Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.


Fertile Ground review: Finding their way in the storm

The Snowstorm deftly combines music, movement, and more to create magical theater.


Editor’s note:  CoHo ProductionsThe Snowstorm, which closed last weekend after a too-short at Portland’s Coho Theatre, was one of the biggest hits of this year’s Fertile Ground festival, its entire run selling out after the first weekend’s performances. Its unusually rich combination of elements inspired ArtsWatch to cover it with an unusual team approach, using writers experienced in each of its three primary components: veteran Portland concert pianist Maria Choban to discuss the music, dance writer and choreographer Jamuna Chiarini to consider the dance, and Brett Campbell to take a look at the theatrical elements.

In the The Snowstorm, music precedes words from the downbeat. As the audience walks in, a pianist casually tickles the ivories at a grand piano, and the actors mingle and chat with each other among the seats. It’s hard to tell, until the lights cue us, just where the performance ends and reality begins, or is it the other way around? Gradually, the cast members array themselves in chairs on stage in front of us, facing the back of the stage, where we soon understand they’re watching a turn-of-the-century parlor piano recital. We audience members suddenly feel as though we constitute the rear ranks of that stage audience. Both accompanist and audience are in effect onstage.

That’s not the only oddity at the play’s outset. As the music plays, we see the youngest “audience” member start fidgeting, and soon the players start transforming (via the young boy, Pavel’s, imagination and Tony Fuemmler’s arresting masks) from the bourgeoisie of belle époque Veliky Novgorod into dancing wild creatures far more fascinating to a 10-year-old than proper Russian gentry. Already we can tell: this story will be told as much via movement, music and magic as conventional dialogue.

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

In that opening scene, the accompanist, Eric Nordin, assumes the nonspeaking role of Andres, the touring musician whom the “audience” — that is, the players — have come to hear perform. And although after the recital ends, the parlor gives way to other sets, and we audience members (the real audience, that is, not the performing “audience”) return to our usual role as detached observers, Nordin never leaves the stage. For the next two hours, while the rest of the action happens elsewhere on stage around him, he plays a dozen and a half tunes by Rachmaninoff, the late-Romantic Russian composer whose music fairly bursts with the emotions the upper middle class characters are forbidden by social convention to express — yet are clearly feeling.

Nordin is also The Snowstorm’s scriptwriter and co-creator, with director/choreographer Jessica Wallenfels, and his piano almost becomes a character summoning the past in this story about a father and a middle aged woman who meet at this recital, and who’ve both suffered grievous losses. Via flashbacks to the events of a decade before the play opens, as is common in so many plays and novels these days, we’ll spend the rest of this melodrama (using the term in its original sense) discovering just what past tragedies brought the unfortunate pair to the state we first glimpse them in, and learning how they affected a father’s relationship with his young son, and a woman’s relationship to society. The ultimate outcome of their encounter is pretty predictable, too, but that doesn’t stop this “original fable” from being one of the most enjoyable and fully realized productions we’ve encountered at Portland’s Fertile Ground festival.


From Corrib, a Little Gem

Elaine Murphy's comic drama about three generations of women in an Irish family lives up to its title

The men aren’t there.

Well, they are, but only talked about, never seen. However important they might be in the shaping and sometimes twisting of the lives we see and hear in Dublin writer Elaine Murphy’s fascinating drama Little Gem, the play is about these three women and the ways they form and keep a family: mom Lorraine (Sara Hennessy), grandmom Kay (Michele M. Mariana), young-adult daughter Amber (Lauren Mitchell).

From left: Hennessy, Mariana, Mitchell. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Hennessy, Mariana, Mitchell. Photo: Owen Carey

Shifting points of view easily in a smooth series of monologues, the three women tell a tale of love, loyalty and endurance on the tenuous lower rungs of the working class. It doesn’t hurt that a few good comedy bits are tossed in to ease the tension, from mom’s encounter with the sweating hairy man to grandma’s reluctant adventures with the buzzing vibrator.

Corrib Theatre’s production in the upstairs banquet room of Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub is about as stripped-down as it can be, and that seems fitting for a play about a family of women just struggling (successfully, as it turns out) to survive: a simple low platform for a stage, a wooden chair that can be moved about, a backdrop that consists of a plain wooden frame with a large quilt, that enduring form of women’s art and craft, hanging from it. The quilt defines the warmth of the women’s relationship, and makes the stage a home. The little bar in the next room, where members of the audience can grab a beer or glass of wine before and after the show, makes the space seem both a home and a comfortable pub, an Irish institution that plays a vital background role in Little Gem.

The production’s simplicity puts the attention squarely on the performers, who meet the challenge with dash, humor, and sometimes shattering impact. Hennessy maintains a sweet and carefully modulated rambunctious center as Lorraine, the harried woman in the middle who is dealing with a rocky work environment, a long-absent deadbeat husband, a daughter who might be going off the deep end, and the surprise possibility of a genuinely good relationship with a decent man. As Kay, the veteran Mariana provides the show’s emotional anchor, downshifting the action to the nitty-gritty of it all: the end of a long and fruitful marriage, the recognition of her own mortality, the responsibility for holding everything together, the tending of the emotional embers so they don’t go out, the warmth and strength that bind the three generations together. It’s a lovely and moving performance. Mitchell, by generational contrast, is a compulsively chattering jumble of nerves as Amber: a little punkish, reckless, combative, vulnerable in spite of herself, left in the lurch by the lout who knocks her up and leaves her with child – the “Little Gem” of the title, the family’s new hope.

The surprising thing about Little Gem is, you get a complete sense of the rising and falling relationships even though no one ever talks to anyone else: until the very end the entire play is told in monologues, each of the three actors taking her turn. Director Gemma Whelan keeps the action clear and swift, paying close attention to the emotional ebb and flow. What emerges is a small wonder about ordinary people’s large lives.


