‘The Drowning Girls’ review: Resurfacing violence’s victims

Bag & Baggage’s revelatory story of the first celebrity serial killing puts the spotlight on the women, not their murderer

Bag and Baggage Productions sure got the timing right for its production of The Drowning Girls. We arrived at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre opening night amid a deluge, only to hear the eerie recorded echoes of dripping water and see beautiful projected aquatic imagery against the back wall behind the stage.

Water, water everywhere; the three actors spend much of their stage time in Victorian bathtubs, their hair and bathing gowns drenched. The magnificently minimal set features a trio of three-story tall figurative shower curtains. In this third Bluebeard story of the season (following Shaking the Tree and the Oregon Symphony’s productions), water has replaced blood as a signifier of wife murder.

Those potent production elements, including the gripping acting and directing, make The Drowning Girls overcome a flawed though frequently fascinating script to produce a wonderfully immersive theatrical experience.

Bag & Baggage's 'The Drowning Girls' runs through October at Hillsboro's Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Drowning Girls’ runs through October at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

The timing is apt in another way. This show about the social sexism that contributed to the serial murders of three women opened just hours after a celebrity presidential candidate revealed his serial sexist violation of today’s women.

Of course, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer couldn’t have known what was going to happen at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign months ago when B&B chose this play for its fall production. But while the scale of the two violations a century apart differs, the underlying social attitudes that contributed to them remain, as Palmer put it, “sickeningly relevant.” Like The Shining or Silence of the Lambs (though less gruesome than either), it’s that rare Halloween/Day of the Dead show that really makes you think and sympathize instead of just scaring you.


‘Assistance’: How to succeed in business with really trying

The high-class gofers in Theatre Vertigo's newest show play with fire, and hope against hope they won't get burned

On the surface, Leslye Headland’s play Assistance at Theatre Vertigo is about playing with fire, trying to get close to the flame of celebrity and not get burned.

I knew a personal assistant once. He drove a Land Rover, a recent import, and it made him feel like a modern-day colonialist conquering the long stretches of Midwestern highway. Americans, for him, were still wayward children who could never rise to the level of European culture. Yet where we lacked sophistication, we made up for it with power and money. That’s what he wanted, and after the bigger paychecks started rolling in,he bought the most American of features, a new set of teeth. He worked 24/7 for this multi-millionaire CEO: picking up dry-cleaning at 11 p.m., waxing his car on Sunday afternoons, finding and scheduling the company of women. When the company’s accountant had cooked the books one too many a time for the IRS, the pyramid fell, and personal assistants were the first to go.

Jenn Hunter (Heather) and Kaia Maarija Hillier (Nora). Photo: Gary Norman

Jenn Hunter (Heather) and Kaia Maarija Hillier (Nora). Photo: Gary Norman

Somewhere between a factory and a conga line, assistants file in and out of Daniel Weisinger’s New York office in Assistance. He’s a composite off-stage character based on Anna Wintour, the chic Vogue editor-in-chief,  and Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer. If reading TMZ or People isn’t your thing, these two high-powered people are know as genius enfants terribles. They can make and break celebrity and political careers. They can dish out great work and insults with an equal mastery.


Wong Street Journal’s #funnysocialjustice

Kristina Wong makes a funny discovery: America's "minority" is Africa's "mzungu"

“The Ugly American” may be the popular phrase for unseemly American behavior abroad, but wouldn’t another term be apter? How about the clueless American? The overeager American? The dorky American?

In Wong Street Journal, Kristina Wong self-awarely personifies all of these traits as she first recounts her sense of state-side alienation as a Chinese American, then describes a journey that took her much further out of her element: a volun-tourism trip to Uganda that she took after realizing that several years as a solo performing artist depicting mental illness (in Wong Flew Over thekristinawong_wongstreetjournal Cuckoo’s Nest) had sucked her into a selfie spiral.

