THEATER

Dani Baldwin forges her own path

As her mentor Stan Foote heads into retirement, Oregon Children's Theatre's Baldwin stays committed to her Young Professionals

It was a surprise when Stan Foote decided to retire as artistic director from Oregon Children’s Theatre, but it wasn’t a shock. Foote, who left in September after 28 years with the company, has been one of the most prominent and respected figures on the Portland theater scene. And though his energy and creativity do not appear to have waned, he decided it was time to change. Dani Baldwin, Foote’s colleague, mentee, fellow-soldier-in-the-trenches and all-around best friend, knew the time was coming, just not so soon.

“He initially said he was going to retire when he was 70,” Baldwin remembers. “That’s three and a half years from now. So that was like, ‘Cool, that’s a great amount of time.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe two and a half years.’ And then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe one and a half years.’ And then it went down to seven months. So, we’ve had seven months to know he’s retiring, which has been kind of a whirlwind and a lot to adjust to in a short amount of time.”

Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.

Whenever as large a presence as Foote leaves a room, the people who were around him are bound to be aware of the void. But Baldwin gets it. “Why wait until you’re 70 to do something new and to explore possibilities?”

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DramaWatch: Tina Packer’s feminine forces of Will

"Women of Will" charts Shakespeare's growth through his portrayals of female characters; Theatre Vertigo peers over the edge; plus shows and more shows.

Since its founding in 2008, Portland Playhouse has yet to stage a full production of a William Shakespeare play, leaning instead on August Wilson and Charles Dickens, and showcasing 21st-century playwriting stars such as Theresa Rebeck and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Yet Shakespeare has played a central role in the company. Two of the company’s founders, Brian and Nikki Weaver, worked together early in their careers at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The educational model the Weavers learned there to work with high school students they’ve since replicated here with the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

The connection bears juicier fruit this fall as the Playhouse presents a show — or rather a series of shows, really — called Women of Will, by the justly acclaimed Shakespeare and Co. founding artistic director Tina Packer. 

British-born actor-director Tina Packer unpacks Shakespeare’s views of women and society in Women of Will. Photo: Kevin Sprague, 2011.

The basic Women of Will, which opens Oct. 24, offers a thematic overview of many of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, their psychological dimensions and dramatic functions, and of Packer’s theory that these characters reveal essential things about Shakespeare’s artistic growth. Beginning Nov. 6, the schedule also folds in a series of five one-night-only deep dives, with titles such as Warrior Woman, from Violence to Negotiation and The Maiden Phoenix; The Daughter Redeems the Father. Packer performs selections from the plays, with the help of actor Nigel Gore, elucidating along the way in a fluid lecture-demo approach.
When I first noticed Women of Will on the Playhouse schedule I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this sort of thing before.” What it brought to mind was Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare’s Women, a solo show by Oregon Shakespeare Festival stalwart Robin Goodrin Nordli; she performed it as a Portland Shakespeare Project fundraiser in 2015. That show, however, was highly personal, recounting the Shakespearean roles that she had performed and how the characters reflected her own life experiences.
Packer’s approach is more dramaturgical. 

“When I was working on Shakespeare’s plays as a director, I started realizing that there was a pattern to the way in which Shakespeare wrote the women characters,” Packer says in a brief Broadway.com video about the show. “And then I started realizing the pattern was actually to do with Shakespeare’s psychological development; it’s his enlightenment journey. And once I started realizing that, I couldn’t wait to map out the whole thing.”

The progression, roughly speaking, takes us from women as victims of violence to women as truth tellers, to women as seekers of power and finally as what we might think of as agents of redemption.

“It’s really with Juliet he begins,” Packer told Charlie Rose in a 2013 interview. “That’s when you hear Shakespeare inside, if I can put it like that: embodying women as opposed to writing about women. And by the time he gets to the late plays, he actually says, look, the only way out of the violence cycle is to follow what the women are doing — and the creative spirit, but there’s an alignment between women and the creative spirit…

“This is political for me, as well as poetical and philosophical.”

The flattened stage

Speaking of Slick Willy’s women, how about the way they get into it at Minnesota’s Great River Shakespeare Festival?

The flattened stage — live!

One of the reasons that theater snobs are theater snobs is because they love it live — that is, the immediacy and presence of a production playing out onstage in front of (or, sometimes, all around) you, the audience member. But sometimes, we have to take what we can get.

