TJ Acena

 

Penny Arcade, back in town

The performance artist, a hit in Portland a year ago, brings her gentrification show and a pair of new works for a three-day Boom Arts run

Ruth Wikler first met Penny Arcade in Melbourne, Australia, in 2016 where Arcade was participating in a panel on political theater. “We got to talking and I learned that she had never performed in Portland despite touring for five decades,” says Wikler, producer and curator of the presenting company Boom Arts. “I offered to rectify that!” She was thrilled to get the legendary performance artist to Portland the next season.

Watching the audience reactions to Arcade’s February 2018 show Longing Lasts Longer, a critique of New York’s gentrification, Wikler knew that Portland hadn’t gotten enough of the Arcade. “Sometimes we see audiences leaping to their feet for standing ovations the minute the show ends, night after night,” says Wikler. “That’s when we realize that the one- or two-weekend run we planned just wasn’t enough.” So Wikler has asked Arcade back this season for an “encore performance.”

Penny Arcade, in a Boom Arts performance in February. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The last artist Boom Arts brought back was dancer/acrobat/comedian Adrienne Truscott, in 2016. “The pleasure for me as a curator making that kind of invitation to an artist was that it signaled an evolution in our presenter/artist relationship, in which I could engage with her oeuvre, her body of work, not just with the show with which she had had significant touring success,” says Wikler. “Our invitation to Penny is very similar. It’s an invitation for her to evolve with us; it’s a gesture of faith, support, and championship.”

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Boom Arts: puppets from Kiev

The Portland producing company brings Ukraine's Teatr-Pralnia to town for a 10-day dash of innovative song, theater, puppetry and culture

In the Paris Theatre in Portland, Oregon, voices break through the darkness in a traditional Ukrainian arrangement. The lights come up on the five members of Teatr-Pralnia, all dressed in mustardy overalls. Next to each of them is a small faceless puppet dressed in the same outfit. A kick drum thumps, the group grabs their instruments, and the stage becomes a whirling machine of music.

The song has the driving force of a dance number but the lyrics feel discordant. “Hello everybody,” shouts one of the performers. “Hello from Kiev. Breaking news, 17 people were killed by Hurricane Michael!” A string of unrelated tragic and benign news stories is presented with smiling faces. “Let’s dance!” she shouts. The constant terrors of the world we live in and the desire to go numb. Which is how it feels a lot of the time.

From left: Kateryna Petrashova, Nadiia Golubtsova, Marichka Shtyrbulova, Marusia Ionova of Teatr-Pralnia at the Paris Theatre. Photo: Friderike Heuer

This show, part of Boom Arts‘ 2018-2019 season of international performance themed “a festive revolution,” ran in Portland for two weekends in October. During the company’s 10 days here its members also presented an event at Multnomah County Central Library and did workshops in the community. A young company, Teatr-Pralnia (in English, “Laundry Theater”) was formed when five friends (Igor Mytalnykov, Kateryna Petrashova, Nadiia Golubtsova, Marusia Ionova, and Marichka Shtyrbulova) graduated from Kyiv Theatre University in 2015. Though they all came from different parts of Ukraine the group had become close through their schooling, where the studied puppetry. After graduation they saw two options: Go to grad school and try to do professional theater in the state-run theaters, or make their own art on their own terms. They chose the latter, much to the consternation of their parents.

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“Small Mouth Sounds”: Things left unsaid

Bess Wohl's play about folks seeking transformation at a silent retreat draws you in but leaves a vague impression.

Quiet has always been a refuge for making sense of our lives. Whether with a short walk, a weekend in the woods, or a meditation practice, it’s sometimes easiest to find ourselves through purposeful stillness. But for some people that’s not enough. They need a lot more quiet; a week’s worth. And those are the people you’ll meet in Artists Rep’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which leans into the silence — though perhaps a bit too much.

Set at a nameless silent retreat, Small Mouth Sounds follows six participants as they attempt to find personal enlightenment, guided only by the ostentatious voice of an unseen guru and their own exasperated gesturing to each other. There’s not much in the way of an introduction to these characters, a few ticks and some simple costuming get across the shorthand of it: There’s a lesbian odd-couple, a swaggering yoga teacher, an anxious underdog, a religious older gentleman, and the standard stereotypical millennial white woman.

A peaceful, not-so-easy feeling: Susannah Mars (from left), Ayanna Berkshire, John San Nicolas, Michael Mendelson, Kelly Godell and Darius Pierce retreat into silence in “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

The retreat environment imposes an intriguing restriction on the show: While there are moments of dialogue, much of Small Mouth Sounds does actually take place in silence. We tend to think of theater as a visual medium, but it’s easy to forget how much heavy lifting dialogue does until its stripped back. As an audience member, this is a show you have to lean into, literally, to make sure you don’t miss any subtle change in countenance or a lingering finger. And a lot happens in these silent moments. It’s a nice reminder of how meaningful touch is between humans and how much vulnerability it takes.

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Boom Arts’ Festive Revolution

The Portland presenter of distinctive performance from around the world embarks on a new season of theatrical celebration and social change

Boom Arts is looking to bring a festive revolution to Portland. “We’re coming together to celebrate and turn things upside down,” says curator and producer Ruth Wikler, describing her vision for the company’s seventh season. In a world of constant bad news she wants to find a way to engage our way to social change.

