Emily Stevens

 

FG review: No Pixie Dream Girls in ‘International Falls’

Thomas Ward's new play starts as a comedy then gradually deepens into something much darker

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in "International Falls" at CoHo

Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith star in “International Falls” at CoHo

By EMILY STEVENS

If Thomas Ward’s “International Falls,” a CoHo production receiving its world premiere, was was just a play about a one night stand, it would be a pretty good play, but it isn’t. It’s more than that:  The hook-up between a traveling stand-up comedian and his small town groupie is a platform to explore humor, adultery, faith and family. The result is a tragically funny (or funnily tragic) study on the connection between pain and comedy.

Tim (Isaac Lamb) is a comedian celebrating the final night of his Midwest tour in style with Dee (Laura Faye Smith), a receptionist at the Holiday Inn in desolate International Falls, Minnesota, where Tim is both gigging and sleeping. After opening with a cringe worthy second-base encounter, and an “I’m sorry…what’s your name?” moment, Dee and Tim get to talking.  That conversation, fueled by their physical closeness, reveals two very funny interesting people.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAmid their their riffing off each other, pinging jokes back and forth, something deeper starts to emerge. We learn that Tim is irrecoverably separated from his wife (and son) and Dee has been stewing for the past three days after discovering evidence of her husband’s infidelity. Both are looking at drastic changes in their lives as they have known them for the past 15 years. Ward’s dialogue (he’s a former stand-up comic himself and now is an actor/playwright in Minnapolis) is natural, and Lamb and Smith, directed by Brandon Woolley, play it with impeccable timing, zinging punch lines and pithy breaks of silence.

Isaac Lamb is simply fantastic, rattling off Tim’s stand-up monologues like a natural, but also digging deep into his hopelessness. Lamb builds layer upon layer into this character, a calloused skin of swaggering jokes covering a tender spot for his son’s dinosaur pajamas, and we’re left wondering about his fate until the very last moment.

Of course, Laura Faye Smith’s Dee adds a lot to this. In any other comedy Dee would swoop in all Manic Pixie Dream Girl[1] and save Tim from his terminal malaise, but she is refreshingly complex, and, this isn’t necessarily a comedy. Telling jokes about porn cockily, but incredibly shy when she undresses for the first time (surprisingly, even though the play opens with a sexual encounter, this doesn’t happen until about halfway through the play…thus the mysterious “clothed female, naked male” quote from Arts Watch’s Fertile Ground preview), she constantly asks Tim if he wants her to leave.   Smith creates a fully realized woman, who is a loving mother and an adulteress, a good Lutheran, a small town girl, and a pretty darn good comedian.

So stigmatized and romanticized in American culture, depression and its sometimes  tragic results are incredibly difficult things to write about, and almost impossible to do well onstage. Thomas Ward’s format is perfectly balanced between gut wrenchingly sad and funny, and Brandon Woolley direction is dynamic, but measured.

“International Falls” is just one of CoHo Theater’s offerings to the Fertile Ground Festival. It runs through February 16, 2013; Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2.

NOTES

[1]  This phrase was coined by writer Nathan Rabin: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This phrase was originally used to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown, but can be used to describe an unsettling percentage of female characters on the stage and screen.

Here’s a trailer for the show.

Fertile Ground: “4 X 4” equals Eight Tiny Musicals

What happens when you compress the American musical?

Rebecca Teran and Morgan Mallory in "See Jane. See Jane Drive. Drive Jane, Drive"/Photo by David Kinder

Rebecca Teran and Morgan Mallory in “See Jane. See Jane Drive. Drive Jane, Drive”/
Photo by David Kinder

By EMILY STEVENS

“Like most great ideas,” curator Mark LaPierre reminded us on Thursday night, “this one was stolen.”

Live on Stage’s series of 8 mini-musicals, “4×4=8,”  is directly inspired by Ten Tiny Dances, one of Portland’s favorite experiments in performance art, most apparently because it takes place on  a tiny 4-feet x 4-feet stage. And like Ten Tiny Dances, it is focused on pushing the limits of how we think of dance, movement and performance, through this compression. Taking this idea and applying it to performance art’s black sheep cousin, musical theater, may not be revolutionary, but perhaps it can offer a way to think about the genre in a different way.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAn offering of the 2013 Fertile Ground Festival, “4×4=8” brings together 13 performers,  11 writers and composers, two directors, and a four piece band to showcase some of Portland’s finest musical theater talent, including Mont Chris Hubbard (Christmas on Broadway,”Carnies: The Musical,” “Work Friends”), Aubrey Jessen (“Work Friends“), John Vergin and William S. Gregory (“Necessity,” “The Confessions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). Live On Stage artistic director John Oules and curator Mark LaPierre commissioned the new works and set up workshopping opportunities for the creative teams to share and polish their work.

