Bobby Bermea

 

Vertigo goes dark and complex

The company that's "the David Lynch of Portland theater" strikes up its 22nd season with a broodingly funny world premiere

Theatre Vertigo has spent the last twenty-two years deftly, sometimes recklessly, spelunking through the dark underbelly of 21st century America. The company’s body of work from Hellcab to Poona the F*** Dog to 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan to Hunter Gatherers has provided a road map through the neuroses and psychoses of a society crazy enough to make Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world, and it’d done it with incisive intelligence and a dogged resolve to never take itself too seriously. Humor is as much a part of the company’s thematic oeuvre as its willingness to walk on the edge of madness. It’s the David Lynch of Portland theater, approaching the madness and mayhem underneath the shopping malls and manicured lawns of contemporary American culture not just with fascination but also with compassion and even affection.

The play that opens Vertigo’s twenty-second season Saturday at the Shoebox Theater, Dominic Finocchiaro’s complex, is right in its wheelhouse. It’s funny, lyrical and not for the faint of heart. At times it feels like all of American pop culture of the past forty years appears, from pop music to reality shows to serial killers (one of the leads is even named Jeffrey – just sayin’), is referred to or makes an appearance in complex. It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t terrify you but leaves you profoundly disturbed. You laughed but you’re not sorry you’re awake. It’s a natural fit for Vertigo.

Life in the complex? It’s complex. Theatre Vertigo photo

Which is all the more interesting because Vertigo, despite the many years of changing roster and sensibilities, has made its bones doing the plays that the larger companies just won’t do. complex, however, received its first professional workshop at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival some six years ago.

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The Madness of Asae Dean

It's a Shakespearean double or nothing – in rep! –for the mastermind of Salt and Sage's "Troilus and Cressida" and "Antony and Cleopatra"

Making art is often a difficult and thankless proposition. Producing theater, in particular, can be even more of both. It follows that for most fringe theater companies, producing either Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra OR his Troilus and Cressida would be an arduous enough undertaking. Tackling both at the same time, as Salt and Sage Productions is doing with a repertory that opens on Friday, would be an epic task of Herculean proportions – maybe even a little crazy.

Salt and Sage artistic director Asae Dean probably wouldn’t even deny the charge. “Theatre is hard work,” she says on her website, “it’s supposed to hurt a bit – you should break a sweat, you should shed a tear – you are doing work that stretches the soul.” 

Asae Dean, double or nothing. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton

IN THE DIGITAL AGE, THEATER IS THE LOWEST RUNG on the pop culture ladder, and Dean is the outsider’s outsider. She’s been knocking on the door for the past seven years and just can’t get in. “I’d be totally lying to you if I didn’t say that it disappoints me that it seems so hard to gain traction in this city,” she admits. Many who have tried to break into the Portland theater scene have found it a tough shell to crack. If you’re trying to break in solely as a director, it can be even more difficult. When you’re on the fringe level, producers either hire themselves or artists whose work they’re familiar with for the spots that do come open.

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Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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OUTwright: a Booty Candy tale

Fuse's annual festival of queer theater focuses on a comedy about a black man navigating the world of sex. It's laughter with an edge.

For a long time now, Fuse Theatre Ensemble has been one of the most openly political theater companies in town. Queer-forward, inclusivity has been a hallmark and a principle of its work for years. But this season is different. This season, the crowning gem of Fuse’s OUTwright Festival is Robert O’Hara’s Booty Candy, and, for a theater company that prides itself on pushing boundaries and upsetting expectations, this production is yet another new direction.

For eight years Fuse’s OUTwright Festival, which this year continues through June 30 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, has been one of the most anticipated and adventurous events of the theatrical year. It’s never quite the same from one season to the next. Sometimes it engages several venues, sometimes only one. It started out as only table readings of scripts, but now incorporates readings, full productions, and forums exploring a variety of topics centered on the company’s mission. Whatever the offerings, however many venues, whoever the artists are that are involved, the goal of the OUTwright Festival stays constant. “The mission never really changes,” says Fuse Artistic Director Rusty Tennant. “We’re here to celebrate the queers.”

Gerrin Mitchell, Charles Grant, Shareen Jacobs in OUTwright Festival’s Booty Candy.

Tennant, who wears many hats as a theater artist (director, scenic designer, actor, technical director, teacher are just the ones I know off the top of my head) is forthright about what makes this particular OUTwright Festival different from the ones that have gone before. “The focus of this year’s festival,” he says, “is centering people of color and underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA-plus umbrella.” When asked why this was the year to focus on people of color in the queer community, Tennant says simply, “Because we hadn’t.”

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Finding a voice for black media

Open Signal's screening Friday at the Hollywood Theatre of work by six young black Portland filmmakers opens the door on a world of stories

Something’s happening. And you’d better know what it is.

