THEATER

At the Drammys: a voice for equity

Portland's Age & Gender Equity for the Arts is fighting for equal opportunities in the performing arts – and awarding $30,000 at the Drammys for the cause

“A theater that is missing women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time.” That quote from playwright Marsha Norman sits atop the home page of Age & Gender Equity in the Arts, a young and thriving organization based in Portland that promotes equal opportunity in the theater in age, gender, race, and identity. And it’s putting its money where its mouth is: At this year’s Drammy theater-awards celebration in the Newmark Theatre on Monday evening, June 27, AGE will present $30,000 in awards to theater companies taking steps to achieve equity. That’s a significant commitment. ArtsWatch asked actor and activist Jane Vogel, who founded AGE in 2014 and is its board president, to write about the group and its goals.

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Jane Vogel, center, taking part in a “Brave New World” panel sponsored by Oregon Humanities and Profile Theatre, with, from left, Kimberly Howard, Adriana Baer, S. Renee Mitchell, and Pat Zagelow. Photo: Lorelei Culbertson

Jane Vogel, center, taking part in a “Brave New World” panel sponsored by Oregon Humanities and Profile Theatre, with, from left, Kimberly Howard, Adriana Baer, S. Renee Mitchell, and Pat Zagelow. Photo: Lorelei Culbertson

By JANE VOGEL

Women make up 51 percent of the United States population, yet women are significantly underrepresented in the arts. Women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, and older women experience added layers of marginalization and discrimination.

To help the performing arts reflect the actual makeup of the culture and break through longstanding barriers, I founded Age & Gender Equity in the Arts (AGE) as a nonprofit organization in 2014. AGE advocates for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Our mission is to promote the visibility of women across the lifespan in the performing arts, effecting a paradigm shift in the culture. Veteran actor Karla Mason Smith is our executive director and Lorelei Culbertson is our operations associate. We have an active advisory council and cadre of volunteers.

As an actor, a clinical psychologist, an immigrant, and an activist, I have always been an advocate for social justice. I fought equity battles as a young woman in the 1970s. But the progress my generation made in the ’60s and ’70s has lost ground. The objectification of younger women and the marginalization of older women is still commonplace in theater and across industries.

Maya Jagannathan of Anjali School of Dance, from an AGE showcase performance. Photo: Jason Bruderlin

Maya Jagannathan of Anjali School of Dance, from an AGE showcase benefit show at Artists Repertory Theatre in January 2016. Photo: Jason Bruderlin

Stella Adler said that theater is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. The current theater landscape is rife with gender and age bias, and thus is lacking in truth. My passion and determination are even greater than they were in the 1970s. The stakes are higher now that I’m in my sixties. I want the generations that follow to be the beneficiaries of our work. I believe that together we can create conditions where a woman’s opportunities to achieve her full potential are not compromised because of her gender or her age. I am proud of Portland theater for embracing AGE’s efforts to make this happen.

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Pow, Bam, Love, M*therf!$&er!

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Vietgone" tells a decidedly modern tale about the war, and what came after

By SUZI STEFFEN

ASHLAND – When laudatory tweets and reviews started rolling in from South Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of Vietgone in October of 2015, I tried to figure out how to fly to Southern California to see it. Then I checked the schedule for the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I cheered.

That was the correct reaction: Vietgone is worthy of cheering.

The play opened in Ashland in the Thomas Theatre (formerly the New Theatre) on March 30 to pleased reviews from the Siskyou Daily, Ashland Daily Tidings, and Medford Mail-Tribune.

Quang (James Ryen) and Nhan (Will Dao) have a run-in with a redneck biker (Paco Tolson). Photo :Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Quang (James Ryen) and Nhan (Will Dao) have a run-in with a redneck biker (Paco Tolson). Photo :Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Vietgone mixes graphic novel sensibilities, flashbacks, a stylized motorcycle quest, hip hop and rap, sexy (I’m tempted to write sexaaaaay) pop songs of the 1960s and 1970s, movie references to everything from Ghost to Say Anything, and a dramatically powerful ending, all in a two-act format that bounces around in time from 1975 to 2015.

Playwright Qui Ngyuen describes the play as “a sex comedy about my parents, about how they got together at a refugee camp in Arkansas.” (You can watch a comprehensive and fascinating OSF video with Nguyen and director May Adrales on the festival’s YouTube channel.)

