DramaWatch Weekly: On the Proscenium

Portland Shakes loose a few new plays, Staged! welcomes some alumni home, and new shows open in Portland and Ashland

Michael Mendelson long has been one of Portland’s busiest and most accomplished actors, but even by his standards he has a packed calendar for the coming theater season. He’ll head east to the Midwest later this month to help Nebraska Rep kick off its 2018-19 season, directing David Javerbaum’s divine comedy An Act of God (with Trisha Miller, Mendelson’s co-star in Artists Rep’s 2011 God of Carnage, taking the role of God this time). Once back in town, he’ll be in a string of promising Artists Rep showsSmall Mouth Sounds, Everybody (by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose brilliant An Octoroon featured Mendelson last fall) and A Doll’s House, Part 2. He has work in the offing for Profile Theatre, as well.

And — oh, yeah — he heads his own company, too. So before all of that, there’s Portland Shakespeare Project and this weekend’s fourth annual Proscenium Live Festival of New Work, a four-night series of free performances.

Michael Mendelson — in mogul mode from Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” at Artists Rep in 2013 — has his plate full with acting, directing and leading Portland Shakes. Photo: Owen Carey

Produced in conjunction with the literary journal Proscenium, the festival is something of a family affair. Proscenium is the work of brothers Steve and Billy Rathje, whose mother Karen Rathje is managing director of Portland Shakes and audience services manager for Artists Rep, where the festival will be held. Steve Rathje also is an actor, appearing here in Patrick Wohlmut’s Patchwork Dreams.

The festival grew out of the family connections but more so from the overlap in missions between a journal dedicated to exposing new plays and a theater company with the resources to produce them (resources, Mendelson points out, that partly came through Steve Rathje using his grant writing skills on behalf of Portland Shakes).

Initially, Mendelson says, he wanted to keep the choice of plays classically based, but that soon broadened into works that included classical themes, or that riffed on classical plays. Last winter’s Portland Shakes hit Pericles Wet, a “brisk…but intense interrogation” of Shakespearean source material by Ellen Margolis, originally was workshopped through Proscenium Live.

Similarly, Patchwork Dreams — a cybernetic reboot of the themes of creation, self-determination and moral agency from Frankenstein — had its first act workshopped last year to such strong response that it returns in full-length form. Matthew B. Zrebski directs a cast featuring Crystal Muñoz.

Anthony Hudson’s Still Looking for Tiger Lily, which gets two performances (Friday and Monday evenings), should benefit from an additional week of work provided by Artists Rep’s Table/Room/Stage New Play Development Program, during which puppetry by John Ellingson has been incorporated. Loosely based on Peter Pan, the play explores such themes as white appropriation of Native American experience (Hudson identifies as a member of the Grande Ronde tribe), and the nature of family. Hudson stars and Mendelson directs.

The classical connection, Mendelson admits, is less evident in The Great Divide by E.M. Lewis, “a fictional story based on real events” that examines aspects of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation. But he likens some of the play’s core questions to ones that arise in Shakespeare: “How does protest change us as a group? And who gets to protest, whose voices get to be heard? In a way, you could argue that it relates to Julius Caesar.” Jen Rowe will direct a cast of ten.

Future projects for Portland Shakes continue to be in the works, despite uncertainties raised by Artists Rep’s plans to partition and sell off part of its building, home to several other groups in what’s called the ArtsHub.
“We’re not waiting to find out,” Mendelson says about the details of the change. “We want to make sure we stay in the public eye. So we’re still going to program stuff, but if we can move forward with our work and ease the need to use that space, it’ll make things easier for everyone.
“Like all change, it’s going to be tricky to navigate. But we’re just being positive and moving forward.”

Staged! And staged again!

