Marty Hughley

 

DramaWatch: the magic (cloth) of the season

Imago and Michael Curry add bonus content to "ZooZoo." Plus: Tobias Andersen vamps, "Mary Poppins" flies again, and Christmas keeps coming.

Imago Theatre has built much of its reputation on an evolving series of family-friendly mask-theater shows such as the ever-popular ZooZoo, which it brings back for another holiday run through Jan. 6. But after decades presenting that show, its much-lauded predecessor Frogz, and the closely related Biglittlethings, Imago co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle don’t do much with them anymore.

“We don’t really work those shows,” Mouawad says. “We have video to refer to, and a bunch of really seasoned performers who’ve been touring the material, so they put the show back together, get it on its feet, and then Carol and I will just come in and fine tune things.”

That approach seems to work, as the ingeniously anthropomorphized animals and other creatures of ZooZoo continue to brim with recognizable life and relatable humor. But it’s not as if Mouawad and Triffle are sitting around resting on their fluffy, fabricated, polar-bear-sized laurels.

“The Magic Cloth,” shown with “ZooZoo” at Imago Theatre. Photo: courtesy of Imago Theatre.

This run of ZooZoo will include a special bonus feature — “The Magic Cloth,” a new Imago vignette created in collaboration with the master production designer Michael Curry, a Portlander famed for his puppetry, costuming and other work for Broadway’s The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and others.

“It’s very simple,” Mouawad says of the new piece, taking a brief break from tech rehearsals. “A boy and his sister are out playing with their dog. They discover a small black box, and out of it comes a red cloth about six-feet square. It moves magically and it’s mysterious and makes them laugh. It’s clown theater with stage-magic puppetry.”

Simple, of course, is hard to do well. Perhaps that’s especially true for theater predicated largely on design and movement, such as “The Magic Cloth” and the various other mask and costume vignettes in ZooZoo. “This six-minute piece is as much work as any of my other plays, maybe more,” Mouawad says.

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“Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet,

Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep,

When the body lieth in clay.”

— from The Summoning of Everyman: a treatise how the high father of heaven sendeth death to summon every creature to come and give account of their lives in this world and is in manner of a moral play.

“Hey, everybody. Don’t be so crazy in life. Like, you may think all that ‘craziness’ is great initially because it’s really fun but, when you die, you may regret all that fun, because — though we honestly don’t know what happens when you die — we have this hunch that you could wind up someplace which is objectively worse than this one — and let’s call that ‘Hell,’ this state of eternal, unfathomable suffering. And this craziness, let’s call it ‘sin’ — this ‘sin,’ or at least too much of it, is our idea of how you wind up there. We think.”

— from Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Everybody dies.

Oh, so sorry! I forgot to say “Spoiler alert!”

Because when I say “Everybody dies,” I don’t mean — only — that anyone who reads this column will die (because that sounds rather threatening, and I actually love readers), or that all humans eventually will die (at least it seems that way so far). I mean that Everybody, the title character of the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody, which opens Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, dies.

Facing Death with (varying degrees of) dignity: Ted Rooney (as Death, at left), John San Nicolas, Andrea Vernae, Barbie Wu, Michael Mendelson and Sara Hennessy in “Everybody” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

Everybody follows a similar template, albeit with a much breezier, funnier tone and a less doctrinaire path through the philosophical questions involved. Compared with the tricky satire of racial representations in An Octoroon, Everybody should be controversy free; but it presents a different kind of challenge: How do you cast somebody — anybody — to portray Everybody?

The clever, if complicated, solution that Jacobs-Jenkins employs addresses the issue of representation — not choosing a white male or any single type to stand in for all of us — but also the randomness of death. Out of a 10-person cast, five of the actors play varying roles, with an onstage lottery early in each show determining who will perform the role of Everybody, who will be Friendship, Kinship and so on. This means that those five actors have had to learn and rehearse five roles and be ready to drop into any of them at a moment’s notice — and that they (and the audience) have 120 potential combinations.

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DramaWatch: Holiday Edition!

Christmas Carols, radio plays and parodies dominate the seasonal-theater calendar.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re into that sort of thing.

Tradition holds that the next few weeks will be dominated by Christmas cheer — and likely by Christmas hype, Christmas stress, and when it comes to the world of theater, Christmas cliche.

What starts in autumn as a theater season wrestling with big themes of life and society suddenly turns into a procession of simplistic celebrations of sentiment and/or frivolity.

Then again, cliches become cliches for a reason. Imbue the right ones with a little action and they become ritual, tradition. Wrap them in sturdy narrative and they become chestnuts, even classics.

So never mind my jaundiced, churlish, runaway-Catholic’s view. Holiday-season theater offerings abound, for those who want to unwind from shopping, entertain family, or get a refresher course in some of those seasonal ideals. Here’s your DramaWatch Christmas theater menu:

Tim Blough (in cap) at the center of “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” at Broadway Rose. Photo by Sam Ortega.

By my count, no less than a half-dozen productions in the Portland area this season are based around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and/or old-timey radio broadcasts. Perhaps each represents a particular period of potent nostalgia, a century apart — the early Victorian era that’s done so much to shape our romanticized holiday images, and the Great Depression and World War II, evoking memories of social unity carrying us through hardship. In any case, the two periods meet at Broadway Rose in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, in which a broadcast of the Dickens tale is undermined by so many minor mishaps that the cast takes to riffing on the story in the style of (the then-new genre) film noir. Tim Blough, Joe Theissen and Malia Tippets are among the notable talents involved.

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DramaWatch: Students fall for Shakespeare

Portland Playhouse teams up with area students for the high-energy Fall Festival of Shakespeare; plus your other weekend theater options.

