Escaping to Present Laughter

Noel Coward's escapist comedy gets a deft and funny turn in Lakewood Theater's period-smart production


As Cole Porter once told us, “Anything goes.” The English entertainer Noel Coward agreed with him, wearing silk polka-dot dressing gowns at all hours, constantly thrusting out his long pencil-thin cigarette holder, and dishing out similar quotes with abandon.

Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, directed by Don Alder and playing through December 13 at Lakewood Theater, is a screwball comedy from an earlier, but not more innocent, age: written in 1939, it was first produced in 1942, as war was raging, and it provided an escape from more sordid realities.

Gary Powell, laughing through present and past. Triumph Photography

Gary Powell, laughing through present and past. Triumph Photography

A different sort of battle is playing out onstage. Garry Essendine (Gary Powell) is a famous actor in the middle of a midlife crisis. His crisis isn’t the one we’re used to reading about in Psychology Today: rather than chasing a younger skirt and buying a convertible, he’s beset by a well-staffed flat whose doors never shut to romantic predators after him. His former wife, butler, maid, and secretary try to keep the seams of his chaotic life together so they can get a paycheck from him. Poor Garry never gets a break. He just wants to nap in his sleeping-mask, but someone’s always finding a way to get next to him. So the outrageous and twisted plot unfolds – anything goes, indeed– and we find ourselves laughing at, and for, Garry.


Review: Defunkt’s tense cockfight

A love-and-sex triangle heats up the stage with an edgy blend of energy and desperation


To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment about Jane Austen, playwright Mike Bartlett would dig up Thornton Wilder and beat him with his own shinbone. Defunkt Theatre is putting on Bartlett’s play Cock through November 15.

Cock is no Our Town. It’s a love triangle – two men and the woman who comes between them – that hammers out dialogue with the intensity of a Beethoven symphony. There’s no moment of rest for the actors or audience: the air is dense and sweet, sparking with visceral lines that swing between love and hate, each of the characters swiveling back and forth between cutting character attacks and brilliant Noel Coward humor. And believe me, the jokes are needed. By the second act the night I saw the show, some members of the audience were visibly shaken, their faces flushed and holding back tears.

Take your corners: It's a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Take your corners: It’s a cockfight. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

The play begins with an edgy spat whose purpose is to end in makeup sex. The chaotic dance between the lovers never ends. Clifton Holznagel as Jon and David Bellis-Squires as M fling heated words at each other, with an equal measure of gentleness. Bellis-Squires gives a great performance as a starched-shirt lover, full of kinetic energy and desperation: Jon and M’s relationship wrestles between attachment and bitterness. Both actors establish the character’s strengths and flaws within the first five minutes. They have a power struggle, and just as in real life, it’s pretty ugly. Members of the audience were so engaged, they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d walked into a real room where a real fight was going on. This is Defunkt at its best: intimate, honest, with an emphasis on acting and script.

In formal terms, Cock is what’s known as a well-made play. While the four characters play off each other and complement the plot, all of them are major players: there are no minor ones. Kayla Lian plays W, the woman who enters the picture and turns Jon’s head “right round, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She’s not a foil, but the feminine motif upon which the others respond. Lian is a subtle actress who uses her physical movements and timpani of a voice to great effect.

At its heart, Bartlett’s script is a contemporary conversation about relationships. Can we love whom we want as a person, or does our attraction create a dividing line? It’s a brutal, but successful look into binary gender roles. We in the audience want to know, who will Jon choose? By the end of the play, Holznagel’s Jon is weeping. We want to pick him up and hold him, tell him it’ll be OK.

Veteran Ted Schultz gives Cock an earthy, necessary grounding in Act II. With all the static flying around – attraction, partnership, dreams, the general chaos of infidelity – his staunch presence is welcoming. He plays M’s father and support, which are just as needed by the audience.

Defunkt is a minimalist theater in terms of props, and yet we move in and out of spaces such as subways, living rooms, bedrooms and patios with ease. Director Jon Kretzu makes it easy for us to imagine the spaces, meals, and lives of each of the characters: It’s a great triumph of the imagination. Andrew Klaus Vineyard, sound design and production manager, deftly takes us in and out of the flashback moments back to the plot, and guides us through the narratives as they play out. The play would not come off without his successful work.

After leaving the theater I was a bit worse for wear, but in a good way. Defunkt provides a generous space to reflect and come to terms with ourselves. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do this – only a handful of directors, like Ingmar Bergman, can tear you down to build you up – and we can choose which songs to listen to, but a play like Cock stares us right in the face. No one ever said art had to be pretty, but it can be right and tell the story we need to hear.


Defunkt’s Cock continues through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.