For all the arguments made about the value of arts programs as an aid to general educational outcomes and the development of life skills (arguments I’m all for, on the whole), surely another reason for arts education to help create, y’know, artists.
“Grow artists” is part of the mission of Staged!, the Portland musical theater company. And while the company has created lots of work with teen artists through its conservatory program, it raises its game with it’s upcoming production of the terrific Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening. Billing the show as its first conservatory alumni production, not only does it feature a cast of mostly college-age performers but also puts creative leadership in the hands of their peers. Melissa Myers, a 20-year-old who studies at Pace University in New York, will direct, with mentoring from Paul Angelo. Sam Kaltenthaler, who left Tualatin a few years ago to study in the combined program of the Ailey School and Fordham University, returns to choreograph the show, with Erin Shannon as his mentor.

Spring Awakeningis a young person’s story. It made a lot of sense to provide the resources but hand the reins to Actual Real Young People,” company founder Chanda Hall wrote in an email about the project.

Speaking of handing over reins, Hall is stepping aside after 13 years of building the company, with Angelo taking over as artistic director. The company is debt-free, she says, and has solidified its reputation for its educational and stage work, but the time has come to take a job that provides health insurance for her family. Meanwhile, executive director Diane Englert also is departing.

“Thanks to my many gray hairs and worry lines (LAUGH LINES! I’M SURE THEY ARE LAUGH LINES!), I am no longer asked, ‘Is your dad funding this company?’,” Hall wrote. “Nor am I assumed to be someone’s babysitter.”

JAW size matters

As part of the special 20th anniversary edition of JAW, Portland Center Stage brought back some of the illustrious alumni from the playwrights festival’s past. Among them was Yussef El Guindi, whose play Threesome was developed at the 2013 JAW and made its world premiere at PCS two years later. Helping to introduce the first of the four main readings, El Guindi looked out at the crowd filling a good three quarters of the seats on the Armory’s main floor, probably 400 or so theater fans.

Former JAW playwright Yussef El Guindi and education and community programs director Kelsey Tyler greeting the 2018 JAW crowd. Photo: Kate Szrom/courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

“I want to say how unusual it is to attract this many people for a staged reading,” he remarked. “I’ve gone to play-development festivals at lots of other theaters, and when you get 70 people it’s (considered) an overflow crowd.” He likened those situations to Donald Trump surveying his spotty Inauguration attendance as if it were a marvel. “This,” he added, “is an Obama-sized crowd.”

Best line I read this week

“To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.”

— from an article on the opinion page of The New York Times

Opening

 

Jessica Ko stars in “Snow in Midsummer,” a new take on a Chinese classic. Photo: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Snow in Midsummer sounds like something that would’ve been a godsend during last week’s hellish heat. But it’s not a meteorological mercy, its a recent reboot of a 13th-century classical Chinese drama, turned by playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig into a modern-day ghost story. Director Justin Audibert carries over here from last year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production. Like RSC, OSF is intent on broadening its offerings beyond the Anglo-American tradition.

Another worthy programming approach is to find a new take on tradition. Which is — and isn’t — what Isaac Lamb is doing with his direction of The Music Man for Third Rail Rep. His use of a cast of six, all of them women, is a twist; but as Lamb told DramaWatch last week, his aim is true to the original.

Much like The Music Man, Guys and Dolls is staged so frequently that you might be excused for getting sick of it — that is, until those wondrous Frank Loesser songs start flowing and you lose all will to resist. A Broadway Rose production that boasts Dru Rutledge, Joe Theissen, Emily Sahler and Ryan Reilly in the lead roles should only add to the show’s natural charms.

The charms of the musical Annie never have made themselves apparent to me. But Clackamas Rep has enlisted Andres Alcala as Oliver Warbucks and the ever-vibrant Cassi Q. Kohl as Miss Hannigan, so that has to help.

 

Closing

You’re down to the last opportunities to catch the grandiose The Phantom of the Opera at the Keller, the bawdy Bard treatment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Burlesque at the Chapel Theatre, and Moliere’s comic classic The Misanthrope in Lake Oswego’s George Rogers Park.

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

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