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.

Going Down in Flames is written by Mankin’s younger brother Danny Mankin, a writer/performer who lives in Portland, and it’s a work of love – a memory piece about their days growing up together, their lifelong friendship, and Joan’s at first barely noticeable slip into the dementia, called FTD, or frontotemporal lobar degeneration, that would take her life in 2015. It worked in a curious way, breaking down social barriers that in Joan’s case often seemed barely visible in the first place: Her clown work was based to a great degree on her gleeful smashing of social norms. A few years earlier she’d told Danny they ought to do a show about a clown who gets dementia: How would people be able to tell? Then the joke became reality.

Going Down in Flames is a quick-clipped show, a little over an hour with no intermission, and it probably could stand a little expansion. Its three-person cast, directed by Angela Van Epps, has a nice simpatico. Schirle, who plays Joan/Queenie with sprawling verve and generous wit, is the founding artistic director of Dell’Arte International, the physical-theater school and company in the woods of Northern California that’s sprinkled graduates across Portland and a lot of other American cities: It’s a pleasure to see her onstage. Michael O’Neill, a Dell’Arte and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College grad, is a robust and wryly comical sad-sack Everyman as Max, the Danny character and narrator; and Jeff Desautels deftly fills a number of roles, among them a dimwitted Angel of Death.

Going Down strikes me as a script still in transition, needing a little rethinking and rearranging to bring out the story’s full potential. Things start slowly, haltingly, as if the story isn’t quite sure how it wants to get going, before eventually picking up steam as we start to see Mankin/Schirl in full performance mode. It’s a tale of a great talent losing its way to disease, but it begins its wandering too soon. One thing that might help immensely would be to open with a scene of Queenie Moon going at it full-throttle, doing her act at her peak, so the audience can see from the start what a fresh and original talent she is. Once that’s established – once the audience is hooked on the character – it could pull back to the intimate, private story, and build to the end.

The lively and circusy costumes, which go a long way to suggesting character, are by Summer Olsson. And any show about clowns needs lots of good props. Laura Loy happily supplies ’em, including one that could hit you right over the head.

Hitting him over the head with the joke: O’Neill as narrator Danny Mankin, Schirle as Danny’s sister/clown Joan Mankin.

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN


Copacetically, another traveling contemporary circus is about to set up tent in Portland. Chicago’s Aloft Circus Arts is on tour and lands at A-WOL Dance Collective for a pair of performances of its show Brave Space on June 22 before hitting the road again. The all-woman troupe, which was created “as an antidote to the horrors of the daily news cycle,” will pull you right into the action, its publicity declares: “(T)he audience becomes a part of the show, sometimes helping to raise the tent, sometimes holding ropes that keep trapeze artists aloft, sometimes standing so close to the performers you can hear their hearts beating.” And it’s intimate: There’s a 100-person limit for each performance.


WHOSE CRITICISM IS IT, ANYWAY?


The New Yorker magazine is replacing its Pulitzer Prize-winning, longtime chief theater critic Hilton Als with a twofer, as Rob Weiner-Kendt writes in American Theatre magazine, and the internet’s been abuzz with consternation. New critics Vinson Cunningham and Alexandra Schwartz, who are interviewed by Weiner-Kendt, don’t have a lot of experience in the theater, and that’s worrying a lot of theater people, who fear the new co-chief critics won’t have the background or experience to speak knowledgeably about what’s happening in the capital of American theater.

Maybe. Maybe not. As Weiner-Kendt points out, they’ve done well in fill-in slots while Als, who’ll continue to write about theater now and again, has been on leave. Experience is great. Even more important: Are they good writers, open to what they’re seeing onstage and willing to connect it to what’s going on in the larger culture? There’ll be a steep learning curve, certainly. But we’re living in an extremely politicized age, and the contemporary theater reflects that: Like the movies and contemporary literature, it’s closely attuned to the life of its times. It’s far less important that you agree with a critic’s arguments or conclusions than that  you feel the essay has engaged you and the performance it’s discussing. If smart writers get into the seams where the stage world and the real world meet, and describe in potent terms what the collision feels like, that’s worth reading. Sometimes a fresh voice from the outside is just what Dr. Chekhov ordered. I say: Let’s see what happens. Could be quite a show.


THEN AGAIN, EXPERIENCE COUNTS


The New Yorker, Part Two: Alex Ross, the magazine’s chief music critic, is one of America’s best arts writers in any discipline, and his essay in the current issue, Antonio Salieri’s Revenge, shows why. Salieri, as you’ll recall, was the bad-guy foil to Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, the face of bitter mediocrity who brings down the rude genius Mozart with a vial of poison. Except he wasn’t, and he didn’t.

