CULTURE

Gallery Theater: 50 years, 340 plays, thousands of stories

McMinnville's community theater celebrates a half-century partnership between actors and audiences

Gallery Players of Oregon has been cranking out plays in downtown McMinnville since 1968, which means we’ve arrived at the 50th anniversary. That kind of endurance for any artistic project is worth celebrating.

I cannot hide my enthusiasm about it, and you ought to know why: For many of the past 20 years, I’ve acted on Gallery’s stage. Candidly, this is a bit weird for me. I’ve been a journalist since moving to McMinnville in the mid-1990s, and I’ve been involved at Gallery (both as an actor and a director) for most of that time. But those two lives haven’t intersected — until now.

Like many who will attend Saturday’s 50th anniversary gala, which will include a catered dinner and an evening program, I was introduced to theater in high school. Instead of letting it become just another memory from my youth, I remained active in theater and, more than three decades later, have accumulated a wealth of memories, characters, thrills, laughs, life lessons, friendships and stories.

Seth Renne, who has managed Gallery Theater since 2014, considers the
perils of growing carnivorous plants in 2013’s production of “Little Shop
of Horrors.” Photo: Gallery Theater

I’ve worn suits, ties, armor, stars and stripes, pajamas, a bathrobe, a dress, fake breasts, tighty-whities, and a burlap sack while smeared with mud. Actual, homemade mud, because I learned that mud washes off faster for a quick scene change than oil-based makeup. I also learned, over the course of that production, that dirt is alive and, if allowed to sit in a jar with just enough water, will grow things that smell awful.

I’ve learned the hardest thing to do onstage is not to cry, laugh or even passionately kiss a friend while your spouse (and hers) watches from the audience, but to eat. Appearing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had in my field of vision one evening Dr. Dean Brooks, who headed the Oregon State Hospital for 27 years and played a character similar to himself in the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson; he was seated in the first row. Having played Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, I’ve found myself in the absurd position of being compared to Jack Nicholson.

I’ve been killed by and slain good friends, then gone out drinking with them afterward. I’ve come to understand how and why the show must and ultimately does go on, even when the director walks out, or when an actor vanishes on the eve of opening night or — for any number of reasons I’ll not get into here — in the middle of a show’s run. As an audience member, I broke down at Atticus Finch’s “Thank you for my children, Arthur.” And I’ll never forget the stunned silence at the end of a fantastic Cabaret, where the biggest Nazi flag I’ve ever seen unfurled over the stage for the final scene.

But the most important thing I’ve come away with is an appreciation of the audience – both as an actor and director and as a theatergoer.

Here’s the thing: The audience wants you to succeed.

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The actor Todd Van Voris and the director Jerry Mouawad — each, in his way, among Portland’s most distinctive and accomplished theater artists — are working together on a production of Title and Deed, a monologue by the remarkable playwright Will Eno, opening this weekend at Imago Theatre. 
And so, you might want to know, what’s it about? What’s the story?

But it’s useful first to note just how different those two questions are, especially in the case of Eno’s work.“If you tried to say what the narrative is of this, it’s: A guy from somewhere else comes and talks to the audience, and then he stops,” Mouawad deadpans. “But, y’know, most great work is not about the narrative.”

After all, The Cherry Orchard, for instance, isn’t quite about a family dithering until their house gets sold out from under them; the greatness is not in the plot but in the themes, the textures, the subtle illuminations of humanity.

Title and Deed is about, as Mouawad starts to try to encapsulate, “the wonder of language, and the danger of language; and the seeking of home, and going away from home; and mother as home, and going away from that; and…

“Often, with experimental work, if people find themselves confused, I want to just say to them, ‘You can relax. It’s about everything.’”

Just dropping in from somewhere else, the lone character in Will Eno’s “Title and Deed” (Todd Van Voris) has a few things to say about feeling at home. Photo: Sumi Wu.

Perhaps not everything, in this case, but a lot. Eno’s writing doesn’t meander so much as walk in tight circles that slowly expand and change direction and grow thickets of linguistic and emotional inter-connections — something like the melodic and harmonic variations of a piece of Philip Glass music, if such musicality somehow were translated into a cross between avuncular philosophizing and stand-up comedy. Along the way, he touches on many aspects of experience and emotion, glancingly but poignantly.

