Christopher Gonzalez

 

‘Much Ado’: Where’s the story?

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Shakespeare's great comedy is glorious to look at. But its big concept gets in the way of the storytelling.

The “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing has multiple meanings. In Shakespeare’s time, as in our own, it could be used to refer to something inconsequential, not worth “noting.” This play asks us: What do we notice in our lives? How does this affect our ability to love and be loved? 

Bag&Baggage’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing presents a lot to take note of: gender-fluid casting, glitzy and glamorous sets, funny props. But in all of its visual splendor, this adaptation seems to overlook what’s most important: the storytelling.

Phillip J. Berns as Bertram and Christian Mitchell as Hero. Photo: Casey Campbell

Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. It follows two pairs of lovers. On one hand, we have Claudio and Hero, the young sweethearts set to get married. Claudio’s insecurities make him easy prey for the machinations of Don John, who sets a trap to make Claudio think Hero is “dishonest” (a.k.a. not a virgin). Then we have Benedick and Beatrice (though in this adaptation Beatrice has been converted to a male Bertram), an older pair of guarded cynics. They don’t want to admit they love each other because that’d require vulnerability. This mix of guardedness and longing makes them easy prey for a trap set by their friends to make them do just that: be vulnerable and accept love. The play is full of funny traps and misunderstandings, and in the end, both couples see through the fog to the truth of their requited love.

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A wolf left howling at the door

A new Rolling World Premiere at Milagro blends fairy tale and Aztec myth in a visually seductive but overly simplistic tale

Marisela Treviño Orta’s new play Wolf at the Door at Milagro Theatre is a blend of fairy tale and Aztec myth. Its heroine, Isadora, is in an abusive relationship with Séptimo. Séptimo has kidnapped Yolot, a pregnant Wolf-Spirit-Person, and wants to steal her baby. Wolves howl in the distance throughout the show, communicating with Yolot. Isadora (Marian Mendez), Yolot (Maya Malán-González), and the Wolves all plot to take down Séptimo (Matthew Sepeda). Human, Spirit, and Animal come together to triumph over an abuser. As an idea, that’s pretty awesome. On stage, it dosn’t land so well.

Wolf at the Door – it’s part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program, with companies in New Jersey, Dallas, and Chicago also producing it – opens with Isadora’s baby dying in childbirth. Then Rocío (Patricia Alvitez), a maternal sage figure, digs a hole in the ground to bury the corpse. That’s an intense image at the top of any play. And the intensity only goes up from there.

Patricia Alvitez as Rocío. Photo: Russell J Young

The ancient stories that Treviño Orta used as sources, and which are outlined in the study guide Milagro provides its audience, are compelling. One reason fairy tales and myths have good shelf lives is their simplicity: They succinctly impart the profound. For example, fairy-tale characters are often clearly delineated as either good or bad. That lack of more complex definition works well in storytelling/oral traditions, but here it makes the action onstage fall flat.

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The shadows come earlier this time of year

Musing on Caryl Churchill's remarkable "Escaped Alone" at Shaking the Tree as the second anniversary of Portland's MAX attacks approaches

As I walked through paradisal Southeast Portland last Friday night, I grew afraid. The burgeoning hydrangeas, the laughter of children, the interminable rows of tall trees, scared me.

For some reason, I found myself reflecting on the upcoming two-year anniversary of the 2017 Portland MAX train attacks. This made my palms sweaty and mouth dry. I began averting eye contact with every white person I passed. I almost jumped out of my skin (pun intended?) when, on three occasions, cars pulled slowly up beside me (a la Get Out). The cars were harmless: Uber drivers, delivery people, etc. The fear was real.

From left: Jacklyn Maddux, Jane Bement Geesman, Lorraine Bahr, JoAnn Johnson. Photo: Gary Norman

As a young black man, the sense of alienation I felt on that walk was, in a strange way, sublime. A blend of beauty and terror. The sublimity of a fairy tale, where beneath the calm grass swaying in the breeze, a murderous troll lurks. This sense of danger brimming beneath the veneer of the idyllic is enough to make you think you’re crazy. After all, it’s a lush spring evening in Southeast Portland.

