Seattle Repertory Theatre review: Falling Victim to History

In Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society, drama gets diluted in historical explanation.

Not even the powerful figures enshrined on Mt. Rushmore could quite match Lyndon Johnson’s unsurpassed ability to impose his will on people and events. The 36th President’s vision and ambition equaled his political shrewdness. The Machiavellian knowledge accumulated over decades as master of Texas’s famously cutthroat politics and the Senate’s byzantine ways equipped him, he imagined, to literally change the world. Inasmuch as the character trait that made him powerful — his hubristic belief that he could through cunning and power politics bend anything to his will — is also the tragic flaw that leads him to overreach, Johnson boasts all the qualities of a tragic hero, and is the most Shakespearean of American leaders.

Like Shakespeare, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan strives to turn history into drama in his two-play LBJ cycle,  All the Way and The Great Society, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and 2014 and are running through January 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre (though the run is sold out). That’s the brief assigned by OSF’s noble American Revolutions project, one of the great achievements of 21st century Oregon arts, which “asks that each play be based in history and explore a moment [my italics] of change. Beyond that, the playwrights choose the content, form, and style of their work.” So LBJ offers an ideal dramatic opportunity for classic tragedy: a seemingly irresistible leader who confronts truly immovable historical forces — and loses.

Surrounded by supporting dramatis personae who would be protagonists in any other drama, ranging from Martin Luther King to the ghost of John F. Kennedy (embodied by his equally tragic brother) to the incarnations of evil Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson’s tragedy would have had the Bard himself licking his quill to thrust it onstage.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

Jack Willis (center, as LBJ) and Danforth Comins, Michael Winters, Wayne T. Carr and Peter Frechette in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way (2014). Photo by Chris Bennion.

But instead of exploring a moment, Schenkkan chose to explain an era. The battle over delegates at the 1964 Democratic convention during the Freedom Summer turmoil, Johnson’s desperate dance with the equally torn King, his confrontation with racist / opportunist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, his duel with the Kennedys, the passage of the landmark 1964  civil Right Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act (two of the greatest legislative triumphs in American history) and above all, his wrestling with the Vietnam War (and the larger geopolitical struggles it exemplified) … each of those and many others would make for more coherent dramas.

But trying to cram them all into the confines of a single, relatively conventional dramatic structure predictably produces a similar outcome to President Johnson’s attempt to handle them all at once in real life. As a result, Schenkkan’s cycle succeeds better as history than as theater.


Frogz at 35: the mime still boggles

Imago shows off its brilliant menagerie for the hometown crowd before hitting the road again. Next stop: France.

Art Without Boundaries is  the title of an internationally focused history of modern dance by former New York Times dance critic and poet Jack Anderson, and it’s also an excellent description of the long-lived variety show of the imagination Frogz, now in the middle of its home season at Imago Theatre.

Sloth on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

Sloths on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

The masked theater piece, which is one of the city’s prime performance attractions during winter break, has been crossing all kinds of boundaries – formal, geographical, generational, and cultural – since Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, Imago’s founders, started it with a single frog 35 years ago.

Today, the cast of characters includes two more frogs, alligators, orbs, a baby, penguins, sloths, paper bags, string, and a cowboy, performed by a troupe of five quick-change artists, with very different training, who are willing to travel the world. Never cute, and never patronizing, Frogz can be hilarious or poignant, satirical or sad, whimsical, or magical. It is family entertainment, to be sure, but with a highly sophisticated edge.

The frog that started it all was born  in 1979, in an untidy two bedroom apartment in Eugene, where Triffle (then Uselman) and Mouawad, who was studying theater at the University of Oregon,  were living together.  “One of the rooms was full of making things,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December.  “We were in our twenties, a lot of stuff came from there, and we eventually had to get a studio.”

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The couple had met two years before in Portland, in a ballet class being taught by the late Danny Diamond. Diamond’s studio was in the same building as the Richard Hayes Marshall School of Theater Arts, where Marshall taught the methods of Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. Mouawad was also studying with Marshall, and Triffle, who spent her adolescence in Mt. Angel, getting attention by making her many siblings laugh in the family kitchen, soon got hooked on the Frenchman’s approach to wordless comedy.

Lecoq seldom performed, but was well-known as a great teacher and director. He had invented a system (he was French, after all) that included a number of methods of creating and expressing character without dialogue, using physical improvisation and other movement techniques as well as masks to convey “what lies behind the words.” Actors such as Geoffrey Rush studied with him, but so did architects and psychoanalysts. In the Eighties, Triffle began extensive studies at his school in Paris, assisting him, and following Lecoq’s death in 1999, assisting his son. She is now a certified teacher of the Lecoq methodology.

Juggling fish: doesn't everyone?

Juggling fish: doesn’t everyone?

Mouawad fell in love with theater when he acted in a seventh grade play at the American School in Beirut, hence the drama studies at the U of O. But once he became acquainted with Lecoq’s approach to theater, it made a lot more sense to him than the conventional techniques he was learning there.   He remembered being asked, as a twenty-year-old, to develop the character of a man twice his age, with twice his experience in the world. “That was confusing,” he said. “The world is too complex for a twenty-year old.” What drew him to masked theater and the Lecoq methods was the distillation of the simplest element provided by the mask, and the limited options of how to portray something or someone he was not: a slinky, a polar bear, a baby.

Nevertheless, Frogz in its current, complex incarnation is far from simple to perform. It requires physicality, strength, endurance, visibility, and  something Triffle says you are born with if you have it: comic timing.  “[That] is crucial,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December at Imago Theatre.  “Everything else can be taught.” Rehearsals were about to begin for the current run, and Triffle and cast members Kyle Delamarter and Kaician Jade Kitko were also present for a free-wheeling interview in which laughter overrides the recording of much of what was said. Frogz spends most of its time on tour, circumnavigating the globe, giving 150 performances a year, most recently in this country.

Delamarter seems to have passed his 2002 audition because of what Mouawad called “crazy behavior” before he even went up on stage, where he was challenged to “not be funny.” He was an animator at the time, and was taken into the company to perform in Biglittlethings, one of three incarnations of what my grandson calls the “animal show,”  (ZooZoo was the third). Delamarter has performed in all three, as well as in such experimental works as Backs Like That, Splat and Beaux Arts Club.  The family shows provide the bread and butter that sustain the more (much more) experimental pieces.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Delamarter has spent twelve years touring with the show in all its permutations, and what he had to say about audience reaction confirms the observations of cultural anthropologists that body language, as much as other forms of social behavior including spoken language, reveals cultural differences, even in different parts of the United States.  Frogz had a six-week run in Boston some years ago at the American Repertory Theater, before Mouawad’s unsettling version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was performed there. When it came time for the audience participation in the penguins’ game of musical chairs, in which the birds go into the audience, “no one would give us a seat,” Delamarter recalled. This was not as frustrating, however, as a recent performance in Amman, Jordan, where despite being shown a presenter-created video of how to behave in the theater that included instructions about turning off cell phones, the kids (and the adults) ruined the black-light finale by taking pictures with their devices, using the flash, and also tried to see how it all worked by shining their flashlights.

