THEATER

‘The Homecoming': Imago defines ‘Pinteresque’

One girl and a houseful of boys riding their ids to the edge, then trying to soft-shoe back into good graces

Let’s say you’ve decided to drop the word “Pinteresque” into cocktail conversation. What’s the right moment?

Well, it might work in place of “messed-” or “f*cked-up,” but only referring to people’s actions. No apparel, architecture, food or music—however grotesque—is sick enough to qualify. Only people are Pinteresque, and only in person, when they do or say the most shocking things possible.

So when do you bust out your new favorite word? At that record-skip moment when the party stops short because someone has completely lost control. “Well, that was Pinteresque,” you murmur to your date, as you and all the other sane guests tiptoe over the spilled punch, shattered glass, rutting couple, or dead man toward the door.

Ann Sorce and the fellas: trouble's a-brewin'. Photo: John Rudoff

Anne Sorce and the fellas: trouble’s a-brewin’. Photo: John Rudoff

It’s this immediacy, this focus on the present, that’s drawn Imago Theatre—otherwise best-known for goodhearted, all-ages commedia clowning in Frogz and Big Little Things—into Harold Pinter’s more tortured reality, performing three of the British playwright’s works in a recent stretch, and currently The Homecoming, which opened over the weekend and continues through November 10. “”If you look at Frogz, there’s no past, no future. There’s only the moment,” Imago artistic director Jerry Mouawad has explained to The Oregonian.

Only the moment? Well, certainly the moments in The Homecoming are overwhelmingly potent. When patriarch Max (Douglas Mitchell) pitches red-faced tirades, sputtering epithets (bitch and more) about his late wife, and lashing out physically against his sons, it’s jarring enough—but when, in a flash, he re-composes himself into a grandfatherly, cajoling host, offering tea and compliments (with a side of sleaze), it’s actually scarier. Did he just say that, or did we imagine it? If he can “turn” that quickly, how long a lull do we have till he “turns” again? Doubting one’s own senses is the heart of dramatic suspense, whether it’s in a haunted house from a horror movie, or a family home on the outskirts of London, haunted by horrible memories.

The Homecoming‘s present, however intense, is made possible by an implied awful past. And according to Pinter himself, “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.” The father, sons, and uncle who live together in The Homecoming drop frequent hints that incest, abuse, and infidelity are part of their shared past, and they’d have to be! How else could these characters possibly act so Pinteresque?!

Lenny (Jacob Coleman), a dapper scumbag, has locked his father Max in a permanent staredown, while his physically stronger but intellectually and emotionally softer brother Joey (Jim Vadala) struggles to speak, often shutting down and cowering in a corner. Their (gay? gigolo?) uncle Sam (Craig Rovere) acts breezy and cavalier, but when Max confronts him, he galvanizes into sudden steel.

The group’s behavior gets partially better, and ultimately worse, when two more characters are introduced: long-lost third brother Teddy (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin) and his wife, Ruth (Anne Sorce). A lady! Sam’s keen to make her comfortable, Joey’s instantly in love and Lenny in lust, and Max derides her as a filthy whore, then abruptly changes tack and welcomes her. Their reaction to their kinsman Teddy is far more blasé; after all, he’s just another man, and they’ve already overfilled that quota. Though their dialogue ends up probing some interesting philosophical dichotomies (UK versus US, academia versus working class), ultimately they drop these debates for the flesh-and-blood femininity in their midst.

Written in 1964, the year after the release of The Feminine Mystique, The Homecoming piles the odds against its sole female character even as it trains its full focus upon her. Ruth’s not merely under a lens here; she’s at the center of crosshairs. Anne Sorce, who may be the fiercest and most bewitching actress in Portland, remains equally beautiful and hard throughout this five-on-one territorial pissing match. Her performance earns a “Hot damn!”—but saying any more would give away the game.

