Bennett Campbell Ferguson

 

Once more, into the thicket

Broadway Rose makes musical magic with the tragedy and song of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

What if the prince who Cinderella married turned out to be a philanderer? What if Jack’s war on giants didn’t end after he came down the beanstalk? What if Rapunzel suffered from PTSD and couldn’t enjoy her happily ever after? Those are some of the seductively perverse questions explored in Stephen Sondheim’s justly legendary 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which has been brought to poignant, vibrant life in a new production by the Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Into the Woods is a daunting play. It calls for a cast and crew able to make sense of its disparate narrative elements (twisted romance, morbid comedy, haunting tragedy) and get audiences through a few bland songs (“A Very Nice Prince,” “It Takes Two”) that lack the clarity and force of the play’s most iconic musical numbers (“Agony,” “You Are Not Alone”). Those challenges are managed seamlessly by director Jessica Wallenfels and her actors, who have journeyed into the maze of Sondheim’s music (and James Lapine’s book) and emerged with a production that is beautiful, freewheeling, and whole.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose’s Into the Woods. Photo: Liz Wade

Like all enduring works of art, Into the Woods is a vast canvas upon which multiple ideas have been projected. While the play can be taken simply as a cheeky-sad reboot of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, some viewers have deemed it a metaphor for the AIDS crisis—not a stretch, given that its second act revolves around an unstoppable force that kills indiscriminately (in one case, almost immediately after sex).

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Garden Wars at The Armory

Two sets of neighbors and a battleground of flowers: Portland Center Stage's "Native Gardens" is an explosive, plant-based satire

Imagine that you’ve just moved to a new home. It has multiple floors, a formidable tree, and a garden that could really be something with a few more blossoms and shrubs. There’s just one problem—the couple in the house next door has been planting flowers on part of your property for years, and they pout and snap whenever you confront them. Why, you wonder, can’t they just admit that it isn’t theirs?

Now picture the other side of the equation. You’ve meticulously cared for those flowers, nourishing them with both love and pesticides. Who are your neighbors to rob you of that pleasure? They just got here! Why can’t they have some compassion? Why can’t they understand?

Paul DeBoy, Anne-Marie Cusson, Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez, and Erick González in Native Gardens. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Add those two perspectives together and you get Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, which has come to Portland Center Stage. It’s a tale of neighborly conflict that, unfortunately, builds up to an implausibly tidy conclusion. Yet it’s still a treat to watch director Melissa Crespo’s cast of outstanding actors tear into Zacarías’ deliciously tart dialogue, bringing their characters to gloriously unlikable life.

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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.

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The revolution will be dramatized

Iconic women of French history unite in a chaotic rush of pandemonium at Artists Rep in Lauren Gunderson's "The Revolutionists"

“So a writer, a soon-to-be assassin, an activist and a deposed queen walk into a play. …” That’s the premise of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a cheeky blast of historical fiction onstage at Artists Rep. Essentially an Avengers for fans of iconic women who lived during France’s Reign of Terror, it unites three legends and an intriguing composite character for a battle royale of words.

Artists Rep has done everything possible to make The Revolutionists a success. The production has a talented director (Lava Alapai), a wickedly charismatic star (Jamie M. Rea) and a scenic designer (Megan Wilkerson) whose visual flourishes are as clever as Gunderson’s best ideas. Yet there is no transcending the fact that the script is a chaotic rush of cheap jokes and confused messaging—a revolution that turns into pure pandemonium.

Revolutionaries in the house: Jamie M. Rea (from left), Joellen Sweeney, Amy Newman, Ayanna Berkshire. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

The Revolutionists begins in 1793 with the famed feminist writer Olympe de Gouges (Rea) frantically searching for an idea for her next project. Just her luck, inspiration arrives on her doorstep in the form of Marie Antoinette (Amy Newman), Charlotte Corday (Joellen Sweeney) and Marianne Angelle (Ayanna Berkshire), who is a free woman from the Caribbean and a crusader against slavery (and who Gunderson based on revolutionaries from what is now Haiti).

