THEATER

Artists Rep picks J.S. May as new managing director

May, a veteran leader of Portland arts and civic organizations, is charged with guiding the theater through a big transition..

Artists Repertory Theatre, trying to navigate a time of both turbulence and promise, has hired a steady hand to guide the ship. Portland’s oldest and second-largest theater announced Tuesday afternoon that J.S. (John Stuart) May, a respected figure in non-profit management in the city, has been hired as the company’s new managing director.

May is set to start immediately as co-leader of the organization, alongside artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, replacing Sarah Horton, who left the managing director post at the end of 2017. “His impressive management experience with nonprofits in Portland, and his proven marketing and fundraising skills, make him a great fit at the right time for our organization,” Mike Barr, chair of Artists Repertory Theatre’s board of directors said in the company’s news release.

J.S. May, newly named managing director of Artists Repertory Theatre, will steer the big red ship on Southwest Alder Street. Photo: Kisha Jarrett.

“I can’t think of a better choice for ART,” said Jim Fullan, a former marketing director for Portland Opera and former VP for marketing and communications at the Oregon Symphony. “J.S. has always been one of the most respected and effective arts administrators in this region. His warm personality, his smarts, and his extensive experience in the Portland arts arena make him the perfect choice to lead the organization into an even brighter future. I have no doubt that he’ll be very successful.”

With a resume featuring stints at the Portland Art Museum, the Metropolitan Group, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting, May brings a broad background in fundraising, marketing, communications, and strategic management. He’s served on boards for numerous non-profit and civic organizations, including the arts-focused Creative Advocacy Coalition.

Such a range of experiences and the connections that come with them could be crucial for Artists Rep, which is in the midst of the most complicated transition in its 36-year history.

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Purple is the color of hard-won joy

Portland Center Stage delivers a jubilant production of "The Color Purple," the musical adapted from Alice Walker's famed novel of struggle and transformation.

The Color Purple looms large in America’s literary (and cinematic) canon. Beloved and controversial, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African American woman living in the early 1900’s has touched millions. Unsurprisingly, it’s not an easy story. The hardships that the women in the story endure are appalling and it wouldn’t seem like material prime for a musical adaptation. But Marsha Norman did it, staying true to the source material while using the medium to bring the joy and hope of the story to the forefront. Portland Center Stage opens its season with this jubilant experience.

For those unfamiliar with The Color Purple: 14-year-old Celie (Felicia Boswell) lives with her much-loved sister and monstrous father in rural Georgia. Abused and neglected Celie is separated from her sister and given to Mister (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), an abusive widower, to raise his unruly children. As she grows up Celie begins to draw inspiration and strength from other women in her life, especially Mister’s lover Shug (Lana Gordon) a fiercely independent jazz singer.

Drawing on gospel, ragtime, jazz, and blues, the score grounds the musical in its time period and creates an emotional counterpoint to the seriousness of the story. Where there is hardship there is hope. Where there is oppression there is defiance. Celie’s first lesson in independence comes from her daughter-in-law Sofia (Maiesha McQueen), who implores her to stand up for herself in the explosive blues number “Hell No!” This is a high-energy production, but McQueen’s commanding performance takes it to a new level, earning whooping applause from the audience.

Make ya wanna holla!: Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd as Harpo and Maiesha McQueen as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

While The Color Purple centers the lives of African American women and the strength they draw from each other, it’s impossible to ignore the abuse they suffer. Consideration is given to Mister, but only as to how he’s internalized toxic masculinity and his own realization around that. Walker’s novel is unsparing in how it critiqued patriarchy and racism and though this adaptation is pared down Norman keeps this idea at the forefront of the script.

The current national dialogue about racism and sexual assault, cracked open by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, make this show feel all too timely.

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‘Ann’: sketchy portrait

One-woman show about the feisty Texas governor misses what made Ann Richards great

Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute, Ann, which Triangle Productions is staging through September 29, brought back memories of a politician I both criticized and admired. I covered Ann Richards and Texas politics during her last term as elected state treasurer and through her successful campaign for governor, writing and editing at Texas’s leading progressive magazine, The Texas Observer, probably best known here as the launching pad and lifelong forum for one of my predecessors, Molly Ivins.