Broomstick’s rhyming ride

Vana O'Brien plays a crone with a tale to tell in Artists Rep's incantatory solo show "Broomstick"

You can build a poem, or even a play, on a rhyming couplet. Stretched somewhere between speaking and singing, it’s also something of an incantation. Keep it going for ninety minutes nonstop, as John Biguenet’s play Broomstick does, and it’s a downright spell.

Broomstick, which opened on Halloween at Artists Repertory Theatre and sweeps around the stage until close to Thanksgiving, is a solo play about a crone living in an herb-strewn cottage somewhere in the deep woods of the American South: a wrinkled, bent, and cackly figure, straddling the gap between Foxfire folklore and the Brothers Grimm.

Vana O'Brien's sweet old lady ...

Vana O’Brien’s sweet old lady …

Portland veteran Vana O’Brien stirs the pot as the witch in question, measuring vials of vengeance, cunning, wit, and memory into the cauldron, which bubbles over with the question: Is she, or isn’t she? An actual witch, that is. O’Brien, and Biguenet, never do say outright, although the answer, if there is one, depends in large part on the answer to yet another question: What’s a witch, anyway?

And the answer to that one spins through a web of collective memory, through fears of the supernatural and the merely eccentric, of castoffs and dabblers in earth-powers, of the line between cunning and off-her-bentwood-rocker: at what point does the different become dangerous?

O’Brien has great fun with this poison-apple granny of a role, holding the stage alone, inviting an invisible visitor to sit down for a cup of tea and a talk about old times. Biguenet’s script iambic-pentameters swiftly along, creating sly twists on Hansel and Gretel and other dark old tales: mere misunderstandings, O’Brien insists, little pots assuming the kettle’s black. Dressed in layers of exotic homespun, she assumes the classic storyteller’s role, spinning away gaily, stopping and starting, linking and forgetting, and gradually, gradually, dropping into dark places, which she then insists are not so dark, no, no, she’s only fooling, only playing a game. Still, we feel, something happened down in those dark places, even if it might not’ve played out exactly the way she says. What’s love got to do with it? Quite a lot, it seems. The words “lost” and “unrequited” suggest themselves.

... with a harrowing history ...

… with a harrowing history …

Artists Rep has poured most of its attention this fall into Cuba Libre, the big new musical playing at the Winningstad Theatre, and you might think Broomstick is the lighter end of the balancing stick, a simple little solo show that can be tossed onstage without a lot of muss or fuss. But one-actor shows are notoriously difficult to pull off, and a lot of care has gone into this one. O’Brien and director Gemma Whelan have worked hard to follow the rhythm and lilt of the language without letting it devolve into singsong, and to rise and fall with the natural flow of the tale. And the show’s a glory to look at, with Kristeen Willis Crosser’s towering, twig-and-vial-decorated set (Amy Katrina Bryan is props master), Gregory Pulver’s trance-like costumes, Ashley Hardy’s cronetastic hair and makeup design, K. Franklin Porter’s fiber art, and Carl Faber’s candle-wattage lighting design. Rodolfo Ortega’s sound design pelts and rattles subtly in the background, closing in on things and moving where the wild thoughts are.

Vengeance may be the lord’s, as the good book says, but cross a line in Broomstick and there’ll be hell to pay. Or O’Brien’s witch, the meter-out of harsh and deeply human judgment and justice. As Nina Simone so eloquently moaned, “I Put a Spell On You.” And, yes, that’s something like a hex.

... and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey

… and a cutting edge. Photos: Owen Carey


Fats Waller, behavin’ in style

"Ain't Misbehavin'" goes big and brash and rocks the house at Center Stage

Storytelling is at the heart of popular music. When a revue of popular songs is put together it’s already halfway to being a play: not a novel, maybe, but a collection of short stories. Sometimes, as with Dreamgirls, a plot’s concocted to pull the songs together. Sometimes, as with Black and Blue, the terrific 1980s revue of 1930s black American music, the connective tissue is the performers themselves, the forward thrust of the dance and music, and the cultural source, the community, of the songs.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, though it’s smaller and tighter, is much closer in spirit to Black and Blue: a collection of great songs, in great arrangements, delivered by an ensemble of sharp performers and a sizzling band. Premiered in 1978 and covering roughly the same time period as Black and Blue, it wraps itself around the personality and songs of the gregarious pianist, singer, and composer Thomas “Fats” Waller – songs he wrote, or songs by others that he performed and recorded. Sly, genial, and bursting with the wit and energy of one of the most innovative periods in American music, it’s one of the very best revues ever assembled: an effervescent expression of African American spirit, shaded by the harsh realities of a segregated and divisive nation.