It’s fascinating to watch these disparate women clash and connect. Marianne, for instance, is appalled by the pampered Marie, but the two develop a tender friendship after learning that they have experienced similar losses (a revelation that makes a few cracks in the two major barriers, class and race, that divide them). And everyone is awed by Charlotte’s unshakable determination to slay the prolific anti-monarchist politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat, who she deems “the worst.”

The set is even more intriguing. The Revolutionists features several models of buildings that the characters occasionally use as benches. It’s a cunning visual metaphor, a signal that although these women are gone, they were giants in a misogynistic world too small to be worthy of them (Olympe de Gouges was beheaded after writing a pamphlet entitled Declaration of the Rights of Women and the [Female] Citizen).

Unfortunately, The Revolutionists isn’t worthy of them, either. The play is so desperate to be funny that it runs its jokes into the ground, doubling down on anachronisms (Marie says “badass” and Charlotte says “motherfuckers”) that go from being subversive to being irritating with alarming speed. Even more unwelcome are the snide, nonstop digs at Les Misérables, which are almost as wearying as Russell Crowe’s singing in the film adaptation of that musical.

There’s also something baffling about the way that The Revolutionists explores art’s value, or lack thereof. When Marianne berates Olympe for not being able to “feel anything unless it’s staged,” she has a point. Yet Gunderson abruptly shifts gears by having Marianne inexplicably praise Olympe’s devotion to her craft in a scene that seems jarringly out of place. It’s almost as if Gunderson is trying to talk herself out of doubting the validity of her own work.

The best Gunderson play I’ve seen is I and You, which was produced at Artists Rep last year and largely revolves around two teenagers collaborating on a school project in a bedroom. It’s a work that’s remarkable precisely because it isn’t afraid to be unremarkable—it simply invites us to listen while its characters chat.

I and You, in other words, is the opposite of The Revolutionists, which is so desperate to make an impact that it exhausts you. In the play, Olympe creates because she believes that art can affect profound change. I think that she’s right, but I also think that a play’s power to influence depends on a playwright’s ability to articulate a coherent vision. That’s where The Revolutionists fails. It has fighting spirit, but it never fully mobilizes or even figures out which battlefield it wants to be on.

 


 

 

A judge’s journey from El Salvador to Oregon

A new play at Milagro Theatre explores the astonishing life of Multnomah County's Judge Xiomara Torres.

The life story of Judge Xiomara Torres—who journeyed from El Salvador to California as a nine-year-old undocumented immigrant in 1980 and was appointed to the Multnomah County Circuit Court by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017—seems too vast and inspiring to be contained by a single stage. Yet Judge Torres, a new play by Milta Ortiz that is making its world premiere at Milagro Theatre, dares to retrace Torres’ footsteps.

A less inventive playwright might have chronicled Torres’ experiences with dull, dutiful faithfulness. Yet Ortiz—whose visionary spirit is expressively channelled by director Mandana Khoshnevisan and a terrifically versatile cast—takes a stranger and more engaging approach. She has created a play that, while not strictly true to Torres’ life, uses symbolism and spirituality to get to the truth of it.

Dreamlike wonderment enlivens the inspiring story of “Judge Torres” at Milagro Theatre. Photo: Russell J. Young.

Judge Torres begins by showing us Torres’ childhood in El Salvador, which the play sums up in the idyllic image of Xiomara (Marissa Sanchez) dressed in a jaunty pair of overalls and raving about her love of books. Her bliss, however, is soon overshadowed as civil war ravages El Salvador, forcing her and her siblings (Cindy Angel and Eduardo Vasquez Juarez) to flee across the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico.

When the Torres family arrives in America, they are giddy—to them, even the sight of vending machines packed with Coca-Cola is a revelation. But glee gives way to terror for Xiomara when, at 13 years old, she reveals that she has been sexually abused by a family member (per Torres’ request, the play doesn’t reveal the identity of the culprit). Split from her siblings and placed in foster care, Xiomara is left to endure more or less alone as she struggles to embrace her destiny: standing up for the rights of abused children the way that her court-appointed special advocate, Jan Brice, stood up for her.

