TJ Acena

 

“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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About that turkey of a play …

The premiere of Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play" at Artists Rep skewers liberal guilt and whitewashed history. It's also very funny.

Going into The Thanksgiving Play at Artists Rep I was prepared for a little laughing and a lot of uncomfortable cringing. I’ve come to expect this from modern satires touching on the traumatic legacies of racism in America. They often punch you in the gut when you least expect it. But The Thanksgiving Play, which is receiving its world-premiere production hereproves to be more laughs than cringes. A lot more.

That isn’t to say that playwright Larissa FastHorse isn’t making a smart critique of our country’s inability to grapple with our history. But instead of tackling the entire bloody and complex history of America’s genocide and erasure of its native peoples, she narrows her focus to something simple and unassumingly simple: How do we talk to kids about Thanksgiving?

Building the better Thanksgiving pageant, from left: Chris Harder, Michael O’Connell, Claire Rigsby, Sarah Lucht. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in a classroom, the show opens on drama teacher Logan (Sarah Lucht) and her partner Jaxton (Michael O’Connell). They are the whitest of white upper-class liberals. In the first 10 minutes they:

  • Mention shopping at a farmers market.
  • Talk about yoga a little too much.
  • Constantly try to out-perform each other as the most progressive.

Together, they plan to devise an ethnically sensitive, historically accurate Thanksgiving play for children that also celebrates Native American history month and meets the various objectives set by the school board. To help them in this endeavor they have enlisted local elementary teacher, and obsessive history buff, Caden (Chris Harder) and Alicia (Claire Rigsby), a superficial actress from L.A. hired to provide a Native American perspective.

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‘Hamilton’ in Portland: Historic!

The national company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking, dazzling Broadway musical lights up the Keller. Got your ticket?

The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.

If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.

Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?

By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.

Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi in “Hamilton.” Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.

Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.

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