Bennett Campbell Ferguson

 

Cuddles at CoHo

Fear, intimacy and absurdity collide in the CoHo Productions staging of "The Found Dog Ribbon Dance."

I first heard about Cuddle Con — the Portland cuddling convention — shortly before it debuted in 2015. A classmate in an audio storytelling class was doing a project about the event, and I remember thinking that it sounded glorious. As a single 24-year-old with only a couple close friends and no career, I found the prospect of physical intimacy with even a stranger inviting.

As it turned out, I never attended Cuddle Con, but I have remained fascinated by the concept of professional cuddling. What, I have found myself wondering, does it say about our society that people are literally paying for platonic closeness? Has the numbing isolation induced by social media sundered society that badly? Or does professional cuddling simply represent a solution to the age-old agony of loneliness?

Those questions aren’t answered in CoHo’s production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, which I can safely say is the first play I’ve seen about a professional cuddler. Yet the play is a moving and entertaining meditation on the joy of physical intimacy and the awfulness (for some people) of its absence. Watching it may bring up painful memories of isolation (it did for me). But it also delivers a satisfying brew of truth, wit and catharsis.

Faraway, so close: Clifton Holznagel (from left), Beth Thompson and Tom Mounsey test the boundaries of togetherness in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a play by Reed College alum Dominic Finocchiaro. Photo: Owen Carey.

Directed by Connery MacRae, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance stars Beth Thompson as Norma, a woman who has started a successful cuddling business in her home. Her clients include an emotionally and physically scarred young woman (Deborah Jensen) and an elderly man (Marty Baeudet) who doesn’t speak a word until near the story’s end.

While the play could have worked as a series of vignettes about Norma’s clients, Finocchiaro chooses other narrative paths. He shows us the evolution of Norma’s romance with Norm (Tom Mounsey), a minor YouTube celebrity who works in a coffee shop, and her ongoing quest to find out who owns the dog she recently found (the pooch is played by Clifton Holznagel, who eschews a tail in favor of a black T-shirt that identifies him as a canine).

Norma’s cuddling technique is exemplary — her voice is so soothing that even her trite insistence that her home “is a safe space” becomes seductive. Achieving intimacy in her personal life proves more difficult for her, an irony that becomes a catalyst for a love-work crisis that causes her to question everything that she has devoted her life to.

It’s disappointing that the explanation for Norma’s fear of closeness with anyone besides her clients turns out to be fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s disappointing that the play offers an explanation at all. Making the story of what cuddling means and why it matters about one person’s inner strife distracts from the fascinating question of why human beings are so starved for connection that cuddling has become a viable job.

That oversight bothered me without diminishing my appreciation for the production’s numerous successes, especially Thompson’s performance. Found Dog chronicles the crumbling of Norma’s romance with Norm, which makes her doubt not just whether she’s capable of being part of a relationship but the value of physical intimacy itself. It’s haunting to watch Thompson take Norma on a journey from preaching the gospel of cuddling (“There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need”) to all but renouncing her faith (“I want to believe. But I don’t know anymore”).

Tom Mounsey gets all in a whirl in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Photo: Owen Carey.

The play suggests that while professional cuddling has value, mediated affection has its limits, an idea that Norm embodies. His fame is the result of a peculiar fetish—he films himself dancing to the music of Whitney Houston while wearing a luchador mask and waving a ribbon through the air. He is willing to look ridiculous in front of anonymous internet users, but he refuses to let Norma see him dance, which underlines the inability of both characters to experience togetherness beyond confines of their respective pursuits.

The beauty of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance lies in its portrait of Norma and Norm gradually bumbling beyond those restrictions. In a show-stopping scene, Norm dances to Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” waving his crimson ribbon in a series of dizzying spirals and swirls. It’s a jubilant spectacle, but it’s just the beginning. Because above all, Found Dog is about how for both Norma and Norm, “I want” becomes “I will.”

