THEATER

Going with the flow

Oregon Children's Theatre's team Impulse creates improv at its best. Here's a review of the show—and a look behind the scenes.

You know an actor means business when he refers to the 2014 movie Whiplash (about a face-slapping, chair-throwing jazz conductor) as a model of a tough but successful learning experience. That’s what Hank Sanders, 17-year-old member of Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s improv team Impulse, did when I asked him about the group. “We read a book about how the best practice isn’t fun,” says Sanders. “So while I might not be always smiling and happy and be like, ‘Wow, I cannot wait for rehearsal,’ I think that’s a good sign and that we’re the best we’ve ever been.”

He has a point. Impulse’s 2018 show is improv at its finest—smoothly executed by well-trained performers, yet with a sense of weirdness that can only come from trusting your gut. I first encountered Impulse when I watched a rehearsal last month and the versatility I witnessed (the actors dreamed up comedic skits on the spot about everything from Batman to carpeting) is fully displayed in the show.

Impulse comedy-improv team 2018. Photo: Blake Wales

Impulse is a part of OCT’s Young Professionals Company, a year-long advanced acting program for students ages 14-18. The Impulse shows combine games with short and long scenes, which use audience suggestions as inspiration (the actors ask the audience beautifully bizarre questions such as, “Would you like to see a scene about a broken ruler or a crying student?”). This year’s performers are Sanders, Bryce Duncan, Isaac Ellingson, Devlin Farmer, Emma Fulmer, Nate Gardner, Onar Smith, Emma Stewart and David VanDyke.

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DramaWatch: Third Rail’s the charm

The lowdown on this week's openings and closings, new seasons on the way, and a blast of a party coming up for Third Rail Rep

“When Third Rail first came on the scene,” says Maureen Porter, “there was little else happening. It was a different scene and a different city.”

So it was, back in 2005 when Third Rail Repertory Theatre — already a couple of years worth of planning meetings into its life as a fledgling company — rocketed onto theatergoers’ radar with an acclaimed production of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. An artists’ collaborative that started out as a fully professional Equity company, they were the little guy that could, quickly coming to be considered in the front rank of Portland theaters alongside Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep; significantly smaller in budget and number of productions, but consistently punching above their weight with top-quality work.

Maureen Porter

Not long after Third Rail began to solidify its reputation, I switched from my longtime position at The Oregonian, covering popular music, to writing about theater — an art form about which I knew all too little. (Yes, yes, I know — some things never change.) I quickly fell in love with theater, and Third Rail was (along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, I suppose I’d have to say Artists Rep) why. The company picked great plays, comedies with devilish bite, dramas with surprising, insightful slants. The acting was consistently arresting, featuring a steady core of talented company members. The direction (in the early years, always by founding artistic director Slayden Scott Yarbrough) showed a scrupulous attention to detail, textual interpretation carried out coherently and cohesively through  all aspects of design and performance. The tremulous containment of Gretchen Corbett as a woman in political danger in A Lesson From Aloes; Porter’s fantastic (literally) bipolar mood swing in The Wonderful World of Dissocia; pretty much every little thing about Enda Walsh’s antic yet high-minded Penelope (a take-off on the Odyssey, set in an abandoned swimming pool)…for several years, it was high point after high point.

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Flying, like Godot

"To Fly Again," Jerry Mouawad's brilliant new riff on Beckett, just opened at Imago. Now it's about to close. Catch it while you can.

Walking into Imago Theatre’s Southeast Portland performance space to see To Fly Again, Jerry Mouawad’s verbally nimble, visually wonderful and profoundly light-hearted new show, you enter a strange yet familiar landscape, a rolling plain of sand like a beach’s or a desert’s, a wilderness broken only by a single tree. Quite like that place where Didi and Gogo hang out, waiting and waiting for Godot.

This is no accident. “I cast four actors who had a ‘clown state’ somewhere inside them,” Mouawad told ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley a few days before the show opened. “I think I’ve flushed out their clowns.” He elaborated: “I thought, ‘Yes, clowns should do Beckett.’ However, I didn’t want to do Beckett. I like Beckett but I wanted something with less of a down quality.”

