Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”


Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.


3 hijackers, 25 strangers, no NPCs

CoHo and playwright Tommy Smith's 's D.B. Cooper play "db" delivers the goods

Do you…

  • … have a nostalgic or forensic fascination with D.B. Cooper, an airplane hijacker and bank robber who parachuted from a Portland-based flight to freedom in 1971 and was never found?
  • … think that Mad Men would’ve been pretty two-dimensional without Peggy?
  • … grit your teeth through True Detective‘s plot-holes just to enjoy Matthew McConaghey’s caustic existential rants, and do you yearn to hear that dialogue style in a stronger story?
  • … have a thing for eternal enigmas and alternate realities, like Schrodinger’s Cat, the Mandela Affect, et cetera? Having given up on proving which thing is true, can you just appreciate the permanent uncertainty?
  • … sometimes wish your theater seat would rumble and quake while the lights flash, briefly transforming the play you’re seeing into an amusement park ride?

Then db, onstage now at CoHo Theatre, may be just the play for you!

It’s no coincidence that Tommy Smith and Teddy Bergman’s script for db, and CoHo’s premiere staging of it, both work on so many levels. Inspired by a life-long fascination with the D.B. Cooper legend, Smith and Bergman first developed a heavily-researched three-hour staged reading that fleshed out at least 10 different robbery suspects. With some workshopping, Smith whittled the script down to to a taut 75-minute play that proposes just three versions of the elusive Cooper character: a bipolar businessman who acquired the money to lure himself a wife, an out-of-work Vietnam vet with debts, and a transgender aviator who needed the cash for her surgery.

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green. Photo: Owen Carey

Even once the play was in production, with Isaac Lamb directing, they continued to perfect the writing. Their last revision, Smith revealed at Sunday’s talkback, happened just ten days before opening! While such rigor approaches neurosis, the payoff in this case is great. This heist story, which would easily lend itself to a trite, testosterone-drunk action flick  or a series like Unsolved Mysteries, becomes, with deft and diligent handling, a complex yet compelling piece of theater.

But how?


Stellar: rising comedy star Bri Pruett tries a little tenderness

Pruett's new solo show brims with compassion for ex-lovers and bodes well for her move to L.A.

Quick, blurt out the first word that springs to mind if I say “standup comedy about sex.”

“Warmhearted!” exclaims nobody…except maybe those who’ve seen Bri Pruett‘s Stellar.

Let’s face it: when recounting their sexual escapades onstage, standup comics have a reputation for being anything but kind. It’s a longstanding comic tradition to be crass, describing former lovers’ body parts and acts in unflattering detail; to be callous, claiming you never liked ’em anyway; to be sexist, generalizing their performance to apply to their entire gender; and to be cutting, trying your best to eviscerate with wit anyone you failed to conquer between the sheets.







Pruett’s not about to play it like that. While she’s definitely using her sex life as material (the solo show relies heavily on a list she’s kept of the names, star signs, and a few distinctive details about each of her many lovers), she doesn’t throw any of them under the bus. With benevolence toward her younger self (“I would tell that little nugget, ‘You’re fine! There’s nothing wrong with you!'”) and acceptance of her current self, a confident self-declared “BBW,” Pruett extends her goodwill toward the bodies and souls of all of her past partners. “How many? As many as I wanted.”


El Payaso: Not just clowning around

Milagro's bilingual Fertile Ground play recalls clown/activist Ben Linder and highlights current social and political struggles

On April 30, 1987, David and Elisabeth Linder buried their 27-year-old son, Ben, in Matagalpa, a small city in Nicaragua. Ben Linder had been tortured and killed two days before with American arms at the hands of Reagan-backed Contras fighting an insurgent war against the nation’s leftist Sandinista government. A funeral led by then-Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra followed, with a procession of thousands of local and foreign mourners, and in that crowd marched clowns from the Nicaraguan National Circus, their painted mouths turned downwards.

