THEATER

11 questions: Anthony Hudson talks about the end of the world

Portland's drag clown talks about his new show “Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World”

By SARAH SENTILLES

On November 20, 2014, at 8 pm at the Alberta Rose Theatre, Carla Rossi, Portland’s premier drag clown, will host, for one night only, “Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World,” which its creator Anthony Hudson calls a “riotous multimedia cabaret show.”

Armed with a songbook of Berlin theatre standards (with pianist Maria Choban) and dance support from cabaret girls The Dolly Pops, Carla will make a (satirical) comparison between 1920s Weimar Berlin and contemporary America – covering everything from immigration policy to drones to racism to DOMA to the Voting Rights Act. Hudson combines humor, theory, drag, dance, politics, song, and critique to make visible what most people want to ignore – and somehow manages to make you have a good time anyway.

I sent Anthony Hudson (a.k.a Carla Rossi) eleven questions about the show – and here is what Hudson had to say.

You’ve said that “Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World” is the story of two star-crossed lovers: Weimar Germany and contemporary America. What parallels do you see between these two time periods?

I actually have a game show section in my show where contestants have to guess which culture – Weimar Germany or contemporary America – is described by a basic clue. But there are so many overlaps and parallels that the game show becomes impossible to win. Both cultures are sandwiched by war. The Weimar Republic was established after WWI and gave way to the Third Reich and WWII. I came of age with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and am watching them occur all over again now, only we’re not calling them wars. Throw in economic trouble, xenophobia and racism toward immigrants, and “tolerance” for queer people despite existing legislation against queerness and you’ve got yourself quite the mirror image cocktail.

Portland drag clown Carla Rossi (aka Anthony Hudson) has some serious issues to discuss.

Portland drag clown Carla Rossi (aka Anthony Hudson) has some serious issues to discuss.

Why drag?

I’m interested in the edge – that line between satire and sincerity, between critique and reification – as a site where transgression and transformation occur. That’s why I’m drawn to drag as artwork. Drag often reinforces heterosexist projections of what makes a “woman,” but – as the theorist Judith Butler argues – it can also expose the cracks in binary sexism by blurring (or queering) gender. Queer drag exposes gender as a performed historical construction rather than as a biological reality. Carla’s the edge for me. With her I’m not trying to emulate femininity (although I’m sure that’s what she thinks she’s doing), I’m trying to break down our preconceived notions of identity to expose them as performances rather than as innate, core ways of being. Not to reignite the Madonna/Lady Gaga feud, but philosophically I’m much more “Express Yourself” than I am “Born This Way.”

What role does humor play in your work? What does humor make possible that other kinds of performance may not?

There’s an unofficial rule to my work – it has to be funny. Even if my subject matter is dreadful I have to find a way to laugh at it. I have a hard time finding respect for something if it doesn’t have a bit of comedy to it. I think in performance, humor breaks down resistance and provides an immediate entry point for the audience. To laugh at something you have to first find relevance in the joke being made – and for a whole audience to laugh at something, something wonderful happens. It creates a kind of collectivity, a sense of togetherness, like we are all in on the joke. It’s a powerful way to create and harness collective energy, and as a performer I depend on that energy flow with the audience like a battery.

I think that my love of humor is cultural – I’m half Native American, and I can’t think of any group of people more ready to laugh than Natives. The biggest and most memorable laughs I’ve ever heard are from my family that live on the Rez. You need to be able to laugh there. Humor is something the oppressed & underprivileged need to survive.

Why this topic? Why now?

One answer is that it’s the natural culmination of my interests – Weimar Germany, Dada performance, the music of Kurt Weill & Lotte Lenya, and monologue-based theatre – over the last two years. Another answer is that I’m terrified that World War III is on the brink of happening, if it’s not already.

You’ve been performing in Portland for three (four!) years, and you’ve noted that more and more performance venues (gay bars) are closing down, in part as a result of gentrification. What has been lost with these closures? And what do you hope performing at the Alberta Rose Theater might make possible?

Gay bars and venues provide a safer space for queer performers to make and show work. And since drag is so subcultural it’s hard to get it seen in a fine arts and context, and heteronormative audiences often don’t appreciate its value. It’s culturally relevant artwork. Portland used to have a bustling queer scene – performance troupes like Sissyboy and DKPDX (the latter being an amazing group of drag kings, which you hardly see anymore) took Portland by storm just a decade ago and sold out shows to audiences in the hundreds. Portland queers are still here of course, but with the bar closures we have more of a “pop up” culture now – renting spaces that are queer-owned, or just down to play, that may not necessarily be bars or even have stages. Some of my friends just put on a great show called “Dungeons & Drag Queens” at a local game store and it was at capacity. Even so, it’s still hard to connect with your core audience when they may not feel safe going to a space that isn’t queer, and it’s hard to find funding to make it happen without the old venues too. My hope is to find that crossover – to get queer audiences to pay a few more dollars than they’re used to in support of talent and technical support (which we don’t always get in bars), while getting an arts audience to take a chance on queer cabaret – and see what happens. I’m hoping for some good cross-pollination. And of course my evil plan is to recruit and convert more unsuspecting audience members into disciples of Rossi-anity.

Carla-End-Of-World-PDF-8x10How many outfit changes does Carla have in this show – and which is her favorite look?

