Marty Hughley

 

DramaWatch: Gunning for understanding

Chapel Theatre Collective's "Friends With Guns" tries to get past the divisive and doctrinaire. Plus: openings at Corrib and Artists Rep.

Jason Glick and Danielle Weathers, artistic leaders of Chapel Theatre Collective, appear to have a keen eye for stage literature. The company’s debut production, Anatomy of a Hug by Kat Ramsburg, paired a dramatically potent premise (a mom, released from prison because she’s dying of cancer, moves in with the daughter she was convicted of trying to kill) with emotionally astute writing.

Opening this weekend, Friends With Guns, by Stephanie Alison Walker (like Ramsburg, a Los Angeles writer), should be even more attention-grabbing. Walker digs into the increasingly heated American debate about gun possession by framing the matter in a personal, easily relatable story — and then letting people’s worst inclinations take over.

Well, at least one person’s worst inclinations.

Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Friends With Guns” is another provocative premiere for the Milwaukie company. Photo: courtesy of Chapel Theatre Collective

Shannon and Leah meet one day at the park and quickly bond over the mutual stresses of parenting and modern life. Leah is confident and comforting, and her husband Danny ticks off every box of impressive yet effortless cool. When Shannon brings her husband Josh to meet them, the warm-and-fuzzy circle of instant friendship is complete: They start making Thanksgiving plans together, and it’s only May.

But then it comes out that Leah and Danny have a blemish on their liberal bona fides: a safe full of firearms locked in the garage. Let’s just say that Josh isn’t cool with this, and complications — ranging from mildly unfortunate to downright ugly — ensue.

The script is tight, bright, smart, funny, engaging. On the page, the characters quickly come alive as the kind of folks you’d probably like. (Glick and Weathers will star alongside Claire Rigsby — who was a minor revelation in The Thanksgiving Play last year at Artists Rep — and Joseph Bertot.) Walker has a handle on a variety of gun-rights/gun-control perspectives and the skill to incorporate them in a way that feels natural to the characters. It’s a terrific piece of writing.

And boy, did it piss me off.

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DramaWatch: a new place to play

Lewis & Clark prof Stepan Simek opens a small, flexible studio space. Plus: Openings around town and in Fertile Ground.

Stepan Simek is a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, a director, and an accomplished theatrical adapter and translator. Now he’s also a real estate developer.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Simek recently opened a small studio space for “actors, directors, musicians, singers, teachers, coaches, and anybody who may need a beautiful, affordable, flexible, and warm place to rehearse, teach classes, do small performances, concerts, readings, meetings, pop-ups, auditions, and whatever else may strike your creative need or fancy.” Or, as he put it during an open-house event earlier this month, “Everything is allowed, except amplified music and Bible study.”

The 2509 is a new studio space in Northeast Portland, open for rehearsals, performances and other creative uses. Photo: courtesy of Stepan Simek.

The place, a handsome 600-square-foot daylight basement, is named after its street address, 2509 NE Clackamas St., in a part of Portland known as Sullivan’s Gulch. Simek hopes it will help, in whatever small way, with the general space crunch afflicting so many Portland artists. But that wasn’t the project’s original purpose.

At first, Simek was setting out to repair his house’s crumbling foundation, which would require raising it on jacks. He and his wife Esther Saulle-Simek, a musician, decided to have a lower-level addition built as an apartment, or what’s known these days as an “accessory dwelling unit.” But the construction process turned out to be more than twice as long, and more than twice as expensive, as originally planned. Eventually they reasoned that they’d stand a better chance of recouping their costs with piecemeal rentals, even at low rates.

Still, though, the 2509 has a homey feel, with a gas stove along one wall opposite a small wet bar. It has a full bathroom and curtained-off area at the back that can be used as a bedroom for visiting artists. A grid attached to the middle of the ceiling holds a small LED lighting system, double-paned windows minimize sound for the surrounding residential neighborhood, and there’s room to seat an audience of 50 or so.

