THEATER

Spectravagasm’s ‘Gender-gasm’ goes all the way

The sixth installment of Post5's frankly undersung late night sketch series "offends everyone equally," and amuses ArtsWatch a lot.

It’s a small, special club of people who’ve had the pleasure of witnessing all six of Post5 Theatre’s Spectravagasms, a series of sketch shows tackling various themes (horror, the future, religion, etc.) devised by wily buffoon Sam Dinkowitz and a small, brilliant team of other clowners-around. Too small, really. The work that obviously goes into these smartly written, tightly timed shows continues to be less than halfway met by potential audiences not bothering to venture all the way “out” to Post5, or those already on site for an earlier show who decide not to stay. Their loss! Why buy an evening of theater and not go for the ‘gasm?

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The current installment, Gendergasm, is onstage through Valentine’s Day in the late-night time slot following Woman on The Scarlet Beast and Gender Tree, and takes its thematic cue from the latter. In addition to Dinkowitz, the players are Nicole Accuardi, Chip Sherman, Brett Wilson and Rebecca Ridenour. Fast-paced, unpredictable and sometimes literally winking, it’s one of those rare satires that you could reasonably call a “romp.” And it’s faaaabulous, Bitches!

Oh. Wait. Sorry. I didn’t mean to call you “Bitches.”

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Ring-ring. Sarah Ruhl calling.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," sparked by Dana Millican's deft blend of comedy and fantasy, pushes the right buttons to start Profile's season of Ruhl plays

A phone rings, and rings, and rings, and exasperatingly, its owner doesn’t answer it. He just sits at his café table, staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought, dreaming of the last bowl of lobster bisque he arrived too late to get.

Or – this might explain things – he’s dead. Dapper, self-involved, acerbic Gordon has been struck down amid pangs of hunger, and even sharper irritation at the young woman at the next table, who is just spooning in the last bite of the bisque he had specifically come to this oddly unstaffed café to eat.

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

That young woman, Jean (Dana Millican), equally irritated at the cell phone’s bleat, eventually answers it herself, and then keeps answering it, over and over, slipping into the shadows and abandoned realities of the dead man’s life as if it were a celestial obligation, or a gift.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the sparklingly oddball first production in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl. This slightly absurdist, slightly comic-book, highly whimsical, and emotionally serious play takes a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, and Millican makes an ideal, engagingly sympathetic contemporary Alice, balancing the role’s cartoon and realist aspects to create a captivating wonderland.

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FG reviews: Staging history

Cottonwood in the Flood, Deception, and One Weekend in October dramatize racially charged moments.

This year’s Fertile Ground Festival offered several plays relating to race and history. I caught readings of three of them, each in a different stage of development. All three show promise, as well as flaws that are easier to spot once they’re actually read before an audience — a prime reason Fertile Ground is so valuable.

The terrific cast of Rubin's Cottonwood in the Flood.

The terrific cast of Cottonwood in the Flood.

Cottonwood in the Flood

The story of a mid 20th century African American family that moves from south to north and deals with the challenges of social, economic, racial and even geographical change — it sounds like an ideal set up for an August Wilson play, if the longtime Seattle based playwright had written about the Northwest he migrated to instead of the Pittsburgh he grew up in.

Wilson liked to write about how place changes over generations, and Vanport, Oregon — the site of Portland playwright Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood and the aforementioned fictional family’s struggles — existed for only six years, before succumbing to the great flood of 1948, and becoming, along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis. It proved an eventful stretch, both militarily (with workers churning out important components of America’s World War II arsenal), and socially, as a de facto experimental precursor to racial integration.

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Super Bowl Sunday arts: ArtsWatch week in review

The death of actor Ted Roisum, The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, a big Mellon grant, more

Let’s just say that your appetite for Super Bowl pre-game chatter isn’t truly boundless. Just for the record we favor the Seahawks because their logo was derived from a carving in the Burke Museum. From those two sentences alone, you may be able to predict where this going: A deep dive into ArtsWatch stories from the week, our Sunday arts section.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Bob Hicks remembers the great actor Ted Roisum: The possessor of the single most recognizable vocal instrument in Portland theater, Roisum also had a lively intelligence and generous spirit, and his passing has rocked the city’s theater community. “The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places.”

In The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents“Dunno,” is a pretty good answer: The “doleful, squicky, thought-provoking, poignant and pathetic” play at Vertigo features a fine performance by Shawna Nordman as Dora in Lukas Barfüs’s juicy satire.

Mellon Foundation gift establishes Creative Exchange Lab at PICA: Thanks to a $500,000 grant, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art will get to curate some creativity experiments in a new residency program.

Eric Isaacson conducts a meeting of music and film: The Mississippi Studios founder has begun his second annual series of movies with strong musical content at the Hollywood Theatre, and Lily Hudson talked to him about the first and future installments.

