THEATER

“Bell, Book, & Candle”: bewitched, bothered, bewildered

Bag & Baggage brews up a cauldron of comic fun and theatrical magic but underplays the dark currents of a story about social outsiders.

When I was a kid watching sitcom reruns, I had a major crush on Samantha Stevens, the good witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the long running ‘60s TV series Bewitched. I was even more, er, enchanted by her crazy supernatural family, including Paul Lynde’s goofy Uncle Arthur and Sam’s sly mom, Endora, perfectly overplayed with delicious wink and bite (and glorious caftans) by the great Agnes Moorhead.

Bewitched’s story grew directly from its primary inspiration: British-American playwright John Van Druten’s popular 1950 play Bell, Book and Candle, turned into a smash 1958 film starring sometime Oregonian Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon.  Van Druten’s original, in a spiffy Bag & Baggage production, adds a welcome dose of theatrical magic to this holiday season; it even has a first act set at Christmas, in a stylishly rendered mid-century New York.

The uses of enchantment: Norman Wilson (from left), Jessi Walters and Kymberli Colbourne in the Bag & Baggage production of “Bell, Book & Candle.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Yet I suspect director Scott Palmer shared my infatuation with Samantha’s crazy magical family members because this production portrays them more like the TV show’s zany characters than the nastier counterparts in Van Druten’s play script. Bell Book & Candle isn’t Bewitched, and this production’s direction — however, er, bewitching — sometimes clashes with the darker story Van Druten tells.

Spellbound

When SWF (Single Witch Female) Gillian learns that Shep, a publisher she’s crushing on who moved in to her building recently, is about to marry her childhood school nemesis, Gillian sees her chance for revenge. In the twinkle of a nose (actually a cat-assisted spell), Shep is ensorcelled into unbounded ardor for Gillian.

Complications arrive in the characters of an author who’s investigating witchery for a book, and one of his primary sources, who happens to be Gillian’s decadent brother, Nicky. Fearing Shep, who might publish it, will learn of her witchy powers — and that their love is based on magical rather than mutual attraction — Gillian squares off with Nicky, with his book and her relationship with Shep in the balance. The familiar (to any Bewitched fan) battle between her desire for human love, and her family and heritage, is on.

But BB&C is no frothy sitcom story. Beneath the urban fantasy facade lies a surprisingly deep and occasionally dark drama about family conflict, self-determination, and regret. Can love won under false pretenses ever be real? Gaining traction in the second act, the play proceeds entertainingly and ultimately movingly to provide some hard-earned, and heart-tugging answers in the touching third act. Though it avoids Hallmark sentimentality, BB&C is a holiday gift that resonates today more deeply than much holiday fare.

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DramaWatch: the magic (cloth) of the season

Imago and Michael Curry add bonus content to "ZooZoo." Plus: Tobias Andersen vamps, "Mary Poppins" flies again, and Christmas keeps coming.

Imago Theatre has built much of its reputation on an evolving series of family-friendly mask-theater shows such as the ever-popular ZooZoo, which it brings back for another holiday run through Jan. 6. But after decades presenting that show, its much-lauded predecessor Frogz, and the closely related Biglittlethings, Imago co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle don’t do much with them anymore.

“We don’t really work those shows,” Mouawad says. “We have video to refer to, and a bunch of really seasoned performers who’ve been touring the material, so they put the show back together, get it on its feet, and then Carol and I will just come in and fine tune things.”

That approach seems to work, as the ingeniously anthropomorphized animals and other creatures of ZooZoo continue to brim with recognizable life and relatable humor. But it’s not as if Mouawad and Triffle are sitting around resting on their fluffy, fabricated, polar-bear-sized laurels.

“The Magic Cloth,” shown with “ZooZoo” at Imago Theatre. Photo: courtesy of Imago Theatre.

This run of ZooZoo will include a special bonus feature — “The Magic Cloth,” a new Imago vignette created in collaboration with the master production designer Michael Curry, a Portlander famed for his puppetry, costuming and other work for Broadway’s The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and others.

“It’s very simple,” Mouawad says of the new piece, taking a brief break from tech rehearsals. “A boy and his sister are out playing with their dog. They discover a small black box, and out of it comes a red cloth about six-feet square. It moves magically and it’s mysterious and makes them laugh. It’s clown theater with stage-magic puppetry.”

Simple, of course, is hard to do well. Perhaps that’s especially true for theater predicated largely on design and movement, such as “The Magic Cloth” and the various other mask and costume vignettes in ZooZoo. “This six-minute piece is as much work as any of my other plays, maybe more,” Mouawad says.

