THEATER

Mary of the mysteries

Jacklyn Maddux tells a tale of wonder and regret as the mother of Jesus in Colm Tóibín’s "The Testament of Mary" for Corrib Theatre

Holy Mother of God, how could you say such things? Tense, sad, argumentative and just this side of bitter, Jacklyn Maddux is far from a Renaissance painter’s vision of the Virgin Mary. Then again, that symbol of serene and ardent holiness is not what Colm Tóibín wants her to be. What he wants, as things turn out, is something more combative and conflicted in its mysteries.

Watching Maddux’s solo turn for Corrib Theatre in The Last Testament of Mary, Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his 2012 novella, I thought almost inevitably of Nikos Kazantzakis and his startling, in some circles notorious, novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

Temptation was first published in Greek in 1955, the year that Tóibín was born in Ireland, and although Last Testament is in no way connected stylistically or narratively to the earlier novel, they share a thematic understanding: religious myth is built on human experience. It is rote among Christians to refer to Jesus as both man and god, and yet the “man” half of the equation is routinely subsumed, as if it were a tainted and shameworthy thing, in the glories of the god. Kazantzakis roiled the official waters by writing a novel in which Jesus, far from being above or otherwise separated from humanity, was deeply and passionately human. He felt every emotion, every temptation, including the temptations of the flesh; only by being fully human and understanding what that meant could he be the kind of god he was.

Jacklyn Maddux as Mary, remembering. Photo: Owen Carey

The Last Testament of Mary concentrates on the human, too, through the voice and experiences not of Jesus but his mother, speaking, finally, years after the events. And Mary, to tell the truth, isn’t buying a lot of the mythology. Tóibín chose the word “testament” carefully: This remarkable and sometimes heartrending narrative is indeed a testimony and not a gospel (from the Old English “god spell,” or “good news”). To Mary’s mind, there’s not much good about it. Her account of her son’s life and death could almost be a legal deposition, a statement of the facts as the witness sees them, and yet it is also a dogged questioning, a ruthless self-examination, a turning-inside-out of the soul.

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‘Noises Off’ off as its space is sold

The impending sale of the Venetian Theatre prompts Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage theater to cancel a potential hit – and digs a budget hole

Nothing, it seems, can stop Noises Off, the backstage farce by Michael Frayn that’s been a perennial, and a perennial moneymaker, across the English-speaking world since it opened in 1982.

Unless it’s the real estate market.

Bag&Baggage, the theater company that produces most of its shows in downtown Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, announced today that it’s canceling its season finale, a production of Noises Off at the Venetian.

B&B’s Scott Palmer: “unwilling to risk the future … on a roll of the dice.”

The reason? The performance hall is being sold, and Bag&Baggage, which rents the space, has no guarantee that it will be available this spring. Noises Off is an expensive show to produce, and artistic director Scott Palmer said the company couldn’t take the chance on spending a good deal of money on sets and costumes only to discover that the Venetian wouldn’t be available for performances. Palmer had expected the show to be the biggest money-maker of the season, and having to cancel creates a budget problem for a company that, in its twelve-year history, has always operated in the black.

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Northwest history hits the stage in “Astoria” and “db”

CoHo's "db" experimented wildly with DB Cooper's tale, while Portland Center Stage's "Astoria: Part One" took a traditional trail

By HAILEY BACHRACH

While dramas about American history never went away, I believe that we are now in the midst of a kind of history play renaissance. In the ten years since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its intention to commission a cycle of 37 plays about American history, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History was created (and named the OSF-commissioned All The Way one of its first winners), Arena Stage in Washington, DC, has launched a project to create a 25-play American history cycle, and of course, Hamilton happened.

Given the events of the past ten years—not to mention the recent election cycle—it is not entirely surprising that we find ourselves in a moment of reflection about our past and how it has shaped our identity as a country. While Obama’s presidency did not in fact usher in the glorious vision of a post-race America, it does seem to have mainstreamed a conversation about how the picture of our past can be expanded. The current wave of history plays are not only traditional political tragedies about important white men—though those are there, too—but many are also investigations into how our understanding and narration of America’s history can be radically reshaped by previously silenced voices.

For example, the five finalists for the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize are Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the 26-year-old lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and the young lesbian she represented, who became known to history as “Jane Roe” (an OSF commission); 24 Hour History of Popular Music, a marathon musical spectacle by prominent queer artist Taylor Mac; Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, focusing on the racial tensions in a factory town in the mid-2000s (OSF commission); Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen, a comedy about how his parents met as refugees from the Vietnam War (which played at OSF); and Indecent by Paula Vogel, about a 1920s Yiddish play that was banned for its depiction of a lesbian relationship (OSF commission). Even the settings of some of these plays feel fresh—rural Arkansas and Reading, Pennsylvania. Traditional visions of America’s history have not only been circumscribed by race and gender, but by geography. How often do we see histories that move beyond the borders of the 13 colonies?

I have long been struck by the fact that none of the plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned so far have been set in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. So I was excited to see that two Portland companies would be filling the gap for the Fertile Ground Festival.

“Astoria: Part One” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Jennie Baker

The epic, sumptuous historical drama of the season is Astoria: Part One at Portland Center Stage (closing this weekend; part two is already scheduled for next year). Based on the nonfiction book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark, the production is adapted and directed by Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman.

And over at CoHo Productions, Tommy Smith’s db, which close earlier this month, tells the (possible) story of Dan Cooper, the still-unidentified skyjacker who diverted a Portland-to-Seattle commuter flight, then jumped out of the plane into the night with his $200,000 ransom strapped to his body. Some of the money later turned up in a river. Neither Cooper nor the rest of the money were ever found, spawning decades of theories about his ultimate fate.