Because I saw a preview performance, I can’t really review Triangle’s production, as star Margie Boule, who’s been getting raves, was understandably still settling into the part. But no production can save a scattered script that fundamentally lacks a story, real conflict (beyond the family drama of who gets paired with whom in the family game of Charades), dramatic structure or tension. It goes on too long and tries to end three times — none satisfactory and the last drearily bathetic, with Richards joining her mom and pop at the great ranch in the sky. The first and only play written by Taylor (an Emmy-winning TV actor best known for her roles in sitcoms Bosom Buddies and Two and a Half Men) to perform herself, it’s more like a character sketch an actor might prepare than an actual drama.

Ann gives us little understanding or even discussion of her life’s work or what motivated her not-politically correct (for most of Texas of her time) liberalism. After an expositional opening scene relaying her history through a college graduation address, Richards spends the next hour or so in a tedious series of phone calls: making travel arrangements, chatting with her old buddy Bill Clinton, micromanaging the family holiday gathering, dealing with reporters, reserving boats for a fishing trip, pondering a stay of execution for a developmentally disabled death row inmate, etc. Taylor’s apparent strategy is to show how Richards juggles the business of state as well as family duties through the multitasking that moms know so well.

“In fact, motherhood is splendid training for politics,” her friend and my colleague Ivins wrote in her obituary in our magazine. “All good mothers know what to do when there’s two kids and one cookie, and all good mothers know what to do when there are two kids in the back seat hitting each other, each one of them claiming the other one started it. All political problems are merely variations of those two situations.”

But the multitasking takes up most of the play. My date, who’s not from Texas, was mystified by what was at stake, why it mattered, and/or what obstacles and choices Richards faced. Such context is crucial to Taylor’s goal: imparting a sense of Richards’s character.

Originally subtitled “an affectionate portrait,” Ann comes off as shallow fangirl worship, unworthy of Richards’s substantive achievements political and personal. The script, which Taylor intended to praise Richards, winds up burying her greatness in trivialities. Instead of the powerful political leader she actually was, we get the kind of wisecracking celebrity she might have looked like from Hollywood. 

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More than a feeling of “Ordinary Days”

Subtle emotions bloom in the Broadway Rose production of the touching Adam Gwon musical about city dwellers seeking connection.

Feelings can be sneaky things.

For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.

Ordinary Dayswhich plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.

Moving and touching: “Ordinary Days” features Benjamin Tissell (left) as Jason and Kailey Rhodes as Claire, a young couple trying to unpack what’s in the way of a better connection. Photo: Sam Ortega.

That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.

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Painting the town in Newberg

George Fox students lend their hands and paintbrushes to increasing Yamhill County's mural inventory

Those of you in Portland lucky enough to live within a few blocks of an awesome mural have to understand: We don’t have as many artists in Yamhill County as you do. Or as many walls. But give us some credit; we have people working on it.

One of the most important is Luke Zimmerman, a classically trained painter who teaches at George Fox University in Newberg. A few years ago, he started looking around and realized that the community had a serious mural deficit. That’s true of much of Yamhill County, but more on that later. Zimmerman had both students who had mural experience and others who wanted to give it a try, so they all put their heads together, and art happened.

The first of what organizers hope will be several murals by the Yamhill County
Mural Project is visible driving into Newberg on Oregon 99W. Photo by: David Bates

You can see the result as you head into downtown from the north. After you come down the hill on Oregon 99W and hit the curve, you can see the mural on the left side of the road: three pairs of colorful hands in various poses splashed on the east-facing wall of Steve’s Auto Service. It faces a parking lot, so parked vehicles sometimes block the lower section, but most of it is impossible to miss.

Benjamin Cahoon, a 19-year-old second-year George Fox student from Florence, lives across the street and has a 24/7 view from his window. That’s fine with him — he helped paint it, after all.

“It is incredibly fulfilling,” said Cahoon, who also worked on a mural in Albany for BJ’s Ice Cream. “It was an amazing experience.”

