DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

Significant, too, is the Playhouse getting Lou Bellamy, whose Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul was central to the development of Wilson’s work, as director. Bellamy has enlisted a Penumbra veteran, Lester Purry, to star as Troy Maxson, and the promising cast also includes (among others) locals Bobby Bermea and Seth Rue.

This looks likely to be one of the hallmark shows of the season.

 

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Beth Thompson’s “Container/Contained,” part of “SALT” at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Meg Nanna

Resistance with a grain of Salt

I first saw the director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s work a decade or so ago at the spare studio space she had on Southeast Stark Street. Her touch with children’s theater — gentle but firm, sweet-natured and imaginative — was impressive. But when she pivoted from tykes to serious drama — with a stark and powerful production of Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, no less — it was clear that she was a significant artist on the scene.

Her political passions come into play again this week with SALT, which bills itself as an act of artistic resistance to the ill winds of our current political climate under Trump.

“Shaking the Tree has been converted, once again, and is now a gallery space with ten beautiful and compelling installations,” she has written. “Each artist/artist team has an important voice and vision to share — a veritable smorgasbord of resistance!”

The approach harks back to the divided-site approach she used to such great effect with The Tripping Point, her examination of fairy tales done collaboratively with Playwrights West several years ago, yet expands on the forms it presents. For more on the installations and performances, DeAnn Welker has gathered statements of the artists involved, including such theater-scene favorites as Bobby Bermea, Jamie Rea and Beth Thompson.

 

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Clowns, collapsing: from left, Mark Mullaney, Jake Ottosen, Nathaniel Holder, Stephanieie Woods in “To Fly Again” at Imago. Photo: Jubel Brosseau

Flush out the clowns

When Imago co-founder Jerry Mouawad talks about a “clown state,” he’s not referring to our country under current management. He has more serious things in mind.

Fresh off the second hometown run of the company’s intricate and breathtaking puppet-theater masterpiece La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, he’s talking about his latest conceptually loose-limbed experiment, To Fly Again — which, judging from the track record of such shows, should be serious in the way that great absurdity often can be.

“I cast four actors who had a ‘clown state’ somewhere inside them,” Mouawad writes in an email. “I think I’ve flushed out their clowns.”

Elaborating in a later phone interview, Mouawad talked about a clown state as a capacity in a performer that draws on a particular blend of physicality, emotional sensitivity and immersion in character, something more internalized and potent than comedy. “It works with the most vulnerable side of a person’s stage performance or stage state,” he says. Because of the clown-theater training that he and (even more so) his Imago partner Carol Triffle had with the late French mime teacher Jacques Lecoq, he says, “we can recognize when someone has a clown state within them.”

Mouawad says he actually started out attempting to create a dance piece. But when that wasn’t coming together quite as he hoped, he brought in actors and honed that clown state through some improv work. Then, speaking of serious absurdity, he had his clowns read sections of Waiting for Godot. “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.”

Instead, Mouawad wrote a gently meandering script that riffs on Beckett and suggests “a world, part Waiting for Godot, part a sort of Mad Max futurea kind of apocalyptic/existential/psychedelic world that is tender and barren.” While the clan of wandering clowns ponders everything from the nature of identity to how to divide seven cans of beans among four people, they come across a clan of dancers who symbolize — at least for one of the clowns — an alluring, elusive way of being that looks lighter and more free than the all-too-vulnerable, all-too-human clown state.

 

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The absolute brightness of Todd Van Voris

Todd Van Voris

Reviewing The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey in 2015, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called the show’s writer/performer, James Lecesne, a “dazzling beacon of theatrical talent.” Round these parts, lots of folks have a similar opinion of Todd Van Voris, who’ll star here in Lecesne’s solo show about a gumshoe detective on the hunt for a missing 14-year-old boy. Triangle Productions describes the show as “a real whodunit!,” but if Isherwood is to be believed (and he usually is) this offers much more than a zippy suspense procedural, evoking a world of palpable good and evil through bold strokes of bravery, humor, and even joy.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre revive its multiple award-winning 2013 production of “A Year with Frog & Toad.” Photo: Owen Carey / 2013

Leap Year

As the night wore on at the 2013 Drammy Awards ceremony, the murmurs amid the back of the crowd grew more frequent — barely suppressed expressions of wonder, bafflement, or outright consternation. And yet, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s A Year With Frog & Toad just kept winning — seven awards in all, including one of the three trophies given that year for Outstanding Production.

But never mind the chagrin of the serious-minded. Theater has value for viewers whether they be 40 or 14 or four. And OCT is remarkably skilled at carefully crafting work that targets the younger end of the age spectrum but is fully worthy of respect — and attention — by whoever may come through the theater door.

To celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary, it is reviving this celebrated production. Jump to it!

(Also from OCT this month: Its teen improv comedy troupe Impulse has a string of shows in the company’s on-site Young Professionals Studio Theater.)

 

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Let’s just say it: “99 Ways to Fuck a Swan”

Speaking of anniversaries and revivals, Theatre Vertigo, now in Year 20 as one of Portland’s most engaging small companies, is reaching back to its 13th season, even bringing back a few original cast members for a new reading of Kimberley Rosenstock’s 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, a remarkably creative modern re-casting of the Greek myth of Leda and the swan. When reviewing that 2011 production, I was employed at a place very proud of its self-definition as a “family newspaper,” leading me to resort to a variety of euphemistic alternative titles. But by whatever name, this is a smart, hilarious, at times surprisingly tender and moving piece of writing, and well worth hearing again.   

 

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Other openings

The incisive director Elizabeth Huffman closes out the Milagro season with Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which centers on a labor struggle involving Mexican cannery workers. Portland Shakespeare Project gets into the act with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s vaunted “Play On” project to commission modern-language versions of the Bard’s work, with a reading of Ranjit Bolt’s translation of Much Ado About Nothing. Cygnet Productions has a reading of Larry Gelbart’s Mastergate, a satire about Congressional investigations, with some terrific actors such as Dave Bodin and Vana O’Brien (7 p.m., Monday, Tabor Bread Cafe, 5051 SE Hawthorne Blvd.).

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Closing

You’ve just a few more chances to catch Ted Rooney’s absorbing, fine-tuned performance (alongside the also impressive Tim Blough and Murri Lazaroff-Babin) in Corrib Theatre’s production of Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s powerful examination of “the Troubles” and that period’s continuing reverberations in Irish life. (For more, read DeAnn Welker’s fine review for ArtsWatch). And now that I finally realize the run of Always, Patsy Cline at Broadway Rose stars former Portland favorite Sara Catherine Wheatley (now living in Nashville), I may have to get out to Tigard myself.

 

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