Shows at Boom Arts, a presenting company that searches the world for provocative and stimulating touring acts, often have short runs, one or two weekends at most. ArtsWatch will be following them this season from the inside – seeing shows, talking with the artists, getting perspectives from Wikler and others – to give readers a variety of insights on what they do and how they work. Performers who BoomArts likes to showcase tend to have singular profiles: they don’t always fall neatly into theater, or dance, or performance. This season’s opening act, Oct. 19-20 and 26-27 at the Paris Theatre, is the Ukrainian group Teatr-Pralnia (Laundry Theatre) with CCA Dakh and their show TseSho?/What’s That?.

Teatr-Pralnia: just your basic Ukrainian contemporary improvisational puppetry bass/melodica/violin/accordion performance troupe.

This is the group’s first time in the United States. Portland is one stop in the Kiev company’s national tour, which was made possible by Center Stage, a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Wikler travels a lot in her search for new acts to bring to Portland but it’s not just about finding something new, especially for international acts. Making connections with national presenters allows Boom Arts to host international groups that have secured their visas. “I have to find how to plug them into existing national partnerships. We’ve been talking to Center Stage for a few years now,” she says. “It was an opportunity we were excited to say yes to because we felt they fit our mission.”

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Purple is the color of hard-won joy

Portland Center Stage delivers a jubilant production of "The Color Purple," the musical adapted from Alice Walker's famed novel of struggle and transformation.

The Color Purple looms large in America’s literary (and cinematic) canon. Beloved and controversial, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman living in the early 1900’s has touched millions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an easy story. The hardships that the women in the story endure are appalling and it wouldn’t seem like material prime for a musical adaptation. But Marsha Norman did it, staying true to the source material while using the medium to bring the joy and hope of the story to the forefront. Portland Center Stage opens its season with this jubilant experience.

For those unfamiliar with The Color Purple: 14-year-old Celie (Felicia Boswell) lives with her much-loved sister and monstrous father in rural Georgia. Abused and neglected Celie is separated from her sister and given to Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), an abusive widower, to raise his unruly children. As she grows up Celie begins to draw inspiration and strength from other women in her life, especially Mister’s lover Shug (Lana Gordon) a fiercely independent jazz singer.

Drawing on gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues, the score grounds the musical in its time period and creates an emotional counterpoint to the seriousness of the story. Where there is hardship there is hope. Where there is oppression there is defiance. Celie’s first lesson in independence comes from her daughter-in-law Sofia (Maiesha McQueen), who implores her to stand up for herself in the explosive blues number “Hell No!” This is a high-energy production, but McQueen’s commanding performance takes it to a new level, earning whooping applause from the audience.

Make ya wanna holla!: Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

While The Color Purple centers the lives of African American women and the strength they draw from each other, it’s impossible to ignore the abuse they suffer. Consideration is given to Mister, but only as to how he’s internalized toxic masculinity and his own realization around that. Walker’s novel is unsparing in how it critiqued patriarchy and racism and though this adaptation is pared down Norman keeps this idea at the forefront of the script.

The current national dialogue about racism and sexual assault, cracked open by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, make this show feel all too timely.

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Listen: talking Native arts & culture

In "We Can Listen" at The Old Church, Native artists talk about invisibility, buried history, creativity, and contemporary challenges

“I make art to perpetuate culture,” Portland artist Shirod Younker told a crowd at The Old Church Concert Hall a few nights ago. Of late, he added, he’s been working on building traditional canoes. “Making canoes helps me understand my community. By doing this we learn what’s important to our ancestors and I can apply these lessons to my own life.”

Artist Shirod Younker at The Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Molly MacAlpine

Younker, a printmaker, illustrator, and carver and a member of Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe, was speaking at We Can Listen, a series that has been working to cultivate listening in Portland with a series of free events highlighting the lives of marginalized people. On May 8 the series, now in its second year, presented Native Perspectives on Arts, Culture and Justice, a discussion with native artists about their work, how their identity informs their work, and how their work intersects with social justice.

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‘Fences,’ then and now

August Wilson's classic American play, in a vital production at Portland Playhouse, is set in the 1950s and seems necessary for today

America always struggles to reckon with its racist history. There’s a resistance to bringing up the past. As if history has no bearing on where we are today. As if those who suffered under slavery, or the Trail of Tears, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, were some other people in some other place. But looking back is the only way to find understanding and empathy. That’s what Portland Playhouse has done with its production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1985 play Fences.

Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays exploring the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1950s, it follows the life of Troy Maxson (Lester Purry), a middle-aged sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing major league baseball. Denied his dream because of the color line, he has consigned himself to a simple life with his wife and son.

From left: Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry, Erika LaVonn, Bobby Bermea. Photo: Brud Giles

Wilson’s script takes its time, allowing the audience time to fall under the spell of his protagonist. As the patriarch of the Maxson household Troy looms large in the family, always the center of attention. He’s a natural storyteller, drawing in his friends and family with embellished tales about his own life, and eager to give out advice on everything. But just below his charming exterior is a storm of anger and resentment, a terrifying force the family must navigate.

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