On the whole, “the show translates well because there is no [spoken] language,” Delamarter said. Wherever it’s performed,  “they like it as much as families do anywhere. We did another show for immigrants, and there was no problem.” Kayla Scrivner, production stage manager, who traveled to Egypt and Jordan with Frogz on its previous tour to the region, points out that the less affluent audiences are better behaved: in Egypt, the company did a show for kids who had no cell phones, and the kids were completely attentive to the goings-on.

Some baby!

Some baby!

In this country, audience response often has something to do with the venue and the size of the city.  In small towns, audiences tend to be more receptive because they don’t see much live theater.  When the company recently performed in Crockett, Texas, Delamarter reported, it was greeted by a wall of sound that resembled the welcome the Beatles used to get more than forty years ago. This reminded Mouawad of being in Asia in the Eighties, performing in the Orb mask, and having sixty kids attack him when he came offstage. Onstage, he “could communicate with a theater of 2000 people in Taipei, but I couldn’t ask any of them to get me a cup of coffee.” Or stop attacking him. No matter where they perform, they “carry the masks,” as Lecoq put it, so well and so convincingly that children in particular think inanimate objects like orbs and string are alive; that fighting, cheating penguins are real; that lizards very scary; and polar bears are never to be attacked.

Kitko, a tap dancer by training, joined Imago in 2010 to perform in Stage Left Lost. The first challenge to “carrying the mask,” he says, is the way it limits your vision. “You can’t see what you would like to be able to see, but you get used to it quickly. You have to know that the performers are going to be where you want them to be at the right times; trust them to be out of your way.” A number of tricks help with this: stage floors are marked, so when an Orb, say, is looking down, it knows where it is; and there are sound cues that are inaudible to the viewers.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

In general terms, says Mouawad, to “carry the mask means to perform it. You don’t manipulate it, you don’t have complete power; in some ways you’re collaborating [with it]. The sightlines can make you feel completely isolated from the world around you, but you’re still communicating through the mask.”

Kitko, Delamarter, Jonathan Godsey, Pratik Motwani and Tera Nova Zarra (the only woman in the cast) will be working their masked magic at Imago Theatre through January 4.  Their next stop is France, home of Lecoq technique. Catch them while you can: they won’t return for another year.


Twenty performances of Frogz remain. Check here for times, prices, and reservations.

Miracle on 43rd Street and SANTA reviews: Laugh- and thought-provoking holiday alternatives.

Bag & Baggage Productions and Liminal Performance Group offer nontraditional takes on holiday classics.

The holidays can be hellish for arts lovers whose quest for fresh experiences and insights often collide with the seasonal insistence on the familiar. Portland theater companies are responding by creating new holiday traditions. This year’s Bag & Baggage holiday show repeats much of the formula of last year’s It’s a (Somewhat) Wonderful Life: Take an overfamiliar holiday film, pull back the camera a level by framing it as a radio play production, write a new comic story involving the actors who are playing the movie roles — and somehow make it all (a live theater play about a radio play about a movie) work. Director Scott Palmer even recycled the same set (including the division into three zones of sometimes simultaneous action), characters and many of the actors.

But despite the promising setup and some fine acting, last year’s show suffered from “often-clunky expository dialogue and a sketchy script that devotes insufficient attention to dramatizing (verbally or otherwise) the radio actors’ jaded attitudes,” as I wrote in ArtsWatch. “To achieve the density of humor required for true comic combustion, the too-long show needs more slam-bang comic moments … jokes and physical comedy, and less tedious traversal of the familiar original Capra lines, which the audience already knows well enough.”

And that’s exactly what this year’s Miracle on 43rd Street delivers. Shedding much of the holiday cinema classic’s plot development and minimizing exposition (until, unfortunately, the end), Palmer’s sly script leaves hardly any dead spots and packs so much hilarious action into each section of this three-ring circus that there’s always something funny going on. The trick is knowing where to look at a given moment. If everyone’s laughing and you’re not, you’re gazing at the wrong part of the stage. The only real solution is to see it twice. And you should, because Miracle on 43rd Street is the funniest — and most fun — new holiday show I’ve seen in years.

Clara Hillier as Felicity, Gary Strong as Winston, Jeremy Sloan as Gilroy and Jessica Geffen as Lana. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Felicity, Gary Strong as Winston, Jeremy Sloan as Gilroy and Jessica Geffen as Lana. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bursting with boob jokes, queen jokes (it’s worth pointing out that the author is proudly gay) and above all corpse jokes, most of the comedy is physical. The new subplot’s hostage situation and the characters’ need to maintain the radio audience’s (though not the theater audience’s) unawareness of it — that is, between their need to tell the familiar story of the movie and the unpredictable chaos going on around it — supplies plentiful comic tension .

You needn’t remember the original film well or at all to enjoy this new seasonal delight, which is extremely loosely based on Lux Radio Theatre’s 1948 live broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street. However, it wouldn’t hurt to have seen a lot of other movies (Airplane!, Weekend at Bernie’s, Young Frankenstein, Bullets Over Broadway, Dr. Strangelove and probably others lost in the avalanche of laughter that accompanied the opening night performance) to catch some of the references that drew the most laughs.

Credit for the enthusiastic response goes to Palmer’s bustling script, astute direction, and his ebullient cast’s high-energy, nearly exhausting performances. All display the strong chemistry characteristic of B&B’s regular company. Jessica Geffen perkily reprised last year’s role as cheerily clueless Lana North-Berkshire-Whiteside, and this year’s show benefits from more sparing appearances of the shrill Bronx accent and mammary humor that goosed both productions along. Clara Hillier’s Felicity Fay Fitzpatrick upstages almost everyone (as she intends) with outrageous drama queenery and overdramatic gestures. And speaking of queening around, Jeremy Sloan’s Gilroy Gildersleeve’s fey cop gets most of the funniest lines — and deliciously dishes them with Liberace-like camp.