Oh no! You got me! I was originally going for two or three costumes in this show (you know, because Cher does it) but I decided to settle on one particularly wonderful costume made by my friend Sarah Dee. Sarah runs a business called Scrafts and makes a bounty of reclaimed leather harnesses and accessories for the queer community in Portland (when she isn’t teaching sewing to youth and her students). For this show Sarah is creating a beautiful bodysuit inspired by my love of fringe and the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. She’s also creating me a delightfully silly boudoir look to throw over my costume for the one and only cute, lighthearted song in the show.

If Anthony could invite any three people to attend this show (and they had to accept the invitation), who would he invite?

Sandra Bernhard. She’s influenced this particular show more than any other performer I can think of. Coco Peru, because she’s a drag queen I’ve always admired – and I’ve had the immense luck to become acquainted with her over this last year – and she’s the kind of story teller I’m aspiring to become. My third guest is dead, but I would want to invite Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. At one point one of her “films” (retroactively created by me, and starring Carla) appears in the show. I’ve always been fascinated by the way she prided herself on the work she made for Hitler while simultaneously denying any guilt by association with the Third Reich. Leni has even influenced how I play Carla in this show – part of the premise is that Carla was alive in Berlin during the Weimar era and stayed in Germany after 1933 – and I’m really interested in how someone who perhaps passively participated in Nazism would describe that era and attempt to justify their presence there… and how selectively they would (or wouldn’t) remember certain events.

If Carla could invite any three people to attend this show (and they had to accept the invitation), who would she invite?

1. Mel Gibson, because he could make a really good unbiased movie about Carla’s time in Nazi Germany. 2. George W. Bush, because Carla really likes those paintings he did and she feels a lot more forgiving to him over that whole war and economic collapse thing now that she saw how sad he looked in the shower. 3. The Guy with the Drink Tickets because duh.

You’ve said Carla “satirizes culture by emulating it.” What do you mean?

Carla is my way of confronting whiteness, oppression, and privilege in the United States. I’m not a lecturer who excels at explaining these systems. I’m a performer. Luckily Carla is a trickster clown, and clowns and tricksters say one thing while doing the opposite. Carla embodies everything I find wrong in the world and demonstrates just how wrong it is simply by taking it to its next absurd step. She lives in a racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, classist, capitalist, celebrity-driven society, and she wants in on the action. She thinks the way to make it in society is to become a product fit for consumption, so she follows the media’s lead and tries to become a famous white woman. Lately she’s been calling herself the ghost of white privilege, and, as she says, that’s funny because white privilege will never die. She confronts audiences with their own biases and unchecked assumptions merely by being herself.

Carla Rossi in performance in 2013./Photo by Marty Davis

Carla Rossi in performance in 2013./Photo by Marty Davis

You use historical songs from Berlin theatre. Did you rewrite the lyrics or keep them intact? What is your favorite lyric?

Originally I had this Quixotic vision of rewriting the songs and placing them in a modern context. As time went on and I found different translations of the material (a lot of these songs were made into safe, English language versions in the ‘50s and ‘60s) I realized it would be a crime to rewrite the songs. They’re just as relevant today as ever, and way more bawdy, risqué, and disquieting than anything written today. I have, however, arranged lyrics from different translations (of the same song) to create the “definitive” versions I want to sing.

Almost every song has been altered musically in one way or another. I’m working with a completely amazing pianist named Maria Choban, who calls herself the “gangster of classical music.” She has a reputation for breaking pianos because she plays so aggressively and passionately. Together we’ve calculated when and where to play with the audience’s expectations – there are multiple mash-ups, and Maria’s injected some famous medleys into a few of these German standards to place them into a more American, almost USO-style context. The most well-known song in the show sounds nothing like itself – or any version you’ve heard before and – and it’s completely disturbing and seductive at the same time.

My favorite lyric in the show is from that song, but it’s too upsetting to print out of context. Here’s my next favorite – it’s from the Canon Song by Kurt Weill, originally from 1928’s Threepenny Opera: “We’ll meet a darker race / we’ll fight them face to face / ‘cause it is clear we’re better / we’ll kill them it doesn’t matter.”

What’s next for Carla?

That’s my favorite question lately, because after preparing for and thinking about and working on this show for the past year, I’m having a hard time seeing past this event. It’s like the flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, except that flaming sword is in my calendar for November 20th. But next year’s plans include a Carla Rossi webseries, a potential dinner theatre project with a friend of mine, the Austin International Drag Festival that I’ve been invited to perform in, and – surprise – more Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World! Since this is a one night engagement, I’m approaching it as an incubator for what will become an even bigger, multiple-night run next year and I want to tour it in a few cities. Everything’s coming up Rossi!

“Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World” is funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council. The show will take place on November 20, 2014, at 8 pm, at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta. Tickets are available through the Alberta Rose Theatre’s Box Office. $15 advance, $20 at the door. Presented with ASL interpretation. 21+.

As You Like It: Post5’s home at last

The company opens its new Sellwood space with an uneven but exuberant frolic in the woods

It’s the afternoon of the fateful wrestling tournament in As You Like It, and the nasty Duke’s man, fearsome Charles, is kicking young Orlando’s behind. The Duke’s not-at-all-nasty niece Rosalind, who’s taken one look at the young challenger and is smitten beyond repair, leans forward from the crowd and blows a kiss to Orlando, who catches it, swallows it, swells with sudden strength, and kicks Charles into the middle of next week.

