THEATER

Crazy fun with Pete the Cat

Oregon Children's Theatre's musical version of the popular kids' books is bright and tuneful and a treat for kids and adults alike

“That was kind of crazy. Also kind of funny, right?”

– Pete the Cat (Dave Cole), Pete the Cat: The Musical

Pete himself might as well have been reviewing this lively, fun, infectious musical, the latest from the ambitious Oregon Children’s Theatre, running through Feb. 18 in the Newmark Theatre.

To start its 30th season last October, OCT teamed with six other children’s theater companies around the nation to commission and premiere Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt, an adaption of a popular children’s book series by Megan McDonald. This time around, it’s another ambitious children’s book adaptation – Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat tales – that Artistic Director Stan Foote has been trying to bring to the Portland stage since at least 2014. He finally secured rights to put on this musical adaptation, which was commissioned and developed by New York’s Theatreworks USA.

Pete goes to school and breaks the rule. Photo: Owen Carey

While the storyline doesn’t matter all that much – Pete is forced to try out being a housecat for a week when he’s caught by the cat-catcher, and ends up with the Biddles, where he takes on a mission to inspire second-grader Jimmy (17-year-old actor Jackson Wells) to paint something beautiful to pass art class. What matters is the entertainment, and Pete the Cat and company deliver it in spades.

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Watching Readings

Playreadings and staged readings are endemic in theater. But do audiences really enjoy watching them?

Fertile Ground is springing up about us again, and Portland’s theatrical venues are filled with performances—dance, original drama, comedy, even a couple of premiere musicals, all there to delight audiences.

And then there are the playreadings.

The festival is heavy with new works, and that means that there’s a large dose of play readings and staged readings. The differentiation between the two forms is that you don’t expect more from a reading than some actors, chairs and music stands, while a staged reading can vary from a couple of simple props or costume pieces to some fairly elaborate blocking and tech—which can be indistinguishable from a workshop, which are also featured at Fertile Ground. (This is what happens when artists try to label their own work.)

Both playreadings and staged readings are generally seen as part of the natural trajectory of a script leaving the page and climbing the ladder to a regional theater premiere.

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Spotlight on: E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

As Artists Rep embarks on an epic journey to Antarctica, an Oregon playwright talks about the epic journey that brings her tale to the stage

“Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe, one of those early sea-farers, named everything after either his queen or himself. In very, very old maps, the kind with sea monsters at the bottom, of the period immediately following his circumnavigation of the globe, the whole bottom southern hemisphere is called ‘Magellanica’.”

— E.M. Lewis

When you meet E.M. Lewis, you don’t necessarily think “epic.” She’s more like your favorite librarian, excited about every subject you ask for help on, and and nothing makes her happier than when she recommends a book that you enjoy. She’s friendly, bordering on bubbly, and laughs a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily look at E.M. Lewis and think risk-taker, rule-breaker, fire-starter.

But she is.

Once you start talking to her, you feel it. Simmering underneath, barely contained, sometimes so close to the surface she’s almost shaking, is a drive, a passion, an intensity that is pushing her, pushing her, pushing her. “I’m always a person who has lots of pots bubbling on a stove,” she says, and you not only believe her, you’re also struck by how apt a metaphor that is. This relatively quiet woman would, during the course of our conversation, all of a sudden smack the table with authority to punctuate a story or drive home a point. And that’s when you see it. That’s when you feel it. Epic.

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

Lewis is the author of Magellanica, an ambitious, five-act, five-and-a-half-hour odyssey to the end of the world. In this world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre (it begins previews on Saturday, Jan. 20, opens on Jan. 27, and runs through Feb. 18) eight intrepid trekkers from different nations, different races, and at different stages in their lives’ journeys to the South Pole, ostensibly for science. But for most, if not all of them, the journey is about much more than that. You can be a scientist anywhere. There is a reason why certain people choose to go to the most extreme climate on Earth in their pursuit of knowledge, and that reason can be very, very personal. As Morgan Halsted, Magellanica’s atmospheric scientist, puts it: “No one goes to Antarctica accidentally. … We all have our reasons for being here.” Or, as Lewis says during the course of our conversation: “The more I read about the people who go to Antarctica, the more I began to understand that there are a lot of psychological reasons why people feel the need to go to a place of such great extremity and hardship.” Or, more succinctly: “Sometimes, you need to go far to bring back a piece of yourself.”

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On the run from dystopia

Milagro's new touring show "Bi–" looks to a totalitarian future and blazes a path to the beauty of in-between

The year is 2089. The people of Tierra Plana live orderly lives along strict lines, both figuratively and literally. Walled off from the rest of the world, the xenophobic nation-state has descended into a totalitarian dystopia. The leaders demand order and cultural purity. This is the world Georgina Escobar has created in her new touring show Bi-, which had its world premiere at Milagro Theatre as part of the Fertile Ground Festival.

As a touring show intended mainly for young adult audiences, Bi- is didactic but never feels heavy-handed. The story is fairly simple: The government has instituted a policy of identity bracelets that will neatly categorize the citizens. Four young friends, uncertain about the idea of trying to conform to the strict identities of the state, set out on a journey to find a mysterious underground organization that might offer them freedom.

