‘Hir’: Everything is everything

Defunkt Theatre tackles Taylor Mac's beyond-the-kitchen-sink drama about transgendering and family conflict

Defunkt Theatre has cooked up a hot mess with its production of one of the most acclaimed Off Broadway works of 2015, Hir. The kitchen sink dramedy (which includes vomiting into the sink) is set in a decaying prefab house in a conservative West Coast suburb. A soldier returning from war confronts his changing home and family dynamic.

Despite the piles of dirty takeout containers, grime on dated appliances, and teenage-sized piles of laundry, magic is in the air. Described as New York’s darling, playwright Taylor Mac creates “radical faerie realness ritual.” Mac uses the pronoun judy, as in Garland. Before judy begins a project, judy writes down all the things judy doesn’t want to talk about and those become the play. Judy is known as a Queer-American-Artist-Historian-Shaman and much of judy’s dialogue is as much a mouthful. There’s an enviable unbridled creativity to judy: anthropology with a splash of anarchist emotional and intellectual intelligence. While Mac wasn’t at Defunkt during the performance, judy’s spirit filled the theater. Audience members shed their modesty and checked in with each other during intermission and after. Defunkt’s Hir sparked conversation and a sense of community. Mac was in New York performing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which New York Times critic Wesley Morris described as “one of the great experiences of my life.”

Taylor Mac, performing in New York. Photo: Ian Douglas/2015

Taylor Mac, performing in New York. Photo: Ian Douglas/2015

Director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard set up the play with more counterbalances to step away from what he described as “the situational comedy” approach two earlier productions carried. If you haven’t been part of the dialogue around gender the last few years, Hir is great edutainment. Paige McKinney is a Baby Boomer mom whose quest for liberation has turned self-absorbed and controlling. She’s made a poster child out of her transitioning daughter-to-son, Max. Max (Ruth Nardecchia) is a kid on the cusp of many things and has assumed the world on their (this, or “ze,” is the pronoun the play finds preferable) shoulders. Paige’s husband, Arnold, played by Anthony Green, is a former plumber who is now a housebound stroke survivor. Isaac (Jim Vadala) is their son, a lumbering vet who sweats testosterone with military order.


Truth to tell: American wrongs and rights

Portland Center Stage's "Hold These Truths" spins a fascinating real-life tale of World War II incarceration camps and a Japanese American hero

The United States Constitution has been coming up regularly in this most fractious and ridiculous of political seasons.

We’ve had the “pocket constitutionalists” of the Sagebrush Rebellion taking over a bird sanctuary in Eastern Oregon because (if I have their line of reasoning straight) all government beyond the county level is illegitimate and the Constitution proves that nothing in the Constitution actually applies to them.

We’ve had, amid an epidemic of mass shootings and more private gun-related tragedies, a hunkering-down on an antiquated and nonsensical interpretation of a few confusingly punctuated words in the Second Amendment that are alleged to guarantee the right to carry military weapons openly in houses of worship and kindergarten classrooms.

We’ve had the presidential candidate of an actual major political party loudly declaring he will build a wall across the southern border of the United States and make the Mexican government pay for it – an act that would be at once so environmentally irresponsible, morally reprehensible, patently unconstitutional, and impossible to achieve that I really don’t know where to begin talking about it.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in "Hold These Truths." Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in “Hold These Truths.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

How refreshing, then, to run across a piece of theater that tells the story of a true hero of the never-ending battle to protect the Constitution, and thus the American people in their everyday lives, against the ever-present forces trying to chip away at it for selfish or ideological reasons, or because of bouts of paranoia or sheer fright.

The title of Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths, which opened Friday night in the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, comes not from the Constitution but from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


‘The Nether’: Virtual damnation

Third Rail's futuristic thriller opens up a Pandora's Box of human ugliness and puts a chill in the air

There’s a chill in the auditorium these days over at Imago Theatre. Some nights that’s due in part to some seasonally overzealous air conditioning, but mostly it’s the subtly creepy atmosphere of the current on-stage production by Third Rail Rep.

