THEATER

ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth

What makes Imago's all-star critter spectacular such a cool seasonal treat? Get the whole scoop from an inside-the-costume source.

ZooZoo, Imago Theatre’s one-of-a-kind, all-ages, greatest-hits show, opens again in Portland on Friday, and I’m here to tell you, if you’ve never seen it, get your tickets now. If you have seen it, see it again: Things are always shifting, and given the unique relationship between audiences and performers, no two performances are exactly alike. An amalgamation of vignettes from Imago’s internationally renowned signature show, Frogz, which has been hopping around the globe since Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded the company in 1979, and Biglittlethings, which opened in 2003, ZooZoo is an enthralling 90 minutes of mask and mime theater and benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of some of Portland’s most gifted artists over the past 40 years. Last year’s production, for instance, featured a new piece called “The Magic Cloth,” a collaboration with The Lion King’s Broadway co-designer, Michael Curry.    

The author in full polar bear mode. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Why take my word for it? First, I’ve gifted this show many times to friends and family, always to ecstatic responses. More to the point, as an Imago performer since 1999, I’ve been in it. I still appear now and then in Imago’s other works, namely in Triffle’s original shows, but my touring career ended after about a decade.  While my heart is forever green and some of my fondest memories are of slithering, frolicking, and white-knuckling my way across the country with comrades in the show (and sometimes in the snow), frog legs ain’t easy to come by: my knees began the slow slide into retirement mid-career in 2005 in a gymnasium in Arcata, California. 

Continues…

DramaWatch: Holidays for days!

The week in theater offers more Christmas shows than you can shake a candy cane at!

Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.

And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.

Jennifer Goldsmith’s golden voice brightens the appeal of It Happened One Christmas, a musical revue at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.

The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).

Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.

Lady Brass (Allison Anderson, left) and her daughter Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie) prepare for the holidays in The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Wynne Earle.

At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.

And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.

That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.

Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.

As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness. 

And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.

Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”

Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)

Austen-tatious: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Photo: Russell J Young

Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.

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Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.

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Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.

Second-hand news

As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).

Opening (holiday-free edition)

An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?

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Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis. 

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Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.

Closing

So much to do! So much to do!
And if you haven’t yet caught Shakespeare in Love at Lakewood or the Hullabaloo Alice in Wonderland, well, there’s more for the priority list.

The flattened stage

Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”

The best line I read this week

“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch 

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

Letter From Seattle: Holiday Edition

Seattle stages offer a variety of Christmas treats, but the big gifts are Broadway-aspiring musicals such as "Shout Sister Shout!"

Seattle has a thing about holiday shows. It extends far beyond the ubiquitous, pseudo-Victorian productions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that ritually appear in playhouses across the U.S. each December. In the Emerald City theaters also stuff the proverbial stocking with musicals, dark and light comedies, mysteries, improv shows, even live radio dramas in sync with the season.

Religious diversity be damned: Christmas-themed productions clearly sell in these parts, and the calendar is again crowded with them. But for anyone visiting Seattle between now and New Year’s Eve, there are alternatives in an array of non-tinseled stage options.

Carrie Campere stars as rock ‘n’ roll progenitor Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

For music fans high on the list should be Shout Sister Shout!, a crowd-pleasing and sonically edifying bio-musical based on the life of the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s a rare homage to an artist without the mainstream fandom of, say, Tina Turner, Cher, The Temptations, Carole King — all subjects of recently minted Broadway musicals. Arguably, though, Tharpe had greater impact on popular American music than any of them.

As stressed in Seattle playwright Cheryl West’s script (a scaffolding of serviceable hokum and smart sass), Tharpe really deserves her recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designation. The first prominent gospel artist to strap on an electric guitar and rock out to rousing worship tunes such as “Didn’t It Rain”  and “Up Above My Head,” and a direct influence on such rock “founding fathers” as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others, Tharpe (who died in 1973) was a consecrated force of nature onstage.  An inventive instrumentalist wielding a hefty Gibson L-5, she also was a solid songwriter and a spine-tingling vocalist. And in the 1940s she scored one of the first crossover gospel hits to climb the R&B charts (her prescient, much-covered “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day”).

