THEATER

DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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‘Pipeline’: Looking for space

"He doesn't belong anywhere": Portland Playhouse and Confrontation bring searing life to Dominique Morisseau’s tale of Black identity


By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER


Where is there space for Omari? Not at a wealthy, white private school, where the young Black man at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s heart-rending Pipeline is about to be expelled. (He shoved a teacher who needled him past the breaking point to provide his point of view on Black male violence in Native Son.) Not on YouTube, where a video of Omari’s outburst is going viral, turning him into another Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s savage menace. Not at the inner-city public school where his mother teaches Gwendolyn Brooks to teenagers who pass through metal detectors only to crack each other’s heads on the floor. Not at his father’s place, where strict hierarchy and child support checks keep Omari at bay. Not in his girlfriend’s dorm room, where he’s barred from finding a tender moment before packing his bags. “He doesn’t belong anywhere,” his mother tells the private school board members, pleading with them not to send Omari down the school-to-prison pipeline. “There is no block. No school. No land he can travel without being under suspicion and doubt. No emotion he can carry without being silenced or disciplined. He needed more space to be.”

La’Tevin Alexander and Jasper Howard in “Pipeline” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

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DramaWatch: “James X” marks the spot

Darius Pierce nails a challenging performance in a riveting play for Corrib Theatre. Plus: new awards, new hires, new seasons and new shows.

As the man who calls himself James X moves fretfully around the room, his surroundings offer small clues about his circumstances. His backdrop is a wall of collage, a dense and none-too-orderly assemblage of maps and letters, overlayed here and there with a grimy old piece of clothing, say, or a worn little teddy bear pinned like an insect specimen. But somehow what might be the most banal item in the room comes to seem the most haunting: sitting beneath a bench, unobtrusive, untouched and unremarked upon, a cheap red rubber ball.

The premise for Gerard Mannix Flynn’s James X, receiving a riveting production by Corrib Theatre that closes Sunday, is that James is waiting his turn to speak to the authorities, representatives of the powers of Church and State that have imposed their judgments and punishments on him throughout his life. It’s to be a trial, of sorts, but for once, at long last, James it seems has mustered some amount of clarity and courage that he might turn the tables, that he will be the accuser, not the accused.
And as this middle-aged Irishman unspools a colorful yarn that weaves itself, despite all James’ self-deprecating charm and dark wit, into a relentless torture device, that red rubber ball just sits there in the shadows, a symbol of childhood innocence not so much stolen as never granted at all.

Documentary evidence: Darius Pierce stars in the Corrib Theatre production of James X, a sometimes humorous but mostly harrowing tale of bias and abuse in the Irish child welfare system. Photo: Adam Liberman.

“According to this state file,” James says early on, brandishing one document among the thick sheaf he’s collected, “I was a dangerous person — at three years old!”

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Fertile Ground 2: ‘Dorothy’s Dictionary,’ etc.

In E.M. Lewis's newest play and several others at Portland's new-works festival, the key question is "talking it thru."

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

Talking it Thru

Is there anything unique and compelling about the Portland theater scene? Or is it just a colonial outpost of the New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles theater scene?

Are the stageworks sprouting from Portland stages invasive, non-native species? Foreign species of theater, transplanted to Oregon soil but emotionally native to some faraway physical and social ecology? Evidencing a very different affective ecology from how most Oregonians actually feel about things?

Or is it just the case that . . . things today are so entirely globalized that no emotionally unique ecosystems any longer exist? That “an Oregon voice” is 100-percent irrelevant?

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E.M. Lewis’s “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” from LineStorm Playwrights. Design: Holly Richards

Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis (directed by Dan Kitrosser) is a remarkably tight and precise two-person play. You’ve seen it read at Lakewood Center in Lake Oswego last May, and now again during LineStorm’s noon readings at Fertile Ground.

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Fertile Ground 1: ‘Vortex’ and more

A musical about Tom McCall and his rock festival is a highlight of Portland's new-works fest. The Roosevelts and MLK Jr. show up, too.

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Itch,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Dorothy’s Dictionary.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE, WITH TOM McCALL


You would like to float the idea that the Fertile Ground performance festival, which ended February 9, is not just a way of taking “the pulse of Portland” – of feeling out what is currently on the minds of its creative individuals – but that, more significantly, the festival at its best is a telescope for doing some serious thinking about the future.

It is easy to think of Oregon as always having been a hotbed of environmental concerns & the fight for “sustainability.” Unless your memory travels as far back as the 1960s.

In 1962 there is this reporter doing commentary at KGW radio & TV on issues of the day. One series, titled “Pollution in Paradise,” particularly catches the public’s attention, about the open sewer running right through Portland called the Willamette River.