Heroes and Villains

Review: Broadway Rose's "Up and Away" is an affectionate yet subversive musical superhero parody

Why superheroes? As films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight have elevated the profiles of comic-book characters, that question has reverberated through American pop culture. In an age when Star Wars takes a back seat to even B-list Marvel icons like Iron Man, it’s hard not to wonder what stories of costumed do-gooders have that other modern mythologies don’t.

If you want an answer, go see Broadway Rose’s production of Up and Away, a musical that mocks superheroes even as it burrows to the core of their unflagging appeal. It’s an imperfect play with a few poorly aimed satirical jabs, but it is also moving and subversive in ways that few superhero films are. By remixing elements from Superman lore (including an alien hero and a journalist love interest), it manages to excavate some of the reasons why superheroes matter to so many.

Colin Stephen Kane (left), Paul Rona, and Malia Tippets. Photo: Sam Ortega

Like Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, Up and Away shows us a doomed and distant planet from which a baby is sent to Earth. One time jump later, we’re in Farmtown, USA, where the brothers Joe (Paul Wrona) and Jerry Jessup (Colin Stephen Kane) discover a pair of mysterious crimson gloves. When Joe dons them, he can fly and see five seconds into the future (when he touches his head, that is). Invigorated by his newfound abilities, he sets off for Big City, where he becomes a crimefighter named Super Saver.

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Vision 2020: Dañel Malán

Teatro Milagro's leader talks about bilingual arts, using theater to build community, and the joys and perils of taking the show on the road

Dañel Malán’s path from her planned career as a visual artist and toward her future as the co-founder of Milagro Theatre, the Pacific Northwest’s only Latino theater company, led through a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

“I was probably around 16 when I had my first visual arts exhibit and I thought that was going to be my destiny,” Malán says. That changed at the University of California San Diego, where a mentor suggested that she switch to theatre. “I went over to [the theatre department], crossed the divide—there’s a grove of Eucalyptus trees that you have to hike through—and never turned back,” she remembers.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


It’s a decision that continues to define her. Since co-founding the non-profit Milagro Theatre in 1985 with her husband, Jose Eduardo Gonzalez, Malán has helped transform the company into a colossus of creativity. As the artistic director of Teatro Milagro, the company’s touring arm, she’s responsible for taking Milagro’s shows to schools, colleges and universities across the country.

During a lengthy conversation (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), Malán spoke about her achievements in the 2010s, her ambitions for the 2020s and how she plans to ensure that Milagro endures beyond its looming fiftieth anniversary.

Dañel Malan. Photo courtesy Milagro

Tell me about some of your earliest memories of theater and how you became interested in performing.

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Close up and burning bright

Asylum Theatre reignites Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" with intimate staging and palpable emotion.

In Asylum Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, everything happens a few feet from your face. In the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, the seats are situated so close to the actors that it almost seems possible to touch each feeling—joy, lust, rage, agony—that bursts free of their bodies. There’s no hiding from the propulsive intensity of their performances, and that’s terrifying.

It’s also exhilarating. Burn This seizes you, jostles you and moves you, frequently daring to break and repair your heart at the same time. Director Don Alder and his cast recognize that Wilson’s play isn’t meant merely to be watched and analyzed—it’s a meditation on love, grief and identity that is meant to be felt, even (and especially) when it’s almost too much.

Feel the burn: Heath Koerschgen and Brianna Ratterman come together through grief in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, staged at the Shoebox by Asylum Theatre. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Asylum has assembled a cast worthy of joining that daunting roster. Brianna Ratterman plays the conceited and traumatized choreographer Anna and Heath Koerschgen plays the furious and irrepressible Pale, who charges into Anna’s world like a bulldozer with the breaks cut.

Burn This begins with an anguished Anna being soothed by her roommate Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and her boyfriend Burton (Jason Maniccia). Anna has just returned from the funeral of her friend Robbie, a dancer who was killed with his partner in a boating accident. Your first instinct is to cry for Anna, but there’s something off-putting about her snide remarks about Robbie’s family and her conversations with Burton, a screenwriter who spends much of the opening scene moaning about the rewriting of a script he wrote called Far Voyager.