There is, though, a starting point, at least, a conceptual center, perhaps, to Title and Deed.
“I’m not from here,” the play’s lone character (called, simply, Man) says at the outset. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.”

As this man from somewhere else (no place is specified in the script, but Eno wrote the piece originally for the Irish actor Conor Lovett to perform in New York) speaks to the audience, he deals with home and away, here and there, and to some extent you and us, in relational terms, tracking contrasts and commonalities that shape our experience of life. And amid Eno’s multivalent whirligigs of language, what can seem at first like offhand indulgences start to feel more like curious koans or gems of insight: “Maybe it’s a little hopeless glimmer of hope that I might somehow, with a change of scenery, change,” he offers at one point. Or:  “My mother said, ‘There, there.’ And, in retrospect, she was probably right.”

“I think the piece is really deceptive,” Mouawad says, chatting over lunch during a recent rehearsal break. “When I first started reading it I didn’t think much of it. But it starts to grow on you and then it hits you. And then you see it’s a lot deeper than you’d thought. And it just keeps going. We just keep discovering more in it.”

Todd Van Voris has embodied Will Eno’s monologuistic magic before, in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

“Like with all Eno, there’s something that really resonates with me — I just see myself in there,” says Van Voris, who performed another Eno solo showpiece, Thom Pain (based on nothing) last summer for Crave Theatre. “ And at the same time, it’s this incredible puzzle to work out.”

And so another way to look at the puzzle is to wonder what may come of the experience of spending an hour with Title and Deed.

“In my heart of hearts,” Eno told Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune in 2015, “I’m hoping everyone can find things of real usable feeling.”

Or as Van Voris puts it, “It’s got an underlying sense of hope, overall: That despite all the suffering we go through, we’re going to be OK.”

However we find our way home, whatever story we tell.

Opening

The premise is simple, if (you might think) thoroughly daft: Cast a play, tell each actor chosen what part to play, but don’t tell anyone anything else. Have each actor rehearse a little — individually — with the director. Then just get onstage together for the first time, as the performance progresses, and see what happens.

What happens at the annual production of Anonymous Theatre is a helluva lot of fun, whether it’s a comedy that wobbles amusingly as everyone tries to learn their timing on the fly, or even a remarkably cohesive and credible performance of Macbeth.
 Broad familiarity can be a helpful element, so this year’s show should be especially ripe, with the ever-popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the canvas for this illuminating experiment in theatrical process. For more about the strange magic of Anonymous Theatre, you can read Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s new ArtsWatch feature.

Certainly there’s crossover between what we might call straight theater (text-centered, director-driven, etc.) and the more free-wheeling world of sketch comedy and improvisation. But I’ve not spent much time on that bridge or, frankly, even glancing much at the other side. So I’m unfortunately unable to provide any qualitative handicapping on the Stumptown Improv Festival, which offers 17 different acts over four days at two venues. Rest assured that they’ll all be winging it — but that’s exactly what they’ve prepared for.

The Salem company Theatre 33, based at Willamette University, takes a localized approach to new-play development, focusing on Oregon playwrights and (usually) Oregon-centered stories and themes. It’s latest production, Amanda Transcending, is based on true accounts of the ill treatment of coastal natives in the 1860s and of a modern property owner in Yachats who traces the bloody historical trail across her own land. Rod Ceballos directs, from the play by Connie Bennett.

Triangle Productions’ latest staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of the most compelling of rock musicals, hasn’t been gone for long, but if you’re already missing its hard-hitting yet tender-hearted approach to gender politics, self-actualization and soul-mate searching, you don’t have long to wait for a brief re-mount later this month. If you can’t wait even that long — and who could blame you, really — you can take the wig down from the shelf, so to speak, yourself: Dave Cole, who leads the onstage band for Triangle, and Kelsey Bentz, who threatens to steal several scenes as Hedwig’s sweet-singing husband Yitzhak, host a Hedwig sing-along at the EastSide Bar and Grill. So what if it’s a Tuesday? Just look up from your vermouth on the rocks and get rockin’.

PassinArt presents a staged reading of Is the Honeymoon Over?, a comedy by Leasharn M. Hopkins that looks at the love through the lens of four couples at varying stages of their marital journeys.

