THEATER

DramaWatch: Fond farewell to an era in Ashland

Reflections on the end of Bill Rauch's tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; plus paranormal happening at CoHo and other Halloween theater treats.

At the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Mother Road, Octavio Solis’ 21st-century response to and continuation of The Grapes of Wrath, actors stand for a moment in a tableau vivant, swathed in dusky, murky light and harrowing sound — the swirling dirge, half howl half moan, of a dust storm. 

Mother Road by Octavio Solis stands as a highlight of the season just ending at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The facile, melodramatic critical response might be to liken the scene to the larger setting of the festival itself, where prosperous stability has looked threatened by environmental damage (encroaching smoke from summer wildfires in the region), economic hardship (losses in revenue due to cancelled shows and the uncertainty of tourists) and social change (a sudden, unrelated, spike in leadership turnover).

But much like Mother Road, which had its world premiere in this just-ending OSF season, faces down hard facts on a journey to joyful, if bittersweet, redemption, so OSF appears to have the heart and fortitude to navigate its ongoing transitions with grace.

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“Amor Añejo”: Into the Beyond, With Pain and Laughter

Milagro's latest Dia de Muertos tale is a magnificent journey to the afterlife.

In Labyrinth of Solitude, the legendary Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes, “Our relationship with death is intimate. More intimate perhaps, than any other people.” Those words echo through Amor Añejo, a Día de Muertos-inspired tale of bereavement and rebirth making its debut at Milagro Theatre. It’s an elegy—and more. The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake.

Love and Death: Yolanda Porter and Ricardo Vazuez in Milagro Theatre’s Amor Anejo. Photo: Russell J Young

Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector (Ricardo Vazquez), a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita (Yolanda Porter). Hector believes that building an altar for Dia de Muertos allows the dead to fleetingly visit the land of the living, yet he can’t bring himself to build an altar for Rosalita because he can’t admit that she is gone. Perversely and poetically, her ability to return depends on whether or not he can acknowledge her absence.

Conceived by director Elizabeth Huffman and developed with the cast in rehearsals, Amor Añejo eschews formulaic plotting in favor of a more naturalistic, anecdotal approach as it reveals the history of Hector and Rosalita’s marriage in flashbacks. Since seeing the play, I’ve found myself dwelling less on character arcs than on details, like the Frog necklace Hector gives Rosalita (a reference to her passion for biology) or Rosalita’s late-in-life lament as she gazes into a mirror (“Where did that sad, middle-aged woman come from?” she wonders aloud).

Plays that span many years risk sacrificing detail for scope. Yet no matter how much time passes in Amor Añejo, you never feel as if we are looking at a vast, indistinct timeline—you feel as if you are flipping through a photo album, partly because much of the play unfolds in intimate scenes that take place at Hector and Rosalita’s dining table.

In one, their son, Paco (Carlos Manzano), is a whining child, complaining that his brother nearly broke his guitar; in another, he is an embittered young man, declaring that he will never attend a music conservatory. The images that signal the passage of time (like the A for anarchy on the back of the older Paco’s black vest) are so specific you never feel as if we are observing the family from afar — you feel as if you are living in their memories, moment to moment.

A dance with the dead in Amor Anejo at Milagro. Photo: Russell J Young

While the play’s flashbacks are a reminder of all that Hector has lost, Amor Añejo doesn’t surrender to the tide of grief. When Rosalita travels from this world to the next, she is greeted by galumphing characters in oversized masks who perform a heavy-footed dance, moving as if they have bricks strapped to their feet. It’s an uproarious sight and its inclusion in a story steeped in anguish makes a statement: that loss and happiness are not separate entities. They are part of a single continuum of feeling and to embrace one is to embrace the other — which is what Hector must do if Rosalita’s spirit is to find peace.

I wish that the play made more of Hector’s struggle. While the moments when he speaks to Rosalita — willing her to be with him, knowing that she is not — are haunting, his inner journey is the one part of the story that seems rushed. But that doesn’t dilute Amor Añejo’s sweet, surreal power. Like so many of Milagro’s plays, it is witty, colorful and impassioned. The idea that the people we lose always watch over us lost its novelty long ago, but Amor Añejo gives new weight to those words. The Rosalita who lingers after death may be a ghost or an imagining, but the play reminds you that one thing matters above all: she exists.

Dani Baldwin forges her own path

As her mentor Stan Foote heads into retirement, Oregon Children's Theatre's Baldwin stays committed to her Young Professionals

It was a surprise when Stan Foote decided to retire as artistic director from Oregon Children’s Theatre, but it wasn’t a shock. Foote, who left in September after 28 years with the company, has been one of the most prominent and respected figures on the Portland theater scene. And though his energy and creativity do not appear to have waned, he decided it was time to change. Dani Baldwin, Foote’s colleague, mentee, fellow-soldier-in-the-trenches and all-around best friend, knew the time was coming, just not so soon.

