Portland’s New King of Comedy

Alex Falcone snatches the crown at Helium Comedy’s Portland’s Funniest Person Championship

Stakes were high at Helium Comedy Club’s sold-out Portland’s Funniest Person competition on Wednesday night. Twelve comedians, who had survived a month-long gauntlet, had one last chance to win over the audience and judges. After two and a half hours of stand-up, host and previous champion Caitlin Weierhauser finally passed both crown and scepter on to this year’s winner: Alex Falcone.

Alex Falcone, Portland’s new king of comedy.

Past winners of Portland’s Funniest Person, such as Ian Karmel, have gone on to receive Emmy nominations and write for late-night talk shows. Other winners, like Nathan Brannon, have recorded comedy albums and taken to the road for national tours. In addition to the invitation to open for headliners at Helium, winners also receive a comfy twelve hundred dollars. Oh yeah, and perhaps the most prestigious prize: bragging rights.

Ian Karmel: On beyond Helium.

Falcone let loose an onslaught of punchline after punchline, each stronger than the last. He packed so much material into his set, it felt like a Netflix special. His set was also the only one that was thematically coherent; it was essentially a single narrative exploration of fatherhood and family. It all led up to a great closing bit about consent: “Talking to your son about consent is important,” Falcone says, “but consent is a bare minimum. What you’re looking for is … participation. ”

Falcone took home the big win, but second-place winner Mohanad Elshieky got some of the biggest laughs of the night. Elshieky is no stranger to the competition — he was second runner-up last year, and the Portland Mercury has dubbed him an “undisputed genius of comedy.” His set was arguably the most challenging. His perceptive jokes ranged from his experience as an immigrant, to superficial liberal solidarity, to gun control.


‘Blue Mountain’: a solicited audient’s response to ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie’

Workshop performance of this weekend's SummerFest feature intensifies classic play's tragedy and humor by stripping its words to the bone


One dark and stormy night in January, I braved Portland’s mild winter weather for an unusual play called, of all preposterous things, Philip’s Glass Menagerie. The triple pun was enough to make me go—a mash-up of Philip Glass (whom I had recently written about) and Tennessee Williams’ famous tale of stifling Southern family love, adapted by Philip Cuomo and performed in CoHo’s black box theater by the CoHo Clown Cohort. (An updated production is playing this weekend at Coho SummerFest. Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.)

I knew practically nothing of the play, and I’m not gonna rehash it here. I knew it was a heavy one when I invited a friend and he said, “nah, Glass Menagerie, I’ve seen it once—oof!—once was plenty.” I mentally catalogued it as Deep & Troubling Theater and prepared myself for an evening of soul spilling and “ACTING!” Even with clowns and whatnot, I reasoned, it would probably still be pretty normal theater, right? Nope. What I got was Tennessee Williams stripped to the bone, the bones reassembled like Robert Crumb’s Ezekiel, dancing skeletons in a dark room with little more than a typewriter, a chaise, a couple pieces of fruit, and an inflatable unicorn.

… a play that sometimes seems lighter than air. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

The result was spectacular. In that January workshop performance—preparation for this weekend’s Summerfest premiere—the four actors performed an interpretation (perhaps “translation” would be more accurate) of Williams’ memory play. The use of Glass’ music was frankly a little gratuitous, snippets from Passages and North Star piped in just for the interstices, barely enough to justify the pun, but I quickly got over that. A little Glass goes a long way, and too much would have detracted from the performance.

The real Glass inspiration was the Einstein on the Beach-like treatment of the text (actually Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson probably deserves credit for that, but then we would lose the pun). Cuomo’s production stripped away something like 98 percent of Williams’ words, translating all that frustrated, understated, cloistered, closeted angst into the telegraphed language of clowning, like a Borges metastory adapted by Tati. Single words and short phrases, repeated and repeated and repeated again, became the scaffolding for long-form physical comedy, each little twist on the phrase a new revelation of plot or character or theme, each variation both a joke in itself and the punchline to earlier jokes. “I’m going to the movies.” “Come in!” “Blue Mountain.”

This achievement in itself would have been monumental, but then we got into the gender flipping and the serious clowning. Actor-director (and local legend) Isaac Lamb portrayed matriarch Amanda with a larger-than-life vulnerability, deftly maneuvering the character’s various moods: tender and domineering, morose and vulnerable, desperately cheerful, wistfully despairing. Australia-Portland transplant and experienced drag performer Emily Newton amazed me with her series of Gentleman Caller characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Tom (that’d be Mr. Williams) was the most overtly clown-like of the bunch, toggling adroitly between traditional mime routines (the bit with the cigarette was particularly good) and the hilariously helpless rage that is the fate of teenage writers everywhere. Sascha Blocker anchored the cast as Laura (Tom’s sister, based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, and don’t go googling her unless you’ve got a few hankies handy). Blocker’s red hair and fragile resilience reminded me above all of Julianne Moore’s star-making performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, and on the few occasions when her performance turned comedic, she was funnier than anyone else.


