THEATER

Musical tempest on a small island

Milagro Theatre negotiates the troubled waters of Cuban identity in a new musical

The waters of a troubled past are explored in Óye Oyá, a buoyant new Cuban musical presented in Spanish with English supertitles at Milagro Theatre. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest, it has a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, airline pilot by day and prolific and acclaimed composer by night, whose music and lyrics for the show create a moving soundscape to explore modern-day Cuban identity conflict.

The roots of that conflict run deep, in politics, in history, and in this show. The island of Cuba has triggered anxiety on the international political stage for decades. The early 1990s, when Óye Oyá takes place, saw a new rush of worry as Cuba’s biggest Cold War backer, the U.S.S.R., was falling apart. You may remember news flashes of refugees on handmade rafts of plastic, wood, and tarp desperately attempting the passage to Florida. For some the romance of the Cuban Revolution and its bearded heroes remained. Yet there was also a sharp divide between Cuban-American historical memory and that of people who remained on the homeland. Fidel Castro’s recent death sparked tough debate on his legacy, making way once again for a nervous tick about Cuba’s future. While the country is opening its doors for business, refugees who were burned by Castro’s government are unwavering in their conservatism. The majority of them are Republicans, wanting a strong man to hand down sentencing on the Cuban government and uphold the embargo until the island nation changes politics.

Cuban tempest: a little rhythm, a little dance, a little romance. Photo: Russell J Young

Cuba’s many aspects are best felt in its music. Óye Oyá delivers a sample of the intricate rhythms and melodies that captivate hearts and pull feet onto dance floors, the mysterious arresting passion and ache that is born in Cuban song.

Continues…

Drammys: a night for Misbehavin’

Portland Center Stage's Fats Waller musical sweeps up six trophies at Portland's annual theater awards; "Orlando" wins big; actor Gavin Hoffman hits a double

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Portland Center Stage’s bold large-scale rethinking of the intimate Fats Waller musical revue, swept up much of the hardware Monday night at the Drammy Awards, sharing the spotlight with Orlando, Profile Theatre’s brash adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling, gender-bending adventure novel.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ dominated the evening with six awards, including best production of a musical, director of a musical (Chris Coleman), music direction (Rick Lewis), ensemble performance in a musical, scenic design (Tony Cisek), and costumes (Alison Heryer, who was also nominated for Orlando).

Portland Center Stage's "Ain't Misbehavin'": best ensemble in the best musical on the dest-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Portland Center Stage’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”: best ensemble in the best musical on the best-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Orlando, which was part of Profile’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl, won the coveted award for best production of a play, plus two other major categories: best actress in a play (Beth Thompson, who was also nominated for best supporting actress in Profile’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) and director of a play (Matthew B. Zrebski).

The Drammy Awards ceremony, Portland’s annual celebration of top achievements in theater, jammed the downtown Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts with a mixed crowd of theater fans and stage professionals, from actors and directors to designers and stagehands. In all, 117 productions were considered for awards by the 16-member Drammy committee. Late-season shows that were still running in June, such as Portland Playhouse’s hit Peter and the Starcatchers, Corrib’s Our New Girl, Triangle’s American Idiot, defunkt’s The Udmurts, and Artists Rep’s Grand Concourse and The Skin of Our Teeth, will be considered for 2016-17 awards.

Actor and director Beth Harper, founder and artistic director of the professional-training Portland Actors Conservatory, won this year’s lifetime achievement award, and it was a popular choice: when she walked onstage she was greeted with a standing ovation by the crowd, several of whom had graduated from the Actors Conservatory, and several more of whom have worked with her in shows. “For a girl from Pea Ridge, Tennessee, Miss Beth, you have done all right,” actor and director Brenda Hubbard said in introducing her. Harper thanked her own mentor, the legendary late Portland teacher and director Jack Featheringill, and commented, “It really does feel quite lovely to be appreciated.”

Gavin Hoffman scored a rare double victory in the acting categories, taking home the best actor Drammy for his performance as a desperate actor juggling life and art in The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre, and the supporting actor award for his performance in Great Expectations at Portland Center Stage. David Bodin shared the supporting-actor award for his Malvolio in Portland Shakespeare Project’s Twelfth Night. “I’m not greedy, really I’m not,” Hoffman said disarmingly in the second of his two acceptance speeches.

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production "Orlando" at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production “Orlando” at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Other major acting awards went to Brian Demar Jones for best actor in a musical (Under the Influence, Fuse Theatre Ensemble), Malia Tippets for actress in a musical (Heathers: The Musical, Triangle Productions and Staged!), Jamie Rea for supporting actress in a play (A Doll’s House, Shaking the Tree), Cassie Q. Kohl for supporting actress in a musical (H.M.S. Pinafore, Mock’s Crest Productions), James Sharinghousen for supporting actor in a musical (Oklahoma!, Broadway Rose), and Kai Tomizawa for young performer (Junie B. Jones: The Musical, Oregon Children’s Theatre).

