THEATER

‘Much Ado’: Where’s the story?

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Shakespeare's great comedy is glorious to look at. But its big concept gets in the way of the storytelling.

The “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing has multiple meanings. In Shakespeare’s time, as in our own, it could be used to refer to something inconsequential, not worth “noting.” This play asks us: What do we notice in our lives? How does this affect our ability to love and be loved? 

Bag&Baggage’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing presents a lot to take note of: gender-fluid casting, glitzy and glamorous sets, funny props. But in all of its visual splendor, this adaptation seems to overlook what’s most important: the storytelling.

Phillip J. Berns as Bertram and Christian Mitchell as Hero. Photo: Casey Campbell

Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. It follows two pairs of lovers. On one hand, we have Claudio and Hero, the young sweethearts set to get married. Claudio’s insecurities make him easy prey for the machinations of Don John, who sets a trap to make Claudio think Hero is “dishonest” (a.k.a. not a virgin). Then we have Benedick and Beatrice (though in this adaptation Beatrice has been converted to a male Bertram), an older pair of guarded cynics. They don’t want to admit they love each other because that’d require vulnerability. This mix of guardedness and longing makes them easy prey for a trap set by their friends to make them do just that: be vulnerable and accept love. The play is full of funny traps and misunderstandings, and in the end, both couples see through the fog to the truth of their requited love.

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The Madness of Asae Dean

It's a Shakespearean double or nothing – in rep! –for the mastermind of Salt and Sage's "Troilus and Cressida" and "Antony and Cleopatra"

Making art is often a difficult and thankless proposition. Producing theater, in particular, can be even more of both. It follows that for most fringe theater companies, producing either Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra OR his Troilus and Cressida would be an arduous enough undertaking. Tackling both at the same time, as Salt and Sage Productions is doing with a repertory that opens on Friday, would be an epic task of Herculean proportions – maybe even a little crazy.

Salt and Sage artistic director Asae Dean probably wouldn’t even deny the charge. “Theatre is hard work,” she says on her website, “it’s supposed to hurt a bit – you should break a sweat, you should shed a tear – you are doing work that stretches the soul.” 

Asae Dean, double or nothing. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton

IN THE DIGITAL AGE, THEATER IS THE LOWEST RUNG on the pop culture ladder, and Dean is the outsider’s outsider. She’s been knocking on the door for the past seven years and just can’t get in. “I’d be totally lying to you if I didn’t say that it disappoints me that it seems so hard to gain traction in this city,” she admits. Many who have tried to break into the Portland theater scene have found it a tough shell to crack. If you’re trying to break in solely as a director, it can be even more difficult. When you’re on the fringe level, producers either hire themselves or artists whose work they’re familiar with for the spots that do come open.

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Strutting and fretting along the Oregon Coast

Actors take the stage from Newport to Cannon Beach this summer

Theater fans could do worse than to find themselves on the Coast this summer. Performers are taking the stage in multiple venues from Newport to Cannon Beach.

Ed Asner is scheduled to make an appearance as God twice next month in Newport.

Let’s start with a reminder that tickets are still available, but going fast, for God Help Us!, the play starring Emmy-award-winning actor Ed Asner and scheduled for just two performances – Aug. 10 and 11 – at the Newport Performing Arts Center.

Inspired by the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debates of the summer of 2016, the play, written by Samuel Warren Joseph and Phil Proctor, premiered in Chicago last August.  The 90-minute show is described as “a political comedy for our times, and centers on two opposite-leaning pundits who are transported to purgatory by the Supreme Being himself for the purpose of debating today’s political and social issues.”

Asner’s daughter, Liza Asner, is the show’s producer.  Local actors Marc Maislen (New Visions Arts) and Darcy Hogan (Red Octopus Theatre Company) will play the roles of Larry and Randi, politically opposite media pundits who were a couple in college. Students Kylie MacDonald and Cole Theodore play angels.

Tickets are $50 and $75, with proceeds benefiting the Performing Arts Center’s Entertain the Future! Capital Campaign and helping fund renovations to the newly named David Ogden Stiers Theatre, previously known as the Studio or Black Box theater.   

Stay tuned for my planned interview with Asner next week.

