Bobby Bermea

 

Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

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Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Part 1 of 2: Birth of an Artist. As the grande dame of Portland theater prepares to move on, Bobby Bermea traces the beginnings of her career

There is a moment toward the beginning of Artist Rep’s The Humans, not too long after the parents have arrived at the children’s New York apartment, before much of the shenanigans, revelations and pandemonium have ensued, when Luisa Sermol comes to a moment of stillness at the top of the stairs. While a scene is happening on the floor below, she just stands there … and even so, it takes an act of will to tear your eyes away from her. Much of The Humans is artfully choreographed chaos — but not this. Sermol comes to a stop and time stops with her. Though you know next to nothing about this Deirdre Blake’s life, on a visceral level you feel everything that has brought this character to this moment. You feel the weight of her life, the joys long past, the choices made, the brokenness, the frustrations, the boundless love. It’s a moment that not all actors have in them. There is nothing to do. You just have to be. And few actors do that better than Luisa Sermol.

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

She’s the North Star of the Portland theater community. She’s our grande dame, our standard-bearer. She’s been acting in Portland for twenty years. She graduated from Juilliard. She’s won five Drammys. She’s worked at almost every major house in Portland. She’s tackled everything in this town from Shakespeare to Johnna Adams and she’s done it with power, precision and vulnerability — and she’s made it look effortless (when, of course, it is anything but). Her hallmark is being able to dig down to the depths of her soul and leave it all on the stage. If Theatre Thanos came down in his spaceship, she would lead Portland’s team of Drama Avengers out to fight him. Tony Sonera, for whom Sermol gave two of her award-winning performances, put it this way: “When you have the big role, with big shoes, with big expectations, when it’s too difficult for you to figure out, you bring in Luisa Sermol.”

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Spotlight on Anthony Lam

One actor, one character, three plays: fellow actor Bobby Bermea profiles the star of Quiara Alegría Hudes' war trilogy at Profile Theatre

Anthony Lam has an infectious and generous spirit, and a high motor both as a person and a performer: everything he does, he does with an intense energy. A relatively new actor to the Portland theater scene, he’s a family man – he and his wife, Kimberly, have three kids; Nolan, 7, and the twins, Lilah and Alice, 4. He loves the stage (“That’s what I trained for. I trained on stage. I always knew upon graduation that I was always going to look for work on the stage.”) but the majority of his work, how he pays his bills and supports his family, is in TV and film.

It makes sense. He was born and bred in southern California and he’s TV/movie handsome, the product of Nicaraguan, Chinese and Spanish genes. Though he lost touch with his father, his grandfather was a central figure in his life, and Anthony kept the name Lam to honor him.

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

I met Lam only recently, because he is the lead (along with Crystal Ann Muñoz) of the show I’m currently working on, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize winning Water by the Spoonful, which is running through Nov. 19 in rotating repertory with The Happiest Song Plays Last at Profile Theatre. Water is the middle play in a trilogy – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful and Happiest Song – that follows a Puerto Rican family from north Philadelphia whose fate and fortunes are inextricably tied up in the U.S. military. The men of the family fight the wars. The women protest them and heal the wounds that are the result. Hudes weaves a beautiful, tragic, angry, and funny tapestry of lives, through which the one continuous thread is the character of Elliott Ortiz, who is played by Anthony Lam.

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Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

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Spotlight: Rising actors Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes

In Artists Rep's "An Octoroon," two of Portland's brightest new stars take on the season's most dangerous script

The 2016-17 Portland theater season was brightened considerably by breakout performances from two of its newest stars, Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes.

Vernae strode the deck of the ship in Portland Playhouse’s’s pen/man/ship with ferocity and grit, infusing her character Ruby with incisive intelligence and sense of purpose. It was an arresting performance, grounded by Vernae’s rich gravitas. When she speaks, you believe her. If you’d seen her earlier in the season in Profile Theatre’s Antigone Project, you recognized her performance in pen/man/ship as simply promise fulfilled. When people speak of her work, words like “strength,” “intense,” and “powerful” get thrown around a lot. Krista Garver in Broadway World called her “a force to be reckoned with.” This would appear to be true not just of Vernae’s work in that one piece, but of the young artist in general.

Kailey Rhodes (left) and Andrea Vernae: moving up. Photo: Bobby Bermea

Rhodes made her mark with deft precision and impeccable timing in Artist Rep’s dazzling revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. In a cast filled to the brim with sterling performances, Rhodes stood out. She’s an effortless, economical performer, with a natural instinct for what’s needed and what isn’t. She steps into heightened realities and makes them feel totally natural. When Earnest opened she wasn’t a complete unknown to Portland audiences. After all, she’d been nominated for a Drammy for her work in Chicago (Metropolitan Community Theatre Project). But her move to the larger stage wasn’t just seamless, it was dynamic.

Now Vernae and Rhodes are onstage together in one of the new season’s most audacious and potentially controversial shows, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Obie Award-winning An Octoroon, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep. Their transition from newcomers to appearing in Portland’s most talked-about production has been fast. But like most such stories, it was years in the making.

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