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.

Third Rail’s March 2018 production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Men On Boats.” Photo: Owen Carey

But — to me, at least — the past few years haven’t felt the same. A move to the Winningstad Theatre that should have cemented it in the front rank of local companies instead overstretched its budgets and saddled productions with awkward sightlines and diminished the sense of intimacy. A move to Imago followed, then to CoHo Theater, where its earliest shows had been held. More recently, Porter took over from Yarbrough as artistic director. Along with the internal changes, the scene changed, with — perhaps in response to Third Rail’s initial successes — more challenging programming from Artists Rep, fast-rising newcomers such as Portland Playhouse, and others.

“Any organization that’s been around a long time will go through periods of transition,” Porter says, taking a break from rehearsals for Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. “As a non-profit arts group, it’s always a heavy lift. You have to be adaptive, constantly.”

One problem, she says, has been that folks may have heard good things about Third Rail, but were confused about where the theater was, and thus it didn’t have as much of a fixed identity for them.  “That struggle against the location question is part of what we’re going through,” “Our identity was never tied to a building or a charismatic artistic director. We’ve always been about being a group dedicated to creating risk-taking, artist-driven, relevant work.

“We’re now at a place where we’re able to take a deep breath and move forward,” she adds. She says she feels good about how the company’s recent shows have “foregrounded a new array of artistic voices,” and how the core company of actors and designers continues its standards of talent and dedication. The announcement of a new season is right around the corner, with a slate of plays Porter says they’ll continue “to attack with a kind of rigor and discipline for artistic excellence.”

As always, however, that takes money. So Third Rail is holding a fundraiser, May 16 at Lagunitas Community Room. Part of the lure of the evening is music by the trio of pianist Ralph Huntley (of LiveWire!), multi-instrumentalist Courtney Von Drehle (of 3 Leg Torso) and percussionist Don Henson (Sneakin’ Out), the marvelous trio that enlivened PETE’s recent Uncle Vanya.  And then there’s the auction of a “date night” with Portland favorite and longtime Third Rail member Isaac Lamb and Chris Sullivan of the NBC TV series This Is Us.

But of course the real reason to be there is to help Third Rail get back on the rails; to  support a great theater company that should have further greatness still to come.

Opening

Love Never Dies, and so, apparently, neither does the commercial viability of big, melodramatic middlebrow musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s — oops, sorry: Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s — sequel to his confoundingly popular The Phantom of the Opera pulls its touring Broadway version into the Keller Auditorium for a six-day/eight-performance run. If you like that sort of thing.

Love and other strange forces also will come into play at Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro, where Scott Palmer directs Noel Coward’s effervescently witty classic Blithe Spirit (last seen in these parts three and half years ago at Artists Rep). Spoiler alert: Seances were once a thing!

Reza de Wet’s “Crossing,” opening at Crave. Photo: Russell J Young

Speaking of seances (and how often does one, really?), such spirited activities can have dramatic results as well as comedic ones. A darker encounter with the supernatural awaits in Crossing, by South African writer Reza de Wet. The young director Sarah Andrews, who helped guide Todd Van Voris in last year’s terrific Thom Pain (based on nothing), presents this story about dreams and responsibilities, abuse and liberation, with her company Crave Theatre.

Old-guard Portland theater aficionados will recall Twig Webster as one of the stalwarts of New Rose Theatre a couple of decades ago. Back in town, he’s directing for Readers Theatre Repertory, presenting a pair of one-acts, Lewis John Carlino’s The Dirty Old Man and Mary Miller’s Ferris Wheel.

Closing

Part of the thrill of theater is that you get to watch real people in real time and therefore you never know for dead certain what’s going to happen. All the same, I’d go to any play starring Sharonlee McLean with 99% confidence that I’m going to see something fantastic. She’s one of this theater scene’s true treasures. Reviewing Luna Gale at CoHo Theater, Bennett Campbell Ferguson wrote that her performance as Caroline, a conflicted social worker deciding the fate of a child with two bad parenting options, is “a masterclass in emotional control” and “so deft that it’s hard to believe that Caroline is a character, rather than an actual person who simply wandered onto the stage.” Saturday’s your last chance at this sure thing.

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

A real last chance — as in, it won’t ever come around again — is the opportunity to see a show directed by Chris Coleman during his tenure in charge of Portland Center Stage. He’s off to new directions in Denver, and his production of Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw’s thorny comedic argument that boots on the ground beat pie in the sky, is soon off the boards, too. Downstairs at the Armory, in the Ellyn Bye Studio, DeLanna Studi finishes up the run of her engaging solo show And So We Walked, a highly personal story of coming to terms with her Cherokee heritage.

Jerry Mouawad’s clown/dance/existentialism experiment To Fly Again makes its last landing soon at Imago. And don’t cry for me that I’ve missed another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Stumptown Stages’ Evita.

The dusty dancers in Imago’s “To Fly Again.” Photo: Jubel Brosseau

Seasoning

Coming months ahead of the action, as they do, season announcements aren’t usually all that exciting. But I’ll call the news of the 2018-19 Portland Playhouse season an exception, because it starts out with the work of one of my most favorite playwrights, the tragicomic master Will Eno. Gretchen Corbett will direct Nikki Weaver and Michael O’Connell in Eno’s Wakey Wakey, a contemplation of death that The New York Times’s Ben Brantley called “glowingly dark, profoundly moving.

The Playhouse also is bringing back yet again its hit production of A Christmas Carol (remember, though, when this company proudly bucked the trend of holiday-themed fare at the end of the calendar year? Sigh.) Emma Stanton’s look at genocide and its lingering effects, No Candy, presented previously in a reading last fall, gets a full production. And Regina Taylor’s Crowns, a gospel-steeped musical based on the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry about the culture of Sunday-go-to-meeting hats among African-American women, rounds out the season.

The 2018-19 Milagro season is being promoted under the thematic/marketing line of “Fantasy, Fairy Tales and Folklore.”  Georgina Escobar’s Alebrijes takes the annual Dia de Muertos celebration to a forest of the fantastical. Alberto Canas Escalante’s La Segua, which sets witchcraft against cultural obsessions with beauty, gets its U.S. premiere. It’s world premiere time for Jump, Charly Evon Simpson’s look at a girl on a bridge. The National New Play Network and the now-fashionable (and economically useful) concept of the “rolling world premiere” brings Marisela Trevino Orta’s Wolf at the Door, an examination of domestic abuse and the price of freedom. Also, Milta Ortiz delivers the true story of Multnomah County circuit judge Xiomara Torres for Milagro’s newest bilingual touring show, Judge Torres.

Some seasons are far more compact than others. JAW, Portland Center Stage’s annual summer playwrights festival, packs a lot into a single weekend (this year, it’s July 27-29), giving theater fans an inside look at the hard work and magic of new-play development. The latest slate of writers who get to workshop new plays with a cast of great actors, hear them in popular public readings and get audience feedback are Meghan Brown, Clarence Coo, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos.

 

 

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