But what is Musical Theater anyway? Encompassing works like “Candide,” “Rock of Ages,” “Anything Goes” and “Songs for a New World,” it’s such a mishmash of styles that it’s hard to tell exactly what the root of it is. Even the king of musical theater, Leonard Bernstein, struggled to define the genre. In a 1956 episode of “Omnibus,” he devotes the better part of an hour to tracing the evolution of the American musical and never really comes up with a true answer, just that collaboration across genres and ingenuity in form and style are essential.

Of course, 1956 was a golden age for the American musical (and, American television, apparently), and Leonard Bernstein predicted that the American musical would evolve into an entirely new genre of opera or performance art.  Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case. Nowadays, the shows coming from Broadway are most likely musical versions of movies, jukebox musicals or revivals.

***

Enter Live on Stage. “John [Oules] is very supportive of new work, which is something that new work desperately needs… attention,” explained “4×4” composer Eric Nordin, “Too much expense is riding on works of theater these days that producers tend to play it safe and stick to shows that aren’t new, that don’t take risks, which is understandable, but not ideal.”

So, while shrinking the format may not drastically change a musical’s concept or form in the way it does in Ten Tiny Dances, it can offer a chance to incubate new works and talent, in both of which Portland abounds. And, the range of styles presented at “4×4” proves that limiting scope and focusing attention can spur creativity.

A shining example of “4×4=8″’s success as an incubator for creativity and artistic growth is “7 Minutes of Heaven,” a musical written by 14-year-old Amber Kiara Mitchell under Mark LaPierre’s mentorship. Teen angst is so painfully and wonderfully palpable in this piece, and Marcella Crowson’s direction fully captures the sheer agony of being forced to spend seven minutes cramped in a tiny space with someone you are both terrified and enamoured of, while simultaneously trying to triangulate and assert your own identity.

Though this is the second year of “4×4=8”, it’s director Marcella Crowson’s first experience with the project. Crowson, who directed four of the eight pieces, explained the attraction of the teeny tiny stage:

“Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but the challenge of the ‘rules’ is precisely why I was intrigued enough to take it on” she explained, “part of the appeal is simply that it’s a new set of boundaries — theatre’s all about obstacles, after all.  But more than that, what I’ve discovered is that the limitations compel the playwrights and composers (and directors, and actors, for that matter) to focus on essentials.  It forces a kind of thoughtfulness and urgency in the storytelling that can get lost in a longer form.  There are no ‘filler’ numbers, no dream ballets.  It’s all action and reaction.”

Composer Eric Nordin agrees that shrinking everything allows the creatives to focus on “small moments in life that when spotlit and paid attention to, reveal something special about the human experience.”

In “4×4=8” some of these moments in are fantastically extreme, some are ludicrously melodramatic,  while others are quietly intense and thought provoking. In Nordin’s piece “Roads,” he and writing partner Sam Gregory were inspired by an  episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab, “Bus Stop,” in which a German care center finds an unusual solution to the problem of patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s wandering off and trying to return to their former lives: “A bench and sign out in front of the building.  A kind of “fake” bus stop,” Nordin explains, “That way patients who are looking to leave will sit at the bench, thinking that a bus is coming, and wait. This gives the nurses and staff some time to discover them before they get too far. When a patient is discovered on the bench, a nurse will sit with them, ask them where they are going, what their plans are, in general be friendly and curious. They let the patient have some time to chat and let it out and hopefully with some time, the bubbles of realization will start to come to the surface, they will remember where they are and what is going on and the nurse can very gently help them get back inside and settled…I thought this piece was so moving and such a creative and humane way to solve a very real and scary problem.”

This idea of two people meeting at a bench under the strangest (and saddest) of circumstances became “Roads.” It’s is sweet and simple, focusing on, not the horrors of dementia, but rather, the the surprising amount of compassion you can encounter from a stranger, and the wisdom you can glean from a single conversation.

