Marty Hughley

 

Are you ready?

The new era at Portland Center Stage is set to begin next month with the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director.

The theater announced Wolf’s hiring on Wednesday afternoon, concluding an eight-month search for a successor to Chris Coleman, who left earlier this year to take over the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, having made a huge impact on PCS and its community over his 17-year tenure.

Wolf will come to PCS from Kansas City Rep, where she’s spent the past three years as an associate artistic director in charge of developing and producing plays through the OriginKC: New Works Festival. She’ll start her new post on Sept. 15.

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s incoming artistic director, brings “a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision” to the task. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

The PCS press release featured a laudatory comment about Wolf from one of the leading figures in the field, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and a producer who has worked with Wolf over the years: “Marissa Wolf is a rising star of the American theater. She has a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision which she imparts with grace and wit. Her institutional and artistic brilliance has led her to this moment. Portland Center Stage is lucky to have nabbed her just as her talent is fully exploding.”

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Theater review: Words from home

In Imago's 'Title and Deed" Todd Van Voris is quizzical edging toward melancholy

At the start of Imago Theatre’s production of Title and Deed, a monologue by Will Eno, the actor Todd Van Voris enters — or not quite. He appears at the curtained doorway between the theater’s main hallway and auditorium, but before he crosses the threshold he hesitates, peering at the audience curiously though not unkindly. Eventually he steps into the stage space, adjusts the lighting with a control board placed downstage left, then after a spell tells us matter-of-factly, “I’m not from here.”

Not just the manner of that entrance but the manner of Van Voris’ entire performance underscores that notion: We’re watching and listening to a man who is with us but not of us. He is present and engaging, but engaged himself in musings and memories of somewhere else. He is familiar yet strange; his life has been unusual, and just like ours. He is away from home. And therefore he is — in a sense that’s not so much directional or aspirational as it is existential — homeward bound, tangled in the ties that bind, no matter where he hangs his hat.

Todd Van Voris gets into the ring with the powerful wordplay of Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” at Imago Theatre, and everyone wins. Photo: Sumi Wu

Home is the putative central theme of the piece, though it’s addressed with the discursive, philosophically comic pointillism that makes Eno’s work so distinctive and so hard to pin down. “Home, where the hat’s hanging and the placenta’s buried,” Van Voris’ nameless character says at one point. That’s just one of the many characteristic Enoisms sprinkled through these 90 minutes — curlicues of pithy observation, droll wordplay, jokey logic, curiously inverted cliches and so on, little windows in which we might glimpse something of the human condition, or at least catch our own reflections glinting off the glass at a new angle: “If you’re half a man — and I can say without bragging that I am…” “(S)tarting out in the world, one foot in the grave and the other in my mouth, and how’s anyone supposed to walk like that?” “I’m describing it (a funeral) from the perspective of the living — which is how we see everything.”

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Describing a work of art as “classic” can mean many things, but it usually connotes a sense of durability, of solidity, of wholeness. Those qualities are likely to come in handy for the four theatrical classics currently being run through the modernizing, re-energizing, hybridizing, multi-disciplinary mill of the CoHo Lab.

Continuing to emphasize the development of new work, CoHo Productions has hosted four projects for workshop time during the past two weeks. On Sunday evening it will present excerpts from the four plays in-progress:

Crucible — Philip Cuomo, CoHo’s producing artistic director, flexes his creative artistic muscles with a radical take on the Arthur Miller classic, re-imagined with the help of the CoHo Clown Cohort. Consider it a follow-up to his highly successful comic-yet-poignant clown version of The Glass Menagerie.

 

Scary clowns: A cross-wielding Maureen Porter terrorizes Olivia Weiss in rehearsal for Philip Cuomo’s clowning adaptation of “The Crucible.” Photo: Jessica Dart

House of the Living — director Samantha Shay’s dance-theater interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as “psychosexual grande ballet.”

Girl v Troll (or Dam Things) — A.R. Nicholas (collaborating with a cast that includes such fine actors as Nick Ferrucci and Cecily Overman) braves a troll’s lair, but somehow infuses an internet-age story with the tragic princess Electra as a sort of Greek chorus.