The challenge for any bio-musical is to make the subject’s life as dramatic and compelling as their music.  That’s touch and go in West’s script, heavily revised from the show’s 2017 premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. In the current production at Seattle Rep, there’s too soapy  an emphasis on the naïve young Rosetta’s failed marriage to a nasty, chauvinistic minister. Much more intriguing directions — her close bond with a formidable evangelist mother, and the religious/aesthetic tensions within the African American gospel music milieu itself — are left under-examined.

Like many musicians, Tharpe was a lot better at creating music than talking about it.   (Few interviews with her exist, but there’s a good biography by Gayle Wald the show draws on, also titled Shout Sister Shout.) 

Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

What is heavenly here is the bountiful, soul-soaring score, with 22 classic songs including numerous Tharpe originals. These are belted out by the excellent Carrie Campere as Rosetta, and the tremendous Carol Dennis, whose powerhouse voice graces the roles of Rosetta’s mother Katie and, briefly, Rosetta’s queen-bee rival Mahalia Jackson. (Fun fact: Dennis is a former wife of and backup singer for Bob Dylan.) Completing the diva triumvirate is Allison Semmes as Marie Knight, Rosetta’s sometime musical partner and lover.

If Shout Sister Shout! does nothing more than make people check out Sister Rosetta’s recordings and YouTube clips, it’s done a real service to an artist who richly deserves her full due.

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Another new musical, Mrs. Doubtfire, is premiering during the holidays at 5th Avenue Theatre en route to Broadway, where it’s slated to open at the Sondheim Theatre in March 2020. The latest stage spin-off of a hit film, it’s based on the 1993 comedy starring Robin Williams as a divorced schlub who impersonates a dowdy female Scottish nanny in order to spend more time with his children.

This musical version of the cross-dressing farce (a descendent of the vintage drag hit, Charley’s Aunt) has some commercial firepower behind it. Staged by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, its head producer is Kevin McCollum (In the Heights, Motown the Musical), and brothers Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (creators of the clever Shakespeare romp, Something Rotten) are concocting the score.

The show stars Rob McClure – an endearing top banana charged with the unenviable task of slipping into Williams’ sensible nanny pumps and marmaladed brogue.

Can Mrs. Doubtfire garner as many kudos as Tootsie — the 2019 Broadway musical based on the 1982 film comedy that also trades on a guy passing as an older woman? Moreover, can it do better at the box office? (Despite a Tony Award for David Yazbek’s clever score, “Tootsie” closes in January after only a nine-month Broadway stand, though a national tour is in the offing.)    

Every Broadway musical is an expensive risk to produce. So while critics don’t get to weigh in until halfway through the show’s run (recently extended through Jan. 4), Seattle audience reaction could be key to helping Mrs. Doubtfire work out the kinks.

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For something cozier and wackier, ArtsWest Playhouse offers Head Over Heels, the result of an unlikely grafting of Sir Phillip Sidney’s venerable epic poem “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” with the pop-rock tunes of 1980s new-wave darlings the Go-Go’s. The band’s best-known tune, “We Got the Beat,” opens the show, and yeesh, what an earworm. Named after another Go-Go’s hit, the show debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 before a short Broadway run notable in part for the brouhaha over Ben Brantley’s tepid New York Times review, which a slew of readers branded “transphobic.”

Head Over Heels at ArtsWest Playhouse. Photo: John McLellan

A fractured fairytale loaded with gender-bender twists, the story mish-mashes Sidney’s 16th-century pastoral royal quest with the lusty adventures of a battling king and queen, a pair of lovestruck princesses and an exiled rustic pining for one of the latter.  There’s a glam oracle presiding over the action, and LBGQT erotic tangles that end happily for all concerned.