The family, huddling: from left, Mullaney, Ottosen, Holder, Woods. Photo: Jubel Brosseau

So, not Waiting for Godot, but a variant, an homage, an elaboration, a playful riff that is funny and oddly touching on its own, and funnier and more touching the more you know about Beckett and Godot. The action, such as it is, centers on a quartet of oddball characters, a sort of wandering family-by-default, known as Stink Bomb, Tater, Togo, and Bob (Mark Mullaney, the divinely hesitant Stephanie Woods, Nathaniel Holder and Jake Ottoson, respectively). They do and say the sorts of things that wandering families-by-default in Beckett plays tend to do and say, although Mouawad has given their terse dialogue his own knowing, tongue-in-cheek twists. Their snatches of conversation are proto-Beckettian, coming from nowhere, meaning nothing or everything, and delivered with a deadpan Sad Sack seriousness that, taken with the shambling baggy-pants quality of the whole affair, are frightfully funny:

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Hughes Heaven

Staged!'s teen musical "John Hughes High" is pure '80s gold

There’s a moment in Staged!’s new musical John Hughes High when a teenage girl realizes she’s falling in love. Yet the object of her affection is not one person—it’s a school packed with loners, leaders, artists, athletes, and plenty of kids who haven’t quite figured out what they are.

Nerd City: Aidan Tappert, Brendan Long, Martin Hernandez in “John Hughes High.” Photo: David Kinder

That moment is proof that the creators of John Hughes High, Mark LaPierre and Eric Nordin, understand that while Hughes had a sense of humor about high-school heartaches (who doesn’t laugh when Jon Cryer gets chucked into the girls’ bathroom in Pretty in Pink?), he did his young characters the honor of taking their emotions and desires seriously. John Hughes High (which is enjoying its world premiere on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep) does the same, and as a result, the rapidly beating heart of its heroine briefly becomes yours.

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‘Fences,’ then and now

August Wilson's classic American play, in a vital production at Portland Playhouse, is set in the 1950s and seems necessary for today

America always struggles to reckon with its racist history. There’s a resistance to bringing up the past. As if history has no bearing on where we are today. As if those who suffered under slavery, or the Trail of Tears, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, were some other people in some other place. But looking back is the only way to find understanding and empathy. That’s what Portland Playhouse has done with its production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1985 play Fences.

Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays exploring the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1950s, it follows the life of Troy Maxson (Lester Purry), a middle-aged sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing major league baseball. Denied his dream because of the color line, he has consigned himself to a simple life with his wife and son.

From left: Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry, Erika LaVonn, Bobby Bermea. Photo: Brud Giles

Wilson’s script takes its time, allowing the audience time to fall under the spell of his protagonist. As the patriarch of the Maxson household Troy looms large in the family, always the center of attention. He’s a natural storyteller, drawing in his friends and family with embellished tales about his own life, and eager to give out advice on everything. But just below his charming exterior is a storm of anger and resentment, a terrifying force the family must navigate.

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Urban Tellers’ immigrant tales

A new life in words: Portland Story Theater's immigrant and refugee storytellers weave tales about leaving there and coming here

By ALIA STEARNS

The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.

One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.

Preethi Srinivas performing “Pretty Young Thing” at Urban Tellers. Photo: Kelly Nissl

And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”

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‘Manahatta’: Twice-told tale

Mary Kathryn Nagle's world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets to the roots of Wall Street and a centuries-old culture clash

ASHLAND — Manahatta playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, somewhat surprisingly, is an attorney. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. These identities inform her writing, as evidenced in Manahatta, a world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened in late March and continues through October 27.

Manahatta is a play set in two worlds — the modern-day (Oklahoma and Wall Street) and hundreds of years earlier in Manahatta (what is now Manhattan) — about a woman set in two worlds. Jane (Tanis Parenteau) is a contemporary Lenape woman living in Manhattan and returning as often as her success on Wall Street will allow to visit her family in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Parenteau also portrays a character named Le-le-wa’-you in the past Manahatta.

Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson, right) tells Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) that Manahatta is no longer a safe place for the Lenape.Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jane’s Wall Street success is juxtaposed to the life of her sister, Debra (Rainbow Dickerson, a welcome addition to the OSF company, who brings such magic to this role that you will hardly believe she is the same woman who portrays Bianca in Othello), who has stayed at home and is fighting to keep the Lenape language alive. Their mother, Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) knows the language, but refused to speak it for many years, so the daughters aren’t fluent. And, as the story and reality go, the language is at risk of being forgotten.

