THEATER

“Small Mouth Sounds”: Things left unsaid

Bess Wohl's play about folks seeking transformation at a silent retreat draws you in but leaves a vague impression.

Quiet has always been a refuge for making sense of our lives. Whether with a short walk, a weekend in the woods, or a meditation practice, it’s sometimes easiest to find ourselves through purposeful stillness. But for some people that’s not enough. They need a lot more quiet; a week’s worth. And those are the people you’ll meet in Artists Rep’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which leans into the silence — though perhaps a bit too much.

Set at a nameless silent retreat, Small Mouth Sounds follows six participants as they attempt to find personal enlightenment, guided only by the ostentatious voice of an unseen guru and their own exasperated gesturing to each other. There’s not much in the way of an introduction to these characters, a few ticks and some simple costuming get across the shorthand of it: There’s a lesbian odd-couple, a swaggering yoga teacher, an anxious underdog, a religious older gentleman, and the standard stereotypical millennial white woman.

A peaceful, not-so-easy feeling: Susannah Mars (from left), Ayanna Berkshire, John San Nicolas, Michael Mendelson, Kelly Godell and Darius Pierce retreat into silence in “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

The retreat environment imposes an intriguing restriction on the show: While there are moments of dialogue, much of Small Mouth Sounds does actually take place in silence. We tend to think of theater as a visual medium, but it’s easy to forget how much heavy lifting dialogue does until its stripped back. As an audience member, this is a show you have to lean into, literally, to make sure you don’t miss any subtle change in countenance or a lingering finger. And a lot happens in these silent moments. It’s a nice reminder of how meaningful touch is between humans and how much vulnerability it takes.

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To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

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Field of Dreams on the Emerald Isle

In "Hurl," Corrib Theater’s new production, an ancient sport becomes a metaphor for today’s struggles over immigration and diversity.

In Corrib Theatre’s Hurl, conflicts over immigration and race literally play out on the pitch of a rural Irish village. Led by the best one-two acting punch I’ve seen so far this season from co-leads Cynthia Shur Petts and Clara-Liis Hillier, it’s a well-timed shot of Irish theater whiskey sent over to warm Americans during our own new ICE Age.

In Irish playwright Charlie O’Neill’s fictional 2003 story, a group of immigrants from far-flung lands (Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Nigeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Argentina, inner-city Dublin), seeking to forge a community spirit,  assemble to play a centuries-old Gaelic sport distantly resembling lacrosse or field hockey. Initially rebuffed and discouraged by Rusty (a sublimely smarmy Petts), a local sports official, they finally manage to persuade a defrocked priest, Lofty (a sharp, unsentimental Hillier) to coach them in a village team that will compete against other community teams in a national amateur league.

At the outset, he’s “banjaxed” (drunk) and they’re disorderly, but if you’ve seen anything from Hoosiers to Bad News Bears and so many others, you pretty much know the standard sports-inspirational story that ensues: motley crew of underdogs takes on the big bad establishment. And you can guess the rest, right up to the climactic Big Game and its Inspirational Halftime Speech.

Teamwork: Wynee Hu (left to right), Falynn Burton, Kenneth Dembo, Clara Liis-Hillier, James Dixon, Alec Lugo, and Heath Hyun Houghton in Corrib Theatre’s “Hurl.” Photo: Adam Liberman

When O’Neill wrote Hurl, his country’s foreign-born population was in the midst of more than tripling to 17 percent, between 1996 and 2011. As a post-show talk back explained, there were important differences between Ireland’s and America’s experiences with recent immigration upsurges. But both there and then, and here and now, recently arrived immigrants sparked resentment from some native-born citizens. Conniving politicians manipulated fears about “differences,” darkly implying that the new arrivals threatened Our Traditional Way of Life — that instead of contributing vitality and diversity to their new home, “They” were somehow taking something away.

Rusty and Lofty respectively represent resistance to and celebration of racial and national diversity. In a brilliantly restrained and subtle performance from Shur Petts, Rusty, who keeps coming back throughout the show like a bad case of head lice, usually keeps the real reasons for the dispute carefully covert. Onstage here as in real life, most racists and nationalists seldom spell out their real reasons for resistance to change. Still, he’s a little too easy to dismiss as one of those backwater racists, not like us urbane good guys. As too many of us have belatedly learned, racism’s reality is less obvious and more pervasive than most of us well-intentioned theater-goers imagine, extending to our own neighborhoods and even assumptions.

