Christopher Gonzalez

 

The existential frivolity of Imago’s “ZooZoo”

With zen-like simplicity, the longtime mask-theater favorite rides a lighthearted line between kid stuff and edgier reflections of life.

There was one penguin in particular that I really wanted to win the game of musical chairs. This particular penguin was an aggressive tactician, and with belly-bumping brute force, it won the final round. But winning wasn’t enough. This penguin wanted another, better, comfier chair. By the time the defeated penguins had waddled into the wings of Imago Theatre, the winning penguin kicked a guy out of his front-row seat and flapped its flippers in victory.

The children in the audience were delighted.

Imago Theatre’s ZooZoo is a physical-theater/mask-and-puppet show that has toured internationally.  ZooZoo is a show for the humorous at heart. The kind of humor that smashes pretentiousness to pieces and replaces it with detached wonderment.

But if you’re imagining some kind of silly fluffy frivolity… well…. you’d be right to imagine that.

Animal magnetism: the masked creatures of Imago’s “ZooZoo” serve up glints of human nature. Photo: Imago Theatre

ZooZoo is a show recommended for audiences of 3 years and older. When I saw the show last week, it seemed more and more children were suddenly materializing in the audience throughout the show. Really what was happening was they collectively realized that it was appropriate to, for example, bark at the animals onstage. In most cases, the animals barked back. Naturally more kids caught on and participated with quips or vocalized questions. All promises made to parents in the lobby to “be a good audience member” went out the window. The result was a joyous demolition of the fourth wall.

A descendant of similar vignette collections such as the early Imago hit Frogz, Zoo Zoo consists mostly of tried-and-true material in a style the company has refined over decades. The current run is distinguished, though, by the debut of a new work, “The Magic Cloth.” Already enjoying a reputation for impressive stagecraft, Imago adds to its arsenal with this new illusion. Yet as satisfying as it was to see this big red cloth take on a life of its own and float or twist through the air, the illusion didn’t seem to impress the audience enough to really make a splash. Once the “magic” behind the magic cloth became even slightly visible, the cloth was still nice to look at, but that’s pretty much it. At this point parents picked up on their kids waning attention and tried to liven up the energy by whispering, “Isn’t that cool?”

It was cool, but not as engaging as, for example, a later piece about passive-aggressive hippopotami fighting over bed sheets.

Perhaps the secret to ZooZoo’s longevity is that it isn’t just for three year olds.

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Talking a blue streak

The powerful "Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue," from the August Wilson Red Door Project, furthers a public conversation about law enforcement and race.

“Ain’t no reason to lie, just me and you right now,” says a 22-year-old black man, standing center stage in only underwear.

His near-naked body slowly disappears as he pulls on black clothing and snaps in and buckles up layers of heavy riot gear. This black man is a police officer. This police officer is confiding something in the audience. Beneath all the modern paramilitary armor, he admits he’s still afraid.

So begins Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue, presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project.

Cop Out is a series of monologues written for and with police officers. It is a companion piece to Hands Up, a piece written by and for African Americans dealing with police profiling.

Cop Out delves into the hidden realities of those men and women whose job it is to exist in the liminal space between order and chaos — realities that involve a tremendous amount of unexpressed trauma and fear.

Julana Torres takes the public to task for its irresponsibility in one of the complex, powerful monologues of “Cop Out.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

Each monologue in Cop Out, directed by Red Door co-founder Kevin Jones, explores the never-ending nuance and complexity of each officer’s experience.

“So I Was Driving Along,” by Andrea Stolowitz, stands out as an especially challenging piece. Victoria Alvarez Chacon plays an off-duty black police officer who takes a wrong exit and gets lost in white suburbia. She is soon pulled over, with her daughter asleep in the back of the car. Tension rises as we hear the audible approach of black boots on concrete and the tapping of a gloved hand on her window. An aggressive light flashes on Chacon, and the first thing she sees, with “telescopic vision”, is the police officer’s hand resting on his gun.

“I’m starting to freak out. I’m a cop, and I’m freaking out. Why is his hand on his gun?,” she asks, as her heartbeat sounds through the speakers.

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The Circus Project stitches together a bigger tent

With this weekend's multimedia show "Change(d) Together," the Circus Project celebrates ten years of bringing circus arts to marginalized communities.

