Marty Hughley

 

DramaWatch: Airing Ireland’s dirty laundry

Corrib Theatre tells the sordid story of Magdalene Laundries in "Eclipsed." The week in Portland theater also boasts new plays, pirates, and a lady's choice of a musical.

It was, as Gemma Whelan puts it, “a medieval system.” Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were confined to convents or the like, not for prayer and contemplation, but to labor in institutional laundries. Shunned and half-forgotten by their families and society, these women were imprisoned, effectively, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The babies mostly were put up for adoption. But the unmarked graves of babies and women have been discovered in churchyards. 

As a Catholic novice in the 1960s, Patricia Burke Brogan caught a first-hand look at what was known as a Magdalene Laundry and the lives of these “fallen women,” for whom she was a sort of jailer. She didn’t last long in the religious life.

Jamie M. Rea and Dainichia Noreault as involuntarily penitent women in Corrib Theatre’s Eclipsed. Photo: Adam Liberman.

In 1992, Brogan revisited the experience in Eclipsed, a play about unwed mothers in the convent laundry of the fictional St. Paul’s Home for Penitent Women in Killmacha, Ireland. Since then, various accounts and investigations have brought more of that sordid history to light, yet it’s a history that remains obscure. 

Whelan, the Irish-born artistic director of Portland’s Corrib Theatre, wants to shine more light on this dark chapter. She’s directing Eclipsed as the opening production of a season “framed upon remembrance, resistance, and restitution.”
“I felt it was important to tell the story, in part because it isn’t over,” Whelan says. “There’s still literally bodies being found.” 

Magdalene Laundries began in the late 18th century, and though the concept wasn’t originally or exclusively Irish and Catholic, it became a longstanding fixture of the church and society in Ireland. The last of them wasn’t shut down until 1996. What began as asylums for prostitutes developed into a pervasive tool of social control and moral coercion, as well as a renewable source of unpaid labor. 

“We got our freedom in 1922 — hooray! — and then proceeded to make lesser citizens of women and children and the poor,” Whelan says. “There’s proof that the church and the state colluded. After independence, they decided to project an image of purity and Catholicism. They actually wrote in the Constitution that women were to have their place in the home, and weren’t allowed to work outside the home, to write checks or all sorts of things.

“I actually thought it’s necessary (to stage the play) because of our present history, dealing with how we’ve treated people as a society. I’m thinking of #Me Too and Black Lives Matter, and on and on. Socially, how do we deal with our history and the responsibility to tell that history.”

Director Gemma Whelan has built her company, Corrib Theatre, around a keen eye for contemporary stage literature from her native Ireland.

Whelan has directed the play previously, in Berkeley, California in the 1990s, and had plans to stage it in Portland a few years ago. “I wanted to produce it before but couldn’t get the funding — it’s quite a large show for Corrib. So I did a reading of it in 2016 and had a discussion afterward.”

For this production, Whelan made “quite a conscious choice” to employ an entirely female creative team. And though the play is set primarily in 1963, Whelan has cast it to reflect the racial diversity of Ireland today, with Victoria Alvarez-Chacon (who Whelan says is of African-American and Cuban ancestry) as the story’s protagonist. The cast also includes such top talents as Lorraine Bahr and Jamie M. Rea. 

Despite the grim moral backdrop of Eclipsed, the Irish Times has described it as “an absorbing experience, more humane than browbeating.” And Whelan concurs.

“There is a lot of levity in it; it’s not all gloom and doom,” she says. “Part of the act of resistance is telling the story.”

Opening

In the words of one Portland icon, “What the hell is ‘ladylike’?” So maybe Darcelle isn’t a lady by everyone’s definition. The dean/doyenne of Portland drag performers, the night-life grand dame and her creator, Walter Cole, deserve whatever honorific she/he/they might choose. As far  as honors go, That’s No Lady, a new musical bio from Don Horn and his Triangle Productions, looks like a nice one. The show includes songwriting contributions from Portland music stars Tom Grant, Marv Ross anád the aforementioned Storm Large, plus theater stalwarts Jon Quesenberry and Rodolfo Ortega. Broadway vet and Oregon native Kevin C. Loomis stars, and the skilled young theater maker Brandon Woolley directs. The three-weekend run will take place in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall rather than Triangle’s customary Eastside home. 


“During Ingenio, each play is assigned an individual director and cast, and after a week of rehearsals, the plays will be presented in concert-style readings to an audience, followed by post-show conversations with the playwrights and artists involved.” So Milagro describes its play-development festival. And if that sounds exactly like the template for Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, consider the similarity a good thing. This weekend’s third annual Ingenion features plays by Julián Mesri, Andrew Siañez and Georgina Escobar.


