THEATER

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.

Continues…

Tomorrow, tomorrow: We love ya

Clackamas Rep's "Annie"brings the orphans in from the cold and heats things up for the audience

“Never work with animals or children” was the sage actorly advice from legendary actor and comedian W.C. Fields. Luckily for us, Clackamas Repertory Theatre steered far from this piece of advice with its production of Annie at Clackamas Community College’s Osterman Theatre in Oregon City.

This production’s title character is a child actor, eighth-grader Ava Marie Horton, who is a true delight as Annie. She is joined in the cast by the children who play the rest of the orphan girls under the charge of Miss Hannigan (Cassi Kohl). Each one of the child actors is a delight, but together — when singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” for example — they really shine. The choreography and musicality of that song helps, as the girls use buckets and brushes to make music while cleaning the floor and are in lock-step with their dancing — one even swings from the lights! It is perfectly choreographed orphanage chaos that will have audiences singing along.

Andrés Alcalá is the center of attraction as Daddy Warbucks. Photo: Travis Nodurft

But Clackamas Rep didn’t stop at the children. The golden dog playing Annie’s orphaned dog Sandy — who is not credited in the program, so I can’t give him or her proper name recognition — wasn’t in many scenes but stole the show each time (he or she) appeared onstage.

Continues…

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.

The Anonymous Diaries

Anonymous Theatre loves keeping secrets. One actor shared a few.

A few weeks ago, I met and interviewed an actor at a coffee shop near Waterfront Park. They were charismatic, stylish and radiated supreme confidence and generosity. I would have relished the chance to find the right words to capture their personality, to make readers feel as if they had been sitting at our table with us.

But I can’t do that. I can’t tell you their name. I can’t describe their clothes. I can’t say whether they are a woman, a man or non-binary. Divulging those details would spoil the surprise of their performance in the Anonymous Theatre Company’s upcoming one-night production of William Shakespeare’s hippie-before-they-were-hippies romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Anonymously, they twirl: William Blake, “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” circa 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.5 inches, Tate Britain. London.

Anonymous was founded in 2002 and has since tackled myriad theatrical landmarks, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet while the plays they produce are often familiar, the way they produce them is revolutionary—until the curtain rises, the cast of each production remains a secret, even to the actors involved.

Continues…

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.”

Continues…

Saints and sinners toss the dice

Broadway Rose's bright and brassy "Guys and Dolls" revives an American ritual and plays it out with splendid comic verve

During intermission Sunday afternoon at Broadway Rose’s mostly swell revival of Guys and Dolls, a high-powered musical-theater vehicle driven deftly by Ryan Reilly’s mellifluous Sky Masterson and Emily Sahler’s comic knockout of a Miss Adelaide, I found myself thinking, oddly, of the opening paragraphs of Katherine Dunn’s grand and slyly heartbreaking novel Geek Love, the story of a family of genetically mutated circus-sideshow performers and their adventures in the world.

The Binewski kids would sit around enchanted as Papa told the family story, a tale both bizarre and familiar, and would make sure Papa stayed the course:

“We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I’d pipe up with, ‘Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!’ and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa’s chair and Mama.

“Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. ‘Welllll …’ he’d begin, ‘it was a long time ago …’

“ ‘Before we were born!’

“ ‘Before …’ he’d proclaim, waving his arm in his grandest ringmaster style, ‘before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!’”

I thought of Dunn’s novel not only because both Geek Love and Guys and Dolls are uncanny dreams, tales of outrageous characters and situations in search of a normalcy they can call their own, but also because the Binewski kids, wrapped and rapt in the magic of a familiar story that is also their story, seem like stand-ins for almost any audience at a show like Guys and Dolls.

Brandon B. Weaver, Will Shindler and Jesse Cromer in “Guys and Dolls.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale. Even if it’s about gangsters or geeks. Tell us again, Papa.

Continues…

Venus in Fur: The (Play Within the) Play’s the Thing!