The name of this reporter is Tom McCall. Four years later he is elected governor of Oregon and uses the office as a bully pulpit: to clean up the WIllamette, to make all Oregon beaches public property, to institute a “bottle bill” to clean up litter and put in place a controlled-growth land-use plan, promote energy conservation instead of more dams, and on. He famously said to tourists something like:

“Please visit Oregon. It’s a beautiful place. But then go home. Don’t move here.”

McCall is the first major state figure to talk about “sustainability,” wanting to protect the livability of your cities and towns, and farm-country and forests. He preached it so passionately and so vociferously that people listened, and it started to become part of the way that Oregonians think about life – right up till the present. Without Tom McCall, Oregon today would be a very different state.

One of McCall’s most significant but most bizarre achievements as governor was the public sponsoring of the 1970 rock festival “Vortex 1: a festival of life” at McIver Park in Estacada. One of the outstanding works at this year’s Fertile Ground festival is the musical Vortex 1, celebrating this event. Book & lyrics by Sue Mach, music by Bill Wadhams, arranged by Reece Marshburn, directed by Allen Nause, and exquisitely acted and sung by the cast of twelve, this play not merely celebrates this unusual public event but analyzes it too, with acuity and no small degree of earned emotion.

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DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.

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Cuddles at CoHo

Fear, intimacy and absurdity collide in the CoHo Productions staging of "The Found Dog Ribbon Dance."

I first heard about Cuddle Con — the Portland cuddling convention — shortly before it debuted in 2015. A classmate in an audio storytelling class was doing a project about the event, and I remember thinking that it sounded glorious. As a single 24-year-old with only a couple close friends and no career, I found the prospect of physical intimacy with even a stranger inviting.

As it turned out, I never attended Cuddle Con, but I have remained fascinated by the concept of professional cuddling. What, I have found myself wondering, does it say about our society that people are literally paying for platonic closeness? Has the numbing isolation induced by social media sundered society that badly? Or does professional cuddling simply represent a solution to the age-old agony of loneliness?

Those questions aren’t answered in CoHo’s production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, which I can safely say is the first play I’ve seen about a professional cuddler. Yet the play is a moving and entertaining meditation on the joy of physical intimacy and the awfulness (for some people) of its absence. Watching it may bring up painful memories of isolation (it did for me). But it also delivers a satisfying brew of truth, wit and catharsis.

Faraway, so close: Clifton Holznagel (from left), Beth Thompson and Tom Mounsey test the boundaries of togetherness in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a play by Reed College alum Dominic Finocchiaro. Photo: Owen Carey.

Directed by Connery MacRae, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance stars Beth Thompson as Norma, a woman who has started a successful cuddling business in her home. Her clients include an emotionally and physically scarred young woman (Deborah Jensen) and an elderly man (Marty Baeudet) who doesn’t speak a word until near the story’s end.

While the play could have worked as a series of vignettes about Norma’s clients, Finocchiaro chooses other narrative paths. He shows us the evolution of Norma’s romance with Norm (Tom Mounsey), a minor YouTube celebrity who works in a coffee shop, and her ongoing quest to find out who owns the dog she recently found (the pooch is played by Clifton Holznagel, who eschews a tail in favor of a black T-shirt that identifies him as a canine).

Norma’s cuddling technique is exemplary — her voice is so soothing that even her trite insistence that her home “is a safe space” becomes seductive. Achieving intimacy in her personal life proves more difficult for her, an irony that becomes a catalyst for a love-work crisis that causes her to question everything that she has devoted her life to.

It’s disappointing that the explanation for Norma’s fear of closeness with anyone besides her clients turns out to be fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s disappointing that the play offers an explanation at all. Making the story of what cuddling means and why it matters about one person’s inner strife distracts from the fascinating question of why human beings are so starved for connection that cuddling has become a viable job.

That oversight bothered me without diminishing my appreciation for the production’s numerous successes, especially Thompson’s performance. Found Dog chronicles the crumbling of Norma’s romance with Norm, which makes her doubt not just whether she’s capable of being part of a relationship but the value of physical intimacy itself. It’s haunting to watch Thompson take Norma on a journey from preaching the gospel of cuddling (“There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need”) to all but renouncing her faith (“I want to believe. But I don’t know anymore”).

Tom Mounsey gets all in a whirl in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Photo: Owen Carey.

The play suggests that while professional cuddling has value, mediated affection has its limits, an idea that Norm embodies. His fame is the result of a peculiar fetish—he films himself dancing to the music of Whitney Houston while wearing a luchador mask and waving a ribbon through the air. He is willing to look ridiculous in front of anonymous internet users, but he refuses to let Norma see him dance, which underlines the inability of both characters to experience togetherness beyond confines of their respective pursuits.

The beauty of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance lies in its portrait of Norma and Norm gradually bumbling beyond those restrictions. In a show-stopping scene, Norm dances to Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” waving his crimson ribbon in a series of dizzying spirals and swirls. It’s a jubilant spectacle, but it’s just the beginning. Because above all, Found Dog is about how for both Norma and Norm, “I want” becomes “I will.”