The effortful silliness of the book (adapted by James Magruder, from Jeff Whitty’s original) wears thin after a while. But the hard-working, full-throated cast members really sell it, especially Louis Hobson, Ann Cornelius, Alex Sturtevant and the knock-out transgender diva Mila Jam as the oracle. Plus there’s big help from Matthew Wright’s ebullient staging.   And that takes some doing with the  Go-Go’s musical catalogue, which (for the uninitiated) ranges from infectiously boppy earworms to vapidly bland throwaways

***

For those who crave a little Christmas, ACT Theatre once again offers its perfectly charming annual rendition of A Christmas Carol, but there are a few edgier alternatives as well: The Christmas Killings at Corgi Cliffs, a new mystery (with festive eats) at Café Nordo’s nouvelle dinner theater. The Hard Nut, the irreverent Mark Morris Dance Group take on The Nutcracker (on tour at the Paramount Theatre). 

Or, for a real change of pace, there’s the spoofy Yule romp, A Very Die Hard Christmas at Seattle Public Theater.  To quote Bruce Willis, star of the blockbuster action flick that inspired this irreverent, bloody bauble by the comedy troupe The Habit, “Welcome to the party pal!”

DramaWatch: Sarah Ruhl’s Almond Joy

"Melancholy Play" is a whimsical reminder that sometimes you feel like a nut. Plus: holiday treats and many helpings of Christmas stuffing.

 “There is a basic emotional spectrum from which we cannot and should not escape, and I believe that depression is in that spectrum, located near not only grief but also love. Indeed I believe that all the strong emotions stand together, and that every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”

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

Melancholy Play, by the MacArthur Foundation fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Rurl, is in one sense an hilariously misnamed work. The overall tenor of the piece, far from dour or downbeat, is playful, verging on farcical, with absurdity within its reach. In fact, in its original iteration, circa 2001, it was titled Melancholy Play: a Contemporary Farce. A decade or so later, Ruhl revised the work to incorporate music — for string quartet and piano — by composer Todd Almond, calling for much of the dialogue to be sung, and calling for a new subtitle. This version, Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical, is the next production from Third Rail Rep, opening Saturday at CoHo Theater.

Sadness never looked so fun: Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play in a Third Rail Rep production at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

However, the play — the musical, whichever — is about melancholy. It concerns a woman named Tilly whose wistful, romantically melancholic affect is so alluring that the folks she encounters — her therapist, her tailor, her hairdresser and so on — fall all over themselves falling in love with her. Until, surrounded by all that love, Tilly has what’s either a sudden recognition or a true transformation: She’s happy.

And, well, that doesn’t go over so well.

Perhaps you’ll consider this a spoiler, but the news is out there: One of Tilly’s admirers is so undone by the change that she, too, changes — into an almond. As the website  DCMetroTheaterArts wrote of a production back east: “Not a metaphorical almond, mind, but an actual small brown nut, carefully displayed on a delicate white pillow. (One review I saw of a college production quite seriously urged people with tree nut allergies not to attend the show).”

Absurdity reached, absurdity grasped.

And yet, this is Sarah Ruhl, in whose theatrical world whimsy counts almost as a tool of philosophical inquiry. Even more so than in such later, celebrated works as The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she’s being thoughtful in a goofy way.

“It’s an odd little concoction,” admits Rebecca Lingafelter, who directs the Third Rail production with what she describes as vaudevillian style of staging and an emphasis on what Ruhl calls the “sincere melodrama” of the piece. 

Lingafelter notes that Ruhl first wrote the play as a graduate student at Brown University — where fellow students and future Third Rail regulars Kerry Ryan and Darius Pierce were involved in its early development. (Ryan performed in it back then and will do so again for Third Rail.) “You can see a lot in it about how she grew later on, some of the styles and the themes that she’d develop,” Lingafelter says. “There’s a lot that she’s exploring and working out that in her later plays she’s simplified and focused in on. And there are some of the fundamentals of who she is as an artist. Something I like about her work is that it can only work in the theater; she understands that we’re in a place of poetry and metaphor. There’s a very theatrical quality to it all that can be really fun.”