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David Mamet, plowing through

Why, in the #me too age, revive tough-guy Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow"? For Asylum Theatre's Jason Manicchia it's the thrill of the language.

David Mamet.

The name evokes images of hard-swearing, fast-talking, testosterone-dripping, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing, scam-running, angry white men spiritually crippled by existential angst and taking it out on everybody they come into contact with, even – or especially – each other. There was an extended moment, lasting some thirty years, when Mamet was the popping, crackling heartbeat of the American theater. His plays were known for tight plots, scintillating dialogue with trademark staccato musicality, and scathing satirical wit.

But the world changed and Mamet didn’t. Or rather, he became even more Mamet than he was before. Something happened, something that had been hovering around the edges of the Mamet legend at least since the incendiary theatrical stacked deck called Oleanna burned its way across the American stage. In the 2000s, Mamet had a very public split with, as he called them, “Brain-Dead Liberals.” That tough-guy, cigar-chomping persona had curdled and hardened into a neo-con. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it in his scathing review of Mamet’s 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, Mamet became “one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason.”

And when, in that book, Mamet apparently states that “Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker,” (italics mine), you begin to see just how unerring Hitchens’ assessment might be.

Brianna Ratterman and Jason Maniccia, sealing the deal. Photo: Gary Norman

So what, if anything, does this prodigiously gifted and deliciously controversial playwright still have to say to 2018 America? Well, the new (old) theatre company Asylum Theatre sought to answer that very question with it’s production of Mamet’s popular and wickedly black comedy, Speed-the-Plow, which is continuing through Dec. 23 at the Shoebox Theatre.

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Talking a blue streak

The powerful "Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue," from the August Wilson Red Door Project, furthers a public conversation about law enforcement and race.

“Ain’t no reason to lie, just me and you right now,” says a 22-year-old black man, standing center stage in only underwear.

His near-naked body slowly disappears as he pulls on black clothing and snaps in and buckles up layers of heavy riot gear. This black man is a police officer. This police officer is confiding something in the audience. Beneath all the modern paramilitary armor, he admits he’s still afraid.

So begins Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue, presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project.

Cop Out is a series of monologues written for and with police officers. It is a companion piece to Hands Up, a piece written by and for African Americans dealing with police profiling.

Cop Out delves into the hidden realities of those men and women whose job it is to exist in the liminal space between order and chaos — realities that involve a tremendous amount of unexpressed trauma and fear.

Julana Torres takes the public to task for its irresponsibility in one of the complex, powerful monologues of “Cop Out.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

Each monologue in Cop Out, directed by Red Door co-founder Kevin Jones, explores the never-ending nuance and complexity of each officer’s experience.

“So I Was Driving Along,” by Andrea Stolowitz, stands out as an especially challenging piece. Victoria Alvarez Chacon plays an off-duty black police officer who takes a wrong exit and gets lost in white suburbia. She is soon pulled over, with her daughter asleep in the back of the car. Tension rises as we hear the audible approach of black boots on concrete and the tapping of a gloved hand on her window. An aggressive light flashes on Chacon, and the first thing she sees, with “telescopic vision”, is the police officer’s hand resting on his gun.

“I’m starting to freak out. I’m a cop, and I’m freaking out. Why is his hand on his gun?,” she asks, as her heartbeat sounds through the speakers.

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Rick Bartow’s spirit inhabits play premiering in Newport

A Portland writer imagines an encounter between the world-renowned artist and three famous poets from whom he drew inspiration

Fourteen years ago, I was reporting a news story when I encountered a man weed-whacking. His back was turned and he wore a headset meant to protect his hearing. Few things are more awkward — and possibly risky — than approaching a stranger who can’t hear you, can’t see you, and has no idea you are there. I managed to get his attention. He greeted me with a smile and, reaching for my hand, introduced himself: Rick Bartow. He invited me inside the family home, offered me a glass of something cold, and introduced me to his wife and child.

Rick Bartow was photographed in 2015, the year before he died, by K.B. Dixon. From Dixon’s book, “Face to Face: 32 Oregon Artists.”

That’s how I met Bartow, an everyday guy who just happened to be a world-renowned artist. In Newport, it seems everyone has a story about Bartow, who died in 2016 at age 69. He was the guy you saw in the gym, jamming at the local café, perusing the library shelves. He was a member of the Northern California Wiyot Tribe, with close ties to the Siletz tribes of the Oregon Coast. He was kind, generous, straightforward, multi-talented, and possessed a certain instinctive wisdom, both enviable and humbling.