To say too much about Wong’s particular experiences abroad is to spoil her storytelling’s best surprises; suffice to say there’s nary a dull moment. She cheerleads, snarks, sings, dances, and stocks the stage (pun!) with an abundance of soft-sculpture visual aids representing the Western economics and technology that hold the world in their thrall. She’s sewn the props and set pieces herself, and to spell out her ancestral connection to the world’s Asian sweat shop laborers, she opens the show by deadpanning the audience while feeding a huge bolt of dollar-print fabric through a sewing machine. Her main medium, felt, also deftly conveys her message. As a teaching tool, felt helps soften and simplify the elements in a story, just like Wong’s humor softens and simplifies the hard-edged implications of empire and exploitation. Indeed, Americans’ impact on the world should be felt—not just by the impacted abroad, but also by us. In the intermission-less span of 90 or so minutes, Wong draws us through three phases of her life: pre-, during-, and post-Africa.


Shaking the Tree’s ‘Head. Hands. Feet.’: Not so grim fairy tales

There will be blood in Portland theater’s “Tales of Dismemberment” but not all the body parts add up.

As you enter the theater, actors clad in neutral grey courteously greet you, lead you to a basin, and solemnly help you wash your hands. The splashing water provides the only sound in the hushed, neutral-colored space dominated by pale bluish greys — the better to contrast with the blood that will flow in Shaking the Tree theatre’s annual Halloweenish horror show.

Actually, the gore isn’t portrayed realistically but symbolically; Head. Hands. Feet. is by no means a fright fest. In fact, the first half consists of fairy tales, although anyone’s who’s read non-Victorian-sanitized ancient tales knows how really, ah, grim and gory they can be.

They can also seem pretty backward from a 21st century perspective, often punishing characters — particularly females — who transgress social norms. Accordingly, all three devised stories — and the adaptation of a classic Greek play that occupies the show’s second half — to some degree sanitize their models to make them more progressive/feminist/modern and, well, Portland than the originals.

Shaking the Tree Theatre's Head.Hands.Feet.

Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Head.Hands.Feet.

While that updated sensibility may make the stories seem more suitable to today’s audiences, it sometimes also makes them a shade too comfortable, at the expense of the dark reality they caution us about — not too different, ultimately and ironically, than what the Victorians did to those dark stories. It’s almost like thinking the world is like what we saw at the Democratic convention, and just ignoring that other one — the real horror show of last summer. At times, the apparent attempts to bring out more contemporary perspectives on these ancient tales actually undermine the modern moral stance these adaptations are trying to advance.

Nevertheless, as with any production involving the Portland theater power trio of imaginative director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and irresistible actors Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan, you should see Head. Hands. Feet. — though not to be terrified, but to have your terrors cleansed.


In ‘El Muerto Vagabundo,’ many worlds collide

Milagro's Dia de Muertos play has plenty to offer seasonally, spiritually, and sociopolitically

If you wander into Milagro Theatre’s El Muerto Vagabundo, what will you see? A world premiere of a seasonally themed story about homeless people both living and dead. A split narrative performed in both Spanish and English (with some of the best jokes delivered only in the latter).

You’ll watch The Kid (Diego Delascio), a recently orphaned young Mexican-American boy who hopes to contact his parents by observing Dia de Muertos, and his cynical older sister (Mariel Sierra), a social worker who serves many homeless clients, follow a mysterious (for lack of a better term) hobo clown into an “underworld,” a homeless camp under a bridge that doubles as a gateway between the dead and the living. From there, you’ll be treated to what amounts to a series of monologues from archetypes of the homeless condition, with a smorgasbord of stagecraft, a few surprising plot twists, and a feelgood, spookily sentimental finish.