Anna and Larry’s Manhattan loft is a static kingdom that begs to be shaken up, and Pale—who is Robbie’s brother—is more than happy to help. In the middle of the night, he bangs on the door, demanding the remainder of his dead sibling’s possessions. Bound by both grief and chemistry, Pale and Anna begin a romance that (depending on your perspective) is either a genuine connection or a destructive intertwining of two damaged souls.

To watch Burn This is to be, in a good way, trapped. You don’t just sit close to the stage—you sit on the same level as the stage. Instead of staring up at a raised platform, you stare straight into the lives of the characters, noticing details that would have been easy to miss in a larger arena, such as Anna lightly touching Pale’s mustache or Pale gently brushing Anna’s hair behind her ear.

Anna initially sees Robbie as a martyred saint and the relatives who were ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of his work as a dancer and his life as a gay man as callous villains. The reality is more nuanced, and that confuses and terrifies her (“She’s had a very protected life,” Larry tells Burton. “I mean, she’s never had to carry her own passport or plane tickets—she’s not had to make her own way much”).

Heath Koerschgen’s Pale (foreground) is the bull in the China-shop life of roommates Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and Anna (Brianna Ratterman), in Burn This. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Gradually, Anna begins to recognize that the identities of everyone around her are forever in flux. Pale may be a bully who hurls homophobic slurs, but he is also a tormented brother who irrationally blames himself for Robbie’s death. His signature line—“I’m gonna cry all over your hair”—is the play’s manifesto. Each tear in Burn This is a physical manifestation of the forces that expand the souls and perceptions of Anna and even Burton, whose journey goes far beyond the trials of being one point of a love triangle (despite his apparent heterosexuality, he fondly recalls receiving a blowjob from a man in the snow). 

Just as the events of Burn This disrupt each character’s life viscerally, the play itself leaves you thrillingly unmoored. I’m still mentally replaying its images (from Anna excoriating Pale and Burton while wearing a silky purple bathrobe to Burton holding a screenplay he has written, looking as vulnerable as a little boy clinging to a toy truck), trying to understand them and knowing that I’m not entirely meant to. Stories, Burn This insists, are as undefinable as people. No matter how hard we try to stay dry, to be human is to have tears in your hair.

The homesick and the haunted

CoHo Productions' "The Brothers Paranormal" tracks the spirits of the displaced, delivering a masterly blend of social commentary and supernatural horror.

A woman in white appears out of thin air, staring accusingly through her dark bangs. Books break free from a shelf, blasting through the air like missiles. A pillow moves by itself, becoming a silent weapon. Are these occurrences the stuff of delusion? Or is something genuinely spooky afoot?

That’s the mystery of Prince Gomolvilas’ The Brothers Paranormal, which has been brought to creepy and poignant life by director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, Coho Productions and MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora. With captivating characters and fantastically scary supernatural effects, the play grips you like a great horror film, but it succeeds because it cares about both the earthly and the unearthly—the anguish of the living and the dead.

Spooky truth: Thai-American ghostbusters Visarut (Lidet Viravong, foreground) and Max (Samson Syharath) delve into dark realities as The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The titular brothers are Max (Samson Syharath) and Visarut (Lidet Viravong). While Max was born in the United States and Visarut was born in Thailand, they are united in their profession: ghost hunting. Max approaches the job with sneering skepticism, but he sticks with it so he can spend time with his brother and fulfill his credo: “Fake it till you make it.”

The pair’s dubious spirit-detecting abilities are put to the test by Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard), a couple convinced that their apartment is haunted by a ghost who may be speaking Thai. The brothers sell Delia and Felix a “full-investigation package,” but after they learn that Delia’s family has a history of schizophrenia, Max is convinced that they will find evidence of nothing more than hallucinations.