It’s an audacious moment, a big-wink, comic-strip spectacle that’s representative of Post5 Theatre’s brash new production, and Rosalind’s kiss might well be aimed at the entire enterprise: This As You Like It is Post5’s first production in its new home in the Sellwood district, and Saturday’s opening-night audience greeted it as a celebration.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here, spreading a little gleeful autumn in the forest. Photo: Russel J. Young

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here, gleefully sprinkling  autumn leaves. Photo: Russel J. Young

The opening performance was all of that, and like Orlando’s victory, a bit of a dramatic turnaround, too. Ty Boice, Post5’s artistic director and the director of As You Like It, told the crowd that as of four days before opening, the theater had no chairs. The company borrowed a little more than 100 of them from the neighboring church, and eventually will have to come up with its own. The show, as they say, must go on – and it did.

Like the production itself, Post5’s new space – which takes up roughly half of a handsome church compound at 1666 Southeast Lambert Street, off Milwaukie Boulevard – is a work in progress. The bones are terrific, and for the rest, the basics are in place. Post5 has a performing space that’s bursting with potential, and a nice little bar and lounge in the basement, and the rest will come: Unfinished Cathedral, the title of T.S. Stribling’s 1930s novel of the economic and cultural transformation of the American South, comes to mind. Plus, the place has that most precious of commodities, a big, free parking lot. The space came together in the nick of time, and it gives Post5 a genuine home to grow into gradually, in a lively neighborhood that’s outside the usual performance zone. That’s worth tossing a little confetti in the air.

Post5 approaches Shakespeare with a reckless verve, putting the pedal to the metal and emphasizing the nowness of the thing rather than its antiquity. Boice’s As You Like It is built for speed, made for audiences who come not to worship Shakespeare but to enjoy him. And it’s bound to divide viewers: does it breathe fresh postmodern energy into a creaky old narrative, or does it simply skim along the surfaces of a classic, hauling in easy laughs while the bigger, deeper ones remain untouched?

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5's new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

Lickety split: just a week ago, Post5’s new theater looked like this. Photo: Post5 Facebook page.

On opening night I found the show winsome, agreeable, a little sloppy, and a little too eager to please: I’d’ve liked more precision and evenness of tone, and less eagerness to adopt any frisky shtick that came wagging its tail down the street. Yes, As You Like It is a frolic. But it also has some high emotional and philosophical stakes. In this light comedy are questions of trust, truth, honor, danger, betrayal, and the categories of love, from brotherly to casual to deeply bonded. Evil and mortality rear their ugly heads, and the play considers the role of aggression and violence in both politics and love.

The balance is tricky: all of this thrums below the surface, and to approach the play like a Lear or Hamlet would be to fundamentally mistake it. But the shadings should be acknowledged, and this production plays the whole thing like a high-school rom-com. Having Charles show up in a Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestling mask (shades of Portland artist Victor Maldonado’s sly cultural interventions), uttering only savage grunts, turns him into a purely comic character and drains the danger out of one of the play’s crucial scenes. That air-kiss further turns the scene farcical. And there are wild variations in performance approach, so much so that I sometimes wondered whether the actors were making deliberate choices or simply hadn’t fully shaped what they were doing. The show’s prevailing mood seems less a specific style than a loosey-goosey anarchy in the woods. I lay this at least partly to the twin stresses of putting on a new show and creating an actual theater from an empty space at the same time.

Yet there’s also that refreshing narrative drive. The play’s well-spoken, and the cast is studded with good performers, several of them younger and brimming with promise. Chip Sherman as Orlando and Isabella Buckner as Rosalind (who performs in her male disguise as a drawling cowboy at home on the range) are engagingly open and well-matched, and Jessica Tidd is a likely sidekick to Rosalind as Celia, the duke’s daughter, who out of friendship flees with her to the Forest of Arden when her father banishes Rosalind on pain of death. Max Maller’s shoulder-shrugging Touchstone works less well for me, deliberately casual yet casual to a fault. The performance that sticks with me most clearly, and seems in many ways the most perceptively formed, is Keith Cable’s as Jaques, the melancholy fellow of the woods, who delivers the “seven stages of man” speech with laconic eloquence and who hints, in his double edge of comedy and moroseness, at the clipped contradictions of a Hugh Laurie.

Boice and his designers have made a virtue of the show’s low budget, which fits with Post5’s determination to deliver good theater at a low price: tickets are just $15, and on pay-what-you-will nights, you get to choose, which makes this show affordable for almost anyone. Costumer Cassandra Boice’s designs are bright and cheap and affable, with a touch of logger chic, and tech director Randall Pike’s sets and props are wittily low-rent, from simple hanging sheets to exuberant sprinklings of colorful leaves, flung playfully into the air to depict the changing seasons with a wink that works. The show resolves with an exuberance that overrides what doubts you may be wrestling with. After all, this As You Like It is only a beginning.