Milagro contributes to Portland’s ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of new works with its world premiere of El Payaso, a bilingual agitprop play that matches our times and is based on Ben Linder’s life. El Payaso (The Clown) runs through January 21 and then sets off for a national tour to educate middle schoolers.

Milagro’s “El Payaso”: clowing, engineering, pushing for change. Photo: Russell J Young

Based on talks with Linder’s parents and some of Ben’s letters, rising Latino star playwright Emilio Rodriguez wrote the script. Rodriguez co-owns the Black and Brown Theatre Company in Detroit, where he is also a teacher. He’s known for writing scripts with a well-developed poetic muscle, and El Payaso is a living eulogy to the fallen activist Linder. Half the play is spoken in Spanish, and an elementary proficiency is helpful to follow along.


Shakespeare experiments for modern times

When can we experiment with Shakespeare and how far are we allowed to go?


In late October 2016, London theatre—and the world of classical theatre beyond it—was in an uproar: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre abruptly announced the departure of its newly installed and dynamic artistic director, Emma Rice, who had just concluded her very popular first season. The accepted but unofficial narrative formed quickly: Rice had been forced out because the stodgy Globe board was infuriated by her use of electronic music and colored lights. Also, she was a woman. Also, she gave the plays diverse companies and contemporary settings. (Full disclosure: I interned at the Globe for a season, but not while any of this was taking place.)

Rice said nothing to dispel these impressions, and the Globe’s board’s somewhat tepid insistence that the decision was based simply on questions about lighting struck many British critics as just a pretense.

Now that the initial furor has passed, it is easier to accept that the most likely version of the Rice/Globe saga is also the most boring; that it stems, ultimately, from a failure to communicate. The Globe did not adequately express the importance of the shared lighting rig and other elements of their image of the Globe’s as an ‘authentic’ Elizabethan playing space, and likely Rice did not make perfectly clear her intention to challenge that vision.

That’s not to say that the outcry didn’t raise a lot of interesting questions about the state of Shakespeare in Britain. Rice’s work had not been as universally positively received as the horror at her dismissal suggested; more conservative members of the British press had their fair share of pearl clutching over her use of the aforementioned lights and music, not to mention filling her casts with women and brown people and queer people and the odd soap opera star.

In the end, however, Rice’s supporters had the last word (or at least, I wasn’t able to find any major publication crass enough to celebrate her departure), albeit a word of mourning for the bright theatrical future, the revitalization of Shakespeare that might have been.


It’s fascinating to set these manifestos in defense of Shakespearean experimentation beside the horror and vitriol inspired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project. When the project was announced in September 2015, and in periodic bursts of fury since, one might have thought OSF had announced their intention to burn Shakespeare in effigy and ban his work from their campus. The program, proposed and funded by a single donor, pairs playwrights and dramaturgs to create a “translation” of a Shakespeare play. Commissioned artists include award-winning playwrights Jeff Whitty, Taylor Mac, and Naomi Iizuka. The whole canon has been assigned, and a few of the translations even have productions planned, though none at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself.

These adaptations will also, apparently, be singlehandedly responsible for the eradication of Shakespeare and all other literary culture from America and possibly the world. At least to hear the critics talk about it—like Professor James Shapiro, one of the most prominent American Shakespeare scholars, who recently called the project “a deal with the devil.

So there’s experimenting and there’s experimenting. Play On’s critics appear to be most worried that someone will read or see one of these adaptations and thus experience Shakespeare incorrectly. It’s hard to tell what they fear most about this scenario: That someone will see one of the adaptations and decide that Shakespeare is bad (even though the text isn’t really Shakespeare’s), or that they might see one and like it better. Or maybe it’s just horror that someone would dare to tamper with The Bard—as if that’s not what directors are doing every time the plays are performed.

