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DramaWatch: “Ordinary Days,” “Color” ways and other plays

Isaac Lamb is sweet on the simple -- but moving -- chamber musical he's directing at Broadway Rose; plus other Portland theater news and notes.

Isaac Lamb is among the most versatile, widely accomplished of Portland-area theater artists, but he believes he’s found a particular niche with his work for Broadway Rose. Amid the crowd-pleasing classics, nostalgic tributes and revues, there’s room for what we might call some less obvious fare — “new musicals, stuff that’s been only rarely produced. And they give those to me.”

Though he’s better known as an actor, Lamb has shown his chops as a director at Broadway Rose, most notably with his gorgeous and moving production two years ago of a little-known but marvelously crafted musical called Fly by Night. His latest project there, opening this weekend, is Ordinary Days, by Adam Gwon, which, like Fly by Night, centers on young adults seeking love and self-discovery in New York City.

Ordinary Days tells a different story, but (company founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy) thought that it had a kinship with that show,” Lamb say, talking late on a recent night, following a dress rehearsal. “So I wanted to take a stab at it.”

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega

Lamb also admits that initially he wasn’t overly impressed with the material.

“It felt very simple and sweet, but I didn’t give it a lot of credit at first,” he recalls. “But it snuck up on me. It moved me. Gwon’s whole goal was to show how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Everybody has things going on in their lives that are totally commonplace, but they’re incredibly dramatic to the people experiencing them. An ordinary day can turn extraordinary in the blink of an eye. He sneaks in more deep feeling than you expect.”

The show is essentially a song cycle, nearly sung-through, with minimal spoken text. “It’s similar in feeling to, say, (Jason Robert Brown’s) Songs for a New World, but it tracks as a single narrative.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote of a 2014 production that “Gwon’s 19 songs are…lyrically witty and rich enough in narrative and character detail to power the dual plots of the musical” which “feels like such a fresh alternative to most of the over-produced stuff on Broadway.”

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Better homes and gardens of good and evil

"Radiant Vermin" at CoHo Theater takes an hilarious look at how far folks will go for a few nice things.

In Will Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago Theatre staged last month, that play’s lone character assures us, at one point, that he’s a good person. Then immediately he amends the claim: “Well, not deep down.”

In Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, now on the boards in a darkly, dazzlingly funny production at CoHo Theater, Jill and Ollie tell us right away that they, too, are good people. But they, too, are inclined to offer a caveat:

OLLIE: We hope we are.

JILL: We try to be.

OLLIE: And yet . . . some of the things we’ve done –

Jill and Ollie, it turns out, don’t really know and are only very slightly inclined to think about, who they are deep down. But they’ve encountered someone who sees the kind of people they really are. Even when she’s only just met them, she can tell them about their own formative childhood experiences, how their flat is decorated, or about their favorite place to shop.

As she puts it — so sweetly that there’s no room for creepiness or menace — “Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows!”

She also has a little proposition for them.

Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows! Diane Kondrat (center) tempts Kelly Godell and Chris Murray in “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

She’s in charge of a quasi-governmental program called “the Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes,” which tries to kick-start the improvement of run-down neighborhoods. And because Jill and Ollie are the right kind of clients — he’s good with his hands and she has “oodles” of taste, plus they’re both “good people” — she will give them a house.

That’s right. Just give it to them. No strings attached. All they have to do is fix the place up.

Wouldn’t you know it, though, what seems at first like no kind of a catch at all — “All repairs and renovations to the property are your responsibility” — turns out to be a doozy.

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Through much of Skeleton Crew, the well-built drama currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre, we can hear the machines. One of the play’s characters, a young woman named Shanita, whose fierce work ethic doesn’t crowd out her dreamy nature, talks about the music of the factory, the self-orchestrating noises of everything from the assembly lines where sheet metal gets stamped into car doors to the old refrigerator humming softly in the break room. There’s a musicality, to be sure, about Sharath Patel’s sound design, with its deft mix of ambient noises and industrial-soul hip-hop beatscapes. But more crucially, the subtle symphony of wheezing pumps and clanking metal suggests breath and movement, the restless, rhythmic life force of some great creature.

The further we get into playwright Dominique Morisseau’s tale of the waning days of a Detroit automobile plant, the more we recognize the importance of the factory’s breathing — not for its own sake, as a beast of corporate power — but as the lungs of a community.

The funky verisimilitude of Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design (which features dancers in shadow, like ghosts in the machine) is practically a character of its own in Artist Rep’s “Skeleton Crew.” Photo: David Kinder.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, to be sure. The workers examined here by Morisseau, who has written two previous plays about Detroit, depend on the factory for their middle-class livelihoods, or at least their middle-class aspirations. They put their backs into the work, and their problem-solving aptitude as well. In return, they get paychecks, and something just as vital: pride.

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Mary McDonald-Lewis knows how to talk.

More importantly, she knows how to teach others how to talk. If you’ve been to more than a few theater productions in Portland, chances are strong that you’ve heard her work, which falls into the category of valuable contributions that ideally you won’t quite notice. As a dialect coach (or “voice & language consultant,” or various other job descriptions) she’s contributed to innumerable shows and trained many more performers.

A skilled voice actor herself, of course, she’s also made an impact locally and nationally as a labor activist. As ArtsWatch tracked her down earlier this week, she was in the midst of packing for a quick trip to Los Angeles to help negotiate a new SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) contract covering voice work for animation.

Mary McDonald-Lewis, a.k.a. “Mary Mac,” is best known as a voice actor and dialect coach, but has a varied role in the theater world.