“He initially said he was going to retire when he was 70,” Baldwin remembers. “That’s three and a half years from now. So that was like, ‘Cool, that’s a great amount of time.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe two and a half years.’ And then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe one and a half years.’ And then it went down to seven months. So, we’ve had seven months to know he’s retiring, which has been kind of a whirlwind and a lot to adjust to in a short amount of time.”

Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.

Whenever as large a presence as Foote leaves a room, the people who were around him are bound to be aware of the void. But Baldwin gets it. “Why wait until you’re 70 to do something new and to explore possibilities?”

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DramaWatch: Tina Packer’s feminine forces of Will

"Women of Will" charts Shakespeare's growth through his portrayals of female characters; Theatre Vertigo peers over the edge; plus shows and more shows.

Since its founding in 2008, Portland Playhouse has yet to stage a full production of a William Shakespeare play, leaning instead on August Wilson and Charles Dickens, and showcasing 21st-century playwriting stars such as Theresa Rebeck and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Yet Shakespeare has played a central role in the company. Two of the company’s founders, Brian and Nikki Weaver, worked together early in their careers at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The educational model the Weavers learned there to work with high school students they’ve since replicated here with the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

The connection bears juicier fruit this fall as the Playhouse presents a show — or rather a series of shows, really — called Women of Will, by the justly acclaimed Shakespeare and Co. founding artistic director Tina Packer. 

British-born actor-director Tina Packer unpacks Shakespeare’s views of women and society in Women of Will. Photo: Kevin Sprague, 2011.

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Go West, young fans

Stumptown Stages’ energetic, exhilarating production of "West Side Story" makes some missteps but still has the moves.

In the most iconic scene from West Side Story, Tony, the show’s neo-Romeo, climbs a ladder to a fire escape where Maria, his Juliet, awaits. By now, it’s an overly familiar moment, but Stumptown Stages’ production of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-scored musical, in the Winningstad Theatre through Oct. 27, injects it with fresh visual life. As Tony (Alexander Trull) ascends toward Maria (Tina Mascaro), lights illuminate his silhouette on a vast backdrop that features a sweeping cityscape. It’s as if Tony’s passion has given him the power to soar among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

West Side Story struts maximalist energy and visual appeal in a production from Stumptown Stages. Photo: Paul Fardig.

That image beautifully taps into the play’s maximalist appeal. Nothing in West Side Story—not love, not friendship, not anger—is small. The production’s director, Patrick Nims, understands that, and while his retelling is occasionally unsteady (especially when it attempts to blunt the accusations of racism leveled at the play), it is also energetic and exciting enough to entice newcomers and charm steadfast fans.

West Side Story almost wasn’t west at all. An early iteration called East Side Story applied the Romeo and Juliet model to a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. Eventually, the title changed and the story was restyled as a tale of turf warfare between between an Anglo gang (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks). When Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks, fall in love at a dance, they face the wrath of both sides.

It’s notable that the title of the play is not Tony and Maria. West Side Story is about a place as much as it is about people. You watch not only to savor the heat generated by its amped-up lovers, but for the privilege of spending time in a gleefully exaggerated version of New York where true love can be ignited with a single look and meaningless grudges are imbued with mythic grandeur.

Alexander Trull as Romeo…er, Tony, and Tina Mascaro as Juliet…no, sorry, Maria, in West Side Story at the Winningstad. Photo: Paul Fardig.

Scenic designer Demetri Pavlatos has tapped into the (very) heightened realism in the play by crafting a set that evolves dramatically. A chain-link fence, for instance, isn’t just a background detail—it’s a living object that can be used as a symbolic barrier between the Jets and the Sharks or as a cage that encircles Tony and Maria, signaling their inevitable doom.

While Pavlatos’ designs are an effective update, the overall production is not. West Side Story has received justifiable criticism for its racist depiction of Puerto Ricans as generic hoodlums, a problem that Nims tries to confront by staging some scenes and songs in Spanish. While the production’s commitment to authenticity is admirable, its lack of subtitles will be frustrating for audiences who don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding what many of the characters are saying means that we become less engaged with their stories, which undercuts the play’s idealistic goal: to reveal the shared humanity on both sides of the Jets-Sharks divide.

This change doesn’t ruin the play. It simply exists alongside the production’s superior creative choices, just as the script’s insensitivities exist alongside its dramatic power. For now, West Side Story isn’t going anywhere—a new film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg will be released in 2020. That may be the moment when many people decide whether the play is ripe for further reinventions or should finally be set aside.


DramaWatch: Lighting the Fuse on Arthur Miller

A fresh look at "A View From the Bridge" highlights a busy theater week that also boasts musicals, Greek epics and scary Halloween treats.

In a drafty, uninsulated warehouse on an autumn night, the temperature can drop faster than you might expect.

But theater folk are a hardy lot. So the cast of A View From the Bridge, the latest production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, simply goes about its work at the start of a recent rehearsal. Actors mill about the cavernous space, running lines and warming up Italian accents. Soon, Rusty Tennant, one of the show’s two co-directors, gathers the performers and outlines a few spatial issues about the set — mostly a large circle of cream-colored carpet and some surrounding chalk lines. During fight call, Tennant adjusts the action so that no one will fall into the small lamps set on the floor around the front edge of the carpet.