Ross is, first, a superbly engaging writer. Second, or tied for first, he has an insatiable curiosity that’s helped him develop an impressive encyclopedia of knowledge about his chosen field: He understands it deeply and broadly. Ross has a knack for teaching you things without ever making it feel didactic: You just follow his mind where it leads, and learn. About Salieri, he writes: “The real man was a more or less benevolent character who energetically involved himself in the musical life of Vienna and taught dozens of composers, including Beethoven and Schubert. … Amid the procession of megalomaniacs, misanthropes, and basket cases who make up the classical pantheon, he seems to have been one of the more likable fellows. Above all, his music is worth hearing. Mozart was a greater composer, but not immeasurably greater.”

Schaffer’s Amadeus is a brilliant play, a wonderfully dramatic contemplation on the gulf between genius and aspiration, but as biography it’s bollocks. So, arguably, are Hamilton and Shakespeare’s Richard III (talk about a guy who got a bad rap) and any number of other fictionalized real-life characters (Macbeth, King Arthur, Daniel Boone) whose made-up lives are accepted as real, or at the least vastly more entertaining, in spite of the evidence. Whenever an actual person’s life is co-opted for fictional purposes, there’s a nervous rub between true and false. Does that mean the fictionalized versions are bad, and should be avoided? No. They’re fictions. Still, it’s good to be reminded of the historical facts of the matter now and again. And to do that, a writer, like Professor Harold Hill, has got to know the territory.


WHAT IS SO RARE AS A PLAY IN JUNE?


Well, maybe not so rare: Quite a few are on the calendar. Some to watch for:

Into the Woods. Broadway Rose rides a good-looking cast into Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale forest in this just-opened revival, which continues through June 30.

Arlington [a love story]. Isaac Lamb directs Third Rail’s third production of a play by Irish writer Enda Walsh, following Penelope and The New Electric Ballroom. Through June 22 at CoHo Theater.

The Legend of Georgia McBride. Triangle Production’s final show of the season stars James Sharinghausen in a comedy about an out-of-work Elvis impersonator who takes a job as a drag queen. He likes it. June 6-26.

Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers. PST’s Urban Tellers series is always worth a look and a listen, and this week’s show at The Old Church is the season finale. Stories might pop up by most anyone from most anywhere: Often they’re told by immigrants; sometimes, maybe, by your next-door neighbor. The tales are usually 10-15 minutes each, and this grouping features Warren McPherson, Penny Walter, Frank Engel, Lynn Fitch, and PST founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard. Friday, June 7.

Ashland outdoor plays. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs on three stages from spring to fall, but for a lot of visitors the big deal is the summer-season openings in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre. This is the weekend: All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, and an adaptation by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The three shows open June 6-8 and play in rotating repertory through the second week in October.

Beirut. Alan Bowne’s stark drama out of the AIDS epidemic years about hard choices and desperate love is back in a revival directed by Andrea White. Mamie Colombero and Joshua Weinstein star as lovers in a barricaded Lower East Side after an epidemic in a sexually repressive future. June 8-22 at the Shoebox Theater.

Solo: An Apprentice Story. Portland Playhouse’s apprentice program, which every year brings talented young performers from across the country to start their professional careers, has sprinkled a lot of good talent into the Portland theater scene. This two-night run of short pieces by this year’s eight-actor group will be June 10-11.

Dealing With Clair. Martin Crimp’s “fierce swipe at pious yuppies” (in The Guardian’s words) returns in a 30th anniversary version updated by the playwright, from the relatively new Public Citizen Theatre, which debuted a couple of years back with Genet’s The Maids, in a translation by Crimp. June 13-30, at Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre, in Cathedral Park Place, St. Johns.

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival. Fuse’s annual spotlight on LGBTQ+ theater features Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, a comedy “about queer people of color by queer people of color,” plus a workshop of Ernie Lejoi’s new musical The Pursuit of Happiness, a guest performance by Original Practice Shakespeare Festival of an Othello centering on queer people of color, and more. June 14-30 at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.

Storm Large’s Crazy Enough. Portland Center Stage brings back the Portland diva (last seen in town helping the Oregon Symphony close its season with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins) for a tenth-anniversary limited run of her wildly popular stage show, which premiered at PCS. The ticket line for this puppy’s going to be eight miles wide, and tickets will be going, going, gone, so get ’em while you can. June 25-30, Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Other Inland Empires. Writer/director Julie Hammond’s “part travelogue, part adventure, and part meditation” was sparked by Hammond’s discovery that the 1950s’ surf-scene queen Gidget was actually the Jewish daughter of Austro-Hungarian refugees. She wondered: “What would happen if a California-born Jew went to Central Europe to learn how to surf?” June 26-30 at Portland Playhouse.

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