Heidi Schreck dishes the soup

The author of Artists Rep's new "Grand Concourse" chats about writing, acting, soup kitchens, and getting from Wenatchee to the Big Apple

Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.

And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.


Liza’s a cabaret, old chum

Triangle's "Liza! Liza! Liza!" offers a triple dose of Minnelli in show-stopping song and story

The stage is on fire with the radiance of millions of sequins and the over-the-top soprano arias, moving into a hint of silvery vibrato, that made Liza Minnelli a star of stage and screen. Triangle Productions’s newest show willkommens, bienvenues the United States premiere of Liza! Liza! Liza!, an intimate portrait of the manic, pixie-haired diva.

Imagine an evening in a small lounge while Liza delivers her hits and shares the story of her life. This alone is the devil giving his come-hither finger. But on stage are not one Ms. Minnelli, not two, but three. We get the young, vivacious, and eager Liza; the middle-aged, accomplished, and sensual Liza; and the older, sadder, but wiser Liza. They all take on her signature bubbly speaking voice with its sexy and breathy laugh, creating a magic blood harmony of a similar woman’s voice as it changes with her years.

The three Lizas, belting 'em out. Triangle Productions photo.

The three Lizas, belting ’em out. Triangle Productions photo.

More than twenty-four of Liza’s songs provide the soundtrack of her train-wreck life. She’s a Hollywood blue-blood, but her life is punctuated by calamity and her overwhelming drive to have the show go on. The play – by Richard Harris, whose other famous work includes The Avengers British television show – approaches her life and art with sensitivity. Liza struggles with her body image, family history of addiction, chaotic love affairs, illness. Forget (if you can) that she’s Liza Minnelli, and her problems are the same ones many women combat. This puts Liza’s feet firmly on the earth, despite her stardom. In an age when celebrity pretends to be goddess-like in its perfection, it’s refreshing to know that some of our heroes can be great creative forces at least partly because of the obstacles they face and overcome.


Portland Opera preview: Rebuilding a magical world

Portland 're-premiere' reincarnates Maurice Sendak's destroyed design for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' 


To imagine that The Magic Flute is merely beguiling child’s play is to sell W. A. Mozart’s masterpiece short. His last staged opera’s enchanted world, clear-cut good vs. evil themes, lyrical music, and fanciful characters like Queen of the Night, Papageno and Tamino appeal to children of all ages. Now back on the boards at Portland Opera for four performances this month, it is among the five most frequently performed operas in the world.

Portland Opera's 'The Magic Flute.' Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

The most outsized child-friendly delight is this production’s whimsical scenery, designed in 1980 by the world-famous children’s author, the late Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). And the story of how that wondrous world will reappear in Portland this month is almost as enchanting as Mozart’s music.


The beautiful North, and back again

Milagro's "Into the Beautiful North" tells a wild tale of a band of outsiders on a journey to rediscover home


Dorothy Gale once said while clicking her heels, “There’s no place like home.” But she had to travel far and wide, down the yellow brick road, through the Emerald City, against all strange odds, to get back where she started and belonged. Milagro Theatre’s Into the Beautiful North is a similarly wild tale of a band of outsiders on a journey to discover that the golden and kaleidoscope-feathered Aztlán, legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples, is a state of mind.

Olga Sanchez and Daniel Jáquez direct Karen Zacarías’s new adaptation of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel by the same name. It’s not magical realism, but it creates a surreal and vivid dreamscape, from the tiny town of Tres Camarones (translated as Three Shrimps), across the Tijuana/United States border, to a brief pit stop in San Diego, through the dusty and dry desert of Nevada (where’s the snow?), Colorado, and a small town named Kankakee, Illinois, with two gazebos donated by David Letterman, and finally back again to Tres Camarones.

Taking a magnificent quest into the beautiful North. Photo: Russell J Young

Taking a magnificent quest into the beautiful North. Photo: Russell J Young

The three heroes are led by Nayeli, played by Michelle Escobar, who on the outside is a pretty but plain girl who waitresses at a cafe with the only internet connection in town. But, as with Dorothy, don’t let appearances fool you: Nayeli has an unbridled imagination. Her best friend, Vampi (Michelle Caughlin), is the small-town Goth chick complete with corset, hot pants, patterned stockings, and maroon black lipstick. Vampi is one of the tale’s least romantic characters, despite her appearance, and adds a little restraint to Nayeli’s stargazing. Tacho (Danny Mareno) is Nayeli’s boss, and one of the last men who live in Tres Camarones. He faces constant tiny aggressions because he’s gay. The exodus of men to the United States has left the fishing village open to threats from narcos and other highway bandidos. Nayeli is inspired by the ’60s classic western film The Magnificent Seven to find seven equal warriors to protect Tres Camarones.