Even though those three turn in some of the funniest physical comedy I’ve seen lately on Oregon stages, it’s no slam at them — or at Gary Sloan, Chase Fulton and Luke Armstrong, who also excel despite their comic opportunities being limited by their roles as straight man or plot device — to note that they’re eclipsed by a dead guy. Branden McFarland’s Peter Paulson, the unfortunate station sound effects guy, spends most of the play growing ever more rigorously mortis, yet nevertheless is the star of the show — with ample assistance from his co-stars. To say more about his role, or the plot itself, would give away too many of the surprises that keep B&B’s Miracle so blessedly brilliant.

In fact, the show’s only drawback is that it ends — not once, but several times, dissipating some of the momentum fueled by the near constant laughter by trying to wrap up too many threads at the end. And as those of us fiddling with ribbons and bows all know, wrapping and unwrapping is the most tiresome part of an otherwise rewarding holiday. But the slight stumble across the finish line hardly negates the hilarity that preceded it. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, whether you go gaga over Santa and the rest of the seasonal ho ho hokum or not, anyone who needs a good laugh at this most solemn/depressing time of year — and don’t we all? — should make the pilgrimage to Hillsboro to catch this Miracle.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ Miracle on 43rd Street runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sunday matinees at 2:00pm at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Tickets are available online.

Santa vs. Satan

The holiday season is all about tradition, and since we lumped (no coal implied) last year’s ArtsWatch Bag & Baggage review with a review of Liminal Performance Group’s 2013 show, let’s maintain that tradition. As ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley wrote in his preview, Liminal’s holiday offering repeats last year’s surprising move from the company’s usual avant garde offerings to seemingly more traditional fare. Last year, it was Thornton Wilder’s chestnut Our Town; this year, Santa himself.

But the title character of Liminal’s SANTA (shouldn’t that title be lower case?) is hardly the jolly figure who’s enslaved elves and dragooned reindeer into satiating capitalist consumer cravings. In the riveting opening scene of the great 20th century American poet e.e. cummings’ one act play, we meet him curled near-fetal on the floor of Back Door Theater’s spare set, lamenting that he has so much joy to give, but so few want to take it.

Here, Santa is an allegorical figure representing the spirit of joy and generosity engaged in a classic deal with the devil. Sharply delineated by Leo Daedalus (monocled and top-hatted like Mr. Peanut but not as salty), Death (as cummings calls him) is simultaneously adorable, witty, seductive — yet subtly dangerous, as signaled by his just-a-little-too-rough handling of Santa, whom he’s inveigling into a sneaky switcheroo.  But then, Death slinks to the floor and makes goo-goo eyes at Jeff Marchant, who grabs us immediately with his desperate desire to give happiness, and vulnerably portrays St. Nick evolving through disillusionment, despair, deception, and eventually to something more life affirming.

The fact that we care about them as characters rather than archetypes makes Liminal’s production surprisingly affecting. After all, cummings subtitled his 1946 one-act play A Morality, referencing the highly stylized medieval religious dramas called “morality plays” that enacted the battle of good vs. evil in theatrical terms — and left out the “play” in both subtitle and script.

Jeff Marchant and Leo Daedalus in Liminal's SANTA.

Jeff Marchant and Leo Daedalus in Liminal’s SANTA.

But dramatists from the ancient Greeks to Indonesian shadow puppet theater artists (in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabarata) have shown that allegory doesn’t have to be unbearably pretentious, tedious or didactic, and Liminal’s tight production shows that it can even be relevant. One of the play’s main themes — that humanity’s pursuit of knowledge without understanding brings dire consequences — is at least as pertinent in our own age of drones, NSA techno-spying, GMOs, Google Glassholes, and other technological degradations of humane existence as it was immediately after the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashed a few months before cummings wrote his play; the theme was a prime preoccupation of postwar artists and intellectuals of the time.

Yet cummings also acknowledges the danger of reflexively rejecting knowledge, portraying humanity (here called the Crowd and spiritedly represented by Alex Reagan, costumed and behaving as a soccer yob) as a greedy, vindictive, dangerously unthinking mob, easily bamboozled by pseudo-science spouting hucksters, kind of a societal id. The story (which cummings wrote shortly after reuniting with his own daughter, from whom he’d been separated for decades) ultimately is more about the value of family love, embodied as the Child (Delilah Fox), as a bulwark against the ignorance of those who allow greed to eclipse knowledge and those who fail to leaven it with wisdom.

Along with engaging acting, Liminal enriches cummings’s dry, enigmatic “morality” with well chosen if minimal costumes (by Sumi Wu), lighting (Rory Breshears) and video landscape (Ben Purdy). Director John Berendzen adroitly combines them with other cummings texts from the 1920s interpolated between Santa Claus’s five scenes (some sung beguilingly by Carla Grant, who arrestingly plays the unfortunately underdeveloped character cummings called Woman) plus his own subtly ominous score and sound design.

The result: a production that adds up to more than an intellectual interaction — something like Santa meets Samuel Beckett. The hour-long running time affords us the opportunity to reflect on its heady ideas without growing tedious. To swipe the tagline from Daedalus’s The Late Now, it’s the thinking mammal’s Christmas show, and along with Bag & Baggage’s very different Miracle, a rewarding holiday alternative for Oregon theater lovers.

Liminal Performance Group’s SANTA runs Thursdays through Sundays, Dec. 4–21, at southeast Portland’s Backdoor Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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Season’s ghostings: Blithe Spirit, Irma Vep, Noël at Noël

A little Ludlam and a lot of Coward brighten the season without the specter of all-out Christmas themes

Little ghosts, everywhere.

Look, over there at Portland Playhouse: It’s the spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, in the revival of last December’s Christmas Carol that took home about a zillion hunks of hardware from June’s Drammy Awards.

Over there, in the Armory: the same three spirits, gone a bit more bonkers, in Portland Center Stage’s second wrestle with The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens.

Coming soon to Keller Auditorium: All those rodenty souls of vanquished rat soldiers littering the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest incarnation of The Nutcracker, which crosses swords and slippers beginning this Saturday, December 13.

And of course, the sleek and cunning Elvira, haunting the stage of Artists Rep in Blithe Spirit, and the misfortunate Irma at Third Rail Rep in the Winningstad Theatre, casting a pall over a very odd old English manse in The Mystery of Irma Vep. It’s these latter two we’ll be discussing here, along with the shades of their late, great creators: Noël Coward, whose theatrical roots stretched back to the Edwardian era and who helped define a certain 20th century brittle sophistication; and Charles Ludlam, who cheerfully ransacked everything from Victorian melodrama to Wagner to cheesy horror movies. Bonus pick: a raffish little cabaret performance of Coward songs, Noël at Noël, put together by Susannah Mars and friends for just two performances (the second is tonight, Monday, December 8) at Artists Rep.