Zoe Stasko is entirely at peace as she winds her body up the black aerial straps suspended from the ceiling. Even as she unravels rapidly downward she emanates centeredness amidst all the momentum. She rolls, twists, and spins in dizzying circles. From below, her creative director, Mizu Desierto, shouts “Find your limit!”. Stasko then holds a dramatic, strenuous pose for an impossible amount of time. She lets her feet find the floor and places her hand over her heart. With a triumphant smile, she finishes a rigorous run through of her newest aerial straps act.

“Yesterday was my first day off in four months,” Stasko says, panting as she makes her way off the rehearsal mat, “but I love it.”

Internationally active aerialist Zoe Stasko returns to her roots with Portland’s the Circus Project in the show “Change(d) Together.” Photo: Isometric Studios.

Zoe Stasko is a jewel in the crown of The Circus Project, an organization that “uses circus arts as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation.” Stasko trained in 2012 as a student in the Circus Project’s Summer Performance Intensive program. She then proceeded to graduate from one of the most prestigious circus schools in the world, Ecole de Cirque de Québec. Now as a professional aerialist, her skills take her from London to Dublin, France to Scandinavia.

But she is back in Portland, ready to debut her new aerial straps act at the Circus Project’s tenth-anniversary celebration: Change(d) Together.

On October 12th and 13th, The Circus Project will convert the Peter Corvallis Warehouse (2204 N. Randolph Ave.), into a “wonderland of trapeze, silks, lyra, ropes, and straps.” The multimedia performance will feature world-class acrobats and aerialists, many who, like Zoe Stasko, got their start in Portland. Students will present stories of individual transformation and Change(d) Together will celebrate the Circus Project’s evolving identity as an organization.

The Circus Project began in 2008, founded by Jenn Cohen, a process psychology therapist and a circus performer herself. The organization’s primary mission was to empower youth experiencing homelessness. After being thrust into the highly disciplined world of circus training, many students transitioned into more stable living situations. The strength, flexibility, self-care, and trust at the core of circus training helped students step on the path to sobriety and higher education.

“Finding strength, stillness, and the courage to train in these ways helps transcend daily conflict and even trauma.” creative director, Mizu Desierto explains, “this training can provide healing in deeper ways than words ever could.”

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Venus in Fur: The (Play Within the) Play’s the Thing!

Twilight Theater gets physical with the sexy mysteries and meta-theatrical layers of the David Ives hit.

The sound of dissonant strings swells as audience members file in and find seats. Folks flip through programs and sip wine. But an uneasy tension looms as the audience settles in for David Ives’s Venus in Fur, now playing at Twilight Theater.

Before I saw it Friday night, all I had heard about this play is that it was about sadism and masochism — an uninterrupted 90 minutes of good ‘ol S&M.

As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I braced against an evening of confusing, self-indulgent writing when I read that Venus in Fur has a play within the play.

I quickly left those assumptions behind as the whirlwind began.

Ominous thunder. A divan. A despondent director/playwright. This is our austere introduction to Venus in Fur. Lights come up on Thomas Novachek, played by Jeff Giberson, on the phone with his fiancee. Thom complains about the bad actresses he’s been auditioning for his new play, who just aren’t “feminine” enough. Thom isn’t exactly what one would call “woke.” He can only conceive of women in restrictive, dehumanizing terms; they must either are be goddesses, whores, or as he put it, “dykes.”

Just as Thom is about to give up on his quest for his perfect female lead, we hear thunderclaps outside. Enter Vanda, played by Jaiden Wirth. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character that she is auditioning for. Trippy, right?

Thom’s play within the play is called Venus in Furs (plural), an adaptation of a novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch’s novel inspired the term “masochism”, and centers around Severin von Kushemski. All Kushemski wants is a goddess to dominate and subjugate him. So here we have Thom, reading the part of Kushemski, and Vanda reading Vanda. This character-nesting-doll dynamic is the springboard from which we dive into the dark blend of comedy and mystery that is Venus in Fur.

In David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” the quest for an ideal female lead leads both an actress (Jaiden Wirth, left) and director (Jeff Giberson) in unexpected directions. Photo: Alicia Turvin.

In her directorial debut with Twilight, Alicia Turvin effectively plays with different levels of sitting, standing, or lying down to communicate shifts in power and status. Under her direction, the actors were clearly given room to explore physicality to communicate subtext and express intention.  