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DramaWatch: Building a bigger, broader audience

Portland Center Stage's leaders talk about diversity and inclusion on the stage and in the seats; plus, the rundown on a host of theater openings.

For Cynthia Fuhrman, enthusiasm about Portland Center Stage is part of both her job and her nature. Even so, about a year into her tenure as PCS managing director — and three decades after she helped found the company as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she really is…well…enthusiastic.

“Chris left us in better shape than we’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent interview, referring to longtime artistic director Chris Coleman’s departure earlier this year for a similar post in Denver. “We don’t have any accumulated debt. We have a $3 million mortgage on the building that’s completely manageable; right now, we’re scheduled to pay (it) off in 2029, but that might happen earlier. We have a growing audience. And we have a higher national visibility than we’ve ever had. For all that to be the platform that he hands over to somebody is kind of amazing.”

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

That somebody is Marissa Wolf, who was hired in August as Coleman’s successor and started her job in the company’s picturesque Armory headquarters on Sept. 15. Not long after Wolf’s arrival, I sat down with her and Fuhrman, in separate interviews, for a forthcoming Artslandia article. That piece focuses on the arc of their careers as women in theater who’ve risen to top leadership positions.

But our conversations also included discussion of PCS and the audience growth that Fuhrman mentioned.

Furhman expounded on the topic in response to a question about what results PCS has seen from a Wallace Foundation grant in 2015, part of a nation-wide audience-building initiative.

“It’s always a question of cause and effect, but we have to give some credit to the Wallace grant,” she said. “Over the past three years our audience has grown, between 4,000 and 6,000 tickets annually. Last year we had 132,000 admissions and three years ago we were at 120,000. The move to the Armory 12 years ago brought down the median age of our audience. When I came back to the theater in 2008 our surveys showed that our median age was around 49. That’s dropped to about 45. A lot of our growth has been in the target age range for the grant, which was 30-45.

“The one thing that’s completely obvious is that a year ago we started this new subscription model for people under 35 called the Armory Card. It’s an idea we stole from Steppenwolf (Theatre in Chicago) — a highly reduced discount ticket on a refillable-card model that unbounds you from a lot of the traditional subscription restrictions. We originally ordered 200 from the card supplier, hoping we could sell those in the first year. We sold 700.

“Another big thing tied to the grant is the Northwest Stories series. We’ve produced one of the commissions, Astoria, and have another this season, Crossing Mnisose, but we’ve branded other shows that have that connection — Oregon Trail, Hold These Truths…Those shows have been selling above average, which is nice, but we found during the artistic-director search that it’s really caught other theaters’ eyes nationally.

“We’ve heard the conversations over the years of regional theaters being homogeneous, all doing the plays that were on Broadway last year. But PCS, over the last several years, has not been doing that as much as other theaters are. And that was noticed. Lots of artistic director candidates said, ‘I love that you are doing plays tied to where you live.’”

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Dink’s Terrorgasm of a good time

Spectravagasm's driving passion: "No, no, no, let it out, man. People should be shouting. Art should be making people go crazy.”

Spectravagasm, Portland’s bastard step-child of the stage, is back! Spectravagasm, which is entering its second weekend at the Shoebox Theatre of a late-night run that continues through October 27, is an anarchic blend of theater, music, comedy, commentary, improvisation and audience participation. It’s been around for six years and is the last piece left from the theatrical meteorite that was Portland’s enfant terrible, Post 5 Theatre. This year’s offering is titled Terrorgasm and has absolutely nothing to do with terrorIsm. Spectravagasm’s resident mad scientist, Sam Dinkowitz, was thinking more about the season — Halloween — than about today’s headlines. “My dad asked me why I didn’t call it Horrorgasm and all I could say was, ‘Oh. Good question.’”

The terror in Terrorgasm is not necessarily the typical tropes of horror: werewolves, vampires, flesh-eating zombies and the like. Terrorgasm is about the real-life, everyday horrors as seen though a Halloween lens. “Of course, we’re afraid of turning into a wolf at a full moon or afraid of some demon that sucks your blood out or afraid of the living dead eating your flesh, but on a real, day-to-day basis we’re afraid of getting a ticket, or finding out our girlfriend’s cheating on us, or paying the water bill.” After all, who would you be more scared by if they showed up at your door? The Creature from the Black Lagoon or the IRS? If your answer is the IRS (and for most of those reading this, it is), then Terrorgasm is the show for you.