The Homecoming, often lumped with other “comedies of menace,” is so powerfully sinister that writing it apparently blew Pinter’s own fuse. After The Homecoming, he announced he was “tired of menace,” and penned the more poetic Landscape and Silence. Also, according to Imago’s playbill notes, “Pinter himself disliked the term [Pinteresque] and found it meaningless”—which may seem messed-up, but probably explains his characters’ impulse to ride their ids all the way to the edge, and then try to soft-shoe back into good graces. However, as Thomas Wolfe had already famously observed, you can’t go home again.

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

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Into the woods, fangs flashing

Defunkt's "In the Forest She Grew Fangs" prowls the city's mythological October bramble with intense style

Must be the season of the witch. And the zombie, the wicked stepmother, the grim reaper, the wolf.

October’s oozing with mystery and horror in Portland. Zombie apocalypse in The Last Days at Post5. Dark musical fairy tales in Into the Woods at Beaverton Civic. Young Frankenstein zapping for laughs at Lakewood. The Turn by The Reformers mashing up The Turn of the Screw and The Shining in a Buckman district living room. The Day of the Dead coming up soon in !O Romeo! at Milagro, a plague at Shaking the Tree in The Masque of the Red Death, all sorts of scary stuff at BodyVox in its annual BloodyVox. In her exhibition Grimms’ Hooks at Froelick Gallery, veteran Portland painter Katherine Ace dives deep into the murky psychological waters of the Grimm tales, in their savage, pre-sanitized versions.

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Into this creepy autumn bramble steals Defunkt Theatre’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs, an intense and hypnotic little show that lives up to the promise of its terrific title. Defunkt’s new production, in the steamy little boiler room of the Back Door Theatre, is the West Coast premiere of Stephen Spotswood’s updated riff on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and it’s got all the archetypes in American-backwoods small town form: the grandmother, a chain-smoking auctioneer who lives in a double-wide and laments the loss of the boy who claimed her virginity; the wolf, who’s been bumped around a lot and is really misunderstood; the hunter, who’s on the high school football team and has a mad crush on the new girl in town; and Red herself, who couldn’t keep on the path if it had a chain-link fence on either side.

In the Forest is notable partly because director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard and his cast and designers use the compact Back Door space so well. Actors sit around on the risers, pop in and out from entrances running through the seating areas, sometimes lock onto a spectator, gazing deeply and intently, almost nose to nose. Video design by Klaus-Vineyard and some imaginative animation by Amy Kuttab help Max Ward’s set play much bigger than it is. The whole thing has an intimate hothouse effect, as if the story just grabbed you by the throat and pulled you in for a good theatrical mauling. In short, the show turns technical disadvantages on their head and makes them part of the appeal.

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, "Brother & Sister," 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, “Brother & Sister,” 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Spotswood’s story is an even bigger attraction. It’s the Little Red Riding Hood of old, but never slavishly so: it lurks in the background, a suggestion mostly, until it leaps out and claws its way into the action. Spotswood adeptly balances familiar scenework with a storyteller approach (storytellers, plural, actually: much of the tale’s told by the wolf, but sometimes it passes to granny, or the hunter, or Red). And for a story with such a gothic sense of good and evil and retribution, Spotswood’s version is surprisingly subtle and complex. If (almost) nobody gets out of here alive, nobody gets out unstained or totally stained, either. On one level the play’s “about” bullying, but it approaches the subject by the side door, never preaching, never giving “lessons,” working by suggestion and insinuation. We see layers and levels of abuse, some of it malicious, some of it thoughtless, and the silent scars that run as deep as claw-slashes across a face. I don’t mean to belittle this play by saying it’s a good one for high school audiences – I mean to compliment it, and to emphasize that it’s appealing for adult audiences, too. I also recognize that few high-school drama departments are likely to produce it: after all, it has swear words, and talks about sex, and Parents Might Be Upset.