Braid Beard, the lead character in the musical How I Became a Pirate by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, sounds like sort of a hipster variant on the classic swashbuckling scoundrel. But what better way, I guess, for Northwest Children’s Theatre to get through Portland kids and their pirate-loving hipster parents.

The flattened stage

A recent Facebook exchange about something or other — oh, yeah, it was my complaint/conviction that the cartoon series Scooby Doo is the worst cultural product of any kind in the history of the world — led friends of mine to start pitching in their candidates for the worst TV show ever. And among the nominees was Cop Rock, the infamous failure from Stephen Bochco, who had been so lauded previously for Hill Street Blues. The 11-episode run of Cop Rock took place in 1990, a time in which I did not have a television. So over the years I’ve known the show mostly by its lousy reputation (#8 on TV Guide’s List of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time, compiled in 2002), and by the wacky yet intriguing concept that torpedoed it: combination police procedural, dark comedy and rock musical.

The musical, of course, is a remarkably tricky genre, so easy to flub, so difficult to get just right. But from a quick perusal of a few online remnants, I wonder why folks thought Cop Rock was quite so bad as they did.

For one thing, there’s this little clip, which includes a performance by a singer who would go on a few years afterward to, well, leave Las Vegas, have some fun, soak up the sun, and otherwise be a fine pop star. 

Best line I read this week

“If you’re not vigilant, you’re going to be like the person who had his throat cut and didn’t know until he shook his head.”

— former U.S. Circuit judge and NAACP general counsel Nathaniel R. Jones, as quoted in the Susan Banyas book The Hillsboro Story.


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

‘The Hillsboro Story’: Weaving a web of memories

In a new book, performance artist Susan Banyas integrates multiple voices and viewpoints, revisiting a 1950s school desegregation battle in her Ohio hometown.

“Two months after Brown v. Board of Education legally ended school segregation…my sleepy segregated little hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio, the county seat of Highland County, was jolted awake by a fire at the colored school; and History and Memory came marching into town like the Fourth of July Parade the day before.” — The opening passage of The Hillsboro Story, a new book by Susan Banyas.

“In the wee small hours of July 5, 1954, I popped wide awake and looked at the clock. Two o’clock. I quietly dressed and tiptoed downstairs. Armed with a can of gasoline, a bottle of oil and a clutch of newspapers, I kicked and struggled my way through a tangle of growth that choked an abandoned alley at the back of lots to the little cloistered school and up the steps.” — From an unpublished memoir by Philip Partridge, former Highland County engineer.

“I am eight years old, and women and children appear and disappear outside my third-grade classroom window. They carry signs with messages. OUR CHILDREN PLAY TOGETHER, WHY CAN’T THEY LEARN TOGETHER?…There I am, floating in my inner tube in the plastic pool in the backyard on Danville Pike, soaking up the cultural commotion, riding my bike around in it, watching it from behind a window at school, fascinated by the drama, the characters who come and go. But I have no story to hold it, and I remain mute, in the dark, wondering, haunted.” — from The Hillsboro Story.

“How does a kid arrive at a resolution that shakes his world? Is there a sense of justice even in young children.” — From Partridge’s memoir. 

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, mothers and children in Hillsboro, Ohio protest continuing segregation of the town’s schools. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

Back to a place of one of many beginnings

“It’s hard to know where a story begins,” Susan Banyas says on a recent afternoon, sitting in a Ladd’s Addition coffee shop a few blocks from where she lived when she began the lengthy artistic exploration that has become her book, The Hillsboro Story.

Indeed it is. You might consider the beginning of The Hillsboro Story to be one of those days when young Susan gazes out a Webster School window, her attention momentarily pulled away from Charlotte’s Web, being read aloud by Mrs. Mallory, and onto the puzzling protest that goes on outside, day after day for two years. But maybe it started with Philip Partridge, a white man wanting to further the cause of social justice, deciding to torch the decrepit, Reconstruction-era Lincoln School, where blacks were sent, figuring that its destruction would force integration of the town’s other schools. 