But we can, by George!

“I can’t recall a play that managed to find a tone that offered up yuks and topics as serious as the glories and perils of capitalism, the role of faith in a culture obsessed with money and the havoc wreaked when immense bets are made with other people’s money.”
 — David Segal, a columnist and business reporter for The New York Times, in a July 29 article about The Lehman Trilogy, a play about the history of the famous/infamous Lehman Brothers bank.

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara, starred in Coleman’s last show as artistic director at Portland Center Stage/ Photo: Jennie Baker

Portland theater fans (or theater historians anywhere), however, might notice that Segal’s description sounds a lot like Major Barbara, the 1905 George Bernard Shaw play that Portland Center Stage presented a few months ago.

Best line I read this week

“A therapist asked her what she wanted to do, and she blurted out, to her surprise, ‘Be a playwright.’ She discovered that she was studying Shakespeare only because she secretly wanted to write plays herself. ‘It was like being a veterinarian who says, “I want to be a dog!”’”
— from a profile of Young Jean Lee, by Parul Sehgal, in The New York Times magazine.

Closing

Experience Theatre Project’s commedia-leaning Shakespeare adaptation The Taming and the Shrew ends its summer travels at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton; Lakewood’s production of the musical
Chess gets down to its last moves, and the sexy mystery Venus in Fur bundles up its things at Twilight Theater.

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

Violin virtuoso Charles Castleman pays Linfield a kingly visit

The 77-year-old performer and teacher leads free chamber concerts this week at the McMinnville college

If you haven’t heard of the Castleman Quartet, don’t feel bad. This summer violin-development program has been going nearly half a century, but until recently, it was confined to the East Coast, where violinist Charles Castleman first presided over it as a graduate student in Philadelphia. Given that Castleman has been making connections in the classical music world for seven decades, it’s not surprising that he knew a piano teacher at Linfield College. A couple of years ago, they brought the program to McMinnville, and it returns for its third season this week, featuring several days of recitals on campus with violin students from around the country.

Charles Castleman works with a student during the Castleman Quartet Program at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

The 77-year-old Castleman is something of a rock star in the violin world. His parents were not musicians, but played classical recordings at home, and Castleman’s introduction to the violin came when he was little more than 2. His mother took him backstage at the Boston Pops, where he met conductor Arthur Fiedler, who would lead the orchestra for half a century. Fiedler was impressed with the young Castleman’s musical knowledge, but observed that he didn’t yet have the size or coordination to play an instrument.

“He suggested that when I was 3 or 4, I should start,” Castleman recalled when I sat down with him last week. “He said, ‘You should play the violin, and you should play the piano at the same time so you don’t just hear horizontally.’ So he was a mentor for quite some time. I played a solo for him, when I was 5 or 6, with the Pops.”

His first teacher was Emanuel Ondricek, and he later studied with Ivan Galamian, David Oistrakh (who had “an enormous impact on my bow arm,” he told an interviewer in 2005) and Henryk Szeryng (who had significant “impact on my choice of fingerings and choice of bowings in performance,” Castleman said in that same interview). Castleman is, according to his website, “perhaps the world’s most active performer and pedagogue on the violin.”

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FilmWatch Weekly: Isabelle Huppert is “Mrs. Hyde,” plus “Custody” and “Generation Wealth”

A pair of French films and a documentary about American plutocracy hit Portland theaters this week

There’s nothing absolutely earth-shattering splashing onto Portland’s arthouse screens this week (hey, it must be August), but that doesn’t mean there’s not an array of interesting titles worth keeping in mind. In fact, there is exactly that, including the latest from the always noteworthy Isabelle Huppert, a shattering French drama about marital discord, and a documentary look at the real price of being rich.

“Mrs. Hyde”: French director Serge Bozon worked with the iconic Huppert on his last feature, 2013’s “Tip Top,” a quirky, dark farce that was barely seen in this country. Their new collaboration, “Mrs. Hyde,” may face the same fate, but doesn’t deserve it. In an obvious nod to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Huppert plays Madame Géquil, a meek science teacher in a suburban Parisian high school whose id gets freed after a freak laboratory accident. Huppert is almost too perfectly cast as the initially meek, eventually dangerous protagonist, who finds herself supernaturally empowered to deal with her disrespectful, multiracial students as well as her supercilious principal.

