DeAnn Welker

 

Medea crosses the border

In "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," The ancient figure of vengeance takes on a more sympathetic role as a desperate illegal immigrant

If you think you know Medea, you probably have yet to see Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. The play, written by Luis Alfaro, turns the Greek tragedy into an immigration story, and in doing so reimagines the title character as someone much more sympathetic than the Medea of Euripedes’ play, which was first produced in 431 B.C.

This is Portland Center Stage’s 30th season, as Artistic Director Chris Coleman points out in the playbill, so it seems fitting that this production of Mojada from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be part of the season. PCS, after all, originally was a Portland extension of Ashland’s OSF.

From left: performers Nancy Rodriguez, VIVIS, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Jahnangel Jimenez, Lakin Valdez) reenact the arduous crossing of the desert from Mexico to the United States. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“Mojada” – which translates literally to “wet” in Spanish but is used in the play as a racial slur to describe immigrant Medea from Michoacán, Mexico – is about an illegal immigrant family in Los Angeles with a secret (many, in fact). Medea’s husband, Jason (Lakin Valdez) – think Jason of the Argonauts in Greek mythology and the Euripides tragedy, but here pronounced “ha-SONE” – is the ruthless social climber who wanted to leave Mexico in the first place. He brought along his wife, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who uses her magical hands to sew collars for Bloomingdale’s at $8 a pop (Bloomingdale’s turns around and sells them for $120 each, of course); their young son, Acan (Jahnangel Jimenez); and Medea’s longtime mother figure/housekeeper, Tita (VIVIS).

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Profile doubles the impact

Richly rewarding productions of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" open in rep

“The songs are pretty, but make no mistake. Each song is a revolutionary song. Each song is a protest. An affirmation of what is truly ours. ‘We are Puerto Rican. Period.’ Today, ‘Somos Americanos. Punto.’ “

— Agustín, The Happiest Song Plays Last

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To conclude its 20th season, with Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes as the season’s playwright, the ambitious Profile Theatre has taken on the daunting task of putting on two plays – Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last – in rotating repertory, with a single cast of nine actors, four of whom are in both plays.

These plays are contemporary – Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last premiered in Chicago in 2013 – and they feel even more so in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wreaked on Puerto Rico, which – as Agustin so eloquently says in the quote above – is part of America: “Somos Americanos. Punto.”

These two plays centered on Puerto Rican American cousins Elliot (played with passion and youthful energy here by Anthony Lam) and Yaz (given life and warmth by Crystal Ann Muñoz) feel both intimately realist and larger than life under the direction of Josh Hecht, Profile’s artistic director. Elliot and Yaz are from North Philly, but they travel (separately or together) to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt over the course of the two plays (and two other characters in Spoonful travel to Japan).

Duffy Epstein, Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Water by the Spoonful is about two seemingly disconnected storylines: addicts in a chatroom, and Elliot and Yaz’s connecting over their respective struggles: the emotional and physical toll his time as a Marine in Iraq took on him and her “failure” in the form of divorce and not knowing what she wants in life. Lam and Muñoz have the type of stage chemistry actors long for. Their banter is natural, in the way of real family members, and you will love each of them through each other’s eyes.

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Judy & Stink’s big fat treasure hunt

Oregon Children's Theatre's world premiere of a fresh Judy Moody adventure searches for clues on a vacation island

To kick off its 30th season, Oregon Children’s Theatre has premiered a huge event: the first production in a rolling world premiere of Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt. Based on the popular children’s books by Megan McDonald, Judy Moody & Stink was co-commissioned by seven children’s theater companies around the nation, and Oregon Children’s Theatre is the first of the seven to get it onstage. On opening night, Artistic Director Stan Foote – who also directs the play – announced that playwright Allison Gregory and one of the other commissioning artistic directors were in the house.

Nothing to crab about: a fantasy treasure hunt. Photo: Owen Carey

A first-of-its-kind commission of this magnitude, launching at Portland’s own Newmark Theatre, can tend to give theatergoers lofty expectations. And, while the production is solid – with bright sets that change before your eyes, a clue-riddled plot, and solid performances across the board (with an exceptional one or two) – it doesn’t quite live up to those heights.

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Lost (and found) in midair

Danna Schaeffer's "You in Midair," about life after the murder of her daughter, catches the essence of life, emotion, love, longing, and grief

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. It upsets the natural order of things, leaves an irreplaceable emptiness. And it is the premise of the wrenching but surprisingly joyous You in Midair, running at New Expressive Works for just one more week.

That the nightmare is not only a true story, but that it was written and is performed by the mother who suffered the loss, makes it both more poignant and almost unbearable. You likely know the story of Rebecca Schaeffer, the 21-year-old Oregon actress who’d found success as a regular on the television series My Sister Sam, and who was murdered by her stalker at her Los Angeles apartment in 1989. It was a heartbreaking death, even for an outsider.

Danna Schaeffer performing her play “You in Midair.” Photo: Owen Carey

What you likely don’t know is the view from inside the family’s grief. Twenty-eight years later, playwright Danna Schaeffer opens up in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable: by performing a solo show she wrote about the experience. It is as devastating as you might imagine, but it is also funny – Schaeffer shares some of the absurd moments that followed losing her daughter so publicly – and liberating for someone to share such real, raw grief.

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Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).

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Not so elementary, my dear Watson

CoHo's triple play about a trio of Watsons and the difficulties of communication and artificial intelligence rings some unusual bells

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, at CoHo Theatre, is not about Sherlock Holmes. His sidekick, Dr. Watson, makes an appearance, but Mr. Holmes himself is absent. And the play, which is sometimes confusing but also swiftly entertaining, is somewhat of a mystery: Will our protagonists get what they need? Will they know they need it?

So, then, you talk into this part? Eric Martin Reid and Sarah Ellis Smith contemplate Bell’s talking machine. Photo: Owen Carey

Directed by CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, Madeleine George’s Watson Intelligence comprises three stories, each set in a different time period and with a different set of characters, who nevertheless are named the same and played by the same three actors in each era. The stories are connected loosely to each other, at best, even when characters from one period wind up in another. The thread that connects them is the name “Watson” – the man on the other end of the phone when Alexander Graham Bell makes his first phone call; Holmes’s sidekick; and the name of the artificial-intelligence computer that won Jeopardy in 2011.

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