Perhaps you’d need to go back to Partridge’s politically aware childhood epiphany that he would one day “do something that would strike a blow at the way things were.” Or might it start back further still, in the legacy of quiet activism by Banyas’ Quaker forebears, who built a secret room in a cistern to hide fugitive slaves as part of the Underground Railroad?
Then again, one of the many short segments of narrative, reflection, oral history and commentary that make up the text of Banyas’ book is called “This Is the Beginning – May, 2003, Hillsboro, Ohio” — marking her first meeting with the grass-roots freedom fighters she refers to as the Marching Mothers. But since the process behind the book — pulling together not just the interviews and research, but also personal memories and emotions, impressions of place, resonant coincidences and dreams — is so much of what constitutes the book, you could as aptly point to its beginnings in the mid-1980s, when Banyas, began innovating and teaching a hybrid storytelling performance form she calls Soul Stories. 

The Hillsboro Story is Banyas’ own Soul Story, on paper and writ large.

The now of the story

Author, teacher, performance artist Susan Banyas. Photo: Quincy Davis

On Thursday, September 19, Banyas will visit Broadway Books (1714 NE Broadway in Portland) at 7 p.m. to present a reading from The Hillsboro Story. Multidisciplinary artist that she is, she’s prepared a 12-minute multi-media synopsis of the story and will use music by her frequent collaborator, the jazz musician David Ornette Cherry, to augment her reading of excerpts from the book.

The story at an earlier stage

Though she moved to Astoria a few years ago, Banyas has had a long career in Portland as a dancer, writer, performance artist and teacher. I’ve been a fan since I first wrote about her work for Willamette Week in the late 1980s, when she ran a studio on Southeast Stark Street called Dreamswell. So perhaps you’ve encountered her work before, maybe even something called The Hillsboro Story.
Yet another beginning, you could say, came in 2010 when Artists Rep presented The Hillsboro Story as a work for the stage. 

The Oregonian (well, really it was me — I was the paper’s staff theater critic at the time) called it “one of the most important pieces of theater presented in Portland this year”:

“The Hillsboro in Banyas’ multilayered memory play isn’t the city in Oregon, but a small town in southern Ohio, not far north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” I wrote.

“In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which essentially declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. But black children in Hillsboro still were relegated to a segregated, Reconstruction-era schoolhouse. The county engineer, a white man, set fire to the school to try to force desegregation, but still the local school board dragged its feet.

Enter “the Marching Mothers,” as Banyas calls them, and the NAACP and the first Northern test case for the high court’s Brown decision.

…In her view, integration is a concept that includes the civil-rights sense of racial desegregation but is much broader and deeper. It encompasses (Martin Luther) King’s ‘beloved community’ ideal, built on a vision of what he called ‘the solidarity of the human family.’ It speaks to its semantic relative, ‘integrity,’ with the corresponding implications of strength and balance. It reflects her interdisciplinary way of making art, which dances gracefully between the whimsical and the profound.

Even though it deals with events a half-century ago, its underlying themes are resonant and relevant today — so much so that Portland Public Schools created an extensive curriculum based on ‘The Hillsboro Story,’ not only to help students understand the historical facts and themes of the play but also to learn how to look at their own lives and surroundings through the craft of storytelling.

As Banyas puts it in an introductory essay she’s written for the play, ‘Memory is not about the past, any more than a right angle is about geometry.’”

Susan’s web

Embedded in Banyas’ memory and her emotional connection to the varied aspects of the story is Charlotte’s Web, her “favorite thing about third grade.” The themes of friendship, community, concern for the welfare of others, and the importance of bold action in support of a just cause — all of these connect E.B. White’s classic children’s tale with the values Banyas espouses throughout The Hillsboro Story.

Another commonality is the idea of messages embedded in a web. Banyas’ book is written as a series of short sections, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, seldom longer than a few pages. Their overall structure is complex, sometimes elliptical, occasionally repetitive, rarely chronological or linear. Many sections are scenic in nature, some more documentary and historical, some personal and reflective, while others are straightforward oral-history transcriptions. The content ranges in scope from the details of how the desegregation fight progressed to the practical and emotional ramifications for those involved, to dark observations on the mechanisms of economic and geopolitical power. The subtitle — “a kaleidoscope history of an integration battle in my hometown” — is telling. It’s her story and she tells it her way; but that way insists on an ever-shifting multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and utilizes a sometimes dizzying fluidity in regard to time, moving rapidly from 1982 to 1955, back to 1982, to 1990, to 2003, back to 1955, then eventually to the mid-19th century, the 1960s and ‘70s, 2015… 

“It’s a quest,” she says during our coffeehouse conversation. “I tried a more conventional method, and I just wasn’t interested in it. One of the questions I wanted to ask with all this was: How powerful is it to take a single memory and walk back into it?”