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 As You Like It continues at Post5 through December 13. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Friends of Chamber Music review: Playing outside the (toy) box

Pianist Orion Weiss and Salzburg Marionette Theater animate Debussy and Schumann’s music.

 by JEFF WINSLOW

Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music keeps expanding its mission, living up to its name in broader and broader ways. Its Not So Classic series has for some years now brought in audiences looking for something outside the traditional chamber music box. Now it’s even embracing other arts. On the Sunday before Halloween, FOCM brought the Salzburg (Austria) Marionette Theatre to Portland State University for a kid-friendly afternoon matinee at Lincoln Performance Hall. Orion Weiss, a young pianist familiar to Portland audiences from gigs with Chamber Music Northwest, made the music half of the partnership, even throwing in a few solos.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Pianist and puppets’ first joint set was both romantic and Romantic: an enactment of the final scene of The Awkward Years (Flegeljahre), a novel by German humorist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (better known as Jean Paul), accompanied by Robert Schumann’s early work Papillons (Butterflies), inspired in 1831 by the same scene. At a masked ball, twins woo the same woman. The twins may look the same, but they have very different personalities and one is a much better dancer than the other. At one point, they exchange masks – in this production they exchanged legs! At another, a giant boot (said to be wearing itself) waltzes (sort of) through the ballroom. The guests dance and woo through the night. Eventually a clock strikes six in the morning, but everyone has slipped away.

The intrigue moved Schumann to create a string of a dozen short dances, mostly in triple time. Moods vary fantastically from one to the next, but there’s very little heavy oom-pah-pah, except by that boot of course. Like its namesake, the music mostly flits about, until finally all melody and even harmony melt away to a single note.

Fancifully costumed marionettes of the main characters and other dancers played out the drama in front of a simple set of overlapping walls, with unadorned openings for doors. Their handlers, dressed in black, receded into the darkened stage background and it was easy to ignore them even as they made arms and legs weave about and heads nod. The piano sat close against the other side of the stage, angled so Weiss and the handlers could keep an eye on each other but the sound still projected towards the audience. Weiss played with great precision and tightly melded music with stage action, yet there was nothing mechanical about it. His performance would have been an expressive delight even on its own, and helped bring the characters to life. Audience laughter was frequent but gentle, except for one outburst that may have loosened them up for later.

Continues…

Bats in the belfry: ‘True West,’ ‘Fledermaus’

Shepard's play and Strauss's operetta bat around ideas about passion and rationality. Oh: and 'Fledermaus' sings, too.

It’s a batty sort of show, Sam Shepard’s True West, and I mean that in the best possible way: a loony surreal flight in the night, a mighty swing of the situational bat, a whack upside your headbone hard enough to take your breath away – as happens to brother Lee, although the choking mechanism’s an old-fashioned telephone cord, not a bat.

Profile Theatre’s new production of Shepard’s swift 1980 cage fight of a play is a fitting capper for its season of Shepard plays, which gives way come January to a fresh season of plays by Sarah Ruhl (Dead Man’s Cell Phone; In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play; Passion Play; Orlando).

Ferrucci and Newman in "True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

Ferrucci and Newman in “True West: brotherly hate. Photo: David Kinder

But first, True West. In spite of a couple of anachronisms – that wall phone, a manual typewriter that gets bashed within a keystroke of its life with a golf club – Shepard’s viciously comic tall tale holds up well, because its truculent heart is pretty much timeless: brawling brothers, as old as Cain and Abel; intellect versus instinct, as old as humanity itself. Shepard’s tinkered with these themes throughout his career, from his early experimental plays to his mature family dramas and in-between projects such as 1972’s musical horn-locker The Tooth of Crime, which in certain ways feels like a primer for True West.

Adriana Baer directs Profile’s True West with an eye for its swaggering comedy and a major assist from fight choreographer Kristen Mun, who knows a body tackle from a headlock and isn’t afraid to let the plates and foodstuffs fly. The tale is elemental: reason versus passion, or, in ring terms, boxer versus slugger. Austin (a nicely clipped and eventually unraveling Nick Ferrucci) is an aspiring screenwriter, an Ivy League grad with a deal he’s close to sealing as he bats away at a final draft in his absent mother’s home in Southern California, near the desert, where the coyotes yap in the breeze. Trouble is, his shiftless brother Lee (Ben Newman, all reflex and ooze) has shown up unannounced, hellbent on casing Mom’s neighborhood for a few easily snatchable TVs to fence, and pretty much throwing Austin completely off his game.

At first the brothers merely annoy each other: competing and divergent chips off the same block. That changes when the movie agent Saul shows up (Duffy Epstein, in a broadly funny performance dripping with SoCal charm and smarm), ready to ink the deal with Austin until Lee horns in, spinning an outrageous tale about “two lamebrains chasing each other across Texas,” and Saul does a one-eighty. He always goes with his gut, he says. Suddenly Lee’s in, and Austin’s out in the cold.

You can read this tale a lot of ways, and I like to think it has something to do with the creative process: Austin the craftsman, the careful builder, the rationalist, the erudite smith who knows how to put things together; Lee the wild man, the imaginative dreamer, the guy who picks something elemental out of the ether and follows it where it dangerously leads. The two detest each other, and they need each other, because art requires both wildness and craftsmanship: complementary sides of an uncomfortable whole. Like Harold Pinter in pretty much all of his plays, and John Fowles in his novel The Magus, Shepard eschews the notion of the elevating “niceness” of art, arguing instead for something more basic, and roiling, and awe-ful: art as terror, perhaps, but also art as necessary expression of the duality of the human beast.