Among several special awards, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild gave out $17,000 for several projects, including $2,000 to the Rex Putnam High School theater department for children’s theater programs, $4,000 to CoHo Theatre for an exterior sign, $5,000 to John Ellingson to study puppet design in England, and $6,000 to Shaking the Tree for lighting and sound equipment. And the group Age and Equity for the Arts awarded $30,000 – $10,000 to Profile Theatre, $20,000 to CoHo – to support equity programs. Imago Theatre won the Artslandia Award of $5,000 in advertising and publicity.

The evening’s hosts were the seven members of The 3rd Floor comedy troupe, and what might have been a logistical disaster turned out instead to be a smooth, sometimes surprising, and often very funny addition to a show that ran a little over two and a half hours. The group’s quick wits and easy teamwork made the evening run like a machine – the sort of machine that includes spatters of blood, a cranked-up Carmina Burana soundtrack, an 8-foot-tall Sasquatch helping to announce the best-costume nominees, and at least one close-to-the-bone running gag. The troupe’s performance was refreshing and bittersweet: after 20 years onstage, it’ll call it quits after a July 9 reunion/retirement show at Artists Rep.

*

The complete list of 2015-16 Drammy winners and nominees. Winners are listed in boldface at the top of each category:

 

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Brian Demar Jones
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Max Artsis
Dogfight
Staged!

Jared Miller

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Joel Walker
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY

Gavin Hoffman
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Bobby Bermea
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Allen Nause

Chapatti 
Corrib Theatre

Seth Rue
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Malia Tippets
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged! 

Claire Avakian
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Courtney Freed
Falsettos
Live On Stage

Kailey Rhodes
Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Beth Thompson
Orlando
Profile Theatre

JoAnn Johnson
Mothers And Sons
Artists Repertory Theatre

Val Landrum
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

Kayla Lian
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

Jessica Wallenfels
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Maija Garcia
Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Maria Tucker
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Kent Zimmerman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Alison Heryer
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Sarah Gahagan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Alison Heryer
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Ashton Hull
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Chris Coleman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Diane Englert
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Bruce A. Hostetler
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Sharon Maroney
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY

Matthew B. Zrebski
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Michael Mendelson
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Louanne Moldovan
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Pat Patton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

In the Heights
Stumptown Stages

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A PLAY

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Cock
defunkt theatre

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

Orlando
Profile Theatre

 

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Don Crossley
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Kristeen Willis Crosser
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Carl Faber
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Diane Ferry Williams
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST MUSIC DIRECTION

Rick Lewis
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Tracey Edson
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Jonathan Quesenberry
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Jeffrey Childs
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Ernie Lijoi, Kevin Laursen, Lawrence Rush
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Adrian Baxter
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Rory Stitt
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Matthew B. Zrebski
Chrysalis
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT

Noah Dunham
How to Stop Dying
Action/Adventure Theatre

Ernie Lijoi
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Sacha Reich + Jamie Rea
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

Claire Willett
Dear Galileo
Playwrights West

 

BEST PIT ENSEMBLE

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

Mame
Lakewood Theatre Company

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY

Orlando
Profile Theatre

Cock
defunkt theatre

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre 

 

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Tony Cisek
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Stephen Dobay
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Tal Sanders
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Tim Stapleton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST SOUND DESIGN

Rodolfo Ortega
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

Richard E. Moore
The Drunken City
Theatre Vertigo

Seth Nehil
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Scott Thorson
Sex With Strangers
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

James Sharinghousen
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Troy Pennington
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Blake Stone
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Joe Theissen
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY

David Bodin
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

and

Gavin Hoffman
Great Expectations
Portland Center Stage

Matthew Kerrigan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Todd Van Voris
The New Electric Ballroom
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Cassi Q. Kohl
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Amanda Pred
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Danielle Purdy
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Emily Sahler
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Jamie Rea
A Doll’s House
Shaking the Tree

Crystal Ann Muñoz
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

Anne Sorce
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Beth Thompson
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

 

BEST YOUNG PERFORMER

Kai Tomizawa
Junie B. Jones: The Musical
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Annabel Cantor
Ramona Quimby
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Morgan Fay
The Wrestling Season
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

Agatha Olson
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

 

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Beth Harper

 

SPECIAL AWARDS: 

Best Properties Design: Kaye Blankenship, In the Next Room,” or The Vibrator Play, Profile Theatre

