THEATER

Global Voices get a fair hearing

Boom Arts searched the world for an eclectic set of statement plays. Global Voices continues next weekend, and hopefully next year.

Last weekend, Boom Arts launched its first-ever Global Voices Lab for International Plays in Translation, a staged reading series that the company hopes to make annual. In defiance of the hugely overblown storm warnings, a small but earnest audience clustered into Lincoln Hall’s Studio Theater for a reading of Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie on Friday; then a marathon on Saturday consisting of Joned Suryatmoko’s Picnic, Sedef Ecer’s At The Periphery, and Luis Alberto Leon Bacigulpo’s The Captive. An encore performance of Jackie on Sunday kicked off at the Super Bowl-friendly but otherwise unusually early hour of 11:30 a.m. (with complementary coffee and bagels).

Next weekend will bring a different selection, Lara Foot’s Fishers of Hope and Zainabu Jallo’s Onions Make Us Cry, at a different venue, the PCC Cascade campus. Wisely, Boom has chosen to present the two African plays alongside the Cascade Festival of African Films.

So how is it?

Illuminating. Diverse. Challenging to many Portlanders’ current body of knowledge and range of experience … which is to say, worthwhile.

“These are perspectives that are rarely expressed on Portland stages,” says Boom curator/producer Ruth Wikler-Luker. “These plays allow us to plop ourselves into different cultural contexts.”

“The Captive,” by Luis Alberto León Bacigalupo, with Patricia Alvitez and Romeo Recinos. Photo: Blanca Forzan

When planning Global Voices, Wikler-Luker curated via connections rather than submissions, reaching out to her network of theater producers around the world to get recommendations and find works that spoke to her. She wanted the works to be distinct from one another in tone and theme. She wanted each to feel timely. And most importantly, she wanted to choose plays that make their own statement about the world.

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Theater for Barbarians

Portland productions of Greek theater classics tell us more about contemporary America than ancient Greece

by MARIA CHOBAN

In the midst of her Medea-like rage, I attempted to calm the beautiful, passionate Greek mother of my teen-aged piano student. “Stella!” I snapped, “I am trying to keep you from killing your son and feeding him to his father for dinner tonight!”

We laughed. But we also acknowledged the unfettered emotional intensity impossible for Greeks to suppress. Family killings in retribution for other family killings (and curses) come alive in Greek mythology and Greek drama because Greeks feel viscerally/violently, and express it to each other cleanly, graphically, without shame. There are no hidden meanings, there is no irony. There are consequences for our unmitigated impulsive behaviors and in Greek theater they play out Quentin Tarantino brutal and David Mamet blunt.

We probably can’t replicate the inside of another time and culture’s heads. That’s okay, because for me, it’s fascinating insight into our own when we try. This season, I’ve seen several Portland adaptations of Greek classics that revealed insights into 20th and 21st century American culture via their contrast with the approaches and emotions of the Greek originators of theater as we know it. And last week, I finally found one that gets closer to the Greeks!

Antigone 2.0

In last fall’s The Antigone Project, Profile Theater gave us five contemporary writers’ skits inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone story.

1. Hang Ten by Karen Hartman — a fun fast opener with lots of energy about surfer girls and guy falling in love. Kind of like early Aaron Sorkin dialogue.

2. Medallion by Tanya Barfield — A mother seeks some sort of remembrance for her dead son’s sacrifice from an angst-ridden Colonel Klink.

3. Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich — Cool rope trick. The concept of setting the story as a virtual experience — watching an actress hologramming Antigone imprisoned, left to die — with a 21st century docent guiding us was fun. Maybe that’s all it had to be. Too long.

4. A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage — Village woman makes the choice to believe in a stranger’s love, overriding her own good sense. He disappears. She’s condemned to die by stoning. Her horrified friend presses her to run away.

5. Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa — Future meets past as the dead Antigone in Hades reads about our world in unfinished books that update continuously while her sister, who chose life over an ideal cause to die for, lives the catastrophes Antigone reads….

Profile Theatre’s ‘The Antigone Project.’

Sophocles’s Antigone, one of his earliest plays, is a ham-fisted Tarantino extravaganza that accelerates to cataclysmic catharsis. It’s a summer blockbuster, perfect for audiences looking for surly, comic-book lines flung back and forth by two-dimensional characters and death. Lots of death. Plot: Antigone tries to convince her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, to overlook her killed brother-turned-traitor’s attack on Thebes and to give him a proper burial. Uncle won’t relent so it all ends in tears death.

