Imago Theatre’s ‘La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton’

Imaginative version of Beauty and the Beast presented the imaginative Portland theater company's biggest challenge yet

Imago Theatre is at a turning point. For 35 years, Portland’s most original theater company has specialized in making something beautiful out of not much: some masks, some movement, some music, often using no words or sets at all. The result: the long-running, enormously popular mask shows Frogz and ZooZoo, and dozens of other magical theatrical creations.


“La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.” Imago photo

But after more than three decades, Imago founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad decided the time had to retire those warhorses. Last summer, the couple announced they were selling the former Southeast Portland Masonic lodge that’s long served as Imago’s headquarters, performing and rehearsal space, and prop and costume shop. This weekend, Imago opens its biggest, riskiest venture ever. Given Imago’s flair for dazzling visual imagery and movement, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, which runs December 9-January 8, is likely to be a beauty. But for its  creators, it’s been a bit of a beast.


Black Nativity: dignity and joy

PassinArt's production of the Langston Hughes gospel cantata is a bright and shining star of the holiday firmament

On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.

Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity": a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.


A joyful miser: ‘Christmas Carol’ at Portland Playhouse

For the fourth year, the Playhouse's touching version of the Dickens classic lights up the stage

A recent article surfaced from the think tank the Acton Institute, supported by the next secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, which wants us to “rethink our position on child labor.” When Charles Dickens penned the novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, he had in mind the women and children he termed “victims of the Industrial Revolution”: the poor London souls who toiled to early deaths under the smokestacks of early factories. For all the Scrooges out there who’ve grown tired of the Currier and Ives Victorian death grip on the holiday aesthetic, this seasonal reminder of Christmases past, present, and yet to come may be the snake oil your hot cider needs.

At Portland Playhouse, which has opened the fourth annual production of its multiple award-winning version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge – a delicious Dickens name and noun, somewhere between screw and gouge – is immediately distinguishable from the rest of the characters onstage. Jen Rowe’s Scrooge wears a perma-scowl, and loafs with a purposed business shuffle. She wears a black dovetail suit, her hair is pulled back with pincher precision, and her complexion is near ash. Scrooge the misanthrope, horrible old miser, pales in the sights of the rosy-cheeked and ornately clothed villagers. Rowe’s diction is on point, like a rusty typewriter key punching paper. She takes little to no time looking up from her counting ledger, except to raise an eyebrow in disapproval or her can’t-be-bothered voice.

A light in the darkness: Portland Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol." Photo: Brud Giles

A light in the darkness: The Playhouse’s “Christmas Carol.” Photo: Brud Giles

The outside of the old church where Portland Playhouse makes its home looks more like late autumn. The neighborhood is filled with a few Christmas baubles in the yards, but mostly decorated with protest signs. Once you’re in the door of the theater, the angry aura of the president-elect is swept away in a candlelit hue. Cockney accents of passersby welcome you, and the warm voices of what seems a spontaneous choir reach your ears. The scene for Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol is an immersive dunk into a world long gone by.


‘Tis the season to be Liberace and Liza

Saffert and Harris team up at CoHo in a camp comedy parody of pop culture's great glitter duo

I recommend bringing a pair of sunglassses to A Liberace and Liza Christmas at CoHo Theater. It’s not the glow of the holidays that’ll strike your eyes, but the universe of sequins donned by Liberace and Liza.

The dynamic duo, performed by David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, pull out all the stops in a fast-paced cabaret show. Good-natured and slightly off-cuff jokes make the most of the night. When Harris’s 1970s Liza Minelli, the Liza who was a pillhead, a drunk, and stockpiling cocaine with Martin Scorsese, enters Liberace’s stage, he says in his sweetest voice: “It’s wonderful that you finally showed up.”

Snow Harris played Liza in Triangle Production’s Liza Liza Liza! earlier this year, and she has the talented emotional mess down pat. Harris’s performance this time around is the darker and wiser Liza. She’s sexy and confused. She hits her dance points like a pro, but almost trips, as Liza did when she was on her way down, joining the aged Rat Pack on tours before she became a recluse in the ’80s.

The dynamic dup. Photo: JoAnne Jardine

The dynamic dup. Photo: JoAnne Jardine

The chemistry between the imagined pair gives off the sparks of a well-programmed Vegas act that’s being prepared for a television special. Saffert’s Liberace makes plenty of eye contact and bears a wide-mouthed grin, but like the real Liberace you can tell it’s all an act. There’s some repression, some sadness, weighing down the talent. It’s the delicious sarcasm that was reined in by the good manners of the stage that made comedy what it was in the late ’60s through the ’70s. It allowed us to laugh at ourselves, but with a good-hearted kick to the pants. Where Liberace is the straight man in this act, Liza is the joke. She sings the gold hits from the musical Cabaret and in a winsome voice lets the audience know they’re her favorite Christmas songs.


Venus and Adonis: a minimalist masterpiece

Can you appreciate acting for its own sake? Attending this play is a good way to check.

