THEATER

Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

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Lost (and found) in midair

Danna Schaeffer's "You in Midair," about life after the murder of her daughter, catches the essence of life, emotion, love, longing, and grief

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. It upsets the natural order of things, leaves an irreplaceable emptiness. And it is the premise of the wrenching but surprisingly joyous You in Midair, running at New Expressive Works for just one more week.

That the nightmare is not only a true story, but that it was written and is performed by the mother who suffered the loss, makes it both more poignant and almost unbearable. You likely know the story of Rebecca Schaeffer, the 21-year-old Oregon actress who’d found success as a regular on the television series My Sister Sam, and who was murdered by her stalker at her Los Angeles apartment in 1989. It was a heartbreaking death, even for an outsider.

Danna Schaeffer performing her play “You in Midair.” Photo: Owen Carey

What you likely don’t know is the view from inside the family’s grief. Twenty-eight years later, playwright Danna Schaeffer opens up in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable: by performing a solo show she wrote about the experience. It is as devastating as you might imagine, but it is also funny – Schaeffer shares some of the absurd moments that followed losing her daughter so publicly – and liberating for someone to share such real, raw grief.

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Tuesdays at the Theatre Guild

Flying under the radar, the venerable Portland Civic Theatre Guild keeps some civilized traditions alive (and raises money for new things)

Walking into The Sanctuary on Northeast Sandy Boulevard for one of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s monthly play readings is a little like walking into a town meeting in Miss Jane Marple’s St. Mary Mead, minus the lurking murderer. Cookies and coffee and no doubt some tea are being served. A clubby camaraderie inhabits the proceedings, an understated festive air. Little histories are here: Most everyone seems to know, or at least recognize, most everyone else, and while the attendees might be mostly outside the target parameters of corporate marketing metrics, they are active and inquisitive and in good humor, and no doubt value common sense. A feeling persists of something civilized and basically good, a small pleasure: a bulwark on this past Tuesday morning, barely more than a day after the evil of the Las Vegas massacre, against the bleakness of the outside world.

As with St. Mary Mead and its inhabitants, it would be unwise to underestimate this crowd and its proceedings. They may not be in the market for the latest exhibitions from the seething swamps of contemporary performance art, but they know their theater (many of them have been, and some continue to be, on the stage), and the pleasures to be had in communing with a style of playfulness that might not be the height of fashion but has not lost its charm. It’s quite easy, and enjoyable, to slip into the spirit of the thing.

The gathering of the Guild: active and involved.

On Tuesday the object of their affections was I Ought To Be in Pictures, the 1979 sentimental comedy by Neil Simon, who is considered something of a ghost of theater past these days but not so many decades ago was the toast of Broadway, and the movies, too, a figure who so dominated the Broadway real estate that younger writers and audiences rebelled against virtually everything about him – his jokiness, his eagerness to please, his devotion to craftsmanship, his middlebrow-ness, his upper-middle-class-ness, his self-congratulatory sentimentality, his sometimes clueless maleness, his unseemly success, his belief that maybe the theater was entertainment and not so much art.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Puzzles and Cults

From "Caught" to Reverend Billy to storytelling to "Chalk Circle" to readings and "You in Midair," a weekful of openings

Happy glacially gradual onset of fall. Let’s talk theatre … er, theater.

A.L. Adams

Here at ArtsWatch, some new reviews are in.

Bob Hicks is smitten with Every Brilliant Thing and Matthew Andrews seems impressed by Fun Home, putting the Armory 2-for-2.

Artists Rep’s An Octoroon, which closed last weekend, left Maria Choban in metaphorical therapy, and NWCT’s Starlings delighted DeAnn Welker. Onward.

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Artists Rep is prepared to ensnare you with Caught, a “sly philosophical puzzle” presented as a multimedia work with both gallery installation and performance components. I wonder if the growing popularity of “escape rooms” is conversant with this kind of theater. I also wonder how the habituation of video game play informs the escape rooms that may or may not have tripped the wire on a seeming explosion of this type of theater. Discuss.

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Reverend Billy drops in at Boom Arts to revive us again.

Here’s another puzzler: why does “protest” within performance art get so much more respect than protest on the street? Sure, sometimes it’s a quality standard, but many street protest efforts also pass artistic muster. From the businessman-satirizing Yes Men, to these butoh-esque “zombies” in Hamburg, to these stoic Michiganders sitting in grim solidarity with oil-soaked birds, performative protestors who bring fringe-fest-worthy confrontations to the public sphere deserve a little more applause. In this mood, Boom Arts brings performance protest figurehead Reverend Billy to The Old Church this weekend. The Reverend, who’s been dramatically preaching the gospel of “Stop Shopping” for many years—often to hostile audiences during direct action—has earned a weekend preaching to the choir. Additional ways to find religion this week include the opening of a ritualistic-looking Caucasian Chalk Circle at Shaking the Tree, and Siren Theater storytelling showcase Cult Status. (Rumor has it they’ll be serving actual Kool-Aid.)