Three points about Corrib and Little Gem:

  • Corrib is devoted to plays about the Irish experience, and in her program notes Whelan points out playwright Murphy’s key role in that regard: “In the history of Irish theatre, female voices have long been absent or marginalized. This despite the fact that Lady Augusta Gregory was one of the founders of the Irish National Theatre – the Abbey, where her plays were produced alongside Synge and Yeats. Teresa Deevy had her plays staged there in the 1930s, and Marina Carr was one of the first women to have her work produced there in the twenty-first century. Elaine Murphy’s latest play Shush played at the Abbey Theatre in 2013, making her the third woman in nearly 100 years to have a play produced by Ireland’s national theatre. The time has come!”
  • Little Gem continues through Feb. 26 on an unusual schedule: Monday through Thursday evenings. Among other things, that allows other theater people to catch the show on their Monday nights off from their own shows.
  • Also from the program: “We dedicate this production to Ted Roisum, (1952-2015). Ted performed in Corrib’s first full production – St. Nicholas – at Kells in March 2013, marking the first time this space was used as a theatre. For Corrib, this will always be ‘Ted’s Space.’ We miss him hugely.” A public memorial service for Ted, the much-loved and admired Portland actor who died of cancer on Jan. 29, will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St.




A wild tale of Goya and piglets on the loose

Boom Arts' "I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me …" delivers its absurdity and Vienna sausages straight outta the can

How messed up do you have to be to mistake your sons for piglets, or piglets for your sons? Boom Arts grapples with this question and throws a backhanded compliment at a Spanish romantic painter in Rodrigo García’s I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep than Some Other Son of a Bitch, which continues through Feb. 7 at Disjecta.

Goya was the last of the old masters, and we get the impression that the play’s sole (human) character sees himself the same way. In a drunken rant, he bemoans what idiots everyone else has become, with the exception of himself and his hero Goya. Sweeping his hand to swat at the world in general, he declares modern humans easily distracted, entertained…and perhaps outsmarted? Thinking out loud, he hatches a plan to thwart an institution and get closer to his Godot…I mean God…I mean Goya.


Spectravagasm’s ‘Gender-gasm’ goes all the way

The sixth installment of Post5's frankly undersung late night sketch series "offends everyone equally," and amuses ArtsWatch a lot.

It’s a small, special club of people who’ve had the pleasure of witnessing all six of Post5 Theatre’s Spectravagasms, a series of sketch shows tackling various themes (horror, the future, religion, etc.) devised by wily buffoon Sam Dinkowitz and a small, brilliant team of other clowners-around. Too small, really. The work that obviously goes into these smartly written, tightly timed shows continues to be less than halfway met by potential audiences not bothering to venture all the way “out” to Post5, or those already on site for an earlier show who decide not to stay. Their loss! Why buy an evening of theater and not go for the ‘gasm?


The current installment, Gendergasm, is onstage through Valentine’s Day in the late-night time slot following Woman on The Scarlet Beast and Gender Tree, and takes its thematic cue from the latter. In addition to Dinkowitz, the players are Nicole Accuardi, Chip Sherman, Brett Wilson and Rebecca Ridenour. Fast-paced, unpredictable and sometimes literally winking, it’s one of those rare satires that you could reasonably call a “romp.” And it’s faaaabulous, Bitches!

Oh. Wait. Sorry. I didn’t mean to call you “Bitches.”


Ring-ring. Sarah Ruhl calling.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," sparked by Dana Millican's deft blend of comedy and fantasy, pushes the right buttons to start Profile's season of Ruhl plays

A phone rings, and rings, and rings, and exasperatingly, its owner doesn’t answer it. He just sits at his café table, staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought, dreaming of the last bowl of lobster bisque he arrived too late to get.

Or – this might explain things – he’s dead. Dapper, self-involved, acerbic Gordon has been struck down amid pangs of hunger, and even sharper irritation at the young woman at the next table, who is just spooning in the last bite of the bisque he had specifically come to this oddly unstaffed café to eat.

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

That young woman, Jean (Dana Millican), equally irritated at the cell phone’s bleat, eventually answers it herself, and then keeps answering it, over and over, slipping into the shadows and abandoned realities of the dead man’s life as if it were a celestial obligation, or a gift.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the sparklingly oddball first production in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl. This slightly absurdist, slightly comic-book, highly whimsical, and emotionally serious play takes a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, and Millican makes an ideal, engagingly sympathetic contemporary Alice, balancing the role’s cartoon and realist aspects to create a captivating wonderland.


FG reviews: Staging history

Cottonwood in the Flood, Deception, and One Weekend in October dramatize racially charged moments.

This year’s Fertile Ground Festival offered several plays relating to race and history. I caught readings of three of them, each in a different stage of development. All three show promise, as well as flaws that are easier to spot once they’re actually read before an audience — a prime reason Fertile Ground is so valuable.

The terrific cast of Rubin's Cottonwood in the Flood.

The terrific cast of Cottonwood in the Flood.

Cottonwood in the Flood

The story of a mid 20th century African American family that moves from south to north and deals with the challenges of social, economic, racial and even geographical change — it sounds like an ideal set up for an August Wilson play, if the longtime Seattle based playwright had written about the Northwest he migrated to instead of the Pittsburgh he grew up in.

Wilson liked to write about how place changes over generations, and Vanport, Oregon — the site of Portland playwright Rich Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood and the aforementioned fictional family’s struggles — existed for only six years, before succumbing to the great flood of 1948, and becoming, along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis. It proved an eventful stretch, both militarily (with workers churning out important components of America’s World War II arsenal), and socially, as a de facto experimental precursor to racial integration.


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