Susan Banyas’ great-great-grandparents moved to Highland County, Ohio in 1837. The area’s Quaker population would work for justice, sheltering fugitive slaves in the 19th century, and helping to home school protesting black students in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

At points, the book reflects upon its own methods: “A story’s choreography is global and geographic when you step back and look at life this way — how you circle around and have chance encounters, how your life starts to take a shape, how, little by little, your blues hit the heat of imagination and you are somewhere else.”

Or, as she puts it when her quest brings out a particularly strange and fortuitous confluence of personal histories: “I feel like Nancy Drew on acid.”

A template

Banyas acknowledges that her account is far from a conventional history. “It must not have been an easy sell to publishers,” I remark.

 “The academics wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “And who’s at the center of it? Me. So I’m more suspect from the point of view of a straight-ahead publisher.”

But the project found a home with publisher Todd Thilleman, whose Spuyten Duyvil press specializes in “avant-garde books…honest and reality-based imaginative texts…shot-in-the-dark efforts,” according to its mission statement. 

“He saw it as an art book, a kind of documentary,” Banyas said. “And that worked for me, because it’s really a template. It’s meant to bounce you into your own thoughts, not to resolve itself. I didn’t want it to be like The Help, where you just go away and congratulate yourself on having read the book….

“I hope it’s used for people to start recalling their own memories — talking to Uncle So-and-So, looking into privilege and history and what’s right in front of us that we’re not talking about. I think we always have to ask: Who’s controlling the narrative? I hope people wake up to their own experience and don’t take anyone’s word for anything.”

Word wide web

Toward the end of the book, Banyas periodically poses a question to some of the people involved in the desegregation battle all those years ago:

“‘If you were Charlotte,’ I ask…, ‘what word would you choose to weave into the web — to save the world?’” Among the answers she hears are “friendship,” “curiosity” and “fair play.”
I wonder what word Banyas would choose. “Integration,” perhaps? “Connection”? Or maybe “Soul Story.”

You have to start somewhere

“As a movement artist, I wanted to write a book about the movement and spiritual intelligence of protest because as a white person, schooled and socialized in America, I was denied access to this intelligence because of fear and ignorance,” Banyas said in an interview with writer Deborah Kalb. “I had to re-member, piece a history together, retrieve the parts of my memory — history that had been kept in the shadows, demonized, or simply ignored.”

“News was becoming national,” she writes of the desegregation case reaching the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “My sweet little home town would have a hard time hiding out in the hills now, pretending to be a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Some of the most engaging, illuminating moments in “The Hillsboro Story” come when Banyas subtly indicts the mid-American orthodoxy she grew up with — that ignoring, that willful ignorance — by juxtaposing mundane, superficially innocent lifestyle details with broader social developments. It’s her way of stepping — fitfully at first, then purposefully —  out of that Rockwell world and into her truth.

About the summer of 1967 she writes: “The whole country is awake now…tuning in and turning on a new social order.
“I carry on in the social order and get a summer job as a lifeguard at the Chillicothe Country Club where I can swim laps, practice my diving moves, work on my tan while on the job. The wealthy housewives stretch out on the reclining lawn chairs, gossip, rub Coppertone into their skin, smoke Salems, order club sandwiches from the kitchen, made and served by the Black help, read Vogue and Redbook.

“Four hours north, Detroit burns for four days.”

About having married at age 20, she muses: “Fortunately, I have seen my first Felliini film, and the strange people in Juliet of the Spirits have captured my imagination, but for now, I am stuck in a trailer park on the outskirts of Athens, Ohio trying to cook a pot roast. You have to start somewhere.”

Not long afterward, teaching jobs bring her and her husband to Oregon, where she becomes fast friends with a free-spirited and opinionated colleague: “Rosie and I laugh so hard, I am born again.”

Still ready to laugh: Susan Banyas near her home in Astoria. Photo: Dorinda Holler.

Of conspiracy and credulity

“Sometimes meaning is amplified by seemingly whimsical gesture, as when she gives a bit of background on her school’s namesake, Daniel Webster,” I wrote in  my review for The Oregonian of The Hillsboro Story play, back in 2010. “Describing him as a ‘centrist,’ she says the word while giving a little limp wriggle, as if to denote a slippery spinelessness.”

Now, as then, I’m bothered by the aspersion. Partly because I don’t think political values have to be extreme to be authentic or useful, partly because I wish that Banyas availed herself of a bit more centrist-style caution. 