Norby and Lamb: It's a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey

Norby and Lamb: It’s a mystery. Photo: Owen Carey



One of the selling points of both Blithe Spirit and Irma Vep is that they’re good holiday season shows without actually being about Christmas: light, stylish, funny, a little bubbly, but not burdened with perennial obligation. You can get into the spirit of things, so to speak, without feeling as if you’ve just wandered into a scene from a Hallmark greeting card.

How Irma got from her cult Downtown Manhattan beginnings in a basement theater 30 years ago, when she was at the epicenter of a revolutionary gay theater scene, to today’s mainstream holiday-comedy-of-choice is a fascinating tale. Ludlam was the creative spark of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a cheekily transgressive troupe that reveled in drag performances and, at a time when being openly gay was still vastly difficult, cheerfully flaunted its gayness. In the company’s early years most of its audience was gay men, and the bawdy in-jokes batted around the room like Ping Pong balls in the rec room of a YMCA. Ludlam, who starred in the original Irma with his lover Everett Quinton, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, at age 44, and if he had survived he might well have become a major mainstream playwright, because he was becoming better and better at what he did at the same time that American attitudes toward homosexuality were slowly beginning to thaw. While we hardly live in a perfect world of acceptance today (feel free to file that under the heading Annals of Understatement), the changes over the past 30 years have been startling, and in a way, theater and movie people have had a role in that: Dustin Hoffman starring in Tootsie, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert Preston and Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria, all three of which were massive popular hits. These days, shows like Irma are almost mainstream family fun.

That’s a big gain, and a little bit of a loss. When a cult show breaks wide, it loses some of the anarchic recklessness of its subcultural origins. What once were the sharp elbows of insider nudge-nudge get protectively padded and smoothed out. In Third Rail’s beautifully realized production, in which the actors Leif Norby and Isaac Lamb go giddily overboard while maintaining strict stylistic control (try that sometime: it ain’t easy), the sense of original audience, of being a product of and for a select group of people, is the one missing element. At Sunday’s opening-weekend matinee performance a lot of the gay humor, the comic thrusts and double entendres, seemed either to be going over the audience’s head or simply not as funny anymore because they’ve become commonplace. On Sunday things were smooth but a little airless during the opening act, which was performed presentationally in a traditional proscenium manner. After intermission Norby and Lamb entered from the back, bantering with the audience, ad-libbing a bit, and the energy immediately picked up: this is the sort of show that works best in an intimate space, with the performers and a simpatico audience steaming in the same kettle of clams.

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb as Lady Enid, Norby as Lord Edgar: crying wolf. Photo: Owen Carey

That said, Third Rep’s production is as close to a flawless show as you’re likely to run into for a long time. The cast credits name eight characters: four played by Lamb, three by Norby, and the eighth, the tragic Irma herself, listed as “Unknown,” which turns out to be just about right: It is Irma Vep’s sad fate to not make an appearance in her own play, unless you count the trickle of blood from her portrait over the mantel when it’s accidentally shot. What we do have is Lamb as a clumping, one-eyed, wooden-legged swineherd in the family manse of Lord Edgar Hillcrest; as Lady Enid, Irma’s successor and Lord Edgar’s second wife; and as a couple of characters encountered on a trip of discovery to an ancient Egyptian crypt. Norby embodies Lord Edgar; the sinister housemaid Jane Twisden; and “An Intruder.” An extraordinary amount of the fun is watching the two actors zip in and out of these roles, often with uncanny speed, and in and out of Alison Heryer’s flamboyant, zip-and-strip costumes. Major props to the wardrobe and stage crew who make these lightning changes possible: Laura Coe, Kelly Cullom, Karen Hill, and Matthew Jones. Kristeen Crosser’s Stately Home set, which opens up mechanically for the tale from the crypt and the unveiling of the mummy, is a perfectly Gothic horror – that is, for Gothic horror purposes, it’s perfect.

I won’t trouble you with plot points, because the plot doesn’t really make a lot of difference, although it’s cleverly calibrated: Irma Vep is a well-crafted puzzle. I will mention that werewolves and vampires and a mangled milkmaid and a lost child and some darkly twisted passions and howling noises over the moor play their parts in the thing, and that watching Lamb and Norby, as directed nimbly by Philip Cuomo, whack away at their panoply of roles is a pure theatrical pleasure. Lamb does a fetching belly dance as an unleashed Egyptian queen, but he truly shines as dim and drooling Nicodemus, the clomping swineherd with a furtive secret. Norby’s shifts between anguished/pompous Lord Edgar and domineering/calculating Jane are quick and beguilingly complete.

And what about poor ghostly Irma, the unseen hand that guides the action? I can only say, God rest her haunted soul – and thanks for being there. Really. Without her, we’d be bereft.


Hennessy gets into the spirit with O'Brien. Photo: Owen Carey

Hennessy gets into the spirit with O’Brien. Photo: Owen Carey



Artists Rep’s production of Coward’s otherworldly 1941 comedy, directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Christopher Liam Moore, was a runaway hit before it even opened previews, extending twice before opening night: originally scheduled to end December 21, it’ll now close on January 4. Talk about riding the wave of the zeitgeist: this puppy might be the surfer of the year.

Coward’s been on my mind lately, and apparently on a lot of other people’s, too. First, I watched my son play Elyot in Coward’s other most enduring hit, Private Lives, in a first-act, student-directed production at his high school. He was improbably dashing in his dress pants and dinner jacket, planting kisses smack on his costar’s lips and tossing off a very funny “Don’t quibble, Sybil”: I was disconcertingly impressed.

Then I drove to Salem to see Pentacle Theatre’s Blithe Spirit, now closed, with my friend Nyla McCarthy as the indomitable Madame Arcati and her husband, Peter Bale, as Dr. Bradman, in a highly amusing and handsomely mounted community-theater production directed by Debbie Neel.

Then I took in the first night of the Coward cabaret, Noel at Noël: more on that below.

Finally, I squeezed into Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit, which is as handsome a production as Irma Vep (set by Alan Schwanke; drop-dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, costumes by Nancy Hills) and which features something of a Portland all-star cast led by Michael Mendelson as Charles Condomine, the clever and unfortunate fellow who finds himself saddled with two wives at the same time because the dithering medium Madame Arcati (veteran Vana O’Brien, in a role that fits her like a silk evening glove), by some minor miracle of the occult occupation, has managed to summon his first wife back from the grave.

