THEATER

‘Revelations’ review: waiting for the end of the world

Fertile Ground reading reveals a funny, promising and ultimately poignant depiction of the last judgment 

By MARIA CHOBAN 

Waiting for the End of the World, Dear Lord!
I sincerely hope you’re coming
‘Cause you really started something!
— Elvis Costello

In grade school, a passel of us would walk to Mrs. Fey’s house every Tuesday after school for her home baked oatmeal cookies… after she fed us a conservative Christian bible-thumping lesson. Portraying God’s grief, wailing like a Greek war widow in a rich Billie Holiday voice, she embarrassed my Greek pantheist soul, which detests maudlin attempts to manipulate human emotion. So how did James Y. Kim make it work?

I saw Kim’s Revelations in a staged reading at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival before I read the script. While the whole thing shoulda been a Wham! Bam! Holy Shit! kinda ride, it did have a gut punch of a climax I did not see coming despite my years with Mrs. Fey. It doesn’t matter whether you’re familiar with Fundamentalist Christianity or if you’re against any hierarchical monotheistic, male portrayal of a Universal Ruler, I think David Loftus (playing the Supreme Being) and Kim totally shocked us and moved us to pity in a performance that felt like Kim mined himself hard to dig up this feeling of grief and — unlike Mrs. Fey — made me feel it!

A scene from ‘Revelations’ at Fertile Ground Festival.

The ride there felt like a slog, though. Five beings are called upon to end the world: Michael and Gabriel – Archangels, an angel representing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the chief Seraphim and John the Revelator are summoned to this committee meeting. No, we are not in hell.

Kim’s character descriptions include:
Michael Male. Archangel. The big swinging dick in heaven.
Seraphim Female. The most powerful angel in heaven. Charming exterior, charred interior.

A contentious committee meeting of five characters (with emphasis on characters as in the two delicious descriptions above), lobbying for their own agendas for how to End The World, should feel like the opening bell of the NY Stock Exchange: Loud, frenetic, Type-AAAA, adrenaline-anxious even if we don’t yet know what’s at stake. This is chamber music, a five-voice Shostakovich Scherzo. Frantic, ominous, perfectly timed, tumbling down. Those kinds of movements require memorization, LOTS of rehearsal to sync up entrances, knowing when to butt in, and practicing practicing practicing until it feels sturdy and repeatable.

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Gambling with ‘Macbeth’

Shaking the Tree's new version of the Scottish Play takes bold and calculated risks. The result is striking, even if they don't all pay off.

If you are a regular theatergoer you’ve probably seen Macbeth. Possibly multiple times. Possibly too many times. But a director with a vision can make a particular production stand out from all the others in your memory. All it takes is some ambition. And Samantha Van Der Merwe is nothing if not ambitious. But if Macbeth teaches us nothing, it’s that ambition can come at a price.

Walking into Shaking the Tree it’s immediately obvious that Van Der Merwe has a strong vision for the show. Instead of filling up her cavernous warehouse space she pulls in, creating an intimate theater-in-the-round. Four huge paper screens intersect in the middle of the white stage, cutting it into quadrants. It’s an immediately intriguing image.

Jamie M. Rae is a Macbeth in blood-red. Photo: Gary Norman

Van Der Merwe’s concept is one out of time and place. It’s that futuristic yet ancient minimalist aesthetic that feels familiar yet oddly alien. Inventive use of lighting and sound do a lot of heavy lifting in this show. There’s almost no furniture or props, and the color palette is black and white with occasional splashes of dark red. The concept embraces the performative, combining nicely with Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy and direct address.

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‘Rosa Red’ and ‘Spellbinders’ reviews: staging history

A pair of Fertile Ground readings show the tricky challenges of using historical characters in contemporary drama

Putting history on stage can be challenging when the figures aren’t well known. Playwrights must provide much historical context, and after months or years of researching their lives, it can be hard to maintain audience perspective. Two of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival plays by Portland writers involving historical figures from the early 20th century smacked into both roadblocks. But with some repairs, both might make fascinating history-inspired dramas.

“This isn’t a historical drama!” cautioned Laura Christina Dunn, the multitalented singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist/ writer at a talkback after a staged Fertile Ground reading of her new Rosa Red at Portland’s My Music. But it turned out that the audience did need to learn more of the basics of the early 20th century socialist/feminist/pacifist Rosa Luxemburg’s eventful life than appeared in this early incarnation of her show. Not just because she’s the title character, or because of her historical importance, but so we can fully understand what’s at stake: destroying capitalism to save humanity, and why it meant so much to her that she was willing to risk her life for it.

Playwright/musician Laura Dunn

At the talkback, at least one audience member said he wasn’t even sure Rosa was a real historical character. She sure was, and a captivating one at that, but the details of her life probably aren’t too familiar to many of today’s Americans. Program notes can provide some background, and the show uses Luxemburg’s own letters to supply more. But because she wrote them from prison, locked up for seditious behavior,  the fiery activist had to use innocuous or coded language, which requires still more explication.

We don’t need need a full biography because Rosa Red isn’t really about its title character. The musical focuses on the dilemma of the recipient of those missives. Sophie Liebknecht is torn between two newborns: her friend Rosa’s revolutionary ardor (shared by Sophie’s husband Karl) for the birth of a new world, and Sophie’s own need to nurture and protect her baby from the repercussions of standing up to state violence, the violence that put Rosa in prison in the first place and ultimately killed her and Karl. Had it not already been taken, Sophie’s Choice might have made an apter title.

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Pride and the need to connect

The performances put the punch into defunkt theatre's "The Pride," which tells two tales of love and pain, half a century apart

By ALIA STEARNS

The small black box theater that houses defunkt theatre welcomes audiences to its production of The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell without fanfare. The simple staging points accurately to a sitting room that does double duty in both 1958 and 2008. It is in no way an impressive backdrop, alive with special flourishes: Instead, it highlights how common the experiences of the three main characters are, and that is what makes the tears flow.