Fire & Meat — writer/director Eve Johnstone looks at the ancient poem Beowulf by way of John Gardner’s perspective-shifting 1971 novel Grendel, employing both feminist analysis and puppetry.

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The actor Todd Van Voris and the director Jerry Mouawad — each, in his way, among Portland’s most distinctive and accomplished theater artists — are working together on a production of Title and Deed, a monologue by the remarkable playwright Will Eno, opening this weekend at Imago Theatre. 
And so, you might want to know, what’s it about? What’s the story?

But it’s useful first to note just how different those two questions are, especially in the case of Eno’s work.“If you tried to say what the narrative is of this, it’s: A guy from somewhere else comes and talks to the audience, and then he stops,” Mouawad deadpans. “But, y’know, most great work is not about the narrative.”

After all, The Cherry Orchard, for instance, isn’t quite about a family dithering until their house gets sold out from under them; the greatness is not in the plot but in the themes, the textures, the subtle illuminations of humanity.

Title and Deed is about, as Mouawad starts to try to encapsulate, “the wonder of language, and the danger of language; and the seeking of home, and going away from home; and mother as home, and going away from that; and…

“Often, with experimental work, if people find themselves confused, I want to just say to them, ‘You can relax. It’s about everything.’”

Just dropping in from somewhere else, the lone character in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” (Todd Van Voris) has a few things to say about feeling at home. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Perhaps not everything, in this case, but a lot. Eno’s writing doesn’t meander so much as walk in tight circles that slowly expand and change direction and grow thickets of linguistic and emotional inter-connections — something like the melodic and harmonic variations of a piece of Philip Glass music, if such musicality somehow were translated into a cross between avuncular philosophizing and stand-up comedy. Along the way, he touches on many aspects of experience and emotion, glancingly but poignantly.

There is, though, a starting point, at least, a conceptual center, perhaps, to Title and Deed.
“I’m not from here,” the play’s lone character (called, simply, Man) says at the outset. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.”

As this man from somewhere else (no place is specified in the script, but Eno wrote the piece originally for the Irish actor Conor Lovett to perform in New York) speaks to the audience, he deals with home and away, here and there, and to some extent you and us, in relational terms, tracking contrasts and commonalities that shape our experience of life. And amid Eno’s multivalent whirligigs of language, what can seem at first like offhand indulgences start to feel more like curious koans or gems of insight: “Maybe it’s a little hopeless glimmer of hope that I might somehow, with a change of scenery, change,” he offers at one point. Or:  “My mother said, ‘There, there.’ And, in retrospect, she was probably right.”

“I think the piece is really deceptive,” Mouawad says, chatting over lunch during a recent rehearsal break. “When I first started reading it I didn’t think much of it. But it starts to grow on you and then it hits you. And then you see it’s a lot deeper than you’d thought. And it just keeps going. We just keep discovering more in it.”

Todd Van Voris has embodied Will Eno’s monologuistic magic before, in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

“Like with all Eno, there’s something that really resonates with me — I just see myself in there,” says Van Voris, who performed another Eno solo showpiece, Thom Pain (based on nothing) last summer for Crave Theatre. “ And at the same time, it’s this incredible puzzle to work out.”

And so another way to look at the puzzle is to wonder what may come of the experience of spending an hour with Title and Deed.

“In my heart of hearts,” Eno told Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune in 2015, “I’m hoping everyone can find things of real usable feeling.”

Or as Van Voris puts it, “It’s got an underlying sense of hope, overall: That despite all the suffering we go through, we’re going to be OK.”

However we find our way home, whatever story we tell.

Opening

The premise is simple, if (you might think) thoroughly daft: Cast a play, tell each actor chosen what part to play, but don’t tell anyone anything else. Have each actor rehearse a little — individually — with the director. Then just get onstage together for the first time, as the performance progresses, and see what happens.

