THEATER

Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”

It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”

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‘Living Things’ review: animating the everyday

Fertile Ground musical finds magic in unexpected places

Not all the characters in Archie Washington’s enchanting new musical Living Things are, strictly speaking, alive. Carnival bowling pins that get knocked over and set back up again over and over; components of a science fair rocket; a robot Mars lander and its orbital companion; a decommissioned rocking horse in a doomed shopping mall— all have speaking roles in this charming six-episode anthology, as do other creatures not generally understood by humans to be conversational: a fly, a moth, a butterfly, a potted plant.

Yet in Washington’s unbounded imagination, all those objects, animate and otherwise, have something to say, and plenty to feel. Even in the preliminary version showcased last month at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival,  Living Things magically takes us back to when we were kids and we imagined what everything around us— animals, plants, toys— might be saying or thinking or feeling. Some of us still do that, even after we’ve grown up, though not as often as we probably should.

Jenna Yokoyama, Sean Dodder, Netty McKenzie, Camille Trinka, Zachary Johnsen in ‘Living Things.’

A moth unexpectedly finds himself attracted to an injured butterfly, even though he can’t quite figure out what she is. “It’s Always the Pretty Ones,” sings the horny moth’s friend, warning him against getting too close, but he can’t help it.

That story’s resolution needs a little more action to believably motivate the moth’s final act of generosity, and in a later episode, I had trouble understanding the carnival bowling pins’ escape plan. Most of the episodes could stand a bit of trimming (none run longer than about 10 minutes or so), especially a short-lived housefly’s near-monologue— the most melancholy and least successful of the lot. Yet despite such minor blemishes, I was captivated by their stories, and I wanted these animate objects to achieve their goals —that’s the magic Washington imbued in them.

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Building a better ‘Mousetrap’

Beaverton's Experience Theatre Project puts the audience in the middle of the action – and the mystery – in Agatha Christie's famous whodunnit

By MICHAEL SPROLES

Born in the English seaside town of Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie became one of the best-selling novelists of all time, known and beloved for her 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and creation of the immensely popular detective characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.

One of her most successful novels, Murder on the Orient Express, was given a blockbuster movie release worldwide last November. The film received mixed reviews, largely because it didn’t add anything new or innovative to previous adaptations.

That’s a trap that Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project is determined to avoid in its new production of Christie’s 1952 murder mystery The Mousetrap, the longest continually running play in history. ETP’s Mousetrap will immerse the audience in the action, placing it in the middle of the production’s manor as Christie’s eclectic characters roam around and are brought to life by the show’s actors and actresses.

Amber Bogdeweicz as Miss Casewell. Experience Theatre Project photo

This production of The Mousetrap, as all others, centers on a group of strangers stranded in a boarding house in the midst of a snowstorm in the English countryside in 1952. The suspects include the newly married couple who run the house, a spinster with a curious background, an architect who seems better equipped to be a chef, a retired Army major, a strange man who claims his car has overturned in a drift, and a jurist who makes life miserable for everyone. Soon a policeman, traveling on skis, arrives to inform everyone that no one is safe, and that there is a strong likelihood a killer walks among them.

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A gorgeous fairy tale, in triplicate

CoHo's "This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing" is a theatrical marvel about the adventures of not-so-identical triplets

At the risk of revealing my own ignorance, I must admit I had no idea what I was going to see when I was tapped to review CoHo Productions’ This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. I hadn’t heard of Finegan Kruckemeyer, the esteemed Australian playwright who has had 84 plays commissioned on five continents and whose works have been translated into eight languages.

These Girls, into the woods and beyond. Photo: Owen Carey

I was even mildly annoyed to see that this play about women was written by a man. “What could he know?” I thought. “What does he have to say on this topic that hasn’t been said before?” Turns out the answer to both question is, “So much.”

This Girl Laughs was first produced in 2011 in Argentina and has been produced dozens of times and received numerous awards since. According to Kruckemeyer’s website, it’s suitable for ages 7 to adult. Which might make one think this is production for children. It is, and it isn’t.