From Toronto, a preview of the Portland International Film Festival: Erik McClanahan predicts that the best of the Toronto Film Festival will be hits in Portland, too.

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles in "Enter the Night"/Photo Owen Carey

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles in “Enter the Night”/Photo Owen Carey

“Enter the Night” and the dream world of Maria Irene Fornes: Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s encounter with Fornes and “Enter the Night” is richly textured and detailed, episode by episode.

Happy reading, and enjoy the game!

 

Three’s a crowd (and Vanya, too)

The world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's volatile "Threesome" joins the "Vanya/Sonia" party at Center Stage

Things got a little overheated Friday night in the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theater at Portland Center Stage, which might explain what was up with all those clothes flying off those beautiful bodies. Contrarily, the air was a touch chilly in the big bed onstage, where Leila and Rashid were embroiled in some sort of weird passive-aggressive tiff disguised as lovers’ banter. So when Doug strode around the corner babbling like a maniac and swinging his altogether with every bare-naked step, the tension broke, and everyone in the little hothouse of a theater started to laugh. Except Leila and Rashid, who tensed up, if such a thing was possible, even more.

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: and stranger makes three. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: strange bedfellows. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The setting for this little comedy of extreme manners was the premiere performance of Yussef El Guindi’s new play Threesome, a co-production of Center Stage, where it continues through March 8, and Seattle’s ACT Theatre. It’s already a familiar story to at least a few in the prospective audience: it was workshopped in 2013 at Center Stage’s JAW new-works festival.

Despite its opening gambit – Leila and Rashid have invited imperfect stranger Doug over for a swinger romp in the hay – Threesome is a long way off from a sex farce. If it veers that way with Doug’s nervous-nellie overcompensations (smoothly yet fumblingly portrayed by Quinn Franzen, who has a deft way with comedy) it’s sharply counterpointed by Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Dominic Rains). Rashid is clearly far from down with this plan, which he obviously resents. And Leila seems far more interested in scoring political points than in, well, scoring. Poor Doug begins to feel ping-ponged in the middle, the pawn in somebody else’s game of revenge sex. By this point it might come as no surprise that, despite all the showy skin, the sheets do not get overly rumpled.

Feelings, however, do. And attitudes. What builds from this beginning in director Chris Coleman’s production is a structure of sexual and cultural politics, layers of misunderstanding and betrayal, inquiries into the meanings of love, and sometimes scathing observations on the Western/Middle Eastern cultural divide. El Guindi has a lot on his mind, and to me, at least, it’s not always clear how the actions onstage parallel his impassioned scattershot of ideas: all that nudity seems a bit like a come-on for the political propositions that follow, like Doug’s story of the Arab woman luring him into an alley for ulterior reasons. The contrast in Leila and Rashid’s minds between their Arabic backgrounds and their American realities is crucial, but in what ways? Leila’s desire for a three-way might represent a Middle Eastern view of the West as a licentious culture, a place where you can do things you’d never do at home. Then again, what’s home? Cairo, or America? Or it might be her extreme reaction to the Islamic world’s view of the submissive role of women. Doug might represent the ugly American, open and impulsive and friendly but also a little dimwitted and unresponsive to cultural variations and capable of extreme cruelty and stupidity on foreign ground: exotic orientalism rears its unsightly head. Then again, he might not represent anything but himself: after all, as he points out, Leila and Rashid invited him over. And what of Rashid? Is he wrong to expect a little commitment on Leila’s part? Is she wrong to make decisions as if what he thinks doesn’t matter? How open can a relationship be and still be a relationship?

There’s a lot to sift through here, including the nature of imperialism and the culture of rape. And after a somewhat awkward beginning (in what is, after all, an intentionally awkward scene) the three actors carry it through bravely and expertly, with a fine blend of humor and fervor. When things get a little preachy, they preach like they believe it. The play has a string of “reveals,” culminating in a big one that’s clearly metaphorical, but I’m not sure I understand all the metaphors. There’s so much going on that things seem a little muddled. On the other hand, it’s a muddled world that El Guindi’s exploring, filled with contradictions and deep histories and misunderstandings and conflicting priorities. Maybe a little muddle is what it’s all about. The opening night audience gave the performance a standing ovation, and I don’t think it was just for the skin.

*

From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Meanwhile, upstairs on the Main Stage at PCS, Christopher Durang’s expansive comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is keeping audiences laughing and houses packed. It’ll be hanging around another week, through Feb. 8, continuing the play’s somewhat surprising sweep through the affections of the American theater system, where it’s been the most frequently produced play of the past year.

