PPH Passing Strange

DramaWatch: 21ten’s winning ‘Number’

A taut, terrific staging of Caryl Churchill's speculative drama kicks off Portland theater's "second season." Plus: OSF Ashland stars on a new stage; how companies weathered the weather.

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Alex Hurt (left) and Bruce Burkharsmeier in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at 21ten Theatre. Photo: Scott Thompson
Alex Hurt (left) and Bruce Burkharsmeier in Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” at 21ten Theatre. Photo: Scott Thompson

“A twin would be a surprise. But…a number? Any number would be a shock.”

Bernard does seem a bit shocked, but more so puzzled, absorbed in the muddy view of his suddenly more muddled reality. He wants, needs answers.

But is Salter, his father, where he’ll find them?

The core matter is present at the very beginning of A Number, a deeply ruminative yet emotionally potent Caryl Churchill play receiving a taut, terrific staging at 21ten Theatre, and continuing through Feb. 4. Bernard has found out (quite how, we’re never told) that he isn’t Salter’s only offspring, and that in fact – though Salter has raised him as an only child – he is one of “a number” of genetically identical copies. Tentatively, probingly, he begins to question his father, who is by turns unsure, evasive, chagrined, but in any case, quite clearly cornered. 

In successive scenes, this peculiar sci-fi-tinged family drama presents Salter in awkward conversation with one of his, er, genetic successors. Bernard, who we meet first, turns out to be (despite Salter’s initial denials) Bernard 2. The original Bernard is a rougher customer; we have no trouble understanding why Salter might have preferred keeping No. 2 around, but how much Salter’s shoddy parenting of No. 1 is responsible for that son’s menacing character is one of the key questions here. Michael Black, yet another – brother? version? number? – seems like the others in appearance only.

The speculations on the nature vs. nurture debate are obvious, but they’re likely to be jostling in your mind with all manner of thoughts about identity and selfhood, personal integrity and autonomy, authenticity, property, honesty, and so on. Churchill’s play reflects, somewhat, the time of its writing, around 2002, when the cloning of Dolly the sheep had the world agog with variously shaded visions of a melded technological/biological future. These days, AI has knocked cloning aside as our scientific fascination/concern (addressed onstage in plays such as Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, which Artists Rep staged in Portland in 2017). But A Number, which plays out crisply and briskly in just an hour, engages us in deeply personal ways beyond all its intellectual baubles.

For one thing, this is another terrific example from 21ten of powerful theater on a shoestring. The stage set is simple, just a curving white back wall, with a black leather chair and sofa in front. Kristeen Willis’s lighting design subtly sets the tone with muted colors in interstitial moments. The focus is, of course, on the acting, which is fantastic. Bruce Burkhartsmeier as Salter once again displays his remarkable emotional attunement. Thought – well, distress in particular – plays across his face with symphonic complexity and nuance. Everything about his character appears spontaneous, authentic (which in this story of replication and artifice, is especially striking). Alex Hurt, as each of the numbers, so to speak, is a model of physical mutability, from the coiled muscularity of Bernard 1 to the liquid Californian ease of Michael Black (a sanguine American, contrasting his tight-wound British likenesses).

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Directed with fine attention to pace and tension by Michael O’Connell (a founding member of Third Rail Rep), this is just the sort of show to start what’s sometimes called the Second Season – the more serious plays that tend to take over the theatrical calendar after the Christmas folderol. 

Any number might be a shock. But this Number is a welcome jolt.

The flattened stage

Even though it isn’t due until May, 21ten’s next show, a production of Uncle Vanya, already has me excited, because it’s Uncle Vanya! (To my mind, Vanya and Hamlet are neighbors in the very highest precinct of the theatrical firmament.)

With that in mind, it’s never too early to indulge in a little Vanya. Or, in this case, his friend Doctor Astrov:

Weather report 

Maya Malan-Gonzalez' "¡HUELGA!" lost performances to the ice, wind, and snow. But it'll continue with performances through Jan. 27. Photo courtesy Teatro Milagro.
Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ “¡HUELGA!” lost performances to the ice, wind, and snow. But it’ll continue with performances through Jan. 27. Photo courtesy Teatro Milagro.

How might we measure the recent cold snap that fell upon the Northwest (as, indeed, upon most of the country)? By inches of snowfall? Lowest temperature? Thickness of ice on our windshields?
Perhaps, this time, by property damage to theaters. This month’s sudden freeze proved a bitter storm for both Northwest Children’s Theatre and The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, whose respective headquarters and performances schedules took a hit.

From an announcement by NWCT:

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“On the night of January 17, a fire sprinkler burst at the 1000 Broadway Building, resulting in significant damage to The Judy, our new downtown home. The mezzanine, Stage, and Cinema were all flooded, causing damage to the ceilings, walls, and floors. Thankfully, it appears that most of our theatrical equipment and major electrical systems were spared.

“Those spaces now require days of moisture removal and repair, forcing us to close these areas to the public during one of our busiest times of the year.…(W)e are confident we can hold classes and Catalyst auditions as normal in the unaffected areas of the building (the Black Box and Studios were thankfully spared). We are optimistic that the affected spaces will be restored enough to safely resume performances and movies by next weekend, but are still waiting on the final assessment from the repair crew.”

