Christopher Gonzalez

 

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.

Continues…

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?

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

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.”

Continues…

Venus in Fur: The (Play Within the) Play’s the Thing!

Twilight Theater gets physical with the sexy mysteries and meta-theatrical layers of the David Ives hit.

The sound of dissonant strings swells as audience members file in and find seats. Folks flip through programs and sip wine. But an uneasy tension looms as the audience settles in for David Ives’s Venus in Fur, now playing at Twilight Theater.

Before I saw it Friday night, all I had heard about this play is that it was about sadism and masochism — an uninterrupted 90 minutes of good ‘ol S&M.

As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I braced against an evening of confusing, self-indulgent writing when I read that Venus in Fur has a play within the play.

I quickly left those assumptions behind as the whirlwind began.

Ominous thunder. A divan. A despondent director/playwright. This is our austere introduction to Venus in Fur. Lights come up on Thomas Novachek, played by Jeff Giberson, on the phone with his fiancee. Thom complains about the bad actresses he’s been auditioning for his new play, who just aren’t “feminine” enough. Thom isn’t exactly what one would call “woke.” He can only conceive of women in restrictive, dehumanizing terms; they must either are be goddesses, whores, or as he put it, “dykes.”

Just as Thom is about to give up on his quest for his perfect female lead, we hear thunderclaps outside. Enter Vanda, played by Jaiden Wirth. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character that she is auditioning for. Trippy, right?

Thom’s play within the play is called Venus in Furs (plural), an adaptation of a novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch’s novel inspired the term “masochism”, and centers around Severin von Kushemski. All Kushemski wants is a goddess to dominate and subjugate him. So here we have Thom, reading the part of Kushemski, and Vanda reading Vanda. This character-nesting-doll dynamic is the springboard from which we dive into the dark blend of comedy and mystery that is Venus in Fur.

In David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” the quest for an ideal female lead leads both an actress (Jaiden Wirth, left) and director (Jeff Giberson) in unexpected directions. Photo: Alicia Turvin.

In her directorial debut with Twilight, Alicia Turvin effectively plays with different levels of sitting, standing, or lying down to communicate shifts in power and status. Under her direction, the actors were clearly given room to explore physicality to communicate subtext and express intention.  

Actress Jaiden Wirth makes many strong physical and vocal choices as Vanda. Her smaller choices get the biggest laughs, such as when she picks her nose, sneezes, or sits down in a funny way. When Wirth coolly snaps into the role of the 18th-century Vanda, her countenance takes on a powerful repose, and her voice deepens so that she is practically unrecognizable.

Giberson takes his time as Thom. In the beginning, his reserve is a ballast in the thunder storm of Vanda’s energy. But when he becomes Kushemski, Giberson shifts from the confident stoicism of a mansplaining playwright, to that of a submissive “quivering pile of feminine jelly.” Giberson is a tall man, which onstage often communicates high status, but as he transitions to Kushemski, he successfully conveys submissiveness and inferiority through his physicality.

Turvin is both set designer and director on this production. The set begins as an unbalanced tableau, with most of the furniture one side of the stage. This imbalance is striking, and dovetails nicely with the imbalance of power between Thom and Vanda at the beginning of the play. As Vanda assumes more power, she rearranges the furniture and fills in the empty space, effectively balancing both the tableau and the power dynamic.

Vanda (Jaiden Wirth, right) rearranges the furniture and the power dynamic in the office of a director and playwright (Jeff Giberson) in “Venus in Fur.” Photo: Alicia Turvin.

There are many layers to Venus in Fur which provoke questions about what this play really wants to be. On one hand it may be an argument against that pyramidic, patriarchal model of theater-making that elevates male playwrights and directors to divinity. On the other hand, maybe it’s about the culture of casting couches.

Maybe it’s just a suspenseful, sexy enigma.

Whatever it is, I promise you, it is not as intimidating as anticipated. It is actually rather straightforward in that the whole thing is a single uninterrupted scene, easy to follow and to enjoy. Twilight’s production of Venus in Fur is an entertaining exercise in theatrical (and sexual) restraint.