Themes of celebration and mortality share the stage as two "dead" characters entertain the living. L to R: Geo Alva, Carrie Anne Huneycutt, Carlos Manzano, Patricia Alvítez, Juliet Maya Buri and Robi Arce

Themes of celebration and mortality share abound as two “dead” characters entertain the living. L to R: Geo Alva, Carrie Anne Huneycutt, Carlos Manzano, Patricia Alvítez, Juliet Maya Buri, Robi Arce. Photo: Russell J Young

That experience alone is enough—but it’s not all there is. Those who follow Portland theater will appreciate several more contexts in which this particular play could be viewed.


Sub-standard hero at the food court

Artists Rep's fast-food comedy "American Hero" is deftly produced and performed, but the script sandwich holds more than the mayo

Everybody’s gotta eat. And (with the possible exception of advanced Buddhist practitioners) everyone hungers for something. Those may or may not be related.

Sometimes that first truth leads you to settle for what’s at hand, the convenient and familiar — for instance, a fast-food sandwich. You probably can count on the thing to conform to some basic standards, to have a calculatedly appealing combination of salt and fat and such, to fill your tummy for awhile. But is it really satisfying?

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

For those who consume theater as sustenance, that sub sandwich has a surprising counterpart in American Hero, the latest production on the boards at the venerable Artists Repertory Theatre. Bess Wohl’s one-act comedy serves up enough basic entertainment value to get you through a brief evening — a handful of skillful performances and a lot of easy laughs tucked into a readily recognizable and digestible form.  But if you’re feeling the need of some nourishing human insight, emotional resonance, trenchant social thinking or refined aesthetic pleasure, you might find yourself uttering some theatergoers version of that old TV-ad lament, “Wow. I could’ve had a V-8!”


‘Hir’: Everything is everything

Defunkt Theatre tackles Taylor Mac's beyond-the-kitchen-sink drama about transgendering and family conflict

Defunkt Theatre has cooked up a hot mess with its production of one of the most acclaimed Off Broadway works of 2015, Hir. The kitchen sink dramedy (which includes vomiting into the sink) is set in a decaying prefab house in a conservative West Coast suburb. A soldier returning from war confronts his changing home and family dynamic.

Despite the piles of dirty takeout containers, grime on dated appliances, and teenage-sized piles of laundry, magic is in the air. Described as New York’s darling, playwright Taylor Mac creates “radical faerie realness ritual.” Mac uses the pronoun judy, as in Garland. Before judy begins a project, judy writes down all the things judy doesn’t want to talk about and those become the play. Judy is known as a Queer-American-Artist-Historian-Shaman and much of judy’s dialogue is as much a mouthful. There’s an enviable unbridled creativity to judy: anthropology with a splash of anarchist emotional and intellectual intelligence. While Mac wasn’t at Defunkt during the performance, judy’s spirit filled the theater. Audience members shed their modesty and checked in with each other during intermission and after. Defunkt’s Hir sparked conversation and a sense of community. Mac was in New York performing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which New York Times critic Wesley Morris described as “one of the great experiences of my life.”

Taylor Mac, performing in New York. Photo: Ian Douglas/2015

Taylor Mac, performing in New York. Photo: Ian Douglas/2015

Director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard set up the play with more counterbalances to step away from what he described as “the situational comedy” approach two earlier productions carried. If you haven’t been part of the dialogue around gender the last few years, Hir is great edutainment. Paige McKinney is a Baby Boomer mom whose quest for liberation has turned self-absorbed and controlling. She’s made a poster child out of her transitioning daughter-to-son, Max. Max (Ruth Nardecchia) is a kid on the cusp of many things and has assumed the world on their (this, or “ze,” is the pronoun the play finds preferable) shoulders. Paige’s husband, Arnold, played by Anthony Green, is a former plumber who is now a housebound stroke survivor. Isaac (Jim Vadala) is their son, a lumbering vet who sweats testosterone with military order.


  • 300x250_bv_bloodyvox
  • 103016-fnm-halloween-digital-300x250
  • epoch-jamuna-chiarini-push-fold-300x250
  • medium-rectangle-300x250
  • 300X250_artswatch
  • Artslandia Daily Calendar