THEATER

“The Breath of Life”: Boomer regrets

In David Hare's play at Portland Center Stage, Gretchen Corbett and Julia Brothers deal with loss and fear

If I were going to guess (and I suppose I am), I’d suggest that the moment Boomers in the audience will react to most immediately, probably with a snort, comes near the start of the first scene after intermission in David Hare’s 2002 play, “The Breath of Life.”

“The enemies of the bourgeois, isn’t that what we called ourselves?,” asks Madeleine, now in her sixties, still working, and still true to her leftish politics. “And how did it turn out?”

These aren’t real questions. Madeleine continues: “The obituary of my generation. We left no loft unconverted. The revolutionary project: to leave the world a little more chic than we found it. Future historians will write: ‘these are the people who took the world one notch up-market.’”

Julia Brothers, left, and Gretchen Corbett in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Kate Szrom

Right. “We left no loft unconverted.” In Portland we might say, “We invented the Pearl District.” Or: “We planted million dollar condos on North Williams.”

Madeleine and Frances, the only two characters in the play, exchange a few more lines, and then Madeleine again:

“We imagined we were protesting Vietnam. Looking back it seems like some us were protesting their own future. A rare moment of prescience. A short carnival of revolt before the long luxury of self-improvement. Five years of protest. Thirty of acquiescence.”

This is Hare at his best, really. Sharp, acerbic, funny, keen to the dilemmas of his generation (which also happens to be mine), of the failures of politics, religion, the American empire, and then the wreckage of regret they, we, have left behind. Other Hare plays may be more satisfying as a whole—maybe “Plenty,” “Racing Demon” or “Skylight”—but “The Breath of Life” is a nicely concentrated dose of Hare. (He’s also good at thrillers: “Collateral” on Netflix is a fine case in point.)

Although the production of “The Breath of Life” at Portland Center Stage was disrupted right before opening night when Sharonlee McLean, who was set to play Frances, dropped out of the show, it has found sure footing with Julia Brothers, who is now starring alongside Gretchen Corbett’s Madeleine.

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At its best, theater makes magic happen onstage. Fairy tales do the same on the page. So I had high hopes for a pair of short-run May Portland theater productions that updated magical children’s tales. Unfortunately, while each provided sporadic moments of stage sorcery, neither could overcome decidedly un-enchanting scripts.

Mermaid Meets Music Man

Portland indie theater company Broken Planetarium specializes in cheerfully low budget enchantment. (“We’re trying to get beyond ‘scrappy,’ impresaria Laura Dunn noted in a quick pre-show fundraising appeal.) Its fabulous Atlantis made rough magic from cheekily low-fi design, a compelling story set on a post-climate catastrophe flooded New York City rooftop, and Dunn’s delightful original folk songs.

Laura Christina Dunn in ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo: Sophia Diaz.

BP’s latest show, Sirens of Coos Bay, takes H.C. Andersen’s ever-popular The Little Mermaid to the 1990s southern Oregon coast town, where the curious creature from the deep (“I want stories I have never known,” LM sings at the outset) encounters a local rock band whose frontman must fall in love with her if she’s to survive on dry land. 

Scriptwriter Dunn draws on her immigrant mother’s memories of the setting’s time and place to weave in evocative details about the timber wars, spotted owl, economic decline. Torn between the bickering boys in the land band, on one fin, and on the other, a female a cappella chorus of fellow mermaids who can’t understand why she’d give up undersea immortality, she also confronts her lover’s own demons, depression and addiction induced by his hometown’s sense of isolation and limited horizons.

