THEATER

Theater news: Artists Rep prepares for another leap

Artists Rep has big plans for keeping its theater space in downtown Portland in downtown Portland—a two-theater complex with room for its ArtsHub partners.

Artists Repertory Theatre hired J.S. May to be its executive director less than six months ago, and he and his board are already about to make a big move—a $10 million-plus capital campaign that will redesign and renovate its building on Southwest Morrison Street.

Just looking at the recent financial history of the company, that qualifies as “jaw-dropping.” Since November 2017, the company has: 1) incurred a $309,000 lien from the IRS on unpaid payroll taxes, 2) parted ways with previous executive director Sarah Horton, 3) announced the sale of half its property at 1515 SW Morrison St. to a Texas-based real estate company, which will develop it into a 22-story residential tower (the sale closes on June 1, May says), 4) received an anonymous donation worth $7.1 million, and 5) notched another $500,000 donation that it needed to help shore up the half of the property the company will retain, a requirement of the sale.

The building concept by Lever Architecture for the proposed renovation of Artists Repertory Theatre/Courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

The influx of money resolved the IRS problem, paid off the mortgage on the building, and covered some substantial bills and debts the company had accrued. Did it also tap out the company’s likeliest donors for the capital campaign? May seemed pretty confident about raising the money Artists Rep needs last week when we went over the company’s plans, primarily because of the value proposition: For $10-11 million Artists Rep will be able to build a theater complex worth more than $30-35 million, May said, if you had to buy the land, too. The proceeds of the sale of the half-block has already jump-started the process.

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Building Mozart’s garden

PSU Opera's designers and artisans create a world onstage for the comic "La Finta Giardiniera." Joe Cantrell tells the tale in photographs.

Photographs by JOE CANTRELL

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 18 years old when his opera La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend, or Fake, Gardener) debuted at the Salvatortheater in Munich in 1775. When it opens Friday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall in Portland it’ll feature a cast almost as young, made up of singers in the elite Portland State University Opera program. Under the artistic leadership of onetime New York City Opera star Christine Meadows, PSU Opera has become known for its high-quality, relatively low-cost, professionally designed productions.

The latter is definitely true in the case of La Finta Giardiniera, which is double-cast in seven major roles (“the students have grown incredibly through the experience of preparing Finta,” Meadows says) and will have four performances, April 19, 20, 26, and 28. Its design team is stellar: set by Carey Wong, lighting by Peter West, lavish period costumes by Hadley Yoder, wigs and hair (a major task for this period comic opera) by Jessica Carr and Randy Graff respectively, props by Sumi Wu.

Maeve Stier as the servant Serpetta, surrounded by painterly foliage.

Wong’s ravishing set is dominated in many scenes by a landscape painted on its walls and inspired by Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting, a bucolic painting by Mozart’s near-contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, perhaps best-known for his portrait The Blue Boy. Other scenes take place in a cave, providing a sharp contrast in mood between bright and colorful and dark and forboding.

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DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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Boom update: hold the choir

New York's The Team drops "Failed Superpower" and its community choir from its Boom Arts run in Portland, substitutes a new show

The last show in Boom Arts’ season of “festive revolutions” was set to be New York-based the TEAM’s Primer for a Failed Super Power. But last week Boom announced in a press release that while the TEAM still will be the final artist of the 2018-19 season, Primer for a Failed Super Power will no longer be the show they present. Instead the Team will perform Tomorrow Will Be…, an “interactive evening of song-sharing and community celebration inspired by the TEAM’s choral concert project Primer for a Failed Superpower.”

The Team’s “Primer for a Failed Superpower” in New York. Set to be recreated in Portland with a community choir, it’s being replaced by a new work. The Team photo

The largest difference between the two shows is that Tomorrow Will Be… does not feature a community choir the way Primer for a Failed Super Power did. The new production will debut in Portland, and still involves Portland-based musician and choir director Ben Landsverk. Different guest artists and activists are slated to appear in each of the performances and be followed by a social justice fair.


BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: UPDATE


As part of our ongoing series on Boom’s season, we’ll talk with the TEAM about this new project and how it’s different from Primer for a Failed Super Power. The performance dates and venue remain unchanged, May 10 & 11 at The Old Church, and tickets are available at Boom’s website.

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TJ Acena has been covering Boom Arts’ 2018-19 season from inside and out for Oregon ArtsWatch. His previous pieces in the series:

  1. Boom Arts’ festive revolution. Embarking on a new season of theatrical celebration and social change.
  2. Boom Arts: Puppets from Kiev. From Ukraine, a 10-day dash of song, theater, puppetry and culture.
  3. Penny Arcade, back in town. Boom Arts brings the celebrated performance artist to town for the second time in a year with an old favorite and some new projects.
  4. Boom Arts: the executive chair. New executive director Kamla Hurst talks about planning, risk, and growth.
  5. Boom Arts: The halftime report. Acena looks back on the first half of the 2018-19 season and ahead to what’s still to come.
  6. Boom goes fishing with puppets. “Puppetry is a way of looking at acting,” Dominga Gutiérrez, co-founder of the Chilean troupe Silencio Blanca, tells Acena.

Gigglefest’s mission in McMinnville: Make ’em laugh (again)

After a warm reception last year, producers of the sketch-comedy show promise to take off the gloves this time around

The United States has a long tradition of sketch comedy, with origins in vaudeville and later popularized on radio and eventually on television shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Carol Burnett Show from the 1970s. Ty Boice and Cassandra Schwanke, formerly of Portland’s Post5 Theatre, are keeping the tradition alive in Yamhill County under the banner of Gigglefest, an occasional and limited-run comedy-sketch series that returns Thursday for an April run.

The couple’s Soul of Wit Productions launched Gigglefest last summer with four weekends crammed with more than two dozen performances, with a new “episode” each weekend. Tucked into a makeshift theater in Mac Mead Hall (a “Viking-themed” mead-and-honey-wine bar that hosts game nights and is one of the city’s best-kept secrets) on the second floor of the Union Block building in downtown McMinnville, Gigglefest sold out night after night, winning friendly reviews on Facebook.

Gigglefest 2.ohhh! director Cassandra Schwanke discusses a scene with comic Chad Sharpe before a rehearsal. Photo by: David Bates

Gigglefest 2.ohhh! director Cassandra Schwanke discusses a scene with comic Chad Sharpe before a rehearsal. Photo by: David Bates

It was a strong start, Schwanke told me, but it was also too much.

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Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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Actor Russ Fast, 1947-2019

A memorial gathering for the Portland stage and film actor will be at Milagro Theatre on Saturday, March 30

Russ Fast, who died Feb. 20 at age 71 after a fight with cancer, left a lot of memories for a lot of people across a lot of areas when he moved on. He was a sometime musician – a drummer and backup singer – and made an early name for himself as a tap-dancer and lip-syncher. He was a man of the theater, performing, by his own count, in 143 productions in Portland, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere. He sometimes made his living as an accomplished voice actor, and worked regularly in film: movies, television, commercials, industrials. He directed, and taught acting. And with his friend, the actor B. Joe Medley, and Jeanne Medley he opened Character Actors, one of the first talent agencies in the Pacific Northwest.

Friends, family, and fans will gather from 2 to 4 p.m. next Saturday, March 30, for a celebration of remembrance in his honor at Milagro Theatre, 525 S.E. Stark St., where he once was “privileged to play my lifelong hero, Pablo Neruda,” in Burning Patience, Antonio Skarmeta’s play about the great Chilean poet. It’s open to all. There’ll be a light potluck, and attendees are encouraged to share memories and stories.

Portland actor Russ Fast in three undated photos.

Russell George Fast was born July 19, 1947, in Pasco, Wash., and moved with his family while he was still in school to Portland. He graduated from Grant High School, then attended the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatrical Arts, toured with the school’s children’s theater, worked with the Hollywood Actor’s Group, and moved back north to work with the Director’s Studio in Seattle.

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