It’s a bit of a joke that sassy Elvira (Sara Hennessy) is the one who’s shuffled off this mortal coil, because as Coward wrote her she has more life force than anyone else in the room: she’s truly a wayward spirit, a pleasure-seeker, a carnal goddess, hellbent on getting her own way and devoted to the indulgences of life. It’s struck me that Elvira’s demise and uncanny return have something to do with the timing of the play itself, which made its debut in 1941, when England was deep at war and London was being blitzed by German bombs. In a way, Elvira’s ghost stands in for England itself, which was undergoing a near-death experience but was sure enough of itself to know it would be bouncing back, as tough and lively and irreverent as ever. It would be a mistake to follow the metaphor too closely or literally: the parallels aren’t exact, and Blithe Spirit isn’t Pilgrim’s Progress. But thinking of Elvira this way adds a little undercurrent of resonance.

Like Ludlam, Coward was a gay man. Unlike Ludlam, he didn’t emphasize it professionally, although in his wide social circles he didn’t much bother to hide it, either. He simply thought that private lives and public lives were different, and of course in his time being openly gay as a public figure was an invitation to trouble: It hadn’t been all that long since Oscar Wilde had been tossed into Reading Gaol. Over the years people have suggested that Charles’s eventual frustrations with both Elvira and his second wife, Ruth, are a result of Coward’s gayness, but I tend not to agree: I think they have more to do with his feeling for the mechanics of comedy and his understanding of the discontents and competing passions of domesticity in whatever form it takes. In both Blithe Spirit and Private Lives a kind of ghostliness is at the center of things: the tricky and unreliable memory of old relationships impinging on the stability and growth of new ones. We can’t escape our pasts, Coward seems to be telling us, and that’s really proof of our foolishness. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that Blithe Spirit represents another sort of ghost, as well: the spirit of an old but still beloved form of theater, the sophisticated, well-made comedy, which is clever and frankly artificial and brittle yet surprisingly tensile in its structure. Maybe that’s what makes Blithe Spirit a good draw for the holiday season, when traditional values of all sorts kick in.

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

Wife No. 2 (Van Velzer) gets a right scare from Wife No. 1 (Hennessy). Photo: Owen Carey

I saw Artists Rep’s Blithe Spirit on a Wednesday evening, the first show after opening weekend and after the cast had had a couple of days off. The whole thing was smooth and gorgeous, but also a little flat, which I took to be a matter of getting back in the groove. I expect it has by now. To truly take off, a Coward production has to be fast and agile: not so much an Indianapolis 500 sort of race as an Italian mountain sports car rally, where pedal-to-the-metal meets mastery of the gearshift. On Wednesday, the show was taking it a little carefully around the corners.

The talent’s unquestionably there: Mendelson in a funny and precisely manic mood, Hennessy all saucy and sassy, Allen Nause bluff and genial as the visiting Dr. Bradman, JoAnn Johnson in a slyly funny performance as the good-hearted and gullible Mrs. Bradman, Val Landrum as the clunkily inept maid Edith (Coward created theatrical worlds in which servants, inept or not, were as natural a part of the environment as dry martinis and cigarette cases), O’Brien, in a role originated by Margaret Rutherford, as a classically British backbone-of-the-nation oddball. On Wednesday Jill Van Velzer seemed the most comfortably and pliably up to speed member of the cast, playing what might be the comedy’s most difficult role: Ruth, Condomine’s second wife, who needs to be a bit of a nag and a drag but somehow also must hold the audience’s sympathy.

In my crystal ball I see sold-out houses. Get your tickets soon, or you won’t stand a ghost of a chance.



This quick and easy cabaret, subtitled Susannah Mars & Friends Sing the Music of Noël Coward, meshes nicely and naturally with Blithe Spirit (it’s performed on the same set) and creates a pleasing showcase for a small group of young and veteran talent. It’s also the first in a projected series of cabarets at Artist Rep, Artists Rep in Concert, organized by Mars, the talented actor and singer, whose knowledge of theater songs runs deep and wide. Mars is one of Artist’s Rep’s resident artists, and this is one more fruit of that loose-knit program, which among other things encourages individual projects by its members.

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Noël Coward, ca. 1930. Wikimedia Commons

Mars herself and veteran actor Del Lewis are the core of the show, which features 20 songs, among them such plums as Why Must the Show Go On?, Marvelous Party, Twentieth Century Blues, the iconic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the bittersweet Mad About the Boy. (“Sir Noël wrote 300-plus songs, for the love of God!” the show’s director, Sarah Lucht, told me. “It was tough choosing, let me tell you!”) They’re joined by three young singer/actors from the musical theater company Staged! (Voni Kengla, Aimee Martin, and Isaiah Rosales), and the arrangement reminded me of the advantages of the guild-like old company system, under which young performers playing juvenile roles learned the tricks of the trade by acting side by side with their more experienced elders. The five singers are accompanied, superbly and wittily, by musical director Rick Lewis on piano.

Coward and Cole Porter, the Englishman and the American, are inevitably paired in discussions of sophisticated 20th century music and theater comedy, although unlike Coward, who was a master playwright, Porter stuck to music. I know Porter’s music better, and while I tend to put the two on a par as masterful lyricists, I’ve always thought of Porter as a subtler and more complex composer. Noël at Noël doesn’t change that view, but it’s a good reminder that Coward’s compositions, though more strictly theatrical and less easily adaptable to jazz and pop styles, were pretty darned appealing, too. Mars is an elegant host and savvy interpreter with a smart feel for the stories inside the songs, and Lewis is an adept and engaging interpreter who sometimes seems to channel Coward’s own performance style.

The show was put together quickly, without much rehearsal, and it sometimes shows: as enjoyable and appealing as it is, a little more polish would have brought it together more successfully. It’s also a very brief run; by the time you read this it may already be history. But Portland needs more cabaret venues, and there’s great promise here. As a song not written by Coward, but by Steve Allen, puts it: this could be the start of something big.


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The (sub)Liminal case for Santa

The experimental theater troupe imagines the jolly old elf via e.e. cummings and a character called Death

Santa Claus will never die.

Maybe that’s because of his mythic, iconographic and perhaps spiritual powers (not to mention the commercial weight he throws around). Or maybe, as some will insist, he doesn’t really exist, and therefore isn’t alive in the first place.