This is a play about children. Or people, I should say, who start out as children – as people often do. And it is about how three specific children – identical triplet girls, who, like most identical twins/triplets/etc., turn out not to be identical at all. It is also about, as CoHo has written, “cakes, battle, sun bathing, world carrying, unpleasant badgers, boring people, dancing, romance, walnuts, and long walks.” This is a fairytale. It is about loss, love, and redemption. It’s an odyssey, a bildungsroman in triplicate, and an epic poem.

But none of these descriptions is wholly true. If you were to read the script for This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, it would read like a novel, with chapters, in a third-person narrator’s voice. It’s a story about losing everything and finding a way to recover. It’s tragic and hopeful. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious. Kruckemeyer’s website says it can be performed by any number of players, and has been performed by one to 30.

Sharon Mann and Beth Thompson, traveling underseas. Photo: Owen Carey

Because this tale is broad and universal, just like a life (or three), and can be melded and shaped and shifted in magical ways. And what CoHo has done with Kruckemeyer’s beautiful words is capture lightning in a bottle.

With a cast of six fine Portland actors (most of whom I’ve enjoyed watching onstage a time or two or several), and under the deft direction of Tamara Carroll, CoHo’s space transforms from a modest home in the forest where three girls live with their mother and father – “And the girls knew in their hearts that this happiness they felt, living in the forest with that man and that woman, it would never end. … Until one day, it ended” – into a snowy wood, and then into warring villages and into beaches and a lighthouse floating across the sea and a vacated bakery and a Snow White-style fairytale filled with animals and a single young woman living out her life in the forest, and into the most boring town in the world, and into a mansion. …

It’s no small feat to pull all of this off on any stage, particularly a smaller space such as CoHo’s. Kaye Blankenship’s scenic design, Jennifer Lin’s lighting, and Sarah Andrews’ props play a major part in bringing this magic to life – but so does that incredible cast of six.

So, let’s talk about the singular actors who make up that cast: Conor Eifler (Younger Man), Duffy Epstein (Older Man), and Sharon Mann (Older Woman) play a plethora of characters and help narrate the triplets’ journeys. They are all so good that it feels unfair to single any of them out, but Epstein gets the most poignant and trickiest plot points, and he rises to the challenge. Epstein recently outshone a remarkable cast in Profile Theater’s Water by the Spoonful. That he doesn’t do that here is to his credit – he downplays his roles here in service to the greater good.

In a fairy tale, one must take measures: Duffy Epstein, Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Jen Rowe, Beth Thompson. Photo: Owen Carey

And, that greater good is those three girls of the title, the triplets. Carmen, the youngest and the one who “does nothing” (but what a lie that is) is played with sweetness, quiet, and innocence by Alex Ramirez de Cruz. The middle sister, Beatrix, the girl who cries (and does so much more than that) is played with reckless abandon, charisma, and comedic timing by Beth Thompson. And the oldest, Albienne, who laughs (though not as often as you’d think), is brought to life by the remarkable Jen Rowe, a force to be reckoned with at all times, but particularly when she’s wielding a sword in battle or flour in a bakery.

Seeing this triptych of women on the CoHo Stage, you will be struck by how lucky you are (although they have all been on the same stage at least once before, in Portland Playhouse’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in 2012, they didn’t carry that play in the same way). It is not an overstatement to compare casting these three to casting the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in a television show: Audiences are rarely that lucky.

And yet here we are in 2018 with HBO’s Big Little Lies on our televisions – and, if you are lucky enough to be in Portland right now, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing onstage at CoHo Theatre.

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This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing continues through March 3 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleight St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

No fool like an old fool

Milagro rediscovers a long-lost comedy from 18th century Mexico and takes it for a brash and funny 21st century spin in commedia clothing

The masks tease, the movements lurch, the dialogue bursts forth like water from a breached linguistic dam: it takes about ninety bedazzling seconds to realize you’re not in American-realism Kansas anymore. Friday’s opening-night performance at Milagro Theatre of Fermín de Reygadas’ 1789 comedy Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío (it translates, literally, as Tricks for inheriting a nephew to an uncle) is theater that revels in the theatricality of the artificial, wallowing in playful exaggeration and absurd variations on familiar themes.