Yet the apartment is a hotbed of eeriness, a place where sinister white lights abruptly turn on and the fingers of an unseen figure attempt to claw their way through a screen. Some playgoers may try to explain away these images, but The Brothers Paranormal seems to truly believe that ghosts walk among us and that skeptics like Max are fooling themselves (an idea enforced by the revelation that Max’s relationship to the paranormal is more complicated than he claims).

CoHo by candlelight: Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard) await their fate in The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The Brothers Paranormal is a multifaceted collage of moods and genres. An early scene begins with Felix cheerily telling the story of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised new lyrics for “Mack the Knife” and climaxes with him and Delia fearfully awaiting the ghost’s arrival by candlelight while Max and Visarut catalogue the sounds of the neighborhood (a passing car, a barking dog) in the hope of uncovering traces of a spectral presence. It’s the most frightening moment of the story because it allows you to bask in the glow of anticipation, imagining what horrors may come.

But the play has more to offer than sublime terror. Max, Visarut, Delia and Felix share a sense of profound displacement—the brothers because their family emigrated from Thailand, the couple because Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. Whether or not the ghost is real is beside the point. It symbolizes the isolation each character experiences, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being away from your homeland.

There’s something deeply moving about seeing this story through the eyes of the two siblings and an African-American wife and husband. The Brothers Paranormal is about being Thai in America (Theatre Diaspora describes itself as Oregon’s only Asian and Pacific Islander theatre company) and the yearnings that transcend cultural boundaries, particularly the hunger to return home (in Max’s case, to a home he has never seen).

The Brothers Paranormal’s greatest strength is the way that it clearly and compassionately lays bare the needs and desires of its characters, which are communicated by everything from Felix’s desperate paean to the apartment (“This is it. This is all we got. This is everything”) to the moment near the end of the play when Max tearfully collapses, overwhelmed by all that he has experienced and lost. As The Brothers Paranormal reminds us, his pain is the pain of many.


“Amor Añejo”: Into the Beyond, With Pain and Laughter

Milagro's latest Dia de Muertos tale is a magnificent journey to the afterlife.

In Labyrinth of Solitude, the legendary Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes, “Our relationship with death is intimate. More intimate perhaps, than any other people.” Those words echo through Amor Añejo, a Día de Muertos-inspired tale of bereavement and rebirth making its debut at Milagro Theatre. It’s an elegy—and more. The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake.

Love and Death: Yolanda Porter and Ricardo Vazuez in Milagro Theatre’s Amor Anejo. Photo: Russell J Young

Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector (Ricardo Vazquez), a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita (Yolanda Porter). Hector believes that building an altar for Dia de Muertos allows the dead to fleetingly visit the land of the living, yet he can’t bring himself to build an altar for Rosalita because he can’t admit that she is gone. Perversely and poetically, her ability to return depends on whether or not he can acknowledge her absence.

Conceived by director Elizabeth Huffman and developed with the cast in rehearsals, Amor Añejo eschews formulaic plotting in favor of a more naturalistic, anecdotal approach as it reveals the history of Hector and Rosalita’s marriage in flashbacks. Since seeing the play, I’ve found myself dwelling less on character arcs than on details, like the Frog necklace Hector gives Rosalita (a reference to her passion for biology) or Rosalita’s late-in-life lament as she gazes into a mirror (“Where did that sad, middle-aged woman come from?” she wonders aloud).

Plays that span many years risk sacrificing detail for scope. Yet no matter how much time passes in Amor Añejo, you never feel as if we are looking at a vast, indistinct timeline—you feel as if you are flipping through a photo album, partly because much of the play unfolds in intimate scenes that take place at Hector and Rosalita’s dining table.

In one, their son, Paco (Carlos Manzano), is a whining child, complaining that his brother nearly broke his guitar; in another, he is an embittered young man, declaring that he will never attend a music conservatory. The images that signal the passage of time (like the A for anarchy on the back of the older Paco’s black vest) are so specific you never feel as if we are observing the family from afar — you feel as if you are living in their memories, moment to moment.

