THEATER

“Some people like having someone around. I’m just not one of those people.” So says Abby early on in Ripcord, and it seems like she means it.

Abby, portrayed by the brilliant Randi Douglas, lives in a retirement home. She’s crotchety and deceitful and, frankly, just wants her room to herself. She doesn’t really care how she comes about that, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Enter her new roommate, Marilyn, portrayed by the equally brilliant Anita Sorel. Marilyn is everything Abby isn’t. She’s cheerful and positive. She loves people, and she spreads joy. She is impossible to anger. But Abby wants nothing to do with her.

Sunny vs. cloudy: Anita Sorel as Marilyn and Randi Douglas as Abby, battling roommates in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Ripcord” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft.

And therein lies the heart of this delightful comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire: Abby and Marilyn bet their room that they can anger and scare one another, respectively. This quick and hilarious play directed by David Smith-English at Clackamas Repertory Theatre is practically a sitcom: It’s a roommate comedy with plenty of hijinks and misunderstandings (remember the episode of “Friends” where they bet the apartment?); and with how much the audience laughs, there might as well be a laugh track.

Lest you think this is going to be a nothing but a comedy, I will point out Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” which broke all of our hearts and earned him the Pulitzer Prize (and was later turned into a movie starring Nicole Kidman). While “Ripcord” will not bring on the kind of tears of that play, there is plenty of substance and loss here once we get to know Abby and Marilyn better.

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Through much of Skeleton Crew, the well-built drama currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre, we can hear the machines. One of the play’s characters, a young woman named Shanita, whose fierce work ethic doesn’t crowd out her dreamy nature, talks about the music of the factory, the self-orchestrating noises of everything from the assembly lines where sheet metal gets stamped into car doors to the old refrigerator humming softly in the break room. There’s a musicality, to be sure, about Sharath Patel’s sound design, with its deft mix of ambient noises and industrial-soul hip-hop beatscapes. But more crucially, the subtle symphony of wheezing pumps and clanking metal suggests breath and movement, the restless, rhythmic life force of some great creature.

The further we get into playwright Dominique Morisseau’s tale of the waning days of a Detroit automobile plant, the more we recognize the importance of the factory’s breathing — not for its own sake, as a beast of corporate power — but as the lungs of a community.

The funky verisimilitude of Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design (which features dancers in shadow, like ghosts in the machine) is practically a character of its own in Artist Rep’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo: David Kinder.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, to be sure. The workers examined here by Morisseau, who has written two previous plays about Detroit, depend on the factory for their middle-class livelihoods, or at least their middle-class aspirations. They put their backs into the work, and their problem-solving aptitude as well. In return, they get paychecks, and something just as vital: pride.

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Mary McDonald-Lewis knows how to talk.

More importantly, she knows how to teach others how to talk. If you’ve been to more than a few theater productions in Portland, chances are strong that you’ve heard her work, which falls into the category of valuable contributions that ideally you won’t quite notice. As a dialect coach (or “voice & language consultant,” or various other job descriptions) she’s contributed to innumerable shows and trained many more performers.

A skilled voice actor herself, of course, she’s also made an impact locally and nationally as a labor activist. As ArtsWatch tracked her down earlier this week, she was in the midst of packing for a quick trip to Los Angeles to help negotiate a new SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) contract covering voice work for animation.

Mary McDonald-Lewis, a.k.a. “Mary Mac,” is best known as a voice actor and dialect coach, but has a varied role in the theater world.

Mary Mac, as she’s widely known, knows how to talk in the more casual sense as well. That is, she’s a delightful conversationalist — quick-witted, knowledgeable, curious, engaging. We met at an airy Italian joint in her longtime Northeast Portland neighborhood to talk Shakespeare — she’s directing a production of The Tempest at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven — but she first spoke enthusiastically about the show’s producers, Megan Skye Hale and Myrrh Larsen, and the creative performance space they’ve nurtured beneath the Hawthorne Bridge.

“They’re kind of one of the young power couples of Portland arts,” she says of Hale (who’ll play Ariel in this production) and Larsen. “They’re both classic and modern at the same time. They have a real fascination with classical work, especially Shakespeare…And they’re very modern in terms of inclusiveness, cross-gender and multi-gender casting, and their overall approach to the work. It’s not politics with them, it’s passion: It’s just the way that art should be made.”

When I mentioned that I’d not been to the Steep and Thorny Way, McDonald-Lewis fairly glowed about it. “You sort of expect Sherlock to emerge from the steam,” she said of its gritty neighborhood near the river. “It’s this dark heart that just runs on love. They are scrappy and they dream big. Some real magic comes off that tiny stage.”

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DramaWatch: Season’s greetings!

Portland's 2018-'19 theater season kicks into gear at Artists Rep, CoHo and elsewhere; and it's time to experiment with TBA.

We’ve survived the heat. Now comes the harvest.

That is to say, summer is ending soon and the boon of fall arts season is upon us. Unlike, say, baseball, there’s no official Opening Day, but this weekend is as good a time as any to mark the start of the 2018-’19 season. Labor Day has passed and Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, is getting things underway, as is the small yet vital CoHo. Soon enough, Portland Center Stage, the big player, will begin not just its new season but its new era under recently named artistic director Marissa Wolf.

So, what is it we want out of a theater season — either company by company or considered as a city-wide whole?

To be entertained? OK, sure. Whatever that means. Diversions and delights are great, as far as they go.