The Nether, by Los Angeles playwright Jennifer Haley, is escapist entertainment — at least in a manner of speaking. That is, it’s a play about escapism and the thorny ethical implications of a not-so-implausible future in which technology allows anyone with a valid log-in to become immersed in elaborate, multi-sensory virtual environments, like souped-up Second Life for the souls of the bored, deprived or otherwise damned.

O'Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

O’Connell and deGroat: a virtual faceoff. Photo: Owen Carey

It’s the levers of damnation — who controls them, or is even able to see them for what they are — that seem to interest Haley most. Of course the fictive future is the rhetorical present, and Haley’s play ponders current, and in some senses longstanding, questions about the lines between reality and representation, between relationships and transactions, between physical and psychological harms. The rapid advance of technology makes such issues both more present and more confounding. So Haley — a Paula Vogel protege whose horror-flick-styled look at video-game addiction Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom was staged a few years ago by Third Rail’s mentorship program — pushes the tech setting to a point where personal liberty and social responsibility get their feet tangled and push comes to shove.


Richard III: The shape of a man

Post5's lean and lively approach to Shakespeare's play about power, politics and morality seems made for our time

Our winter of discontent is upon us, judging from midnight presidential campaign Twitter outbursts and anxiety inducing Gallup polls. There is no better time to revisit Shakespeare’s Richard III, then now: the story of a quicksilver-tongued megalomaniac trapped in a “rudely stamped” body who bends and breaks the law.

Post5 theater presents their dysphoria-out-of-order production in a sterile land which hints at a Peronist dictatorship. The women of court are hung up in pin curls and neat tailored suits, with flashy kicks and red lips. The men march and gesture in uniforms befitting a Stalinist purge, except the cuckold Buckingham who wears false regalia satin chested. Political speeches are given by circle flood light to the gleam of an old ribbon mic.

Rusty Tennant and Matt Smith. Greg Parkinson Photography

Rusty Tennant and Matt Smith. Greg Parkinson Photography

This production removes Shakespeare’s history within a tragedy and tragedy of history from the haunting specter of a devil looking man, who according to superstition, must have a soul to match his bearing. Matt Smith’s Richard does not ride us like a saddle into hell. His Richard is not the stuff of official portraits and nightmares, but leans in like the poet Christy Brown- his menacing is smart and rapacious. He wears a constant pain in a struggle to keep his center of gravity which pitches his character into more arrogance. He spins chaos out of the wreckage he creates with a honey coating that traps humans like flies. His solitary comments break out into a sarcastic wit that is like the sharp points of an iron maiden closing. This Richard is a dark deformed soul eaten by the cancer of hate. Smith’s Richard blames his mother and god for deformity and sees his physical frame as a false prison, a punishment without due cause and has lost his sense of reality. He spreads the tyranny of his rage for a simple reason, he was not loved.


Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown” Carla Rossi is not who you think she is.

Well, she is Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown,”—but the man who plays that role, Anthony Hudson, wants audiences of his latest show Looking for Tiger Lily to know he’s not actually as white as his greasepaint. Three-eighths Native American, with a fuller-blooded dad and more Native-looking brothers, Hudson has spent his share of time on “the Res,” attending powwows and Native American school.

So how dare his alter-ego Carla Rossi don a brown-grocery-bag “Indian vest,” surround herself with the Dollymops, a gaggle of white girls wearing war-paint clownface and pink and blue yarn braids, and open the show singing “What Makes The Red Man Red?” Is this cultural reclamation, or mockery? Quickly ditching his drag persona and re-emerging as Anthony, Hudson goes on to explain how his three-eighths Native sometimes struggles with whatever proportions of him are gay, trans, and campy. Between songs, he spends this show dissecting his conflicting cultural impulses, with a wry fondness for all sides.

A multiple clash of cultures. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

A multiple clash of cultures. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

But throughout, the Clown Queen proves irrepressible! In several scenes, she looms large on the big screen behind him, interrupting his thoughtful musings with brash generalizations. White people will do that sometimes, Hudson seems to demonstrate—even if they’re you.