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DramaWatch: “Ordinary Days,” “Color” ways and other plays

Isaac Lamb is sweet on the simple -- but moving -- chamber musical he's directing at Broadway Rose; plus other Portland theater news and notes.

Isaac Lamb is among the most versatile, widely accomplished of Portland-area theater artists, but he believes he’s found a particular niche with his work for Broadway Rose. Amid the crowd-pleasing classics, nostalgic tributes and revues, there’s room for what we might call some less obvious fare — “new musicals, stuff that’s been only rarely produced. And they give those to me.”

Though he’s better known as an actor, Lamb has shown his chops as a director at Broadway Rose, most notably with his gorgeous and moving production two years ago of a little-known but marvelously crafted musical called Fly by Night. His latest project there, opening this weekend, is Ordinary Days, by Adam Gwon, which, like Fly by Night, centers on young adults seeking love and self-discovery in New York City.

Ordinary Days tells a different story, but (company founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy) thought that it had a kinship with that show,” Lamb say, talking late on a recent night, following a dress rehearsal. “So I wanted to take a stab at it.”

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega

Lamb also admits that initially he wasn’t overly impressed with the material.

“It felt very simple and sweet, but I didn’t give it a lot of credit at first,” he recalls. “But it snuck up on me. It moved me. Gwon’s whole goal was to show how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Everybody has things going on in their lives that are totally commonplace, but they’re incredibly dramatic to the people experiencing them. An ordinary day can turn extraordinary in the blink of an eye. He sneaks in more deep feeling than you expect.”

The show is essentially a song cycle, nearly sung-through, with minimal spoken text. “It’s similar in feeling to, say, (Jason Robert Brown’s) Songs for a New World, but it tracks as a single narrative.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote of a 2014 production that “Gwon’s 19 songs are…lyrically witty and rich enough in narrative and character detail to power the dual plots of the musical” which “feels like such a fresh alternative to most of the over-produced stuff on Broadway.”

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Innkeeper by vocation, actor by avocation

Coaster Theatre's Sue Neuer talks about what it's like to perform in a community where everybody really does know your name

I met Sue Neuer some years ago at the front desk of a favorite Cannon Beach hotel. She knew me as the writer frequently on the road for work. I knew her as the innkeeper who tried to accommodate my need for peace and quiet so I could work. It was only later, when she invited me to the Coaster Theatre for the evening’s performance, that I learned that while innkeeping might be Neuer’s day job, her passion is the theater.

On Friday, Neuer opens in her 18th role at the Coaster, starring as Myra Bruhl in Deathtrap, a comedy-thriller by Ira Levin that holds the record (four years) for the longest running play of its genre on Broadway. The play is about a down-and-out playwright who sees hope in a student’s script and devises plans to stage it as his own. “There are a lot of twists and turns,” said Neuer, who plays the playwright’s wife. “Several people die.”

Neuer and I sat down to talk about what it’s like to be an actor in a town where odds are most everybody really does know your name. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cannon Beach actor Sue Neuer opens in “Deathtrap,” her 18th Coaster Theatre role, on Friday. Photo courtesy: Coaster Theatre Playhouse

How do you juggle community theater — auditions, learning lines, rehearsals, performances — and a full-time job?

Neuer: Fortunately, I’ve had employers who are supporters of me doing theater and I do my own schedule, so I do it around my rehearsal schedule. You have to carve out the time, when it comes to memorizing your lines. I am a procrastinator when it comes to doing that. I record all my lines and listen to them while I am in the car.

Are you recognized locally first as an actor or innkeeper?

I’m very actively involved in the community. I’ve lived here a while (11 years), so people know me for all sorts of reasons. I have tourists come up and say, “Oh, I saw you in this or that play.” But not a lot of locals support the theater. There are some regular patrons, but I would say the majority of people are tourists looking for something to do. We have some visitors who are season ticket holders and plan trips to Cannon Beach based on shows. That’s always fun. We have some guests who try to plan their trips to take in a show while they’re here. There are locals who have never stepped foot in the theater. They think it’s a movie theater. I don’t say we don’t get the local support, but it’s weird — you’re either into theater or you’re not. If you’re not familiar with what it is, you have to be introduced by other people.

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