In any case, the jolly old elf, or whatever he is (or isn’t), appears to have immortality all sewn up, at least if you note the seasonal theater offerings at this time of each and every year.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewHow much of a lock does he have on the popular imagination and the December events calendar? Get this: Liminal is doing a Christmas show!

Of course, Christmas-themed plays are standard-issue for most theater companies, and since Jesus himself, however joyful, gives off such an ascetic vibe, Santa is the point man of choice for seasonal entertainment. Still, Liminal Santa comes as something of a surprise: Liminal Performance Group isn’t a company in whose company you’d expect to find the big guy. Not the kind of group that has to fill set slots in a subscription season, it mounts productions at irregular intervals, in varied spaces, and has been known for its experimental bent. But even those who live on the fringe like to come in from the cold once in a while.

“We’ve done a lot of experiments with walk-through environments and the like, and we’re kind of interested in going back to a conventional theater style a little bit,” says Liminal’s co-artistic director John Berendzen. “Doing Liminal Presents Gertrude Stein in 2012 was as far as we could get from convention, and that was a very immersive project, and now I just want to go back and see what we can do in the other direction. This will be our second show in a row that’s more or less sit-down straight theater.”

Last year the group surprised theatergoers with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, bringing a few interpretive liberties to that well-worn yet still valuable classic. This time it’s holiday fare, though from the unusual vantage point of e.e. cummings.

Liminal's Santa clause: Composite photo by Sumi Wu and Leo Daedalus

Liminal’s Santa clause: Composite photo by Sumi Wu and Leo Daedalus

Directed by Berendzen, Liminal Santa primarily consists of cummings’ 1946 one-act play Santa Claus: A Morality. In between its five short scenes, though, Berendzen uses bits of other cummings texts as “knee scenes,” that is, interludes that serve as joints from one main action to the next. The show will be staged at the Backdoor Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne, Thursdays through Sundays, Dec. 4-21.

Get set for what the group is billing as “good clean modernist holiday shenanigans.”

“It has cummings’ odd use of language and sense of the absurd, but it has a sense to it; it’s a plot of ideas,” Berendzen says of the primary text, in which Santa Claus gets advice from — and eventually switches apparent identities with — Death. At the outset, Santa is a bit bedraggled, especially by comparison to Death, who Berendzen describes as “a One-Percenter, a dapper, aristocratic, capitalist daddy.” Santa complains that he has so much to give and no one will take. Death replies that he has so much to take but nobody will give. “We are not living in an age of gifts: This is an age of salesmanship, my friend,” the skeletal man tells the fat man.

“It’s like a contrast of life and death, good and evil, love and cynicism,” Berendzen says.  “You can tell it was written during a time of high optimism about science, and cummings is taking his digs at that outlook. Death tells Santa that what he needs to do is become a knowledge salesman, a scientist. It’s really quite relevant.”

While Santa Claus is the star, Death really is the more intriguing character here. He speaks, sometimes, in lofty verse, as in this description of an unreal world — our’s — where Santa’s gifts aren’t valued:

 Imagine, if you can, a world so blurred

so timid, it would rather starve itself

eternally than run the risk of choking;

so greedy, nothing satisfies its hunger

but always huger quantities of nothing —

a world so lazy that it cannot dream;

so blind, it worships its own ugliness;

a world so false, so trivial, so unso, 

phantoms are solid by comparison.


Yet the gent can sling a little lingo, too, telling Santa at one point, “I’ve got a heavy date with a swell jane up the street.”

“It’s an interesting meeting between high style and a little bit of slumming; it has a kind of bawdy, earthy aspect,” Berendzen says. “It allows us to do the presentational thing, but within that, the characters are very human and real. The text is in iambic pentameter, but it has a really informal quality, which we’re emphasizing.”

That “presentational thing,” in this case, relies mostly on costumes (by Imago Theatre stalwart Sumi Wu) and lighting (by Rory Breshears) in a scenic design that leaves the black box very black — partly, we presume, to make Death feel at home, but more importantly to facilitate a “dimensional video landscape” by Ben Purdy.

“This is, in a way, very much about the theater, about the lights and costumes and the environment that’s created,” says Berendzen, who also has composed music for the show. “It’s like, if you’re going to break the fourth wall you first have to establish the fourth wall. You can’t really do this stylized morality play if you’re not in that (explicitly theatrical) environment.”

Will such theatricality be enough to bridge the gap between Liminal’s avant-garde-ish reputation and the sort of audience that might otherwise go to see yet another version of “A Christmas Carol”? Berendzen isn’t yet sure. He didn’t choose Santa to sell out and cash in on holiday spending, after all, but at the same time he’d like an audience.

“There’ve been times when we’d spend a whole year developing a show and a total of 200 people would see it,” he recalls. “But I am interested in bringing more people to experimental theater, because I think it’s worthwhile and it’s not as difficult to appreciate as they might think.

“But you know, I just sent out an email blast on Black Friday about a Christmas show that’s about the problems of Christmas. So, I’m not blind to the ironies.”




A brief taste of the last two Apples

Third Rail's abandoned project of producing four Richard Nelson plays about the Apple family in America gets a one-day reading of the orphaned final two. They're fine and wistful, in a fading Chekhov way.

From time to time in life, we meet people we like and would like to get to know better, but circumstances get in the way.

To an extent, that’s what happened for Portland theater fans who made the acquaintance of the Apple family. Four middle-aged siblings from New York state, the Apples —  plus an uncle and a boyfriend, for good measure — are the subjects of a  remarkable series of plays by Richard Nelson, which premiered between 2010 and 2013 at the Public Theatre in New York City. In 2012, Portland’s Third Rail Rep became the second company to plan productions of the full (though at that point yet-to-be-completed) four-play cycle, and that fall’s production of That Hopey Changey Thing introduced us to Barbara, Richard, Marian, Jane, Uncle Benjamin and Jane’s partner, Tim.

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Rebecca Lingafelter, Isaac Lamb, Maureen Porter in 2013's "Sweet and Sad." Photo: Owen Carey

Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Rebecca Lingafelter, Isaac Lamb, Maureen Porter in 2013’s “Sweet and Sad.” Photo: Owen Carey

The premise was that Nelson was attempting a fascinating experiment in the contemporaneous relevance of theater. Working with the most impractical of deadlines, he was writing plays that would open (at the Public) on the very same day that they were set, marking major elections and anniversaries, examining issues of public concern through fictional private lives, offering a unique reading of the political temperature of the moment.