“It’s an English teacher’s remit to analyse language, but pick apart every word of Shakespeare and you’ve dissected the butterfly – pretty in parts but a nonsensical whole and certainly unable to fly.”

— Mark Powell, associate director of Salisbury Playhouse, in The Guardian

The works of William Shakespeare have been a part of Western education for centuries, and when used properly can have a transforming effect.

Consider how Shakespeare education has changed Nikki Weaver, for instance. Since being involved in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, one of the main educational-outreach programs by Portland Playhouse, she has a different response to most Shakespeare. Give her a professional production that’s serious and exacting, that inspires audiences to sit in quiet concentration, the better to take in the import of the Bard’s immortal words — and she’ll want none of it!

A performance of “As You Like It” from the 2017 Fall Festival of Shakespeare. Photo courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

“It’s unbearable to be in those productions or a part of those audiences,” Weaver says, having experienced “the most exciting audience to be a part of” at the annual Fall Festival.

Her point, of course, isn’t that Shakespeare is boring, but quite the opposite: That if you approach Shakespeare’s plays not as dry, old words on a page but as exciting, emotionally charged and action-driven stories, everyone benefits, whether students or professionals, performers or audiences.

Such an approach is epitomized by the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which Weaver oversees, and which takes over the Winningstad Theatre on Sunday. And if it can have such an effect on a highly regarded theater professional, one of Portland Playhouse’s co-founders, imagine what a difference it can make for the students.

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DramaWatch: Let the big dog play

Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," to be staged at the Chapel Theatre, has been called the best American play of the past 25 years; plus Hand2Mouth on suicide watch, and a handful of plays running out of time.

“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold they way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks isn’t big on folding things up neatly. And despite what people may usually like, she serves up they historical shit in a way that earns plaudits and Pulitzers, particularly in the play that contains the above quote, Topdog/Underdog.

When the play opened on Broadway in 2002, the year following its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theatre, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it ”vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” and compared it to Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man as an examination of “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.”

LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star in “Topdog/Underdog” at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Photo: Salim Sanchez

Soon, it had earned a nomination for the best-play Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first black woman so honored. Not too much later, Portland had a production — at Artists Rep in 2003, directed by Antonio Sonera.

Parks’ work hardly has become a regular treat on our local stages. With the exception of some of the short pieces in her mammoth experiment 365 Days/365 Plays and, a couple of years ago, her In the Blood at Portland Actors Conservatory, to my knowledge none of her other plays have been produced here. That drought ends this weekend with the opening of Topdog/Underdog at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, in a Street Scenes production directed by Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea. LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star. Bermea, in particular, has been on a hot streak of late, with brilliant performances in Fences at Portland Playhouse this past spring and in Artists Rep’s fall opener Skeleton Crew, fine directing work on Fires in the Mirror for Profile, plus some insightful journalism for (ahem!) Oregon ArtsWatch.

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DramaWatch: Giving you Moor of what you’re funkin’ for

Portland Actors Conservatory's raps "Othello: the Remix"; Oregon Children's Theatre makes teens "Shiver"; plus more shows set to open or close.

“Othello’s rich, but she keeps me poor

And now it’s time to settle the score

She never lets me get my foot in the door

And this is why I hate the Moor!”

OK, so it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. But of course, that’s the point.

That snatch of rhyme comes from a show called Othello: the Remix, which opens this weekend in a production starring students of Portland Actors Conservatory, directed by Artists Rep resident artist Vin Shambry. It shares something with Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, in which one of the plausible reasons for the villain Iago’s enmity toward Othello is a promotion that hasn’t gone Iago’s way. But that’s no iambic pentameter, and instead of a higher rank in the Venetian army, the prize that has eluded Iago is higher billing amid the pecking order of a touring hip-hop crew overseen by Othello as star and mogul.

Julet Lindo stars in the title role of “Othello: the Remix,” as a woman on a precarious perch atop the hip-hop game. Photo montage: Owen Carey

“Now I know what I should be.

I know what I’m worth,

But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”

Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:

I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?

He deals the freshman a fresh hand,

And he makes him his best man,

And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.”

This rather liberal modern adaptation was created by Chicagoans Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum (GQ and JQ), who work under the name the Q Brothers. They’ve been at the hip-hop-theater thing (or “add-RAP-tation,” as they call their approach) for quite awhile, having scored an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999 with the wittily titled The Bomb-itty of Errors, and toured extensively since, including a 2015 appearance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show. Othello: the Remix was commissioned by the Globe Theatre as part of 2012’s London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad.

Gettin’ in your ear: In the Portland Actors Conservatory production of “Othello: the Remix,” Xzavier Wolfie Beacham’s Iago (left) insinuates; Julet Lindo’s Othello implodes. Photo: Owen Carey.

For the Actors Conservatory version, Shambry has changed things up in a few additional ways. One of the points of tension in Shakespeare’s play, famously, is that Othello is black (“the Moor”), hence an outsider, an other, in Venice despite his high status. Shambry realigns that conflict: “I made Othello a strong black woman and Iago a black man.”

He credits that shift to the actors at his disposal, especially Julet Lindo, who’ll play the title role. “She blew me out the water,” Shambry says. “I came in thinking that Othello, as this rap mogul, has to be hard, masculine. What I didn’t see at first was the vulnerability. But I saw all of that in her.” Meanwhile, in Xzavier Wolfie Beacham, Shambry found a suitably compelling, mercurial Iago, in this case not the dissatisfied army ensign but instead “a better MC who doesn’t get the limelight.”

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DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

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