As much as I’ve always liked her and her work, and as much as The Hillsboro Story is engaging and illuminating overall, I sometimes found it tough to read. On top of its determinedly non-linear structure (plus a lamentable number of copy-editing and proof-reading gaffes), it strains so far to make points about systemic corruption that two-thirds through we’re far from Southern Ohio and instead are mired in digressions about the deaths of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  

She recalls the deaths of JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, writing “I grew up on Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. I can spot the criminals…I am only fifteen, but it is clear to me that the whole thing was an inside job.” How Perry Mason can be the basis of such certitude I don’t know, but fine. Before long, though, there’s discussion of “corporate mafia,” “Vatican mafia,” “shadow government,” a “black underground communication network,” “the new world order” and so on. She recounts claims by Philip Partridge, the engineer-turned-arsonist, that secret agents used invisible laser weapons to cause him various illnesses. Then she Googles a few things about experimental weapons research, connects dots to Obama-ordered drone strikes and the like and concludes, “I don’t need to fact-check remote control torture to postulate whether Philip Partridge was writing about real or imagined experience” — as though possibility establishes fact.

Both Patridge and Banyas may well be right about such sinister forces at work. But such claims read here more like histrionics than history. 

Memory serves

And yet, her overarching argument is hard to quibble with. Discussing the efforts of the likes of Constance Baker Motley, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Frank Church, and, by extension, the Marching Mothers, Banyas writes: “The social engineers fighting to unify society through equal protection were shadow-boxing against covert, internalized, systemic racism and a deadly game for geopolitical world domination, a ‘grand strategy’ of complete control of earth’s resources through supremacy in the military, marketplace, media, and most of all, memory.

“..This story is not about small-town drama, although drama drives the story. The story is about power, about who controls memory, who has the authority to speak.”

Home school of the heart

In a way, The Hillsboro Story is an answer to one of the questions that Banyas quotes from Philip Partridge’s memoir. Yes, there is a sense of justice even in young children. And Banyas has artfully traced her way back to its origins in her own life, as well as followed its call outward, into the lives of others. 

 “It really gets down to relationships,” she says as we finish our coffee. “You can’t argue those — or judge them. They’re very personal. It’s always a little mysterious to me that history isn’t written more in this way — it’s so relational.

 “The women of Hillsboro taught me a lot about love and common sense at the heart of justice.”

DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

The week in Portland theater features Artists Rep talking totalitarianism in "1984," Fake Radio turning back the clock, Shakespeare in the house, and more.

Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 

“Orwell envisaged that not only would we all have a TV, but we’d have cameras in our rooms and the TVs would be able to see us back,” Macmillan said in an interview a few years ago with Michael Billington of The Guardian. “He also thought that we would be reporting on ourselves, which is now obviously very true with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the fact that our phones now know exactly where we are and some are even being used to record our heart rate.

“We are all completely self-reporting, which prompted us to switch round the words ‘Big Brother is watching you’ into ‘Big Brother is you watching’, which we’ve incorporated into our script.”

Last week’s DramaWatch erroneously listed Artists Rep’s production among opening shows; the company’s longer slate of previews continues to confuse. Mea culpa. In any case, Friday’s actual opening night — at Imago Theatre because of the wholesale renovations underway at Artists Rep’s downtown home — remains promising, with an exciting cast (led by Chris Harder, Claire Rigsby, Allen Nause and Michael Mendelson) directed by Damaso Rodriguez.

Opening

Among the many subgenres of theatrical production, one of the most peculiar, in some senses, is the staged radio-show facsimile. Why bother creating a visual, spatial, physicalized rendition of something originally conceived as aural and disembodied? Well, perhaps because of the central place in American entertainment and culture that radio held for many years. What’s being staged isn’t radio, it’s the tropes and trappings and nostalgic mythos of radio from a certain age (the 1930s and ‘40s, before television stole radio’s lunch).

The Los Angeles company Fake Radio has been making a specialty of presenting old radio scripts (with little bits of improvisation sprinkled here and there) for more than a decade, with a regular cast of actors, voice-over artists and comedians, plus occasional high-profile guest stars (Fred Willard, Dave Foley, Laraine Newman, John Larroquette…). And, according to a press release, these folks have been performing in Portland semi-regularly since 2016. Well, blow me over with a transistor — I never knew! 

Lynne Stewart guest stars with Fake Radio for a recreation of The Maltese Falcon.

In any case,  Lux Radio Theater’s hit 1943 broadcast of The Maltese Falcon gets the Fake Radio treatment, Saturday night at the Old Church downtown and Sunday at the Vault in Hillsboro. Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” joins as special guest for what offers, in the words of the LA Weekly, “an uncanny sense of a time warp gone horribly right.” 