But mostly I want to talk about this sparkling cast of young actors, anchored by veteran Lauren Modica’s bruising, caustic, tough, vulnerable, and almost inordinately funny performance as Ruth, the grandmother, who’s something of an outcast in her hardscrabble little town, lost in the bitterness of her own past, and helpless to reel her granddaughter in from the deep end of an increasingly fraught teenage life. Modica’s spot-on performance pulls the story deep into mythic territory, and lends weight to the sharp work by the younger actors, who are led by Marisol Ceballos’s prowling, meek-but-feral performance as Lucy, the girl who gets picked on and picked on until the worm turns. Gabriel Isaac Lakey is appealingly open and clunky as Hunter, a guy balanced clumsily somewhere between jock and nerd; Tabitha Trosen is brash and funny and ultimately vulnerable as Jenny, the fish-out-of-water California kid who finds herself stuck in a hillbilly backwater; and Kitty Fuller, R. David Wylie, and Annie Ganousis make up an adaptable and exemplary chorus. This cast is one more evidence of the recent flowering of good young performers in town, arriving at Defunkt from such training grounds as Staged!, Portland Actors Conservatory, Northwest Academy, the University of Portland, and Portland State University. The talent’s good, and it’s being taught well.

In the meantime, it’s a Grimm world out there – or a Charles Perrault world; the 17th century French fantasist seems to be the first to have written the Little Red Riding Hood story down. Spotswood has done a neat job of recalibrating it for the 21st. And some things don’t change. In the Forest She Grew Fangs taps into the violence and wildness of the soul, rising and falling like the heartbeat of humanity.

Carl Larsson, "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest," 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

Carl Larsson, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest,” 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

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Interview redux: all the gasm that fits the stage

With the greatest-hits "Spectravagasm V" running late nights at Post5, we reprise A.L. Adams' interview with originator Sam Dinkowitz

“Spectravagasm V” – “one gasm-packed hour of shenanigans,” as Broadwayworld.com so discreetly puts it – is playing at Post5  Friday and Saturday nights, immediately after Post5’s MainStage production of the zombie-survival psychological adventure “The Last Days” (read A.L. Adams’ review of that show here). Showtime for “Spectravagasm” is 10 p.m., and both shows continue through October 24; click Broadwayworld.com above for details. “Great!” you say. “But what the heck IS Spectravagasm?” Funny you should ask. As it happens, Adams asked creator Sam Dinkowitz that very question, and he laid it out for her in cinemascopic detail. She published her interview with him on ArtsWatch on February 24, 2014, under the headline, “Interview: Sam Dinkowitz explains ‘Spectravagasm.'” To bring you back up to date, we’re re-running that interview below.

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Remember the raucous “audience member” who took over the stage during Portland Center Stage’s Twist Your Dickens? Or the hooded vagrant soothsayer slumping through the crowd in Post5‘s Caesar? Sure you do! And that was actor Sam Dinkowitz. When he’s not busy acting for well-known productions, however, Dinkowitz moonlights as the writer, devisor and director of Spectravagasm, a laugh-packed late-night sketch comedy. The series just premiered its fourth installment, a sendup of religion co-written by Cassandra Boice.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure, please note: Spectravagasm is scripted and blocked; it’s not improv. Spectravagasm is—as it warns—raunchy and irreverent, but it can also be absurd, daffy, sweet, and even occasionally profound. It tends to make its audience laugh without trying—and, bonus, it’s more fun to say than “Supercalifragilisticexpealedocious.” After catching Spectravagasm 4 last weekend, I caught up with Dinkowitz to tell us more about his hilarious brain-spawn.

Dinkowitz in "Sandy Blvd," a spoof movie trailer he created for Spectravagasm.

Dinkowitz in “Sandy Blvd,” a spoof movie trailer he created for Spectravagasm.

IN THE BEGINNING…

The latest Spectravagasm opens with an epic origin story, so let’s do that, too. How did Spectravagasm start? And what had been your prior comedy/sketch/theater experience?

