Marty Hughley

 

To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

Continues…

DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

Continues…

Scott Yarbrough’s Radiant Direction

The former Third Rail Rep leader has been unsurpassed at delivering clear, clean productions of affecting, language-rich plays where storytelling is key.

It’s late August and Scott Yarbrough is at the CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland, getting a play called Radiant Vermin up on its feet. He paces around, watching, occasionally stopping actors Chris Murray and Kelly Godell with suggestions while he tries to figure out the most effective way for them to move about the stage.

Sometimes it’s just about where and how they’re standing: “Chris, I think you need to stand at a little more of an angle to Kelly, there,” he says.

“I’m just trying to, y’know, be in love with her,” Murray explains.

“Yeah, but it’s looking a little pervy.”

Even though blocking is the night’s focus, though, Yarbrough can’t help fine-tuning what already feel like perceptive performances: “That scene has to be about their denial of the atrocity of what they’re doing,” he tells them at one point. “Because if they recognize that, it’s hard for the audience to shift back into compassion for them… It’s a tonal shift. Put that in your hoppers and think about it, and we’ll work it later.”

Shocked by the light: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell in Philip Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey

On a break, he points out that this is the same place where, in 2005, he directed his first show in Portland, Recent Tragic Events, which instantly put a new company called Third Rail Repertory Theatre on the local arts map.

“It’s fun to be back in the room.”

Radiant Vermin, about a young couple who find themselves in moral hot water when they’re given a free home to renovate, is a Scott Yarbrough play.

Though, to be clear, it is a play by the British writer Philip Ridley. Yarbrough directed a production of Radiant Vermin that ran in September at CoHo Theatre. But you couldn’t call it a Scott Yarbrough play because he put his own idiosyncratic stamp on it; that’s not the kind of director he is.

Still, it’s very much a Scott Yarbrough play, in that it’s great example of the kind of play that Yarbrough loves — smart, funny, a little dark, language-rich but unpretentious, idea-driven yet with a surprising emotional payoff, aware that comedy and tragedy grew up in the same bedroom. And it’s also the kind of play Yarbrough excels at directing, burrowing into the text for all its challenges and opportunities, bringing something to the stage that’s solid, clear, seemingly lit from within and moving like a living thing itself.

Back at CoHo Theater, where his stellar Portland career began, director Scott Yarbrough works on “Radiant Vermin.” Photo: Owen Carey

“I was really, really pleased — the direction is really tight,” said the veteran Portland actor Michael O’Connell after catching a dress rehearsal. “It kind of felt like, ‘Scott’s back!’”

Continues…

DramaWatch: Going to the Chapel and we’re gonna see theater

Chapel Theatre Collective makes its debut in Milwaukie, the Red Door Project finds a helpful way to "Cop Out," Red Riding Hood goes Shaking the Tree, and more.

Jason Glick had no intention to run a theater company.

“I’d tried to start a theater company before, in Nashville, when I was in my twenties and I didn’t know what not to do,” he says. “And I was happy with my place in the community here, with the acting work I was getting at Artists Rep and such. Fundraising, worrying about where the money’s coming from for the next show, that kind of stuff was never on my bucket list.”

And yet, here he is at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, a performance space that opened earlier this year, preparing the debut show by  the resident theater company, the Chapel Theatre Collective.

“It really just fell in my lap,” he says, talking before a recent rehearsal of Anatomy of a Hug. “And there was a feeling that we’re in the right place at the right time.”

Jessica Hillenbrand (clockwise from front right) Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Amanda Vander Hyde and Jason Glick rehearse “Anatomy of a Hug” at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Danielle Weathers.

The place is a refurbished church a reasonable drive from Portland proper, not far off of highways 99 and 224. It has 99 seats on movable risers, a small bar for beer, wine and sodas, a computerized lighting board, and a basement eatery called the Secret Pizza Society (a relative  of the Southeast Portland vegan deli Papa G’s). The time is an era of increasing competition for too few performance spaces in the city. (The space also is the regular home of the dance company Trip the Dark., and the company Street Scenes also has plays scheduled there later this year.)