In the opening scene, audiences are introduced to Phillip (Morgan Lee), an estate agent, and his actress-turned-illustrator wife Sylvia (Paige McKinney), who has invited Oliver (Matthew Kern), the author with whom she is working, to meet her husband. As she finishes getting ready, the two men are left to work through tense chitchat, an undercurrent of attraction merely hinted at until, as they exit the flat for dinner, Sylvia comments that she “felt something.” Their storyline follows the relationship between the two men and Sylvia’s understanding of her husband’s desires.

McKinney and Lee in “The Pride.” Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

In a future that alternates with the 1950s narrative are another Phillip, Oliver, and Sylvia. Though they are played by the same actors, the understanding is that they are completely different people, if weighted with the psychic baggage of the ones that came before them. This Oliver is still a writer, a journalist, but rather than the romantic of the 1950s, he is seemingly addicted to having sex with strangers. Phillip, his recent ex, is a photographer. Sylvia, an actress, is his best friend. Whereas the 1950s are predominantly about Phillip and his self-hatred, the 2000s are all about Oliver and his self-hatred.

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4X4 review: quality quartet

PDX Playwrights' Fertile Ground showcase presents diverse selection of short takes

An agitated, hooded man angrily approaches a Transportation Security Administration agent at an airport security station, demanding to know what they’re doing to his son. Violence seems likely to erupt any moment.

That was the arresting opener of Contraband, the opening play in Fertile Ground‘s 4X4: a Collection of One Acts. Produced by PDX Playwrights, the local reading group whose many contributions to the annual showcase of new works amounted to a festival within a festival, the four short one-acts performed at Portland’s Hipbone Studios demonstrated the group’s eclectic variety of theatrical approaches. This creative generator (whose meetings I attend) makes a fine pairing with Fertile Ground’s annual performing arts incubator.

Tom Wiitherspoon and Jonathan Wexler (or is it the other way around?) in ‘Steve and Steve,’ at PDX Playwrights 4×4: A Collection of One Acts. Photo: Charlie Latourette.

As Contraband’s tense encounter continued, a TSA supervisor joined in, until the low-level agent was able to find enough common ground to get the dad conversing instead of confronting. As Karen Polinsky’s play progressed, with the guard mediating between the father and the higher level TSA bureaucrat, we learn that the dad’s obnoxiousness really arises from fear — not just about the incident that landed his son in lockup, but about the boy’s differentness, and more.

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Spotlight on: Robi Arce and The Lost Play

In Milagro's 18th century lost comedy "Astucias por heredar," the director finds a link between today's issues and commedia's craft

Heritage, art, purpose: Robi Arce is a man on fire. These driving passions have merged to make Arce, who is Puerto Rican by birth and a physical theater artist by training, a man on a mission. Very little of anything he says is casual. He knows what he thinks, he knows why he thinks it, and perhaps most importantly, he knows what he plans to do about it all. Arce is very clear: He wants to change the world. “The physical theater work I do is fueled by social justice. I come from a colony. I know what oppression looks like.”

It’s not hard to understand where this serious mien comes from. As you read this, roughly forty percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power following the stumbling U.S. federal and local recovery response to the devastation of last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Arce, that’s a reality that’s personal. His family is still there. When he’s talking about their plight and he says, “the struggle is real,” there’s not a whiff of irony about it. That’s real talk.

Robi Arce: director, physical theater artist.

His love for his people and his culture is palpable. Time and again Arce, who directed El Teatro Milagro’s current hit Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, talks about how he wants to be the engine behind theater by, for and about the Latino community, particularly the youth. He’s developing curriculum for this explicit purpose, for which he’ll be applying for a grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council. It’s not about excluding other people, he stresses. It’s about helping his own. “I know what the issues we go through back home look like. Being here, it’s a whole different world. I just want to focus on Latinos because I know the struggle, especially in these times, with what we are going through.”

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‘Living Things’ review: animating the everyday

Fertile Ground musical finds magic in unexpected places

Not all the characters in Archie Washington’s enchanting new musical Living Things are, strictly speaking, alive. Carnival bowling pins that get knocked over and set back up again over and over; components of a science fair rocket; a robot Mars lander and its orbital companion; a decommissioned rocking horse in a doomed shopping mall— all have speaking roles in this charming six-episode anthology, as do other creatures not generally understood by humans to be conversational: a fly, a moth, a butterfly, a potted plant.

Yet in Washington’s unbounded imagination, all those objects, animate and otherwise, have something to say, and plenty to feel. Even in the preliminary version showcased last month at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival,  Living Things magically takes us back to when we were kids and we imagined what everything around us— animals, plants, toys— might be saying or thinking or feeling. Some of us still do that, even after we’ve grown up, though not as often as we probably should.

Jenna Yokoyama, Sean Dodder, Netty McKenzie, Camille Trinka, Zachary Johnsen in ‘Living Things.’

A moth unexpectedly finds himself attracted to an injured butterfly, even though he can’t quite figure out what she is. “It’s Always the Pretty Ones,” sings the horny moth’s friend, warning him against getting too close, but he can’t help it.

That story’s resolution needs a little more action to believably motivate the moth’s final act of generosity, and in a later episode, I had trouble understanding the carnival bowling pins’ escape plan. Most of the episodes could stand a bit of trimming (none run longer than about 10 minutes or so), especially a short-lived housefly’s near-monologue— the most melancholy and least successful of the lot. Yet despite such minor blemishes, I was captivated by their stories, and I wanted these animate objects to achieve their goals —that’s the magic Washington imbued in them.

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