With Alan Schwanke’s open yet intimate set, Sara Ludeman’s sly costumes (check out Epstein’s Vegas cocktail-bar duds) and Shareth Patel’s yawping, chittering sound design, Profile’s True West looks and sounds good. Dad’s an unseen character, referred to repeatedly in absentia, a drunken wastrel whose impact on his sons remains intense, if in very differing ways. And Mom (Diane Kondrat) shows up late in the game, acting somewhere between befuddlement and pure matter-of-fact.

I’ve seen more psychologically vicious productions of the play. In spite of the strenuous calisthenics, there’s an amiability to this one: neither brother seems truly bent on killing the other. Like Oedipus and his dad, Lee and Austin never quite figure out they’re in this thing together. But they do feel the stirring of a common blood: they lack the viciousness for that final killer blow. If you consider the play as a tall tale, an eternal playing-out of the struggle between reason and the heavy bear who goes with it, that works: same song, billionth verse. And as it’s a song close to the mysterious heart of the human predicament, we sing it over and over again.

Profile Theatre’s True West continues through November 23 in the company’s home space at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Cat and mouse in "Bat": Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on  Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

Cat and mouse in “Bat”: Alfred (Ryan MacPherson) a makes his move on Roselinde (Mary Dunleavy). Photo: Karen Almond.

The bat gets the title in Die Fledermaus, although it takes a few tortuous twists of the plot to figure out why: It goes back to a practical joke in which the victim, who was left drunk in the town center, dressed as a bat, is taking a Byzanfiendishly plotted revenge on the perpetrator. If by chance you don’t know this story, don’t worry: Die Fledermaus is about the music and the mood, and the mere facts of the matter aren’t all that important.

Portland Opera’s production, which kicks off its 50th season and concludes with performances Thursday and Saturday, is a bit ramshackle itself, not as tight and pointed as it might be yet also overflowing with pleasurable musical and farcical moments. This is operetta, not grand opera, and it’s meant to amuse. It also provides a timely reminder of why the company is switching to a festival-style, summer season beginning in 2016, moving half of its programming into the 870-seat Newmark Theatre rather than the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, where this Fledermaus is flapping around the rafters. The big old hall once again swallows much of the music, muting smaller voices and muffling sounds delivered from upstage. This show needs a light and dexterous balance, and it’s tantalizing to imagine how it might play in the much more intimate and audibly manageable Newmark.

Johann Strauss II’s dreamy, melodic, and approachable score is truly what Die Fledermaus is all about, and both singers and orchestra treat the Waltz King’s music well. But Karl Haffner and Richard Genée provided him with an affable libretto, basing it partly on a French play that also, intriguingly, served as the basis for Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta Trial by Jury.

Die Fledermaus takes place in sophisticated Vienna and True West in the voracious wilds of the American West, but Fledermaus shares a bit of Shepard’s fascination for the duality of the human soul. In a very traditional (and very upper-class) European way, the characters of Fledermaus keep up propriety as they let the beast of their animal urges out to play: husbands prowl among the chorines, wives play push-and-pull with would-be bedmates, housemaids discreetly flaunt their wild sides. It’s as if the characters in True West have come to terms with their duality and brought it into a civilized, carefully dangerous harmony: one roils and boils, within reason.

There are, I think, possibilities in the play that aren’t fully exploited here, and that the economics of regional opera, with its short runs and short rehearsal periods, maybe militate against. But Portland Opera’s Fledermaus delivers on many fronts, from Zack Brown’s traditionally sumptuous sets and costumes to the often fluid acting (stage direction is by Chas Rader-Shieber) and, most importantly, the voices. The women in particular shine: soprano Mary Dunleavy as Rosalinde, the wife who plays a practiced game of cat-and-mouse; soprano Susannah Biller as Adele, Rosalinde’s flirtatious maid; mezzo Jennifer Rivera in the traditional pants role of Prince Orlofsky, the bored Russian zillionaire whose party sets the mechanisms of farce into motion. Daniel Belcher is warm-toned and suitably peacockish as Eisenstein, Rosalinde’s rash and wandering husband; and company followers will be pleased to see the continuing assurance of former resident artist André Chiang as Dr. Falke, the devious and genial bat of the title. Now, on to the belfry. Better yet, to the Newmark.

Portland Opera’s Die Fledermaus concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, November 13 and 15, at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Shakespeare’s altar ego

Milagro's multilingual historical fiction meets the Bard on his Day of the Deathbed

What do you put on a Dia de los Muertos altar? Candles, claroFlowers, por supuesto. But there’s a place, too, for more surprising stuff. Like a Pez dispenser, say, or a shoe. Anything goes, assuming it means something significant about the dead person being honored, to the living person who put it there. And once it’s placed, it stays. More pieces may be added, but typically, nothing is taken away.