Already Hand2Mouth Theatre has used the 2509 for rehearsals, the renowned Portland actor Michael O’Connell has used it to teach classes, and Orchestra of the Moon — a band that includes Saulle-Simek and plays what it calls “early music for modern times” — performs there this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Simek hopes the place will stay busy. (Reservations can be made by email: simek@lclark.edu) After repeating his line about it being open to everything but amplified music and Bible study, he says simply, “I want it to feel alive. I want life!”

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DramaWatch: Planning for a bountiful harvest from Fertile Ground

Portland's wide-ranging new works festival offers more than you can manage alone. Plus, new shows from Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and others.

“Conceived and organized by the Portland Area Theater Alliance, Fertile Ground is a new, 10-day, city-wide festival dedicated to the creation and promotion of original works for the theater. Home-grown and wide-ranging, it both reflects and nurtures the creativity, aesthetic diversity and collaborative spirit of Portland’s performing community with three dozen projects in all. Even in these cold, hard times (in terms of the weather and the economy) it looks like something fun and invigorating enough to take root on the highlight calendar of Northwest arts events.”

Doesn’t seem so long ago, really, that I wrote that — in my former life as theater critic for The Oregonian — about the first Fertile Ground festival in January of 2009. Surely enough, the festival did take root and very quickly grew into one of the city’s mid-winter cultural staples. Not only did that first iteration provide proof of concept (a.k.a., “It works!”), but it delivered memorable works such as Christine McKinley’s science-themed coming-of-age musical Gracie and the Atom, Ezra Weiss’s Mad-Hatter-hip jazz version of Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Keystone’s rocketry epic Apollo.

Right off the bat, attendance was in the 10,000 range. Soon, the number of plays/projects/performances on offer doubled, and Fertile Ground became a reliable hot house for buzz-worthy work: The North Plan, Famished, Dear Galileo, Willow Jade The Huntsmen, The Tripping Point, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Hillsboro Story, My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, The Snowstorm…

Maureen Porter joins the CoHo Clown Cohort for “Witch Hunt,” a seriously comic take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” as part of Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Urban Body Project.

So here we are at the 10th anniversary of that inaugural edition, with the 11th annual festival set to kick off on January 24. Chances are good that a critical and/or popular consensus will lift a few of the 70-some presentations to memorable status and/or further development and/or subsequent productions. But the whole idea here is that these shows are new; so while we may have hunches about what’s promising based on the artists involved or the idea they’re pursuing, no one really knows what you really ought to see. Of course there’s the matter of subjectivity. Topics range from Shakespeare to BDSM (er…if you have to ask…), and while my personal “Don’t care!” sign starts flashing red at the thought of, say, vampire stories or circus arts, you might think me a hopeless dolt to be intrigued by a Chekhov adaptation or a drama about gun control.

And schedules only complicate the matter further! For starters, not everyone can do a full Kay Olsen on the thing (Portland theater insiders know what I mean). With so many shows, at venues spread across Portland and (a bit) beyond, at conflicting or overlapping times, even a full-time commitment to the festival wouldn’t allow you to see even half.

So.

Decisions, decisions.

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Jimmy Mak’s: Ace of clubs prepares to play a new hand

Friday's Mission Theater concert helps revive the brand of one of Portland's most influential nightspots, due to re-open in the fall.

For many years, J.D. Stubenberg and Lisa Boyle were mainstays of the great Portland music club Jimmy Mak’s, in their own ways as vital to the place as the hotspot’s founder/owner Jimmy Makarounis and the musicians who lit up the stage there. Since the club’s closing at the end of 2017, followed hard upon by the death of Makarounis from laryngeal cancer, they’ve been involved in plans to revive and sustain the Jimmy Mak’s legacy.

So now they’re getting the brand back together.