When Durang’s comic riff on Chekhov opened at Lincoln Center in 2012 the New York Times’s Ben Brantley called it “a sunny new play about gloomy people,” and that seems about right. Brantley also noted that it lacks the punch of some of Durang’s wilder, more acerbic plays, and that seems right, too. You can think of it as a bit like Durang’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness: not his greatest play, but warm and uncharacteristically optimistic and pitched straight to the mainstream theater audience’s sweet spot. Nothing wrong with that, and sometimes, frankly, it’s a blessed relief.

Director Rose Riordan’s Center Stage production is sweet and charming in a baroque, chamber-music sort of way, just outrageous enough to tickle your funnybone without seriously disturbing any deeper areas of the psyche. As several reviewers have already noted, Sharonlee McLean is an absolute stitch as Sonia, the terminally bored adopted sister who has an unrequited crush on definitely-not-blood-brother Vanya, who happens to be gay. Well, that’s life.

I was also, I decided after a bit of reflection, taken with Eden Malyn’s fey, Carol-Kane-in-ditzy-mode performance as Nina, the fresh young thing from down the road. Nina really seems the most level-headed, sensible one of the bunch, and you might therefore expect a level-headed, sensible interpretation. But actuality and appearances are so often a mismatch, and I like that Nina’s practicality comes in an otherworldly package: why not? I’ll also note Andrew Mellon’s rendition of Vanya’s late-in-the-play unshackling from his lassitude to deliver what can only be called an extended existential rant. It’s the scene that shakes things up, a bit – not as astonishing as Valere’s bone-shattering, 15-page monologue in David Hirson’s La Bete, a play that already rocked the boat of expectation by being delivered entirely in iambic-pentameter rhyming couplets, but enough of a shakeup to remind the audience that this is, after all, Christopher Durang, and the ordinary way of doing things will be deviated from. (Including, it seems, the commonly received ban on ending a sentence with a preposition.) A little deviance in the theater isn’t a bad thing.

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Dora’s Story: a cautionary coming-of-age

Theatre Vertigo's 'The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents' offers powerful acting, lingering questions

“Dunno,” blurts Dora, the intellectually disabled central character in Lukas Barfüs’s The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents (onstage through Feb. 14 at Theatre Vertigo). Not just once, but throughout the show, Dora says “Dunno” to fend off serious questions about her physical, emotional, and sexual needs. The question she’s really confronting, according to director Bobby Bermea, is one of “personhood,” the Herculean task of creating her identity from scratch.

Shawna Nordman and Nathan Dunkin in "Neuroses." Photo: Gary Norman

Shawna Nordman and Nathan Dunkin in “Neuroses.” Photo: Gary Norman

When we first meet Dora, we learn that she’s spent much of her young life on heavy meds that were intended to manage her disability, but have also blunted her personality. When her mother decides to take her off the drugs, Dora’s mental awareness sharpens only a little … but her sexual urges are thrown into overdrive. We watch her succeed at seduction, but struggle painfully with comprehension and judgment.

My friends who attended Neuroses with me picked up Dora’s “Dunno” for the whole next week. “Dunno,” they’d deadpan about no-win situations at work, or political stumpers in the news. It may be the takeaway thesis of the show, which washes its hands of any preaching or prescription and leaves its audience, like Dora, at a loss. By no means a feel-good show, it’s certainly a feel-something one. Doleful, squicky, thought-provoking, poignant and pathetic, it’s a big bite of forbidden fruit asquirm with worms. It gets you in the gut.

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Ted Roisum, 1952-2015: a giant falls

The brilliant longtime Portland actor dies at 62, leaving a distinguished legacy both professional and personal

UPDATE: A memorial celebration of Ted Roisum’s life will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., Portland. The timing will allow as many theater people as possible to attend without conflicting with performances or rehearsals.

*

Like a few other giants, Ted Roisum was surprisingly small in person: lean and compact, short, somehow tough and fragile at the same time, with a large and perpetually questioning head that overwhelmed his wiry body.

Yet giant he was, with a voice that rolled like God’s at the creation of the universe and trembled like Job’s in the face of a plague of locusts. On a stage, he simply grew.

Robert Theodore Roisum, one of the finest actors Portland has known, died in a Portland hospice on Thursday, January 29, 2015. He was 62.

Roisum in Conor McPherson's "St. Nicholas." Photo: Win Goodbody/Corrib Theatre

Roisum in Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas.” Photo: Win Goodbody/Portland Theatre Scene

His longtime friend Louanne Moldovan reported that three weeks ago, experiencing severe abdominal pains, he went to an emergency room, where doctors discovered cancerous tumors throughout his body. He had had a melanoma removed about a year earlier, and neither Ted nor his doctors realized the cancer had metastasized to his lymph system, Moldovan said.

Word spread quickly in the city’s theater circles, where Roisum was held in deep admiration, respect, and, often, a touch of awe. “Today the world lost one of its rare and beautiful souls,” actor Luisa Sermol wrote in a Facebook post. He was, she added, “a man of brilliant mind, passionate talent, and gentle heart.”