Actress Jaiden Wirth makes many strong physical and vocal choices as Vanda. Her smaller choices get the biggest laughs, such as when she picks her nose, sneezes, or sits down in a funny way. When Wirth coolly snaps into the role of the 18th-century Vanda, her countenance takes on a powerful repose, and her voice deepens so that she is practically unrecognizable.

Giberson takes his time as Thom. In the beginning, his reserve is a ballast in the thunder storm of Vanda’s energy. But when he becomes Kushemski, Giberson shifts from the confident stoicism of a mansplaining playwright, to that of a submissive “quivering pile of feminine jelly.” Giberson is a tall man, which onstage often communicates high status, but as he transitions to Kushemski, he successfully conveys submissiveness and inferiority through his physicality.

Turvin is both set designer and director on this production. The set begins as an unbalanced tableau, with most of the furniture one side of the stage. This imbalance is striking, and dovetails nicely with the imbalance of power between Thom and Vanda at the beginning of the play. As Vanda assumes more power, she rearranges the furniture and fills in the empty space, effectively balancing both the tableau and the power dynamic.

Vanda (Jaiden Wirth, right) rearranges the furniture and the power dynamic in the office of a director and playwright (Jeff Giberson) in “Venus in Fur.” Photo: Alicia Turvin.

There are many layers to Venus in Fur which provoke questions about what this play really wants to be. On one hand it may be an argument against that pyramidic, patriarchal model of theater-making that elevates male playwrights and directors to divinity. On the other hand, maybe it’s about the culture of casting couches.

Maybe it’s just a suspenseful, sexy enigma.

Whatever it is, I promise you, it is not as intimidating as anticipated. It is actually rather straightforward in that the whole thing is a single uninterrupted scene, easy to follow and to enjoy. Twilight’s production of Venus in Fur is an entertaining exercise in theatrical (and sexual) restraint.

 

Out of Sterno: heroine’s journey

Rosie Rose Productions brings a clever, timely play to The Siren Theater.

Out of Sterno, the Deborah Zoe Lauffer play that concludes its run at the Siren Theater on Sunday, July 29, manages to teach (and not preach) us how to be better citizens.

Dotty, the heroine of Out of Sterno, has never left the walls of her small and very pink home. Her life is centered on her husband Hamel. She spends her time preparing dinner, doing his laundry, and rewatching video footage of the first time they met. Dotty’s call-to-adventure is literally an unexpected telephone call from Hamel’s mistress, Zena.

At first, Dotty smiles and denies the unpleasant truth of the affair: “As Momma always said, ‘there’s nothing so horrible it can’t be explained away.’” Dotty leaves her home, and witnesses Hamel and Zena embracing and smooching. Nevertheless, she proceeds to see the best in Hamel. She even befriends Zena. Eventually, Dotty’s agency and personal power materialize after an absurd yet tender journey through the manifold obstacles in her way.

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Portland’s New King of Comedy

Alex Falcone snatches the crown at Helium Comedy’s Portland’s Funniest Person Championship

Stakes were high at Helium Comedy Club’s sold-out Portland’s Funniest Person competition on Wednesday night. Twelve comedians, who had survived a month-long gauntlet, had one last chance to win over the audience and judges. After two and a half hours of stand-up, host and previous champion Caitlin Weierhauser finally passed both crown and scepter on to this year’s winner: Alex Falcone.

Alex Falcone, Portland’s new king of comedy.

Past winners of Portland’s Funniest Person, such as Ian Karmel, have gone on to receive Emmy nominations and write for late-night talk shows. Other winners, like Nathan Brannon, have recorded comedy albums and taken to the road for national tours. In addition to the invitation to open for headliners at Helium, winners also receive a comfy twelve hundred dollars. Oh yeah, and perhaps the most prestigious prize: bragging rights.

Ian Karmel: On beyond Helium.

Falcone let loose an onslaught of punchline after punchline, each stronger than the last. He packed so much material into his set, it felt like a Netflix special. His set was also the only one that was thematically coherent; it was essentially a single narrative exploration of fatherhood and family. It all led up to a great closing bit about consent: “Talking to your son about consent is important,” Falcone says, “but consent is a bare minimum. What you’re looking for is … participation. ”

Falcone took home the big win, but second-place winner Mohanad Elshieky got some of the biggest laughs of the night. Elshieky is no stranger to the competition — he was second runner-up last year, and the Portland Mercury has dubbed him an “undisputed genius of comedy.” His set was arguably the most challenging. His perceptive jokes ranged from his experience as an immigrant, to superficial liberal solidarity, to gun control.

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