Tonight’s concert at the Mission Theater — a high-energy double serving of rock-and-soul featuring the Yachtsmen and the Paul Creighton Project, with the Soul Vax horns adding some special sauce all around — comes to you under the Jimmy Mak’s Presents banner, an imprimatur of the discerning yet populist aesthetic that Makarounis and Stubenberg championed over the past couple of decades. The show is a benefit for the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship at Portland State University, a program launched in 2017.

Portland pop-rock band the Yachtsmen will play at the Mission Theater on Friday to benefit the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship.

The show also serves as a reminder that the much-loved, much-missed club likely isn’t gone for good. In fact, the investor group Friends of Jimmy Mak’s plans to launch a new location this fall.

“We’ll hopefully start swinging hammers by the end of May, maybe June,” Stubenberg said last week. “So we’re hoping to open in September or October, but we won’t really know until we get into construction.”

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DramaWatch: High-school drama of historical dimensions

Artists Rep takes Shakespeare back to school with the "Richard III" adaptation "Teenage Dick"; plus, a shortlist of Second Season shows.

Richard of Gloucester was a dick.

At least that’s impression we’re given by Shakespeare in his history play Richard III, in which this man (among many) who would be king is presented as deformed, less so for his hunchback than for his moral turpitude. Shakespeare wrote his account more than a century after Richard’s death, and some historians contend that his nasty portrait of the last Plantagenet king was propaganda on behalf of the Tudor dynasty that followed Richard. (For example, the king’s long-lost remains were found in 2012 and suggest that he was short and had one shoulder slightly higher than the other, but no hunchback.) Even so, the seething, conniving Richard of Shakespeare dominates his public image still.

And anyway, these days we might certainly call him a Dick.

If he was a modern American 17-year-old, he’d be, of course, a teenage Dick.

Mike Lew’s play Teenage Dick — which premiered last year at the Public Theater and which opens Saturday at

Christopher Imbrosciano plays Richard Gloucester — a high school stand-in for Shakespeare’s Richard III — in “Teenage Dick” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder.

Artists Rep in a production directed by Josh Hecht — re-imagines Shakespeare’s tale of England’s contested monarchy during the 15th-century War of the Roses as high school high drama with the high stakes of the senior class presidency. It’s a loose adaptation, trading on the basic premise of an outsider’s manipulative bid for power. The intricacies of relations and animosities between the House of York and the House of Lancaster give way to a cast of six and a simple division between familiar classes of popular and unpopular kids. And, whereas lots of Shakespeare adaptations are larded with Bard-lover in-jokes, Lew relies more on his Richard Gloucester’s penchant for ridiculously high-flown language (he’ll use a $10 word such as “tenebrosity” in the same speech he’ll say “apeshit”).

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Stage sense: the year in theater

2018 in Review, Part 8: ArtsWatch offered varied perspectives on the methods and meanings of theater in Portland, Ashland and elsewhere.

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us. But you — by which I mean we humans — are under an obligation, or at least a compulsion, to make sense of the universe. That’s easier said than done, of course, even if you’re focusing on a particular little slice of the universe such as theater in Oregon.

The writers and editors of Oregon ArtsWatch try to make sense — and, more crucially, to convey that sense — of the theater scene: what’s being staged, what it’s like, what it means, how it makes us feel, who the artists are and how they approach the work. Of necessity, we mostly try to hammer out that sense show by show and week by week, with the occasional broader overview mixed in. But we hope that amid the vibrant mix of news, reviews, interviews, profiles, features, and the happy/snarky jumble of previews and commentary in the weekly DramaWatch column, readers find that a helpful and sensical bigger picture emerges.

Despite flux in the front office, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival keeps sprinkling magic across the stage, as in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Snow in Midsummer,” featuring Jessica Ko (from left), Daisuke
Tsuji and Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As we look back at ArtsWatch’s first-draft history of 2018 theater, we’ll alight on major news developments, insightful cultural takes and passionate writing worthy of another look.

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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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