THEATER

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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‘God’ lends a hand to Newport theater drive

Ed Asner stars in "God Help Us!," a fundraising political comedy scheduled for August

What started out as a plea for cash has turned into what likely will be the biggest draw at the Newport Performing Arts Center this summer.

It’s a play called God Help Us!,  and playing the title role is the actor with more Emmys — seven — than any other male performer. You may know him best as Lou Grant, the ornery TV news director with a soft spot for Mary. Yep, that would be Ed Asner.

Here’s how it happened.

For the past seven years, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts has been raising money for its seven-phase capital campaign to expand and improve the Newport Performing Arts Center. That campaign is in the final stage, with efforts to transform the former Black Box Theater. The Black Box originally was designed as rehearsal space, morphed into a small theater, and recently was renamed for the late David Ogden Stiers. Improvements totaling $1.6 million will make it a fully functioning theater.

Ed Asner as God judges a debate in purgatory between a former couple — one liberal, one conservative — in the political comedy “God Help Us!”

Charged with figuring out how to raise the money, Andrea Spirtos, capital campaign consultant for the council, got her hands on an extensive resume of Stiers’ work. Stiers was a Newport resident and actor best known for his role as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H.

“It included all the shows he was on,” Spirtos said. “And then I researched each of those shows to find out which episode he was on and which actors would have been filmed with him, including what lines he may have said surrounding his appearance.”

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A blizzard of feeling

Strangers clash during a whiteout in Defunkt's "Brilliant Traces." It's an intoxicating standoff.

Somewhere in Alaska, a woman knocks on a door. It isn’t a polite, casual knock—it’s a thunderous banging that reverberates through your body like the pounding of a war drum. Whoever this woman is, she has channeled all of her fear and rage into that knock, as if to say, “Absorb all that I’m feeling. I dare you.”

That moment makes for a fearsome start to Defunkt Theatre’s production of Brilliant Traces, Cindy Lou Johnson’s 1989 play about two wounded souls finding both solace and anguish during a blizzard. It’s an appealingly volatile, occasionally mechanical play. In the right hands, it has the power to stir and shock. In the wrong hands, it risks devolving into dramatized therapy.

Elizabeth Jackson and Matt Smith in Defunkt’s Brilliant Traces. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Which is why it’s a relief that the play has come to Defunkt. I’ve seen the company take audiences to myriad destinations, from Albert Einstein’s hotel room to an Iowa high school. Yet one thing has never changed: Defunkt’s plays are always driven by explosive emotions and sublime imagery. Brilliant Traces continues that impressive tradition by unleashing two thrillingly in-your-face performances on a set so evocatively wintry that it nearly makes you shiver.

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PAMTAs: and the nominees are …

Portland's musical theater awards gala will be Monday, June 3, in the Winningstad Theatre. Here are the nominees.

Broadway Rose’s Guys and Dolls and Mamma Mia!, Portland Playhouse’s Crowns, Stumptown Stage’s Urinetown, and Triangle Productions’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch lead the nominations for this year’s Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards, duking it out for the best-production statuette. Each company scored multiple additional nominations.

The 2019 PAMTAs, the 12th annual awards ceremony, will be at 7 p.m. Monday, June 3, in the Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Six special PAMTAs also will be awarded. Admission is free, and with plenty of musical performances and the return of Darius Pierce as master of ceremonies, it promises to be a good party.

Darius Pierce at the 2018 PAMTA ceremony in the Winningstad Theatre. He’ll return as emcee of this year’s gala June 3.

The city’s two major children’s theater companies, Oregon Children’s Theatre and Northwest Children’s Theater and School, fared well in the nominations, each scoring two nominees in the best original musical category – Dinosaurs! and Tenali for NWTC, Shiver and The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors for OCT. Whiskey Dixie took the fifth slot in that category with Whiskey Dixie and the Big Wet Country.

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What’s up, doc? Let me down easy.

Profile Theatre winds up its season with Anna Deavere Smith's deep dive into health care in America. It's a matter of life and breath.

How are you feeling? Been to the doctor lately? How’s your health insurance? Uncovered emergency bills draining your wallet and shooting your blood pressure through the stratosphere? Go to the closest hospital instead of the in-network hospital for that medical emergency, and now you’re stuck with the entire thirty-thousand-dollar bill? Welcome to health care in America.

And welcome to Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable series of linked monologues that are getting a remarkably vivid and engaging performance through June 16 from Profile Theatre. Smith’s play both is and isn’t about such pertinent questions. First produced in 2008 as a solo show performed by its author, Let Me Down Easy predates Obamacare, “death panels,” skyrocketing costs on crucial medications, the relentless right-wing campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and leave millions with no coverage at all, the state-by-state assault on abortion and reproductive rights, and the rising rebellion against private insurance companies and demand for single-payer health coverage.

Vana O’Brien as Texas Governor Ann Richards. Photo: Brud Giles

In a political sense, then, Smith’s play is last decade’s news. And yet it still feels fresh and up-to-date, because it’s less an agitprop play about specific policies than an inquisitive investigation into people’s attitudes toward life and death and the ways we think about what a healthy life means. In one way or another each of the twenty-odd characters in Let Me Down Easy is dealing with questions of mortality. As James H. Cone, a minister, puts it in the opening monologue: “Let. Me. Down. Easy. Those are words of a broken heart.”

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