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Correct me if I’m wrong: a staged reading is to a play what a book is to a movie. While the latter is already chock full of multi-sensory material, the former leaves more space for your own imagination. This month, Portland Playhouse’s Fall Reading Series mixes it up with three contemporary plays at various locations from Sellwood to NW. In the hands of this stah-rong batch of actors, I bet those scripts will sing. Can I say they’re by female playwrights as a “by the way”? And someday can female playwrights be so prevalent that no point need be made?

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And finally, here’s a hard one. With no joy in the pun, I call “trigger warning” on a show about a 1980s celebrity murder presented by the mother of the deceased. In You in Midair, Danna Schaeffer grapples with the 1989 death of her daughter Rebecca Schaeffer, a star of the sitcom My Sister Sam, on her front porch at the hands of a deranged gunman. Seekers of catharsis and context on this particular week may find it here.

 


 

Look for A.L. Adams’ DramaWatch Weekly every Tuesday.

Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).

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Brilliant? Let us list the ways

The one-man show "Every Brilliant Thing" begins with an amiable Isaac Lamb and builds its odd-duck case one good thing at a time

Let the record stipulate that the reviewer is not a fan of audience-participation theater.

Let the record stipulate that Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show that opened Friday evening in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is, is fact, an audience-participation play.

Let the record further stipulate that, notwithstanding his biases, the reviewer found himself to be absolutely charmed, and sometimes moved, and often given to outbursts of immoderate laughter. Let the record observe that the reviewer stands corrected, at least this once.

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Isaac Lamb works the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Every Brilliant Thing – performed with intense likability (if that’s a possible thing) by Isaac Lamb, with the smart and nimble collaboration of director Rose Riordan and some on-the-nose sound design by Casi Pacilio – is an odd duck of a play, but then, sometimes the odd ducks are the interesting ones. Written by Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, it debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in Shropshire before crossing the Atlantic to New York and beyond. It bears a striking affinity to the sort of theater known as standup comedy, which thrives, among other things, on improvisational give-and-take with the audience. Lamb achieves complicity not by bristling aggressively at the audience, as standups often do, but by sweet-talking them, in gee-shucks conspiratorial tones, into helping him out. And help him out they do, even the ones who feel just a little self-conscious about being suckered in.

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‘Fun Home’ review: tragicomic

Loving, audacious musical adaptation brings Alison Bechdel's popular graphic novel family drama to Portland Center Stage

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

To create a successful adaptation, you need an abundance of two qualities: audacity and love. Cleverness helps (so does money), but those two are the important ones. They keep each other in check: audacity gets you started, helps you make necessary cuts and alterations, empowers the act of (re)creation; love keeps you honest, helps you recognize the essentials, and reminds you of why you’re devoting yourself to another artist’s labors. Audacity drives the process, love guides it. Think of them as the right hand of blessing and the left hand of darkness.

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s award-winning 2013 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s also-award-winning 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, playing through October 22 at The Armory, benefitted from an extra helping of both. The source material is as personal and intimate as it gets: the successful cartoonist’s first graphic novel, a memoir revolving around the tumultuous four months bracketed by her own coming out and her closeted father’s suicide, is an auteurishly dense and complex piece of literature. It’s dark, and funny, and deeply literary in the interdisciplinary way that has become the special province of comic books—sorry, “graphic novels”—ever since Will Eisner turned out his magnificent A Contract with God in 1978 and bequeathed his name to the genre’s highest honor. It would make a pretty good movie; it would make an incredible Netflix series.

The cast of “Fun Home” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Instead, Kron and Tesori turned Bechdel’s book into an Off-Broadway musical. It won a bunch of Tonys, went On-Broadway and then on tour, and eventually Portland Center Stage decided to bring it to Portland. I can hardly think of a better home for the sophisticated, queer-themed family drama. I went and saw it the other night on the recommendation of literally every theater person I know, and it did not disappoint. It’s refreshingly brief at 90 minutes; it hits all of the book’s high points and lovingly expresses its central themes and character arcs in surprising ways; the set and costumes and props and other theater accoutrements all look cool; the singing and acting were great, the live band is awesome, and it’s even got a few really catchy tunes. In fact, you should stop reading now and go buy your tickets before the rest of the run sells out.

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