I had just moved to Portland after dropping out of the Penn State MFA program, and my friends Orion Bradshaw and Ty Boice encouraged me to start doing stuff with their company, Post5. Beyond their Shakespeare endeavors, the boys had just borrowed this idea from a Seattle company called Death/Sex—a sketch show focused on, you guessed it, death and sex. The producer had backed out the month before the second Death/Sex was set to open, and I took on the project. Then I thought that instead of sticking to the Seattle idea we should just create our own, and Spectravagasm was born! Now, a year later, we’ve put up four all-original sketch shows.

Prior experience…? I don’t have any training that has to do specifically with sketch comedy, but I do have a BFA from Southern Oregon University, and I watch a sh-tload of Mr. Show and Kids in the Hall. I was in Twist Your Dickens this Christmas at PCS, and it was inspiring to be a part of the Second City process. Comedy is a weird kind of math, and those cats from Chicago definitely know the formula. Working with Matt Hovde, Craig Cackowski, and Beth Melewski was like going to school. I love doing all kinds of different plays, but nothing fluffs my feathers like comedy.

What is Spectravagasm, and what should your audience expect to see?

I think that Spectravagasm is the kind of late-night show that makes you feel like a naughty kid laughing at dirty jokes in your friend’s basement. In terms of the format, using projections and filmed scenes between the live action means the audience has no time to take a break from laughing. One reviewer guessed that the title was some mash-up of Spectacle, Extravaganza, and Orgasm….I’d say that’s pretty much it.

That was ArtsWatch! Thanks for listening.

The first Spectravagasm I saw, it seemed like there were more actors than audience members, and a LOT of sketches. This time, the audience/actor ratio was appropriately reversed, and was the show shorter? Explain what influenced these changes, and how else you’d like the series to evolve.

The first Gasm had 12 people, which was too many. And that show clocked in at an hour and a half, which is too long. So we’ve made it smaller and shorter every time. I’d much rather leave people wanting more. If it goes too long, you get people playing Candy Crush in the middle of the second act. Now, Gasm 4 has seven people and the show is 45 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission to re-drunk yourself. I wouldn’t want to get any shorter than that, but I do want to keep shifting the cast and playing more with the multi-media aspects. I had a crazy plan about teaming up with some friends in San Fran for a live Skype-based show…but I have a lot of crazy plans.

THEMES

The latest installment has a religious theme, and the prior one was camp/outdoors, right? What was the one before that—love and sex? Oh, nevermind…can you remind me of all of the themes?

The first show was around Halloween, so I jumped on the zombie train. There was these hipster Zombies that only ate people that smoked American Spirits, and we had the “Sandy Blvd” Trailer, and we ended with the “Thriller” dance, but it was a pretty fragmented motif. The second show was kinda future-based…I was just looking for an excuse to make giant robots out of cardboard…but it also had this tiny Wizard of Oz-ish through-line about a girl who drank to much NyQuil, and the show was her tripped-out dream—or was it? And the third one, Camp Spectravagasm, was less of a sketch show and more of a short play about this kid getting separated from his camping troupe, summoning his power animal (a wolf giving a gorilla holding a snake a piggyback ride) and saving his friends from Jason. I like picking a theme for each show because it presents a cohesive product. I mean, it’s fine to do a bunch of random scenes, but you break your link with the audience every time you switch gears. The theme helps to create this silly world for the cast and the audience.

Is this one more tightly adhered to its theme than the prior shows were?

Yeah, I have found that the tighter we stick to the chosen theme, the more willing the audience is to join the party.

Do you have your next theme picked out yet?

I haven’t chosen the next theme, but we’ve been talking about doing a “best of,” and letting the fans of the show vote for which scenes they want to see again.

VARIETY and TECHNIQUE

One thing that’s striking about Spectravagasm is that, even for a sketch show, it’s diverse. You use every style of humor, from slapstick/physical to witty/punny to silly to sarcastic. Do you have a comedy formula? Like, “how much of what,” and “in what order?” What makes something funny to you?