The same principle is at play in Milagro Theatre‘s O Romeo, a much-if-n0t-all-encompassing bilingual homage to Shakespeare that runs through Sunday. It arranges a loving clutter of his plays’ characters around the figure of a dying Bard to perform a pageant of remembrance and reimagination. As O Romeo‘s Shakespeare (Anthony Green) takes to his deathbed, he’s visited by specters from his writings.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewOphelia (Rebecca Ridenour), in a white nightie, hands out herbs and flowers to baffled onlookers. Titania (Tara Hershberger) flits around playing a flute. A composite jester dubbed “Yorick” (Jake Wiest) jokes and tumbles in the irreverent fashion Shakespeare’s fools favor. Lady Macbeth (Danielle Chaves) and Richard III (Enrique E. Andrade) preen haughtily and sing opera while they collude on a sinister scheme to destroy Shakespeare’s writings and exonerate their blighted names. Polonius (Arlena Barnes) pontificates, Hamlet (Heath Hyun-Houghton) broods … and we’re made to understand that one more young joven that Shakespeare deems “Romeo” is actually—in a twist the Bard can’t emotionally process—his nonfictional son Hamnet (Otniel Henig), who died young.

It's a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a multilingual, time-shifting whirl. Photo: Russell J Young

Meanwhile, in Milagro’s adjacent Zócalo Community Space, visitors can browse a collection of themed altars designed by local artists from Latino collective FusionArte. A community memorial altar is filled with photos of the recently passed—some installed with the piece, some added since by visitors. A children’s altar, called Holy Innocents, is adorned with toys and a little bank where, as a token, one could leave a coin. And then there’s Shakespeare’s altar, where a skeleton decked out in Elizabethan garb reclines amid red roses on a rollable gurney.

“Even though he’s dead, we just keep rolling him out,” quipped Milagro artist, host and docent Vincente Guzman-Orozco to a patron, an apt comment for a show that essentially reanimates the Bard to play with him. The show, like an altar, is a monument of remembrance, full of an array of representations that are open to interpretation. It differs from a historical retelling in the same way that the items on a day-of-the-dead altar differ from the artifacts in a museum exhibit.

O Romeo‘s biggest fictional flourishes are giving him a Jewish/Spanish house servant named Rifke (Sofia May-Cuxim), and imagining that his final masterpiece-in-progress was a play set in “the new world” that’s since become Mexico. Shakespeare’s spectral characters perform a condensed version of this pretend play, complete with Aztec feather headdresses, within the second act. Aesthetically, it’s exciting. Historically, of course, it’s fast and loose.

This practice of casting real-life historical figures as themselves in a fictitious narrative has obvious pros and cons. It risks rewriting or distorting public perception of history, yet it endeavors to enliven history’s great personalities in a way that renews contemporary audiences’ otherwise flagging interest. The theory is, if you enjoy a historical figure’s persona as interpreted in an entertaining fictional context, you may be able to transfer that enjoyment to the (otherwise dry) process of learning that figure’s actual history.

How often it pans out that way is impossible to say. For instance, how many teens-at-heart who enjoyed Freud and Socrates in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure went on to research their philosophies, versus how many simply giggled and picked up the boys’ bad habit of pronouncing Socrates “So crates?” And how many viewers of the Oscar-winning 1998 film Shakespeare in Love understood it as fiction, versus leaving the theater half-believing that Shakespeare had an affair with Gwyneth Paltrow? For my part, when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna—similar to O Romeo in that it describes famous historical figures Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera through the eyes of their fictitious house servant—I did feel its intended effect: History brought to life. Humanity brought to legends. I might even go back and read the referenced history. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

The Complete Works Project’s plea to all local theater companies to put on Bard-centric shows caught Milagro at a convenient moment, as the theater sought a theme for its longstanding annual Dia de los Muertos pageant. A pairing of the two ideas seemed natural to devisor/director Olga Sanchez, and she spent about seven weeks developing it with the cast. Though O Romeo, as a newly devised piece, doesn’t help Complete Works meet its quota of plays penned by Shakespeare, it’s definitely (ahem) “in the spirit” of the effort.

Speaking of spirits … though apparently unintentional, O Romeo‘s parallels to Dickens’ Christmas Carol are nearly impossible to ignore. An elderly man, hardened by life’s losses, has a long lucid dream in his bedchamber, where he’s visited by a succession of spirits who ply him to new understandings. This trebles the show’s seasonal relevance to cover the current Shakespeare push, the just-ended Day of the Dead, and the upcoming Christmas.

Like many of Milagro’s shows over the years, O Romeo gives Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences more for their money than only-English speakers. (In the past couple of years, Milagro has begun projecting translations during some, but not all, shows. This one doesn’t have ‘em.) Rifke’s asides and jokes often earn a laugh in her native tongue without being repeated in English. According to the largely bilingual cast, modern Spanish speakers actually have an advantage over their English-only contemporaries when it comes to appreciating translations of Shakespeare. “Spanish has remained more consistent since Shakespeare’s time, while English has changed more,” explained actor Sofia May-Cuxim during a talkback. “So what we hear in translations of Shakespeare, is closer to what we’re still saying in Spanish.”

But—also signature Milagro—the show is dreamy and impressionistic enough that it doesn’t require complete comprehension for general enjoyment. Its best moments are musical, mysterious, or both. The ensemble sings beautifully and plays Amir Shirazi’s arrangements and originals adeptly, and dual leads Green and May-Cuxim conjure poignant emotion—spine-tingling and near tears—at key moments in the story. Language may be left-brained, but this pageantry and sentiment feels right.