As half measures go, however, NT Live — the live-captured, high-definition-video presentations of stage productions from the National Theatre in London — can be mighty satisfying. Personally, I tend to find them somewhat overdetermined, with cuts and close-ups that forestall the choices in attention and focus that a true theater event allows. But on the other hand, there’s dramatic intelligence to the camera choices, and the caliber of design and performance is a wonderful thing to be able to take in with a mere jaunt downtown instead of a trip across the Atlantic. 

Up next in the series, screened at the World Trade Center Theater: 
On Sunday: The Lehman Trilogy, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles, directed by Sam Mendes, in an acclaimed (and somewhat lengthy) examination of the long-running family-run financial firm that would wind triggering the Great Recession.

On Sunday and repeating on Saturday, Oct. 26: Fleabag, the solo show that launched the TV-series adaptation and the stardom of creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Vertigo on the edge

A year ago, theater insider and ArtsWatcher extraordinaire Bobby Bermea took an in-depth look at Theatre Vertigo, the plucky Portland company whose history of exciting, risk-taking work has proceeded hand-in-hand with its history of continually destabilizing roster turnover. Talking about the challenge of feeling a sense of ownership amid the fluidity, company member 

Robert David Wyllie recalled wondering:  “’It’s been around for a while, I didn’t found it, is it gonna feel like mine?’ And pretty much instantly, it did. Because there’s always a crisis. Either you’re new and it’s your first crisis or you’ve lived through two or three crises and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s just how it is.’ You just roll with it.”

One flask over the line: Theatre Vertigo has specialized in the rough-edged energy of plays such as The Drunken City. Photo: Theatre Vertigo, 2015.

In the time since, Wyllie and others have left Vertigo, but his diagnosis holds for their replacements: Theatre Vertigo is facing another crisis.

“With rent prices skyrocketing, The Shoebox in dire need of upgrades and repairs, and theatre attendance dwindling, this Portland theatre icon is in jeopardy of not being able to continue on to year 23,” begins the plea on a recently created Save Theatre Vertigo page at GoFundMe.com. “This campaign will help us cover the immediate costs of closing out our first show of the season, rent and expenses for The Shoebox for November and December (approximately $5,400), much needed repairs to our electrical system, and initial funding for our January show.”

Over the first 10 days since the appeal was posted, donors have pledged about $2,000 toward the theater’s $10,000 goal. 

“People have been a little confused over whether this is about saving Theatre Vertigo or saving the Shoebox,” new company member Adriana Gantzer (who’s currently doing fine work in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge) said in a phone interview. “I think really it’s both. We don’t have the funds to cover November and December rent; we’ve been scraping it together every month.”

Beyond the immediate financial crunch, the company has its sights on creating a process for long-term tracking and management of grant applications and business donations, the sort of administrative and fiscal infrastructure that’s been hard to establish in a company with shoestring budgets, mostly volunteer labor (beyond production casts and crews) and frequent burnout-induced turnover.

In her note on the GoFundMe page, and over the phone, Gantzer sounds passionate about the unique value she sees in the company, in its “edgier, intimate shows” and “dedicated and motivated” people. Asked if the loss of the Shoebox Theatre, where Vertigo has performed since the 2013 closing of the larger Theater! Threatre!, would mean the end of Theatre Vertigo her enthusiasm wanes.

“I think so. I know I personally wouldn’t be up for going forward, having to search for places to perform, on top of everything else…It is dire.” 

Opening

Profile Theatre’s Josh Hecht directs The Baltimore Waltz, Paula Vogel’s farcical tragi-comic tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS-related complications in the 1980s. A cast featuring 

Joshua Weinstein and Jen Rowe is reason enough to put this on your list.


Milagro’s annual production in celebration of Día de Muertos takes a romantic tack this year with Amor Anejo, conceived and directed by the fiercely talented Elizabeth Huffman. Longtime lovers encounter an underworld shapeshifter and, as the theater puts it, “we find ourselves in the space where the living and the dead co-exist, where all the loves of our lives, romantic, paternal, filial, and friendly, complicated, wound, and nourish us. Where memories never fade –where love never dies.”

Quick hits

Lakewood Theatre continues its Lost Treasures Collection — concert/cabaret-style presentations of lesser-known musicals — with The High Life. Written in 1961 (when it appeared under the title The Gay Life), by Fay and Michael Kanin (book), Howard Dietz (lyrics) and Arthur Schwartz (music),  it’s about a Viennese lady’s man in 1904, attempting to tame his philandering ways and settle down (“I’m finished with love. I’m going to get married”). Broadway World has called it “a champagne cocktail of a musical” and an “overlooked charmer.”