“John’s gonna be in a different place, so…,” Tennant says, until lead actor Ernie Lijoi looks up with an absent-minded, “What?”

“I’m so glad that you’re listening to me. Finally,” Tennant replies, to chuckles all around.


“It’s a rare occurrence,” Lijoi says, “so take advantage of it.”

The lawyer Alfieri (Michael J. Teufel, center) counsels a frustrated Eddie Carbone (Ernie Lijoi, right) in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge. Photo: Rusty Tennant

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Once Upon a Time in Dublin

Wondrous music tempers an overstuffed story in Broadway Rose’s "Once."

Rough-edged and exquisite, the 2007 movie musical Once didn’t create a romance—it captured a romance. Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as musicians on a song-fueled odyssey through Dublin, the film had a haunting realism that was deepened by the chemistry of its stars and the subtle storytelling of director John Carney, who often seemed to be filming a real relationship, rather than staging scenes.

The same can’t be said of Once the stage musical. The play (which won several Tony Awards in 2012) clutters the story with clunky melodrama and juvenile jokes, suggesting that book writer Enda Walsh was afraid that for audiences, recreating one of the most touching love stories of the twenty-first century wouldn’t be enough.

Musically engaged: Marissa Neitling and Morgan Hollingsworth in “Once” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

In its production of Once — directed and choreographed by Isaac Lamb — Broadway Rose battles Walsh’s misunderstanding of the movie. Nothing short of cutting half the dialogue and half of the characters could have fully redeemed the play, but the film’s spirit lives on in the performances of Morgan Hollingsworth and Marissa Neitling (as the lead characters, referred to simply as “Guy” and “Girl”), whose musical gifts repeatedly save the show from crumbling under the weight of Walsh’s revisions.

While the film starts in a moody frenzy—with the attempted theft of Guy’s guitar case—the play begins with a packed stage. Eventually, the ensemble falls away and Guy is left playing a tormented tune called “Leave” (the songs are by Hansard and Irglová) to an empty street. Brooding over his ex-girlfriend and his fizzling music career, he decides to abandon his guitar—until, that is, the voice of Girl calls out to him from the audience, offering encouragement and companionship when he needs it most.

Music bridges the cultural gulf between Guy and Girl (he’s Irish, she’s Czech). After a few scenes of chitchat, she’s playing piano and he’s accompanying her on the guitar—and eventually, they assemble a band for a 24-hour album-recording session. Musically and emotionally, they mesh, but Guy is pining for his ex and Girl may reunite with her absent husband. We’re left to wonder if these characters are soulmates who are missing their moment, or if fate has united them simply so they can soothe one another’s spirits as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives.

The film savored that ambiguity. Hansard and Irglová made magic together, but it was a magic awkward enough to raise the possibility that Guy and Girl might be meant for others. The play, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction, cranking up the yearning to grindingly operatic levels, especially in a cringe-worthy scene where Guy desperately begs Girl to move with him to New York.

Even worse is Walsh’s grating sense of humor. Did we really need a satirical subplot involving one member of the band goading another with a goofy, anti-capitalist rant? Or a running gag about a drummer (Dustin Fuentes) drinking too much coffee? Hardly, but that didn’t stop Walsh from cramming them awkwardly into the script.

Cast members of the musical Once at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

But Once is more than the sum of its flaws. While the story has changed, the music remains and the actors perform it with a force that makes it feel new. The play commands your attention whenever a showstopping musical moment arrives, like Hollingsworth exploding with energy during “When Your Mind’s Made Up” (“THERE’S NO POINT TRYING TO CHANGE IT,” he sings/shouts, hammering each syllable).

Once also captures the essence of the creative process. In the film, Guy, Girl and the rest of the band play frisbee on a beach after finishing their album. In a rare change that works, the play keeps the beach, but has the band stare solemnly into the distance while singing an a capella version of the gentle love song “Gold.” It’s a perfect moment because it captures everything the characters feel — the exhaustion and the exhilaration of having been a part of something beautiful.

That scene finds its own identity while honoring what came before. I wish Once did that more often, but I admire Broadway Rose for elevating a flawed play as much as possible. And while Hansard and Irglová are a nearly impossible act to follow, Hollingsworth and Neitling prove themselves to be worthy successors with their tender and ebullient performance of “Falling Slowly,” the film’s most iconic song (it won an Oscar in 2008).

“Take this sinking boat and point it home/We’ve still got time/Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice/You’ve made it now,” they sing. Those words reflect Guy and Girl’s relationship, but they also describe this production’s greatest achievement: it raises its voice above the clamor of the script and, just often enough, points the boat back toward the emotional purity of the original.

“Once” continues through Oct. 27 at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard. Tickets for all remaining performances have sold out.