THEATER

DramaWatch Weekly: A test, a lull, lean prose

On Portland stages, it's a week for "Fun Home," Raymond Carver, catching up with "An Octoroon," and checking the horizon

Let there be more than one female character.

Let them talk to each other.

Let them have a conversation that’s less than 100 percent about men.

A.L. Adams

That’s The Bechdel Test, a set of guidelines Graphic Novelist Alison Bechdel sensibly suggested in 1985 as a way to vet narratives for basic fairness. In my theater reviews, I’ve used it—not because it’s a buzzword, I could give a rip—but because when I find myself already bothered by a 2-D plot, applying this test gives me an impartial reason why. #notallmen. See what I did there? Never mind.

Here’s something extraordinary: Alison Bechdel has an autobiographical musical, Fun Home.

What’s more, it’s won a Tony, and I bet it passes the Test. It opens this week at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Aida Valentine (left), Karsten George (center), and Theo Curl in “Fun Home.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Think-piece brinksmen on Bechdel’s level, those whose theories have become common knowledge, rarely produce their own art. Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, rode “The Tipping Point” to the edge, but not to Broadway. Richard Florida, who championed and later renounced “The Creative Class,” never made a musical about it (arguably, The Music Man scooped him). Yet here comes Alison Bechdel—the mind behind the pen that’s pinpointed exactly what was wrong with so many others’ stories—striding into the spotlight* to answer a dare critics-who-are-also-artists hear daily: “Let’s see you try it.”

Okay. Bam. Tony.

Continues…

Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

Continues…

Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

Continues…

In Ghost Rings, which opened Wednesday evening in the TBA Festival and repeats Thursday, Sept. 14, in Lincoln Performance Hall, Tina Satter, Erin Markey, Jo Lampert, and Chris Giarmo of the Obie-winning Brooklyn troupe Half Straddle take the stage clad in sparkles, lamé, Spandex, and the bright synthetic fabric of ’80s hair bands and pop stars. The lights and rigging are generous and close-in, giving it the feel of a life-size diorama of a rock show.

Artistic director Satter makes two announcements as the music and the show start revving up:

  • First, she’s been making plays about her sister for eight years.
  • Second, Ghost Rings are a candy that she made up a really long time ago, in “2009, do the math.”

We’re left to imagine what they might be until a later reference to light, sugary, purple candy rings brings their image into focus. They’re the namesake of the show, and an artifact of the glittery, mythical world built by Satter and her characters through epic rock ballads and conversations with “internal spirit beings,” but they’re never shown to the audience. We’re told that they exist, and brought into a world where they are obviously real things, and our imaginations are insistently tugged along, like a child leading us by the hand to a fort they’ve built.

The show never waits for us to catch up. The defiantly self-important, improvisational world-spinning of co-imagining children is somehow perfectly fit into the mythos of rock and roll and presented in the format of contemporary performance art. By the time Markey and Lampert announce their characters, Stephanie and Shawna, it’s clear that the dreamy world where they live, which includes places like the Haunted Canoe, is vast and private and full of wonders and perils.

Half Straddle’s “Ghost Rings.” Photo courtesy PICA

At one point, Satter tells us that as children, when she and her sister imagined themselves as adults, they imagined living in neighboring, corner apartments, raising their children together. Their children would be best friends. Husbands were not involved. Like the Ghost Rings, the rest of what she gradually tells us about her sister does’t give us a description of her presence, or their relationship. Rather it just declares things about her, placing her at the center of this world that’s being built on stage, but proving her deep absence as well. Her presence in absentia cuts through the many shifting layers of mythology and private language.

Continues…

‘Cat Patrol’ review: hot tuna

New comedy sketch series in new Portland theater space has great human appeal, but needs more rodents

by CS ELIOT

Hello. CS Eliot here with my purr-ceptions of the sketch comedy show, Cat Patrol, playing one more time Friday at Portland’s new Ape Theater.

At least they call it comedy. To me, it was episode after episode humans talking, no birds or scurrying rodents to hold my attention — and a couple of moments of unrelenting horror! It just needed one thing: me.

Totman, Little Edith and Jessup in ‘Cat Patrol.’ Photo: Alicia J. Rose.

Alissa Jessup, Chris Caniglia along with Brooke Totman moved The Ape Theater into the basement of Portland’s Alberta Abbey on June 1, this year. They turned the basement into a 30-seat black box theater in less than three months. Jessup and Caniglia met in New York, moved to Los Angeles and now call Portland home. Totman, an Oregonian born in Roseburg, moved to LA and now also lives in Portland. All three are accomplished artists in TV, stage, scriptwriting, improv and comedy.

Continues…

DramaWatch Weekly: Out there, the drama is real

From the news to the stage, A.L. Adams' new column gives the lowdown on a week's worth of action on the Portland theater scene

Holy moly, is this week huge! Here we are in the throes of most theaters’ season kickoff with much too much to cover—not to mention TBA. (Just kidding; of course I’ll also mention TBA.)

