‘God’ lends a hand to Newport theater drive

Ed Asner stars in "God Help Us!," a fundraising political comedy scheduled for August

What started out as a plea for cash has turned into what likely will be the biggest draw at the Newport Performing Arts Center this summer.

It’s a play called God Help Us!,  and playing the title role is the actor with more Emmys — seven — than any other male performer. You may know him best as Lou Grant, the ornery TV news director with a soft spot for Mary. Yep, that would be Ed Asner.

Here’s how it happened.

For the past seven years, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts has been raising money for its seven-phase capital campaign to expand and improve the Newport Performing Arts Center. That campaign is in the final stage, with efforts to transform the former Black Box Theater. The Black Box originally was designed as rehearsal space, morphed into a small theater, and recently was renamed for the late David Ogden Stiers. Improvements totaling $1.6 million will make it a fully functioning theater.

Ed Asner as God judges a debate in purgatory between a former couple — one liberal, one conservative — in the political comedy “God Help Us!”

Charged with figuring out how to raise the money, Andrea Spirtos, capital campaign consultant for the council, got her hands on an extensive resume of Stiers’ work. Stiers was a Newport resident and actor best known for his role as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H.

“It included all the shows he was on,” Spirtos said. “And then I researched each of those shows to find out which episode he was on and which actors would have been filmed with him, including what lines he may have said surrounding his appearance.”

Continues…

Remembering Lyndee Mah

The Portland vocalist was also a crucial community resource for artists

Every culture needs at least one Lyndee Mah—an indomitably positive source of energy, compassion and commitment to art, a connector and facilitator, an advisor and advocate, someone to console us when that is necessary. Fortunately for Portland, we had Lyndee Mah herself. A gifted artist, Mah was possibly even more gifted at the creation of community, in her case, a community that included many artists.

Mah died in her sleep on April 1 from a heart attack. She was in Spokane, Washington,  caring for her brother Marshall Mah. She was born in Idaho Falls on August 29, 1958. She studied music at Mt. Hood Community College and finished her general education studies at PSU.

Lyndee Mah during her House Concert Series with her A String Ensemble./Photo by Julie Keefe

Mah was a vocalist in Portland for more than 20 years. She was a founding member of the band Pink Martini and collaborated with a host of Portland musicians and dancers over the years, including 3 Leg Torso, the late pianist Janice Scroggins, and choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. She created  “E`-Bon E`-Bon,” an original mixed-media, musical-memoir performance piece, based on her Chinese-European-American heritage, and she performed with Imago and Liminal theater companies. She touched, literally, hundreds more at her home hair salon.

Mah is survived by her partner Elahi Bradley-Muhammad and her son, Halston Mah-Minniweather.

A celebration of Lyndee K. Mah’s life will be held 7-10 pm August 4 at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett Street. Friends, admirers and collaborators of Lyndee’s will honor her incredible artistic and cultural legacy in this community.

Editor’s Note: Choreographer Linda K. Johnson gathered remembrances of Mah from six of the people whose lives she touched. We appreciate her efforts.

Lyndee Mah performing at one of her House Concerts with guitar given to her by Kristy Edmunds/Photo by Julie Keefe

Courtney Von Drehle, musician and composer

I first got to know Lyndee when 3 Leg Torso worked with choreographer/dancer Gregg Bielemeier, and we were enlisted for the music, with Lyndee as our vocalist. Working with Lyndee, who had been Pink Martini’s first vocalist, was our first collaboration with a singer. We went over to Lyndee’s big old house, and coming into her space, with its deep purple curtains, various adornments on the walls—both stately and casual at the same time—right away I felt at home. Downstairs, in the basement, was Lyndee’s salon, where I, and many I know, would visit for Lyndee’s transformative magic. She knew how to make us look good, and chatting away while her scissors orbited our heads, with her easy going and real nature, she’d make it easy to transcend surface connection, and make us feel good in a far deeper way than just one of her glorious hair cuts alone could provide. It was natural for Lyndee to share her deep empathy and caring with all of those around her, and her home reflected the warmth that she embodied.

Arriving at Lyndee’s for rehearsal would often start with some hanging out on the porch, a fresh cup of coffee in hand, chatting with her partner, Brad, who like Lyndee has an easy ability to connect with others in a deep way. Moving inside and working on music was always relaxed and playful, qualities Lyndee would bring to her performances. I remember a particular Conduit benefit I performed where Lyndee was the MC. At one point, out of the blue, she started beating the microphone against her chest and doing a little rap, a spontaneous departure from the script that brought the room together. I’d seen her and Janice Scroggins perform as a duo at Conduit a while before that, and I was deeply moved by their music. One tune in particular, with the lyrics full of reminiscent observations from a later point of view in life, just floored me. With Janice’s always exquisite playing and Lyndee’s rich and present vocals, they were a powerful duo, two masterful musicians at play.

Lyndee was resourceful and self-reliant. From her independent hair salon, her voice lessons, teaching Body Mapping to musicians, to putting on her one-woman show, Lyndee found her own way forward.

Continues…

A blizzard of feeling

Strangers clash during a whiteout in Defunkt's "Brilliant Traces." It's an intoxicating standoff.

Somewhere in Alaska, a woman knocks on a door. It isn’t a polite, casual knock—it’s a thunderous banging that reverberates through your body like the pounding of a war drum. Whoever this woman is, she has channeled all of her fear and rage into that knock, as if to say, “Absorb all that I’m feeling. I dare you.”