That’s true; Vietgone has its sex comedy moments, one in particular involving a parent and a shower bucket, but the play is much more than that.

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Skiing the mountain of Hamlet

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Danforth Comins talks about the Elizabethan Theatre, playing his third Danish prince, and this production’s aural soundscape

By SUZI STEFFEN

ASHLAND – If you’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at all in the past decade, you’ve likely seen Danforth Comins in a starring or other major role. From Orlando in As You Like It to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, from Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Coriolanus in, well, Coriolanus, Comins has played many a Shakespearean role – and he utterly dominated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well, coincidentally in the same year that the last Hamlet ran at the festival.

This year, Comins, playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lays some hilarious hurt on boy-costumed Viola in Twelfth Night, where his dueling prowess is about as magnificent as hers. But he’s also playing the tortured Danish prince in an outdoor Hamlet, opening in the Elizabethan Theatre tonight: Friday, June 17. At some point among all of his fight rehearsals, scene-running and prep work for the Hamlet opening, Comins took the time for an interview with ArtsWatch. The edited Q&A is below.

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hamlet (Danforth Comins) confronts Gertrude (Robin Goodrin Nordli) about her marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Photo: Dale Robinette, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Suzi Steffen: You’ve played many a Shakespeare role, including Benedick and Coriolanus and Bertram and Orlando and Mark Anthony. And this is your third time playing Hamlet, though your first time at the OSF. What’s different or special about playing Hamlet?

Danforth Comins: Hamlet stands apart from many of the other plays in the canon because of its cultural significance and impact over the centuries, Coriolanus, great as it is, isn’t done very often, and the protagonist is not a knight in shining armor by any stretch of the imagination. Hamlet has succeeded through the centuries, maybe because it grapples with death and the afterlife. Those are topics that still elude us as society and a culture to this day; we’re fascinated.

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Ain’t no place like Motown, Hitsville U.S.A.

The national touring company sings and dances the tale of Motown's rise and conquering of the charts from Berry Gordy's perspective

The beat of the Motor City, the sound of young America, the soundtrack to a generation, hit the stage Tuesday evening at the Keller Auditorium with Broadway’s Motown: The Musical.

Performed by the national touring company and in town through Sunday as part of the Broadway in Portland series, Motown is a jukebox serenade to the hits and personalities that have had a grip on our imagination for decades: the original singles, clothing, dance steps and sweet harmonies are not just a songbook, but a reflection of our shared histories.

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & cast in the national tour of “Motown The Musical.” Photo: Joan Marcus

Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye & cast in the national tour of “Motown The Musical.” Photo: Joan Marcus

Motown released in its heyday 1,657 singles between 1962 and 1971, with another decade or so with more hits to come. The book for Motown: The Musical was written by the man who started it all, Berry Gordy. Keeping that in mind, all you music fans and historians, Motown: The Musical is his side of the story. But Gordy did put down a hefty chunk of change to start Hitsville U.S.A, had an innovative idea on how to promote black music, and was the one person who stayed through it all. He’s transparent and admits his flaws: he didn’t want Marvin Gaye to leave his sexy soul-singer image to record the protest album What’s Going On. Gordy fought off and on with Stevie Wonder about his contract and disagreed when Stevie left the studio to petition Congress for a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He had a longtime affair with Diana Ross that ultimately put Motown in limbo financially and hurt the other artists. Gordy is willing to admit his misjudgments and is tasteful in his telling of the Motown story. In this show there’s no recognition of Temptations lead singer David Ruffin, high out of his mind, beating Tammi Terrell; and maybe a little more should’ve been devoted to the Supremes founder Florence Ballard’s fall from grace. The Funk Brothers are mentioned a few times, and James Jamerson, their tragic bass player hero, but the band’s lack of royalties in creating the Motor City sound is not addressed. As Gordy sees it, there’s the people behind the music, but the music is what is most important.

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‘Our New Girl’: a lie of the mind

Corrib Theatre's contemporary Irish psychological thriller lights a volatile match to a not-so-happy hearth and home

Myths across the ages tell about strangers arriving at doorsteps and how the gods will give you good fortune if you trust enough to let the strangers in. Yet more often than not, that’s not how the story unfolds – and certainly not in the case of Our New Girl, a psychological thriller at Corrib Theatre that plays upon the dynamics of human relationships at their most vulnerable.

