THEATER

Isabella Chappell: a good life

Farewell to Portland Civic Theatre's legendary longtime guiding light, who has left the building at 95

Among the many things I remember about Isabella Chappell, the onetime prime minister of Portland theater who died on February 1 at the age of ninety-five, is the antic wit lurking just below her formidable managerial prowess. You could be talking with her about serious stuff – ticket sales, budgets, the need to upgrade facilities at the old Portland Civic Theatre building, the difficulty of selling any show that wasn’t a musical or a comedy or preferably both – and she would rat-a-tat facts and figures and drawbacks and contingencies and possibilities like an economics advisor to the White House. Then, at some point, the edges of her mouth would twitch as an irrepressible thought struck her, something comic and absurd yet also somehow to the point, and she’d giggle and blurt it out. Well, this about sums up the situation, her laughter would suggest, and you would realize that, no matter how tough the situation appeared to be, at some level she was enjoying it.

By the time I met her, in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Isabella had long been established as a significant player, even something of a legend, in the tight circle of Portland theater. She was housemother to the clan, the one who had the knowledge and wisdom and warmth and who knew how to make the decisions and wasn’t afraid to be blunt when being blunt was what was called for. People admired her and loved her and, as several have confessed in the days since her death, were a little in awe of her. She had taken over as general manager of Portland Civic Theatre, at the time the big player in town, in 1969, and steered it straight into the churning cultural waters of the time, protecting its roots in old-fashioned community theater at the same time that she reached out to new voices and more countercultural talents, greenlighting projects by the likes of Storefront Theatre’s Ric Young and others. Comfortable in the West Hills culture that had long supported Civic as its own, she also extended the theater’s reach into rowdier, more proletarian realms.

Isabella Chappell inside Portland Civic Theatre, 1988. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch (American, 1920-2008), gelatin silver print, Bequest of Marian Wood Kolisch, © Portland Art Museum

By the time she announced her retirement in 1984 she had come to seem a civic inevitability, a landmark you might find on a city map. Isabella retiring, I wrote in The Oregonian, “seemed a little like Admiral Hyman Rickover deciding he was going to quit the Navy or Broadway Joe Namath announcing he was giving up on the Big Apple and moving to Omaha. This is no fly-by-night administrator. In a hard-work, low-pay field where people come and go like pop tunes on an AM radio station, Chappell has been an anomaly. She has been at the Civic’s helm for the past 14 years, a long time in the high-burnout field of arts management. ‘Sometimes I think the best preparation I had for running a theater was raising seven kids,’ Chappell said with a laugh during an interview several days ago. There’s nothing like dealing with the squabblings of a big family, she added, to teach the skills a theater manager needs.”

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On the bridge: American true tales

Theatre Diaspora's "Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project" tells six stories of life from the nonwhite side of the national divide

Shareen Jacobs, performing the opening monologue in Theatre Diaspora’s Here On This Bridge: The – Ism Project, takes her audience for a walk on the wild side. The wild side is the sidewalks and streets of Lake Oswego, the small and pretty Portland suburb often cited as Oregon’s safest city to live in, but which, in Josie Seid’s short solo piece Being Me in the Current America, can be very much something else again.

Minutes later, in his own piece See Her Strength, writer/performer Samson Syharath, in the midst of the story of his Laotian-immigrant mother’s fortitude and coming to terms with her new culture and her son’s gayness, lays his head softly for comfort onto Jacobs’ lap. Everything stops: It’s a moment of revelation and grace.