Generally speaking, a house full of drama is not what you want. But in a city where not just housing space but performing space keeps becoming harder to find, sofas and soliloquies seem to match well. Two small, young Portland companies are opening Shakespeare plays staged — if that’s the right term here — in private homes. Speculative Drama (love that name, by the way) which has been building a reputation for its “immersive” presentations, offers what it calls the “Lake House” Hamlet. A “contemporary lens” on how tragedy can flow from “one person’s inability to make adult choices” sounds like something I should see.
Meanwhile, Enso Theatre Ensemble serves up Much Ado, a “feminist supercut/adaptation” of Much Ado About Nothing, promising “all the drama of a house party…in an actual house.” 


Presented by Yale Union as part of PICA’s Time Based Art festival, The Dope Elf is described as “a series of three unique performances staged within a nomadic installation/film set and simultaneously livestreamed.” OK, cool. The PICA website says that the piece was “(c)ommissioned by LA-based playwright Asher Hartman,” but since Hartman wrote the play, what’s rather more likely is that it was commissioned from him by Yale Union. But anyway… Further description on the site includes such terms as “meta-play,” “slippery points-of-view,” “evading fixed identity,” “unboundedness” and so on, all of which makes me a little leery. But don’t let my aesthetic conservatism keep you from a good time. 


Readers Theatre Repertory continues its long run at the Blackfish Gallery, opening a new season this weekend with a program dubbed Love’s Funny That Way: Five best from “The Best American Short Plays.” If that already sounds like a lot of “best,” the selections — Losing Sight, by Kevin D. Ferguson, Man, Kind, by Don X. Nguyen, There’s No Here Here, by Craig Pospisil, Vertical Constellation with Bomb, by Gwyndion Suilebhan, and Petra by John Yarbrough — will be directed by DramaWatch favorite Mary McDonald-Lewis.

The flattened stage

I can’t speak for you, but I’d much rather that when I was a kid, the Saturday morning fare, instead of the likes of that craptastic Scooby-Doo, had been this:

The best line I read this week

“To be or not to be? There is no other subject about which so much has been written and about which so little has been said.”

— from “The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

“Queens Girl”: a colorful, complicated coming of age

Rich, evocative writing and Lauren Steele's vibrant performance highlight a winning one-woman play at Clackamas Rep.

Over the course of decades writing about performing arts in Portland, I have come to recognize a certain sort of experience that I refer to as a “black dot show.” This is when I happen to glance around at the audience and notice that I am the black dot amid an auditorium full of white people. As a Portland native, I find these occurrences neither surprising nor uncomfortable. 

On a second scan of the crowd at Clackamas Repertory Theatre this weekend, I spotted a young family in the back row that tilted the melanin equation a bit, but I already was musing about the company’s choice to stage Queens Girl in the World — a play about black adolescence and identity in early-1960s New York — for what I would guess is the oldest and whitest audience among Portland-area theaters.

Lauren Steele as Jacqueline Marie Butler, navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence and the socio-political changes of the ’60s in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft


I’m not the only person to find the choice surprising. In an unusually personal program note, the playwright, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, recalls her initial inclination to deny Clackamas Rep’s request for performance rights: “I pulled up your website and here’s what I saw: both of you (artistic director David Smith-English and managing director Cyndy Smith-English) are white. Your past theatrical seasons were white. Your theatre is located in a white community. You are outside of the City of Portland. Enough said.” But a follow-up phone call and a chance visit changed her mind.
“I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” she wrote. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”

From the moment that Lauren Steele steps onstage as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production. Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.

We meet Jacqueline — or Jackie, as she’s mostly called — on the stoop of her family’s two-story detached brick house in a neat but modest part of Queens, serenaded by the roar of planes on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. She comes across as sweet and sheltered. It’s quickly apparent that she’s hard at work, navigating and negotiating a path between the exacting uplift-the-race standards of her parents and the looser culture of the surrounding neighborhood. Her mother is a stickler for propriety, in speech and manners, such a model of Negro grace and bearing that Jackie refers to her not as “Mom” but as “Grace Lofton Butler.” By contrast, Persephone — a neighbor girl who is growing up a bit faster and less inhibited than Jackie — says things such as, “James ain’t feel me up! He jus’ kiss on me lil’ bit.”

It might seem at first that we are in for an engaging, lighthearted coming of age story. Jackie looks forward to confirmation classes at church, because her Grace will let her trade in her kid’s anklets for real stockings. When Grace begins talking tactfully of “womanly cycles,” Jackie is half puzzled, half excited: “Am I getting a bike?!” she wonders. Jackie’s social development briefly gets airborne with her first crush/kiss, then is blown off course when her parents transfer her from PS 124 to a private school in Greenwich Village, where suddenly she’s a black dot. 

