THEATER

DramaWatch: Students fall for Shakespeare

Portland Playhouse teams up with area students for the high-energy Fall Festival of Shakespeare; plus your other weekend theater options.

“It’s an English teacher’s remit to analyse language, but pick apart every word of Shakespeare and you’ve dissected the butterfly – pretty in parts but a nonsensical whole and certainly unable to fly.”

— Mark Powell, associate director of Salisbury Playhouse, in The Guardian

The works of William Shakespeare have been a part of Western education for centuries, and when used properly can have a transforming effect.

Consider how Shakespeare education has changed Nikki Weaver, for instance. Since being involved in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, one of the main educational-outreach programs by Portland Playhouse, she has a different response to most Shakespeare. Give her a professional production that’s serious and exacting, that inspires audiences to sit in quiet concentration, the better to take in the import of the Bard’s immortal words — and she’ll want none of it!

A performance of “As You Like It” from the 2017 Fall Festival of Shakespeare. Photo courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

“It’s unbearable to be in those productions or a part of those audiences,” Weaver says, having experienced “the most exciting audience to be a part of” at the annual Fall Festival.

Her point, of course, isn’t that Shakespeare is boring, but quite the opposite: That if you approach Shakespeare’s plays not as dry, old words on a page but as exciting, emotionally charged and action-driven stories, everyone benefits, whether students or professionals, performers or audiences.

Such an approach is epitomized by the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which Weaver oversees, and which takes over the Winningstad Theatre on Sunday. And if it can have such an effect on a highly regarded theater professional, one of Portland Playhouse’s co-founders, imagine what a difference it can make for the students.

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Palmer’s got a brand new bag

Set to depart for Sun Valley, the Bag & Baggage founder leaves a legacy of adventurous art and passionate advocacy for suburban culture.

Some years ago, Bag & Baggage Productions founding artistic director Scott Palmer was registering at a national theater conference and a staffer asked for his name. Palmer told him. “Palmer, Palmer,” the man said, trying to place him. “Oh yeah, you’re that annoying guy from Hillsboro!”

“That’s exactly who I am,” Palmer cheerfully admits. “I am an advocate for suburban and regional theater. I’m not afraid to be vocal in that essential role.”

But after 15 years of pushing in Oregon, Palmer is taking his advocacy — and his art — elsewhere. He’s been named producing artistic director of Company of Fools, an ambitious professional theater company in Sun Valley, Idaho. But though he leaves B&B and Oregon March 1, Palmer isn’t leaving behind his advocacy for the arts outside the usual urban centers. With his track record of artistic accomplishment, Palmer could easily land a plum job anywhere, but in his new job, he’ll continue to push his vision of bringing arts to everyone where they live — on a larger scale.

Having built Bag & Baggage into one of the most respected theater in the region, founder Scott Palmer will take a new post in Sun Valley, Idaho. File photo.

Having grown up in what’s now Oregon’s fourth largest city, and nurtured (with a lot of help from dedicated staff and board members, he notes often) B&B into becoming its leading arts institution and one of the state’s most vital theater companies, Palmer has often had to be annoying, or at least persistent, to get support and recognition.

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The ultimate gift for your family

Upcoming Coast events include a workshop on writing your own obituary, as well as "It’s a Wonderful Life," Irish fiddler Kevin Carr, and the Gearhart Art Walk

Aging and dying may not usually be considered art, but you could argue that aging well – and perhaps dying, too — calls for a creative touch. And there’s no doubt that writing an obituary — at least an engaging, memorable obituary — is clearly an art. That’s the topic Wednesday afternoon at Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts in the ongoing The Art of Aging & Dying series.

Writer Kathie Hightower will lead the two-hour workshop beginning at 3 p.m. Nov. 14. Like many of us, Hightower likes to read obits.

Writer Kathie Hightower will teach a workshop on obit writing in Manzanita.

“No, not to be morbid, but as an honoring and out of curiosity,” Hightower said in a press release, which continues: “You know there is a wide variety. Many are pretty darn boring, just the facts in response to the template most funeral parlors ask you to fill in. Others capture the life and spirit of the individual, the true person who lived between the lines of roles like career, parenting, volunteer work. Which would you rather have represent you when you are gone? Boring or spirited?”

Hightower will share advice from professional obituary writers, as well as examples to inspire your own obit, and get you started writing it. It can be your gift to those who will write your obit when it’s time. (Or your way of ensuring it’s already done to your liking.)

“This exercise can be a true celebration of your life,” Hightower’s release adds. Participants should bring pen and paper or a laptop. They’ll leave with a start and questions to fill in additional details after the session, Hightower notes, as well as an assignment of choosing a favorite photo they’d want attached to their obit.

The Art of Aging & Dying series is held the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, alternating topics on aging and dying. The Nov. 28 program features a conversation on the humor and wisdom of spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Admission is $5. Check out future programs here.

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DramaWatch: Let the big dog play

Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," to be staged at the Chapel Theatre, has been called the best American play of the past 25 years; plus Hand2Mouth on suicide watch, and a handful of plays running out of time.

“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold they way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks isn’t big on folding things up neatly. And despite what people may usually like, she serves up they historical shit in a way that earns plaudits and Pulitzers, particularly in the play that contains the above quote, Topdog/Underdog.

When the play opened on Broadway in 2002, the year following its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theatre, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it ”vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” and compared it to Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man as an examination of “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.”

LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star in “Topdog/Underdog” at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Photo: Salim Sanchez

Soon, it had earned a nomination for the best-play Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first black woman so honored. Not too much later, Portland had a production — at Artists Rep in 2003, directed by Antonio Sonera.

Parks’ work hardly has become a regular treat on our local stages. With the exception of some of the short pieces in her mammoth experiment 365 Days/365 Plays and, a couple of years ago, her In the Blood at Portland Actors Conservatory, to my knowledge none of her other plays have been produced here. That drought ends this weekend with the opening of Topdog/Underdog at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, in a Street Scenes production directed by Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea. LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star. Bermea, in particular, has been on a hot streak of late, with brilliant performances in Fences at Portland Playhouse this past spring and in Artists Rep’s fall opener Skeleton Crew, fine directing work on Fires in the Mirror for Profile, plus some insightful journalism for (ahem!) Oregon ArtsWatch.

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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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DramaWatch: Giving you Moor of what you’re funkin’ for

Portland Actors Conservatory's raps "Othello: the Remix"; Oregon Children's Theatre makes teens "Shiver"; plus more shows set to open or close.

“Othello’s rich, but she keeps me poor

And now it’s time to settle the score

She never lets me get my foot in the door

And this is why I hate the Moor!”

OK, so it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. But of course, that’s the point.

That snatch of rhyme comes from a show called Othello: the Remix, which opens this weekend in a production starring students of Portland Actors Conservatory, directed by Artists Rep resident artist Vin Shambry. It shares something with Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, in which one of the plausible reasons for the villain Iago’s enmity toward Othello is a promotion that hasn’t gone Iago’s way. But that’s no iambic pentameter, and instead of a higher rank in the Venetian army, the prize that has eluded Iago is higher billing amid the pecking order of a touring hip-hop crew overseen by Othello as star and mogul.

Julet Lindo stars in the title role of “Othello: the Remix,” as a woman on a precarious perch atop the hip-hop game. Photo montage: Owen Carey

“Now I know what I should be.

I know what I’m worth,

But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”

Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:

I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?

He deals the freshman a fresh hand,

And he makes him his best man,

And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.”

This rather liberal modern adaptation was created by Chicagoans Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum (GQ and JQ), who work under the name the Q Brothers. They’ve been at the hip-hop-theater thing (or “add-RAP-tation,” as they call their approach) for quite awhile, having scored an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999 with the wittily titled The Bomb-itty of Errors, and toured extensively since, including a 2015 appearance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show. Othello: the Remix was commissioned by the Globe Theatre as part of 2012’s London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad.

Gettin’ in your ear: In the Portland Actors Conservatory production of “Othello: the Remix,” Xzavier Wolfie Beacham’s Iago (left) insinuates; Julet Lindo’s Othello implodes. Photo: Owen Carey.

For the Actors Conservatory version, Shambry has changed things up in a few additional ways. One of the points of tension in Shakespeare’s play, famously, is that Othello is black (“the Moor”), hence an outsider, an other, in Venice despite his high status. Shambry realigns that conflict: “I made Othello a strong black woman and Iago a black man.”

He credits that shift to the actors at his disposal, especially Julet Lindo, who’ll play the title role. “She blew me out the water,” Shambry says. “I came in thinking that Othello, as this rap mogul, has to be hard, masculine. What I didn’t see at first was the vulnerability. But I saw all of that in her.” Meanwhile, in Xzavier Wolfie Beacham, Shambry found a suitably compelling, mercurial Iago, in this case not the dissatisfied army ensign but instead “a better MC who doesn’t get the limelight.”

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A bird’s-eye view of terror

With chillingly understated performances and one monstrously masked character, Theatre Vertigo's "A Map of Virtue" will haunt your dreams.

What terrifies you the most? Ghosts? Snakes? Serial killers? Whatever your answer, I guarantee that if you go see Theatre Vertigo‘s profoundly disturbing new production of Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the image of a new monster will be carved into your psyche: a hulking man who wears a bird mask that has wide, circular eyes and a beak as sharp as a meat hook.

It would be foolhardy to say that A Map of Virtue exists solely to frighten its audience—it is also a potent rumination on romance, childhood and PTSD. Yet there is no denying that director Emilie Landmann and her incomparable cast have latched onto the most hellish passages of Courtney’s play and brought them to freakishly vivid life. The result of their efforts is an intoxicatingly intense vortex of pain and fear. As I was sucked in, I both savored the experience and longed to be released.

That was partly because I didn’t know what I was getting into. The opening scenes of A Map of Virtue introduce you to Sarah (Paige Rogers) and Mark (Samson Syharath)—two people who forge an intense friendship through a series of chance encounters—and prime you to expect a moody but relatively lighthearted play about people and their feelings. Yes, there are unsettling references (to a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and the sexual abuse Mark endured as a boy at boarding school), but nothing that prepares you for what comes next.

Paige Rogers (from left), Jacquelle Davis, and Samson Syharath in “A Map of Virtue” by Theatre Vertigo. Photo: KKelly Photography.

A Map of Virtue starts to reveal its true nature when Mark and Sarah and her husband Nate (Joel Patrick Durham) are invited to a party in the countryside by June (Kaia Maarja Hillier), who they have just met. She seems pleasant enough, but when the play’s heroes arrive at June’s house, they find themselves locked in a room, stripped of their phones and guarded by Ray (Gary Strong), June’s gun-wielding henchman (and the wearer of the aforementioned bird mask).

Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.

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