DramaWatch: Clown ‘Menagerie’

This week, "Philip's Glass Menagerie" gives a twist to Tennessee. Plus openings, closings, the tax man giveth, and a dash of Randy Rainbow.

“Being a ‘memory play,’ The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention,” wrote Tennessee Williams in the production notes to his great 1940s story of a family trapped between hard realities and comforting illusions. Williams might never have suspected, however, that “unusual freedom” would result in the story being presented as an elliptical string of nearly wordless comic vignettes, performed by clowns in drag.

Yet here we are at the fourth and final week of CoHo Summerfest 2018, and Philip’s Glass Menagerie will be taking just such liberties with this hallowed American classic. As the festival playbill puts it, the show “explores whether or not Williams’ emotionally intimate story can be told truthfully and powerfully through the extreme physical expression of clowning.”

The “whether or not” question may already have been answered by a successful workshop production earlier this year during the Fertile Ground festival.

Sascha Blocker, “lovely, precise, emotionally transparent” as Laura. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

“The most satisfying information gleaned from Fertile Ground was that the conceit held up,” says director/adapter Philip Cuomo. “I was really pleased to learn that even people not familiar with the play had an enjoyable experience. There were people who kind of sort of knew it and found their memories jogged in an intriguing way. There were people really familiar with the play who came expecting it not to work, then were pleasantly surprised when it did. And then there were people who came in without any knowledge and went on this incredible ride from silliness to pathos.”


A Cinderella story for modern times

Portland Opera's sly and witty version of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" sparkles with raffish theatricality and hints of power used and tamed.

While the temperature in downtown Portland was inching toward 100 degrees on Sunday afternoon something cool was happening in the Newmark Theatre, and it wasn’t just the air-conditioning. Portland Opera was kicking into the second performance of its current run of Gioachino Rossini’s splendid little comedy La Cenerentola (it has four remaining performances, July 19, 21, 25, and 28), and it felt just a little like good old-fashioned populist show biz: music-hall stuff, bright and gaudy and smoothly polished and pleasingly antique, like a visit to the Moulin Rouge or D’Oyly Carte. The band was brassy and cheeky and the acting was brisk and impeccably choreographed, an effect accidentally underscored by the coincidental scheduling of auditions for those high-kicking goddesses of the basketball court the Blazer Dancers in the Winningstad Theatre downstairs. The Blazer aspirants had their own contingent of enthusiastic followers, and the blend of opera lovers and sporting fans led to an interesting mixture of audiences and sometimes skimpy costuming in the lobby beforehand.

Caught in the frame: Stepsisters Tisbe (Laura Beckel Thoreson, left) and Clorinda (Helen Huang) primp and preen. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

La Cenerentola is a retelling of the Cinderella story, without the fairy godmother or the magic mice and pumpkin but with some terrific melodies, and after the lengthy overture (William Tell wasn’t the only overture Rossini wrote) the opera opens with the two spoiled stepsisters popping about the stage like bright-cheeked marionettes, or maybe floppy rag dolls in their skivvies, while Cenerentola, poor cinder maid, slumps morosely in the corner, singing a sad song that only irritates her petulant sisters as they primp and fuss.

Fatuous step-pappa Don Magnifico (there is no stepmother in this version) is snoozing out of sight in the background, and pretty soon a beggar shows at the doorstep: He is roundly reviled by the stepsisters but treated kindly by Cenerentola (or Angelina, as she comes to be known for her sweet spiritual goodness), who feeds him while the sisters aren’t looking. Let that suffice for setup. There is a prince, there is a ball, there are disguises, there is a search (not for a glass slipper, but a matching bracelet), and love, of course, triumphs. Love, and a friskily told, slyly comic story.


Newberg professional theater goes beyond “The Hamlet Show”

Penguin Productions offers Shakespeare and Wilde. Also on tap: Wildwood MusicFest in Willamina, da Vinci Days celebrates the intersection of art and science

There are surely stretches over the year when not much is going on in Yamhill County, artistically speaking. Those lazy weeks will afford opportunities for deep dives into our scene, with in-depth interviews and profiles of individual artists. But July is not one of those times. So grab a pen, or fire up the calendar app on your phone — whatever you’re using these days to organize your life — and get ready, because we have a lot to cover.

Nathaniel Andalis and Patricia Alston of Penguin Productions rehearse a scene from Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” which opens July 19 in Newberg. Photo by: Kris Klancy

This is especially true in Newberg, where a remarkable thing has happened. A small group of talented and endlessly energetic young people have joined forces to launch a theater company — a professional theater company. Penguin Productions was formed in 2017 by Chris Forrer and fellow Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) alums Daphne Dossett and Garrett Gibbs, on whose family property the outdoor productions are staged. Their mission to create “classical theater for a contemporary world” began last summer with gender-fluid productions of As You Like It and Macbeth.

This week, they kick off the 2018 season with what Forrer promises will be a brisk Hamlet (around 2 hours and 40 minutes) and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, in which politics with a capital “P” plays out in contemporary Washington, D.C. (thanks to a 1895 script that falls well within the public domain). Shows start Thursday, July 19, and run through Aug. 4, with four performances of each. Tickets are $8 to $15 and may be purchased at the website.

