Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae, sparring in “Building the Wall.” Photo: Tisha Wallace

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.


‘A Maze’ goes the extra mile

Theatre Vertigo's latest show wants extra credit for illustrations, a concept album and more—but in the end, it's all about the story

In a maze, there are bound to be some dead ends. In fact, that’s what you sign up for. Whether there are just enough or too many is open to interpretation, but one thing’s for sure: in Theatre Vertigo’s production of Rob Handel’s A Maze, there are none too few.

“Creating the world of this play has been a gargantuan feat,” writes Nate Cohen in his Director’s Note. “Our team has composed over a dozen original songs, generated more than 50 pieces of visual and projection art, and written a computer algorithm that has generated over 1000 unique mazes.”

Did they? Because the presence of multimedia works within the play is significantly subtler than those metrics suggest.

“This play demands this level of creative output…”

Does it? An apter word might be “inspires.” This cast and crew may have decided to do a few extra laps of legwork, but their process hasn’t drastically changed the outcome. More on that later.

Kidnap victim Jessica (Kaia Maarja Hillier) leads a complex life in the dual realms of captivity and fantasy at the center of “A Maze”. Photo: James Krane

At the end of the day, the make-or-break elements of this play are story and acting— particularly between the two characters whose relationship is the most bizarre and fraught. Kaia Maarja Hillier plays Jessica, a kidnapped teen, and Nathan Dunkin plays her longtime captor. He’s using her as his muse in a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game, which she obliges and guiltily enjoys. As she teeters on the cusp of sexual maturity and he grapples with the imminent consequences of his crime, holy Stockholm, does their situation get sticky. Their dynamic is riveting, really, and it forms the core of the story.


Manifesting a murderer’s mind

"Manifesto," taken from the words of Isla Vista spree killer Elliot Rodger's writings, replays a violent loop in search of meaning

Read the news on any given day and there’s either a shooting or an anniversary of a shooting. It’s not easy to become numb to the violence, but keeping up with it is demanding. The six degrees of separation theory keeps us tied to events. I knew someone running in the Boston Marathon when the homemade bombs went off. My childhood friend lives in Connecticut and texted me about the Newtown tragedy. Another friend was taking his small children to see Santa on the fateful night a few years back at Clackamas Town Center. We may not all have the same geographic or personal proximity, but the shootings can echo through our own lives.

Manifesto, a one-person performance created by Sam Reiter, Solveig Esteva, and Emma Rempel and performed by Reiter, is a claustrophobic rollercoaster ride through the mind of a spree killer. It begins with neglected human elements and maps a course from irrational traps to bloodthirsty rage.

Sam Reiter as mass killer Elliot Rodger. Photo: Solveig Esteva

You might remember the story. Manifesto is an adaptation of the real words left behind by Elliot Rodger, an isolated 22-year-old in Southern California who carried out the Isla Vista killing spree of May 23, 2014, murdering six people near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara before killing himself with a gunshot wound to the head.


Beehive’s hum and sting

Broadway Rose takes a musical tumble into the the sounds and styles (and hairdos) of the 1960s

Breathe a sigh of relief: the Broadway Rose New Stage has high enough ceilings to accommodate the fabulous hairstyles that parade across the stage in the company’s latest production, Beehive.

Beehive, a musical revue of the top ten hits and girl groups of the 1960s and a clever celebration of women’s voices, begins with six young teenagers who find refuge in the family garage to practice their dance moves and vocals along with the radio hits that consume their world. These are more than just songs: they’re maps that chart the bumpy waters of adolescent emotional lives. It’s a rite of passage for most kids (and a vexation to their parents) to hole themselves up in a room and fall head over heels for music.

The hairdos have it in Broadway Rose’s “Beehive.” Photo: Liz Wade

Unlike many of us who copied dance moves in the secrecy of our bedrooms, these girls from the golden age of American culture, music, and design have the style handbook down. Their coiffures are architectural masterpieces, replicas of the hairsprayed skyscrapers of the girl-group greats who rocked the original locks. The beehive hairdo took an enormous amount of weekly effort to perfect, from the right kind of shampoo to the best size soup can to achieve maximum flip to the intense under-teasing and overlaying back comb. It’s the American version of the geisha’s shimada. And at Broadway Rose, Andrea Enright’s Leslie Gore has the hair down to a T, with golden highlights framing her face. The cast moves through several costume changes as the conservative Jackie Kennedy lines become relaxed and individual as the decade advances. The whole ensemble of hair, costume, and stage is eye candy, like leafing through a 3D fashion history.


