Hailey Bachrach

 

The journey, not the destination

Dspite some too-literal bumps along the road, Profile's version of Quiara Allegría Hudes’ "26 Miles" provides a trip that sticks with you

High school is rough. In another era, tenth grader Olivia Jacob would have a blog or a YouTube channel. But it’s 1985, so she has to settle for handmade zines that she hands out at school and sends to her mostly absent mother, Beatriz, and her physically present but emotionally constipated father, Aaron. But when things get desperate, she finds herself embracing a source of solace that has called to restless hearts across the centuries: a road trip.

Quiara Allegría Hudes’ 26 Miles at Profile Theatre begins on the night that Olivia, after throwing up fifteen times probably from food poisoning, calls her mother in the middle of the night and sets in motion an accidental journey that sees their small, fractured family reconfigured.

On the road: Julana Torres and Alex Ramirez de Cruz. Photo: David Kinder

As most road trip stories know (this one included), the destination itself is almost always a bit of a disappointment. The journey is where everything good happens. The same might be said of 26 Miles itself: though the plot clangs against some clichés—a mystery doctor visit, a frigid and jealous stepmom, lines like “The woman he knew is gone”—Hudes’ lyric, poetic language almost always serves to lift the scenes above familiarity. Olivia’s monologues in particular, delivered with endearing teenage awkwardness by Alex Ramirez de Cruz, are delicate and lovely.

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Tom(boy) Sawyer on the run

Connor Kerns' new heroine adaptation of the Mark Twain adventure is fun. It could've been radical, too.

One of my favorite parts of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is when Tom Sawyer suddenly reappears near the end of the story, and the worlds of Twain’s two most famous novels jarringly collide. Tom, still wrapped up in his adventure fantasies, gets Jim unjustly arrested and himself nearly killed because he wants to plan a daring escape rather than just tell everyone that Jim is, in fact, now free. Tom’s still just a kid; Huck has learned that there is a real world out there, with real danger and real consequences. And that’s the difference between the pair of their eponymous novels, too. Though The Adventures of Tom Sawyer includes murder and danger, the terror of the circumstances is mostly held at arm’s length by Tom’s boyish innocence.

Tom (Taylor Jean Grady) chills with some tunes. Photo: Gary Norman

In the new play Tom(boy) Sawyer from Quintessence: Language & Imagination Theatre, director and playwright Connor Kerns’ Tom(asina) Sawyer is not an innocent. She’s a weed-smoking community college dropout slacking her way through her twenties in Washougal, Washington in 1989. She can’t sing, but she dreams of being in a band. She can’t decide if she’s in love with her best friend Hector Finn, or her friend Jenny Thatcher. She hates The Man, but doesn’t really know why.

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Theater at the intersection

Two themes at TCG's national conference in Portland – diversity and "maker" creativity – suggest a future for the art form

The Theatre Communications Group annual national conference, which landed in downtown Portland for four days last week, had two stated themes which I initially found, if not exactly contradictory, at least not particularly relevant to one another. One of the main programmatic strands was called “At the Intersections,” a series of structured workshops centered on diversity and allyship. The other was a stated interest in celebrating Portland’s “maker” culture, and exploring ways to apply this concept to theatrical work. Both interesting and worthy and, laid side-by-side, at first seeming sort of random.

But as I actually attended the conference, I found unexpected resonance between the two strands. The question of diversity and the question of how to redefine theater’s cultural role in relation to new movements and technology seemed to me to intersect in a broader question about how the theatre industry can find new ways to define its value.

I mean that in two senses, and they both feel particularly pressing here in Portland. The first is, of course, financial. As Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez pointed out during a live taping of the American Theatre magazine podcast, in most cities, the most well-established companies pay a symbolic fee on an incredibly long lease, while the smaller and less financially stable companies pay exorbitant monthly or weekly rents. This is true in Portland, too, where the brunt of the financial burden of steeply climbing real estate prices is borne by the small companies least able to absorb any additional costs, much less costs growing at the rate of Portland’s rents.

Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TAG annual conference.

Pair this with theater’s increasing—or at least ongoing—cultural irrelevance. As exciting as Hamilton was, it does not seem to have heralded theater’s return to the mainstream. We know well, and it remains true, that audiences are small, white, and old. How can theaters prove their value to new and current audiences in order to remain alive in both the short and long term? How can they prove their value to a city that seems happy to fill its trendiest areas with condos and storefronts instead of arts venues?

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Who’s afraid of a casting switch?

Portlander Michael Streeter thought he was going to produce "Virginia Woolf." Edward Albee's Trust said no. Why? Because Streeter had cast a black actor.

Producer Michael Streeter had been planning since November 2016 for his production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, intended to appear at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre in September. There was only one hurdle to clear before officially being granted the rights to perform the play, which he had on hold with theatrical publishers Samuel French: he sent headshots of the cast off to the Albee Estate for approval.

The cast of Woolf consists of four characters: a middle-aged married couple (George and Martha, famously played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film), and a younger married couple (Nick and Honey). On May 15, Streeter got a call from the Albee Estate asking for him to elaborate on his choice of actor for the role of Nick. Streeter had cast a black actor, and was happy to explain why.

As he said to me by email, “This was a color conscious choice, not a colorblind choice. I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’”


Playwright Edward Albee, in an undated photo. UH Photographs Collection, 1948-2000/Wikimedia Commons

The Albee Estate was not convinced. They insisted that the actor be fired and the role be recast. Streeter refused. So the estate refused to grant the rights to the show. Streeter, shocked, took to Facebook: “I am furious and dumbfounded. The Edward Albee Estate needs to join the 21st Century. I cast a black actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Albee Estate called and said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one. I refused, of course. They have withdrawn the rights.”

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Think Pink (and cupcakes, too)

Oregon Children's Theatre's "Pinkalicious" makes sweet music and a little bit of a moral for its enthusiastically pink-clad audience

Oregon Children’s Theatre invited its audiences for Pinkalicious: The Musical to wear pink, and the suggestion was enthusiastically taken up by a majority of the audience at Saturday’s opening matinee. The pink-clad demographic, ranging from 3 years old to about 10, featured a corps de ballet’s worth of tulle and tiaras sported predominantly by little girls, but by at least two boys as well.

Oregon Children’s Theatre, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, is a master of its trade, and has engineered every aspect of the afternoon to be maximally exciting for its young audiences, from the scavenger hunt in the lobby before the performance to the carefully marshaled line for actor autographs and (pink, obviously) coupons for free miniature cupcakes afterwards. And, of course, the show in between. A brisk 60 minutes, with peppy musical numbers placed at perfect intervals to minimize fidgeting, and just a dollop of audience participation, it’s easy to see why Pinkalicious) (written by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, composed by John Gregor, and directed by Stan Foote) has been a sell-out hit for OCT through several revivals.

The great Cupcake Caper, Spray Division. Photo: Owen Carey

This iteration is anchored by the ridiculously winning Kai Tomizawa in the title role as a young girl who eats so many pink cupcakes, she turns completely pink, to the dismay of her family and friends. Last seen as young would-be Confederate soldier Raz in Artists Rep’s A Civil War Christmas, Tomizawa has an assured stage presence that in this instance puts her more closely on par with her adult co-stars than her fellow young performers. She can sing, she can dance, and she has a maturity and confidence—an ease with directing her brief moments of audience call-and-response and with holding the huge Newmark stage—that is seriously impressive. And judging by the multiple young audience members excitedly reading her name and reminiscing about her Drammy-winning performance as Junie B. Jones, she has something of a fan following. I found myself hoping that the casting director for next fall’s Fun Home at Portland Center Stage has an eye on her.

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Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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