As You Like It, indoors & out

Bag&Baggage blends Shakespeare's comedy with Charles Johnson's "Love in a Forest," and leads the audience on a merry chase

If the heat of summer has you longing to escape to the cool shade of the forest, you’re not alone: The lovers (both hesitant and willing) in Bag&Baggage’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, are also escaping to the forest, for love and merriment.

But Bag&Baggage isn’t settling for any other production of As You Like It. Its production — titled As You Like It, or Love in a Forest — combines Shakespeare’s As You Like It with Charles Johnson’s Love in a Forest, based on the same text Shakespeare based his on, and written more than 100 years later.

Andrew Beck (left) and TS McCormick. Casey Campbell Photography

Bag&Baggage Associate Artistic Director Cassie Greer adapted this script for Bag&Baggage’s Vault Theater and the outdoor alley next to the building, in the heart of downtown Hillsboro. Greer also directs, and sometimes you wonder if she has brought this play to Hillsboro or if she has brought Hillsboro to this play. Either way, it works magically.

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Bright Sheng interview: cross-cultural emissary

The Shanghai-born American composer, whose music is featured at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend, explores and extends Chinese music traditions

by ALICE HARDESTY

Bright Sheng is a pianist, conductor, and composer of music in various genres, including opera, orchestral, and chamber music. He’s also a teacher and musicologist, having studied both Eastern and Western music extensively. His resume includes heavy-duty recognition, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” award.

This weekend, as part of its Behind the Cultural Revolution series, Chamber Music Northwest presents two performances of Sheng’s opera The Silver River and other compositions. I spoke to him last week.

Bright Sheng

Born in Shanghai, Sheng was nearly ready for music school when the Red Guard took away his piano and sent him to the the province of Qinghai in Eastern Tibet. Fortunately, the seven years he spent there were not wasted. His hosts found out that he could play the piano (the only piano there), and he became the local musician and entertainer. With no teacher or books, he taught himself music theory and made an intensive study of the local folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, he made up for lost time. He got a B.A. at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, left for the U.S. and earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University where one of his mentors was Leonard Bernstein.

The name, “Sheng,” means “grand,” and “Bright” is the actual translation of his Chinese name, “Liang.” He explained with a chuckle, “I didn’t really want a Western name, so I chose ‘Bright’ and I think it helped with my career because it sticks.” He’s lived up to his name.

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Portland’s New King of Comedy

Alex Falcone snatches the crown at Helium Comedy’s Portland’s Funniest Person Championship

Stakes were high at Helium Comedy Club’s sold-out Portland’s Funniest Person competition on Wednesday night. Twelve comedians, who had survived a month-long gauntlet, had one last chance to win over the audience and judges. After two and a half hours of stand-up, host and previous champion Caitlin Weierhauser finally passed both crown and scepter on to this year’s winner: Alex Falcone.

Alex Falcone, Portland’s new king of comedy.

Past winners of Portland’s Funniest Person, such as Ian Karmel, have gone on to receive Emmy nominations and write for late-night talk shows. Other winners, like Nathan Brannon, have recorded comedy albums and taken to the road for national tours. In addition to the invitation to open for headliners at Helium, winners also receive a comfy twelve hundred dollars. Oh yeah, and perhaps the most prestigious prize: bragging rights.

Ian Karmel: On beyond Helium.

Falcone let loose an onslaught of punchline after punchline, each stronger than the last. He packed so much material into his set, it felt like a Netflix special. His set was also the only one that was thematically coherent; it was essentially a single narrative exploration of fatherhood and family. It all led up to a great closing bit about consent: “Talking to your son about consent is important,” Falcone says, “but consent is a bare minimum. What you’re looking for is … participation. ”

Falcone took home the big win, but second-place winner Mohanad Elshieky got some of the biggest laughs of the night. Elshieky is no stranger to the competition — he was second runner-up last year, and the Portland Mercury has dubbed him an “undisputed genius of comedy.” His set was arguably the most challenging. His perceptive jokes ranged from his experience as an immigrant, to superficial liberal solidarity, to gun control.

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‘Blue Mountain’: a solicited audient’s response to ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie’

Workshop performance of this weekend's SummerFest feature intensifies classic play's tragedy and humor by stripping its words to the bone

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One dark and stormy night in January, I braved Portland’s mild winter weather for an unusual play called, of all preposterous things, Philip’s Glass Menagerie. The triple pun was enough to make me go—a mash-up of Philip Glass (whom I had recently written about) and Tennessee Williams’ famous tale of stifling Southern family love, adapted by Philip Cuomo and performed in CoHo’s black box theater by the CoHo Clown Cohort. (An updated production is playing this weekend at Coho SummerFest. Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.)

I knew practically nothing of the play, and I’m not gonna rehash it here. I knew it was a heavy one when I invited a friend and he said, “nah, Glass Menagerie, I’ve seen it once—oof!—once was plenty.” I mentally catalogued it as Deep & Troubling Theater and prepared myself for an evening of soul spilling and “ACTING!” Even with clowns and whatnot, I reasoned, it would probably still be pretty normal theater, right? Nope. What I got was Tennessee Williams stripped to the bone, the bones reassembled like Robert Crumb’s Ezekiel, dancing skeletons in a dark room with little more than a typewriter, a chaise, a couple pieces of fruit, and an inflatable unicorn.

… a play that sometimes seems lighter than air. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

The result was spectacular. In that January workshop performance—preparation for this weekend’s Summerfest premiere—the four actors performed an interpretation (perhaps “translation” would be more accurate) of Williams’ memory play. The use of Glass’ music was frankly a little gratuitous, snippets from Passages and North Star piped in just for the interstices, barely enough to justify the pun, but I quickly got over that. A little Glass goes a long way, and too much would have detracted from the performance.