Samson Syharath and Shareen Jacobs in “See Her Strength.” Photo: Alex Haslett

On they roll, these short and telling stories, each its own tale yet all gathering force and strength from their mutuality. Sofia Molina’s firm yet gentle telling of Yasmin Ruvalcaba’s Carmelita, a story of danger and bravery and crossing the Rio Grande to the United States. The tough and sorrowful truth in Dré Slaman’s performance of Heather Raffo’s bone-rattling Lockdown Drills, about slain children and the psychic cost of mass-shooting lockdown drills in America’s schools: “Who grew this boy? This girl?” Shelley B. Shelley’s stubborn, wryly humorous, and sometimes angry performance in Bonnie Ratner and Roberta Hunte’s That Diversity Thing as a black lesbian blue-collar worker who loves her job but not the guff that comes with it: “Twenty years later I still hear that voice. ‘You’re only here because you’re black.’ Or, ‘You’re here because you’re a woman. That’s the only reason you’re here.’” Jane Vogel, in Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, her story of an Asian American woman growing up in rural and mostly white and inhospitable Oregon, and the state and family history of stolen land and incarceration during World War II: “It’s like the harvest was us.”

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DramaWatch: Gunning for understanding

Chapel Theatre Collective's "Friends With Guns" tries to get past the divisive and doctrinaire. Plus: openings at Corrib and Artists Rep.

Jason Glick and Danielle Weathers, artistic leaders of Chapel Theatre Collective, appear to have a keen eye for stage literature. The company’s debut production, Anatomy of a Hug by Kat Ramsburg, paired a dramatically potent premise (a mom, released from prison because she’s dying of cancer, moves in with the daughter she was convicted of trying to kill) with emotionally astute writing.

Opening this weekend, Friends With Guns, by Stephanie Alison Walker (like Ramsburg, a Los Angeles writer), should be even more attention-grabbing. Walker digs into the increasingly heated American debate about gun possession by framing the matter in a personal, easily relatable story — and then letting people’s worst inclinations take over.

Well, at least one person’s worst inclinations.

Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Friends With Guns” is another provocative premiere for the Milwaukie company. Photo: courtesy of Chapel Theatre Collective

Shannon and Leah meet one day at the park and quickly bond over the mutual stresses of parenting and modern life. Leah is confident and comforting, and her husband Danny ticks off every box of impressive yet effortless cool. When Shannon brings her husband Josh to meet them, the warm-and-fuzzy circle of instant friendship is complete: They start making Thanksgiving plans together, and it’s only May.

But then it comes out that Leah and Danny have a blemish on their liberal bona fides: a safe full of firearms locked in the garage. Let’s just say that Josh isn’t cool with this, and complications — ranging from mildly unfortunate to downright ugly — ensue.

The script is tight, bright, smart, funny, engaging. On the page, the characters quickly come alive as the kind of folks you’d probably like. (Glick and Weathers will star alongside Claire Rigsby — who was a minor revelation in The Thanksgiving Play last year at Artists Rep — and Joseph Bertot.) Walker has a handle on a variety of gun-rights/gun-control perspectives and the skill to incorporate them in a way that feels natural to the characters. It’s a terrific piece of writing.

And boy, did it piss me off.

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Silencio Blanco understands that you can do a lot with a little. The Chilean theater group works with silent puppets, simple constructs of paper, chopsticks, and masking tape to tell deeply empathetic stories. Portland audiences will be able to see its work Pescador/Fisherman at Imago Theatre the first two weekends of February as part of Boom Arts’ “Festive Revolutions” season.

Fisherman at work in “Pescador.” Silencio Blanco photo

The group didn’t set out to do puppetry. Co-founders Dominga Gutiérrez and Santiago Tobar were students at the Theater School of the University of Chile and interested in questions of acting and expression. Puppets, they discovered, provided a good way to explore the questions.

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Inside Fertile Ground: Six Tales

Bobby Bermea talks with the creators of "The Undertaking," "Sirens of Coos Bay," "The Tarot Show," "The Bad Hour," "Friends with Guns" and "Hazardous Beauty"

For the past ten years, Fertile Ground has been the most dynamic event of the Portland theater season. For eleven days the city is engulfed in theater that is by turns thrilling, preposterous, fantastic, raw, hilarious, scary, brutal, inconsistent, challenging, and courageous – sometimes all at once. For these eleven days, good or bad, professional or not, polished almost never, audiences encounter theater at its most honest, vital and perhaps even important — or dangerous.