Comedy is a fickle mistress, and I would be arrogant to say that I have some sort of recipe. I write things that I think are funny, and I’m always excited to find that other people think it’s funny too. In comedy, it’s so important to not let the audience get ahead of you. If they see the punch line coming, it’s not going to hit them as hard. The audience kind of wants to have their expectations pleasantly violated. And the best way to do that is with variety. In Camp Spectravagasm, when the camp leader asks if any of the campers need a potty break, one of the campers stands up with like three cups of water pouring out of her shorts. All you need is a Ziploc bag. I challenge you to find another show in Portland that has “fake piss” on their prop list. Little bit of slapstick, a dollop of word play, a scoop of vulgarity, and some cross-dressing, and you’ve got yourself about 45 minutes of ruckus.

What can you tell us about the video components of the show?

I try to gather a variety of video options, including: animated fake commercials that I make with frickin’ Windows Movie Maker, filmed scenes that are written by me and filmed/edited by Andy Chandler, and clips that I grab from YouTube and cobble together with the hope that I won’t get in trouble. The first two shows had these fake trailers (“Sandy Blvd” and “Pogtown”), but they were so detached from the theme…I found it to be much more effective to use the filmed elements to support the through-line. Overall, I think that the combination of live stuff and video stuff is the future of the theater. You see a lot of companies around town implementing projection, because it freshens up the show, and more importantly, it works.

In the latest (religion-themed) show, you guys have a running meta-joke about how you can’t joke about Islam. Do you have a short list of things you’d never joke about?

Ultimately, comedy is situational. A group of friends sitting around can make jokes that cross all kinds of lines, because they trust each other. When you’re dealing with an audience made up of people, each with their own sensibilities, you have to earn their trust, and then you can cross lines together and laugh like friends.

“It’s not okay to make fun of things that you know nothing about.” That’s the only serious line in Spectravagasm 4. But the point is that it’s perfectly fine to make fun of your own ignorance. You can’t make fun of someone just because they’re different, but you should definitely recognize the humor of finding out how similar we all are. There’s so much intense sh-t swirling around about religion lately. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Which country’s ancestors chose the right god? If you can’t laugh at the ridiculous state of things, then you may as well stay in bed.

I’ve been fixating on the concept of “too soon” lately. When does it become socially acceptable to make fun of a specific tragedy? 9-11, the Hindenberg, the Holocaust, Slavery, the Civil War, Pompeii. Yes, these are all horrible, horrible things. But I could probably get away with a Hindenberg joke these days, if the situation was right. Definitely a Pompeii joke… The other super-important rule is to make sure you know who is the “victim” of the joke. There’ve been some fiery discussions about rape jokes. It isn’t okay to make rape jokes. Hands down. But what about victimizing the rapist by mocking the absurdity of their absolutely unacceptable behavior? I would say yes.

PASS THE HAT

At the beginning of Friday’s show, you were tottering around in a wig and heels, bemoaning the fact that the show had no sponsors. By the end of intermission, you said you’d gotten one! What did you get, and what else do you need?

Most theatre in this town is a labor of love. Post5, like many other companies, is struggling to have enough money to make the kind of art that they want to make. I mean, Ronni LaCroute is the patron saint of Portland Theater, but there’s only so much that one woman can do. Spectravagasm fully embraces the glory of low-budget-ness to the point that it becomes part of the joke. I spent $75 on fabric from Goodwill and wigs from Lippman’s and that’s it. That’s the show. I made a joke at the beginning of the show about not having a sponsor, and the lovely Marica Reyes comes up to me at intermission and says “I wanna be your sponsor.” And she writes a check for $100. That’s community. Everyone involved in these projects works super hard for super cheap, and we do it because we love it. But I can only imagine what would be possible if the show was fully funded. I really want to get a live dolphin for the next show…so we’re gonna start collecting cans now!

 

A zombie drama with actual ‘brraaiiinss’

Post5's new "Last Days" rises above the wreckage of its genre and bashes around a few interesting ideas. The results are, well, haunting.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t like zombies. Most of the time, I don’t even try. I find them repulsive and simplistic, and frankly dehumanizing.

