Marty Hughley

 

At last, Thom Pain’s back in town

Will Eno's startling, wryly funny, deeply moving play returns with a memorable performance by Todd Van Voris for the new Crave Theatre

At long last, Thom Pain is back in town.

That is to say, Thom Pain (based on nothing), a marvelous, many-faceted monologue by the playwright Will Eno, is running through June 11 at the Shoe Box Theatre, in a smart, spare production featuring the resurgent Portland acting star Todd Van Voris in a performance that’s wryly funny and deeply moving. This is one of those small, theater-lovers’ passion projects that pop up now and again and make for something truly memorable. And this one has been, in a certain way, a long time coming.

Todd Van Voris in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

Thom Pain, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, first showed up in Portland a few years later. Devon Allen of the Portland State University faculty directed her former student, Matt DiBiasio, in the role at a small campus theater. But because of the location, perhaps, and that the production took place amid the busy weeks of the Fertile Ground festival, the show largely was overlooked. I caught it only at the end of the run, but have been forever grateful that Allen talked me into attending. It remains one of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen on a Portland stage  — intense and discomfiting, desperate and controlled, awkward and awe-inspiring. Allen and DiBiasio remounted the show again several months afterward, in November 2008, at a much larger venue, the Kingstad Center in Beaverton, but again, location may have kept it from being as widely seen as it deserved.

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Marjorie, in her prime

Jordan Harrison's futuristic fantasy about the blurry line between people and artificial intelligence gets a sterling run at Artists Rep

Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.

O’Brien and Harder: memories lost and gained. Photo: John Rudoff

And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.

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‘Elliot’: a fertile seed, growing

"A Soldier's Fugue," The opening salvo in Profile Theatre's season of plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes, plants the promise of bigger things

One of the most striking bits of information you’ll encounter if you go to see Profile Theatre’s production of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue is dropped offhandedly into a program note by artistic director Josh Hecht, who mentions that “there are currently 21.8 million veterans in the United States.” That’s around seven percent of us, as if we’d sent the whole state of Florida, say, off to war — or the entire Northwest plus a chunk of Northern California. Or, to put it in terms that might hit home to 19-year-old Elliot Ortiz, serving in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division, that’s three and a half times the population of greater Philadelphia.

In any case, it’s quite a figure for a nation that thinks of itself as peace-loving, or at least peace-keeping; a peaceful nation ever at war.

Cristi Miles, Anthony Lam (in fatigues), Jimmy Garcia, Anthony Green (far right) in “Elliot.” Photo: David Kinder

The bulk of those veterans still around served in either Iraq, Vietnam or Korea: places — or do we think of them merely as conflicts — that serve as the generational benchmarks for Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play, which was first produced (in a slightly different version) at Portland’s Miracle Theatre in 2005. Inspired by the Iraq War experiences of her own cousin, Hudes presents three generations of men in the same family, examining what they made of their time at war and what that time made of them.

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‘Astoria’: huge notions, big dreams

Chris Coleman's sweeping world premiere at Portland Center Stage is a historical drama about a rich businessman's will to power. Sound familiar?

“These Americans and their dreams.”

That’s the sigh of an old 18th-century European, an Irish grandmother wondering at the propensity of those who migrate to the New World to believe that they can remake their lives into something wholly different, wholly better. It’s quoted almost offhandedly amidst the vast sweep of Astoria: Part One, a play getting its world premiere by Portland Center Stage, but the play is very much about those dreams, in a variety of ways.

Astoria the play is based on the book by Peter Stark, the full title of which — Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival — sketches out its scope. A German immigrant and the son of a butcher, Astor became a wealthy fur trader in New York before hatching a grand plan to control the Columbia River Basin, monopolize the fur supply of the American West, establish a lucrative global trade network and perhaps even launch a sister democracy to mirror the United States on the other side of the continent. Stark combed historical accounts to create an absorbing work of popular history. Now Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman has boldly adapted it into a thoughtful and at times energized stage production.

Members of the Overland Party meeting with Arikara Chiefs. From left: Michael Morrow Hammack as John Reed, Shawn Fagan as Wilson Price Hunt, Brandon Contreras as Pierre Dorion, Christopher Salazar as Le Gauche, Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Les Yeux Gris, Jeremy Aggers as Donald Mackenzie and Benjamin Tissell as Ramsay Crooks. Photo: Jennie Baker

This is broad-stroke storytelling, whisking us across oceans and through vast wilderness, yet it is flecked with lots of human-scale color and detail — boisterous bursts of song and dance, simmering personality conflicts, harrowing survival challenges, bits of bawdy humor. At nearly three hours length, it gets us through just half the tale: Part One ends with a seagoing crew newly arrived at the Oregon Coast and a land expedition lost in the wilds leading from Rocky Mountains into the Snake River Basin. Part Two is scheduled for the 2017-18 PCS season.

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‘The Flick’ whirs to life

At Third Rail, Annie Baker's long and entertaining drama set in a shabby movie house ripples in the moments of bright light

Avery is something of a cinema savant. Not only is he thoroughly conversant with mainstream movies, always remembering when they were released and which stars shared the screen, but he’s absorbed Truffaut, Bergman and the like. At just 20 years old, he’s watched “the entire Criterion Collection” — nearly 900 mostly arcane art-house titles on DVD. And he’s memorized great chunks of Pulp Fiction, which he argues is the last truly great American film.

Sam, his co-worker, just calls him a snob. Sam’s tastes are — depending on how you see such things — a bit more populist or a bit less discerning. He clearly loves movies too, and relishes talking about them with Avery; he just doesn’t load them with the kind of existential weight and true-believer value judgments that Avery does.

Jonathan Thompson as Avery and Rebecca Ridenour as Rose: flicker and fade. Photo: Owen Carey

And then there’s Rose. She has her favorites, but movies in general just don’t mean much to her anymore, not since she’s been in her current job. Rose and Avery and Sam work at The Flick, a run-down old single-screen movie house.

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Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”

Zrebski

Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.

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‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

The tale, with its many themes and variations, is hundreds of years old, at least. A woman, an embodiment of purity and innocence, is forced into the company of a frightening Other, something primal, whether animal or spirit, something dark and debased. Yet there is recognition and love, trial and transformation. Hidden natures are revealed. Opposites balance and resolve.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve crystallized it in 1740 as La Belle et la Bête. It may be best known by many from Jean Cocteau’s luminous, numinous 1946 film of that same name.  To many more, its image is fixed as a Disney product, 1991’s animated mass-market musical Beauty and the Beast.

Jim Vadala and Justine Davis: the beast and the beauty aboard ship. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

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