DramaWatch Weekly: Summerfest!

CoHo's short-run festival and the Risk/Reward fest put the movement into theater. Also: "Sense and Sensibility," last chance for "Fences."

A year ago, when Sayda Trujillo approached Jessica Wallenfels about directing a solo performance she was developing, she had a particular contribution in mind.

“She did come to me with a very specific ask: ‘I want this to be physically demanding and difficult, and I want your help with that,’” Wallenfels recalls.

Trujillo is hardly a stranger to physicality herself — she teaches voice and movement at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Nor, for that matter, to solo shows — she’s created three previous ones that have been presented internationally, including at such prestigious theatrical incubators as REDCAT in Los Angeles. But she and Wallenfels have some familiarity with each other as well, having met as undergraduates at California Institute of the Arts and later taught together at California State Summer School of the Arts. Wallenfels, a multi-faceted Portland artist, brought expertise as one of the top theater choreographers in the Northwest.

Sayda Trujillo in her solo show “Right, Up, Left (Definitely Oops!.” She’ll perform “Win the War or Tell Me a Story” at CoHo Summerfest.

The resulting show, Win the War or Tell Me a Story, serves as the kick-off to CoHo Summerfest 2018, beginning Thursday, June 28. It should make a fine introduction, reflecting CoHo Theater’s longstanding interest in solo performance and personal storytelling, yet also hinting at the distinguishing characteristic of this year’s selections, which are more movement-oriented overall.

Summerfest’s second-week show, for instance, is Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories, featuring the Princess Grace Award-winning dancer Andrea Parsons and co-directed by movement-savvy storytelling veteran Susan Banyas. Pratik Motwani, whose tech-themed devised piece #//<EMBEDDED>//# takes week three, also brings to bear a background in physical theater, mask work and the like. The series wraps up with the punningly conceptual Philip’s Glass Menagerie, director Philip Cuomo’s ingenious riff on the Tennessee Williams classic, retold mostly through movement and imagery, with a four-person ensemble.

The through-line for the four shows, says Cuomo, who curates Summerfest as CoHo’s producing artistic director, is that they all take a playful approach to form, structure and content. “I’m interested in a slightly different approach to form — expressive, but not exactly the ‘well-made play.’ I’m always looking for something entertaining, something dynamic and exciting — for some level of fun, even if the subject may be profound.”

Profundity might well be in the offing from Trujillo’s piece, which Wallenfels describes as about witnessing the Palestine/Israel conflict from the perspective of the occupied, “how they view resistance as decades of struggle.”

The piece grew out of a personal essay that Trujillo wrote a few years ago for an academic journal, and Wallenfels stresses that its orientation is much more personal than political, despite the incendiary subject matter. Trujillo bears witness to what she saw and experienced teaching in the occupied West Bank, but draws connections also to the decades-long Guatemalan civil war, which led her parents to flee to Canada, and to her own upbringing in Montreal and Los Angeles. Using storytelling, movement and song, Trujillo creates a telescoping view of conflicts global, local, personal and back again, examining how they can shape or fracture identity and sense of purpose.

Win the War could be an example of how theater can be moving in more than the physical sense.

 

Risk/Reward Festival

Au Collective at Risk/Reward. Photo: Andrew Imanaka

While CoHo’s Summerfest is leaning toward movement, this year’s Risk/Reward Festival is leaping right into it. Of the half-dozen artists from Portland and Seattle, four are dance-oriented:  Bouton Volonte, Angel “Moonyeka” Alviar-Langley, Cheryl Delostrinos/Au Collective, and Britt Karhoff. The exceptions are Eli Steffen, with a participatory, game-based examination of masculinity, and John Berendzen, the Liminal co-founder whose live sound installation for his hybrid “ElectroHorn” will play in the lobby during intermission. The other performances clock in at less than 20 minutes each, meaning the “risk” for audience members might not really be much.