However, she never really gets to dig into the implications and contradictions of this divided character, at least not as much as she has in such films as “The Piano Teacher” or “Elle.” “Mrs. Hyde” feels, at times, as if it can’t decide if it wants to be a commentary on the French educational system, a feminist parable, or an arty genre piece. It ends up being a less that totally satisfying mix of the three, with at least the unforced mastery of Huppert on its side. (playing at the Northwest Film Center, Aug. 3-5)

“Custody”: The ultimate child custody battle movie of all time remains, no doubt, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but this directorial debut from French actor Xavier Legrand gives that one a run for its money. (Insert alimony joke here?)

The film opens with a fifteen-minute court hearing between estranged couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), their lawyers, and a family court judge. It’s probably less notable in France that it would be in America that Antoine is the only male in the room. It’s a gripping encounter, filmed and acted with a restraint that ratchets up the emotional tension instantly, and you may wonder if the entire film will unfold as a series of legal encounters. It doesn’t, as Antoine is granted weekend visits with his young son Julien despite some indications of past violent behavior. (The couple also have an older teenage daughter, whom Antoine doesn’t seem to care much about.)

From there, “Custody” proceeds like a slightly slicker version of the kitchen-sink dramas made by the Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Son,” “The Kid with the Bike”), until it succumbs to suspense-movie tropes in its final scenes. Ménochet in particular recalls the meaty, morally ambiguous male characters of several Dardenne films, and Thomas Gioria, who plays Julien, is reminiscent of the powerful juvenile performances in the brothers’ work.

Legrand, though, doesn’t quite yet have the easy mastery of form and emotional realism needed to make “Custody” a true standout. This is his first feature, a continuation and expansion of the story he told (using Drucker and Ménochet) in his Oscar-winning live-action short from 2013, “Just Before Losing Everything.” The acting is first-rate, as is the filmmaking craft, and once this director figures out how to infuse his work with a little more soul, he could be capable of great things. (currently playing at Living Room Theaters)

“Generation Wealth”: Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield has been chronicling the lives of the super-rich for over twenty years, most notably in 2012’s “The Queen of Versailles,” which followed the quixotic efforts of Jacqueline and David Siegel to build the largest private residence in the United States. The Siegels (at least Jacqueline) pop up again in Greenfield’s new movie, which serves as a summation and revisiting of her life’s work. Some of the most fascinating scenes contrast footage Greenfield shot of students at an exclusive Los Angeles private school in the early 1990s with their now middle-aged selves. Some have moved beyond the shallow hedonism of their privileged teen years, others demonstrably have not.

Other subjects include the Oregon-raised porn star who gained infamy as one of Charlie Sheen’s paramours, a woman who travels to Brazil to undergo extreme plastic surgery, and a female Wall Street banker whose obsession with her income level is only matched by her obsession with her appearance. As those examples attest, “Generation Wealth” takes a long, fascinating, and disturbing detour into the ways in which hyper-capitalism has turned sexual appeal into just another marketable commodity.

Greenfield also turns the camera, both metaphorically and literally, on herself and her own family, in a way that seems unintentionally ironic considering the movie’s otherwise heartfelt condemnation of narcissism. Despite feeling at times like a promotional tool on behalf of Greenfield’s similarly-themed gallery show and coffee table book, and despite lacking the compelling singular focus of “The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth” still offers a degree of insight (often in the form of cynical commentary from writer Chris Hedges) on the societal sickness that contributed to the emergence of the Trump Era. (currently playing at Regal Fox Tower)

 

Repertory happenings of note, August 3-9:

“Polyester”: The Hollywood Theatre screens John Waters’ 1981 ode to bad taste, complete with scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards, as a tribute to the late Tab Hunter, the Hollywood Golden Age golden boy who reinvented his career with this campy role. (Friday, Aug 3)

“The Planet of the Apes”: The Hollywood also kicks off its “Marathon of the Planet of the Apes” series, which will include every film from both the original 1970s series as well as the more recent cycle of simian cinema (but not the terrible Tim Burton remake or, to my knowledge, the animated TV series). (Saturday, Aug. 4, followed by “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” on Sunday, “Escape from the POTA” on Monday, “Conquest of the POTA” on Thursday, and more in coming weeks…)