What happens at the annual production of Anonymous Theatre is a helluva lot of fun, whether it’s a comedy that wobbles amusingly as everyone tries to learn their timing on the fly, or even a remarkably cohesive and credible performance of Macbeth.
 Broad familiarity can be a helpful element, so this year’s show should be especially ripe, with the ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the canvas for this illuminating experiment in theatrical process. For more about the strange magic of Anonymous Theatre, you can read Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s new ArtsWatch feature.

Certainly there’s crossover between what we might call straight theater (text-centered, director-driven, etc.) and the more free-wheeling world of sketch comedy and improvisation. But I’ve not spent much time on that bridge or, frankly, even glancing much at the other side. So I’m unfortunately unable to provide any qualitative handicapping on the Stumptown Improv Festival, which offers 17 different acts over four days at two venues. Rest assured that they’ll all be winging it — but that’s exactly what they’ve prepared for.

The Salem company Theatre 33, based at Willamette University, takes a localized approach to new-play development, focusing on Oregon playwrights and (usually) Oregon-centered stories and themes. It’s latest production, Amanda Transcending, is based on true accounts of the ill treatment of coastal natives in the 1860s and of a modern property owner in Yachats who traces the bloody historical trail across her own land. Rod Ceballos directs, from the play by Connie Bennett.

Triangle Productions’ latest staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of the most compelling of rock musicals, hasn’t been gone for long, but if you’re already missing its hard-hitting yet tender-hearted approach to gender politics, self-actualization and soul-mate searching, you don’t have long to wait for a brief re-mount later this month. If you can’t wait even that long — and who could blame you, really — you can take the wig down from the shelf, so to speak, yourself: Dave Cole, who leads the onstage band for Triangle, and Kelsey Bentz, who threatens to steal several scenes as Hedwig’s sweet-singing husband Yitzhak, host a Hedwig sing-along at the EastSide Bar and Grill. So what if it’s a Tuesday? Just look up from your vermouth on the rocks and get rockin’.

PassinArt presents a staged reading of Is the Honeymoon Over?, a comedy by Leasharn M. Hopkins that looks at the love through the lens of four couples at varying stages of their marital journeys.

But we can, by George!

“I can’t recall a play that managed to find a tone that offered up yuks and topics as serious as the glories and perils of capitalism, the role of faith in a culture obsessed with money and the havoc wreaked when immense bets are made with other people’s money.”
 — David Segal, a columnist and business reporter for The New York Times, in a July 29 article about The Lehman Trilogy, a play about the history of the famous/infamous Lehman Brothers bank.

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara, starred in Coleman’s last show as artistic director at Portland Center Stage/ Photo: Jennie Baker

Portland theater fans (or theater historians anywhere), however, might notice that Segal’s description sounds a lot like Major Barbara, the 1905 George Bernard Shaw play that Portland Center Stage presented a few months ago.

Best line I read this week

“A therapist asked her what she wanted to do, and she blurted out, to her surprise, ‘Be a playwright.’ She discovered that she was studying Shakespeare only because she secretly wanted to write plays herself. ‘It was like being a veterinarian who says, “I want to be a dog!”’”
— from a profile of Young Jean Lee, by Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times magazine.

Closing

Experience Theatre Project’s commedia-leaning Shakespeare adaptation The Taming and the Shrew ends its summer travels at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton; Lakewood’s production of the musical
Chess gets down to its last moves, and the sexy mystery Venus in Fur bundles up its things at Twilight Theater.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

DramaWatch Weekly: On the Proscenium

Portland Shakes loose a few new plays, Staged! welcomes some alumni home, and new shows open in Portland and Ashland

Michael Mendelson long has been one of Portland’s busiest and most accomplished actors, but even by his standards he has a packed calendar for the coming theater season. He’ll head east to the Midwest later this month to help Nebraska Rep kick off its 2018-19 season, directing David Javerbaum’s divine comedy An Act of God (with Trisha Miller, Mendelson’s co-star in Artists Rep’s 2011 God of Carnage, taking the role of God this time). Once back in town, he’ll be in a string of promising Artists Rep showsSmall Mouth Sounds, Everybody (by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose brilliant An Octoroon featured Mendelson last fall) and A Doll’s House, Part 2. He has work in the offing for Profile Theatre, as well.