Also keeping the calendar full at the lovely Lakewood Center for the Arts, singer-actors Jan Koenig and Lisa Knox, backed by a top-flight jazz trio, present their cabaret-style show Here We Go Again.

Closing

For athletes, pre-game warm-ups may not be the main event, but they can be crucial. So it is with The Wolves, the terrific Sarah DeLappe play still on the stage — or is it the pitch? — at Portland Playhouse. Telling a story about the members of a girls’ indoor-soccer team through the tumbling conversations as they prepare for matches, the play’s winning naturalism provides what feels like real insight into the personality development, group dynamics and social hierarchies of young women as they grapple with the ethical and emotional conundrums of finding a place in the world. Adolescence may be their warm-up to adulthood, but the moment-by-moment experience of it can be just as impactful and important as what it’s presaging. 

We came to play! The Wolves warm up at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Directed by Jessica Wallenfels, the Playhouse production strikes a deft balance between the activity and physical immediacy that the story’s setting demands and the nuanced movement of ideas and relationships that plays out in the dialogue. With teamwork as one of its thematic centers, the play is very much ensemble oriented, and the cast is uniformly engaging, offering a variety of stereotype-avoiding portrayals. Even so, Kailey Rhodes shines brightest as #46 (the characters almost always refer to each other by jersey number, not name), the team’s socially maladroit but athletically skilled newcomer, her expressions speaking volume about the painful challenges of fitting in. 

It’s a wonderful show. Catch it if you can.


I neglected to catch The Dope Elf when it was presented for two weekends last month, both onstage at Yale Union and livestreamed to the art center’s website. So, sorry, I can’t tell you if this “non-narrative…investigation into present, ancestral, and imagined experience” concerns an elf that is stupid, an elf that is stylish in a 1990s hip-hop kind of way, or, possibly, no elf at all. In any case, this work by interdisciplinary artist/writer Asher Hartman and his Gawdafful National Theater completes its Portland run with another three-performance cycle this weekend. 

Best line I read this week

“‘Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Merlin?’ said Henrietta.

‘Because Shakespeare was Merlin,’ said Uncle Theo.”

— from the novel The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time. 

Go West, young fans

Stumptown Stages’ energetic, exhilarating production of "West Side Story" makes some missteps but still has the moves.

In the most iconic scene from West Side Story, Tony, the show’s neo-Romeo, climbs a ladder to a fire escape where Maria, his Juliet, awaits. By now, it’s an overly familiar moment, but Stumptown Stages’ production of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-scored musical, in the Winningstad Theatre through Oct. 27, injects it with fresh visual life. As Tony (Alexander Trull) ascends toward Maria (Tina Mascaro), lights illuminate his silhouette on a vast backdrop that features a sweeping cityscape. It’s as if Tony’s passion has given him the power to soar among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

West Side Story struts maximalist energy and visual appeal in a production from Stumptown Stages. Photo: Paul Fardig.

That image beautifully taps into the play’s maximalist appeal. Nothing in West Side Story—not love, not friendship, not anger—is small. The production’s director, Patrick Nims, understands that, and while his retelling is occasionally unsteady (especially when it attempts to blunt the accusations of racism leveled at the play), it is also energetic and exciting enough to entice newcomers and charm steadfast fans.

West Side Story almost wasn’t west at all. An early iteration called East Side Story applied the Romeo and Juliet model to a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. Eventually, the title changed and the story was restyled as a tale of turf warfare between between an Anglo gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks). When Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks, fall in love at a dance, they face the wrath of both sides.

It’s notable that the title of the play is not Tony and Maria. West Side Story is about a place as much as it is about people. You watch not only to savor the heat generated by its amped-up lovers, but for the privilege of spending time in a gleefully exaggerated version of New York where true love can be ignited with a single look and meaningless grudges are imbued with mythic grandeur.

Alexander Trull as Romeo…er, Tony, and Tina Mascaro as Juliet…no, sorry, Maria, in West Side Story at the Winningstad. Photo: Paul Fardig.

Scenic designer Demetri Pavlatos has tapped into the (very) heightened realism in the play by crafting a set that evolves dramatically. A chain-link fence, for instance, isn’t just a background detail—it’s a living object that can be used as a symbolic barrier between the Jets and the Sharks or as a cage that encircles Tony and Maria, signaling their inevitable doom.

While Pavlatos’ designs are an effective update, the overall production is not. West Side Story has received justifiable criticism for its racist depiction of Puerto Ricans as generic hoodlums, a problem that Nims tries to confront by staging some scenes and songs in Spanish. While the production’s commitment to authenticity is admirable, its lack of subtitles will be frustrating for audiences who don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding what many of the characters are saying means that we become less engaged with their stories, which undercuts the play’s idealistic goal: to reveal the shared humanity on both sides of the Jets-Sharks divide.

