THEATER

The significance of ‘Insignificance’

Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio walk into a hotel room. Defunkt Theatre seeks big ideas in a 1982 play.

History repeats. Leaders consolidate power until they lose it all. New scientific discoveries overturn the way we look at the world and then become taken for granted. Society claims progress for women while still treating them as objects. We see these patterns but never really seem to learn how to avoid them. Defunkt Theatre opens its season looking back at our own history with Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance.

Set in a hotel room in 1950s New York, the show centers on four of the most iconic characters of the era: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio. Due to liberties Johnson takes with history the characters are referred to simply as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator, and The Ballplayer. While they are ostensibly the historical figures they represent, they are also ciphers for Johnson’s exploration of politics, celebrity, and science.

Tabitha Trosen as The Actress, Gary Powell as The Professor. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Insignificance is a show about ideas. The light plot revolves around The Professor (Gary Powell), beset on one side by the anti-Communist Senator (Nathan Dunkin) and on the other be the advances of The Actress (Tabitha Trosen).

Continues…

‘Angamazad’ review: handmade tales

Fox & Beggar Theater's circus-style production lights up Arabian Nights

And Shahrazade noticed that dawn was approaching and stopped telling her tale. Thereupon Dunazade said, “Oh sister, your tale was most wonderful, pleasant and delightful.”

“It is nothing compared to what I could tell you tomorrow night, if the king would spare my life,” Shahrazade said.

“By Allah,” the king thought to himself. “I won’t slay her until I hear some more of her wondrous tales.”

That’s the setup of A Thousand and One Nights a/k/a Arabian Nights a/k/a Alf Layla Wa Layla, the compendium of thrilling stories of Sindbad the Seaman, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and so many more.

Fox & Beggar’s ‘Angamazad.’ Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt.

And that’s the story (or at least a glimpse of it) that Fox & Beggar Theater brought to Portland’s Alberta Abbey for a one-weekend run at the end of last month. With over 4,000 pages of folk tales from across the Middle East available in the colossal collection, drawn from both recent (Lyons & Lyons) and 1888 (Richard Burton’s classic) translations, the creative team of writer/director Heather Beckett and her F&B co-artistic director Nat Allister had to be selective. And while, hamstrung by a tedious opening sequence, it couldn’t keep me entirely enthralled for its three-plus hour running time, much less a thousand nights and a night, Angamazad offered abundant enthusiasm and moments of magic.

Continues…

An epic circle, intimately drawn

A classic Brecht circles around to today: Shaking the Tree's personal-sized epic "Caucasian Chalk Circle" spins a funny and pertinent tale

Gather ’round, children, for a long autumn’s tale. It’s epic, and intimate, and small-scale, and so big a whole village could hardly wrap its arms around it. It’s an interlocking set of stories, really, in five acts and a prologue, moving freely from a 14th century Chinese fable, to the Soviet Union sometime near the end of the Second World War, to right here and now. It’s frankly artificial, and lands a few resounding truths, and is funny and cruel and consoling, and very private and very political. It is not, as one artistic director recently described the contemporary theater scene with a slight whaddya-gonna-do shrug, “ninety minutes, no intermission.”

It’s a Brechtian world, round and round. Photo: Gary Norman

It is, in fact, a little over three hours, one intermission. But that’s OK: It’s Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and some things are worth a little extra time. Shaking the Tree’s new production of this 20th century classic is binge-watching in a single seating, and it somehow manages to feel both classic and contemporary without diminishing either. It delivers an old-fashioned wallop of vivid, simply staged theatricality, and the ensemble has so much energy to go with so few props in such a small space that in its expressionistic fervor it sometimes overdoes things: words get lost in the rafters as they overlap; actions tumble helter-skelter. Not very often, though, and when they do it seems a matter of epic style overwhelming the space, without the distancing that gives epic its most potent effect. Consider this a minor and almost inevitable drawback. The payoff is that the intimate is truly intimate, and sweeps the audience not just into its embrace, but also into a kind of active partnership. As the tales spin out things become clearer and clearer. The quieter moments take precedence, and an emotional gravity grabs hold.

Continues…

DramaWatch Weekly: Rumor has it

Day of the Dead, day of the cabaret, day of the All Jane Comedy Festival (plus another episode of YouTubinator)

Is Milagro Theatre downsizing, moving or closing?

A.L. Adams

Nope, says Producing Creative Director Roy Antonio Arauz, but he can see why people are asking. While their annex space, El Zocalo, has been undergoing accessibility upgrades, their boarded-up front windows have been beset by spraypaint and wayward fliers, making them deceptively appear shut-down.

But don’t fret! Portland’s longest-running Latino theater is gearing up as usual for its annual highlight: a Dia de Muertos play that always wraps a new theme around the sacred and sensorially rich traditions of the fall holiday. It opens next week and continues through mid November. ‘Til then, ignore the unfortunate window dressing.

“Exodo,” Milagro Theatre’s 22nd annual Day of the Dead spectacular, opens Oct. 20. Photo: Russell J Young

Here in the ArtsWatch theater department, further rumors abound: that (according to Bobby Bermea) Shaking the Tree’s Samantha Van Der Merwe is a magician, that (via TJ Acena) Artists Rep’s trying to mess with our minds. According to Deann Welker, Lost in Midair is the real deal, and if you ask Bob Hicks, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild has had a lot going on for a long time. Read all about it.