‘Ivy + Bean': It’s musical mayhem

Oregon Children's Theatre stages a winner – and gets caught in Tom Coburn's cynical political machine

Ivy and Bean are a phenomenon, although from my scanning of Ivy + Bean and the Ghost That Had To Go, Book 2 in the wildly popular series of chapter-books-with-lots-of-pictures, author Annie Burrows wouldn’t use a word like “phenomenon” for her young readers. She would, and does, use vivid words like “boogers,” “breezeway,” “squinted,” “Plesiosaur,” “potion,” “burial,” “immature,” “gurgling,” and “cartwheels,” and even “emergency” and “uncomfortably,” so come to think of it, maybe “phenomenon” wouldn’t be out of place, after all: when it comes to playing with the language, Ivy and Bean are no stick-in-the-mud Dick and Janes.

I’m not about to make the case that the Ivy + Bean books are great kids’ lit. Book 2, at least – the only one of the 10-and-counting that I’ve read – has little of the depth and richness of, say, The Wind in the Willows, or Anne of Green Gables, or even the lightly satirical Freddy the Pig books. It seems more like a slyly updated version of such comic serial capers as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, with an anarchic children’s world-view shaped gently by a sympathetic adult mind. Just the sort of thing, in other words, to get impressionable kids keen on reading.

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Caret

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, in the case of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s bright and sassy new production Ivy + Bean: The Musical, keen on watching and listening. Perusing Barrows’ book, with its quick and irreverent drawings by Sophie Blackall, didn’t prepare me for the bright and clattering pleasure this thing could be onstage. Sparked by refreshingly irascible performances by teenage actors Haley Ward as the bumptious tomboy Bean and Madison Wray as the sweetly subversive Ivy, I+B: The Musical is about as much fun as a blood oath signed in spit. And if you don’t think that sounds fun, just try to recall your 8-year-old self.

Scott Elmegreen’s hour-long musical adaptation is based on the first book in the series, the Ur-story, the foundation myth: Bean’s the queen of a cul-de-sac called Pancake Court, Ivy’s the new kid in the neighborhood, and they both know they don’t like each other, until circumstances transpire. The main circumstance, in this case, is Bean’s bossy 11-year-old sister, Nancy, who as played by Stephanie Roessler is a comically conniving meanie with a wicked witch’s cackle. Magical spells ensue, along with buckets of worms, soccer games, earnest but futile attempts to enter the book of world records, and other evidences of the vast and earnest and abruptly changeable universe of the childhood imagination. The creators of Ivy + Bean know one thing, and know it true: in childhood, play is where the most important learning happens.

Young actors David VanDyke, Jonathan Pen, and Sophie Keller capably round out the neighborhood gang, and Bean’s parents are played by Alex Leigh Ramirez and Joey Côté as reassuringly out-of-the-loop presences who are also, in that odd world of childhood independence, reliably there. And as usual at OCT, where I+B continues through November 23 in the Newmark Theatre, production values are crisp. Director Isaac Lamb, musical director Mont Chris Hubbard, choreographer Amy Beth Frankel, costumer Ashton Hull, scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser, lighting designer Phil McBeth, sound designer Scott Thirson, and props master Kaye Blankenship make up a thoroughly professional and technically precise team: young audiences here are enjoying the benefits of a fully fleshed and tightly timed production. I would go to this eagerly oddball, breezily funny show even if I didn’t have a kid in tow. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.

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Opening Ivy + Bean: The Musical was the big deal at Oregon Children’s Theatre last week, but other excitement was bouncing around the playhouse walls, too: Last season’s terrific production of Zombie in Love, which was funded partly by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, gained prominent mention in Wastebook 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma)’s annual excoriation of what he deems the year’s “most outlandish government spending.”

“OCT wears as a badge of honor that the $10,000 we were granted by the NEA for the development of Zombie in Love made the list,” OCT’s managing director, Ross McKeen, said, just slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Coburn isn’t a stupid man – quite the contrary – but he’s an innately political beast, and his annual lists are calculated to feed the frenzy of his reactionary base. Congress needs budget-minders as anchors and guardians of practicality. But Coburn’s annual list is well-known for its laziness and cynicism. There is utterly no doubt that the federal budget contains wasteful line items. Coburn’s list invariably lacks the honesty to ferret the bad ones out. Instead it goes for the cheap and easy, the red meat that makes the partisan dogs roar. It routinely takes things out of context, ignoring, for instance, all of the public advantage to be found in a well-run children’s theater program so it can poke a zombie in the eye. And it works: A video clip from Zombie was featured prominently in a segment on CBS This Morning that reported, with not an ounce of skepticism or basic J-school cross-checking, Coburn’s “findings.” It was one more tiny little nail in the increasingly malodorous coffin of mainstream American journalism.

McKeen continues: “Like a schoolyard bully, Coburn goes after the art geeks and science nerds in a report that is profoundly anti-science, anti-culture, and anti-intellect. The programs he cites are presented without context or any effort to understand their broader public policy goals. Are scientists really studying the effect of Swedish massage on rabbits because they like rabbits and are silly people? Or might they be trying to determine if massage is an effective (and less costly) alternative to painkillers and surgery in an effort to reduce health care costs? Coburn and his ilk don’t care.”