What is there to be afraid of?

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Jesus barrels down the tracks

At CoHo, the big ideas in "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" get a rambunctious, O'Neill-style theatrical ride

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train begins and ends with the same image: a young prisoner, Angel, on his knees, praying in darkness. Angel’s desperate desire for assurance and forgiveness make him, in a weird way, immediately lovable. There is even something endearing about the crime that put him in prison: He shot a cult leader in the butt while trying to rescue a friend. In the cell opposite Angel is Lucius. Lucius also prays. Lucius’s crimes are less endearing: He murdered eight people, including at least one child.

A Train, at Coho Theater in a co-production with Beirut Wedding World Theatre Project, asks big questions. What is the difference between being a true believer and being full of shit? Who deserves mercy? Why is it so hard to pin down what it means to “be good”? And why is it so hard for a doctor to remove a bullet from a butt cheek?

Bobby Bermea as Lucius, a man with a past. Photo: Owen Carey

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis (whose Between Riverside and Crazy and The Motherfucker with the Hat have been hits for Artists Rep in recent seasons) worked as an arts educator at Rikers Island, where A Train is set, before writing it. The play, which premiered in 2000, mainly centers on a series of philosophical exchanges between Angel and Lucius, who bat big themes like God and Forgiveness back and forth like tennis balls. Yet for all of its overtly religious themes, the play is surprisingly unpretentious.

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The existential frivolity of Imago’s “ZooZoo”

With zen-like simplicity, the longtime mask-theater favorite rides a lighthearted line between kid stuff and edgier reflections of life.

There was one penguin in particular that I really wanted to win the game of musical chairs. This particular penguin was an aggressive tactician, and with belly-bumping brute force, it won the final round. But winning wasn’t enough. This penguin wanted another, better, comfier chair. By the time the defeated penguins had waddled into the wings of Imago Theatre, the winning penguin kicked a guy out of his front-row seat and flapped its flippers in victory.

The children in the audience were delighted.

Imago Theatre’s ZooZoo is a physical-theater/mask-and-puppet show that has toured internationally.  ZooZoo is a show for the humorous at heart. The kind of humor that smashes pretentiousness to pieces and replaces it with detached wonderment.

But if you’re imagining some kind of silly fluffy frivolity… well…. you’d be right to imagine that.

Animal magnetism: the masked creatures of Imago’s “ZooZoo” serve up glints of human nature. Photo: Imago Theatre

ZooZoo is a show recommended for audiences of 3 years and older. When I saw the show last week, it seemed more and more children were suddenly materializing in the audience throughout the show. Really what was happening was they collectively realized that it was appropriate to, for example, bark at the animals onstage. In most cases, the animals barked back. Naturally more kids caught on and participated with quips or vocalized questions. All promises made to parents in the lobby to “be a good audience member” went out the window. The result was a joyous demolition of the fourth wall.

A descendant of similar vignette collections such as the early Imago hit Frogz, Zoo Zoo consists mostly of tried-and-true material in a style the company has refined over decades. The current run is distinguished, though, by the debut of a new work, “The Magic Cloth.” Already enjoying a reputation for impressive stagecraft, Imago adds to its arsenal with this new illusion. Yet as satisfying as it was to see this big red cloth take on a life of its own and float or twist through the air, the illusion didn’t seem to impress the audience enough to really make a splash. Once the “magic” behind the magic cloth became even slightly visible, the cloth was still nice to look at, but that’s pretty much it. At this point parents picked up on their kids waning attention and tried to liven up the energy by whispering, “Isn’t that cool?”

It was cool, but not as engaging as, for example, a later piece about passive-aggressive hippopotami fighting over bed sheets.

Perhaps the secret to ZooZoo’s longevity is that it isn’t just for three year olds.

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Talking a blue streak

The powerful "Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue," from the August Wilson Red Door Project, furthers a public conversation about law enforcement and race.