“3 Women”: The last great film Robert Altman made before the long creative and commercial drought that ended with 1991’s “The Player” was this enigmatic 1977 masterpiece starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek as co-workers at a health spa for the elderly in a small California desert town and Janice Rule as their landlord’s wife. It was inspired by a dream Altman had and owes a certain debt to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will. (Northwest Film Center, Monday, Aug. 6)

“Night of the Hunter”: The best film ever made by someone who never directed another film. Robert Mitchum, Lilian Gish, Shelley Winters. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday & Sunday, Aug. 4 & 5)

VizArts Monthly: Big news in various forms

Converge 45 returns for its third year, Cathy Wilkes at YU, tarot art at Union Knott

The big, big news in the Portland arts community is that soon-to-be defunct Marylhurst University’s Art Gym isn’t gone forever! According to the press release issued by the Oregon College of Art and Craft, “all Art Gym operations, collections, and upcoming exhibitions will move to the OCAC campus,” effective October 1.

That’s not all. Next, we’ve got Converge 45 entering its third year, with its first site-specific installation and the return of KsMOCA. Cathy Wilkes comes to the YU, and a whole bunch of good shows are opening at smaller galleries. There’s lots to see this hot August–stay hydrated, stay curious, stay cool.

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Art on the Road: North Holland

Bergen's Museum Kranenburgh highlights Leo Gestel's eloquent mysteries and Ans Wortel's "organic allegories of people"

Most people who travel to Holland and are interested in art congregate in one or more of Amsterdam’s major museums. Outside of the city you can find some small jewels off the beaten path, though, that warrant a closer look. They provide introductions to Dutch art movements that are perhaps less well known but worthwhile getting to know. As a bonus you also escape the throngs of people you meet everywhere else, particularly during the summer months where the entire world seems to descend on this small country.

Leo Gestel, “Woman Between Flowers,” 1913, oil on canvas, collection Germeentemuseum Den Haag; at the Kranenburgh. Photo: Friderike Heuer

A 40-minute drive north of Amsterdam lies the small village of Bergen. Close to the North Sea, nestled among pine forests and dunes that are now a national nature preserve, the village was historically an artist colony, home to the Bergen School, a group of painters in the early 1900s who embraced cubism and expressionism and shared a taste for rather dark colors. Two museums in the area have large permanent collections of this School. One is the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar, about three miles south of Bergen, which also houses an amazing number of exquisite 16th and 17th century paintings.

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Connecting artists and visitors along 363 miles of coastline

So far, the inventory for the Oregon Coast Public Art Trail includes 125 works, including sculptures, murals and functional art, in 27 communities.

The Oregon Coast is a natural draw for artists, some of whom return the favor by creating a piece of public art. If you live nearby, it’s easy to find these public works, but vistors might never see them. Plans are afoot to change that, with the coast-wide, self-guided Oregon Coast Public Art Trail.

Marcus Hinz, executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, came up with the idea while traveling the 363-mile coast.

“I would see public art in random places and wondered how anyone would ever find them,” Hinz said. “After a while, it dawned on me that one, there is a lot of public art on the Oregon Coast, and two, that our agency has never done a great job partnering with the coastal-art-culture community. The goal of this project is to help residents and visitors connect with artists, gain a deeper sense of place, and improve artists’ livelihoods.”

Georgia Gerber’s pair of Tufted Puffins roost near City Hall in Cannon Beach. Photo: Oregon Coast Visitors Association

He hopes it will also serve as a marketing tool, attracting tourists at times of the year when they wouldn’t normally visit.

What art will be featured on the trail hasn’t been decided. Kevan Ridgway, founding partner of tourism marketers Minds Aligned Group and a resident of Cannon Beach, has been charged with finding the pieces.

So far, he’s reached out to 27 communities along the coast and put together an inventory totaling about 125 works, including sculptures, murals and functional art, such as benches or trash cans. To be included on the trail, the art must be accessible by the public 24/7. But beyond that, the criteria are still being worked out. Ridgway is encouraging people with information about a
public art piece to email him at oregoncoastarttrail@gmail.com.

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