Bennett Campbell Ferguson

 

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.


Once Upon a Time in Dublin

Wondrous music tempers an overstuffed story in Broadway Rose’s "Once."

Rough-edged and exquisite, the 2007 movie musical Once didn’t create a romance—it captured a romance. Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as musicians on a song-fueled odyssey through Dublin, the film had a haunting realism that was deepened by the chemistry of its stars and the subtle storytelling of director John Carney, who often seemed to be filming a real relationship, rather than staging scenes.

The same can’t be said of Once the stage musical. The play (which won several Tony Awards in 2012) clutters the story with clunky melodrama and juvenile jokes, suggesting that book writer Enda Walsh was afraid that for audiences, recreating one of the most touching love stories of the twenty-first century wouldn’t be enough.

Musically engaged: Marissa Neitling and Morgan Hollingsworth in “Once” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

In its production of Once — directed and choreographed by Isaac Lamb — Broadway Rose battles Walsh’s misunderstanding of the movie. Nothing short of cutting half the dialogue and half of the characters could have fully redeemed the play, but the film’s spirit lives on in the performances of Morgan Hollingsworth and Marissa Neitling (as the lead characters, referred to simply as “Guy” and “Girl”), whose musical gifts repeatedly save the show from crumbling under the weight of Walsh’s revisions.

While the film starts in a moody frenzy—with the attempted theft of Guy’s guitar case—the play begins with a packed stage. Eventually, the ensemble falls away and Guy is left playing a tormented tune called “Leave” (the songs are by Hansard and Irglová) to an empty street. Brooding over his ex-girlfriend and his fizzling music career, he decides to abandon his guitar—until, that is, the voice of Girl calls out to him from the audience, offering encouragement and companionship when he needs it most.

Music bridges the cultural gulf between Guy and Girl (he’s Irish, she’s Czech). After a few scenes of chitchat, she’s playing piano and he’s accompanying her on the guitar—and eventually, they assemble a band for a 24-hour album-recording session. Musically and emotionally, they mesh, but Guy is pining for his ex and Girl may reunite with her absent husband. We’re left to wonder if these characters are soulmates who are missing their moment, or if fate has united them simply so they can soothe one another’s spirits as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives.

The film savored that ambiguity. Hansard and Irglová made magic together, but it was a magic awkward enough to raise the possibility that Guy and Girl might be meant for others. The play, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction, cranking up the yearning to grindingly operatic levels, especially in a cringe-worthy scene where Guy desperately begs Girl to move with him to New York.

Even worse is Walsh’s grating sense of humor. Did we really need a satirical subplot involving one member of the band goading another with a goofy, anti-capitalist rant? Or a running gag about a drummer (Dustin Fuentes) drinking too much coffee? Hardly, but that didn’t stop Walsh from cramming them awkwardly into the script.

Cast members of the musical Once at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

But Once is more than the sum of its flaws. While the story has changed, the music remains and the actors perform it with a force that makes it feel new. The play commands your attention whenever a showstopping musical moment arrives, like Hollingsworth exploding with energy during “When Your Mind’s Made Up” (“THERE’S NO POINT TRYING TO CHANGE IT,” he sings/shouts, hammering each syllable).

Once also captures the essence of the creative process. In the film, Guy, Girl and the rest of the band play frisbee on a beach after finishing their album. In a rare change that works, the play keeps the beach, but has the band stare solemnly into the distance while singing an a capella version of the gentle love song “Gold.” It’s a perfect moment because it captures everything the characters feel — the exhaustion and the exhilaration of having been a part of something beautiful.

That scene finds its own identity while honoring what came before. I wish Once did that more often, but I admire Broadway Rose for elevating a flawed play as much as possible. And while Hansard and Irglová are a nearly impossible act to follow, Hollingsworth and Neitling prove themselves to be worthy successors with their tender and ebullient performance of “Falling Slowly,” the film’s most iconic song (it won an Oscar in 2008).

“Take this sinking boat and point it home/We’ve still got time/Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice/You’ve made it now,” they sing. Those words reflect Guy and Girl’s relationship, but they also describe this production’s greatest achievement: it raises its voice above the clamor of the script and, just often enough, points the boat back toward the emotional purity of the original.

“Once” continues through Oct. 27 at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard. Tickets for all remaining performances have sold out.

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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