Best Scenic Artist: Mindy Barker, The Drunken City, Theatre Vertigo

Best Solo Performance: Matthew Kerrigan, The Dissenter’s Handbook, Shaking the Tree Theater

Special achievement by a producer: Adriana Baer (Profile) and Samantha van der Merwe (Shaking the Tree), Passion Play

 

PATA SPOTLIGHT AWARDS:

The following Spotlight awards were presented by Portland Area Theatre Alliance (PATA):

  • Other: Kate E. Ortolano, sign language
  • Crew: Crew of The Skin of Our Teeth at Artists Repertory Theatre
  • Stage Manager: Karen Hill
  • Stage Manager: D Westerholm

 

PORTLAND CIVIC THEATRE GUILD AWARDS:

  • Mary Brand Award: $2,000 to Rex Putnam High School Theatre Department Children’s Theatre Program to bring theater to elementary school audiences that otherwise could not afford to attend.
  • Leslie O. Fulton Fellowship: $5,000 to John Ellingson for travel to England to study at the Beverly Puppet Festival in July, following which he will connect and interact with several prominent puppet companies in England.
  • Portland Civic Theatre $4,000 Award  to CoHo Theatre to pay for the creation and installation of an exterior sign marking the building and increasing the visibility of the theatre.
  • The Portland Civic Theatre $6,000 Award to Shaking the Tree to upgrade their lighting and sound equipment.

 

AGE AND GENDER EQUITY AWARDS:

  • $10,000 to Profile Theatre
  • $20,000 to CoHo Productions

Hand2Mouth has its own ‘Idaho’

'Time, A Fair Hustler' updates Gus Van Sant's 'My Own Private Idaho'

The new production Time, A Fair Hustler by Hand2Mouth at Artist Repertory Theatre is loose and jumpy, thoughtful and spasmodic, poetic and nostalgic. That’s fair enough, too, because Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho on which it is based, shares a lot of those adjectives, except maybe for the nostalgic part. The primary difference? Hand2Mouth’s show, which runs the ridgeline between “play” and “presentation,” is relentlessly about Portland, where Portlander Van Sant made the film, and the movie is more about a few characters who belong to the demi-monde of street hustlers that happens to be in Portland.

At least that’s how I read it. When I saw the movie back in 1992, I really didn’t focus at all on its Portlandness (or lack thereof). The plot, with its clear reference to the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal in Shakespeare mixed together with a character study of one of the hustlers, Mike, didn’t exactly track for me, either, as it crisscrossed the Northwest and then took a vacation in Italy. What I loved was the feel of the movie, the dark and dreamy atmospherics, which mostly emanated from the cinematography of Eric Edwards. My Own Private Idaho was poetic, surreal, and beautiful because of that exploration of the boundaries of filmmaking more than anything else, at least as I saw it.

Erika Latta and Julie Hammond in "Time, A Fair Hustler."/Anna M. Campbell

Erika Latta and Julie Hammond in “Time, A Fair Hustler.”/Anna M. Campbell

So for me, when I heard that Time, A Fair Hustler, was going to make the Portland connection clearer, I was immediately interested, though I wasn’t sure how that would work out. And now that I’ve seen it, that clarity of purpose overlaid on Van Sant’s movie has some clear benefits—and pleasures. If you know My Own Private Idaho, I think the Hand2Mouth take on it will deepen your experience of the original. If you don’t know it? Well, Time, A Fair Hustler may seem a little on the confusing side. Intriguing, though, and once you read the lengthy program notes, it should all come clear.

*****

Time, A Fair Hustler does not recreate My Own Private Idaho scene by scene (as Van Sant famously did with Psycho—turnabout may have been an interesting case of fair play!). The scenes it does appropriate are flashbacks. Instead, it is set in the present at some sort of public event, though whether it’s a legal proceeding on the disappearance of Mike or a general inquiry into the Portland of the late 1980s, it’s hard to say. Characters from the film “testify” about what happened, sitting at a table and speaking into a microphone, except they are 25 years older than they were then. As they get specific about an event, they flip into flashback mode, and the scene they are describing unfolds.

You’re going to get the most out of Gary (played with the right kind of good-naturedness by Jason Rouse), who is frank about the connection between his hustling and his drug use and then frank about his attitudes about today’s Portland hipsters. They couldn’t handle what I was up to for an hour, he says. Today, of course, he works at New Seasons has a wife and kids, one named Typhoon, and suppresses his anger over the constant customer questions about the price of kabobs. The testimony from Gary, Bob (Jean-Luc Boucherot as the Falstaff character in the movie), and Hans (Anne Sorce as a customer and admirer of Mike and Scott) successfully implant Van Sant’s movie in Portland, in a specific place not just a general milieu, where you can while away the night at Quality Pie or squat in the abandoned Governor Hotel or pick up tricks downtown. Scott (Erika Latta) is the mayor of Portland now, so his memories are carefully sanitized, even though as the Prince Hal figure in the movie, he was at the center of everything. This politician is a careful fellow—and anguished, too.