Emma Rice’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Globe had Bollywood inflections./Courtesy Shakespeare’s Globe

This echoes the divide between the pro- and anti-Rice camps. Most of the debates centered around just two productions in the Globe’s 2016 summer season, only one of which Rice actually directed: Her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Matthew Dunster’s production of Cymbeline, which he retitled Imogen. The former took on a fantastical Bollywood-inflected aesthetic, with crazy lights, pounding music, and a male Helena (in this case, Helenus) whose love was rebuffed by a closeted Demetrius. Dunster’s production was set in contemporary London, similarly peppered with music and dance, and starring Maddy Hill, famous for her role in the British soap opera EastEnders, as an Adidas-clad Imogen.

On the one hand, dynamic and diverse Shakespeare that looks and sounds like contemporary Britain, and, perhaps more importantly, gets contemporary Britons excited about Shakespeare—as the box office records for that season suggests they did. On the other hand, the view (correctly or otherwise) imputed to the Globe’s board and implied by the critics who derided the productions: Sure, the shows have people flocking to see Shakespeare, but to the wrong kind of Shakespeare.


There is another camp of Play On! detractors, who will insist that they having nothing against the project per se, but they just don’t see the point. As Shapiro wrote for The New York Times, “However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow.”

But Shapiro misinterprets Play On’s stated mission: to ask, as project leader Lue Douthit said, “What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way?” Shapiro and other critics substitute OSF’s question (“What if?”) for a statement of their own making (“OSG wants to pointlessly ‘fix’ the plays”), and in doing so, I believe, raise a version of the same question asked above. Is there a sacred core to Shakespeare that we have to be sure the masses experience? Does that make Shakespeare’s plays too delicate to experiment with? If we start prodding at the structure, do we fear it will collapse?

Just as no single production ever claims to be the definitive, ultimate, perfect version of a Shakespeare play (or at least it shouldn’t, and if that’s the goal, it will fail), Play On! does not aspire to supplant or ‘improve’ upon the works of Shakespeare—only to undertake an experiment and see what happens. One single experiment cannot put even a dent in the massive cultural edifice that is Shakespeare. But it can potentially add one more facet to our understanding of his works, and why they endure.

When I heard the word “experiment” in relation to theatre, I always used to think of weird East Village performance art, non-narrative movement pieces or confessional one-person shows. But this quotation from Professors Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper broadened my understanding:

“The methods of theatrical experimentation are not taken from the science laboratory but from centuries of theatrical practice. The workshop, the staged reading, the rehearsal process, the design process, all have established methods that take a creative approach to the practical, yet critical, problem of developing a theatrical interpretation of the plays. To negate this history of practice by eliding it, as funding bodies have, with the scientific method, is to misunderstand the tradition that is under discussion.”

That quotation comes in the introduction to Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment. And that, in turn, is the same language that was used in board director Neil Constable’s statement about Rice’s departure: “The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.”

Emma Rice’s Globe experimented with diverse casting of all sorts, including a gay Helenus./Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe has the right to perform explorations that they are quite literally uniquely equipped to undertake—and, as unfortunate as it is that they and Rice could not come to an accord on that topic, that desire need not be seen as inherently conservative. The Globe was conceived as a laboratory for a certain kind of theatrical experiment, and something will be learned from continuing to pursue it.

(Though I will also say that from the first cast of her first show, Rice completely transformed the look of the Globe company. The casts were immediately more diverse in terms of gender and race, and it’s an admirable example of the kind of changes a determined artistic director can instantly effect. I hope whoever the Globe hires next follows in her footsteps in that regard.)

And the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is undertaking an experiment as well, though of a very different kind. It may be that nothing much will come of it, but if we always assumed results rather than testing them, nothing would ever get discovered. And if one of Play On!’s adaptations leads one person closer to appreciating Shakespeare, isn’t that good? And if one person even decides they like the adaptation better, is that bad?


No matter how great the writer it’s based on, a theatrical culture that is unwilling to say “Why not?” seems doomed to stagnate. I’ve seen settings and adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve absolutely hated, that made me wish someone would institute laws to protect innocent theatregoers. Such a law would be patently absurd (not to mention elitist and creatively stifling), and it’s equally ridiculous to try and impose the same restrictions ideologically. You can’t draw a line around experimentation with the plays and insist that only the kind you like is allowed.