“That is the point!” says everyone, from people who participate in the annual Zombie Walk to those who play zombie video games, first-person splattering the poor things as they jump in their virtual path. I lack the sophistication, zombie advocates assert, to appreciate the fictional premise of the human race being stripped of its sophistication. And I lack the guts to confront the guts that the zombie hoards spill before me.

That may be. But I also recoil from the notion that we should fear, shun, and punish anyone who’s already in pain. And that’s where Post5’s The Last Days is with me. Though they’re surrounded by zombies and head-bashing them to death, the play’s four survivors pause to share misgivings about how they should respond to zombies. And between lurches of id, the zombies themselves have lucid and poignant musings. I consider this at least a concession—and like the barricaded, besieged characters in this story, when surrounded by “zoms,” I’ll take what I can get.

It's not easy being green. Or dead. Russell J. Young Photography

It’s not easy being green. Or dead. Russell J. Young Photography

Larina (Cassandra Boice) is also making do, shacking up with Shep (Orion Bradshaw), a man who was supposed to be a fling, just because he’s a good protector and is (so far) plague-free. Her brother Valentine (Ernie Lijoi), with whom she’s fortunately close, is also sharing the cabin with the pair and his high-strung bookworm boyfriend Miguel (Chip Sherman). They periodically venture outside to bust heads and loot provisions, but otherwise they’re stuck with each other—and perhaps more threateningly, themselves.

Don’t let playwright Carlos Cisco’s accessible banter fool you; these four characters are not merely being themselves, they represent broader modes of crisis reaction:

Larina, a former flight attendant who, by her own admission, has spent half her life saying goodbye, is a compromiser; she snuggles up to Shep because she’s “become accustomed” to him, and as new problems arise, she looks to half measures as solutions.

Shep is a warrior, taking perverse, simplistic delight in destroying “zoms” with a baseball bat full of nails he affectionately calls “The Regulator.” He practices his martial arts moves, whistles “Always Look on the Bright Side,” and mocks the others’ serious concerns with, “Womp, womp, frown town.” At first, we’re led to assume he’s too dumb to see anything but the “bright side” of his own victories. But as the play wears on, we learn that his optimism and lack of analysis is a conscious coping strategy. By his simple code, living means winning, and losing means death. The question becomes, will he stick to that system when facing the punishment rather than the reward?

Miguel, a former librarian, is a victim, easily wounded by his boyfriend Valentine’s lack of affection, readily annoyed and overwhelmed by his cabin-mates’ activities (especially the abrasive Shep), and ultimately better prepared to give up than he is to compromise or to fight.

Val’s role is the hardest to peg. A former EMT, his savior complex is coupled with the detachment necessary to work through a crisis rather than be emotionally overwhelmed by it. At the same time, he and Miguel share a similar existential neurosis, resorting to Neitsche quotes to describe—and hence convince themselves they’ve mastered—a world that’s actually crashing down around them.

Speaking of: zombie drama is a timely metaphor for real-life threats, particularly epidemic illness and rampant war. As the ebola epidemic surges, for instance, a debate rages over how to “treat” the threat: cut off whole countries to stave off the spread, or just cure victims individually as they emerge? And in warfare abroad, another “zombie” dilemma: how to separate the potential survivors from our would-be attackers, how to stop one group from “infecting” the other? It’s no wonder the Cranberries’ rock song “Zombie” is actually an antiwar anthem. These issues will not be resolved on Post5’s tiny stage, but they can at least be raised while we’re on the zombie topic.

Very few zombie stories end well, so we know what we’re getting into from the get-go here. But The Last Days does meander us through some interesting dilemmas before hurtling toward disaster. It also handles the half-baked myth of zombification pretty plausibly by limiting its characters’ understanding of the process of “turning” and letting them wonder what will and won’t “work” to disable the creatures. This is a mercy, because nothing’s worse in a sci-fi or fantasy premise than characters who figure it all out too fast.