“Bi–,” and between. Photo: Russell J Young

The idea of boxes and categorization is strong in the show. How strong? Well, the citizens of Tierra Plana are called “squares.” The city itself is composed of hard right angles, represented by lines and boxes taped onstage. The characters shuffle along these narrow pathways, or jump from one platform to the next when inside the city, making great use of the space. There’s a minimal set here but the staging, combined with a Kraftwerk-inspired soundtrack by Lawrence Siulagi, gives the production a futuristic cartoony feeling.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Fertile Ground, Playing Favorites

As Portland's sprawling festival of new performance works begins, A.L. Adams picks her best bets (and weaves in a nonfestival highlight, too)

For YEARS, at multiple publications, I used to compile an overview of Fertile Ground titled “Fertile Ground Speaks for Itself,” wherein quips from the scripts submitted by their authors comprised the entire story, and I just formatted it.

It is, after all, a lowercase-f fringe festival, an uncurated and welcoming workshop space where indeed the pieces DO “speak for themselves.” But now I’m in grad school. And my time to listen is limited. If I go at all, I’ll have to be pre-selective. Hence, I find myself (for the first time) inclined to speak up for particular festival participants whom I’ve already observed doing good work. If your time is limited like mine, here’s my short list of “good risks.”

Nikki Weaver and friends, piecing things together for “Weaving Women Together.” Portland Playhouse photo

Aubrey Jessen’s appeared in many plays at Action/Adventure, portraying everything from a superhero action star to a breathlessly anxious secretary. I didn’t catch her playwrighting debut, Hawthorne, but a Drammy nod suggests it was deft. A speech therapist by trade, Jessen seems even in her improvs like a master of metacognition, with a keen awareness of thoughts-about-thoughts and an aw-shucks persona that makes such musings accessible. I’d deem it worth seeing what she does in Velvet.  It’s a double-header with Autumn Buck’s Sable in the Forest. Phillip Berns—last seen carrying A Christmas Carol solo—is directing Velvet. I could say a lot about Berns, but my opinionated aunt side would rather just pat your arm and exclaim, “He’s very good!”

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Fertile Ground: get set, go

On your mark: Portland's festival of new work, with more than 100 offerings, is ready to roar. Grab your tickets: It's a jumble out there.

It was 5:30 on a blustery Thursday evening – still rush hour in The City That Sometimes Works – and Nicole Lane was busy herding cats. Some of the media people were stuck in traffic and still on their way but they’d be there soon, she announced loudly to the litter of playwrights, producers, actors, and assorted theater people caroming about the byways and bar of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Street lobby.

Then Lane, director of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Work (this year’s begins Thursday and runs eleven days through January 28, in venues scattered across the city) ticked off the rules for this latest version of the festival’s speed-date-the-media night. Scope out the tables. See who you want to talk to. Get in line. When your turn comes be ready to make your pitch, and be quick about it. When the bell rings, your time’s done: Get up, move on to another table, start all over again. Ding!

Milagro’s “Bi–” has its world premiere at Fertile Ground. Photo: Russell J Young

I don’t know what it was like for the theater people as they hustled through their paces, but for me – one of those media types, with a little oblong table to call my own – it was a little like sitting in front of a wind machine taking wave after wave full force. I looked neither left nor right but straight ahead, only glancing down now and again at the succession of press releases and show cards to get my bearings. Who was this, now? What show? Where? When? Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh they went, a succession of mini-conversations, a jumble of scribbled notes, a scramble of unsorted information.

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A lifeline in troubled times

An energetic "Three Sisters" at Northwest Classical and a "Lifeboat" from disaster at Corrib ride the rough waters of a world out of tune

It’s a clumsy thing, this Three Sisters, chafing and halting and bumping into itself, tripping over its own feet, taking pratfalls, landing on all the discordant notes. And that’s a good thing.

Anton Chekhov’s great play, as it’s being performed in the tight little corners of the Shoe Box Theater by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, is all about the clumsiness of the human soul, the way things don’t connect, the abruptness and disconsolation of yearning and desire, the matter of enduring even when life seems unendurable, the way that people seem compelled to snatch unhappiness from happiness’s jaw. Like life itself it’s sometimes funny and sometimes foolish and sometimes heartbreaking, and to get inside such essential truths it takes on a bumptious, jangling rhythm, like a Bartok or Stravinsky or Ornette Coleman score. Things don’t fit – or they do, but not the way you expect – and that’s the glory of it all.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

This production is Patrick Walsh’s baby — he directs and co-produces and adapted Chekhov’s script — and it’s something of a triumph. Chekhov and his great director Stanislavski used to argue about the nature of his plays. They’re comedies, Chekhov insisted. They’re tragedies, Stanislavski replied. Walsh’s production reveals Three Sisters as something beyond both: funny and tragic and existential to its core; a play beyond summation, an immersion in the chaos of life, a place where love is everything and everything isn’t enough.

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