A.L. Adams

In local season opening news, PHAME’s got a new executive director, Action/Adventure Theater has closed its doors after an epic five-year run, and Readers Theatre Rep just raised their ticket price to a whole $10 (still worth every penny, I’m sure; they’ll read two Arthur Miller plays this weekend).

How about national news? Anything major? Sometimes (actually, constantly) I look at what themes are playing out on Portland stages and think about how much they resonate with real-life events that are actually happening. If I may:

 


 

The Drama Is Real: Shows that hit a nerve with current news

In the news: Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a repeal of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offers protected status to undocumented persons who’ve lived in the US since their childhood. Meanwhile, onstage: Last weekend, Ingenio Milagro, a Milagro Theatre’s playwright development symposium similar to Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, presented four scripts including Monica Sanchez’s Los Dreamers, the story of “Dreamer” Scoobi.

*

In the news: The Oregon Bach Festival is reeling over international backlash after firing their artistic director Matthew Halls in response to an incident one might call “Grit Gate.” The Telegraph reports that Halls was overheard joking with his friend, African-American singer Reginald Mobely, and had made a quip about grits while mimicking a southern accent. Though both Mobely and Halls maintain that the joke was about the South generally rather than a Black stereotype, a white woman who overheard the remark complained to University of Oregon leadership, who summarily relieved Halls of his post. With press outlets in Halls’ native England picking up the story, Grit-Gate seems to have grown into an international incident. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage opened its season last weekend (in a new space) with Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter, a drama wherein an African American student at a primarily white college receives hate mail and the school’s administration struggles to react appropriately, arguably making things worse.

*

In the news: Hillary Clinton has just released what is sure to be a polarizing book, What Happened, asking exactly that of her 2016 presidential campaign and taking belated jabs at her opponents left and right. Meanwhile, onstage: Hillary Clinton, of all people, will visit Portland on December 12. See Portland’5 for details.

 


 

Mister Theater: feet off the furniture, kid.

Out There: Shows for explorers

Sweep The Leg: A Karate Kid Musical Parody is happening at Mister Theater, which I didn’t even know was a thing. From the address, it looks like Mister is a neighbor of beloved life-drawing lair Hipbone Studios and belly dance hot spot Studio Datura. (I’m sure it means Mister like “man,” but with this heat persisting into next week and these actors karate-kicking up a sweat, the other kind of “mister” couldn’t miss.) 

Back Fence PDX This storytelling showcase regularly presents a solid roster of raconteurs, and this installment includes “Portland’s Funniest Person 2017” Caitlyn Weierhauser, aptly-named web series star Ben Weber, sketch comedy specialist Andrew Harris, cultural competency consultant Bealleka, and retro glam cult novelist Jennifer Robin.

Under The Influence: All Trumped Up Ernie Liloj must be “tired of winning.” After his original musical Under The Influence earned two Drammies in 2015 (Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Musical) he seems to have asked, “What would really put this over the top?” What puts anything over the top? A dollop of Trump, of course. A cast that includes two alums of Post5’s legendary clown shows, Ithica Tell and Jessica Tidd, should feel right at home at the Funhouse Lounge, a venue complete with a themed “clown room.”

 


 

This week at TBA

 Now onward to PICA TBA:17 (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival), whose program I’ve perused and—just as my ArtsWatch colleague Jamuna Chiarini did for dance—I’ve plucked all of the remaining theater works from the schedule and linked them here for your ease. Less easy for me, and I’ll tell you why: this calendar is chockfull of crossover acts, most especially performance artists who infuse their theatrical pieces with varying amounts of original music.

 Are such shows concerts, or are they theater? Yes.

Will all performance artists be required to write their own music from now on? I hope so. Discuss.

 TBA performances this week include several appearances by Saudi artist Sarah Abuabdallah, three Sigourney Weaver Jam Sessions by Manuel Solano, an evening with singer/monologuist Joseph Keckler, the pop song/deadpan storytelling pairing of Half Straddle‘s Ghost Rings, Cvllejerx throwing a Super Tantrum, and the “psychoacoustic” thralls of Sound et Al.

My must-see is longtime Portland music scene fixture Holland Andrews (of Like a Villain, Aan, and Samadams), who, having lately completed an artist residency in Paris, will present collaborative work with Alain Mahé that interprets Dorothée Munyaneza’s interviews of Rawandan rape survivors following the country’s 1994 genocide. Obviously something to scream about, but also worth getting further context from a follow-up conversation; Sunday’s show will be followed by a talkback. For more femme-empowered protest music, check out Retribution, Tanya Tagaq‘s “howling protest” in defense of indigenous and human rights, or party your catharsis out with Demian Dineyazhi‘s Death Dance, a brown/indigenous punk statement that doubles as a “sweaty celebration.”

*

Whew! That’s all the drama I have for this week. Hand me my mister.

 


 

With this column, the sharp-witted and sharp-eyed A.L. Adams begins her weekly look at what’s happening on Portland’s theater stages. Look for DramaWatch Weekly every Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.

Continues…