Obviously keen to elevate the zombie dialogue above, “MMMmmhhhh, braaaainsss,” Last Days‘ dialogue is intelligent—sometimes to a fault, over-quoting literature and overpacking Miguel’s lines with ten-dollar vocab words. And the characters’ back-stories may be more tortured than necessary; they’re in enough trouble now, thank you, to lend ample drama. Those overreaches aside, this story has a lot to offer, and is haunting in more than the horror-movie sense of the word. Since the zombie craze stubbornly refuses to die, it’s good to see it advancing.

The profound ecstasy of a free breath

Artists Rep's taut "Exiles" rides a tense and complex freedom boat out of Castro's Cuba, toward … what?

In the iconography created for us by the advertising industry, America is epitomized by those canonical products of wholesomeness: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Strange, though, that the gods of Madison Avenue, with all their insight into our values and desires, did not think to include Vicks VapoRub.

For one of the characters in the Carlos Lacámara play Exiles, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep, Vicks is one of those little – we might foolishly say negligible – things that represent a time past, a world changed and a life lost.

Living in Castro’s Cuba, this poor man has spent 20 years suffering the twin repressions of communism and hay fever.

It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s also profoundly mentally ill. So much so that when Exiles opens, he is tied to the railing of the sport-fishing boat where the play’s main action takes place. So much so that the script identifies him only as “the Lunatic.”

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Nonetheless, he’s articulate in his derangement, so that the insidious forces of consumerism and nasal congestion lead him not just to memories of Vicks but to an almost Jeffersonian longing for “the profound ecstasy of a free breath.” Whereupon the even more insidious force of communist indoctrination quickly offers up an equally eloquent corrective: “That’s the pipe-dream that tempts us away from the path of virtue.”

As it turns out, freedom, virtue, and the prices we pay for them are the central issues in Exiles, a gripping combination of political drama and family squabble, given a taut, vivid production here by artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez.

Continues…

Seeing the forest AND the trees

Beaverton Civic Theatre's small-stage "Into the Woods" deftly captures the big picture

The forest gets mighty crowded in Into the Woods, what with Cinderella and her evil sisters and mom, and Prince Charming, Rapunzel and her witchy momma, Jack the Beanstalker, his mom, and his beloved bovine, oh and not to forget Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and assorted compatriots, plus an ultimately unfortunate narrator who gets pulled into the action … all Grimmly scurrying around chasing magical objects, dodging giants, cooperating, disputing, teaming up, splitting up and finally arriving at a kind of hard-won wisdom amid the Shakespearean sylvan chaos.

The tiny stage at Beaverton City Library auditorium got pretty crowded, too, at Beaverton Civic Theatre’s sold-out opening night performance of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 fractured musical fairy tale. But like the densely packed, tightly tangled storylines, which eventually resolve into a powerful (if occasionally a bit preachy) parable, BCT artistic director Melissa Riley somehow not only kept everyone out of each other’s way, but also brought a welcome intimacy to the busy proceedings. Ingeniously employing not only every centimeter of the constrained stage but also the aisles, Riley’s clever blocking, frequent humorous touches (often playing on the low budget nature of the production), and well rehearsed 19-member cast made this energetic production feel cozy and compelling rather than cluttered. A more elaborate production runs one more weekend at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but maybe this show’s lack of space, props (a painted backdrop, deliberately fake birds and cow, and Rapunzel’s tower are about it) and the rest helps it avoid missing the forest for the trees.

Familiar fairy tale figures populate Beaverton Civic Theatre's Into the Woods.

Familiar fairy tale figures populate Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Into the Woods. Photo: Ammon Riley.