The Lenape people existed peacefully for centuries in the Northeastern United States, including what is now New York City. Europeans did not understand the Lenape, and the Lenape didn’t understand these new people, so the “purchase” of Manhattan was much more like a robbery. Jane comes face to face with these stark realizations while living in New York. She is mostly glued to her office, but manages to learn how Wall Street got its name (the Dutch traders built a wall to keep out the people they stole the land from).

Everyone — particularly her boss, Joe (Danforth Comins), and his boss, Dick (Jeffrey King) — keeps telling Jane how amazing it is that she is having such success here: her, a Native American, successful on Wall Street and paving a path for others to follow? The irony, of course, is not lost on the audience that Jane’s path started here and that, in fact, her ancestors literally carved the path (Broadway was the original trail carved through the brush of Manahatta by her people).

Every actor in this play shows great range, portraying someone in the earlier time period, too (and transitioning from one character to the other onstage, before our eyes): Parenteau becomes Le-le-wa’-you, in love with Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores, who plays Jane’s Lenape friend, Luke, in Anadarko, who has been adopted by the town banker/church choir director, played by David Kelly). There are no clear-cut transitions, and often the past starts crawling in while those in the present continue their story. This is especially poignant when Jane is experiencing a crisis on Wall Street and her ancestors join her, recalling the real tragedy that occurred here so long ago.

Director Laurie Woolery has managed the transitions impeccably — with a strong assist from lighting designer James F. Ingalls, who can shift our attention even when the action on stage doesn’t change. Woolery is respectful of and attentive to the playwright’s script and the Lenape history. “So respectfully,” writes Woolery, who lives in New York, “we have been excavating this history out of the soil, rocks and roots of this sacred island despite [it] being buried beneath cement, steel and glass.”

Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores)gives Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) a wampum necklace that belonged to his mother. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dickerson is also Le-le-wa’-you’s sister and Tousey once again her mother in the Lenape world. Jane’s bosses are traders who help, each in his own way, rip this precious land from the Lenape people. Kelly is a pastor in Manahatta. In both worlds, Kelly sees himself as the “savior” of the Lenape: He goes so far in Anadarko as to tell his adopted Lenape son, Luke, that he saved him. The savior complex is hard to watch — as the church choir director who also works at the bank effectively takes Bobbie’s lifelong home away from her. It’s not Manahatta, but it serves as an effective symbol, bringing up fresh for Bobbie all she has lost: her husband, her language, her people’s culture, and now her home.

Comins, King, and Kelly all portray characters that must be difficult to embrace—uttering words like “savage” and continually treating the Lenape as less than people (“You speak!” they exclaim, delighted and surprised as if a baby had spoken its first words, when a Lenape person speaks their language). Each of these actors does a fine job (and Comins deserves extra credit for bringing something completely different to this stage within a day, or hours, of portraying Iago in Othello). But they leave the emotional resonance and most powerful moments to the Native characters.

The actors make their transitions from one time period to another brilliantly, not only due to strong performances and shifts in language and mannerisms, but also with the help of costumes (designed by E.B. Brooks) that transfer from one period to another, and of the set (by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez) that looks so simple at first glance — a table, some rocks, a chair — but contains so much: centuries, even.

This play points out what should be obvious: Our successes in America are built on the backs and lives of the Native people who occupied this land before our ancestors took it from them and relegated them to reservations, where they were ignored at best or gravely mistreated at worst. There is no clearer indication or symbol of what we have built this country on than in Manhattan in general and Wall Street in particular. The Dutch traders were able to steal Manhattan easily without guilt, because the Lenape people did not understand the concept of “owning” a place. So, they were driven out, violently and permanently (or so Jane’s “rare” success would seem to indicate), and the Europeans were able to make millions and build skyscrapers as symbols of their wealth.

Luke (Steven Flores) has doubts about the mortgage loan his adoptive father Michael (David Kelly) has encouraged a friend to take out to pay off her family’s medical bills. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

But if you build your life and hopes and dreams around monetary successes, Nagle warns, you are bound to lose it all. Destroying the ways and lives and homes of the Native people whose land this truly is will not lead to redemption — no, I gather, not even if you’re a pastor or a church choir director. Manahatta may leave you shattered, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. Debra’s work preserving the Lenape language, Jane learning about Manhattan’s history, and this world-premiere play in the Thomas Theatre are all reasons to believe that all is not yet lost.

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