DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

Amid all that, the character of Troy’s brother Gabriel can almost seem incidental. A brain-damaged WWII vet, Gabe hardly seems capable of the agency necessary to act as any kind of foil. He’s obviously not right mentally, and in some productions his sudden, childlike outbursts are played almost for comic relief (such as in the last Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, when the great G. Valmont Thomas took that approach).

But not only is Gabe’s circumstance too sad for a comedic interpretation to fit, in a number of ways, Gabe is essential to the arc of Troy’s journey, especially if we are to see any redemptive end to it. The play’s conclusion – which some critics have taken as an ill-fitting magical-realist flourish atop nearly three hours of gritty realism, but which really is the rough, poetic expression of a spiritualism hidden all along in the heart of the whole – is incomprehensible unless Gabe has been presented with appropriate dimension and nuance.

From the moment Bermea stepped on stage midway through the first act, I felt like crying. Gabe is something of a whirlwind – calling affectionately to Rose, greeting Troy’s elder son Lyons with a jungle-cat roar, flinching in presumption of Troy’s anger, babbling about his friendship with St. Peter or about the hellhounds on his trail, all within a matter of seconds. Bermea gave each of these fleeting states of mind a remarkable vividness, his expression flowing like mercury from wide-eyed glee to watchful suspicion to almost trembling fear. At one point, Gabe steps inside the pointedly modest brick house to wait for Rose to make him a sandwich; Bermea sat at a table, visible through a window, rocking compulsively, and if your heart didn’t break for Gabe then, there’s probably no hope for you.

Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, was one of Wilson’s foremost collaborators, and he understands what Loyola Chicago theater professor Jonathan Wilson (no relation) told me when he directed a memorable 2007 production of Fences for Portland Center Stage: To make the spiritual moments in August Wilson plays work, you have to slow things down as they approach. The night I saw the Playhouse production, much of Act I struck me as too fast, not so much pressurized as simply rushed, especially Troy’s early soliloquy about facing death, a moment that ought to serve as a thematic tentpole. But toward the end, the dialogue felt more weighted, each second pregnant with meaning, and that little bit of time opened the space for Bermea’s Gabriel to blow his horn, to stomp and shout and blast open the gates of heaven for someone who, for all his earthly might, couldn’t get there on his own.

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From Tim Stapleton’s exhibition “The Hem of the Robe” at Geezer Gallery’s Artists Rep location.

Design for living

The latest production at Artists Rep, I & You, features scenic design by Tim Stapleton. Perhaps that fact doesn’t seem remarkable, considering how many shows the veteran theater artist has been a part of over the years. But that he’s still working in the theater (with an assist, on this show, by Samie Pfiefer) more than a year following a diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is something to notice, perhaps even to celebrate.

Geezer Gallery, which curates art for the walls of Artists Rep’s Morrison street lobby, is helping Stapleton do just that, with an exhibit of some of his recent paintings, on view through June 17. The gallery’s website calls the exhibit, which also includes works by Rosalyn Kilot, In Search of Sameness. But Stapleton calls his portion The Hem of the Robe: dragged through the mud of my childhood, and has described his works here as being about healing. We wish him much more painting, much more healing, and much more life.

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Singing praises

Call them the Coreys. It sounds much better than the PAMTAs. Officially, they are the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards, originated in 2008 by the actor/producer Corey Brunish, who felt that the Drammy Awards were giving short shrift to musicals. Initially, Brunish tried to keep his role a secret, and the award selection process still is a bit mysterious, with – according to the PAMTA website – a committee of 15 voting members whose identities aren’t known even to one another. (You might not think that the way to ensure integrity is through a complete lack of transparency, but what do you know?)

In any case, they’re being presented Monday night at the Winningstad Theatre, with Darius Pierce as the evening’s host. And to build the suspense, the list of this year’s nominees is here.

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Deidrie Henry as Billie Holiday and Abdul Hamid Royal as Jimmy Powers with James H. Leary (bass) in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Fruitful expression

If jazz is a form of personal expression (and it is), few of its practitioners have been so distinctive in form and so personal in expression as Billie Holiday. Not the greatest of jazz singers (could Ella ever be dethroned?) nor even the most influential (that’s Satch, natch!), Holiday nevertheless is the most singular and yet — these days — the most imitated. Partly that’s because of her deeply emotionally affecting artistry, but also because of the dramatic, perhaps tragic life that gave rise to it.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a play, sort of, that attempts to present the heart of that artistry and that life, putting Holiday onstage near the end of her life and in a reflective mood, so that songs such as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child” are swathed not just in drawled honeysuckle phrasings but in revealing autobiographical context.

Triangle Productions presented it, perhaps a decade ago, in an actual nightclub setting, the much-missed Jimmy Mak’s, with local favorite Julianne Johnson starring. Portland Center Stage has chosen to put the show on its main stage rather than in the far cozier Ellyn Bye Studio. Deidrie Henry (a familiar face if you’ve seen a TV ad for Popeye’s chicken in recent years, or if you caught the 2016 PCS production of A Streetcar Named Desire) takes on the challenge of making that big space feel personal.

 

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Berlin woman in a bubble bath, February 1930; photographer unknown. German Federal Archives, Koblenz

Good, clean fun?

Some shows are daring in a very particular way: They dare you not to write them off as a gimmick. New York actor Siobhan O’Loughlin’s Broken Bone Bathtub is one of those performance-arty concept pieces that looks like it has the potential to revivify your view of theater or to confirm your belief that old conventions are still around for a reason. But let’s not pre-judge. The show arose from her attempts to keep herself clean while wearing a cast on a broken hand, which led to a tour of friends’ bathtubs (she had just a shower in her place). So her show takes place in actual bathtubs in the bathrooms of folks around the country, and reportedly crosses from monologue into bits of audience interaction, eventually commenting on vulnerability, generosity and connection. O’Loughlin performs nude but covered in suds, so titillation isn’t the point. Perhaps there’s a bubble-bath endorsement deal in the offing.

 

Danielle Vermette (left) and Ann Sorce in Carol Triffle’s “Fallout.” Imago Theatre photo

Other openings

Imago Theatre co-founder Carol Triffle is a strong bet as the city’s most idiosyncratic theater maker, with a knack for the way movement can convey character and for imaginatively odd premises that shine a light into the cracks of human experience. Her latest show, Fallout, an apocalyptic comedy set in a bomb shelter, features three actors – Anne Sorce, Danielle Vermette (also an ArtsWatch contributor) and Kyle Delamarter – who’ve proved especially adept at the peculiar theatrical demands of Triffle’s style.  

“Jazz and stories” is the framework for Friday’s Urban Tellers, the final show of the season for Portland Story Theater, hosted by Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard. Stepping up to the mic at The Old Church will be Warren McPherson, Joanna Agee, Frank Engel, Stefanie Brown, Dana Brenner-Kelley, and Duncan Wyndham.

 

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Don’t you miss it. Don’t miss it. Some of you people just about missed it!

Time is running out on several shows in town: Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Cabaret; the sketch-comedy stylings of Nacho Gold at Milagro; PassinArt’s examination of gentrification, Repulsing the Monkey; Defunkt’s Girl in the Red Corner; Rutabaga Story Co.’s debut An Interlude in Birdsong at Shaking the Tree; and the young Crave Theatre’s heated, haunted South African melodrama Crossing, in the pressurized confines of the Shoebox Theater.

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That’s all I got for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

 

 

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