Theater reviews: Women rule in ‘Ithaka,’ ‘Beaux Arts Club’

Playwrights Andrea Stolowitz and Carol Triffle write well from entirely different places

During the past week or so, I’ve seen two world premieres by Portland playwrights Andrea Stolowitz’s “Ithaka” and Carol Triffle’s “Beaux Arts Club.” For those of us who believe that our success as a culture is contingent upon growing and consuming our own (just as it is with actual crops), that’s almost enough. But then of course we’d like them to be reasonably accomplished and somewhat useful to us one way or another, in the broadest sense of “useful.” I’m happy to report that from my seat, both were quite a bit more than “reasonably accomplished” and “somewhat useful.”

I don’t have a unified field theory that links Stolowitz’s spare, deeply reported play about a returning Iraq War veteran to Triffle’s typically absurdist comedy with music. Highly enjoyable performances by their leading ladies? Well, that’s true enough—but Dana Millican in “Ithaka” and Anne Sorce in “Beaux Arts Club” occupy completely different wings of the theater estate.

****

 

Anne Sorce and Kyle Delamarter in "Beaux Arts Club"/Jerry Mouawad

Anne Sorce and Kyle Delamarter in “Beaux Arts Club”/Jerry Mouawad

“Beaux Arts Club,” Imago: I think it’s safe to say that no other woman in Portland has written more plays that have seen the stage here than Triffle, at least 12* since 1997’s “Ginger’s Green,” all for Imago, the company she founded with Jerry Mouawad in 1979. Still, I might overlook her if asked to create a list of women playwrights in the city. Why?

1) It’s hard to think of her plays existing outside the madcap world of Imago, though now that I think of it, I’d love someone else to produce one of them.

2) They have an informal, lurching quality to them that somehow makes them seem spur-of-the-moment somehow. Did anyone actually write that stuff down on paper? Well, yes, she did.

I don’t know quite what to say to readers who have never seen this work, or have seen it on occasion and wandered away puzzled. I happen to love it—not every crazy moment, mind you, but overall, the spirit of them, their dark sense of humor, their depiction of quicksilver human impulses and the sheer anarchy those impulses create and then how poor our efforts are at somehow justifying them. I cringe, I writhe, I roll my eyes, I take a drink. Most of all, I’m hooked.

Maybe there’s no room in your theater for work that’s this non-linear? I understand completely. But then don’t come running to me with the complaint that Portland theater is too predictable and boring…

I just glanced over my “notes” for “Beaux Arts Club.” I don’t know why I bother: They are useless. Well… not quite. There’s this quote:

“I don’t know how to do anything but art… and I’m bad at it.”
A line that reveals the abyss…

So, yes, Susanna (Sorce) is the host of an annual meeting of the Beaux Arts Club, the members of which are Harriet and Miranda, old school chums now in their 30s. Before they arrive, Susanna has a little trouble with her art installation, who has to be danced, tied and gagged, to his alcove and then knocked out sufficiently to be ensconced within it. She’s been a painter of quasi-Arp-like abstractions, which fill the walls of her apartment, because, well, they don’t sell.

Sorce looks a little like Ann-Margret (OK, I’m dating myself), with a wig of auburn curls and high cheekbones. She breaks into a little song and dance every now and then, and her cackle doubles up on Phyllis Diller’s (might as well go all the way). But there’s an underside to her bright sexiness and ‘60s style mini-dress that goes beyond the “installation” and the way she’s able to live beyond her obvious means. Something in the cackle maybe.

Her pals arrive, first Miranda (MeMe Samkow), an art dealer (“Why did you become an art dealer? You could have been anything!”), and then Harriet (Megan Skye Hale), a poet. We even hear some of her poetry, which she keeps in the car. What if those poems get stolen? “How else will I get discovered?” They are cutting to each other in obvious ways and say smart things at odd moments (“There’s nothing more common in the world than unsuccessful people with talent.”