Hamlet, directed by co-founder Gibbs, sounds particularly interesting. The company’s take, basically, is that Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius have, in their own way, been painted into the corner of caricature over the years in ways that are not necessarily supported by Shakespeare’s text. The play, Forrer told me, is much more interesting with a charismatic and even likable Claudius. Gertrude isn’t necessarily cold and distant, and Polonius (played here by a woman) is not an idiot. Forrer thinks the text supports Gibbs’ direction and makes for a much more exciting story than what all too often becomes “The Hamlet Show.” Sure, it is that, but you know what he’s saying.


#//< EMBEDDED >//# review: con job

Pratik Motwani’s addictive, surprising solo show at Coho Summerfest is a metaphor for today’s social media malevolence


“Want some candy, little girl?”

Any good con job, whether hooking a future junkie or a theater audience depends on great acting. I said “Yes,” grabbed the candy, then allowed Pratik Motwani to roller-coaster me through his 75-minute short course on how to become an addict in his latest creation — #//<EMBEDDED>//#, playing through this Sunday at CoHo’s Summerfest. Only two performances left — run, don’t walk. This is a terrific con job.

It’s the sly story of a nebbish mama’s boy recently moved to America from India. For his birthday his mommy, who lives in India, sends him a card, an orange shirt, and a cell phone. Probably among the three worst things to send a lonely 20-something unsupervised male. In lieu of connecting with the real world, the ugly duckling with huge buck teeth creates an online virtual version of himself and throws this upgraded swan on the virtual wall to see if it sticks.

Pratik Motwani stars in ‘Embedded’ at Coho Summerfest.

Motwani portrays both roles in this solo show. Cinnamon 1 is the living, breathing, lonely mama’s boy videorecorded and projected on the center screen above the stage, with whom Cinnamon 2 interacts. Motwani performs live the role of Cinnamon 2, the avatar, interacting with impeccable timing with the video. (Think about how much rehearsal this required to memorize the pauses and inflections in the video.) Motwani pongs between hip strings of naughty emanating from the declaiming Cinnamon 2 (“Ice Ice Icicles, spec spec spectacles, test test testicles. Woah, this mic is turned on!”) and searing lonely decresendoing salutations to his mom, unable to hang up: “Bye mommy. Bye. Bye bye bye bye?”

Sound design frames this multimedia extravaganza of lighting, projections, mime, dance, acting. From the beginning scrapings heard in the dark to the iconic cell phone rings or Super Mario Brothers theme or “likes” racking up, we’re conditioned to respond as with Wagner’s leitmotifs. When the phone rings it’s mommy so get offline! When the bell dings, it’s an adoring fan! So happy! Stay online! All this in addition to dance music like the “Bidet Mambo.”

Motwani, a wiry, Mumbai-born California theater artist who has appeared in Imago Theatre’s Frogz and ZooZoo, is a precise, exuberant dancer. He looks a lot like Pivot Animator figures in motion when learning how to move as a virtual creation. Trippy projections corkscrewing us down a hole into virtual hell or escalating us back up to mommy’s phone call abetted the sound. Lights going up in the audience when the show went LIVE or the shadow images of Cinnamon 2 behind a screen mimicking Cinnamon one in the real world weren’t just cool effects. This was intelligent theater that kept us hooked, addicted… conned.


DramaWatch: Can’t pay? Must pay.

The issue of salaries vs. contracts in a typically underpaid profession sweeps the theater scene. Plus, openings from Ashland to Hillsboro.

“To all professional theatre companies and their donors and sponsors, Susan and I will no longer donate to organizations paying less than minimum wage.”

On July 6, that simple message was posted to the Facebook page of Leonard Magazine, who, along with his wife, Susan, is surely among the most devoted of Portland-area theater fans. The pair attend multiple shows each week, and donate widely. Over the next few days, 106 comments on the message were posted by some of the Magazines’ many Facebook friends, many of them theater artists. Many comments engendered their own lengthy sub-threads of replies and exchanges.

In some regards, it’s a complicated issue. The Facebook comments raised questions about the distinctions between hourly pay, salaries and stipends; about the differing treatment of actors, designers, and running crews; about distinctions in union contracts and the demands of state labor law; about whether more stringent pay requirements may cause some professional companies to instead operate as community theaters, or at least lead to seasons full of two-handers because larger casts will be unaffordable. A recurring theme in the comments was appreciation for Don Horn’s Triangle Productions, which has made a commitment to following state wage law and has hosted discussions between theater community members and labor-law specialists.

Dale Johannes in Triangle Productions’ recent “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Triangle has been praised for its adherence to employment laws. Photo: Henry Liu

So much to digest. That the Magazines have made such a decision about their support of theaters and made a public declaration of principle is perhaps not as consequential as if the same move had been made by such a major arts donor as, say, Ronni Lacroute. But as an example of passionate theater supporters taking a tough-love stance around an issue that doesn’t usually get major attention, that single sentence on Facebook might create a meaningful ripple in the city’s arts ecosystem. Certainly the Magazines intend it as a spur to discussion and action, among donors and administrators alike.