THEATER

Have an old-fashioned Dia de Muertos — with Aztec dancing

In Newberg, the Mexican holiday is greeted with dance and a memorial offering. Meanwhile, Linfield College welcomes two authors and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

When Jose Carlos came to Oregon in the mid-1990s, he didn’t see much of his own Mexican culture in the community. Other Latinos attended his Woodburn high school, but public displays of culture from south of the border? No. “I didn’t see those things here,” Carlos told me recently. “I didn’t see celebrations of Day of the Dead, I didn’t see marches or Mexican celebrations, and now I see a lot. A lot of people are learning, sharing, teaching, and doing.”

Carlos and his wife, Kelly, are doing all four of those things with their Woodburn-based Aztec dance group, which increasingly finds itself in demand around Mexican holidays, particularly the annual Day of the Dead celebration. They’ve been regulars for the Chehalem Cultural Center’s Dia de Muertos celebration in Newberg the past few years, although they missed 2017 because they were in The Dalles with their company of more than a dozen dancers, helping with that community’s first public celebration.

Jose and Kelly Carlos of Woodburn will bring Aztec dancing to the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for a free performance at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2.

They return Friday, Nov. 2, for a 5:30 p.m. performance that’s free and open to the public.

Jose started the group and is lead dance captain, while Kelly is executive director for Ritual Azteca Huitzilopochtli (pronounced wee-chee-zo-polsh-tlee), which does educational outreach and performances around the Willamette Valley and Southwest Washington. Jose credits Rigoberto Hernandez, a Chemeketa Community College teacher whom he met when Jose was a Woodburn High School junior yearning both for his own culture and fellowship. He and Hernandez started doing Chicano theater and Aztec dancing.

“In the beginning, I was shy,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to wear those kinds of clothes, I don’t want people to see my stomach.’” Today, Jose is the teacher. While you probably wouldn’t have found Aztec dancing in Oregon when he started learning it in the 1990s, now, at pow-wows, he’s accustomed to seeing nearly a hundred participants, including his group of about 17.

“Every dance we do has a meaning for the time,” he said. “We have dances that are only for the Day of the Dead, and we have dances for other holidays. These dances have been passed on to us from teachers who learned from their families.” Who, he added, have been passing dances and other traditions down through hundreds of years.

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‘Taming’ and the Wonder Women

A farce, a satire, a women's play about politics: Mariel Sierra and company talk about producing Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming" at CoHo

Two years ago Donald Trump became president, and whatever else happened, everybody knew the world would never again be the same. Lines were drawn in the sand. The world convulsed in massive protests. People who avoided politics like the plague found themselves looking for any way to get involved, to make a change, to act.

For someone like Mariel Sierra, a theater artist who considers herself an activist within her field, the 2016 election was a moment of self-reckoning. “How do I fix it?” she asked herself. “How do I problem-solve, what is the active thing I can do?” The action turned out to be theater. Nationally renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson waived the fees for the rights to her plays on Jan. 20, 2016 for anyone who wanted to do a staged reading.

“The Taming”: politics, farce, and satire at CoHo.

Sierra had met Gunderson in Portland in 2015, when Profile Theatre had staged a reading of Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists (which is being produced at Artists Rep this season), had been in contact with her via social media, and found she “really liked her work and her voice as an artist.” So when the announcement about waiving the royalties came down, Sierra was ready. “I immediately texted, called, corralled Lauren Bloom Hanover, McKenna Twedt, Katie Watkins and Lindsay Huff and asked them if they wanted to do this with me. I was still working with (Portland director) Asae Dean at the time, so we got the rights through Salt and Sage,” Dean’s production company.

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Vertigo at the crossroads

After 21 years of sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility, the scrappy theater has reinvented itself again

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot, to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography

Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue. Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

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Into the “Deathtrap” and back out with the new

Bag & Baggage balances winking humor and murderous intent to make a meta-theatrical classic feel fresh again.

“Nothing recedes like success,” says the fading playwright at the center of Deathtrap. That’s also true of Ira Levin’s famous 1978 play, one of the most successful thrillers in Broadway history, which ran nearly 1800 performances and became a major 1982 movie success starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Yet you don’t see it staged much by professional theaters these days in spite, or because of, the fact that it pioneered many of the meta-theatrical tricks and winking plot twists common in films and plays ever since.

That’s a challenge for anyone producing Deathtrap today: How do you make what was once so thrillingly outre’ feel fresh?

Bag and Baggage Productions, which produced this new version running through October, also faced its own similar challenge: after a decade of increasing success at Hillsboro’s big, old-school Venetian Theatre, could it maintain that track record in its very different, intimate new space across Main Street, the Vault, which demands a different kind of direction and acting?

I won’t give away the ending (or much of the plot) of Deathtrap, but I’ll tell you upfront the answer to those two questions: in surmounting the second challenge, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer also solves the first. His new production’s modern directorial sensibility makes a familiar, four-decade old classic feel contemporary again.