Nikki Weaver, fresh on the heels of her performance as Ibsen’s Nora in Shaking the Tree’s A Doll’s House, is Hazel, a former high-powered attorney whose confidence is now compromised in what seems an endless web of homegrown complexity. Much like Nora, Hazel has demands placed on her as a work-at-home mother of a social-climbing, workaholic husband.

Happy to be here: L-R, Salmon, McKinney, Van Voris, Weaver. Photo: Owen Carey

Group hug: L-R, Salmon, McKinney, Van Voris, Weaver. Photo: Owen Carey

Weaver plays the role with a stubbornness that speaks to Hazel’s recent past, when she had power from her career outside the home. The world she inhabits now is a posh London apartment with all the latest amenities: a clean, crisp, picture-post-card salute to Crate and Barrel showpieces. The entire play is acted out in the apartment’s kitchen, whose primary tint of white is offset by many light-gold bottles of olive oil. Many homes find their heart in the kitchen, where creating and dishing meals ignite end-of-the-day conversations when families can bond. This kitchen is sterile: the closest things to nourishment it offers are fresh cucumber sandwiches. Hazel and her family are being drawn and quartered. Why, who, and how are the anxieties at play.

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I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else

Green Day's "American Idiot" at Triangle Productions moves at the speed and angry energy of punk

There is a specific air to the dread of being mediocre and underclass in California. The beaming lights of Hollywood fame, the world-class status of tech giants, the pockets of affluence dotting the coastline, wine valleys, and poorly named Silicon Valley: these are places where the best the world can offer in lifestyles is immersed in gorgeous nature.

If you’re part of it. Johnny Rotten droned an angry anthem in 1977 when he proclaimed kids had no future. Enemies of the English Punk fathers were colorful aristocrats, and the shocking popularity of commercial rebellion was less tragic and more inspiring. To be young, poor, and disenfranchised as the parade of wealth, culture and comforts rolls by endlessly is a certain kind of in-your-face hell. New York has a dirtiness and an assumed injustice, but it keeps the nightmare at bay with culture and a vibrant underground. California makes the best case for a good existential crisis.

All-American idiots: staging Green Day's pink anthem. Photo: Triangle Productions

All-American idiots: staging Green Day’s pink anthem. Photo: Triangle Productions

As a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s I hung out with the punks. We’d see Jawbreaker in nasty little clubs, stage-dive, research the best way to polish our Doc Martens. For a time I let homeless crusties live in my small studio apartment in downtown Denver. I was a Misfits, Op Ivy fan. Even bands like the Clash were too polished for me. So a few nights ago I went into Triangle Productions’ new staging of American Idiot with apprehension. But the performances were so enthusiastic and fueled that I went home and put Green Day’s album on with a new appreciation for more than a piece of recent music history, and became a fan.

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Stupid Kids stand out

Oh, those kids: The OUTWright Theater Festival brings back a 1991 coming-out drama inspired by "Rebel Without a Cause"

It could be said that modern drama is a footnote to Hamlet: one man up against the world. In the late John C. Russell’s 1991 play Stupid Kids, a teenager who nicknames himself Neechee is a candidate to be just such a loner.

Post5 is celebrating the OUTWright Theater Festival with the festival’s feature production of Stupid Kids, a play whose narrative moves in and out of a plot and characters that suggest the famed teenage angst-noir classic Rebel Without a Cause, with a hindsight fantasy of coming out in the ’90s and coming out ahead.

"Stupid Kids": rebels looking for a cause. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

“Stupid Kids”: rebels looking for a cause. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

The celluloid icon Jim Stark, made famous in Rebel by the young James Dean, had a soft-looking physique, long hair for the time, and a pouty lip. Underneath his neat red package was a nihilism that rejected the hero worship of WWII vets and their boxed-up world obsessed with stability. Many generations of distrusting youths adopted his look, sneer, and sexiness. But maybe they forgot the end of the film, where Jim goes home and the implication is he’s ready to tow his dad’s line. There’s a tension between Jim and his friend Plato, and Hollywood rumors have propagated that Dean and Sal Mineo, who played Plato, were lovers. Stupid Kids takes the retro obsession of the ’90s with the past, but instead of delivering a Saul Bass-illustrated pays de cocagne, a land of luxury, the play reaches a step ahead.

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