The real Glass inspiration was the Einstein on the Beach-like treatment of the text (actually Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson probably deserves credit for that, but then we would lose the pun). Cuomo’s production stripped away something like 98 percent of Williams’ words, translating all that frustrated, understated, cloistered, closeted angst into the telegraphed language of clowning, like a Borges metastory adapted by Tati. Single words and short phrases, repeated and repeated and repeated again, became the scaffolding for long-form physical comedy, each little twist on the phrase a new revelation of plot or character or theme, each variation both a joke in itself and the punchline to earlier jokes. “I’m going to the movies.” “Come in!” “Blue Mountain.”

This achievement in itself would have been monumental, but then we got into the gender flipping and the serious clowning. Actor-director (and local legend) Isaac Lamb portrayed matriarch Amanda with a larger-than-life vulnerability, deftly maneuvering the character’s various moods: tender and domineering, morose and vulnerable, desperately cheerful, wistfully despairing. Australia-Portland transplant and experienced drag performer Emily Newton amazed me with her series of Gentleman Caller characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Tom (that’d be Mr. Williams) was the most overtly clown-like of the bunch, toggling adroitly between traditional mime routines (the bit with the cigarette was particularly good) and the hilariously helpless rage that is the fate of teenage writers everywhere. Sascha Blocker anchored the cast as Laura (Tom’s sister, based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, and don’t go googling her unless you’ve got a few hankies handy). Blocker’s red hair and fragile resilience reminded me above all of Julianne Moore’s star-making performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, and on the few occasions when her performance turned comedic, she was funnier than anyone else.

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DramaWatch: Clown ‘Menagerie’

This week, "Philip's Glass Menagerie" gives a twist to Tennessee. Plus openings, closings, the tax man giveth, and a dash of Randy Rainbow.

“Being a ‘memory play,’ The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention,” wrote Tennessee Williams in the production notes to his great 1940s story of a family trapped between hard realities and comforting illusions. Williams might never have suspected, however, that “unusual freedom” would result in the story being presented as an elliptical string of nearly wordless comic vignettes, performed by clowns in drag.

Yet here we are at the fourth and final week of CoHo Summerfest 2018, and Philip’s Glass Menagerie will be taking just such liberties with this hallowed American classic. As the festival playbill puts it, the show “explores whether or not Williams’ emotionally intimate story can be told truthfully and powerfully through the extreme physical expression of clowning.”

The “whether or not” question may already have been answered by a successful workshop production earlier this year during the Fertile Ground festival.

Sascha Blocker, “lovely, precise, emotionally transparent” as Laura. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

“The most satisfying information gleaned from Fertile Ground was that the conceit held up,” says director/adapter Philip Cuomo. “I was really pleased to learn that even people not familiar with the play had an enjoyable experience. There were people who kind of sort of knew it and found their memories jogged in an intriguing way. There were people really familiar with the play who came expecting it not to work, then were pleasantly surprised when it did. And then there were people who came in without any knowledge and went on this incredible ride from silliness to pathos.”

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Interview: Tahni Holt talks about ‘Rubble Bodies’

Veteran Portland choreographer Tahni Holt discusses life after a collapse in her new dance

Rubble Bodies brings up the possibilities for me of something after a collapse, where we don’t actually know how it’s organized yet,” Portland choreographer Tahni Holt told me over coffee last week as we talked about her new dance. This idea she said, “gives me freedom and curiosity about how to combine things in interesting ways that aren’t habitually organized in my body at this particular moment in time.”

Holt has been working on Rubble Bodies since 2015. Originally a solo called Apples and Pomegranates, it is now a group work-in-progress in collaboration with composer Luke Wyland, visual artist Elizabeth Malaska, New Orleans trombonist Willis Ross, singer Holland Andrews, and dramaturg Kate Bredeson. Although Holland is part of the work, she will not be performing in this weekend’s show, though she will take part in the work’s official premiere in the winter.

Holt is a choreographer and founding director of FLOCK Dance Center here in Portland, and she has been creating performances, programing and teaching for the past 19 years.

Rubble Bodies will share the bill with New Orleans-based Shannon Stewart this weekend at Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance. (I also interviewed Stewart about her work Relatives, which you can read about here.)

“Rubble is this amazing word,” Holt observed. “It brings up this very strong image of all these bits and pieces. When I think about this work and what I’m manifesting, it’s a lot of bits and ways of imagining the materiality of my body.”

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DanceWatch Weekly: A dance that can be whatever it wants to be

Shannon Stewart talks about the 3-year process that her dance "Relatives" has gone through

“Honestly, the real reason for this production is because I wanted to get Shannon Stewart here (in Portland) again,” said Portland choreographer Tahni Holt when we met for coffee last week at Posies Bakery & Cafe in NE Portland. “She’s just a power house. She’s an amazing choreographer, and teacher, and a very dear colleague of mine.”

New Orleans-based Stewart’s Relatives and Holt’s newest work-in-progress, Rubble Bodies, will share the stage this weekend at Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance. The two pieces are in conversation with each other Holt said.

“So many of our ideas—what we think about, and what we are working on—are on similar paths,” Holt says. “We are at similar points in our lives, and we’re similar ages” she continued. “I think that they will be really amazing pieces to see together and hers (Stewart’s) is an incredibly complicated, rigorous piece, that you get a bit lost in the meditation of it and the consistency of it. The dedication she brings to that hour—and the fierceness—is really amazing. I’m very excited to bring that piece to this community. I want this community to show up for it because I think it’s a really important work to see.”

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