On Friday, June 14, Open Signal Labs is giving six black filmmakers a chance to showcase their work and let the Portland media world know they’re here, they’re thriving, and they’re ready to enter the industry and take a commanding role. The screening, at 7 p.m. at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland, is the culmination of a year of work, learning and training for six young, black filmmakers: Kamryn Fall, Elijah Hasan, Tamera Lyn, Sika Stanton, Noah Thomas and Dustin Tolman.

Open Signal’s Ifanyi Bell and RaShaunda Brooks: making it happen. Photo: Sam Gehrke

This fellowship is the first of its kind in the state of Oregon. Over the course of the year, these artists were granted “a $2,000 stipend, training, access to industry-standard equipment, staff and actors from Artists Repertory Theatre, as well as mentorship with media professionals and connections to the field from the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television.” The idea, says Open Signal executive producer and industry veteran Ifanyi Bell, is to “provide our fellows the best possible resources — cutting-edge filmmaking equipment and experienced industry professionals — and then time will tell. We hope to create a safe space immune from outside influence that will inspire true innovation and authentic stories of black Americans.”

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Spotlight on: a theatrical ‘Jump’

In a leap of faith, Confrontation and Milagro collaborate on a "rolling premiere" of Charly Evon Simpson's new play

Expect the unexpected from Confrontation Theatre.

Its second full production, a co-production with Milagro, is Charly Evon Simpson’s Jump, which opens at the Milagro space on Friday. Two full shows in (its first full production was James Webb’s comedy Sibling Rivalry in 2017) and the nascent theater hasn’t come across as a company that, on the surface, might seem particularly “confrontational.” That’s just how artistic director La’Tevin Alexander Ellis wants it.

“Confrontation means to confront all topics,” Ellis says, “all things within the Black community first, and then those outside of our community. It’s not necessarily about picking a fight and arguing, and it’s definitely not just about racism, because that shit gets tiring. There’s not anything stereotypical. There are no caricatures. That’s the goal, that’s the plan – confronting all of that. Not just in the negative of trying to pick a fight with white people.”

Not that Confrontation is averse to more volatile subject matter. In smaller productions, it’s taken on Amiri Baraka’s searing The Dutchman (2015) and took part in 2016’s Every 28 Hours national series of extremely short plays in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And its next show, another co-production (with Portland Playhouse), will be Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, a piece “about the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Ellis. “We’ll come back with the little bit about race there but it’s more about motherhood and how do we respond to this unjust, inadequate educational system.”

In other words, Confrontation Theatre is about presenting and exploring issues that confront the Black community in all its nuance and complexity. Which is what drew Ellis and the rest of Confrontation (actor Andrea Vernae, actor/director Tamera Lyn, sound designer Philip Johnson, education director Jasmine Cottrell and community outreach director Alagia Felix) to Simpson’s multi-faceted jewel of a play, Jump.

Andrea Vernae in “Jump.” Photo: Russell J Young

“These are just people going through human shit,” says Ellis, “and we’re watching it unfold before our eyes. It’s a story about something that really impacts our community but is not explicitly about our community.” Jump is a story that could happen to anybody. The family in this case just happens to be Black. Which is important because the play deals a lot with depression, which is as much of an issue in the Black community as elsewhere, but no one ever talks about it. “Historically, there is a lack of both diagnostic and treatment studies on depression. This lack of studies on depression in African Americans has existed for decades. African Americans are underserved, understudied, and misdiagnosed as a group.” A key study published in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Misconceptions of Depression in African Americans, underscores that.

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The horror: LĒR is all around you

Also, the beauty: The Reformers' contemporary take on "King Lear" comes at you in everything from tumblr to a cooking video. Even onstage.

The beauty – or horror, depending on your perspective – of Portland theater company The Reformers’ LĒR is that it is going on all around you, right now, even as you read this. Whatever device you’re reading this on, you’re that close to LĒR. It’s on Facebook. If you look on tumblr someone is apparently leaking information about their process (apparently, without the Reformers’ authorization). Elsewhere on the internet, a mother is searching for her son who she fears has run off with some kind of cult. There’s a podcast. There is even a cooking video. And this week, opening Friday, it’s going to be live in front of your face at the Shoebox Theater.

“We’re motivated,” says Charmian Creagle, one-half of the husband-and-wife team that runs The Reformers, “by doing something different and taking chances and trying to create a new style.” For the last six years The Reformers, Creagle and her husband, Sean Doran, have been committed to dismantling the assumptions of theater audiences and replacing those assumptions with a more visceral experience than what theater audiences generally expect to have.

Trouble on the 21st century heath: a LĒR for today. From left: Sara Fay Goldman, Sean Doran, Adam Thompson, with Mishelle Apalategui on the ground. Photo courtesy The Reformers.

Of course, Creagle and Doran have been challenging audience’s perceptions for decades now. They started The Other Side Theatre back in the ’90s and were integral to the creation of defunkt theatre, still going strong twenty years later. After spending a decade in New York they came back and started The Reformers. Much of The Reformers’ work is heavily influenced and inspired by Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s The Living Theatre. That influence is still seen in their work today.

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