Oh! And even though I missed season 1, I heard Season 2 of Joel Patrick Durham’s horror serial Nesting: Vacancy might be worth looking into. Who was saying that? Oh, right: its actors. Well, maybe they would know. Here at ArtsWatch, Hailey Bachrach is vouching.

Lakewood Theatre’s Cabaret  closes this weekend, looking clean and cheesy in counterpoint to this summer’s Broadway Portland offering, which felt credibly dark and sleazy. (How much realness do you want from strippers and Nazis? It’s negotiable.) One thing fans of this musical ought to stop not knowing, is that downtown Portland has a real-life Kit Kat Club. Mere blocks from the Keller, its existence recently rendered Broadway Portland’s poetic PR pitch “We welcome you to the Kit Kat Club…” downright confusing to high/low arts amphibians like me. Hedging my bets, I attended both events, finding surprising similarities: Each Kit Kat had a glittery, mischievous emcee; each featured winky burlesque and wobbling flesh. In each, the writer was quickly befriended by a sly businessman with a hidden agenda. But at only one of the parallel Kit Kats did I witness dancers doing carnival strongman feats, including The Bed of Nails and The Crushing of One’s Fingers under a Tin Can—and believe it or not, that was on the small stage. All of which is to say: Cabaret the musical closes this weekend at Lakewood, probably sans can-crushing but with plenty of satiny pizazz. Cabaret the concept continues, probably forever.

Now let’s be naughty and play the little game we love, but PR people so often hate: Let’s YouTube search some more performers! In my experience, comedians are the most cool with that anyway, and luckily, this weekend dozens are coming. I’ll race you to the YouTubinator!

First up, searching Amber Ruffin yields a deep trove of video treasure. As a staff writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers she frequently appears in recurring bits like “Amber Says What,” “Amber’s Minute of Fury,” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Here she is recapping the 2016 Olympics in a single word, and here she is flipping her wig in defense of a congresswoman.  And just watch the next twenty or so clips that come up. I did.

Well, shoot. If we do this for all 48 acts from All Jane Comedy Festival, we’ll be at it until it’s over. Just go to these shows. They start tonight.

Laura Sams candidly takes one of 48 slots at the All Jane Comedy Festival Oct. 11-15.

 

 

 

 

Theater to feed your TV jones

"Nesting" enters its second season at the Shoebox, one-upping TV tropes like binge-watching by adding theatrical urgency to the action

The rise of streaming services and TV series released in a single chunk has more or less done away with Hollywood’s traditional pilot season. But until recently, you could find one in Portland: Action/Adventure Theater’s annual Pilot Season showcase was an evening of “pilot episodes” of short, serialized plays, one of which would be selected for a full run the following season.

Joel Patrick Durham’s pilot wasn’t chosen. And in hindsight, he thinks that’s for the best.

Energized by the audience response to his runner-up pilot, Durham (who I met when we worked together with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival) decided to self-produce Nesting at the Shoebox Theater in 2016, along with co-producer Natalie Heikkenen. The response to that was sufficiently enthusiastic that Durham and Heikkenen were inspired to pull another leaf from the television playbook, and come back with something not many plays get: a second season.

Isabella Buckner, Tyharra Cozier an Jacob Camp in rehearsal for “Nesting: Vacancy.” Kathleen Kelly/ KKellyphotography

Like the first season, Nesting: Vacancy — which opens in October on Friday the 13th — will run in four forty-five-minute, sequential “episodes,” two per night. Though the two parts share a setting– an abandoned Portland house– they don’t share a story. In the vein of popular anthology television shows American Horror Story or True Detective, season two will start fresh, with a completely new set of characters. Specifically, a pair of siblings who find themselves squatting in the mysterious house while on the run from a murky past.

Continues…

Caught in a lie, or a truth

Artists Rep's installation and performance "Caught" flirts with the boundaries of fact and fiction. Is it "real"? Who do you trust? Why?

As I walked into Artists Repertory Theatre I was greeted by the sight a Chinese man dressed as Chairman Mao, surrounded by dozens of automated maneki-neko (those little cat-statues you find at Chinese and Japanese restaurants). Together, they stared off into the mid-distance and waved, all slightly out of synch. The effect was strangely welcoming and unnerving at the same time. This is how Caught begins, a facsimile of Chairman Mao. A lie.

This was not the only lie the evening held.

 An usher handed me a guide for the gallery, attributed to Chinese artist Lin Bo, and encouraged me to take in the exhibit before the house opened. Throughout the lobby were Meditation Stations for the Consumed, circular curtains of blank price tags viewers could walk into and contemplate their existence as cogs in the machine of capitalism. Up on one of the walls was an interactive installation called Cloud Memory, which projected text messages from participating audience members onto a rustling field of white sequins.

Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

By now it should be apparent that Caught is not a traditional theater performance. Nor a traditional art show. The visual art works in tandem with the performance, creating a space that opens the audience up to being led somewhere new.

Continues…

Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

Continues…