As a story gets started, the cast finds a space among the rows of chairs on the stage to enact it, and in these flashbacks, Mike figures prominently, Mike and Scott, best friends as they say to each other constantly.

*****

Scott and Mike. Any new version of My Own Private Idaho must deal with the incandescent performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, incandescent because of how deeply felt they were, especially Phoenix’s as the narcoleptic Mike, whose friendship for Scott grows into something much more. Van Sant skated around Mike’s sexuality a bit in My Own Private Idaho; the explicitness in the film came directly from Phoenix, who improvised the famous campfire scene in which Mike declares his full-blooded affection for Scott. But yes, Phoenix, who would be dead of a drug overdose in a couple of years, a habit possibly begun during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, and Reeves, who was on the cusp of becoming a global star: They are going to be difficult to bring to a stage.

Director Jonathan Walters has cast Hand2Mouth company member Julie Hammond as Mike and Erika Latta, artistic co-director of New York’s WAXFACTORY, as Scott. The gender switch makes sense to me, just because it end runs the casting problem, and in Hammond and Latta, Walters has actors capable of sketching the necessary complexity of their characters in just a few strokes, frequently repeated for effect. So, Latta is always straightening Scott’s posture into a power position, a pose, that also becomes a “male” marker of sorts, though because of the gender swap, we instantly question how male those postures actually are. For her part, Hammond is always running her hands through her hair, pushing it back, as though Mike is re-setting a bit each time.

Scott, as the heir apparent to his rich father (who is also Portland’s mayor), has pride of place in the gang of hustlers led by Bob, and yes, just as Prince Hal does in Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy, he’s going to turn his back on the whole bunch. Maybe that’s clearer in Time, A Fair Hustler than it is in the film. Do we imagine that this Scott and this Bob (Scott’s father figure) are going to stay in touch? Not a bit, if only because it’s immediately apparent from the testimony we’re receiving. But Latta plays Scott as a remote Prince, allowing himself the friendship with Mike, but not much else, and it’s a bit of a problem, because it leaves Boucherot’s performance as Bob out to dry a bit.

Hammond’s Mike is preoccupied, too—there’s a mother to find in Idaho, his dangerously close relationship to Scott, his sudden fits of narcolepsy that leave him collapsed on the floor. Hammond doesn’t try to link these aspects together; she allows them to play out in turn, disparate shards of consciousness, of desire, of biological interruption. Her Mike’s intense vulnerability emerges from this, and whether or not we remember the last sad scene of the movie, when Mike is picked up off an empty stretch of Idaho and deposited in van, we fear for this Mike as much as we did for Phoenix’s.

The bottom line, though, for those worried about how you do Phoenix and Reeves on a Portland stage: Don’t worry about it. Latta and Hammond are striking, partly the result of Walter’s clever repetitions and staging of their entrances and partly their own habitation of these characters. Unsurprisingly, their relationship ends up being just as central to the stage version as it does to Van Sant’s movie.

*****

Hand2Mouth belongs to a small subset of Portland theater, alongside Imago and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, that is working on a kind of theater that doesn’t have to be linear narratively but does want to hold your interest second by second, using language and images and movement. Anne Sorce’s appearance here underscores this approach—she’s also an Imago regular and she fits in perfectly here as Hans, a customer and an observer/reporter of Mike and Scott. A minor character in the film, Hans becomes gives us crucial information in Time, A Fair Hustler, and Sorce’s performance is so clear about Hans’s own stake in things that we trust his account.

Maybe more importantly, as an Imago player, she’s used to non-traditional circumstances on stage. That’s important because this is a non-traditional theater. Hand2Mouth devised it in workshops using the film as a starting point and then many hours of conversations with the real street hustlers from the time of Van Sant’s movie. (Van Sant was intending to cast the film from among them until Phoenix and Reeves showed up and made Hollywood-level financing possible.) And the company enlisted playwright Andrea Stolowitz to help with the script. But moment to moment, it’s a little unsettling, funny sometimes and blunt, spiraling downward inevitably to the mostly sad current day manifestations of the characters from the film.

In a way the film and the play version are about lost friendships, a subject most of us know well, because few friendships are forever. But they are also about how important those lost friendships once were. One could portray this on a stage in the usual way, or one could sit Sorce down in front of a microphone and have her define friendship in that German accent of Hans:

“If my friend wants to learn to drive a stick, I teach him even if I’m on Vicodin.”

Time, A Fair Hustler continues at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays, through August 16, $15-25, tickets through Hand2Mouth