Portland writer Merridawn Duckler says her play, “Rick Bartow: In Spirit,” includes projections, songs, and a little bit of dancing.

That’s the man Portland writer Merridawn Duckler set out to portray in her new play Rick Bartow: In Spirit, which concerns an imaginary encounter between Bartow and three writers who inspired him. The play, directed by Marc Maislen, premieres at the Newport Performing Arts Center Dec. 14-16. Tickets are $20 and $25.

Duckler never met Bartow, but describes herself as a “huge fan always.” The path to writing a play based on Bartow’s art is a one-thing-leads-to-another tale, beginning with her work years ago as a writer for Tom Webb at a Portland arts magazine. Duckler went on to write an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Informer; Webb moved to the coast to manage the Newport Visual Arts Center. Bartow had donated a collection of 17 portraits of acclaimed writers to the Newport Public Library, the drawings were subsequently displayed at the Visual Arts Center, where Duckler’s adaption was performed. The conversation — plays, portraits, artists, shows — began and In Spirit was born.

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Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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Craft or art? Who cares? HEATWAVE fiber art is amazing

The show at Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center demonstrates that fabric art is so much more than "just quilts"

I have an embarrassing confession, but that’s actually a good thing, because it goes straight to the heart of an important artistic question that is raised — or perhaps I should say, is powerfully answered — by an exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg.

It’s an occasion for a teachable moment.

“Hot Flash!” A collaboration by Sherri Culver and Mary McLaughlin. Commercial cotton and silk fabrics, threads. Raw edge, fused, machine appliqué; machine quilting; hand embroidery; fabric paint and inks (for eyes). 37 x 35.5 inches. Photo by: Hoddick Photography

HEATWAVE is a themed exhibit produced by High Fiber Diet of the Columbia FiberArts Guild, which has been around for nearly half a century in the Portland area. What I must confess is that when I clicked my way to the page for this exhibition on the center’s website and saw that it’s a show of “art quilts,” I felt … well, a little underwhelmed.

“Oh,” I thought. “Quilts.” A bias that I wasn’t really conscious of was triggered, one perhaps based on distant, faded memories of being bored as a child while my mom took forever in a fabric store. I was mildly disappointed that this exhibition in the Parrish Gallery was just quilts — not painting, or sculpture. Not, well, art.

Sheryl LeBlanc’s “Fire in the Log Yard.” Disperse dyed polyesters, silk chiffon, trupunto. 29.5 x 32.5 inches. “Like a storage of ordinance, I have often wondered what a fire in a full log yard would look like on an extremely hot and dry day … perhaps during a severe drought, when the logs have not been recently sprayed with water.” Photo by: David Bates

Then I went and saw it.

I’ve seen it three or four times now, marching in on each occasion to look specifically at that exhibition, to spend a few more minutes with this piece or that. I am repeatedly drawn to the intense crimson, yellow, and green in Diane English’s Remembrance, which uses the imagery of blooming poppies as a “symbol of remembering those who have passed in the heat of wars.” Sheryl LeBlanc’s Fire in the Log Yard is, quite simply, one of the most extraordinary images I’ve seen in any medium recently.

Detail from “Fire in the Log Yard.” Photo by: Jon Christopher Meyers

The work is astonishing and beautiful and, occasionally, mysterious. One afternoon mid-November I had my 9-year-old son with me. Anything but bored, he ran around the Parrish Gallery, exclaiming, “Look at this one, Daddy!” Then, darting around a corner, “Look at this one!”

Back at home, I dived into a study of the Arts and Crafts movement and, specifically, an inquiry into what I quickly came to regard as an artificial and mostly semantic divide between art and craft, this idea that the two are somehow separate, that “craft” does not rise to the level of “art”. When I suggested to an ArtsWatch editor that he dispatch someone with a deeper background in visual arts to cover the show, which runs through Jan. 5, he kindly advised, basically, I do my job.

“I think there’s some explaining to be done about how people approach it, how it fits into the world of ‘fine’ art, which so often treats it like a stepchild,” he said. He pointed to the historically sexist and even classist attitude about this — one that I, perhaps, had at some level internalized, one that was surely at the root of my “Oh … quilts?” moment. Fabric and other non-painting and sculptural forms are too often seen, somewhat dismissively, he added, as “women’s art” or “folk art.” Or a “craft.”

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