“To my knowledge, no previous works of theater have been topical in the resonant and specific ways of the Apple Family plays,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, calling them “a rare and radiant mirror of the way we live — and fail to live —now. What happens in these productions is both casual and momentous, as any day in a life is when examined closely enough.”

The promise was that Portland would get the chance to follow along on this journey as well, albeit with a two-year time delay, watching the same cast of actors portraying this set of characters as their lives, and the political climate so important to them, progressed.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Earlier this year, Third Rail decided to discontinue the series after just two productions.

“It was a combination of things,” Third Rail artistic director Scott Yarbrough begins by way of explanation. “About a year ago PBS announced that they were going to film all of the plays for broadcast when they were performed in rep at the Public. So that seemed like another avenue or resource for people to see the plays. And for us, they hadn’t sold as well as we’d have liked. For one thing, the plays are sort of antithetical to what we’re known for. They’re quiet, contemplative plays, more like character studies. Also, even though each play really does stand on its own, people were reluctant to come in on the third or fourth play if they hadn’t seen the beginning of the cycle. So tickets became more and more difficult to sell and the Winningstad is a very expensive room for us to work in.”

Instead of presenting the third play, Sorry, this fall at the Winnie, that slot was filled (and quite splendidly, as it turned out) by Will Eno’s Middletown.

Still, sound business decisions aside, it was a loss. The Apples were an entertaining bunch to watch. Well, more so to listen to, since the action in the plays amounts to little more than eating and clearing the table. The conversations — charged with the easy humor, low-simmering conflicts and abiding affection you might expect from close siblings — were deeply engaging, thought-provoking simply by showing regular folks puzzling over important questions, sometimes articulately yet no more certain for that. And, of course, we wanted to know how their stories turned out.

This past Saturday came a brief chance to get reacquainted with the Apples. Third Rail returned to its former home at the World Trade Center Theater for staged readings of Sorry and Regular Singing, the latter half of the Apple Family plays. Despite the dim box-office prospects for full productions, a core of Third Rail followers had expressed interest in seeing the cycle completed this way, and an audience of about 100 showed up for each of the readings, one in the afternoon, one in the evening.

So, where were we?

That Hopey Changey Thing was set on the day of the 2012 mid-term elections, and, featuring the Apples as examples of the embattled liberal ethos, was the most explicitly politically focused of the four plays, a worried response to a time of Tea Party ascendance. But it also grounded us in some of the family realities: the golden-boy status of Richard, a Columbia-grad lawyer viewed by his sisters with a mix of admiration and irritation; Uncle Benjamin’s post-heart-attack amnesia and Barbara’s challenges in caring for him; the family members’  geographical split between New York City and the little upstate town of Rhinebeck, where they gather in Barbara’s house.

The second play, Sweet and Sad, introduced an elegiac undertone, with its ruminations on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and in the emotional shadows Marian faces in the aftermath of her daughter’s suicide and the resulting dissolution of her marriage. Other questions began to emerge, about Richard’s choice between paychecks and public service; about the professional prospects of creative sorts such as Jane, a non-fiction writer, and her actor boyfriend. And there are hints and suspicions that Benjamin might really be, for some of them, not “Uncle” but “Dad.”

It surely helped to know that backstory, but the later plays likely offered plenty for Apple newcomers. After all, plot isn’t so important here as are the texture of family life, the wide-ranging observations, the glimmers of deep emotions and decades-old subtexts that show through in ordinary moments.

Saturday’s readings, directed by Brandon Woolley, used an approximation of the open living/dining room set up from the previous shows, with chairs upstage for the actors not in a particular scene, and Yarbrough seated at stage right, reading stage directions.

Jacklyn Maddux, who played Marian in the previous productions, no longer is a Third Rail company member and, according to Yarbrough, had a scheduling conflict that kept her from reprising the role on Saturday. In her place was Karen Trumbo, who, slender and dark-haired, is closer in appearance and age to the other sisters — Maureen Porter as Marian and Rebecca Lingafelter as Jane. Also returning were Michael O’Connell as Richard, Bruce Burkhartsmeier as Uncle Benjamin, and Isaac Lamb as Tim.

Trumbo relied on her script a little more noticeably than her cast mates, but otherwise things looked a lot like old times, so to speak, with all the other actors settling comfortably into the nuances of their characters, despite having had just a week to rehearse the two plays. O’ Connell (a tad mischievous, a tidbit smug, both qualities masking stubborn pain) and Burkhartsmeier (sometimes prickly, sometimes amiably oblivious, mostly just sunken into what’s left of himself) carved especially clear paths back to their character’s emotional centers.

(The company had five weeks of rehearsal for That Hopey Changey Thing and again in 2013 for Sweet and Sad. In an introductory remark Saturday, Yarbrough joked that much of it had been spent figuring out the timing to enable the actors to “eat food, speak your lines and not choke.”)

In Sorry, the time is Nov. 2, 2012, with President Obama up for re-election, but the once-heated Apples by this point reflect the dispirited mood of the country at large; they barely muster energy to encourage each other to vote at all, much less to argue about which side to favor (Richard has previously appalled his sisters by edging to the right). Disillusionment and decline pervade the play. The subtle narrative tension concerns a plan to move the increasingly disinhibited Benjamin to an assisted-living facility. The Apples seem to be wondering if decay is inevitable — in mind, body and body politic. And as always, this is to some degree a family matter. At one point, as the conversation has drifted  from the public to the personal, Richard stops and asks, “How did we get talking about our children? It’s election day.” Then, recognizing that he’s answered his own question, repeats, “It’s election day.”

So where does that lead us, except death? The time hook for Regular Singing is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Nov. 22, 2013. By this point, Jane and Tim have moved from NYC to Rhinebeck, Richard from NYC to Albany, where he has (perhaps somewhat cynically) gone to work for Governor Andrew Cuomo. But the clan is gathered at Barbara’s house again, this time for a vigil of sorts, with Marian’s ex-husband upstairs, expected to die soon of cancer. The play has shorter scenes and a brisker rhythm, yet amid the casual chatter are memory and loss, nightmares and ghosts.

In the kind of oddly lyrical grace note that Nelson studs all through these plays, the sisters read from musings about death, written by Barbara’s high school students: “I’m skeptical about any delineation made between people who are living and people who are then” — as though the distinction is merely a matter of time.