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Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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DramaWatch: Drammys for all

This year's Portland theater awards put the spotlight on inclusion. Plus: "Indecent" opens in Ashland, "Wicked" flies back into town.

The annual Drammy Awards ceremony, which celebrates outstanding work in Portland-area theater, is a warm and welcoming event. How welcoming? Well, so much so that, after one acting award was announced, the evening’s host, Carla Rossi, observed, “That is the only instance in which it is acceptable to rise and cheer at the words ‘Nazi sympathizer.’”

Drag clown Carlo Rossi was emcee at an inclusionary Drammy Award ceremony. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Of course, the assembled theater artists and fans at last week’s party at The Armory weren’t cheering a Nazi sympathizer, but rather the portrayal of one, by Michael J. Teufel, who picked up a trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as an unsavory character in Cabaret. Actual Nazis and their sympathizers weren’t among the welcome. As that production of Cabaret, by Fuse Theatre Ensemble, turned into the night’s big winner, acceptance speeches were peppered with what came to seem like the show’s unlikely mantra: “Fuck fascism!”

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DramaWatch: A vintage Storm

Ten years after, Storm Large's short-run revival of "Crazy Enough" blows even stronger. Plus: Drammys Monday, openings, summer tips.

Around 2002 or 2003, not long after Storm Large had moved to Portland and started to establish herself as a local cultural phenom, several friends told me I had to go to the Old Town nightclub Dante’s to hear this amazing rock singer. During those days, I was the staff pop-music critic for The Oregonian, so I dutifully went to see what the buzz was about. Within a couple of minutes I could tell what had people talking: a tall, good-looking woman with a commanding stage presence and a voice as big and pliant as her attitude was bold and defiant.

Yet I wasn’t won over. Her vocal talent and charisma were undeniable. But the brash, bawdy Amazon-sex-goddess persona that had folks howling her praise? Meh, not interested.

Storm Large performs with (L to R) Greg Eklund (Drums) and Matthew Brown (Bass) in Crazy Enough. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

A few years later, in the fall of 2007, she starred in a Portland Center Stage production of Cabaret and I began to take a larger view, you might say. Her vocal chops extended beyond rock’n’roll belting, and she could convey emotional shades that weren’t evident in the bluster of Storm and the Balls. 

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‘Romeo and Juliet’ kicks off summer theater in wine country

Penguin Productions brings Shakespeare's tragedy to the outdoor stage, plus more Bard outdoors in Beaverton, and World Beat Festival in Salem

Penguin Productions was the new kid on Yamhill County’s theater scene just a couple of years ago, mounting productions of Macbeth and As You Like It right out of the gate. Last year, they forged ahead with Hamlet and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. On Friday, the company opens its third season with more Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.

Cambria Herrera will direct "Romeo and Juliet" at Penguin Productions.
Cambria Herrera will direct “Romeo and Juliet” at Penguin Productions. Photo by: Piper Tuor Photography

These are professionals, many of whom have been seasoned on Portland stages in recent years, and for season three we have a couple of George Fox University alums who are doing some heavy lifting for one of Shakespeare’s oft-performed tragedies.

Director Cambria Herrera earned a BA in acting and directing from the Newberg-based Christian college. Recent credits include: Peter/Wendy at Bag&Baggage, The Little Mermaids Project at Enso Theatre Ensemble, Proof at Valley Repertory Theatre, and Balkan Women and Twelfth Night at George Fox. Herrera is also a facilitator/co-founder of the AGE Women of Color in PDX Theatre Collective and serves on the leadership committee for PDX Latinx Pride.

Also from George Fox is Olivia Anderson, who spent a year at the university as an adjunct director for University Players, a traveling, student storytelling-ensemble that tours original shows around the region. She will play Juliet across from Brandon Vilanova’s Romeo. Vilanova hails from the Pacific Conservatory Theatre Professional Acting Training Program and has worked at San Diego Repertory Theatre, San Diego Old Globe Theatre, Santa Maria Pacific Conservatory Theatre, and Bag&Baggage. Stephanie Spencer, who played Ophelia in last year’s Hamlet and Mabel in An Ideal Husband, takes on the coveted role of Mercutio.

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