***

The rest of the musicals on docket for “4×4=8” are a little bit less serious, but no less entertaining. Sherlock Holmes sings and dances for his life, an omnipotent stage manager calls a show with a narcoleptic sound operator, and love and travel collide in two very different ways . There is murder, comedy, self reference, romantic duets, soaring ensemble numbers and belty solos. I can say with confidence that Leonard Bernstein would be pleased.

NOTES

“4×4=8” runs January 24, 25 & 26 in the Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway ; doors open at 7:00 pm, curtain at 7:30 pm

For tickets, visit www.liveonstage.us or call 503-875-1149

A Victorian Christmas: ART’s Sherlock-Scrooge mashup

... oh and robots, so maybe it's a steampunk holiday

Michael Mendelson as Sherlock Holmes/Owen Carey

By EMILY STEVENS

While the concept seems kitschy, Artists Repertory Theatre’s remount of “Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Christmas Carol” is so filled with Victorian nostalgia and cheer that it’s just crazy enough to work.

The story is predictable enough: Sherlock Holmes has returned to Baker Street after fighting Professor Moriarty to the death and spending several years abroad while all believed him to be dead, too. This bloodshed has shaken him to the core, and he has withdraw from friends, ceased to see clients, ignored his violin, and shut himself up with unsavory experiments— on the whole, he’s utterly disenchanted with society of all kinds.

After nasty fights with his dear compatriot Dr. Watson (Tim Blough) and his caretaker and landlady Mrs. Hudson (Jane Fellows) on Christmas Eve, Holmes is treated to the hauntings of three ghosts (or, rather, two ghosts and a weird furnace robot). You know the drill: After revisiting all the pains and regrets of Christmas past, the tragedies he himself could have prevented in Christmas present and the dooms of Christmas Yet To Come; Holmes is given a new lease on life and a great amount of hope and holiday spirit just in time for Christmas Day.

This mashup is taken up with the best intentions. Playwright John Longenbaugh is an obvious Sherlock fanatic, and he lovingly creates a fully realized character with a tangible past, present and future. His writing style is rich, his wit cutting, and clocking in at just about two hours, there isn’t an extraneous or over-indulgent moment in the script. Associate Director John Kretzu’s direction is clear and effective in his last hurrah at Artists Rep as associate artistic director, and Michael Mendelson plays Holmes’ every crotchety quirk on point. Despite minor lapses in dialect, the cast shines as an ensemble in multiple roles. The sets and costumes are cozy and traditional  and the ghosts are spooky without being cheesy (with the exception of the aforementioned robot).

At times the premise  does feel a little more forced than other renditions of A Christmas Carol (the 1998 film Scrooged is one of my favorites). Are we truly supposed to feel that Holmes’ soul is doomed in the same way as Ebenezer Scrooge’s, “… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”? I never quite got there. The deep pit of purgatory doesn’t seem to be looming in the climax of the play, and I wish Kretzu had gone just a little bit darker.

But, if you suspend your disbelief a little, there are some truly fine moments played out onstage. Sherlock isn’t earth shattering, but it touches on the surface of what it means to be human just enough to remind us what this whole yuletide season is all about.

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Christmas Carol runs through December 30th. Visit the Artists Repertory Theatre website for more information.

‘Mother Courage’: A dose of the Brecht reality

Theatre Vertigo delivers an intimate, intense production of Tony Kushner's translation

Robert Wyllie, Paige Jones & Matthew Kerrigan in “Mother Courage.”/Theatre Vertigo

By EMILY STEVENS

Hey, have you guys see anything good on TV lately? Yeah, me neither. I did, however, see something pretty good on Saturday night. Theatre Vertigo’s ambitious mounting of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play Mother Courage.

If you’re not familiar with it, the play follows scrappy peddler Anna Fierling, a mother nicknamed ‘Courage’ because she was brave enough (or desperate enough) to drag her cart of wares right up to the front lines of battle during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The play is a perfect example of Brecht’s “instructional theater”: We learn about Marx’s concept of alienation—the notion that capitalism separates us from our humanity—through Courage’s tragedy, specifically that her children end up fueling the fruitless war because of her preoccupation with money. Or as Brecht put it more simply, “Mother Courage haggles while her children die.”