Comparisons to the plays of Chekhov have been made often in regard to these works, and Nelson tacitly acknowledges the connection in his subtitle for the forthcoming anthology The Apple Family: Scenes From Life in the Country, a paraphrasing of the subtitle to Uncle Vanya. (There’s also a direct reference in Sorry to the abandonment of the aged servant Feers at the end of The Cherry Orchard.) Perhaps the chief similarity is the way that so little seems to happen and yet profound change takes place, the cataclysmic, or at least conventionally dramatic, events occurring offstage, between acts. What we see is the day-to-day grappling with consequences, the hard work of making ends meet between emotion and meaning.

Nelson purposefully settles on an open-ended ending, leaving most of the plot’s long-simmering questions on the stove. But he doesn’t leave us wondering about the take-away message, telling us, in a brief post-script addressed directly to the audience, that although we spend some of our days apart and some together, “it is those days together that remind us why we live.

“Or maybe it’s how: How we live.”



Masque of the Red Death review: Partying with Poe

Shaking the Tree Theatre's collaboration with Playwrights West puts a modern twist on classic horror.

Masque of the Red Death begins even before you enter the building, when masked actors greet you, intentionally a little too enthusiastically, at the door, welcoming you to the festivities. The greetings continue as you ascend the stairs to the box office, where you’re handed a fetching, delicately detailed black or white mask of your own and ushered into a large space occupied by a few dozen other masked patrons, mingling with similarly masked actors (so that it’s hard to tell who’s in the show and who’s paying to see it) encouraging us to dance and loosen up, have a good time. It’s like walking into a crowded party filled with vaguely creepy strangers — an ideal Halloween production.

Kerrigan and Thompson in "Masque of the Red Death." Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan and Thompson in “Masque of the Red Death.” Photo: Gary Norman.

That’s the frame director Samantha Van Der Merwe has constructed for Shaking the Tree Theatre’s ingenious collection of eleven episodes written by local Playwrights West authors, all based on stories by the great American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Reminiscent of horror anthology films or TV shows like Rod Serling’s old Night Gallery series, Masque drops us into Poe’s classic 1842 title story, involving a party, a plague, and a prince indifferent to the suffering of the 99%. (The writers shunned overt contemporary references to Ebola and today’s accelerating inequality, but they resonate anyway.) Van Der Merwe cleverly repurposes the original story’s setting — the party happens in several rooms of different colors — to provide the respective venues for each playlet.

After the audience members all arrive, the party’s host, Prince Prospero (wittily played by Matthew Kerrigan), takes charge, explaining that we’re all here to be entertained as a relief from the plague raging outside, and we move to our seats. As at any party, some of the encounters turn out more interesting than others. Claire Willett’s static “The Demons Down Under the Sea,” inspired by Poe’s Annabel Lee, dissipates the opening slot’s anticipatory tension; despite the actors’ best efforts, the poem resists drama. But the next scene, Andrew Wardenaar’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” ratchets it up again via the most minimal means of all — darkness — using only intermittent low strobe lighting (on Joseph Gibson, who carries the solo role mostly unseen) and a fiendishly clever low-budget method of evoking the scurrying of rats all around the audience. Moving the audience literally into the midst of its laudanum-fueled action raises the claustrophobic tension of Steve Patterson’s ending glimpse of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Such smart directorial touches abound in a production that, though devoid of extensive props and special effects, nevertheless mostly succeeds in immersing us in Poe’s eerie world.

Van Der Merwe’s originality even extends to that usual dead zone, the intermission. Instead of shuffling around the lobby, idly chattering with strangers and sipping coffee, the audience is directed to the wine bar across the street, which admittedly breaks the spell but at least maintains the dark party vibe. Then, light-saber wielding ushers guide them back to Poe’s world for Act 2, which opens with the next installment of Patrick Wohlmut’s framing “Masque.”

Joseph Gibson in "Pit and the Pendulum." Photo: Gary Norman.

Joseph Gibson in “Pit and the Pendulum.” Photo: Gary Norman.

In fact, concept and direction actually prove stronger than Poe’s source material, which seems longer on evocative language and atmosphere than on actual drama. Even the otherwise entertaining adaptations of relatively stronger stories, like Aleks Merilo’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (in which you can’t tell the doctor from the crazy patients, the inspiration for plenty of 20th century writers) and Matthew Zrebski’s “Tip of the Finger” (from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not the whole story) drag. And despite Amanda Cole and Nicole Accuardi ‘s delightful comic turn with Gibson, “The Spectacles” shows why Poe is most remembered for horror rather than humor.

The show excels when it sprinkles 21st century irony and references (Madonna, Led Zeppelin, etc.) over Poe’s overheated 19th century romanticism — most prominently in Kerrigan’s commanding performance as Prospero and as the author himself in Ellen Margolis’ “That Smell,” inspired by Poe’s too-short life. Kerrigan strikes just the right balance between it’s-all-a-joke playful, seductive, and sadistic. His spontaneous banter with the audience flickers in and out of Poe’s world and into our own, keeping his scenes feeling fresh and modern instead of musty macabre antique.

Along with Kerrigan’s triumphant performance, Beth Thompson’s riveting embodiment of death personified is even more impressive considering that she spends the show behind her Death mask. Though the acting is inconsistent, other players — especially Katie Watkins, Joshua J. Weinstein and Andy Lee Hillstrom, who in Debbie Lamedman’s “Pluto” somehow makes you think a mousy milquetoast could be capable of uxoricide and, er, kittycide — turn in some good work in one or more roles.

Granted, the play’s oscillation between past and present sensibilities, between wry, even tongue-in-cheek camp, and horror, sometimes muddles the emotional impact of a given scene. Moreover, sometimes the narratives didn’t quite add up, maybe because omitting exposition kept the pace pounding, and the playwrights assumed that we’d fill in missing details from our memories of the stories. In any case, the more you know (or remember) of the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy the show. Even the slightly clunky ending of the framing “Masque,” which also wraps up the production, succeeds more in tying up loose ends than providing a taut climax. But it’s Kerrigan’s sly acting and Van Der Merwe’s creative concept that really make this Poe party one of the season’s most memorable productions.

Just as the show begins before you enter the door, it also ends with a shudder after you walk outside, as a spooky figure keeps a promise made at the end, transfixing exiting patrons with a cold, implacable stare as they leave the theater, but not the memory of Poe’s eldritch world, behind.

The sold-out run of Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Masque of the Red Death, which ends November 22, makes a fitting death rattle for the company’s old space as it moves into new digs with its next production. But let’s hope this collaboration between some Oregon’s best playwrights and one of its most inventive theaters lingers even longer. Whether they bring back Poe again, or Lovecraft or Stephen King or even originals by Oregon authors, maybe this party play could become an annual Halloween tradition.

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