 

Chekhov symposium (brief reminder/backward link)

Chekhov/Wikimedia Commons

Here at DramaWatch, we love us some Chekhov, so that means excited anticipation of Chekhov in the 21st Century: a Symposium, this Wednesday-Saturday at Lewis & Clark College. Last week’s column (you know — on the slim, slim chance that you missed it) offered up some perspective courtesy of featured translator/adapter Stepan Simek.

 

Three by Third

Quality over quantity has been one of the guiding precepts for Third Rail Repertory Theatre, and its recently announced lineup of plays for the 2018-19 season keeps to that. Just three plays, to be staged at the intimate CoHo Theater, covering a good range of subjects, styles, countries of origin, etc. Here’s a glancing look at what’s in store:

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John, by Annie Baker, Nov. 30-Dec. 22, 2018

Directed by Rebecca Lingafelter

Baker’s The Flick was a fruitful choice for Third Rail a year and a half ago, as was The Aliens in 2013. This time, though, Baker’s “almost superhuman flair for character and dialogue,” as The Guardian called it, stretches out to three acts and more than three hours in a tale that’s been likened to a contemporary take on American Gothic, focusing on a troubled couple visiting a Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast. Said Vulture.com: “John hovers on the edge of metaphysics….she’s produced a real ghost story, which is to say a semblance of life.”

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Kiss, by Guillermo Calderon, March 15-April 6, 2019

[No director noted]

How’s this for international perspective? Calderon, a celebrated Chilean playwright, commissioned by a German theater company, writes his first English-language script about the ongoing conflict in Syria. Confused? So is the Western theater troupe that tries to recreate a Syrian soap opera from an online script, the starting point of Kiss. As Calderon told American Theatre magazine last year, it’s “a play about how theatre aims to reach out across cultures in a sort of an earnest and genuine way, but at the same time fails at doing it…..Theatre and culture need cross-pollination. We need a healthy dose of misunderstanding as well. We need the dirty, complicated relationships, because those are the ones that allow us to create new relationships and the understanding of what’s going on in our culture and in other cultures.”

Said the Washington Post of a Woolly Mammoth production, “Watching the play is like being slapped awake.”

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Arlington [a love story], by Enda Walsh, May 31-June 22, 2019

Directed by Isaac Lamb

As with Baker, Walsh also is a part of Third Rail history; a 2012 production of Penelope is a lock to be on my list of most memorable Portland shows of this decade. That idiosyncratic take on The Odyssey took place in a drained swimming pool; Arlington has a yet starker setting, a clinical-looking holding cell, a bland prison in some blandly menacing dystopia. But it’s always about relationships, isn’t it; even between captives and their monitors. In any case, lovers of language will find much to enjoy in what the Guardian’s Michael Billington lauds as Walsh’s “boldness in weaving his closely textured poetic prose into a new form of comprehensive, category-defying theatre.”

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There’s also to be a special season-opening “concert performance,” again directed by Lamb: “a stripped-down American classic, re-framed with all-female voices. The title has yet to be announced, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s The Music Man. In any case, that’ll take place Aug. 2-5.

 

And Boom goes the dynamite

Portland loves its fresh produce — that is, its bountiful harvest of home-grown theatrical productions. But it’s great to get some cosmopolitan cross-pollination, too, and on that count Boom Arts, headed by the perspicacious producer/curator Ruth Wikler-Luker, has proved increasingly valuable.

Boom! Penny Arcade returns to Boom Arts.

The recently announced 2018-’19 Boom Arts season features forward-looking performers from New York City (popular performance artist Penny Arcade; Brooklyn theater ensemble the Team), Chile (puppet-theater ensemble Silencio Blanco), France (Begat Theater, in an outdoor, site-specific work) and Ukraine (the music-theater ensemble Teatr Pralnia, presenting “super-charged puppet cabaret”) touching down in a variety of Portland venues.

Subscription info and many other details are to be found at the Boom Arts website.