Matt Haynes explains The Pulp Stage

Since 2010, The Pulp Stage has been serving up sci-fi and suspense scripts á la carte at small venues. Their founder sheds light on their process and vision.

Be forewarned: This Thursday (April 20), if you find yourself in O’Connor’s Bar on Capitol Highway, you might lose yourself in a bizarre parallel universe. The Pulp Stage—a scrappy cadre of theater nerds deeply devoted to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense—will present a reading of Francesca Piantadosi’s Galaxy Blink, the story of a woman attempting to manage two men’s cosmic delusions while sometimes wondering if she’s actually the crazy one.

The Pulp Stage has been a blip on Arts Watch’s radar for some time, but we were curious to learn more. We asked founder and artistic director Matt Haynes to explain.

How long has The Pulp Stage been going, and what first got you started?

We did our first showing in Winter of 2010. I was inspired by a lewd, ultra-violent story that my brother had written for a music magazine. [Adam Haynes has a credit as screenwriter for the film The Pleasure Drivers, which features Meat Loaf and Billy Zane among others.] I thought his story could be really easily adapted into dialogue and narration. The Fertile Ground Festival of New Work gave me the perfect platform by which to mount my first production. I’d only worked as an actor and teacher previously.

Francesca Piantadosi’s “Galaxy Blink” on The Pulp Stage, April 20.

Where’s the biggest or most public, and the smallest or most private, place Pulp has performed?

Biggest public… so far, I would say Hipbone Studio with an audience of up to 60. Smallest, most private? A small living room.

Is theater etiquette different in a bar than in a playhouse space? What are pros and cons of each?

The big pro of a show in a bar is that you’re essentially conjuring the trip together. People are hanging out, drinking, munching and listening, and before you know it, everybody is transported. That’s the raw magic of theater right there. Plus, you usually get great deals on rentals, since you’re bringing in bucks for the bar.

Cons? With our shows, the audience needs to be hyper-focused on the words or they’re going to lose the story. And when you’re in a bar … well … sometimes patrons can treat the performance like music where you can move around, chat, drift in and out of listening (which I’m sure many musicians don’t like either). So our ideal venue has a bar feel, but a playhouse focus. The Vault at O’Connor’s—the location of our next show—really works that way. And we do modify our pieces to fit venues. With bars or public spaces like libraries, you usually want to go for the the broad and funny pieces. If the audience is repeatedly laughing, they’re repeatedly sending focus to the performers and the story. Galaxy Blink is funny, but it also has a lot of realism. We can do a “quieter” piece like that in the Vault at O’Connor’s.

How would you describe Pulp’s vision and repertoire? Has it changed over time?

The original format was staged readings, where you had script in hand but also had some light blocking, costumes, light design, sound design et cetera. In 2013, after taking the full reigns as producer (my co-producer had been Brian Allard up to that point), I realized just how much work it took to mount these shows … most of which were only going to play for one night. So I stepped back and thought about the ultra-violent story that got us going for 2010 … the final draft was built to be this really, really simple form of readers’ theater. You wouldn’t want to stage it with any elaboration, it was storytelling … with dialogue. What if we built more and more scripts like that? Super easy to produce and super fun for audiences and performers? Sort of like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. So we took that path, and now we develop plays in the form that we call “Prime”: just the words.

It’s important to differentiate what we do from workshop readings (where usually someone sits on the sidelines and reads the stage directions out loud). Workshop readings can sometimes be even better than the fully staged show, but the audience will always be in a split-minded position: “I’m enjoying this reading, and at the same time I know this is not the full actualization of the piece.”

How do we make ours different? We take physical actions out of the scenes (like the Greek plays where the fight builds in a battle of words, followed by blood and guts flying all around offstage), or we keep the action and have that be deliberately narrated, storytelling-style (as opposed to actions being listed, as with stage directions). This way, the audience is in a position to fully enjoy the show for what it is, and what it was always intended to be: verbal storytelling.

What’s your process, and what are your criteria, for picking plays?

The story needs to be something that could qualify as science fiction, fantasy or suspense (and suspense’s  permutations, like mystery or horror). And the story needs to have characters who are trying to get something from each other in every scene, using their words to do so. So, for example, the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey would certainly qualify as great science fiction, but  there’s no dynamic tension between characters; Dave just goes on the ride. The revealing of other worlds can be a big part of pulp genres, but you have to have characters giving and taking … and the stakes need to be survival-based.

