THEATER

Solofest preview: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions' new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in Solofest this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run at each performance in different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault. 

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Well, Fertile Ground happened, and while I offered a few prognostications, for the first time in many years I didn’t get out to see those shows. Can you please use the comments to tell me, and more importantly each other, what you loved? With a festival that’s so egalitarian by nature, community opinions should hold the most sway anyway.

Now then:

The word around ArtsWatch via our reviewer TJ Acena is that Magellanica, which recreates the feeling of its setting, Antarctica, with a glacially paced 5+ hour runtime, is “worth it.”  I believe it. If I had to pick a group of people to get marooned in the Antarctic wilderness with, I’d actually consider Artists Rep’s company of actors. They’re versatile and compassionate, and they can make fire.

Alisha Menon is the Girl Prince in Northwest Children’s Theatre’s “Chitra.” Photo: David Kinder

Corrib’s all-age-appropriate Lifeboat closes at Northwest Children’s Theater this weekend, making way for Chitra, The Girl Prince, NWCT’s second major collaboration with Indian dance expert Anita Menon (the first being 2015’s Jungle Book). Nice to see Ken Yoshikawa pop up in a kids’ production and what looks like a romantic lead. His earnestness will not be lost on all ages.

What else?

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Long, cold, and worth it

Artists Rep's premiere of E.M. Lewis's Antarctic drama "Magellanica" – all five and a half hours of it – tells an epic tale of lives on the edge

Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.

Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.

Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.

From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.

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Crazy fun with Pete the Cat

Oregon Children's Theatre's musical version of the popular kids' books is bright and tuneful and a treat for kids and adults alike

“That was kind of crazy. Also kind of funny, right?”

– Pete the Cat (Dave Cole), Pete the Cat: The Musical

Pete himself might as well have been reviewing this lively, fun, infectious musical, the latest from the ambitious Oregon Children’s Theatre, running through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre.

To start its 30th season last October, OCT teamed with six other children’s theater companies around the nation to commission and premiere Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt, an adaption of a popular children’s book series by Megan McDonald. This time around, it’s another ambitious children’s book adaptation – Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat tales – that Artistic Director Stan Foote has been trying to bring to the Portland stage since at least 2014. He finally secured rights to put on this musical adaptation, which was commissioned and developed by New York’s Theatreworks USA.

Pete goes to school and breaks the rule. Photo: Owen Carey

While the storyline doesn’t matter all that much – Pete is forced to try out being a housecat for a week when he’s caught by the cat-catcher, and ends up with the Biddles, where he takes on a mission to inspire second-grader Jimmy (17-year-old actor Jackson Wells) to paint something beautiful to pass art class. What matters is the entertainment, and Pete the Cat and company deliver it in spades.

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Watching Readings

Playreadings and staged readings are endemic in theater. But do audiences really enjoy watching them?

Fertile Ground is springing up about us again, and Portland’s theatrical venues are filled with performances—dance, original drama, comedy, even a couple of premiere musicals, all there to delight audiences.

And then there are the playreadings.

The festival is heavy with new works, and that means that there’s a large dose of play readings and staged readings. The differentiation between the two forms is that you don’t expect more from a reading than some actors, chairs and music stands, while a staged reading can vary from a couple of simple props or costume pieces to some fairly elaborate blocking and tech—which can be indistinguishable from a workshop, which are also featured at Fertile Ground. (This is what happens when artists try to label their own work.)

Both playreadings and staged readings are generally seen as part of the natural trajectory of a script leaving the page and climbing the ladder to a regional theater premiere.

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Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

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On the run from dystopia

Milagro's new touring show "Bi–" looks to a totalitarian future and blazes a path to the beauty of in-between

The year is 2089. The people of Tierra Plana live orderly lives along strict lines, both figuratively and literally. Walled off from the rest of the world, the xenophobic nation-state has descended into a totalitarian dystopia. The leaders demand order and cultural purity. This is the world Georgina Escobar has created in her new touring show Bi-, which had its world premiere at Milagro Theatre as part of the Fertile Ground Festival.

As a touring show intended mainly for young adult audiences, Bi- is didactic but never feels heavy-handed. The story is fairly simple: The government has instituted a policy of identity bracelets that will neatly categorize the citizens. Four young friends, uncertain about the idea of trying to conform to the strict identities of the state, set out on a journey to find a mysterious underground organization that might offer them freedom.

“Bi–,” and between. Photo: Russell J Young

The idea of boxes and categorization is strong in the show. How strong? Well, the citizens of Tierra Plana are called “squares.” The city itself is composed of hard right angles, represented by lines and boxes taped onstage. The characters shuffle along these narrow pathways, or jump from one platform to the next when inside the city, making great use of the space. There’s a minimal set here but the staging, combined with a Kraftwerk-inspired soundtrack by Lawrence Siulagi, gives the production a futuristic cartoony feeling.

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