Ruhl’s point here, the meaning behind the mad method, is to make a case for an out-of-fashion notion of melancholy, both differentiating it from the much-bemoaned modern ailment, depression, and extolling it as a special kind of emotional sensitivity. 

Tailor-made for love: Leah Yorkston and Nick Ferrucci in Melancholy Play. Photo: Owen Carey.

“Melancholy can be active, yearning, hopeful, nostalgic, sexy even, and offers the possibility of communing with others,” Ruhl wrote in a 2015 foreward to the script. “Melancholy makes us contemplate the inevitable passage of time — the transience of things — and in that sense, it’s not neurotic, but rather part of the human condition.”

Depression she describes as “hermetic, sealed off, inert, hopeless,” worthy of the eradication so many seek. But might we be, she wonders, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”? Which suggests another question: What to do about those who’ve slipped from hopefully yearning to hermetically sealed? 

“The fundamental theme, for me,” Lingafelter says, “is that she thinks that community is an overlooked way to address isolation and loneliness, to keep people from slipping too far into depression.” 

In its nearly 500 pages about the history, manifestations and treatments of mood disorders, Solomon’s Noonday Demon doesn’t say just where melancholy lands on humanity’s “basic emotional spectrum.” But on its final page, Solomon writes, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.”

By which reckoning Ruhl’s Melancholy Play might serve as a grinning middle ground.
 

The flattened stage (Thanks-taking edition)

Thanksgiving is a time of tradition. And for me, there is no tradition more hallowed at this time of year than watching my favorite video clip of the Apple Sisters.
I fell in love with the Apple Sisters in 2008, when the trio performed in the Best of the Best Sketch Fest, which I reviewed for The Oregonian: “Like a crisp, sweet McIntosh with a razor inside, the act is a 1940s radio variety show that revels in its homespun innocence (‘Heck’s bells!,’ one of the sisters exclaims) and cornpone humor (Seedy Apple: ‘You’re so dumb.’ Lusty, busty blonde Cora Apple: ‘I ain’t dumb! I can hear just fine!’), but sneaks in shards of political and sexual commentary. Facing the prospect of joining the war effort, Seedy remarks, ‘We know that war isn’t all raindrops on roses and whites-only drinking fountains.’ And then there are the references to Candy Apple’s mysterious husband, Cheryl (‘It’s not like I’m hiding Cheryl in a closet,’ Candy says.)”

Yet somehow that review neglected to mention their greatest bit, an incisive and hilarious pocket history of North American (re)settlement, “Pilgrim/Indian Song.” 

Opening (Brutal Xmas Onslaught Edition)

A cozy “Carol”: Portland Playhouse has filled houses and warmed hearts for the past several years with its production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

In the early years of Portland Playhouse, artistic director Brian Weaver was the serious-minded sort who didn’t take the rote route of programming a Christmas-themed show at the end of the year. But his brother Michael (or, as I like to call him, Weaver the Younger) argued that there was nothing wrong with giving the people what they like. Eventually Weaver the Elder was won over, and scheduled a production of the most obvious choice possible, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Directed that first time by Cristi Miles, it was a huge hit, boasting such a fidelity to Dickensian virtues that audiences talked of seeing the old familiar play anew. These days, Weaver the Elder  directs the show — an adaptation by Rick Lombardo, with songs by Lombardo and Anna Lackaff — himself, and year after year it’s a reliable seasonal treat. And really, with such performing talents as Michael Mendelson as Scrooge and Ben Tissell as Bob Cratchit, how could it be otherwise?