There is the opportunity, at Fertile Ground, to see something magical. There is also a chance to see something that is totally raw and unfinished, or even just bad. And then there are the myriad stages in between. It’s new work. Anything can happen. What Fertile Ground provides is the opportunity to be present at the exact moment that the spell is being cast.


FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL 2019


Few moments in life bridge the gap between the magical and the mundane like the act of creation. Inspiration, where it comes from and why, is a mystery that borders on the supernatural. But getting from inspiration to actualization demands discipline and hard work. Sometimes hard work is encapsulated in the nuts and bolts, the rolling-your-sleeves-up and getting-your-hands-dirty. Other times, hard work can mean recognizing what’s holding you back – and then overcoming it.

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Nehalem Winterfest capitalizes on the coast’s off-season

Festival music ranges from crocodile rock to chamber to jazz. In Cannon Beach and Tillamook, theatrical comedies brighten the dark days

This is the quiet time on the Oregon Coast. The holidays are over, spring break still a ways off, and with the exception of a couple of three-day weekends, there’s not a lot of opportunity for extended bouts of R&R here. While that may not be bad news for locals, for businesses, it can make for some lean stretches. Such was the inspiration last year for the first Nehalem Winterfest.

“In the summer, there are competing interests, you go to the beach, you build bonfires, you go hiking. You do all sorts of things like that,” said Mary Moran, head of the North Coast Recreation District’s Performing Arts Center, where Winterfest performances are held. “You don’t necessarily want to sit inside a theater and listen to music. In the winter, you don’t expect to do outside things so much as inside things. We just decided it’s a great time to have music and concerts, and get people to come to the beach and enjoy themselves.”

It went over so well — with visitors coming from all over Oregon, Washington and beyond — they’re doing again.

The 2nd Annual Nehalem Winterfest kicks off Friday, Feb. 8, with Kate & the Crocodiles. Featuring vocalist Kate Morrison, trumpeter Gavin Bondi, pianist Craig Bidondo, and drummer Brent Follis, the band plays rock originals and covers, jazz, classical, “and other surprises from far and wide.”

“Kate and the Crocodiles are always a good seller here,” Moran said. “Great people, great music and lots of fun to listen to.”

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Dressed for success at Oregon Children’s Theatre

Mo Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: the Rock Experience" puts some pep in the step of a popular kids' story about individuality and courage.

On the surface, the naked mole rat doesn’t seem like a creature with a lot to teach us. But popular children’s author Mo Willems knew better when he wrote the book Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, and then adapted it into a stage musical with music by by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” plays through February 17 at the Newmark Theatre, directed by OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote.

In Willem’s musical, Wilbur (Martin Hernandez), the naked mole rat of the title, discovers he’s a little different. He wants to wear clothes, you see, which is frowned upon in a community (or underground system of tunnels) where no one has ever done that before.

After all, when we are first introduced to the naked mole rat society at the beginning of the show, they are singing the “Naked Rules!” — which includes the lyrics: “Part mole, part rat, totally NAKED!” So, by the time Wilbur belts out “Time to Get Dressed” the show’s second musical number (in which he questions who he is and whether it is okay to be who he wants to be), we all know the rules — and the implication is that Wilbur should too.

Wilbur (Martin Hernandez, at right) is well-suited to defy naked mole rat social norms. Photo: Owen Carey

The themes here are heavy and important, but done in a fun way so that kids get the message — “It’s okay to be different” — without feeling lectured.

All the characters in this show are “naked” mole rats, but don’t worry: It’s all kid-safe fun! They are fully clothed, but in clever costumes (kudos to costume designer Sydney Dufka, wardrobe manager Emily Horton and costume design apprentice Zyla Zody) that let them somehow pass as naked mole rats.

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