THEATER

Luisa Sermol bids farewell with one last Willie Wonka

The Drammy-winning Portland actor and educator closes her run here with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and her students at Fowler Middle School

By LUISA SERMOL

After graduating from Juilliard and living in New York for 10 years, I came back to Portland in 1996 with my then-husband in order to start a family and be near my own. I found that there was just as much good and bad theater for me to engage in here as there was in New York. My marriage didn’t survive, although the friendship did. And we had a wonderful child. I soon realized the outreach work, precarious adjunct teaching work and periodic Equity acting work I could get here would not pay for the home that I wanted to create for my child.

I followed what I loved about the outreach work I had done with the Haven Project and Artists Repertory Theater’s Actors to Go, and I went back to school at Lewis & Clark College to get my MAT in teaching in Language Arts and Drama to become a public school teacher. I was lucky enough to do my student teaching at Tigard’s Fowler Middle School in Language Arts. Coincidentally, they had recently lost their Drama teacher: a wonderful teacher and fellow actor, Brian Haliski, had transferred to an elementary school.

Editor’s Note: We saw Luisa’s Facebook post about her time at Fowler Middle School, and she agreed to let us publish a version of it here on ArtsWatch. Luisa has been an important part of Portland’s acting community for more than 30 years, and she’s won five Best Actor Drammy Awards in the process.

In his place, a passionate art teacher, and future partner in crime, Elissa Meehan, taught the classes and directed the school play that year in order to keep the position alive while the school found a teacher. I saw them rehearsing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the “cafetorium” and offered to come in and help. The next year, I was hired as a teacher at the school for Language Arts, Social Studies and Drama, and I have been there ever since.

The cast and crew of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” at Fowler Middle School.

By June, I will have spent 13 years in the building and I’ve gone through many changes. I have taught Language Arts, Social Studies, Film, Newspaper, Creative Writing, and Drama. That is how I came to Fowler and now I leave it because it is time. I have had an eight year, long-distance relationship with my now fiancée, who is also a teacher and actor/director. My lovely child has grown up and is now away at Scripps College, so I will leave Fowler to live with my love in California.

Although I am a little young to retire, I have worked two jobs for a long time, keeping up my own acting career in addition to teaching. This next chapter in my life will allow me to act in both California and my own Oregon and to continue to encourage young actors to experience the magic of our work.

Last weekend, my final show at Fowler Middle School opened and closed. I woke up on the morning of closing for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with these thoughts:

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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.

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Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge

The Armory's darling Canadian romance echoes some classics and charms the family crowd

First love. First kiss. First horseback ride. First World War. When everything’s fresh and innocent and new, it seems like it’s all going to work out fine. We can never go back to those times. Or, pretty please, can we?

Portland Center Stage’s Mary’s Wedding—the first full-length play by playwright Stephen Massicotte—is an idealistic retelling of a small-town romance turned long-distance correspondence, reimagined after the fact as a wistful dream punctured by gunfire. Mary (Lexi Lapp) is a prim, gorgeous, feminine English rose who “dreams of flowers and little babies,” and Charlie (Alex J. Gould), though he modestly refers to himself as a “dirty farm boy,” is more like a handsome clean-shaven Canadian Disney prince. They meet at the outskirts of their families’ respective farms while sheltering in a barn during a rainstorm. They notice each other’s loveliness as they share a horse ride home, and they begin a courtship.

The mating game: Lexi Lapp as Mary and Alex J. Gould as Charlie. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

This is an easy show to enjoy, but a hard one to review without sounding like a condescending cynic—largely because so many elements within Massicotte’s script invite comparison to pre-existing classics. L.M. Montgomery’s characters (chiefly Anne of Green Gables) recited Tennyson very much like Massicotte’s Mary, right down to their shared favorite title, The Lady of Shalott. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town characters were as small-town innocent and romance-prone as Mary and Charlie. Also, the spirits of Wilder’s dearly departed remained free to reinhabit scenes from their pasts, their afterlife neither hell nor heaven but a liminal state of observing from a vantage point physically near to where they lived and died until they gradually detached from life at their own pace. Massicotte borrows this view, too. One line, “Run, Charlie!” even evokes Forrest Gump, and scenes of war-wounded emit fainter echoes of the same.

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Medea brings new meaning to catharsis

Imago presents a gut-wrenching Greek tragedy on a slanted stage

“Does the word ‘catharsis’ have Greek origins?” I wondered as I watched Imago’s Medea. Sure enough—and its meanings have been faithfully maintained: Katharsis and related words imply vomiting, purging or bodily cleansing, with an aim toward purity. When the body is sick, it triggers nausea (another Greek word, for seasickness specifically), and before the body can rest—either in repose or death—it must first expel some poison.

And yet, there’s a natural impulse among “civilized” people to resist the impulse to purge, to contain the inevitable upheaval. Guts clench and wrench. Teeth gnash and throats choke. And in that moment, however brief or prolonged, there’s suspense and tension. In the nausea before the catharsis, sickened people are holding in an ocean’s worth of sorrow. They’re dry-heaving a clutch of tortured sobs before unleashing a torrent. And that, Friends, is the feeling of a good Greek tragedy.

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

For an archetypal figure from antiquity, Medea’s plight is surprisingly universal. The mother of two (played by the always-commanding Anne Sorce) has just lost her cheating, midlife-crisis-indulging husband Jason (played by the equally-formidable Todd Van Voris) to a much younger woman, and it’s driving her crazy. As her ex-husband’s wedding day approaches, she schemes about how to make him pay, deciding that ultimately she’s willing to add to her own suffering in order to inflict her pain on him. Medea, her nursemaid/narrator (Madeleine Delaplane), and a chorus of Medea’s peers spend much of the play in a prolonged reverie of poetic nausea, trying in vain to choke back the forthcoming horrors the scorned woman is about to release. They wail. They moan. They warn. And we wait trepidatiously.

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Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.

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‘A Maze’ goes the extra mile

Theatre Vertigo's latest show wants extra credit for illustrations, a concept album and more—but in the end, it's all about the story

In a maze, there are bound to be some dead ends. In fact, that’s what you sign up for. Whether there are just enough or too many is open to interpretation, but one thing’s for sure: in Theatre Vertigo’s production of Rob Handel’s A Maze, there are none too few.

“Creating the world of this play has been a gargantuan feat,” writes Nate Cohen in his Director’s Note. “Our team has composed over a dozen original songs, generated more than 50 pieces of visual and projection art, and written a computer algorithm that has generated over 1000 unique mazes.”

Did they? Because the presence of multimedia works within the play is significantly subtler than those metrics suggest.

“This play demands this level of creative output…”

Does it? An apter word might be “inspires.” This cast and crew may have decided to do a few extra laps of legwork, but their process hasn’t drastically changed the outcome. More on that later.

Kidnap victim Jessica (Kaia Maarja Hillier) leads a complex life in the dual realms of captivity and fantasy at the center of “A Maze”. Photo: James Krane

At the end of the day, the make-or-break elements of this play are story and acting— particularly between the two characters whose relationship is the most bizarre and fraught. Kaia Maarja Hillier plays Jessica, a kidnapped teen, and Nathan Dunkin plays her longtime captor. He’s using her as his muse in a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game, which she obliges and guiltily enjoys. As she teeters on the cusp of sexual maturity and he grapples with the imminent consequences of his crime, holy Stockholm, does their situation get sticky. Their dynamic is riveting, really, and it forms the core of the story.

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