Twilight Theater gets physical with the sexy mysteries and meta-theatrical layers of the David Ives hit.

The sound of dissonant strings swells as audience members file in and find seats. Folks flip through programs and sip wine. But an uneasy tension looms as the audience settles in for David Ives’s Venus in Fur, now playing at Twilight Theater.

Before I saw it Friday night, all I had heard about this play is that it was about sadism and masochism — an uninterrupted 90 minutes of good ‘ol S&M.

As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I braced against an evening of confusing, self-indulgent writing when I read that Venus in Fur has a play within the play.

I quickly left those assumptions behind as the whirlwind began.

Ominous thunder. A divan. A despondent director/playwright. This is our austere introduction to Venus in Fur. Lights come up on Thomas Novachek, played by Jeff Giberson, on the phone with his fiancee. Thom complains about the bad actresses he’s been auditioning for his new play, who just aren’t “feminine” enough. Thom isn’t exactly what one would call “woke.” He can only conceive of women in restrictive, dehumanizing terms; they must either are be goddesses, whores, or as he put it, “dykes.”

Just as Thom is about to give up on his quest for his perfect female lead, we hear thunderclaps outside. Enter Vanda, played by Jaiden Wirth. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character that she is auditioning for. Trippy, right?

Thom’s play within the play is called Venus in Furs (plural), an adaptation of a novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch’s novel inspired the term “masochism”, and centers around Severin von Kushemski. All Kushemski wants is a goddess to dominate and subjugate him. So here we have Thom, reading the part of Kushemski, and Vanda reading Vanda. This character-nesting-doll dynamic is the springboard from which we dive into the dark blend of comedy and mystery that is Venus in Fur.

In David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” the quest for an ideal female lead leads both an actress (Jaiden Wirth, left) and director (Jeff Giberson) in unexpected directions. Photo: Alicia Turvin.

In her directorial debut with Twilight, Alicia Turvin effectively plays with different levels of sitting, standing, or lying down to communicate shifts in power and status. Under her direction, the actors were clearly given room to explore physicality to communicate subtext and express intention.  

Actress Jaiden Wirth makes many strong physical and vocal choices as Vanda. Her smaller choices get the biggest laughs, such as when she picks her nose, sneezes, or sits down in a funny way. When Wirth coolly snaps into the role of the 18th-century Vanda, her countenance takes on a powerful repose, and her voice deepens so that she is practically unrecognizable.

Giberson takes his time as Thom. In the beginning, his reserve is a ballast in the thunder storm of Vanda’s energy. But when he becomes Kushemski, Giberson shifts from the confident stoicism of a mansplaining playwright, to that of a submissive “quivering pile of feminine jelly.” Giberson is a tall man, which onstage often communicates high status, but as he transitions to Kushemski, he successfully conveys submissiveness and inferiority through his physicality.

Turvin is both set designer and director on this production. The set begins as an unbalanced tableau, with most of the furniture one side of the stage. This imbalance is striking, and dovetails nicely with the imbalance of power between Thom and Vanda at the beginning of the play. As Vanda assumes more power, she rearranges the furniture and fills in the empty space, effectively balancing both the tableau and the power dynamic.

Vanda (Jaiden Wirth, right) rearranges the furniture and the power dynamic in the office of a director and playwright (Jeff Giberson) in “Venus in Fur.” Photo: Alicia Turvin.

There are many layers to Venus in Fur which provoke questions about what this play really wants to be. On one hand it may be an argument against that pyramidic, patriarchal model of theater-making that elevates male playwrights and directors to divinity. On the other hand, maybe it’s about the culture of casting couches.

Maybe it’s just a suspenseful, sexy enigma.

Whatever it is, I promise you, it is not as intimidating as anticipated. It is actually rather straightforward in that the whole thing is a single uninterrupted scene, easy to follow and to enjoy. Twilight’s production of Venus in Fur is an entertaining exercise in theatrical (and sexual) restraint.