A dance with the dead in Amor Anejo at Milagro. Photo: Russell J Young

While the play’s flashbacks are a reminder of all that Hector has lost, Amor Añejo doesn’t surrender to the tide of grief. When Rosalita travels from this world to the next, she is greeted by galumphing characters in oversized masks who perform a heavy-footed dance, moving as if they have bricks strapped to their feet. It’s an uproarious sight and its inclusion in a story steeped in anguish makes a statement: that loss and happiness are not separate entities. They are part of a single continuum of feeling and to embrace one is to embrace the other — which is what Hector must do if Rosalita’s spirit is to find peace.

I wish that the play made more of Hector’s struggle. While the moments when he speaks to Rosalita — willing her to be with him, knowing that she is not — are haunting, his inner journey is the one part of the story that seems rushed. But that doesn’t dilute Amor Añejo’s sweet, surreal power. Like so many of Milagro’s plays, it is witty, colorful and impassioned. The idea that the people we lose always watch over us lost its novelty long ago, but Amor Añejo gives new weight to those words. The Rosalita who lingers after death may be a ghost or an imagining, but the play reminds you that one thing matters above all: she exists.

Go West, young fans

Stumptown Stages’ energetic, exhilarating production of "West Side Story" makes some missteps but still has the moves.

In the most iconic scene from West Side Story, Tony, the show’s neo-Romeo, climbs a ladder to a fire escape where Maria, his Juliet, awaits. By now, it’s an overly familiar moment, but Stumptown Stages’ production of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-scored musical, in the Winningstad Theatre through Oct. 27, injects it with fresh visual life. As Tony (Alexander Trull) ascends toward Maria (Tina Mascaro), lights illuminate his silhouette on a vast backdrop that features a sweeping cityscape. It’s as if Tony’s passion has given him the power to soar among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

West Side Story struts maximalist energy and visual appeal in a production from Stumptown Stages. Photo: Paul Fardig.

That image beautifully taps into the play’s maximalist appeal. Nothing in West Side Story—not love, not friendship, not anger—is small. The production’s director, Patrick Nims, understands that, and while his retelling is occasionally unsteady (especially when it attempts to blunt the accusations of racism leveled at the play), it is also energetic and exciting enough to entice newcomers and charm steadfast fans.

West Side Story almost wasn’t west at all. An early iteration called East Side Story applied the Romeo and Juliet model to a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. Eventually, the title changed and the story was restyled as a tale of turf warfare between between an Anglo gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks). When Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks, fall in love at a dance, they face the wrath of both sides.

It’s notable that the title of the play is not Tony and Maria. West Side Story is about a place as much as it is about people. You watch not only to savor the heat generated by its amped-up lovers, but for the privilege of spending time in a gleefully exaggerated version of New York where true love can be ignited with a single look and meaningless grudges are imbued with mythic grandeur.

Alexander Trull as Romeo…er, Tony, and Tina Mascaro as Juliet…no, sorry, Maria, in West Side Story at the Winningstad. Photo: Paul Fardig.

Scenic designer Demetri Pavlatos has tapped into the (very) heightened realism in the play by crafting a set that evolves dramatically. A chain-link fence, for instance, isn’t just a background detail—it’s a living object that can be used as a symbolic barrier between the Jets and the Sharks or as a cage that encircles Tony and Maria, signaling their inevitable doom.

While Pavlatos’ designs are an effective update, the overall production is not. West Side Story has received justifiable criticism for its racist depiction of Puerto Ricans as generic hoodlums, a problem that Nims tries to confront by staging some scenes and songs in Spanish. While the production’s commitment to authenticity is admirable, its lack of subtitles will be frustrating for audiences who don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding what many of the characters are saying means that we become less engaged with their stories, which undercuts the play’s idealistic goal: to reveal the shared humanity on both sides of the Jets-Sharks divide.

This change doesn’t ruin the play. It simply exists alongside the production’s superior creative choices, just as the script’s insensitivities exist alongside its dramatic power. For now, West Side Story isn’t going anywhere—a new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2020. That may be the moment when many people decide whether the play is ripe for further reinventions or should finally be set aside.