Dear readers, I don’t want to get all political on your heads. Honest people can honestly disagree. Honesty, unfortunately, is the vital element lacking in Coburn’s reports. If you tell me you don’t believe it’s the government’s role to spend money on arts and cultural matters, I will disagree with you but respect your opinion and understand your point of view. That isn’t what Coburn does. He stacks the deck and plays to the crowd. And he’s lazy about it: He doesn’t bother to check his facts, because he knows the facts are highly likely to undermine his case. How many hours of Coburn’s staff’s time go into the making of this annual charade? Why does that wasted money never make his list?

On Saturday afternoon, when I went to see Ivy + Bean, I ran into Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who told me that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) had jumped on the bandwagon and tweeted something snarky about Zombie in Love. I was sorry to hear that, because at one point I had thought McCain was at the least an honest man. That, of course, was before the profound silliness of l’affaire Palin.

It’s one thing for Ivy and Bean to let their imaginations run amok. But they’re 8 years old, for crying out loud. Isn’t it well past time for Coburn and McCain and pals to just, well, grow up?

Bob, born to be great. Got that?

Vertigo's latest comedy rambles on, a little bafflingly but entertainingly, about life or something like it

In the Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play Bob: a Life in Five Acts, the title character gets his name in an almost random fashion. Abandoned by his mother in the bathroom of a White Castle burger joint, he babbles happily at the employee who finds him, and among the fledgling syllables that emerge is a sound something like “Bob.”

That turns out to be a very apt name for the fellow, though. His subsequent lifelong journey takes place on land — all around the highways, rest stops and towns of these United States — but the way he alternately drifts along aimlessly and pops up suddenly, both across the map and through the narrative of this odd Everyman fable, he might as well be at sea, bobbing on the waves and currents of fate.

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Nathan Crosby, taking life for granite. Photo: Mario Calcagno

Somehow, director Matthew B. Zrebski’s production for Theatre Vertigo manages to impart the sense of a spacious ramble in the city’s least expansive performance space, Southeast Portland’s Shoebox Theatre. And it makes something highly enjoyable – if not necessarily cohesive – out of Nachtrieb’s antic, allusive tale of one man’s grand ambition to be great.

Vertigo has followed Nachtrieb’s winding path before, with boom in 2010 and Hunter Gatherers in 2012. Both those shows traded on the playwright’s dual background in biology and theater (Nachtrieb majored in both subjects at Brown University) and perhaps as a result felt more grounded; however playful their language and their thematic conceits, they weren’t as loosey-goosey with narrative direction as poor Bob is.

Following Bob’s less-than-noble birth (which, in this staging, requires actor Nathan Crosby to pop out of a simulated womb and roll around the floor naked for a while), his adoptive mom Jeanine quits her job and, for no clear reason, skips town, raising baby Bob in her Chevy Malibu and homeschooling him through continual cross-country sightseeing. “Oh, Bob, you soak up everything like a roll of Bounty,” she says, praising his precosity.

When Jeanine dies suddenly – ostensibly the aftereffects of gluten intolerance and her pre-Bob attempt to work her way through the entire menu at Bamboo Wok – orphaning the pre-teen Bob on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, we know things aren’t going to proceed in a logical, naturalistic fashion. Especially once Bob cremates her on the spot, using a pyre of trigs, crumpled newspaper and a Duraflame log.

From there, Bob falls repeatedly and inexplicably into the trunk of a car driven by Jeanine’s whiskey-soured pal Bonnie, who is on her own confused quest for identity. When he’s not being whisked willy-nilly from place to place, he’s encountering all manner of folk: bear (the kind that loves men, not the kind that loves picnic baskets), a vacuous hippie spiritualist, a rebellious daughter of corporate privilege, a bizarre bunch of diner-waitress succubi seducing him with flagrant come-hither looks and ham-and-cheese omelets, and, most significantly, a couple of down-on-their-luck/high-on-their-dreams animal trainers.

All the while, Bob is harboring his own dream: to do something great enough with his life to earn the honor of his name on a plaque. Or maybe, greater still, to be immortalized in rock, like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore.

If Bob – or the audience – learns lessons about luck or pluck, perseverance or purpose, they’re not particularly clear. And the show’s rhythm, already idiosyncratic, is thrown off several times by awkward “dance” interludes about the show’s underlying themes such as hardship, love and luck. They split the difference between pretension and campiness slyly enough; they’re just a bit too dull and superfluous.

All the same, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Nachtrieb’s freewheeling way with plot developments (wolves and fleas factor in here, in ridiculous but entertaining fashion), his absurdist eye for Americana (a cop, Jeanine’s former White Castle customer and rejected suitor, calls her “my sweet slider highness”), and ear for the epigrammatic (“Some great things aren’t meant to last forever – like fruit,” Bob’s first lover tells him).

Crosby brings a wide-eyed, sweet-natured innocence and endearing, aw-shucks physicality to Bob, and there’s fine comic work throughout from the supporting ensemble of Tom Mounsey, Nathan Dunkin, Darcy Lynne, and especially Holly Wigmore, who matches Crosby’s goofball passion in several roles.


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Bob: a Life in Five Acts continues through November 15 at the Shoebox. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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