A few days later, the freezing gremlin struck just across the Willamette:

“On Monday morning due to extreme weather here in Portland, a sprinkler pipe burst in The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven — the rehearsal and performance space that houses our in-house productions and which the immersive theatre company Speculative Drama calls home. This dumped a half a block’s worth of sprinkler system directly into our 1000 sqft uninsulated warehouse space, at pressure. Our entire venue and rehearsal space was flooded from the top down. … The long and short of it is that all of our sound and lighting equipment is likely unsalvageable from water and ice damage inside of it.”

Freezing temperatures and hazardous road conditions also led to the cancellation of performances, including some by the Broadway touring production of The Lion King and Milagro’s Huelga! 

Season’s greetings

Henry Woronicz, Denis Arndt, Linda Alper, Dan Donohue, Michael Elich, Robin Goodrin Nordli, Vilma Silva, Michael Hume, K.T. Vogt, Terri McMahon, Robyn Rodriguez …

The names go on, like a roll call of Oregon Shakespeare Festival greats. Except that those names show up now in the 2024 season announcement not from the grand OSF, but the scrappy Rogue Theater Company, which presents its shows in Ashland’s Grizzly Peak Winery.

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Of particular interest should be the readings of the Tracy Letts masterpiece August: Osage County, for just four performances in early May.

Jim Flint gave the exciting season a good overview for the website Ashland News.

Second-hand news

Oregon ArtsWatch is proud and fortunate to have the talented theater professor and journalist Daniel Pollack-Pelzner as an occasional contributor. For one thing, his work always is deeply insightful and a pleasure to read. But we also get a glint of reflected shine when his byline appears in America’s greatest magazine, The New Yorker, where he’s recently placed a terrific profile of Bill Rauch, the former Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director now in charge of the long-awaited Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York’s World Trade Center complex – which has acquired the shorthand nickname PAC NYC.

In addition to providing a strong overview of Rauch’s impactful theater career and a succinct sense of his character (“Rauch has a broad face and eyes that crinkle shut when he smiles, which is often”), the piece delves into the Perelman’s long gestation and the challenge of programming such a high-profile new venue with such a broad mandate. Pollack-Pelzner takes us through some of the flurry of opening performances there: 

“That upbeat inclusiveness was evident again two days later at a concert titled “Playing It Forward: School as Refuge.” The Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza divided the house into three parts and led everyone in a call-and-response number in English, Spanish, and Hebrew: ‘Not different,’ ‘No diferente,’ ‘Lo shonim.’ We were asked to text the name of a favorite teacher to a special number; later, the rapper Common joined Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra onstage and concluded the night with a freestyle refrain, ‘I just wanna be PAC NYC,’ as teachers’ names scrolled behind them. Afterward, in the lobby, Rauch greeted family and old friends from Cornerstone and Oregon. Amrita Ramanan, who had been the literary director at O.S.F. and now directs the new-works program at the Public Theatre, ran up to him. ‘It’s so pluralist! It’s so welcoming! It’s so you!’ she said.”

Opening

Poster of the musical "Newsies,"with music by Alan Mencken, book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics by Jack Feldman, which plays through Feb. 4 in the Brunish Theatre.
The musical “Newsies,”with music by Alan Mencken, book by Harvey Fierstein and lyrics by Jack Feldman, plays through Feb. 4 in the Brunish Theatre.

Twilight Theater matches deep experience with strong material, as Tobias Andersen and Michael Streeter team up as co-directors for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, an investigation of crime and politics by Bertoldt Brecht. 

Metropolitan Performing Arts heads into the Brunish Theatre with the Disney musical Newsies. And in Corvallis, director Arlee Olson whips up a storm for the Majestic Theatre with Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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Readings are fundamental

At 21ten Theatre,  Matt Pavik directs a Sunday-night reading of Shakespeare’s Skull, a comedy by LineStorm Playwrights’ Rich Rubin, which won the 2019 Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award.

Closing

"FRANK: Forever Frank" clowns around for its final show at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, at CoHo Theatre. Photo courtesy of Emily June Newton.
“FRANK: Forever Frank” clowns around for its final show at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, at CoHo Theatre. Photo courtesy of Emily June Newton.

Perhaps you’ve been huddling by the fire and haven’t been out to see a play lately. If your theater schedule requires triage, you may want to prioritize The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, South African artist Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s immersive interactive solo performance about “ the violent and shameful history of ethnological expositions,” the Broadway spectacle of The Lion King, and/or FRANK: Forever Frank, the brilliant clown/comic Emily June Newton’s embodiment of “the Rat Pack’s 17th member” at CoHo Theater.

The best line I read this week

“I also remember him from his work on the nutty Sid and Marty Krofft series LIDSVILLE (1971-73) that was broadcast on Saturday mornings. This show was accused of using frequent drug references, including the very title, and indeed, it was best viewed while stoned. Reilly played a villainous magician, Horatio J. HooDoo, who tormented the protagonist played by Butch Patrick (former Eddie Munster). The Kroffts managed to get ABC to air a kiddy show that takes place in a land of living hats and then deny that it had anything to do with smoking pot.”

– Stephen Rutledge on Charles Nelson Reilly, from #BornThisDay, a series of artist profiles posted to Facebook.

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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One Response

  1. I so enjoy reading your theater columns. Can someone do an article about the Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria. Danyelle Tinker (founder of Twilight Theater in Portland) is doing such great work there.

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