Just a gathering of the gals. Except there’s a guy bound and gagged in the “installation,” right? And somehow that’s connected with a bit of criminal business, which may be connected to a bit of an escort service that Sorce is part of? What is it about that pizza delivery guy? And what about the guy in the installation? The plot clatters along swiftly at the end, never fear.

Both Marty Hughly and Rebecca Jacobson enjoyed “Beaux Arts Club,” and pointed out Sorce’s performance specifically. She really does burn brightly at the center of “Beaux Arts Club,” and she has fuel enough for everyone else onstage, too. The Drammy Awards are coming up on Monday, and hope the estimable judges don’t overlook this performance.

****

 

Dana Millican (left) and Danielle Purdy star in "Ithaka"/Owen Carey

Dana Millican and Danielle Purdy star in “Ithaka”/Owen Carey

“Ithaka,” Artists Repertory Theatre: Andrea Stolowitz spent a lot of time talking to Iraq War vets, and it shows in “Ithaka.” Part of that is simply its familiarity with the particularities of contemporary warfare that flows through the text, and then the details it reveals about the lives of the soldiers who return. All of this figures in the character of Lanie, a Captain in Iraq who returns with a burden from the war that threatens to sink her, and also Eve, who served with Lanie in Iraq. They know what they faced together in Iraq, and they know what confronts back home.

The story itself is relatively simple, but the way it leaps into the past and in and out of dream sequences keeps us off balance, and that ensures that in the audience, we don’t simply shut down, thinking we already know this story. In fact, we don’t—not these particulars at least, not felt and expressed in this way. And that may be the primary achievement of “Ithaka.”

Except for Dana Millican’s performance as Lanie. Millican is tightly wrapped, blunt, angry and deeply wounded, capturing precisely those moments when humans know they are saying the absolute wrong thing but can’t stop themselves. Why can’t she stop? Maybe because the propulsion within is too powerful to check, right?

Millican’s Lanie is hard to like, except in an abstract way, but without her we wouldn’t appreciate Danielle Purdy’s Eve, who is squared away too, but at first, at least, seems to be dealing with the return home more pragmatically. I won’t say much about Purdy’s cat portrayal except to say that the cat people in the audience were audibly purring about it.

How do we deal with decisions that result in bad outcomes, fatal outcomes? Stolowitz explores that question with “Ithaka.” If you’re like Lanie, you’re harder on yourself than almost anyone else would be, once the details are known. But can you just shrug off decisions because they are inherently impossible? How much processing would you have to do before you could absolve yourself, partly at least? And after you’ve come to grips with the decision, what about the loss itself?

In 90 minutes, “Ithaka” gets at a lot—about the gaping wounds that war leaves, sure, but something more general, too. Call it the gaping wounds that life leaves. Does it require the classical framing device Stolowitz employs? My guess is that it doesn’t, but you can decide for yourself. Marty Hughley gives a lot of background on the play in this preview.

****

In various forums, I’ve noted how male-dominant both the writing and directing part of the theater business tends to be, which makes no sense to me. Both of these plays were written by women, of course, and they were directed by women, too—Triffle herself helmed “Beaux Arts Club” (OK, I’ve just always wanted to use that Variety term, “helmed”), and Gemma Whelan brought a nice, clear, exploratory feeling to “Ithaka.” Both plays feature lots of women and so lots of juicy roles for women. Not that I’d call them “women’s theater” or anything, whatever that might be. They are way too different to be thrown together in a systematic way. It’s just interesting theater with lots of women involved.  And it just feels… natural. And right.

 

* “Ajax,” ”Oh Lost Weekend,” “No Can Do,” “Missing Mona,” “Hit Me in The Stomach,” “Mix Up,” “The Dinner,” “Simple People,” “Backs Like That” and “Splat,” in addition to “Ginger’s Green” and “Beaux Arts Club”

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