Ted was all of that, and more. He did a little bit of film and television work – including small roles in the likes of Mr. Holland’s Opus and the series Under Suspicion and Nowhere Man – but he was a man of the theater, and from the mid-1980s on, mostly on Portland stages. A show with Ted in it was almost automatically an event.

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in "Greek," 1987

Roisum (left) and Keith Scales in “Greek,” 1987

After a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the early 1980s he came of age in Portland in the ’80s and early ’90s in a series of brilliant performances, including Steven Berkoff’s scabrous Greek, in a legendary production with Vana O’Brien, Keith Scales, and Dee Dee Van Zyl. He had a taste for classic 20th century American dramas: Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses (all three with O’Brien as his wife), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. He dug deeply into Ibsen in The Master Builder, and Yeats in The Cuchulain Cycle. More than once, he played Lear (including one production that had him playing him not as a king, but as the commissioner of baseball). Such savage roles seemed to wring him dry onstage, and the audience with him, without dipping into histrionics or melodrama: his performances were too true for that.

Roisum’s remarkable, reverberating voice is what struck audiences most immediately. Marty Hughley, reviewing his Lear at Northwest Classical Theatre Company last year for ArtsWatch, wrote that the sound of his voice was “like weathered mahogany. Indignation burns and churns in him like magma. There is bullying and bitterness in this Lear, but also biting wit and touching tenderness, self-pity and self-awareness.”

The voice, it seemed to me, was a magnificent instrument, but only the doorway to an even more remarkable revelation of the soul. Almost always there was something haunting in a Roisum performance, a sense in his interpretations of a character who has seen more deeply into the mysteries of the universe than he might rationally be expected to withstand. He took his audiences to dark and dangerous places. In person he was a gentleman, with an engaging curiosity and flashes of dry humor and, it seemed to me, some of the uncertainties that so often plague exceptionally creative and sensitive people. He had doubts, and the doubts seemed part of what made him brilliant onstage. Always, there were questions. Always, there were shadings. Always, there was a part of himself in whoever he played.

Ted with Vana O'Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet's "Faith Healer."

Ted with Vana O’Brien and Keith Scales in Cygnet’s “Faith Healer.”

Ted took a few lighter roles, even swashbuckling in a children’s-theater adaptation of Treasure Island. And he sometimes stepped into musical-theater productions: he had a distinctive sense of rhythm in his voice and movements. But even on the musical-comedy stage he tended toward darker roles – as Jud, for instance, the haunted outsider in Oklahoma! who gives the play the sort of disquieting anchor that Malvolio provides in Twelfth Night. The same was true in comedies. Amid the hijinks of Vitriol and Violets, a play about the Algonquin wits, he broke into a brief, chilling scene as the doomed Bartolomeo Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti infamy.

He also had an eye for the new or unusual, and for the familiar cast in an unusual light. He and David Cromwell starred at Portland Center Stage in the 2003 premiere of Steven Drukman’s post-9/11 comedy Another Fine Mess as a couple of baggy-pants gents, à la Gogo and Didi, creating a backstage world very like the large one beyond the theater – a tour-de-force blending of the sheerly theatrical and the starkly political.

His 1993 show Variations on a Bard, directed by Moldovan, teamed him in scenes from Shakespeare performed to improvisational accompaniment by three jazz musicians. “Certainly, tragedy becomes Roisum, who carries a dignified sadness in his voice and bearing,” I wrote in reviewing the show for the Oregonian. “But lurking below the obvious are the makings of a first-rate comedian – a truly Shakespearean kind of fool, who knows much and makes light to illuminate the dark. With his bold features and elastic expressions, Roisum suggests the duality of the great French actor-mime Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise, creating peals of laughter while his heart breaks.”

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

As Lear for Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Certain roles simply resonated with Ted. He played Conor McPherson’s bitter theater critic in St. Nicholas three times: in 1998 for CoHo, in 2002 for Cygnet, and in 2013 for Corrib. Barry Johnson, reviewing the 2013 production for ArtsWatch, wrote of Roisum “leveling his eyes on us from time to time, an edge of self-contempt in his baritone and a tale to keep moving along.” Reviewing the 2002 production for The Oregonian, I observed: “… it’s hard to imagine any actor who can bring life to that spiritual exhaustion better than Roisum. With his deep whiskey voice and sharp cadences he approaches McPherson’s script as if it were music: every note has its meaning, and every note comes clear only in relationship to the notes that come before and after.”

That was the way he approached his work onstage: like music coming clear as it falls into place with the rest of the score. He was, indeed, a giant. Onstage and in his personal life, he made people care.

“Teddy was my friend, my co-actor and, at one time, my onstage husband,” actor Katherine King wrote on Facebook. “I am very glad that he is no longer suffering, but I am very sad for all of us who will miss him so very much.”

Teddy, rest in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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