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This Carol, of course, is known for having multiple personalities. For instance, A Xmas Cuento Remix at Milagro, in which playwright Maya Malán-González gives A Christmas Carol a modern Latinx twist. In this version — which has productions this season in Portland, Cleveland and Chicago as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program — hip, shapeshifting carolers serve as a mythic chorus, performing remixed Spanish and English Christmas songs, guiding the story and helping a woman named Dolores Avara to learn forgiveness and embrace holiday traditions. Triangle Productions, by contrast, gives the story a bawdy, Victorian music hall treatment, via Scrooge in Rouge, a spoof in which an outbreak of food poisoning reduces the available cast to just three hearty/hardy/foolhardy folk. The resulting requisite crossdressing, quick-change approach should be a comedic blank check for Dave Cole, Jeremy Anderson-Sloan and the always-vibrant Cassi Q. Kohl. (Stumptown Stages also has a more determinedly musical adaptation coming up, but that won’t open until Dec. 5.) 

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If Dickens is an example of the culturally specific elbowing its way into universality, then maybe Black Nativity is on its way there too. Langston Hughes’ spirited re-telling of the Christian nativity story though black gospel singing and “traditional” Christmas carols has both a strong character and a broad appeal — enough so that PassinArt will present the show for a fifth consecutive year.

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Around this time last year, critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh — whose Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol did well for Artists Rep earlier this decade — presented a one-night reading of his new play The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery. Now he’s back at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie with a full production of the story, about a lady detective and her daughter whose quiet country-house Christmas Eve turns instead into the mystery and intrigue of a jewel heist.

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Fred Bishop (left) and Jennifer Goldsmith star in It Happened One Christmas, a new holiday musical revue from Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

“Grimbles” sounds like a blend of “Gimbels,” the famed but now-defunct department-store company, and “grumble,” which you might be inclined to do if forced to be in a department store during December. In any case, it’s the name of the store that’s the setting for the story of It Happened One Christmas, a new original musical by Broadway Rose stalwarts Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis. As a cleaning lady and a security guard make their nightly rounds, the magic of Christmas Eve begins to take effect. The too-seldom-seen Jennifer Goldsmith stars as Frances, the cleaner, alongside Fred Bishop as Walter the guard.

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The distinguishing feature of The Hullabaloo! Alice in Wonderland, British-panto-styled offering from the company known as Jane — or at least one thing that makes it stand out — is the price. Tickets are free. (I sometimes think that Portland citizenship should be contingent on whether someone knows who popularized the phrase “Free is a very good price!”) But there’ll be no citizenship tests for these freebies, just email info@janetheater.org to reserve yours.

Closing

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite bands is the observation in a Husker Du song: “Expectation only means you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.”
So I won’t pretend to really think I know quite what’s coming to the Performance Works NorthWest under the title Funeral for Expectations. Glancing at an email from the show’s creator/performer Julia Brandenberger, I first noticed the phrase “immersive and participatory ceremony of disposition,” and thought, “They’re going to bury the audience?!?”

Er…maybe not. Brandenberger, whose training is in ballet and theology, instead intends to put to rest such things as “struggles with body…toxic judgements and the stresses of achievement culture and perfectionism.”

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La Ruta, Artists Rep’s powerful production of Isaac Gomez’ play about mothers and daughters and the harrowing experiences of those working along the U.S./Mexico border, closes its run on Sunday.

Second-hand news (theater journalism worth reading)

Long ago, early in my time as an arts journalist, I walked into a rock club one night and a friend of mine approached me. “Have you been feeling OK lately,” she asked. “Fine. Why do you ask?,” I replied. “You haven’t been mean to anyone in your column the past few weeks,” she said.
What she meant was that she liked, and missed, the barbed comments I slung at bands I didn’t like. But I found the exchange disheartening. Granted, it was fun to be snarky. My favorite line of mine from that era came as a brief mention of a laughable hair-metal band called Rex and the Rock-Its: “If the worst thing a critic can do to a band is to ignore it entirely, why am I being so nice?” Yet I didn’t I want to be seen as being mean, and I believed that writing criticism was about much more than taking pot shots — or even really about passing judgment.