Behavin' and otherwise, from left: Charity Angél Dawson, David Jennings, Olivia Phillip, André Ward, Maiesha McQueen, DeMone, Mia Michelle McClain and David St. Louis. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

Behavin’ and otherwise, from left: Charity Angél Dawson, David Jennings, Olivia Phillip, André Ward, Maiesha McQueen, DeMone, Mia Michelle McClain and David St. Louis. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/

Portland Center Stage’s bright and shining new production, which brought down the opening-night house on Friday at the Armory, reveals that it’s also a show of surprising elasticity. Director Chris Coleman, working with scenic designer Tony Cisek and with the permission of co-originator Richard Maltby, Jr., has knocked out the walls and opened the show to the streets, bringing in the heady Uptown of the Harlem Renaissance and the bleaker days of the Depression Thirties to give the songs a deeper visual and impressionistic context. He’s expanded the cast from five to eleven, and created, with Cisek, a whole urban community: apartments, bedrooms, alleys, piano parlors and party rooms, the kitchen at the Waldorf, where black cooks and waitresses serve wealthy white customers, cracking wise along the way. It’s a bit like bringing a little August Wilson atmosphere into the honkytonk, suggesting a web of interwoven stories waiting to be told.


Tipsy in the city: all fall down

Adam Bock's "The Drunken City" at Vertigo gets everyone drunk, then teeters into rueful comedy

“When a character is drunk, he or she will be a truth-teller.”

At least so said Adam Bock, in a program note when his play The Drunken City was produced several years ago at Playwrights Horizons in New York. That sounds like an iffy maxim for real life, but as a dramatic precept it has its virtues. For one thing, as Bock reasoned, he could “write a play where everyone is drunk —that way truth’ll be flying around everywhich everywhere.”

Not all truth is profound, of course, but in Theatre Vertigo’s spirited new production of The Drunken City at the Shoebox Theatre, plenty of it is entertaining.

Beware the city: it's a jungle in there, Photo: Theatre Vertigo

Beware the city: it’s a jungle in there. Photo: Theatre Vertigo

The “city” in question doesn’t seem much like Portland, but Bock and his work have been regular visitors here. He’s taken part in JAW, Portland Center Stage’s play-development festival, three times since 2005, a decade in which PCS also has produced his plays The Thugs, The Receptionist, A Small Fire, and The Typographer’s Dream. Rose Riordan directed all of those, but K.L. Cullom was poised to take the handoff here, having directed Bock’s Five Flights while earning her MFA at the New School for Drama, then assisting Riordan on Typographer’s Dream.

It also feels right that The Drunken City landed with Vertigo rather than PCS; concerned primarily with the romantic misadventures of twentysomethings, the play fits well into the smaller company’s youthful wheelhouse. Even if you — like the majority of local theater audience members — are older than the characters here, the vagaries of love and loss, risk and doubt, remain easy to relate to.

Then again, the danger here is that this territory might easily feel frivolous, no more than a live-action sitcom. The story tosses together two sets of carousing friends — a trio of women out on a bachelorette bar-hop, and a pair of guys, one of them still smarting from a break-up a year ago. Moments after their chance meeting on the sidewalk, sad-sack Frank and bride-to-be Marnie, both slippery with alcohol, slip into a kiss, then another and another, to the increasing alarm of Marnie’s friends. Melissa, who we learn used to date Marnie’s fiance, calls for reinforcement in the form of their gay (and sober) friend Bob, and as they all stagger around and splinter into smaller groupings the necessary interactions and revelations accrue.

Ibsen it ain’t. But Bock has a knack for studding innocuous settings with dark barbs and doomy discord, nodding toward deeper, disquieting implications in the quotidian. Here, that comes in a few forms. Most puzzling is an occasional rumble, as of a train passing nearby, that sends the characters careening across Matthew Jones’ graffiti-splattered set, suddenly more off-balance than sparkly pink cocktails already have made them. (To judge by YouTube clips, the Playwrights Horizons production used a tilting stage; the effect in either case is a momentary, apparently random chaos, a noisy vicissitude of the city.)

More effective are the odd asides uttered (or, in one deliciously creepy case, sung) by Linda, the most tipsy and most anxious of the women. “I drink too much,” she says, then adds softly as a sort of non-non sequitur, “the world scares me.”

It’s Linda who registers the danger, perhaps even the epic quality, of the sorties these suburbanites make. The small town that all six characters, coincidentally, call home, comes to represent the comforts and constrictions of conventional gender roles and relationship rules. The city, by contrast, is a vector of uncertainty, equal parts excitement and unease.  “The city’s like a monster, like a sleeping dragon or some dark creature in the night that cracks open an eye and whispers dark dangerous ideas into your ear,” she says. “It just stares at you and dares you to come closer…It’s fun!”

And, well, it is fun.

Bock doesn’t have anything really incisive to say about the ways we chase or catch or fumble love, but he shows us some of that action playing out in the shadow of its big, inchoate emotional effects. As importantly, he has a sharp ear for sloppy language — the tumbling rhythms, fuzzy logic and choppy dynamics of very casual conversation.