How do you choose readers/actors?

We regularly host test reads of new material. Actors come and read pieces then give their feedback afterwards. It’s a real win because we get to learn how effective the play is and at the same time we get to know how the actor reads and how they might fit into one of our later shows.

Our pillars for an effective actor are (in order of priority)

-Do they speak clearly and at a decent volume?

-Do they seem grounded in their bodies when standing and delivering a story?

-Do they seem “real”: Are they getting behind the character’s wants and pushing?

-Do they have range?  Not as vital but helpful when we do evenings of multiple plays.

Are your playwrights hoping to get their shows fully staged, or read in other cities/markets? How does Pulp facilitate that process?

When a play looks like a good fit, and once it has been through our formatting method, we’re able to put it up on the stage and do so very quickly. All we need to make our plays happen is a quiet, contained space, an audience, actors and scripts—usually loaded up onto digital tablets. When a piece works, we often stir it into other showcases that we tour around, almost like a band’s set list. So that helps get the word out about the play even more.

We can’t offer development toward full staging (or what I like to call “traditional staging” because, within what they are, our plays are fully staged) but often we can serve as an acid test for the dialogue: How clear is the story with just the words? How can the context and the stakes be clearer with just the words? All this is good muscle building if and when the play goes the other direction to the land of sets, props, costumes, etc.

What are your 366 Audition Monologues [published on The Pulp Stage Site] all about?

I’ve wanted to create a play that was made up of monologues. What a great tool that would be! Entertaining as a show, and useful fodder for auditions. I didn’t consider myself a playwright, so I decided that a good confidence-builder would be to write a monologue a day for a year—leap year in this case. So I just went ahead and did it, figuring I and readers didn’t have anything to lose. Some of the monologues work better than others, as I’ve found out in test reads, but they all have characters trying to get something from someone (as opposed to monologues that are reflective, and thus harder to act in isolation) and all are gender-flexible. And there’s a good helping of monologues that can work for under-served age groups: Teens and older adults.

What’s on your immediate itinerary and wish list for the next season of Pulp?

Gigs, gigs and more gigs. Gigs teach us so much about the effectiveness of our format and how to increase that effectiveness. The company dream is to have a thriving publishing wing for our kinds of plays. Wouldn’t it be great if small communities and schools had kick-ass shows that need only a little push to get rolling? So with the gigs, we serve our audiences, build our network of supporters and learn about how to produce scripts that are what we like to call “easy tools for delight.”


See Pulp Stages present Galaxy Blink this Thursday, April 20, 7:30pm at the Vault of O’Connor’s, 7850 SW Capitol Highway.
“Suggested donation: Sliding scale up to $10. Patrons who wish to drink and dine are advised to arrive no later than 6:45.”



Berlin Diary: chasing ghosts

Andrea Stolowitz's play about family history and the continuing shadow of the Holocaust is funny, smart, and haunting

Berlin Diary, Andrea Stolowitz’s engrossing and surprisingly funny theatrical detective story that opened Saturday at CoHo Theatre, is a play about memory and loss and the force of history, and about the limitations and possibilities of the theater itself. A deep delve into the Portland playwright’s family history and its intersection with traumatic events in public life, it’s prompted by the discovery in the U.S. National Holocaust Museum archives of a diary her Jewish great-grandfather, Dr. Max Cohnreich, kept in 1939, three years after he had escaped with his immediate family to New York as part of the larger family’s own mini-diaspora, leaving Berlin for Argentina, America, and elsewhere while the getting was still good.

After ignoring this evidence of a possibly altered reality for several years, Stolowitz decided to follow it into its murky past. She spent eight months in Berlin, running down clues hinted at in the diary, trying to understand what happened to her extended family, which lore insisted had been fortunate – everyone got out alive – and trying to discover, in the process, why her family seemed so distant and disassociated from one another, not at all the close happy bosom of a family that Stolowitz wished so fervently it were.

Erin Leddy and Damon Kupper, history detectives. Photo: Owen Carey

What she discovered through many often frustrating interviews and a mass of new information lodged free from city archives shook Stolowitz’s sense of what she thought she knew. It also shook her sense of what others might want to know. “I suppose what’s gone is gone,” an aunt sighs at one point, and yet Stolowitz’s growing conviction is that that’s not true: what’s past is crucial to the present and future; time moves and shapes itself in successive and coexisting tidal waves. Forgetting or denying is an evasion, a burial of the communal self, that broods and bruises.


Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:


Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.