 

Fly like an eagle

Street parades and backyard parties, flags and fireworks — those rituals and symbols of patriotic fervor may get lots of folks in the mood to celebrate Independence Day. ‘Round DramaWatch headquarters, however, a different approach prevails. No hot dogs and potato salad, thanks. We’ll just have an egg:

 

Opening

The works of Jane Austen offer adapters a built-in audience, but even so there’s something remarkable about the success that New York actor/playwright Kate Hamill has found with her sharply witty and playful updates. The Wall Street Journal named her 2017’s Playwright of the Year. “Hamill’s adaptations masterfully bring the social commentary of the 19th century into the present,” reported American Theatre magazine. “And the off-color humor buried in Austen’s margins is brought center stage.”

Mark Schwahn, Kailey Rhodes, and Todd Van Voris in “Sense and Sensibility” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Sam Ortega

The West Coast premiere production of Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility runs all this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (reviewed for ArtsWatch by our noble founder, Barry Johnson). So it comes as a welcome surprise to get another production even closer to town. Clackamas Rep has enlisted director Karlyn Love, and a cast featuring Kailey Rhodes and Molly Bowman, with support from such estimable talents as Todd Van Voris and Tim Blough.

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I have never seen the jukebox musical Mamma Mia. I am suspicious of both the motives and the track record of jukebox musicals in general. I am, in my most generous assessment, indifferent to the music of Swedish pop mega-group Abba, whose 1970s hits serve as the spine of the show. And the plot, as I’ve learned of it from reviews, sounds to me like several seasons of soap-opera dross compressed into two-and-a-half hours.

But I am not you. Nor am I one of the thousands upon thousands of folks who helped make this one of the longest-running shows ever on Broadway and in London’s West End. The critical consensus might have been summed up best by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, who, in 2001, called it “a thoroughly preposterous show, but … also a giddy guilty pleasure.” The commercial consensus has been that it’s great good-natured fun.
Broadway Rose presents it in a version directed and choreographed by Lyn Cramer, with musical direction by Alan D. Lytle.

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Summer is the time for Shakespeare in the park. Or parks (plural) that should be, especially in the case of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, or OPSFest, which will take its hit-and-run approach to classical performance to nearly a dozen different outdoor locales during the the next couple of months. The troupe, founded by Brian Allard, and now with the formidable Jen Lanier as co-artistic director, started its season — so many different plays it’s not so much rotating rep as whirling — last weekend at Mt. Tabor and Kenton. The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice comes to Cathedral Park this Saturday at 7 p.m., rain or shine. And there’ll be plenty more opportunities to catch this bunch, especially if you live near Willamette, Irving or Laurelhurst parks.

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Perhaps someday, under intense psychoanalysis or hypnosis or the influence of a dram or two, I will come to understand my antipathy toward cabaret, burlesque, acrobatics, “aerial arts,” circus, Cirque du damned anything…

For now, I will set all that aside and merely inform you that Varietease Cabaret, a vaudeville-style extravaganza of just such entertainment, is coming to the seldom-used second-floor ballroom at Imago. Among the varied performers is a band led by multi-instrumentalist Courtney Von Drehle, of 3 Leg Torso fame.

 

Best line I read this week

“In improv, as in life, the answer is always ‘Yes, and,’ especially if the question is ‘Are all of your friends looking for reasons they can’t come to your improv show?’”

— from “Encouragement for Struggling Creatives,” by Riane Konc, in The New Yorker, May 28.

 

Closing

Such a winner that it has played a few weeks beyond its original engagement, the Portland Playhouse production of August Wilson’s Fences is down to its last few at-bats. Chances are, the passionate cast still is knocking this compelling drama out of the park.

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

Triangle Productions’ rip-roaring Hedwig and the Angry Inch benefited from the guiding hands of both company artistic director Don Horn (as director) and Portland actor/Broadway producer Corey Brunish (as co-director, though you have to search the playbill to see this). See if you can tell which one deserves the most credit.

The world is ending for Badass Theatre Company’s World Builders, which ArtsWatch regular Brett Campbell found intriguing but, shall we say, not well engineered.

And god bless the child that gets to see Deidrie Henry’s warm and affecting performance as jazz legend Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (which of course actually is at Portland Center Stage).

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

 

 

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