That moment makes for a fearsome start to Defunkt Theatre’s production of Brilliant Traces, Cindy Lou Johnson’s 1989 play about two wounded souls finding both solace and anguish during a blizzard. It’s an appealingly volatile, occasionally mechanical play. In the right hands, it has the power to stir and shock. In the wrong hands, it risks devolving into dramatized therapy.

Elizabeth Jackson and Matt Smith in Defunkt’s Brilliant Traces. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Which is why it’s a relief that the play has come to Defunkt. I’ve seen the company take audiences to myriad destinations, from Albert Einstein’s hotel room to an Iowa high school. Yet one thing has never changed: Defunkt’s plays are always driven by explosive emotions and sublime imagery. Brilliant Traces continues that impressive tradition by unleashing two thrillingly in-your-face performances on a set so evocatively wintry that it nearly makes you shiver.

Continues…

PAMTAs: and the nominees are …

Portland's musical theater awards gala will be Monday, June 3, in the Winningstad Theatre. Here are the nominees.

Broadway Rose’s Guys and Dolls and Mamma Mia!, Portland Playhouse’s Crowns, Stumptown Stage’s Urinetown, and Triangle Productions’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch lead the nominations for this year’s Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards, duking it out for the best-production statuette. Each company scored multiple additional nominations.

The 2019 PAMTAs, the 12th annual awards ceremony, will be at 7 p.m. Monday, June 3, in the Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Six special PAMTAs also will be awarded. Admission is free, and with plenty of musical performances and the return of Darius Pierce as master of ceremonies, it promises to be a good party.

Darius Pierce at the 2018 PAMTA ceremony in the Winningstad Theatre. He’ll return as emcee of this year’s gala June 3.

The city’s two major children’s theater companies, Oregon Children’s Theatre and Northwest Children’s Theater and School, fared well in the nominations, each scoring two nominees in the best original musical category – Dinosaurs! and Tenali for NWTC, Shiver and The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors for OCT. Whiskey Dixie took the fifth slot in that category with Whiskey Dixie and the Big Wet Country.

Continues…

What’s up, doc? Let me down easy.

Profile Theatre winds up its season with Anna Deavere Smith's deep dive into health care in America. It's a matter of life and breath.

How are you feeling? Been to the doctor lately? How’s your health insurance? Uncovered emergency bills draining your wallet and shooting your blood pressure through the stratosphere? Go to the closest hospital instead of the in-network hospital for that medical emergency, and now you’re stuck with the entire thirty-thousand-dollar bill? Welcome to health care in America.

And welcome to Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable series of linked monologues that are getting a remarkably vivid and engaging performance through June 16 from Profile Theatre. Smith’s play both is and isn’t about such pertinent questions. First produced in 2008 as a solo show performed by its author, Let Me Down Easy predates Obamacare, “death panels,” skyrocketing costs on crucial medications, the relentless right-wing campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and leave millions with no coverage at all, the state-by-state assault on abortion and reproductive rights, and the rising rebellion against private insurance companies and demand for single-payer health coverage.

Vana O’Brien as Texas Governor Ann Richards. Photo: Brud Giles

In a political sense, then, Smith’s play is last decade’s news. And yet it still feels fresh and up-to-date, because it’s less an agitprop play about specific policies than an inquisitive investigation into people’s attitudes toward life and death and the ways we think about what a healthy life means. In one way or another each of the twenty-odd characters in Let Me Down Easy is dealing with questions of mortality. As James H. Cone, a minister, puts it in the opening monologue: “Let. Me. Down. Easy. Those are words of a broken heart.”

Continues…

Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

Continues…

Earlier this month I landed in Ashland to see the first five plays of the 2018-19 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Bill Rauch’s last as artistic director.


The plays under inspection here include:

  • the vastly popular stage version of the John Waters film “Hairspray”
  • Lauren Yee’s instantly (and deservedly) popular “Cambodian Rock Band”
  • an “As You Like It” that preserves the “Shakespeare” in the “Oregon Shakespeare Festival” and also interprets the play in a progressive way
  • the world premiere of long-time festival favorite Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road”
  • and “Between Two Knees,” a seriously pointed sketch comedy by the Native American improv group The 1491s and another world premiere.

Last season I made a similar trip to see a similar batch of new productions, relatively soon after the announcement that Rauch was heading for New York to become the first artistic director of the Perelman Center in New York City. What struck me then was how far the festival had evolved during Rauch’s tenure: “Suddenly, they [the plays] became a sort of emblem of the changes that Rauch has brought to the festival—and to American theater in general—during his run at OSF, which began in 2007.

What changes are we/was I talking about?

Jessica Ko and Roman Zaragoza in director Rosa Joshi’s production of
“As You Like It” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: Jenny Graham.

“Rauch was ahead of the times at OSF, although he was also drawing on important changes initiated by previous artistic directors Henry Woronicz and Libby Appel. From the beginning he explicitly linked the festival to social change, both internally and onstage, embracing diversity, feminism and social justice, well ahead of other regional theater companies and even national equality movements—#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy. During his tenure accessibility projects flourished, sharpened their focus, and had a real effect on how the festival does business and what it puts onstage.”

This first round of plays in the 2019 season follows and extends the programming developments Rauch began in 2007. The productions themselves retain the high-end production values the festival is known for, and they are populated with persons of color, tell stories about communities the festival (along with most of the rest of American theater) once neglected and have the edgy energy that new plays, new voices, new actors and directors can bring.

Continues…