That incident came to mind while reading recently about the death of John Simon, long a notoriously negative critic for New York Magazine, famous for both his erudition and his viciousness.
As a general matter, criticism has become a toothless monster since Simon’s late-20th-century heyday. But his passing presents an opportunity to consider what criticism can and should — or shouldn’t — do. 

In the obituary at Vulture, New York mag’s culture website, Christopher Bonanos, one of Simon’s later editors, outlines how sharp and colorful Simon’s writing could be, and how egregiously he could stray outside the lines of fair play. Bonanos also closes his piece on an especially apt note: “I don’t think it’s cruel to say this, because John himself would undoubtedly have turned it into a gleeful anecdote: When he had the stroke that killed him, he was at a local dinner theater. Hell of a review.”
American Theatre magazine chipped in with twinned commentaries, one by Michael Feingold, a former critic for the Village Voice, and one by Jack O’Brien, former artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre.

Interestingly, it’s the fellow critic who registers disappointment and disapproval, while the theater artist presents a case for the defense.

The best line I read this week

“Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues.”

— from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch


It’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll give thanks for Barry Johnson, one of the Northwest’s very finest thinkers and writers about the arts, for creating Oregon ArtsWatch and providing a chance for a former daily-paper hack like me to keep writing.

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

Close up and burning bright

Asylum Theatre reignites Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" with intimate staging and palpable emotion.

In Asylum Theatre’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, everything happens a few feet from your face. In the aptly named Shoebox Theatre, the seats are situated so close to the actors that it almost seems possible to touch each feeling—joy, lust, rage, agony—that bursts free of their bodies. There’s no hiding from the propulsive intensity of their performances, and that’s terrifying.

It’s also exhilarating. Burn This seizes you, jostles you and moves you, frequently daring to break and repair your heart at the same time. Director Don Alder and his cast recognize that Wilson’s play isn’t meant merely to be watched and analyzed—it’s a meditation on love, grief and identity that is meant to be felt, even (and especially) when it’s almost too much.

Feel the burn: Heath Koerschgen and Brianna Ratterman come together through grief in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, staged at the Shoebox by Asylum Theatre. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Asylum has assembled a cast worthy of joining that daunting roster. Brianna Ratterman plays the conceited and traumatized choreographer Anna and Heath Koerschgen plays the furious and irrepressible Pale, who charges into Anna’s world like a bulldozer with the breaks cut.

Burn This begins with an anguished Anna being soothed by her roommate Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and her boyfriend Burton (Jason Maniccia). Anna has just returned from the funeral of her friend Robbie, a dancer who was killed with his partner in a boating accident. Your first instinct is to cry for Anna, but there’s something off-putting about her snide remarks about Robbie’s family and her conversations with Burton, a screenwriter who spends much of the opening scene moaning about the rewriting of a script he wrote called Far Voyager.

Anna and Larry’s Manhattan loft is a static kingdom that begs to be shaken up, and Pale—who is Robbie’s brother—is more than happy to help. In the middle of the night, he bangs on the door, demanding the remainder of his dead sibling’s possessions. Bound by both grief and chemistry, Pale and Anna begin a romance that (depending on your perspective) is either a genuine connection or a destructive intertwining of two damaged souls.

To watch Burn This is to be, in a good way, trapped. You don’t just sit close to the stage—you sit on the same level as the stage. Instead of staring up at a raised platform, you stare straight into the lives of the characters, noticing details that would have been easy to miss in a larger arena, such as Anna lightly touching Pale’s mustache or Pale gently brushing Anna’s hair behind her ear.