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The Circus Project stitches together a bigger tent

With this weekend's multimedia show "Change(d) Together," the Circus Project celebrates ten years of bringing circus arts to marginalized communities.

Zoe Stasko is entirely at peace as she winds her body up the black aerial straps suspended from the ceiling. Even as she unravels rapidly downward she emanates centeredness amidst all the momentum. She rolls, twists, and spins in dizzying circles. From below, her creative director, Mizu Desierto, shouts “Find your limit!”. Stasko then holds a dramatic, strenuous pose for an impossible amount of time. She lets her feet find the floor and places her hand over her heart. With a triumphant smile, she finishes a rigorous run through of her newest aerial straps act.

“Yesterday was my first day off in four months,” Stasko says, panting as she makes her way off the rehearsal mat, “but I love it.”

Internationally active aerialist Zoe Stasko returns to her roots with Portland’s the Circus Project in the show “Change(d) Together.” Photo: Isometric Studios.

Zoe Stasko is a jewel in the crown of The Circus Project, an organization that “uses circus arts as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation.” Stasko trained in 2012 as a student in the Circus Project’s Summer Performance Intensive program. She then proceeded to graduate from one of the most prestigious circus schools in the world, Ecole de Cirque de Québec. Now as a professional aerialist, her skills take her from London to Dublin, France to Scandinavia.

But she is back in Portland, ready to debut her new aerial straps act at the Circus Project’s tenth-anniversary celebration: Change(d) Together.

On October 12th and 13th, The Circus Project will convert the Peter Corvallis Warehouse (2204 N. Randolph Ave.), into a “wonderland of trapeze, silks, lyra, ropes, and straps.” The multimedia performance will feature world-class acrobats and aerialists, many who, like Zoe Stasko, got their start in Portland. Students will present stories of individual transformation and Change(d) Together will celebrate the Circus Project’s evolving identity as an organization.

The Circus Project began in 2008, founded by Jenn Cohen, a process psychology therapist and a circus performer herself. The organization’s primary mission was to empower youth experiencing homelessness. After being thrust into the highly disciplined world of circus training, many students transitioned into more stable living situations. The strength, flexibility, self-care, and trust at the core of circus training helped students step on the path to sobriety and higher education.

“Finding strength, stillness, and the courage to train in these ways helps transcend daily conflict and even trauma.” creative director, Mizu Desierto explains, “this training can provide healing in deeper ways than words ever could.”

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Adam Bock tells a true “Life” story

One of Portland Center Stage's favorite playwrights delivers a small, surprising, perspective-shifting play in the Ellen Bye Studio.

“The truth is so hard to find, and it’s almost impossible to hold onto,” says Nate, the protagonist of A Life, a West Coast premiere at Portland Center Stage. The irony, of course, is that he is absolutely right, and thus has found the truth.

Nate (Nat DeWolf) has a great deal of world-weary wisdom to share with the audience – and share he does – as he speaks, alone in his tiny New York City apartment (on a “long long visit to this lonely place”), to those of us gathered in the Ellen Bye Studio at the Armory. It’s unclear to whom he thinks he’s speaking, but I’m not sure that matters.

What does matter is that Nate has a lot to say. “I’m not always great with quiet,” he tells us at one point. And we laugh, because we already know that. We know Nate by this point, after all. We’re friends. He shares his longings, his loneliness, his quirks and worries.

How should we couch this? Nate Martin (played by Nat DeWolf) has a mind as cluttered as his apartment, in Adam Bock’s “A Life.”
Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

DeWolf and playwright Adam Bock give Nate an everyman sensibility. This is a guy you know – maybe even a friend. And his worries of not being able to find anyone to love are real and raw. DeWolf  plays Nate as a bit nervous and jittery, an effect that works once you get past thinking it might be the actor flubbing instead of the character (trust me: it’s the character). This effect is heightened by the cluttered apartment couch and table at the center of the Ellen Bye stage.

DeWolf makes you care deeply for Nate. He’s funny but sad, lonely but picky in love, waiting for his ex’s call but trying to pretend he doesn’t care. He’s so unsure of what he wants that he isn’t even sure what he’s unsure of. We want to see him find someone. We want him to be happy.

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