This change doesn’t ruin the play. It simply exists alongside the production’s superior creative choices, just as the script’s insensitivities exist alongside its dramatic power. For now, West Side Story isn’t going anywhere—a new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2020. That may be the moment when many people decide whether the play is ripe for further reinventions or should finally be set aside.


DramaWatch: Lighting the Fuse on Arthur Miller

A fresh look at "A View From the Bridge" highlights a busy theater week that also boasts musicals, Greek epics and scary Halloween treats.

In a drafty, uninsulated warehouse on an autumn night, the temperature can drop faster than you might expect.

But theater folk are a hardy lot. So the cast of A View From the Bridge, the latest production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, simply goes about its work at the start of a recent rehearsal. Actors mill about the cavernous space, running lines and warming up Italian accents. Soon, Rusty Tennant, one of the show’s two co-directors, gathers the performers and outlines a few spatial issues about the set — mostly a large circle of cream-colored carpet and some surrounding chalk lines. During fight call, Tennant adjusts the action so that no one will fall into the small lamps set on the floor around the front edge of the carpet.


“John’s gonna be in a different place, so…,” Tennant says, until lead actor Ernie Lijoi looks up with an absent-minded, “What?”

“I’m so glad that you’re listening to me. Finally,” Tennant replies, to chuckles all around.


“It’s a rare occurrence,” Lijoi says, “so take advantage of it.”

The lawyer Alfieri (Michael J. Teufel, center) counsels a frustrated Eddie Carbone (Ernie Lijoi, right) in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge. Photo: Rusty Tennant

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Once Upon a Time in Dublin

Wondrous music tempers an overstuffed story in Broadway Rose’s "Once."

Rough-edged and exquisite, the 2007 movie musical Once didn’t create a romance—it captured a romance. Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as musicians on a song-fueled odyssey through Dublin, the film had a haunting realism that was deepened by the chemistry of its stars and the subtle storytelling of director John Carney, who often seemed to be filming a real relationship, rather than staging scenes.

The same can’t be said of Once the stage musical. The play (which won several Tony Awards in 2012) clutters the story with clunky melodrama and juvenile jokes, suggesting that book writer Enda Walsh was afraid that for audiences, recreating one of the most touching love stories of the twenty-first century wouldn’t be enough.

Musically engaged: Marissa Neitling and Morgan Hollingsworth in “Once” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

In its production of Once — directed and choreographed by Isaac Lamb — Broadway Rose battles Walsh’s misunderstanding of the movie. Nothing short of cutting half the dialogue and half of the characters could have fully redeemed the play, but the film’s spirit lives on in the performances of Morgan Hollingsworth and Marissa Neitling (as the lead characters, referred to simply as “Guy” and “Girl”), whose musical gifts repeatedly save the show from crumbling under the weight of Walsh’s revisions.

While the film starts in a moody frenzy—with the attempted theft of Guy’s guitar case—the play begins with a packed stage. Eventually, the ensemble falls away and Guy is left playing a tormented tune called “Leave” (the songs are by Hansard and Irglová) to an empty street. Brooding over his ex-girlfriend and his fizzling music career, he decides to abandon his guitar—until, that is, the voice of Girl calls out to him from the audience, offering encouragement and companionship when he needs it most.

Music bridges the cultural gulf between Guy and Girl (he’s Irish, she’s Czech). After a few scenes of chitchat, she’s playing piano and he’s accompanying her on the guitar—and eventually, they assemble a band for a 24-hour album-recording session. Musically and emotionally, they mesh, but Guy is pining for his ex and Girl may reunite with her absent husband. We’re left to wonder if these characters are soulmates who are missing their moment, or if fate has united them simply so they can soothe one another’s spirits as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives.

The film savored that ambiguity. Hansard and Irglová made magic together, but it was a magic awkward enough to raise the possibility that Guy and Girl might be meant for others. The play, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction, cranking up the yearning to grindingly operatic levels, especially in a cringe-worthy scene where Guy desperately begs Girl to move with him to New York.

Even worse is Walsh’s grating sense of humor. Did we really need a satirical subplot involving one member of the band goading another with a goofy, anti-capitalist rant? Or a running gag about a drummer (Dustin Fuentes) drinking too much coffee? Hardly, but that didn’t stop Walsh from cramming them awkwardly into the script.