When I lived in Greece during Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, all hell broke in America over this misuse of power — an older male superior over a younger bimbo. Greece laughed at us, pointing to her own prime minister who on television exited planes with his hand held up to help his young bimbo mistress down the stairs, his American wife left at home. The two cultures could not understand what the other culture saw, felt, reacted to.

Ditto Antigone. Greeks forged a kind of hyper-realistic drama that hinges on capturing character in depth. We’ve been practicing this ability for as long as we’ve gathered with our Greek friends for gossip; greeting the coffee klatch with Pion thavoume simera?”  (“Who are we burying today?) We bury our friends and enemies with insightful malicious character assassination, we psychoanalyze, we spill our guts. And then we write a play about it. (Something we never do is ostracize those we gossip about; they still remain within the family.)

The difference between a gathering of Greek friends in Athens and a gathering of American friends here is the difference between 4Chan and Facebook. Like 4Chan, Greeks will rip you apart if you’re emotionally insincere, articulate-but-stupid, spineless.

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‘We’re All Mad Here’…so let’s party

Shaking The Tree's fresh take on Lewis Carroll applies his lessons to our times, and it's a huge relief.

What do you do with your existential frustration?

If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with.

But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!

From last weekend to this, I took in two plays that both sprang from the same premise: our modern world warps us.

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

 

“Well, then, it’s hopeless. We should end it all,” Matthew Zrebski’s Carnivora bleakly bemoans.

“Ah! Then we might as well party!” Shaking The Tree’s We’re All Mad Here exclaims.

Mind you, those aren’t direct quotes, just the sentiments I took away—what I imagine the plays might say if they were people. Oh, wait—one of them pretty much is. We’re All Mad Here is, if not exclusively, at least predominantly conceived and performed by Matthew Kerrigan, in homage to Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

And why is Carroll’s work so timeless? Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan “Gulliver” Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.

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Fertile Ground reviews: Young bloods

Broken Planetarium's 'Atlantis' and Orphic's 'Iphigenia 3.0' show the promise of today's young Portland theater companies

At a Fertile Ground panel discussion called Building a Musical last weekend, Portland theater maven Corey Brunish, who’s produced impressive shows in Oregon and New York and beyond, noted that most Broadway shows are aimed at “well educated women in their 60s.” His observation  will come as no surprise to anyone who’s attended a Broadway show — or most other theater, in New York or elsewhere. Judging by the usual audience demographic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even Portland theater is for old people. But at two performances at this year’s Fertile Ground festival, I found young companies drawing relatively young audiences in plays that pulsed with 21st century attitude and energy. They left me optimistic for the future of theater in Portland and beyond.

After the Deluge

Set in a not so distant future in which the climate change denied by the Con-mander in Chief has now, ironically, inundated (thanks to melting polar ice) most of his properties, Atlantis takes place atop a New York skyscraper rooftop. By day, its characters watch the waters rise inch by inch, and by night participate in an early ‘60s-style Greenwich Village open mike amateur folk song showcase —providing a perfect excuse for characters to periodically burst into song. Not that operas or musicals (which, despite the subtitle, is really what this is, as it eschews traditional opera’s sung recitatives in favor of a musical’s alternating songs and dialogue) have ever needed one.

Natasha Kotey in ‘Atlantis.’ Photo: Laura Hadden.

Thankfully, the enormously entertaining show, which completed its short Fertile Ground run at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater last weekend, seldom slows to harangue us about politics; the impending flood is just an ominous if inevitable fact of life. So adaptable are these New Yorkers that, evolutionary theory be damned, they grow gills to adapt to their submerged future. It’s one of the cheerfully wacky touches that keep Atlantis’s mood light while never flinching from the gravity of its subject matter. We soon learn that this greatest of our generation’s challenges is also a metaphor for one of its other generational crises, one that unfolds through the story of one of its central characters. That’s a classic application of speculative fiction, yet there’s nothing remotely preachy or political or sentimental about this realization.

In fact, several songs (written by Laura Christina Dunn, Brigit Kelly Young, Kendy Gable, Monica Metzler a/k/a Forest Veil, Frank Mazzetti and Maggie Mascal) could be described as sharp musical comedy, and their sly, smart lyrics are one of the show’s major assets. The audience chortled and even howled through numbers like Dunn’s song about the land of lost dates, and cheered Sofia May-Cuxim’s dynamite belting out of “Hymn to the End of the World.” The other vocal performances could be charitably described as authentically scruffy indie, which suits the story but may occasionally trouble listeners who prioritize accurate pitch, range greater than a few notes, and audible lyrics over dramatic authenticity, although that last problem might be addressed by amplification in the bigger, better funded full production that I dearly hope will follow.