Catch a falling star, put it in your pocket

Portland Playhouse's "Peter and the Starcatcher" recaptures the magic of childhood in the origins of Peter Pan

Novelist Ridley Pearson sat down to read his daughters J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan without much luck. Not because the girls weren’t interested, but the youngest kept interrupting and wanted to know how Peter became an eternal boy, how he met Captain Hook, and when did Tinkerbell figure into the plot? Pearson was in a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders with horror author Stephen King and funnyman Dave Barry. Barry joined Pearson’s quest, and together they wrote a best-selling series that answers the origins of the famous Pan. Now Portland Playhouse has gathered all of their starstuff and staged the multiple award-winning play Peter and the Starcatcher.

It’s a well-sailed ship. The first thing to notice in the old church/playhouse that Portland Playhouse calls home is the meticulously detailed toy pirate ships dotting the stage. The white curtain is a mast with metal loops for rigging, but it has a soft blue glow like an ocean wave or the night sky reflecting the tiny distant suns in the sea wake. Front and center are silver clamshell lights, the kind you would have seen in the 19th century, which gave off the glow of the limelights. There’s an old magic in the air; you can almost feel a Ouija board summoning of the ancient spirits of Gilbert and Sullivan.


Oh, the villainy! Oh, the adventure! Photo: Brud Giles

We begin our history lesson in a sad and bleak Dickens vision where all the good grown-ups are jumping ship, leaving behind the nasty and distrustful. A trio of orphans – “the most useless creatures on earth,” named Boy, Ted, and Prentiss – are aboard. Ted (Chip Sherman) has an empty vortex of a stomach. Prentiss (Quinn Fitzgerald) dons a woolen cap too big for his head and is the self-proclaimed leader of the group. Boy (Nick Ferrucci), who has curly dark black locks, also has a temper against all the grown-ups and a slight impish look. The fourth child sailing on a ship they call the Neverland is the higher-born and more esoterically schooled Molly, played by Jen Rowe. Molly has good posture, and is full of common sense, which at times is overturned by curiosity. Because this is a good story, a children’s story, the four will overcome great odds, make a mess of a situation into a quest, and crown a few heroes by play’s end.


Don Quixote: a man for all seasons

Lakewood Theatre's revival of "Man of La Mancha" injects some fresh hopefulness into a season of cynicism

Some days it’s easier to roll up the carpet, wipe the twinkle from your eye, and put any hope you may have out to the curb. There will always be an abundance of opportunities to take a turn to the cynical, election cycle or not. This year, however, the better bet is not to brush up on your Thomas More and Utopia, but to take in a little Cervantes: Lakewood Theatre Company has brought back the 1964 musical Man of La Manchaand is making the case for dreamers everywhere.


A little background hints at why this half-century-old Broadway show remains so familiar and deeply loved. The tale traces all the way back to 1605, when Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the inspiration for Man of La Mancha, was published.

Leif Norby (left), Joey Corté, and Pam Mahon in Lakewood's "La Mancha." Photo: Triumph Studios

Leif Norby (left), Joey Corté, and Pam Mahon in Lakewood’s “La Mancha.” Photo: Triumph Studios

Miguel de Cervantes was in a hustle to make a buck near the end of his life: it had been hard and cruel, with one obstacle after another; never did any fair winds of fortune blow his way. He was a 16th century jack-of-all-trades who failed most of his life at being a poet, playwright, soldier, assistant to a cardinal, and tax collector. Like many authors, he was more celebrated after his death than while he was alive. He was imprisoned by pirates in Algiers, and in his darkest of hours he was a victim of the Inquisition: somewhere in his brilliant veins coursed some Jewish blood. He had everything to win, as he had nothing left to lose, when he began writing about Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza.


Austen’s ‘Emma’: a wit and a way

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic comedy of manners plugs into a great literary tradition of wit

I’ve been thinking about wit lately, partly because Bag&Baggage Theatre is about to open the Oregon premiere of Michael Frye’s stage adaptation of Emma, two hundred years after Jane Austen’s comedy of manners first met the printing press. Using just five actors, Frye’s adaptation presents the story as if it were a “private theatrical” in the Austen family home, an approach that in itself seems at least a sly conceit. The production opens Friday and continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

Like Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville, which also made its debut in 1816Austen’s novel was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).


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