Marty Hughley

 

“Fires” in a crowded theater

Anna Deavere Smith's incendiary "Fires in the Mirror" packs dozens of characters into a one-person show about ethnic strife in 1990s Brooklyn.

At one point, amid the mosaic of testimonials and commentaries that make up Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, Leonard Jeffries, a professor of African American studies at City University of New York, talks about his tangential involvement in Alex Haley’s novel turned TV miniseries Roots, one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 1970s. “Isn’t Roots wonderful?!,” Jeffries recalls the actor Lorne Greene saying to him. “It’s everyone’s history!”

Jeffries doesn’t even have to voice his disgust with Greene’s statement. As a scholar with an Afrocentric worldview, he’s invested in the particulars of Roots as a story about Africans; to claim that experience as common property is both a whitewashing and a theft. And of course he’s right.

But then, Lorne Greene — despite being best known as a paragon of mainstream American whiteness on Bonanzawas the son of Russian Jews. A story of slavery and of a distressed diaspora is his history. And considering that the history of slavery is the indissoluble contaminant of the American democratic experiment, a ghost haunting the entire American experience, maybe Greene was right in the larger sense as well.

Fires in the Mirroronstage through Oct. 21 in a riveting production by Profile Theatre —  doesn’t make these pretzels of perspective explicit, but they’re there. Confirming expectations one moment, challenging prejudices the next, confounding certitude throughout, the play is an exercise in compulsory open-mindedness. Which might not be empathy, exactly, but it helps.

Seth Rue as physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, one of 26 characters he portrays in “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: David Kinder

Smith’s subject isn’t slavery or persecution; rather it is the contrasts, contradictions and confluence of black and Jewish experience, as seen through the prism of the Crown Heights riot, which convulsed that Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991. A car in the motorcade of a Hasidic Jewish leader veered onto the sidewalk, killing a seven-year-old boy, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Confusion and rumors helped ignite long-simmering frustrations between blacks and Jews in the area. Three days of riots resulted, including the killing of a Jewish doctoral student visiting from Australia.

Smith interviewed dozens of area residents to create the verbatim monologues that make up Fires in the Mirror, a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama (losing to Angels in America). We hear from poets and professors, rappers and rabbis, teachers and teenagers, all portrayed by a single actor, in this case Seth Rue, performing with a remarkable blend of plasticity and heart.

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Chapel Theatre’s “Anatomy” lessons

Kat Ramsburg's "Anatomy of a Hug" grapples with the challenge of connection in a fraught mother-daughter relationship.

Living with roommates can be tough. Sharing space, overlapping schedules, compromising privacy — it all can be tricky. And if you wind up stuck with someone that, for whatever reason, you’re not inclined to like, the situation can get ugly.

Even so, it’s a bit of a shock when Amelia, giving a cursory tour of her apartment to an older woman named Sonia, snaps at her that they shouldn’t “share any personal information.”

But then, you surely could add “mother and daughter” to the list of emotionally loaded living situations.

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.

And what else might make things especially tense? Let’s see…how about if mom’s been in prison for killing dad? And the daughter is convinced that she was also a target of the crime? And mom’s out now through a compassionate-release program because she has terminal cancer?

That’s the potent set-up for Anatomy of a Hug, a well-crafted drama by Los Angeles playwright Kat Ramsburg, on stage now as the debut production from the Chapel Theatre Collective. It’s a smart, emotionally perceptive piece of writing, with the acidity of its premise balanced by just enough romantic sweetness.

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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.

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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.’”

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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!’”

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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.”

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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.

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