But should we be looking for more? The things we might want out of an individual play — insight into something about the human condition, an expansion of empathy for those we may have discounted, a mirror on our own foibles or desires, a call to arms about a cause celebre… — we might get more of out of a smartly programmed season.

Profile Theatre’s focus on particular playwrights lends itself to the accretion of meaning. And I rather like what the small Twilight Theater is in the midst of — a 2018 calendar-year season with plays that examine the interweaving of theater and life, plays within plays and/or about plays and such. But for the most part, especially in a time where the season-subscription model continues to fade from popularity or maybe even plausibility, the big houses seem to value stylistic variety and box-office potential, while small companies mount too few productions to draw out broader themes and ideas.

Perhaps these are musings for a different moment, though. For now, the schedules are set.

So, again: What do we want out of this theater season — not the one out of our stage-nerd utopian dreams, but the one we’re going to get?

Speaking only for myself, I’ll say: Tell me more, please, about life and how to live it.

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For the past decade, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program has commissioned playwrights to examine turning points in U.S. history. Playwright Idris Goodwin has heeded the call with his new play, The Way the Mountain Moved, a revisionist look at a supposedly well-known piece of American history: how the West was won.

Not your typical white cowboy heroes, Julian Remulia (from left), Maddy Flemming, Sara Bruner and Al Espinosa represent other figures of the American West in “The Way the Mountain Moved” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Specifically, The Way the Mountain Moved — which continues through October 28 — is set in Utah in the 1850s. The cast of characters is made up primarily of people who have long been ignored by the American Western: There are African-American Mormons (yes, they exist), Mexican immigrants, single women and their daughters, Native Americans. With this play, Goodwin, OSF, and director May Adrales point out the hypocrisy inherent in American Westerns (not to mention in this country, in general), with their singular focus on the white cowboy as hero, when we all know the white cowboy character (and, in fact, our country) were built upon the backs of people of color and women, so long and largely ignored.

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Antonio Sonera’s Badass Hospitality

As the city's new theater season swings into action, Portland's maverick director speaks out about why it's done, and who should have access

Antonio Sonera is the maverick of the Portland theater scene: a wild card, an enigma, complicated and controversial, undoubtedly gifted, knowledgeable and hard-working. He’s been a vital part of the Portland theater scene for 30-odd years, yet in many ways, he’s on the outside looking in. He hasn’t worked at Artists Rep in years. He’s never directed at Portland Center Stage. He’s never worked at Portland Playhouse or Profile or Defunkt. He’s on the Drammy Committee, yet, in those same three decades of doing good — and oftentimes great — work in this town, he’s yet to win a Drammy himself. If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name. El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed. When Sonera works these days, it’s primarily on projects he’s developed or produced.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him about that hiatus; about his company, Badass Theatre; and about the state of theater in Portland. Anyone who knows Sonera already knows he had a lot to say. He’s a man of strong opinions and he’s not afraid to speak them. He’s also a thoughtful man, smart, experienced and perhaps most importantly, he gives a damn. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t deny his passion or commitment.

Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

When World Builders rolled around this June Portland hadn’t heard from Badass in four years, which was too bad. Because when Badass had spoken, people had listened. Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s perception-shattering tornado of a play, was easily the most talked-about theater piece of its season. Sans Merci, Johnna Adams’ brutal exploration of love and grief, contained a trio of outstanding performances, headed by the amazing Luisa Sermol, ripping her soul to tatters and leaving it there on the stage for everybody to see. (Sermol won an award for her work, not her first by any means, and not her first under Sonera’s direction. She’d taken home another Drammy for her work in Boleros for the Disenchanted at Milagro in 2012.)

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Connecting art to activism

Besides Whitney Jayne's mixed-media show, Yamhill County eases toward fall with poetry readings, Footloose, and a film about minority winemakers

Something about autumn makes the arts seem an integral part of the season. I’m not sure how or why that happened, but I do know my calendar through November is packed with opportunities — theater, concerts, readings, shows, films. In coming weeks, we’ll get to author Reese Kwon in McMinnville; Metropolis at the Elsinore Theater in Salem; not one, but two, Yamhill County art harvest tours; and a live theater scene that includes Miss Julie, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Night of the Living Dead. Let’s go.

This week, I want to spotlight a young artist who caught the attention of McMinnville’s Dan and Nancy Morrow of The Gallery at Ten Oaks a while back and who has her first show there. Whitney Jayne’s mixed media is on display in the gallery on Oregon 99W across from Linfield College. A reception will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, with the exhibit continuing through Nov. 4.

Whitney Jayne

I had coffee with Jayne last month, but before her story, a quick entry from my Department of Full Disclosure (the third in as many weeks): I’ve known the Morrows for many years, and I wrote weekly film reviews for them when they owned and operated a terrific video store, the closest thing to Movie Madness a small town can have. After closing the store in April 2016, they remodeled the 110-year-old, two-story house at 801 S.W. Baker St., and within two months transformed the video store into an art gallery, showcasing both locally produced art and wine.

Jayne’s roots are in the Pacific Northwest. She was born in Seattle, but spent most of her life from age 9 in Utah, where she considered several areas of study that had little to do with art before finally embracing what she loved. She received her Bachelor’s in Fine Art in 2010 with a minor in Women and Gender studies and Psychology from Utah State University, where she had one of those incredible discoveries that artists make when something goes wrong.

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