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A bird’s-eye view of terror

With chillingly understated performances and one monstrously masked character, Theatre Vertigo's "A Map of Virtue" will haunt your dreams.

What terrifies you the most? Ghosts? Snakes? Serial killers? Whatever your answer, I guarantee that if you go see Theatre Vertigo‘s profoundly disturbing new production of Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the image of a new monster will be carved into your psyche: a hulking man who wears a bird mask that has wide, circular eyes and a beak as sharp as a meat hook.

It would be foolhardy to say that A Map of Virtue exists solely to frighten its audience—it is also a potent rumination on romance, childhood and PTSD. Yet there is no denying that director Emilie Landmann and her incomparable cast have latched onto the most hellish passages of Courtney’s play and brought them to freakishly vivid life. The result of their efforts is an intoxicatingly intense vortex of pain and fear. As I was sucked in, I both savored the experience and longed to be released.

That was partly because I didn’t know what I was getting into. The opening scenes of A Map of Virtue introduce you to Sarah (Paige Rogers) and Mark (Samson Syharath)—two people who forge an intense friendship through a series of chance encounters—and prime you to expect a moody but relatively lighthearted play about people and their feelings. Yes, there are unsettling references (to a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and the sexual abuse Mark endured as a boy at boarding school), but nothing that prepares you for what comes next.

Paige Rogers (from left), Jacquelle Davis, and Samson Syharath in “A Map of Virtue” by Theatre Vertigo. Photo: KKelly Photography.

A Map of Virtue starts to reveal its true nature when Mark and Sarah and her husband Nate (Joel Patrick Durham) are invited to a party in the countryside by June (Kaia Maarja Hillier), who they have just met. She seems pleasant enough, but when the play’s heroes arrive at June’s house, they find themselves locked in a room, stripped of their phones and guarded by Ray (Gary Strong), June’s gun-wielding henchman (and the wearer of the aforementioned bird mask).

Eventually, we realize that June and Ray probably want to terrorize Mark, Sarah and Nate until there is nothing left of them to hurt (a torture scene that begins with June barking at Ray, “You! Get the buckets,” is one of the most alarming things I’ve seen onstage). Yet unlike so many horror stories, A Map of Virtue doesn’t demand that we relish the torment of its characters as punishment for sin or stupidity—we are invited to feel their anguish as our own, which is both more satisfying and more disquieting.

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Visionary of the afterlife

Milagro's "Alebrijes!" delivers a fantastical chronicle of the life of Mexican artist Pedro Linares.

One of the more contentious topics in art history is how the Mexican artist Pedro Linares dreamed up the sculptures of mythical creatures known as alebrijes. The most likely version of the story is that Linares was commissioned to create alebrijes for a party at the San Carlos Arts Academy. But a more entertaining tale suggests that these beasts came to him in a dream while he was ill during the 1930s.

Robi Arce stars in “Alibrijes!,” Milagro’s latest Die de Muertos production, based on the Mexican artist Pedro Linares. Photo: Russell J. Young

That saga informs ¡Alebrijes!, an eccentric and moving play written and directed by Georgina Escobar and currently onstage at Milagro. An offbeat blend of magical realism and plain old realism, ¡Alebrijes! does not always fully realize its ambitions, but is nevertheless both poignant and excitingly strange—a blast of visual wonderment that pokes fun at the very idea of death without ever fully making light of it.

After a clever present-day prologue, the play introduces us to Pedro (Robi Arce), whose brother Manuel (Matthew Sepeda) dies in a train accident during the first act. Unmoored by grief, Pedro poisons himself in the hope of convincing the powerful La Meurte (Patricia Alivetz) to free Manuel from the afterlife. But his gamble thrusts him into a world somewhere between the living and the dead, forcing him to confront the inevitability of death and his ignored artistic potential.

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