All of this is easy to enjoy and easy to relate to, regardless of the racial/cultural specifics — Jackie’s or those of any audience member.

Steele is a wonderfully winning performer, and versatile to boot. (The program lists 13 roles portrayed by Steele, but as is often the case with such shows, this really is a single character telling us a story. While young Jackie vividly recreates the distinctive speech and mannerisms of the people in her life, we see these others strictly from her perspective, which is sometimes sensitive, sometimes broadly comic.) Director Damaris Webb has shaped the production with a sure and easy rhythm and unfussy, solidly supportive design work (Haley Hurita’s projections are especially effective). And Jennings’ writing is studded with descriptive gems: Jackie says her mother has a voice like “twilight-colored taffeta,” sketches an image of her proud West Indian father with his “dimples and brushed mustache,” and swoons at the 15-year-old boy whose recently changed voice sounds like “melting butter in a skillet.”

What ultimately elevates Queens Girl in the World, though, is the “in the world” part. By gradual, graceful, deceptively significant steps, Jennings builds her story (“semi-autobiographical,” according to Webb’s director’s note) outward from that unassuming front stoop, taking in larger ideas and events: the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, gradualism versus radicalism in politics, the tricky relationship of social-justice allies, the complex overlays of racial/economic/ideological identity, the cascading cataclysms of the march on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.  As she is at the outset, toggling between Persephone’s street vernacular and her mother’s textbook English, through all the growth and change and turmoil and learning Jackie repeatedly finds herself in complicated social dynamics, facing contradictory expectations, having to construct and calibrate an identity that fits herself and her situation.  

In that regard, maybe Jackie’s neither black dot nor black sheep, as much like any of us as different from us — not just a Queens girl in the world, but a chameleon riding a rainbow.

DramaWatch: Moving in rhythm to creative Heights

Portland Center Stage kicks the theater season into musical high gear; plus TBA experiments, Artists Rep gets dystopian, and other calendar comings and goings.

Now as ever, New York City is a place for dreams. Some of those dreams are pursued amid the busy streets of close-knit neighborhoods, where immigrant families and friends scuffle toward a better life. Others are played out across stages under bright lights, where passions pulse and songs soar through that efficient pleasure-delivery system known as the Broadway musical.

In the Heights, which opens the 2019-’20 season at Portland Center Stage is a dream in both these ways, and the beginning of a dream come true for those wanting renewed energy and relevance in the American musical.

Ryan Alvarado (top) and cast members of In the Heights light up the neighborhood with song. Photo: Michael Brosilow_Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

The greatest energy infusion in a generation has come from composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: an American Musical, the 2015 cultural supernova that won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize with its inspired blend of hip-hop and history. But Miranda already had brought rhythmic juice and sociological savvy to Broadway with In the Heights, a vibrant, witty and heartfelt tribute to his heavily Hispanic Upper Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights. 

Conceived and presented in its earliest form while Miranda was a student at Wesleyan University, In the Heights underwent several years of development, emerging as a 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for best musical and best original score, as well as a best-actor nomination for Miranda in the role of Usnavi, a bodega owner at the center of the story. 

In its completed version, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it’s a story of striving and celebrating, of struggles and hopes, of worries and romances, of a community balancing precariously between continuity and change. Some critics have griped about the “soap opera” quality of the story, but “In the Heights” pulses with real human feeling as well as its  propulsive mix of salsa, soul and hip-hop. 

The show has been in Portland before, as a Broadway bus-and-trucker in 2010, then in a local production by Stumptown Stages that was a 2016 Drammy Award finalist for outstanding ensemble. This latest is a sort of regional-theater mega-production: Directed by May Adrales and featuring a mostly consistent cast, it arrives at Portland Center Stage following month-long runs last season at Milwaukee Rep, Seattle Rep and the Cincinnati Playhouse.


Time has come today

Somewhere amidst my books, last time I checked, I still have programs from the first several iterations of the Time Based Art Festival, more commonly known as TBA, the flagship program from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. I’ve lots of fond memories of excitement and discovery from those days, diving into the festival’s diverse array of multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and, well, sometimes just undisciplined art.
Over the past decade, however, I’ve grown progressively less interested in TBA’s brand of progressivism, coming to prefer more familiar and definable performance forms and such old-fashioned virtues as, oh you know, coherent writing. I’ve become a snob for conventional theater.