All of these visions—the Globe’s experiments with space; Emma Rice and her collaborators’ play with casts, setting, and design; Play On!’s investigation of the language itself—spring from the same source: a love for and fascination with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays are not the antique porcelain doll that’s too delicate for the grandkids to play with. He may be 450, but he’s plenty strong. And if your cultural icon is too fragile to survive a little experimentation, if the play can’t stand being played with, maybe it does need to be put back on the shelf.

Fertile Ground: Curtains (almost) up

ArtsWatch speed-dates the makers of 2017's Portland new-works festival. We don't kiss, but we do tell. Here's what's happening.


One thing we’ve learned in life: You can’t date everyone. Even speedily.

Nevertheless, the three of us took a pretty good shot at it on the first Thursday in January, when we set up business at a big table in Artists Repertory Theatre’s upper lobby and braced ourselves for an onrushing tide of producers, writers, directors, and performers in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, an orgy of new theater, dance, comedy, solo, musical-theater, circus, and other performance works that’ll scatter across the city January 19-29.

The meet-and-greets, which are set up roughly like a speed-dating session (or so we’ve been told), are a cacophony of elevator speeches, and as it happens, all three of us knew what to expect from previous years’ free-for-alls. Theater people line up in front of a confusion of journalists from print, online, radio, and television outlets and work their way to the front, where they get five minutes to pitch their show and explain why that journalist really, really ought to see it and write very, very nicely about it. Then a whistle blows, and everyone moves on to the next encounter. Did you get that phone number/email address/press release/oddball memento? We’ll be in touch. (That little pink-wrapped chunk of Hubba Bubba bubble gum from 1980’s Teen Musical? We’ve tossed it in the drawer with all of our leftover 1982 Easter Peeps to help us make it through Armageddon.)

At the ArtsWatch table, and beyond. Fertile Ground photo

As usual, Fertile Ground boss Nicole Lane kept things on a strict schedule, and by evening’s end we hadn’t got around to talking to everyone. A few no doubt got caught up at other tables and ran out of time. A few just had other priorities. Some, we imagine, didn’t show up at all: they’re not the dating kind. Still, out of seventy-plus acts, we managed among us to talk with people from roughly forty. Add to those the dance productions that ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini has written about separately, and … let’s just say we played the field.

One of the great things about Fertile Ground, which began as an annual festival in 2009, is that it’s open to new projects at every stage of production, from first readings to staged readings to workshops to world premieres. Theater companies have started to book premiere productions to coincide with the festival, lending the city a sense of freshness and discovery, at least on its performance stages, every January. It’s like a smaller Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and just as unpredictable), but made up entirely of local acts.


Stardust Memories: finding our inner Peter Pan

The national touring company of "Finding Neverland" flies into the Keller with the musical tale of J.M. Barrie and how his fantasy came to be

Finding Neverland greets the Portland new year with a brief run on the Keller Auditorium stage, where it opened Tuesday night and continues through Sunday, Jan. 8, in the Broadway in Portland series. The musical kicked off its national tour in October, after passed the Great White Way’s litmus test by winning audiences and a passel of awards, including the Drama Desk, Astaire and Drama League.

Kevin Kern as J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt as Captain Hook, with crew. Photo: Carol Rosegg

True to the title, Finding Neverland is a semi-historical, but winsome look at how and why Scottish author J.M. Barrie came to write the beloved Peter Pan series. Part of the true story goes that Barrie was on the cricket team with the most dexterous vocabulary of all time: H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne, to name a few. The team also included a man named George Llewelyn Davies, who had married into famed British author Daphne Du Maurier’s family. Barrie became the guardian to Llewelyn Davies’ sons, George, John, Nicholas, Michael and Peter.


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