I’ve been here before.

Yes, this time last year—almost to the day—I visited Shaking The Tree Theatre to watch Matthew Kerrigan perform (wonderfully) in another minimally staged show, Dario Fo’s The Dissenter’s Handbook. Among the few audience members, I recall a middle-aged couple each (despite obviously knowing better) texting incessantly during the show, then leaving at intermission. Which left me wondering: Why had they even come?

Rebecca Ridenour as Venus and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan had just been featured in Artslandia’s “The Lead,” effectively celebritizing him as one of the city’s best actors, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this cashmere-casual couple’s presence at the play had something to do with that. Like foodies who’d order the city’s best duck confit then proclaim it too greasy, these people had tracked down one of Portland’s best actors only to realize that the craft of acting, in and of itself, didn’t “do it” for them. To enjoy theater, they may have needed more appetizers. A kitchen-sink-realistic set, perhaps? A swing-dancing ensemble cast? Who knows? In any case, they needed to see something made out of something, not something magicked out of nothing, as Kerrigan was—and is again—prepared to do.


Spectravagasm ‘Holidaze’: Come one, come all

The reliably great comedy series is finally accessible in more ways than one

Can this be the year that Spectravagasm stops feeling like a secret? Because I’m tired of having to explain how funny it is. Everyone should just go see it.

If the tight-knit crowd who’ve already followed this show for years can don their earmuffs for a moment, we’ll review: Spectravagasm is a series of original sketch comedy shows that each address one of life’s broadest topics. So far, they’ve skewered religion, death, drugs, gender, art, love, camp—and now, finally, holidays. Armed with a bouncy, sarcastic ensemble cast, a barrage of kitschy video segments, a Spectravagasm theme song that changes lyrics to support each show’s theme, and at least one all-new musical number every time, Spectravagasm is one of the most complete packages available in Portland-artisan-crafted theater entertainment. Why doesn’t everybody know?

L to R: Keith Cable, Jessica Tidd, Jim Vadala, Sam Dinkowitz, Jessi Walters, Phillip Berns

L to R: Keith Cable, Jessica Tidd, Jim Vadala, Sam Dinkowitz, Diane Kondrat, Jessi Walters, Phillip Berns. Photo: Kathleen Kelly

I can see a couple reasons for this. Up ’til now, Spectravagasm has always been a Post5 Theatre property, holding down that house’s late-night spot after whatever play they were officially billing as part of their season. Post5, up through its closure last week, had always occupied the city’s geographic fringes, starting on 82nd Avenue and finishing in Sellwood. Furthermore, there’s seemed to be an unfortunate inverse correlation between the buzz ‘gasm has generated over the years and the time that’s been put in. Why? Because the show’s producer and mastermind, Sam Dinkowitz, performs in many other shows around town—perhaps most relevantly committing his last three Christmases to Twist Your Dickens at Portland Center Stage. While that role raised his profile, it also limited the time he could pour into his pet project; hence, the ‘gasms that finally garnered the most public buzz—”drugs” and “art”—also least demonstrated the scope of the troupe’s talents.


Berlin stories: the making of an American legend

Portland Center Stage's "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" sings and tells the story of the outsider who became the deeply driven voice of the nation

For all of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin’s genuine patriotism and genius for tapping the vitality of the nation’s popular spirit, he comes across in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin as something of a dyspeptic old coot.

Then again, when we meet him (in a clever bit of stagecraft, as the invisible inhabitant of a wheelchair that sits stage right on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage) he’s a disgruntled centenarian, crushed by the recent loss of his wife of more than sixty years, haunted by the feeling that the popular culture he did so much to help create has passed him by, and, mostly, just tired of life.

Fortunately his younger self, in the person of singer, pianist, playwright, and solo performer Felder, is on hand to speak for him, act as an intermediary between the very private Berlin and his adoring audience, and explain the personal and cultural context of the extraordinary book of roughly 1,500 songs for which the man born Israel Isidore Beilin (or Baline) wrote both music and lyrics, altering forever the landscape of American popular music.

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

In Friday night’s opening performance at Center Stage, Felder was a brash and pounding presence, attacking Berlin’s songs with dominating passion and the piano keyboard with emphatic fury, as if he were afraid some fugitive modern reinterpretation might escape and misrepresent Berlin’s original intentions. It seemed apt. Felder’s delivery of this bounty of songs was distinguished by a fidelity to the periods in which the music was composed, reaching back in spirit to the straightforwardness of Berlin’s hero Stephen Foster and for the most part (although he began his career writing tunes for the dance crazes that swept the nation in the early years of the 20th century) avoiding the syncopations of the swing and jazz revolutions that came to represent and in many ways reinvigorate the Great American Songbook. If Berlin’s songs were simple compared to Porter’s or Gershwin’s, they also had the power of directness. They were essentially American statements of optimistic populism, with a potent blend of honest sentimentality and the hard nut of basic truths. They were songs you could hum. Songs you did hum.


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