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Kid power: Fly Guy, Teen Musical

Staged!'s "1980's Teen Musical" and Oregon Children's Theatre's "Fly Guy: The Musical" bring some fresh young blood to Fertile Ground

When in doubt, check the kids out.

Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.

I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.

So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.

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Broken tulips, tethered lines

Sara Fay Goldman's solo show "Tether" at Fertile Ground illustrates the beauty and sorrow of ADD

Sara Fay Goldman’s Tether: A One-Woman Anti-Circus about Brain Chemistry is listed in the 2017 Fertile Ground guide as a work in progress. Artists always struggle with where the perfect ending points are in a work and Goldman may have elaborate ideas on how to expand her show, but Tether, directed by Rusty Tennant, is a dynamic, well composed, seemingly complete performance as it stands that champions those beautiful humans who aren’t neurotypical.

You may have seen a BBC television show hosted by science historian James Burke called Connections. In one episode he takes you on a journey showing how the Little Ice Age in medieval times led to the invention of chimneys, buttons, waistcoats, and wall tapestries, and from there guides you into the 20th century, showing how little advances in technology led to gasoline engines. It’s in these mental bridges that Burke connects the dots between what seems improbable or dissimilar, and illustrates the ripple effect of history and human ideas, exposing the corners where they touch.

Sara Fay Goldman in “Tether.” Photo: Myrrh Larsen

Goldman moves in similar mental circles, using a hyper-ecstasy, a touch of pain from alienation, the art of acrobatics, performance art, and some delicious monologues. She’s been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and Tether is an intimate portrait of her interior life. In Act I she’s the red-nosed Auguste clown who scrolls out a rapid-fire dialogue, jumping from one quote to the next. Digging into Cartesian ideas about being, piecing those reflections with a reference to Alvin Lucier’s famous study in stuttering I am Sitting in a Room, jumping to a monologue by Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, referring to Bottom’s involvement with the juice of a rare flower in the play, then puzzle-piecing it to the Tulip Wars of 1637, Goldman props herself onto a soapbox about the British colonizers’ approach to botany and ends with the dull irony of scientific watercolor reproductions of cataloged species hanging for display in hipster bars. It’s a high-flying and exquisite execution of how creative cognition’s roller-coaster ride turns and twists at high speeds from the inside out.

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Carnivora: torture to watch

If this new play is "not gratuitous or exploitative," then I can't imagine what is.

The Champagne in the lobby isn’t strong enough.

Could I get some moonshine?

Hemlock?

Thing is, I went into opening night of Theatre Vertigo’s Carnivora with high spirits, noting it was a new play by a local writer/director who, according to this excellent Carnivora preview, shares my zeal for American Horror Story. As I got situated in the Shoebox Theatre, I saw that playwright/director Matthew Zrebski was in attendance, sitting with (another good omen) Jason Rouse, who directed a show I’d enjoyed just two weeks ago. This was gonna be good.

I was apprised of the general premise of the play: a bruised, battered and confused woman is dumped in the middle of the Ozarks in a burlap sack, and she has to re-collect her memories. Obviously, that’s edgy. It implies adult themes, and to dispel any doubt, a trigger warning was displayed in the lobby. So I expected Carnivora to be challenging and dark; I didn’t anticipate a cakewalk. But what I felt after sitting through this long, demented play was beyond “challenged” or “piqued.” I felt miserable, nauseous, harrowed, adrenally fatigued. Never mind Champagne; after this one I needed morphine.

Stephanie Cordell in “Carnivora.” Photo: Mario Calcagno

For a hot take on this play, picture a spinoff from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but with none of The Tempest‘s humor, and a mere croaky whisper of its fairy magic. Let’s call it “Caliban’s Family.” In a dirt-floored panic room that’s meant to represent a clearing in the woods in winter, we watch a family of three Calibans menace an already-battered woman. Among the monsters is a mother/captor figure who’s put the other two in chains, and who offers the woman a rough kind of comfort (specifically, her mud-covered teat to suckle). As the woman pieces together the experience that brought her to this place, we watch flashbacks of the varied and ever-escalating domestic violences she’s been involved in. We also watch her fall helplessly for the charms of a (clearly psychotic) roving preacher.

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