Cast members of the musical Once at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

But Once is more than the sum of its flaws. While the story has changed, the music remains and the actors perform it with a force that makes it feel new. The play commands your attention whenever a showstopping musical moment arrives, like Hollingsworth exploding with energy during “When Your Mind’s Made Up” (“THERE’S NO POINT TRYING TO CHANGE IT,” he sings/shouts, hammering each syllable).

Once also captures the essence of the creative process. In the film, Guy, Girl and the rest of the band play frisbee on a beach after finishing their album. In a rare change that works, the play keeps the beach, but has the band stare solemnly into the distance while singing an a capella version of the gentle love song “Gold.” It’s a perfect moment because it captures everything the characters feel — the exhaustion and the exhilaration of having been a part of something beautiful.

That scene finds its own identity while honoring what came before. I wish Once did that more often, but I admire Broadway Rose for elevating a flawed play as much as possible. And while Hansard and Irglová are a nearly impossible act to follow, Hollingsworth and Neitling prove themselves to be worthy successors with their tender and ebullient performance of “Falling Slowly,” the film’s most iconic song (it won an Oscar in 2008).

“Take this sinking boat and point it home/We’ve still got time/Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice/You’ve made it now,” they sing. Those words reflect Guy and Girl’s relationship, but they also describe this production’s greatest achievement: it raises its voice above the clamor of the script and, just often enough, points the boat back toward the emotional purity of the original.

“Once” continues through Oct. 27 at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard. Tickets for all remaining performances have sold out.

Bakkhai to the future

Shaking the Tree's visually ravishing new version of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy ripples nervously down the centuries to now

Don’t aggravate the gods.

This seems like sound advice even today, when the universe is out of kilter enough without purposely sticking a thumb in its eye. How much more sage must it have seemed back in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece, when the pantheon of deities had all the flaws of humans, but were infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more dangerous, and infinitely more used to getting their way?

This holds true particularly if the god in question is named Dionysus (or Bacchus, as the Romans had it), god of wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, ritual madness, and – oh, yes: that giddy and unstable illusion called theater. Dionysus could throw a whale of a party, but he was hardly known for his reasoned approach to problem-solving. He was a vindictive sort, and he bore a grudge, and he gathered devotees who were in his thrall, no matter how cruel or ridiculous or unspeakable his demands might be. If that sounds familiar – well, at a time when the world cries out for Apollonian restraint, here we are, captured in a Dionysian frenzy in our culture and politics, swept up in a foolish and destructive nightmare of blind impulse.

Bakkhai: tellers of the tale. Photo: Meg Nanna

Which may or may not have been why director Samantha Van Der Merwe chose to start the new season at her Shaking the Tree Theatre with Bakkhai, a play you might know better under the title The Bacchae or The Bacchantes, in a new version by the poet and classicist Anne Carson. Euripides’ tragedy, which premiered in 405 B.C.E. in the appropriately named Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, carries a scent of heedless yet inevitable doom that seems to have parallels to the present day, although it’s hardly a perfect fit: It’s tough to blame the gods for our all-too-human current predicament.

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DramaWatch: taking on ‘Macbeth’ with the power of three

This week in Oregon theater, tragedy strikes Center Stage (and that's a good thing), Broadway Rose sells out, and Shaking the Tree speaks ancient Greek.

In 2016, a young theater artist named Lee Sunday Evans, who since has become artistic director of the New York company Waterwell, staged her first Shakespeare play at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Using her own edited version of the script and original, shape-note vocal music by Heather Christian, she presented spare, probing Macbeth — no set, no props, just lighting, costumes and three actors, all women.

“The idea was that the three witches were telling this ancient story about how the societal structure of power could corrupt an individual,” Evans told the blog The Fifth Wall. “I looked at that play as an origin story about the corrupting force of power.” 

The New York Times praised it: (T)his irreducible, transcendent “Macbeth” commands engagement as it plumbs the internal life of these characters, revealing their fragile emotions. Here they receive the play’s harsh truths as much as issue them, quietly absorbing the horrible before unleashing the volcanic.”

The Macbeth opening Friday at Portland Center Stage uses Evans’ trim script, but director Adriana Baer is working with a different tool kit and some different ideas about characters and story. 

For starters, instead of an outdoor stage in summer, Baer will be presenting her version in PCS’ intimate, energy-focusing basement space, the Ellyn Bye Studio. 

Not-so-witchy women: Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green and Lauren Bloom Hanover star in a condensed “Macbeth” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

And for another thing, well…who says they’re witches?

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