The plot twists won’t let you rest: Bag&Baggage Productions presents “Deathtrap” at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography

Deathtrap was an early leader in the now-familiar meta-theater subgenre — it’s a play about playwriting. Sidney, a once successful playwright, needs to revive his career. Clifford, a student he’s mentored, wants to jumpstart his own with a promising script he brings to Sidney’s leafy Connecticut suburban home. Sidney’s wealthy wife Myra, while eager to help Sidney return to acclaim, has her doubts about both writers. Their neighbor Helga, a Dutch pop psychic, and Sidney’s lawyer Porter, seemingly innocuous, both play crucial roles in the twisty plotlines. Homicide and humor happen.

That’s enough plot summary, because though Deathtrap is one of those modern mysteries where the audience knows whodunnit, we’re still constantly surprised and delighted by what happens next. That ironic balance between comical and criminal helped make Deathtrap a breakthrough in its day. A production can easily lean too far one way or the other. Make it too slapstick and lose the power of the murder mystery that compels audience interest. Play it too straight and it’s just another dated puzzler without the satirical delight Levin provides in playing with our expectations.

Stage director Palmer is a past master at navigating that fine line between realism and exaggeration, especially in B&B’s entertaining comedies. But doing so in the Vault’s intimate confines demands a much subtler approach. A master of misdirection (in the good, non-hyphenated sense!), Palmer accentuates the sense of unease with expert little touches — a sidelong glance here, a raised eyebrow there, slightly melodramatic music and light cues — that create an atmosphere of what might be called wry ominousness. We’re nervous and chuckling, surprised and knowing, all at the same time. It’s a Deathtrap for the post-Simpsons generation that plays off the fact that the script’s pioneering self-awareness is now common currency in all kinds of entertainment. And the nuances that make it work would have been lost on the distant Venetian Theatre stage. In a post-show talkback, Palmer revealed that he’s wanted to direct Deathtrap here for ages, but knew it wouldn’t work in the oversized Venetian. It’s a small-scale triumph in the Vault.

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Visionary of the afterlife

Milagro's "Alebrijes!" delivers a fantastical chronicle of the life of Mexican artist Pedro Linares.

One of the more contentious topics in art history is how the Mexican artist Pedro Linares dreamed up the sculptures of mythical creatures known as alebrijes. The most likely version of the story is that Linares was commissioned to create alebrijes for a party at the San Carlos Arts Academy. But a more entertaining tale suggests that these beasts came to him in a dream while he was ill during the 1930s.

Robi Arce stars in “Alibrijes!,” Milagro’s latest Die de Muertos production, based on the Mexican artist Pedro Linares. Photo: Russell J. Young

That saga informs ¡Alebrijes!, an eccentric and moving play written and directed by Georgina Escobar and currently onstage at Milagro. An offbeat blend of magical realism and plain old realism, ¡Alebrijes! does not always fully realize its ambitions, but is nevertheless both poignant and excitingly strange—a blast of visual wonderment that pokes fun at the very idea of death without ever fully making light of it.

After a clever present-day prologue, the play introduces us to Pedro (Robi Arce), whose brother Manuel (Matthew Sepeda) dies in a train accident during the first act. Unmoored by grief, Pedro poisons himself in the hope of convincing the powerful La Meurte (Patricia Alivetz) to free Manuel from the afterlife. But his gamble thrusts him into a world somewhere between the living and the dead, forcing him to confront the inevitability of death and his ignored artistic potential.

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A chance to revisit “The Shining” on the silver screen

Arts calendar: See Jack Nicholson's maniacal leer in all its grotesque glory, view an artist's take on the atomic bomb, hear an organ concert of hymns

Given the volume of commentary, criticism and amateur blogosphere speculation that has accumulated since 1980 about what happens in The Shining and what it all means, it’d be a mighty achievement to actually produce some new, original insight into Stanley Kubrick’s film, based on the horror novel by Stephen King.

What strikes me is the way it lives on in our imaginations and the fact that so many feel compelled to keep the discussion going. It’s not a fate one would have predicted after those first, lukewarm and even negative reviews in 1980. (“I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie,” lamented The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold.) But in 2018, is there anyone who wants to revisit (or even remembers) Terror Train or Motel Hell? No. But if you were to put The Shining in, say, the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, would that pique your interest?

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” wears pretty much the same expression critics had in 1980 when Stanley Kubrick’s horror film was released. It has since produced an astonishing volume of commentary by viewers bent on unraveling the film’s visual riddles and enigmas. It will be screened Wednesday at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem.

It does mine, and not just because it’s a chance to see Kubrick’s amazing images on the big screen. Consider, too, that when The Shining shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it will be on a screen where it very likely first appeared. Multiplexes were a rare thing back then, and the majestic Elsinore was a theater where blockbusters opened.

The Shining is the perfect example of a film that improves with age and repeated viewings, though one is obliged to note one uncomfortable truth about its making: While Kubrick and the crew went out of their way to ensure that child actor Danny Lloyd was shielded from the story’s horrific aspects, he wasn’t so kind to Shelley Duvall. Watching the sequence where Jack Nicholson stalks her up a staircase, it’s impossible for the viewer familiar with Kubrick’s perfectionist drive not to wonder: Was this the 127th take, or had they topped 100 yet? Knowing all this today, it’s unsettling to realize that part of Duvall’s on-screen distress and exhaustion was, thanks to Kubrick, all too real.

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DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

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