I’m OK with that. I’m well more than OK with it: I’m delighted by it, and by Milagro’s funny, breezy, rough-and-tumble production. Astucias por heredar has a brusque vigor that feels like a tumble back in time to some theatrical beginnings, to the days of the traveling commedia dell’arte troupes of the 16th century and beyond, with their stock characters, instantly recognizable costumes, and populist appeal. Molière, whose plays Astucias resembles more than a little, added structure and witty verse dialogue and transferred the action to the French upper and aspiring classes. Even some of Shakespeare’s early plays, like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by commedia, and the old English Punch & Judy shows were commedia on a puppet platform. The form’s influence lives on in some of our best situation comedies, like the crisply stylized and brilliantly exaggerated Frasier.

Back row, from left: Bibiana Lorenzo Johnston, Marian Méndez. Front, from left: Carlos Adrián Manzano, Vorónika Nuñez, Enrique Andrade, Yan Collazo, Sara Fay Goldman. Photo: Russell J Young

Astucias por heredar has a pretty preposterous, and true, history of its own. Though it’s set in Madrid, it was one of the early plays written in the New World: Reygadas was a Spanish poet, playwright, astronomer and mining specialist (his true bread and butter) who emigrated to Mexico in the 1780s and remained a prominent figure there for the rest of his life. He wrote Astucias in 1789 and submitted it to the censorship board in Mexico City, where, the following year, a Father Ramón de Rincón denied permission for it to be performed, because, well, that’s what censors do (cue the current semi-official campaign in the United States to muzzle the free press). The good priest possibly considered the play dangerous because the rich old uncle is a lecher and a fool; the women and the servants contrive his comeuppance, thus endangering the stability of class and male privilege; severe flirting and bawdy suggestion occur; and, well, you know: it might undermine the Natural Order of Things. In other words, comedy.

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‘Chitra’: tale as old as time

NW Children's Theatre's enchanting "Chitra: The Girl Prince" spins a 5,000-year-old, up-to-date tale of dance and legendary adventure

You may not have heard of Northwest Children’s Theater’s latest, Chitra: The Girl Prince, but the tale has been around a long time – as the narrators, the gods Madan (Heath Hyun Houghton) and Vasant (Sudipta Majumdar), explain during the setup. “This story is like 5,000 years old,” says Madan.

The title character’s full name is Chitrangadha – which was the name of the dance-drama written in 1892 by Rabindranath Tagore, based on the ancient legend. It came to NWCT through the passion of Artistic Director Sarah Jane Hardy and her co-director and co-choreographer for this play, Anita Menon. They worked closely with first-time playwright Avantika Shankar, who adapted the ancient tale for NWCT audiences.

“Chitra: The Girl Prince”: dancing, adventure, and an ancient tale. Photo: David Kinder

While the time and place of the play and its origins are far away from Portland, the story – about a young woman torn between love and success – resonates today, when girls and women still find themselves choosing between traditional expectations and their own ambitions and desires.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Variety Valentine

From laughing/crying nothing girls to "The Pride" to a long-lost comedy to offbeat Valentine shows, the theater week should be a snap(shot)

Few titles are as directly descriptive of plot as CoHo’s forthcoming This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, an all-ages fable about three sisters who take diverging paths through the wilderness into womanhood. Eenie, meenie, miney mo; I wonder which sister is played by Jen Rowe? I’m guessing Albienne, the fighter?

“This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing.” Photo courtesy CoHo Productions

Defunkt opens The Pride, a widely split narrative that jumps a 60-year span to connect characters who share (almost?) nothing but a name. I love a good split narrative because the story—Humanity!—is already implied, and the rest of the exercise is just exploring the subtler curiosities of character. Spoiler: we’re all connected. But what will these particular people say and do?

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