Both are strong showings by their respective companies, and each of the two presents a very different model of the new American history play.

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Scarlet Letter of the streets

Suzan-Lori Parks' "In the Blood" at Portland Actors Conservatory brings Hawthorne's star-crossed Hester to the mean modern streets

The gifted writer Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1999 play In the Blood, which opened over the weekend at Portland Actors Conservatory, is a terrific, audacious, sometimes terrifying piece of writing that sneaks up on you sideways and then delivers a searing, visceral punch. It’s a vivid work of creative imagination with the deep pull of a folk enchantment, an into-the-woods tale where the woods are the tough concrete surfaces of the urban streets.

And the show’s advanced conservatory actors, under the sharp and piercing direction of Victor Mack, pretty much knock it out of the park. They give committed, thoroughly professional, audaciously transgressive performances as they suck the audience into a strange, bleak, tender, and disturbingly enthralling tale.

Monica Fleetwood is Hester in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood.” Photo: Owen Carey

It’s a literary allusion, riffing mostly on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and partly on Euripides’ spiritually ravenous Medea, with some Brechtian breakouts for sardonic truth-telling as the action’s taking place. It features a witty, vulnerable, emotionally captivating and very dangerous lead performance by Monica Fleetwood, and superb double-duty acting by a supporting cast of five.

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Sparrow and the whole shebang

"His Eye Is on the Sparrow" at Portland Center Stage sets Ethel Waters in the middle of a world of cultural upheaval

The soil of American popular music has long been watered by black gospel, which in turn was watered by the work songs and spirituals of the slavery days, and those songs were built on the rhythms and instruments of West Africa. At some point it all met the melodic structure of European folk music and the theatrical sass of Tin Pan Alley, often flattening into the minor key of international lamentation, and created a garden gumbo that was all the better for its multiple and serendipitously clashing flavors: a brash, free-flowing, restlessly transforming American stew.

Ethel Waters stirred the pot.

To people who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Waters was a figure of elderly power and spirituality, famous as a gospel singer, particularly in the Billy Graham Crusades, and iconically for her rendition of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which she had famously performed in the early 1950s Broadway and movie adaptations of Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. For people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Waters was something altogether feistier and more glamorous: before she joined the sacred industry of saving souls she was one of the biggest names in show business, a pioneering black star of Broadway and the movies, a recording artist whose jumpy, elegant, playful, and sometimes heart-shattering voice spanned the worlds of the blues, jazz, vaudeville, musical theater, swing, and, yes, occasionally gospel.

Maiesha McQueen as Ethel Waters: power and passion. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

It’s that budding and scrapping star of an Ethel Waters we meet, for the most part, in the musical biography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which opened Friday night in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage in a production featuring the powerful and brooding Maiesha McQueen as Waters and – off to the side but of utmost importance – Darius Smith at an upright piano as her accompanist and musical provocateur.

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‘Elliot’: a fertile seed, growing

"A Soldier's Fugue," The opening salvo in Profile Theatre's season of plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes, plants the promise of bigger things

One of the most striking bits of information you’ll encounter if you go to see Profile Theatre’s production of Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue is dropped offhandedly into a program note by artistic director Josh Hecht, who mentions that “there are currently 21.8 million veterans in the United States.” That’s around seven percent of us, as if we’d sent the whole state of Florida, say, off to war — or the entire Northwest plus a chunk of Northern California. Or, to put it in terms that might hit home to 19-year-old Elliot Ortiz, serving in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division, that’s three and a half times the population of greater Philadelphia.

In any case, it’s quite a figure for a nation that thinks of itself as peace-loving, or at least peace-keeping; a peaceful nation ever at war.

Cristi Miles, Anthony Lam (in fatigues), Jimmy Garcia, Anthony Green (far right) in “Elliot.” Photo: David Kinder

The bulk of those veterans still around served in either Iraq, Vietnam or Korea: places — or do we think of them merely as conflicts — that serve as the generational benchmarks for Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play, which was first produced (in a slightly different version) at Portland’s Miracle Theatre in 2005. Inspired by the Iraq War experiences of her own cousin, Hudes presents three generations of men in the same family, examining what they made of their time at war and what that time made of them.

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Out There: Valentine’s Week

This Valentine's Week, you have many outré entertainment options, in various flavors besides vanilla

Out There is a sporadically recurring list of recommended arts events that may not otherwise be on our readers’ radar. Enjoy.

Does somebody love you? Congratulations. Do you love somebody? Lucky you. Do you love yourself? Salud. Regardless, Valentine’s Week is upon us, and unless you’re enticed by the typical Lady-and-Tramp spaghetti-strand-sharing scenario the holiday promotes, you’re going to have to make other, more adventurous plans. Here’s a list of possibilities (with links included) to tickle various fancies. Take your pick.

Asimov Atomsmasher will be one of a slew of burlesque and circus performers at Wanderlust’s Valentine’s Cabaret.

February 8
Pwrhaus Visual Album Release
If you’re looking for some tantric, transcendental foreplay, you may want to catch a Pwrhaus concert. Even the names of bands you could compare their sound to—Flaming Lips, Love and Rockets—are already enough to kindle some lust. What’s more, their newest release of slow, whispery, synth-rich love songs is paired with a set of epic videos wherein an interplanetary wanderer encounters strange species of wild women.*

February 10
Cabaret Boris & Natasha
Iconic contemporary dancer Linda Austin of PerformanceWorks Northwest has an at-least-15-year annual tradition of presenting “some of the most inventive performing artists from the region” under playful branding borrowed from Rocky and Bullwinkle villains. While you never know exactly what to expect, one perennial favorite act is The Boris & Natasha Dancers, an “ever-revolving gang of untrained male dancers.” Meow! Or maybe, rather, ruff.

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