We meet Courage’s children in the first scene: Eilif (the smart one), Swiss Cheese (the honest one), and Kattrin (the dumb one), and also learn that they will all be dead before the war is through. When recruiters come for her sons, Courage fights them off with a knife, but is instantly distracted when one of the soldiers wants to see her wares and Eilif is easily plucked away.

Eilif is destroyed by his bravery, hailed as a hero for slitting the throats of rival farmers and their cattle during the war and incarcerated for the very same act in the play’s brief scene of peace. Of course Mother Courage is not there to see him off to his firing squad or to bury him, because she is at the market trying to sell her goods while the prices of war are still high. Her haggling also keeps her from saving Swiss Cheese, who takes his soldier’s duty so closely to heart that he ends up ensnared by the rival army. His contribution to the war effort is not recognized, and Courage is forced to disown him, lest the enemy soldiers take her . Kattrine gives every ounce of herself to the war—her voice, her beauty, her life—and in the end it truly does not matter, her one act of defiance only perpetuates the cycle.

Continues…

Protected: TBA: Miguel Guitierrez slips past the concept

Don't analyze this? We're in trouble now...

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Two years ago, Anonymous Theatre assembled “Lend Me a Tenor”
on the fly.

By Emily Stevens

The first rule of Anonymous Theatre is, you don’t talk about Anonymous Theatre.

Should you choose to audition, you tell no one. You wear a disguise. Your audition is padded with time at either end so you don’t run into other actors as you are coming and going, and you are asked to keep even the fact that you auditioned secret. Rehearsals are held in secret locations throughout the city, and you learn the entire play on your own with help only from your director.

On opening night you arrive at the theater in street clothes, sit down with the rest of the audience, chat with your neighbor and then quietly wait until it is time for your first line. You will probably be nearly paralyzed by fear.

“I have never been more nervous in a theater. It was almost unbearable,” says Anonymous Theatre founding member Darius Pierce. “Usually the most unnerving part of the process is sitting watching the show before your entrance. It’s kind of nice to see the show establish itself a bit and get the feel for how it’s going, see some of the other actors. But man, I found sitting nearly impossible. Terrifying.”

Continues…

Directions to Action/Adventure Theater

By Emily Stevens

You know that strange no man’s land between Powell and Clinton in Southeast Portland? The dingy industrial blocks, not the glamorous ones that house Roture and Produce Row? The spot where you get trapped behind the train when you are late? Behind that Karate studio and that empty cell phone store is a theater. The only indication is an orange plywood sign appearing every now and then that proclaims “show tonite” in green stenciled letters, and the fact that the door is red.

If you choose to visit this venue, you should make a reservation, because as it says on the blog, “If a train stops on the tracks at 7:55 for fifteen minutes WE WILL WAIT FOR YOU.” And they do.

The theater space was just opened by Action/Adventure Theater, a company best known for the Fall of the House comedy series, but now branching out into chewier works. Their Danny and the Deep Blue Sea this February was a deeply haunting portrait of a relationship gone horribly right (or horribly wrong? I’m still unsure). Their Something Epic/Everyday was a collaboration between Action/Adventure and another young company, The Working Theatre Collective.

The Working Theatre Collective, or WTC, is a company that, in its fourth season, brands itself as “aggressively artistic.” According to director Ashley Hollingstead, WTC really started when she was living in San Francisco just after college, thinking about her future as a young playwright and also, “Wow, I really don’t want to be paying this much in rent.”

She had always talked casually about starting a theater company with her friend and former classmate from Western Washington, Nate Harpel, and in the summer of 2008  they decided to stop talking. Nate had relocated to Portland after bouncing around some other places, and so Holllingstead joined him. They met up with another former classmate, Eva Sutter, and began collaborating right away. The Working Theatre Collective’s first piece, a story that ends and begins with a dream, was written by Harpel, directed by Hollingstead and introduced them to their fourth company member, Noelle Eaton. It was performed in a garage.

While small and cold, Action/Adventure’s space is a step up venue-wise (if not for the art itself, then at least for the comfort of the audience), and Something Epic/Everyday  was something of a breakthrough for the Working Theater Collective, receiving glowing reviews from The Oregonian and The Portland Mercury.