By contrast, TBA is, according to the PICA website, “ten days of contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” Actually, Sept. 5-15 is eleven days, but at least that description is easy to follow, unlike much of the rest of the TBA program notes. I always found that the festival experience benefited greatly by seeing as much as possible, whereupon the good, the bad, the interesting and the weird all informed and enhanced one another. But unless you have loads of free time and the money for one of the upper-tier passes ($200 for the Immersion Pass or $500 for the Patron Pass), you’ll need to pick and choose. And that leads to poring over program notes, trying to decipher all manner of performance-theory gobbledygook that rarely offers much sense of what might be in store. (One performance description this year promises “textures of reflection dipped in impressions of deconstruction and decay.”) 

This critic’s curmudgeonly caveats aside, some very promising shows for theater fans appear on this year’s TBA calendar. Sept. 12-14, Anthony Hudson’s drag-clown character Carla Rossi puts a queer spin on coming-of-age story form with Looking for Tiger Lily, an exploration of cultural, racial and gender norms shot through with caustic wit and trenchant insight. And on the 13th and 14th, Seattle musician and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo presents Susan, a musical portrait of his American mother coping with abandonment by his Nigerian father. 


Opening

While acknowledging that his unflinching stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is “designed to hit you hard,” co-writer Robert Icke told the Hollywood Reporter, “if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.” The original London production reportedly got so far under the skin that some audience members fainted. Director Damaso Rodriguez stages it for Artists Repertory Theatre, with a top-flight Portland cast featuring Chris Harder as beleaguered hero Winston Smith.

Lauren Steele stars as Jacqueline Marie Butler, trying to navigate the new in Queens Girl in the World, at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Multi-character/single-actor shows are challenging by their very nature, and you’d think that’d be especially so for young performers. But Lauren Steele, who stars in the West Coast premiere of Queens Girl in the World for Clackamas Rep, has the kind of powerhouse presence and keen intelligence to make you confident she’ll rise to the challenge. A coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water tale of a black girl in the 1960s moving from Queens to the wilds of Greenwich Village, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ play — directed here by Damaris Webb — also occasions some pre- and post-show lectures about the racial politics and literature of its time period. 

Solo performers at least have an audience around them. Being a caregiver for a dying parent often can be lonelier work. In Mala, a play by Melinda Lopez, delves into that fraught (and for growing numbers of us, familiar) subject, with the compelling Julana Torres performing, directed by Brian Shnipper.

Summer may nearly be over, but Lakewood Theatre Company and director John Oules are going to camp. That is, they’re staging The Rocky Horror Show. Y’know, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Closing

Devised theater can be rich with fresh perspective or can fall prey to the lack of a cohesive voice and coherent structure. (Though, to be fair, I suppose a conventionally written script can have the same range of outcomes.) And an “authentic, empowering, sex-positive, feminist portrayal of local strippers” might be an intriguing show premise to some theatergoers but I cannot honestly count myself in their number. But I am interested in From the Ruby Lounge — produced by William Thomas Berk, who, along with the cast and crew, devised the script — because of some of the promising young talents involved such as co-director Sarah Marie Andrews, her Crave Theatre co-founder Kylie Jennifer Rose, and Taylor Jean Grady. The show’s run ends on Saturday, with only so many seats available in the Shoebox Theater, so scarcity adds value, too. 

Also looking worthy of your time, even on such a busy weekend, is a production of Hamlet  by the young company Clever Enough. The twist here? Apparently a heightened emphasis on — of all possible characters — Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince in this Danish tale, the guy who usually just shows up at the end to clear out the bodies and take over the throne.


The flattened stage

With the opening of another promising theater season, perhaps we should revisit some performance tips from a master thespian:


Best line(s) I read this week

“Art does not reflect society and environment and consciousness so much as it tells us what environment and society and consciousness do not know. It compensates for conscious attitudes; it reveals to us that there are other, perhaps opposite, but still tenable ways of looking at things, of feeling about things…Art tells us what we do not know or do not realize. And it prepares the way for change.”

— from “The Jazz Tradition” by Martin Williams

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

DramaWatch: It’s Bath Night, kids

Former "Live Wire" star Sean McGrath is back in town, getting ready for a run of sketch comedy. Plus "Hair" and other openings.

During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now? 

“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V

Lori Ferraro and Todd Van Voris in rehearsal for Bath Night sketch comedy.

He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”

Continues…

DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.


FILE UNDER: BITTERSWEET



OPENING


Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 

*

The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 

*

Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.

*

“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.

*

The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


CLOSING


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.

*

Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


THE FLATTENED STAGE (A LITTLE SCREEN TIME)


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”


— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”

*

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.