The origins of the Chapel Theatre Collective can be traced back to Milagro’s 2016 production Davita’s Harp, whose cast included, among others, Glick, Danielle Weathers and Illya Torres-Garner. Later, after Torres-Garner, who owns a construction company, had purchased the old chapel near his home, he also happened to be doing work on Glick’s house and talked about wanting someone to produce theater in his new space. Glick, a former Theatre Vertigo member,  joined on as artistic director, with Weathers, who’s been leading the Reading Parlor series at CoHo, and Torres-Garner as associate artistic directors.

The company will present three productions for its inaugural season, with Anatomy of a Hug looking like a very promising start. The script, by Kat Ramburg, concerns an awkward, TV-obsessed young woman trying to cope with the unexpected attentions of a sweetly enthusiastic co-worker and with an uncomfortable reunion with her mother, released from prison as she’s dying from cancer. Glick directs, with Jessica Hillebrand in the central role, plus Jacklyn Maddux, Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Shareen Jacobs.

Chapel Theatre Collective’s “Anatomy of a Hug” deals with the difficulty of getting close when you’ve become a wooden character in your own life story.

February will bring Stephanie Alison Walker’s Friends With Guns, with Torres-Garner directing Glick and Weathers, then sometime in the spring, Weathers will direct Torres-Garner and others in Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure.

Regardless of the choice of the scripts and the talent on stage, fledgling theaters can have a rough go of it. Is this a scary thing to be doing?

“Not when I’m in the rehearsal hall, ‘cause that’s my jam,” Glick says with a smile. But he’s approaching it all seriously. “We have to run it like a business, not like a bunch of theater kids having fun. It’s about not having egos but working together toward a collective goal. And I’m not in this for one season, My hope is that we’re doing this for long-term prospects.”

Continues…

DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

Continues…

Artists Rep picks J.S. May as new managing director

May, a veteran leader of Portland arts and civic organizations, is charged with guiding the theater through a big transition..

Artists Repertory Theatre, trying to navigate a time of both turbulence and promise, has hired a steady hand to guide the ship. Portland’s oldest and second-largest theater announced Tuesday afternoon that J.S. (John Stuart) May, a respected figure in non-profit management in the city, has been hired as the company’s new managing director.

May is set to start immediately as co-leader of the organization, alongside artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, replacing Sarah Horton, who left the managing director post at the end of 2017. “His impressive management experience with nonprofits in Portland, and his proven marketing and fundraising skills, make him a great fit at the right time for our organization,” Mike Barr, chair of Artists Repertory Theatre’s board of directors said in the company’s news release.

J.S. May, newly named managing director of Artists Repertory Theatre, will steer the big red ship on Southwest Alder Street. Photo: Kisha Jarrett.

“I can’t think of a better choice for ART,” said Jim Fullan, a former marketing director for Portland Opera and former VP for marketing and communications at the Oregon Symphony. “J.S. has always been one of the most respected and effective arts administrators in this region. His warm personality, his smarts, and his extensive experience in the Portland arts arena make him the perfect choice to lead the organization into an even brighter future. I have no doubt that he’ll be very successful.”

With a resume featuring stints at the Portland Art Museum, the Metropolitan Group, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting, May brings a broad background in fundraising, marketing, communications, and strategic management. He’s served on boards for numerous non-profit and civic organizations, including the arts-focused Creative Advocacy Coalition.

Such a range of experiences and the connections that come with them could be crucial for Artists Rep, which is in the midst of the most complicated transition in its 36-year history.

Continues…

More than a feeling of “Ordinary Days”

Subtle emotions bloom in the Broadway Rose production of the touching Adam Gwon musical about city dwellers seeking connection.

Feelings can be sneaky things.

For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.

Ordinary Dayswhich plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.

Moving and touching: “Ordinary Days” features Benjamin Tissell (left) as Jason and Kailey Rhodes as Claire, a young couple trying to unpack what’s in the way of a better connection. Photo: Sam Ortega.

That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.

Continues…