And — oh, yeah — he heads his own company, too. So before all of that, there’s Portland Shakespeare Project and this weekend’s fourth annual Proscenium Live Festival of New Work, a four-night series of free performances.

Michael Mendelson — in mogul mode from Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” at Artists Rep in 2013 — has his plate full with acting, directing and leading Portland Shakes. Photo: Owen Carey

Produced in conjunction with the literary journal Proscenium, the festival is something of a family affair. Proscenium is the work of brothers Steve and Billy Rathje, whose mother Karen Rathje is managing director of Portland Shakes and audience services manager for Artists Rep, where the festival will be held. Steve Rathje also is an actor, appearing here in Patrick Wohlmut’s Patchwork Dreams.

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DramaWatch Weekly: time to JAW

Portland Center Stage's new-plays fest hits its stride. Plus: Isaac Lamb on gender and "The Music Man," Rene Denfeld on "Glass Managerie"

Summer stinks.

Sure, the long days are great, but the summer sun is a hot-tempered tyrant. There’s no good basketball to watch. And maybe worst of all, there’s not as much theater to see.

Ah, but then there’s JAW.

Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival is an oasis in the (relative) desert of the summer performance calendar. Originally called Just Add Water/West, it started in 1999 as an offshoot of a similar program at the New York Theater Workshop. Over the years, it has served as an incubator of works by such renowned playwrights as Itamar Moses (Outrage, Celebrity Row), Lauren Gunderson (Parts They Call Deep), Adam Bock (The Thugs, San Diego), Jordan Harrison (Act a Lady, Futura), Constance Congdon (Paradise Street), Marc Acito (Birds of a Feather), Will Eno (Middletown, Gnit), Kimberly Rosenstock (99 Ways to Fuck a Swan), Dan O’Brien (Body of an American), and Yusef El Guindi (Threesome).

This year’s JAW, ready to roll. Photo: Portland Center Stage at the Armory

As useful as JAW is for writers — giving each a director, a dramaturg, a cast, and more than a week for concentrated rehearsals and revisions — its a boon as well for theater fans when it gets around to what PCS calls “the Big Weekend.” That’s when the public gets let into the process for a series of free staged readings, along with other performances and events.
Because the plays being presented are still being developed, there’s not much in the way of production history or reviews to inform our expectations, but you can read brief descriptions of the plays and playwright bios at the PCS website. In any case, the spirit of discovery — both in plays well-polished or those still finding their form — is one of the great pleasures of JAW, along with the lively lobby conversations between readings.

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DramaWatch: Clown ‘Menagerie’

This week, "Philip's Glass Menagerie" gives a twist to Tennessee. Plus openings, closings, the tax man giveth, and a dash of Randy Rainbow.

“Being a ‘memory play,’ The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention,” wrote Tennessee Williams in the production notes to his great 1940s story of a family trapped between hard realities and comforting illusions. Williams might never have suspected, however, that “unusual freedom” would result in the story being presented as an elliptical string of nearly wordless comic vignettes, performed by clowns in drag.

Yet here we are at the fourth and final week of CoHo Summerfest 2018, and Philip’s Glass Menagerie will be taking just such liberties with this hallowed American classic. As the festival playbill puts it, the show “explores whether or not Williams’ emotionally intimate story can be told truthfully and powerfully through the extreme physical expression of clowning.”

The “whether or not” question may already have been answered by a successful workshop production earlier this year during the Fertile Ground festival.

Sascha Blocker, “lovely, precise, emotionally transparent” as Laura. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

“The most satisfying information gleaned from Fertile Ground was that the conceit held up,” says director/adapter Philip Cuomo. “I was really pleased to learn that even people not familiar with the play had an enjoyable experience. There were people who kind of sort of knew it and found their memories jogged in an intriguing way. There were people really familiar with the play who came expecting it not to work, then were pleasantly surprised when it did. And then there were people who came in without any knowledge and went on this incredible ride from silliness to pathos.”

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