The production was deliciously experimental, blurring the line perfectly between “theater” and “not theater.” Opening with a dance number that would not be entirely out of place in a 1960’s beach party film or a Bertold Brecht play, performers Tara Coen, Noah Dunham, Noelle Eaton and Devon Wade Granmo wandered on from there, letting us know that as bad as things seem right now, there is still some kind of American dream out there.

There is no narrative in this piece, but, rather a series of thematically-related bits. One is a chant:

“I’m poor, I’m poor, I’m poor, I know it. What? WHAT?
Whatchu gonna do? Whatchu gonna do?
Take away my birthday?  Nu hu! NU HU!
IIIII’m poor, I’m poor…”

The strongest vignettes come from found text, specifically, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but there are also original scenes written about the here and now, like an exhibit of a relationship that is built between two women as they bond over their love of sewing while applying  for unemployment at the Department of Human Services office.  Every once in a while there is a “break for optimism”:

“Make some art!
Eat a slice of pizza!
Volunteer!”

Director Holllingstead knows plenty about needing optimism, too—she lost her job during the rehearsal process for Something Epic / Everyday.

“I was at the last place I worked for three years, and then the restaurant closed,” she said. “But  it was sort of nice because it gave me a chance to focus on the piece.” It also must have given her inspiration: Her story appears as one of the many scenes in the play.

Something Epic/Everyday doesn’t have a script, exactly (“Well, I’m sure our Stage Manager has something she used”). It was pieced together through pure collaboration. From what Holllingstead tells me about their process, the cast met over the course of many months to create the show.

“At our first meeting, I made everyone dinner and we got out big pieces of paper and colored pencils and wrote down things like things that we think about when we think about this topic… things that you want to be in this show. And you just go around and everyone is writing on everything and if there is an idea of someones that you really like you can circle it and say, ‘yes! I support that idea!’”

Singing, movement, found text and a ‘scene without words’ were all things on these pieces of paper, and, when combined they gave the show a very distinct flavor.

At the end of each meeting, Holllingstead gave a homework assignment, “write about a moment of hope in your life, and a moment of despair” and over the course of a month they just created (and, Holllingstead admits, watched many hours of YouTube videos). And then, they spent many more months editing.

(L to R) Noah Dunham, Devon Granmo, Tara Collen and Noelle Eaton in “Something Epic/Everyday”/Photo by Pat Moran

Watching Something Epic/Everyday and speaking with Hollingstead about their process reminded me of a lecture given by Playwright and Director Mary Zimmerman’s in February at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. She explained how important playing was in the creative processes of both writing and directing:

“They don’t call it a play for nothing. We think of ‘play’ as a noun. ‘I’m going to see a play.’ We forget that it’s also a verb. Children play in order to survive. They’re practicing at life in order to cope and survive later in life. Plays do the same thing. They’re teaching us how to cope with situations, like the advent of our death. And we can sit back and observe.”

After her lecture, a young playwright in the crowd asked her advice for how to get started, and Ms. Zimmerman replied, “produce yourself, don’t wait.”

It’s no wonder that Hollingstead cites Zimmerman as an inspiration.

Something Epic/Everyday was not perfect, there were a few points that felt glazed over, where I wanted to feel the bite of our current recession just a little bit more. But the authentic voice cuts right through to you, and the work that went into the piece is palpable—in the camaraderie between the actors, the care taken with the words of Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen and the hours spent perfecting dance moves.

When I asked Hollingstead what she needed most to make her company grow, I expected the routine answer of “money.” But, Hollingstead surprised me by saying “space.”  Affordable space to rehearse and space to perform. Also, for people to take a chance on original work and simply come see it, participate as an audience member.

These “in-between” spaces of art—the weird space behind the red door between Clinton and Powell, the moments between a play and not a play, and the space between a group of friends acting together and a real company is so important to this cultural revolution we seem to be having.

But where does this little play lie in the grander scheme of things? It isn’t generating the economic impact of a large theater or even necessarily the quality of work, but it is important because the energy created in that little space, behind the red door is irreplaceable. And feeling it makes me think of the future of these little companies and what they could mean for Portland’s so called “cultural revolution.”  I’m thankful that The Portland Civic Theatre Guild agrees—Action/Adventure was granted a $2,500 award at this year’s Drammy Awards.

So, if you have a chance next season, take a chance on new work. This little theater by the train tracks will have plenty to offer, including a new devised piece created and directed by Ashley Hollingstead.