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Once more, into the thicket

Broadway Rose makes musical magic with the tragedy and song of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

What if the prince who Cinderella married turned out to be a philanderer? What if Jack’s war on giants didn’t end after he came down the beanstalk? What if Rapunzel suffered from PTSD and couldn’t enjoy her happily ever after? Those are some of the seductively perverse questions explored in Stephen Sondheim’s justly legendary 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which has been brought to poignant, vibrant life in a new production by the Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Into the Woods is a daunting play. It calls for a cast and crew able to make sense of its disparate narrative elements (twisted romance, morbid comedy, haunting tragedy) and get audiences through a few bland songs (“A Very Nice Prince,” “It Takes Two”) that lack the clarity and force of the play’s most iconic musical numbers (“Agony,” “You Are Not Alone”). Those challenges are managed seamlessly by director Jessica Wallenfels and her actors, who have journeyed into the maze of Sondheim’s music (and James Lapine’s book) and emerged with a production that is beautiful, freewheeling, and whole.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose’s Into the Woods. Photo: Liz Wade

Like all enduring works of art, Into the Woods is a vast canvas upon which multiple ideas have been projected. While the play can be taken simply as a cheeky-sad reboot of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, some viewers have deemed it a metaphor for the AIDS crisis—not a stretch, given that its second act revolves around an unstoppable force that kills indiscriminately (in one case, almost immediately after sex).

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PAMTAs: It’s Guys, Dolls, Rock, Scissors

"Guys and Dolls" and the new "Legend of Rock Paper Scissors" take the top trophies at Portland's 2019 musical-theater awards

Broadway Rose’s rollicking revival of Guys and Dolls and Oregon Children’s Theatre’s new musical The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors scored big wins Monday night at the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards. Guys and Dolls took the best-production award for the 2018-19 season, plus outstanding director (Sharon Maroney), music director (Jeffrey Childs) and sound design (Brian K. Moen). Rock Paper Scissors won for outstanding original musical, plus original score (Eric Nordin) and director of an original musical (Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who retires later this year).

PAMTA emcee Darius Pierce with the hardware. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

The award ceremony, in downtown’s Dolores Winningstad Theatre, was presided over by emcee Darius Pierce and PAMTA founder Corey Brunish, the multiple Tony-winning Broadway producer and longtime Portland performer.

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Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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Boom! Big changes as season ends

Boom Arts founder Ruth Wikler takes a top circus job in Montréal; Tracy Cameron Francis takes over as the company's new artistic director

The end of a season is always a moment of transition for a company. But for Boom Arts this year the transition will be much bigger than normal. Company founder Ruth Wikler has announced she is stepping down and taking a position as Director of Circus Programming for TOHU in Montréal, Canada.

Boom Arts’ board has selected Tracy Cameron Francis as the company’s next artistic producer. Francis is a first-generation Egyptian-American director, producer, deviser, dramaturge and educator. She is the festival director of the Cascade Festival of African Film and has worked in greater Portland with Milagro, Corrib, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage and Bag & Baggage, and PICA’s TBA Festival.

Tracy Cameron Francis, Boom Arts’ new leader.

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Garden Wars at The Armory

Two sets of neighbors and a battleground of flowers: Portland Center Stage's "Native Gardens" is an explosive, plant-based satire

Imagine that you’ve just moved to a new home. It has multiple floors, a formidable tree, and a garden that could really be something with a few more blossoms and shrubs. There’s just one problem—the couple in the house next door has been planting flowers on part of your property for years, and they pout and snap whenever you confront them. Why, you wonder, can’t they just admit that it isn’t theirs?

Now picture the other side of the equation. You’ve meticulously cared for those flowers, nourishing them with both love and pesticides. Who are your neighbors to rob you of that pleasure? They just got here! Why can’t they have some compassion? Why can’t they understand?

Paul DeBoy, Anne-Marie Cusson, Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez, and Erick González in Native Gardens. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Add those two perspectives together and you get Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, which has come to Portland Center Stage. It’s a tale of neighborly conflict that, unfortunately, builds up to an implausibly tidy conclusion. Yet it’s still a treat to watch director Melissa Crespo’s cast of outstanding actors tear into Zacarías’ deliciously tart dialogue, bringing their characters to gloriously unlikable life.

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