. An actor walks to the middle of the stage and tells the truth. That was it. No flash, no dazzle, no spectacle. Not even illusion. Hands Up was as direct and resonant an experience as an audience was likely to encounter. In a starkly secular society, Hands Up’s frank illumination of a national conversation felt like church for people who don’t go to church and the news for people who don’t watch the news. Real life was put on stage and there wasn’t a metaphor or a symbol in sight. These were burning headlines given living, breathing life.

A collection of seven monologues by seven different playwrights performed by seven different actors, Hands Up explored the fears and anxieties of the Black community around racial profiling and police violence against African-Americans. In the two years since, Hands Up has been seen by more than six thousand Oregonians and had some 60 performances in various sites around the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire Hands Up story. More than a play, it was an event, a town hall meeting, a public testimonial, and an opportunity to bear witness.

Kevin Jones. Photo: Owen Carey

This weekend the Red Door Project follows up the eminently powerful Hands Up with an original piece of its own devising, Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & BlueCop Out follows the formula of Hands Up. It’s a collection of monologues built around the stories of real people – in this case, cops. Kevin Jones, artistic director of the Red Door Project and director of Cop Out (Damaris Webb and Phil Johnson are co-directors), insists that the piece is not a rebuttal to Hands Up or a “defense” of cops. What Cop Out is, he says, is an “opportunity for healing”: “We felt that we had polarized on one side, that being the experience of the African-American. We felt that there was an important part of the story that needed to be told. The idea being that many in the public saw the police as a monolithic entity comprised of equal parts power. I thought it was time to recognize that these were human beings. And by telling their stories we could help humanize them.”

Continues…

‘Taming’ and the Wonder Women

A farce, a satire, a women's play about politics: Mariel Sierra and company talk about producing Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming" at CoHo

Two years ago Donald Trump became president, and whatever else happened, everybody knew the world would never again be the same. Lines were drawn in the sand. The world convulsed in massive protests. People who avoided politics like the plague found themselves looking for any way to get involved, to make a change, to act.

For someone like Mariel Sierra, a theater artist who considers herself an activist within her field, the 2016 election was a moment of self-reckoning. “How do I fix it?” she asked herself. “How do I problem-solve, what is the active thing I can do?” The action turned out to be theater. Nationally renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson waived the fees for the rights to her plays on Jan. 20, 2016 for anyone who wanted to do a staged reading.

“The Taming”: politics, farce, and satire at CoHo.

Sierra had met Gunderson in Portland in 2015, when Profile Theatre had staged a reading of Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists (which is being produced at Artists Rep this season), had been in contact with her via social media, and found she “really liked her work and her voice as an artist.” So when the announcement about waiving the royalties came down, Sierra was ready. “I immediately texted, called, corralled Lauren Bloom Hanover, McKenna Twedt, Katie Watkins and Lindsay Huff and asked them if they wanted to do this with me. I was still working with (Portland director) Asae Dean at the time, so we got the rights through Salt and Sage,” Dean’s production company.

Continues…

Vertigo at the crossroads

After 21 years of sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility, the scrappy theater has reinvented itself again

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot, to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography

Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue. Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

Continues…

Dink’s Terrorgasm of a good time

Spectravagasm's driving passion: "No, no, no, let it out, man. People should be shouting. Art should be making people go crazy.”

Spectravagasm, Portland’s bastard step-child of the stage, is back! Spectravagasm, which is entering its second weekend at the Shoebox Theatre of a late-night run that continues through October 27, is an anarchic blend of theater, music, comedy, commentary, improvisation and audience participation. It’s been around for six years and is the last piece left from the theatrical meteorite that was Portland’s enfant terrible, Post 5 Theatre. This year’s offering is titled Terrorgasm and has absolutely nothing to do with terrorIsm. Spectravagasm’s resident mad scientist, Sam Dinkowitz, was thinking more about the season — Halloween — than about today’s headlines. “My dad asked me why I didn’t call it Horrorgasm and all I could say was, ‘Oh. Good question.’”

The terror in Terrorgasm is not necessarily the typical tropes of horror: werewolves, vampires, flesh-eating zombies and the like. Terrorgasm is about the real-life, everyday horrors as seen though a Halloween lens. “Of course, we’re afraid of turning into a wolf at a full moon or afraid of some demon that sucks your blood out or afraid of the living dead eating your flesh, but on a real, day-to-day basis we’re afraid of getting a ticket, or finding out our girlfriend’s cheating on us, or paying the water bill.” After all, who would you be more scared by if they showed up at your door? The Creature from the Black Lagoon or the IRS? If your answer is the IRS (and for most of those reading this, it is), then Terrorgasm is the show for you.

Continues…

Eleanor O’Brien’s naked truth

The mastermind behind Portland's "Come Inside" sex & culture theater festival puts her finger on what people really want: stories about sex

Eleanor O’Brien is a visionary: the leader of a movement, a prophet of her own religion. She is a theater artist yet theatre is almost secondary to her mission, a tool in her toolbox, a means to an end. Starting Monday and continuing through October 14 Dance Naked Productions, O’Brien’s decade-long act of will, will present Come Inside: A Sex & Culture Theater Festival. A “collection of sex positive performances from across the spectrum of sexual identity,” it’s the culmination of ten years of exploration, education and dedication. It will feature acts from the other side of the country and the other side of the world. Artists from Seattle to Brooklyn to Australia will bring various forms of music, stand-up comedy, burlesque, confessionals, open mic, and award winning theatre. For the next two weeks, the Portland theater scene is going to be dominated by everybody’s favorite topic (whether we admit it or not): sex.

Eleanor O’Brien, making Dancing Naked work.

Come Inside is only the latest step in one woman’s sexual expression odyssey. Eleanor O’Brien comes from a distinguished acting pedigree. Her grandfather was classic movie star and Academy Award winner Van Heflin. Her mother is queen of Portland theater and Artists Repertory company member, Vana O’Brien. Eleanor herself is an actor of singular intelligence, charisma and emotional availability. And yet, way back in the Aughts she turned her back on conventional or “straight” theater. Doing theatre about all the big or important or serious themes, big or important or serious ways no longer interested her. What do people really think about? What do people really care about? Her answer to herself was what she thought the truth was for other people: sex.

Continues…