Mary Mac, as she’s widely known, knows how to talk in the more casual sense as well. That is, she’s a delightful conversationalist — quick-witted, knowledgeable, curious, engaging. We met at an airy Italian joint in her longtime Northeast Portland neighborhood to talk Shakespeare — she’s directing a production of The Tempest at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven — but she first spoke enthusiastically about the show’s producers, Megan Skye Hale and Myrrh Larsen, and the creative performance space they’ve nurtured beneath the Hawthorne Bridge.

“They’re kind of one of the young power couples of Portland arts,” she says of Hale (who’ll play Ariel in this production) and Larsen. “They’re both classic and modern at the same time. They have a real fascination with classical work, especially Shakespeare…And they’re very modern in terms of inclusiveness, cross-gender and multi-gender casting, and their overall approach to the work. It’s not politics with them, it’s passion: It’s just the way that art should be made.”

When I mentioned that I’d not been to the Steep and Thorny Way, McDonald-Lewis fairly glowed about it. “You sort of expect Sherlock to emerge from the steam,” she said of its gritty neighborhood near the river. “It’s this dark heart that just runs on love. They are scrappy and they dream big. Some real magic comes off that tiny stage.”

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DramaWatch: Season’s greetings!

Portland's 2018-'19 theater season kicks into gear at Artists Rep, CoHo and elsewhere; and it's time to experiment with TBA.

We’ve survived the heat. Now comes the harvest.

That is to say, summer is ending soon and the boon of fall arts season is upon us. Unlike, say, baseball, there’s no official Opening Day, but this weekend is as good a time as any to mark the start of the 2018-’19 season. Labor Day has passed and Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, is getting things underway, as is the small yet vital CoHo. Soon enough, Portland Center Stage, the big player, will begin not just its new season but its new era under recently named artistic director Marissa Wolf.

So, what is it we want out of a theater season — either company by company or considered as a city-wide whole?

To be entertained? OK, sure. Whatever that means. Diversions and delights are great, as far as they go.

But should we be looking for more? The things we might want out of an individual play — insight into something about the human condition, an expansion of empathy for those we may have discounted, a mirror on our own foibles or desires, a call to arms about a cause celebre… — we might get more of out of a smartly programmed season.

Profile Theatre’s focus on particular playwrights lends itself to the accretion of meaning. And I rather like what the small Twilight Theater is in the midst of — a 2018 calendar-year season with plays that examine the interweaving of theater and life, plays within plays and/or about plays and such. But for the most part, especially in a time where the season-subscription model continues to fade from popularity or maybe even plausibility, the big houses seem to value stylistic variety and box-office potential, while small companies mount too few productions to draw out broader themes and ideas.

Perhaps these are musings for a different moment, though. For now, the schedules are set.

So, again: What do we want out of this theater season — not the one out of our stage-nerd utopian dreams, but the one we’re going to get?

Speaking only for myself, I’ll say: Tell me more, please, about life and how to live it.

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An article in The New York Times from Sunday, Aug. 19 (sorry, I’m perpetually behind on my reading) examined two Oregon productions of Oklahoma!, the classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being allowed some 21st-century interpretive elbow room. Chris Coleman is about to christen his new tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company with his version, set amid an all-black town in the Oklahoma territory, of which there actually were a few. The approach was a hit — albeit a controversial one — for Coleman in 2011 at Portland Center Stage, producing an especially vibrant show that introduced local audiences to the marvelous Rodney Hicks, who starred as Curly (and later became Coleman’s husband).

What sparked the Times coverage, though — as the story’s “Ashland, Ore.” dateline suggests — is this season’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which director Bill Rauch has recast the show’s driving romantic relationships with same-sex couples: Curly and Laurey both women, Will Parker and the slightly renamed Ado Andy both men.

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social, in Bill Rauch’s unconventional Oklahoma! Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Writer Laura Collins-Hughes quotes Coleman about how “really, really picky” the Rodgers & Hammerstein representatives have tended to be about treatment of the shows, and suggests that both a lofty reputation in American theater and a longstanding relationship with Ted Chapin, who oversees rights to the catalog, where needed for Rauch to earn his leeway. Chapin, however, sounds more reasonable than rigid: “For anybody to think they have to be done in exactly the way they were originally done — I mean, that’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan thinking. And Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of dead.”

Well, maybe so. (Note: Not “Gilbert and Sullivan are dead,’ which is long-established fact about the persons, but “Gilbert and Sullivan is dead,’ which is opinion about the work.)

But here’s the thing: Apparently neither Chapin nor Collins-Hughes caught what Rauch did with The Pirates of Penzance.

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Are you ready?

The new era at Portland Center Stage is set to begin next month with the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director.

The theater announced Wolf’s hiring on Wednesday afternoon, concluding an eight-month search for a successor to Chris Coleman, who left earlier this year to take over the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, having made a huge impact on PCS and its community over his 17-year tenure.

Wolf will come to PCS from Kansas City Rep, where she’s spent the past three years as an associate artistic director in charge of developing and producing plays through the OriginKC: New Works Festival. She’ll start her new post on Sept. 15.

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s incoming artistic director, brings “a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision” to the task. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

The PCS press release featured a laudatory comment about Wolf from one of the leading figures in the field, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and a producer who has worked with Wolf over the years: “Marissa Wolf is a rising star of the American theater. She has a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision which she imparts with grace and wit. Her institutional and artistic brilliance has led her to this moment. Portland Center Stage is lucky to have nabbed her just as her talent is fully exploding.”

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