The prospect of watching actors pretend to be drunk, even for a brisk 75 minutes, may give most of us pause, but Cullom draws terrific performances here all-around. Murri Lazaroff-Babin nails Frank’s mix of woundedness and impetuosity, and has the show’s funniest moment with a one-man boy-band dance routine. Holly Wigmore as the edgy, ambivalent Marnie, Nicole Accuardi as the self-righteous, take-charge Melissa, and Shawna Nordman as the quietly off-kilter Linda all navigate rapidly shifting affects with aplomb. Vertigo regulars Tom Mounsey as the even-keeled, warm-hearted Bob and R. David Wyllie, who has some amusing dance moves himself as Frank’s loyal pal Eddie, anchor and balance the whole.

However tenuous their love lives, these characters are folks you’re happy to spend the time around, and they make this trip to “The Drunken City” feel like an evening’s refreshment.


Theatre Vertigo’s The Drunken City continues through November 21 at the Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.


Scary Carrie, a fright for our times

Stumptown Stages' musical version of the Stephen King tale gets uncomfortably contemporary: mayhem in the schools


The leaves are turning toward autumn. Hybrid pumpkins fill our porches, and Portland’s moving toward its inevitable bunkering-down for winter. The usual ghost stories are popping up to haunt us as Halloween approaches, and right on cue, Stumptown Stages has put on Carrie: The Musical for us.

Does anything scare us today that deals with death?

Not all theater has a message, but the advice underlying Carrie: the Musical is clear: never let your high school gym teacher try to save your miserable existence. It’ll begin with fake bloodshed, move on to misguided telekinesis, and end in double murder.

Stumptown's "Carrie": It's a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Stumptown’s “Carrie”: It’s a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Soon after Stephen King’s breakthrough novel became a bestseller in 1974, the first version of the musical was workshopped by Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the screenplay for the hit 1976 movie), Michael Gore (no puns here) and Dean Pitchford. Cohen, interviewed by the New York Times, said that if Alban Berg, the avant-garde composer of the opera Lulu, were composing at the time of this material, Carrie would be the plot he’d mine for inspiration. This trivia provides the platform for Carrie: The Musical. A playwright, librettist, and composer tried to take the old-fashioned fairytale of Cinderella and push it to a supernatural and psychotronic end. As the saying goes: “It’s all fun and games, until someone gets an eye poked out.” One wonders, why didn’t Cohen, following a dubious line of creative choices, take his inclination to the next level and make a musical of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!, or dig from Hammer Films? At the end of the day, though, Cohen, Gore and Pitchford were correct: the idea of Carrie was worth the effort.

Carrie: The Musical sings out with reminders of the stage musical Flashdance, for which Pitchford wrote the lyrics. In a similar context, Carrie’s gym teacher is the first person to be sympathetic to her, to show her a door to the outside world. The next decades of Disney films would take their cue from his popular score, and the public would give in to the familiar sound: less like a traditional musical, more like an pop-operetta. The orchestration of the choruses doesn’t follow the typical musical line. There’s a little Mozart in here: antagonist in minor, protagonist in major, and it makes a sonic harmony between an odd libretto: “Men are demons of romance,” or, “Cheesy, but nice.” There’s  choreography to Carrie: The Musical, but it’s not ballet or dancing in the classic musical-theater structure. Which brings us back to the point: Carrie is meant to be a serious production. We’re all in a postmodern candy shoppe, where metaphor is how we connect.


Keeping up with the Joneses

Will Eno's Chekhovian comedy at Third Rail hovers in the mortal zone: It's only love, and that is all. Why do they feel the way they do?

There they are, the four of them, up in some little town near the mountains, sitting outside, breathing the crisp air, chattering maybe pointlessly or maybe not, grating on one another’s nerves, watching their lives slowly slip away.

And, yes, it’s a comedy.

The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s circuitous and allusive play that opened Friday night at Third Rail Rep, is a sort of Chekhov of the suburbs, or more accurately of the forgotten corners of small-town America, a play of puzzled emotions and ambitions so far lost that they can’t quite be put into words anymore. What was that I wanted to do and be, again, before life interrupted?

All Jones, all the time: Green, O'Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

All Jones, all the time: Green, O’Connell, Pierce, Ryan. Photo: Owen Carey

As with Chekhov, nothing much happens in The Realistic Joneses, and the world shifts. The play begins with one of those funny-awkward encounters. Bob and Jennifer Jones are sitting outside on their patio chairs, involved in what seems their ordinary game of forced cheerfulness (on her part) and passive aggression (on his) when the clatter of an overturning garbage can sounds offstage and John and Pony burst around the corner, all cheery and bearing a bottle of wine. They’re the new neighbors, and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the Joneses, too.


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