Anna initially sees Robbie as a martyred saint and the relatives who were ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of his work as a dancer and his life as a gay man as callous villains. The reality is more nuanced, and that confuses and terrifies her (“She’s had a very protected life,” Larry tells Burton. “I mean, she’s never had to carry her own passport or plane tickets—she’s not had to make her own way much”).

Heath Koerschgen’s Pale (foreground) is the bull in the China-shop life of roommates Larry (Michael J. Teufel) and Anna (Brianna Ratterman), in Burn This. Photo: Salim Sanchez.

Gradually, Anna begins to recognize that the identities of everyone around her are forever in flux. Pale may be a bully who hurls homophobic slurs, but he is also a tormented brother who irrationally blames himself for Robbie’s death. His signature line—“I’m gonna cry all over your hair”—is the play’s manifesto. Each tear in Burn This is a physical manifestation of the forces that expand the souls and perceptions of Anna and even Burton, whose journey goes far beyond the trials of being one point of a love triangle (despite his apparent heterosexuality, he fondly recalls receiving a blowjob from a man in the snow). 

Just as the events of Burn This disrupt each character’s life viscerally, the play itself leaves you thrillingly unmoored. I’m still mentally replaying its images (from Anna excoriating Pale and Burton while wearing a silky purple bathrobe to Burton holding a screenplay he has written, looking as vulnerable as a little boy clinging to a toy truck), trying to understand them and knowing that I’m not entirely meant to. Stories, Burn This insists, are as undefinable as people. No matter how hard we try to stay dry, to be human is to have tears in your hair.

A Tempest in the Schnitz

With a vivid storm of Shakespeare's words and Sibelius's music, The Oregon Symphony pairs two artists in their twilights for a last hurrah


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


It was a storm for the ages Saturday night in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as the musicians of the Oregon Symphony swept into the swirling seas of The Tempest, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s vivid 1925/26 score for William Shakespeare’s great late romance about an island, a magician, a belly full of betrayals, an awakening of young love, and a resolution of forgiveness. Ah, but first, the storm: blowing, whistling, reeling, slipping and sliding in a chaotic cascade of rhythms and notes – an unsettling of sound that whirls and clatters and destroys and yet also somehow sets the scene for fresh wonders and reawakened hope.

As the orchestra urges the action forward, Caliban (Tobias Greenhalgh), seeing freedom if he switches allegiance from Prospero, cavorts with his new hopes, the drunken butler Stephano (Benjamin Taylor, middle) and jester Trinculo (Andrew Stenson). It’s not Caliban’s wisest decision.

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DramaWatch: Shakespeare and symphony meet, as if by magic

The week in theater features Ashland actors with the Oregon Symphony, plus Spectravagasm's sketchy humor, soulful social commentary, improv and experiments.

If you visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, it’s not uncommon after awhile to recognize your favorite actors around town — at the grocery store, in line at a coffee shop, that sort of thing. And with the richness of the repertory company serving up actors in multiple roles across multiple seasons, fans come to feel a kind of bond with performers even without the pleasure of chance meetings outside the theater. You already feel like you know them, so when you have the chance, why not say hello?

The effect isn’t limited to Ashland, apparently. On a recent afternoon at a restaurant in downtown Portland, a gentleman gets up from his table and approaches another nearby.
“Excuse me,” he begins. “I kept looking over, thinking, ‘I know those guys.’ And I just realized it’s from Ashland.” He’s not met them before, but is familiar with their work and remembers their names. “You’re Tyrone, right? And Armando.”

The fellow, who introduces himself as Mike, says he’s been attending OSF for about seven years now, and that he tries to catch all 11 productions each season. “Also, I’m friends with Dick Elmore,” he adds, referencing one of the most venerated of veteran OSF actors. The three men chat amiably for a few minutes about the festival, sharing excitement about its history and upcoming shows, before the visitor goes back to his table. 

Tyrone Wilson (at left, with Royer Bockus) performed in All’s Well That Ends Well earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This weekend he’ll star as Prospero in The Tempest, with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Jenny Graham.

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