Lapine uses the Grimm Brothers’ familiar characters, as well as a childless, conflicted baker and his wife of his own devising, to show what happens when our own complex needs, desires and fears prevent us from finding the happy endings seemingly offered by the watered-down, latter-day versions of what were originally much less soothing and more complicated folk tales. Following a first act overstuffed with a few ultimately inconsequential story lines,the darker second act confronts the mythical denizens of the forested kingdom with a threat that initially makes them turn on each other, as dramatized in the finger-pointing song “Your Fault.” Conflicts arise between parents and children, between villagers and royals, and the characters confront difficult truths uttered by the most honest (and, consequently, least congenial) character, a witch. Played by Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production, and by Meryl Streep in the Disney movie opening in December, here she’s deliciously portrayed by an acerbic Beth Noelle, who tautens the mood every time she seizes the stage.

The fairy tale trappings could easily overshadow Into the Woods’s contemporary ambiguities, but most of the cast, especially Noelle (who displays fine comic timing), Essie Bertain as Cinderella and Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as the baker’s wife, subtly use nuanced expressions, inflections and gestures to convey complex (sometimes even contradictory) emotional undercurrents beneath their literal words and actions, much as Sondheim’s shaded melodies do.

Amelia Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as Baker's Wife and Baker.

Amelia Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as Baker’s Wife and Baker. Photo: Ammon Riley.

Along with the elder Noelle (her teenaged daughter Olivia winningly plays Red Riding Hood), BCT’s production is powered by pulsating performances by Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as her husband, who eventually emerges from the first-act crowd to become the protagonist. His supple singing and stage presence give the sometimes convoluted story a needed central pillar. Beaver and the electrifying Max Artsis, who steals the show each time he appears as either the big bad wolf or Prince Charming (Lapine’s not-so-subtle suggestion that the latter’s charm masks lycanthropic appetites) boast the cast’s biggest and best singing voices.

Their power was needed to overcome first-act overamplification of the mostly pre-recorded synthesized score that sometimes covered lines and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. The three instrumental soloists did their best, but the absence of a full ensemble was the only aspect of this well-crafted production that couldn’t vanquish its cramped venue. Thankfully, the piped-in volume decreased after intermission. Singing the 84-year-old music theater eminence’s dense, rhythmically precise lyrics expressively can pose a tough challenge that almost everyone involved surmounts with seeming effortlessness is testament to the professionalism everywhere evident in this snappy show.

The lesser roles occasionally suffered from weaker acting, singing and/or characterization, but offered many more moments of delight, many supplied by Cinderella’s evil sisters, devilishly played by Brandee EP Leibrand and Erin Zelazny. Kraig Williams does a lot with the underwritten role of Rapunzel’s Prince, as do Kymberli Colbourne as Jack’s mother, Aaron Morrow as the supercilious Steward, and others.

Although the brisk, ironic tone prevents the story from wilting under the weight of its knotty plot and moral message, by the time we reach Sondheim’s climactic paean to communitarianism, “No One is Alone,” one of his most moving creations, we genuinely care about these storybook archetypes. BCT’S smart, sympathetic production engagingly overcomes its cramped quarters to pack a surprisingly bountiful evening of theater into such a compact setting. Even for a small, relatively young (founded 2009) company in a tight squeeze like this one, imaginative theater knows no bounds.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Into the Woods continues through October 18 at Beaverton City Library.

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The first wave hits the theater beach

The new theater season gets off to a crackling start in the best of theatrical times

For a few years now, I’ve been arguing that this is the best of times for Portland theater. After a period of risk-averse programming, the city’s companies have come out of their collective shell and pushed themselves and their audiences a lot more. And the collection of talented theater people—both home-grown and transplanted—is unmatched here since I’ve been around and watching (which goes back to the 1979 season, I kid you not).

So that means the actual productions should be better, too, right? As a general proposition?

The fall season is a good time to check it out, and our reviewers have been out there, skeptical as they can be, taking the measure of the first set of openings. And yes, they are coming back happy, even when the play selection for the first production of the season tends to be conservative. One more observation: In this time of collapse for arts writing and reviewing, these reviews show us why having thoughtful critics give their considered descriptions of plays in accessible prose is so important. The focus they give and the connections they make to the world outside the stage pushed my thinking about the plays and the work done here.

Let’s take a look:

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