Cat in the Hat for President!

NW Children's Theater opens its season with a sassy Seuss favorite, plus a pop-rock musical about the presidents in all their semi-glory

“Just START, already!” the young lady seated next to me, possibly five years old, sighed impatiently. Unfortunately she still had a ten-minute wait until 1 o’clock showtime, a lag that she and her friend – or possibly sister – filled partly by doing counting games: a hopscotch-rhythm advance by ones up to fifty, with a slight pause as each “zero” landmark was achieved, then starting over at one and climbing up the ladder again. It seemed certain she could have kept going to sixty and seventy and beyond, but games have rules, and that’s not how this game worked.

When a kid’s come all the way to a theater and wedged through a notably hyperactive crowd just to see The Cat in the Hat, any delay can be excruciating. Fortunately, when Dr. Seuss’s famously flamboyant Cat eventually showed up in the lanky form of actor John Ellingson, he did so with an emphatic splat. This production, at Northwest Children’s Theater & School, is bright and giddy and tautly wound like an old-time cartoon, an effect amplified by Rodolfo Ortega’s bouncy silent-movie-like score and Jake Newcomb’s whiz-bang sound design.

John Ellingson as the Cat in the Hat, Jenny Bunce (and hand puppet) as the Fish. Photo: ©2016 Pat Moran

John Ellingson as the Cat in the Hat, Jenny Bunce (and hand puppet) as the Fish. Photo: ©2016 Pat Moran

Katie Mitchell’s adaptation, produced originally by the National Theatre of Great Britain, is pretty much a three-D amplification of the book itself, which is a good thing, because most of the audience knew the words by heart, and there’s no sense in fiddling with either words or hearts. The set (by Ellingson) looks like the house in the book, the costumes (by Nancy Christy) look very much like the costumes in the book, and the characters – Harper Lea as the Boy and Gracie Jacobson as Sally, the befuddled kids home alone while their mom’s out; Jenny Bunce as a very funny and exasperated pet Fish (she does the talking; her hand puppet does the swimming); Snigdha Malladi and Hallie Bartell as Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Cat’s kittenish partners in mayhem – are the very characters from the book, doing the very things the characters in the book do. In short, there’s something pleasingly ritualistic about the whole enterprise: It is what it is, and what it is is what it’s supposed to be.


Truths self-evident and the camps

The daughter of a man who built a WWII confinement camp talks with the writer of a play about a Japanese American hero of the fight against incarceration


Hold These Truths is a drama for our time. Set amid the turmoil of America’s entry into World War II, Jeanne Sakata’s one-actor show is about the struggles of the civil rights hero Gordon Hirabayashi, a young student at the University of Washington, to reconcile his passionate belief in the U.S. constitution with the infamous betrayal of Japanese Americans during the war hysteria after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sakata’s play – which comes, she says, at a time when racism and anti-immigrant hysteria are again on the rise in America – begin previews on Sunday and opens Friday, October 8, in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. It stars Ryun Yu, who also played the role a year ago at Seattle’s ACT Theatre and in its 2007 world premiere at East West Players in Los Angeles, both times directed by Jessica Kubzansky, who also directs in Portland. Hold These Truths debuts Center Stage’s Northwest Stories series, which will continue with three more shows this season: The Oregon Trail, by Bekah Brunstetter; Astoria: Part 1, Chris Coleman’s new adaptation of Peter Stark’s book; and Wild and Reckless, a new show from the musical group Blitzen Trapper.

Jeanne Sakata, whose first name is pronounced “Jeannie,” is also an accomplished actor who received accolades several years ago for her performances at Portland Center Stage in David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly and Chay Yew’s Red. She went on to star in a variety of plays all over the world, as well as film and TV shows. She has been called a “local treasure” by the L.A. Times.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre's 2015 Seattle production of "Hold These Truths." He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre’s 2015 Seattle production of “Hold These Truths.” He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Knowing that Jeanne was Japanese-American, I requested an interview. I had good reason.


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