“Ain’t no reason to lie, just me and you right now,” says a 22-year-old black man, standing center stage in only underwear.

His near-naked body slowly disappears as he pulls on black clothing and snaps in and buckles up layers of heavy riot gear. This black man is a police officer. This police officer is confiding something in the audience. Beneath all the modern paramilitary armor, he admits he’s still afraid.

So begins Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue, presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project.

Cop Out is a series of monologues written for and with police officers. It is a companion piece to Hands Up, a piece written by and for African Americans dealing with police profiling.

Cop Out delves into the hidden realities of those men and women whose job it is to exist in the liminal space between order and chaos — realities that involve a tremendous amount of unexpressed trauma and fear.

Julana Torres takes the public to task for its irresponsibility in one of the complex, powerful monologues of “Cop Out.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

Each monologue in Cop Out, directed by Red Door co-founder Kevin Jones, explores the never-ending nuance and complexity of each officer’s experience.

“So I Was Driving Along,” by Andrea Stolowitz, stands out as an especially challenging piece. Victoria Alvarez Chacon plays an off-duty black police officer who takes a wrong exit and gets lost in white suburbia. She is soon pulled over, with her daughter asleep in the back of the car. Tension rises as we hear the audible approach of black boots on concrete and the tapping of a gloved hand on her window. An aggressive light flashes on Chacon, and the first thing she sees, with “telescopic vision”, is the police officer’s hand resting on his gun.

“I’m starting to freak out. I’m a cop, and I’m freaking out. Why is his hand on his gun?,” she asks, as her heartbeat sounds through the speakers.

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The Circus Project stitches together a bigger tent

With this weekend's multimedia show "Change(d) Together," the Circus Project celebrates ten years of bringing circus arts to marginalized communities.

Zoe Stasko is entirely at peace as she winds her body up the black aerial straps suspended from the ceiling. Even as she unravels rapidly downward she emanates centeredness amidst all the momentum. She rolls, twists, and spins in dizzying circles. From below, her creative director, Mizu Desierto, shouts “Find your limit!”. Stasko then holds a dramatic, strenuous pose for an impossible amount of time. She lets her feet find the floor and places her hand over her heart. With a triumphant smile, she finishes a rigorous run through of her newest aerial straps act.

“Yesterday was my first day off in four months,” Stasko says, panting as she makes her way off the rehearsal mat, “but I love it.”

Internationally active aerialist Zoe Stasko returns to her roots with Portland’s the Circus Project in the show “Change(d) Together.” Photo: Isometric Studios.

Zoe Stasko is a jewel in the crown of The Circus Project, an organization that “uses circus arts as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation.” Stasko trained in 2012 as a student in the Circus Project’s Summer Performance Intensive program. She then proceeded to graduate from one of the most prestigious circus schools in the world, Ecole de Cirque de Québec. Now as a professional aerialist, her skills take her from London to Dublin, France to Scandinavia.

But she is back in Portland, ready to debut her new aerial straps act at the Circus Project’s tenth-anniversary celebration: Change(d) Together.

On October 12th and 13th, The Circus Project will convert the Peter Corvallis Warehouse (2204 N. Randolph Ave.), into a “wonderland of trapeze, silks, lyra, ropes, and straps.” The multimedia performance will feature world-class acrobats and aerialists, many who, like Zoe Stasko, got their start in Portland. Students will present stories of individual transformation and Change(d) Together will celebrate the Circus Project’s evolving identity as an organization.

The Circus Project began in 2008, founded by Jenn Cohen, a process psychology therapist and a circus performer herself. The organization’s primary mission was to empower youth experiencing homelessness. After being thrust into the highly disciplined world of circus training, many students transitioned into more stable living situations. The strength, flexibility, self-care, and trust at the core of circus training helped students step on the path to sobriety and higher education.

“Finding strength, stillness, and the courage to train in these ways helps transcend daily conflict and even trauma.” creative director, Mizu Desierto explains, “this training can provide healing in deeper ways than words ever could.”

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