MYS Oregon to Iberia

DramaWatch: 52 ways to meet your lover

The heady shuffle of "52 Pick-Up" extends its winning hand. Plus: Good news/bad news in Oregon theater, CoHo Clown Festival, a little Sondheim music, openings and closings.

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Annie Trevisan and Brian Pater in “52 Pick-up.” Photo courtesy 21ten Theatre.

The play 52 Pick-Up, by TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi, gets its name from a formal conceit built around a deck of playing cards. The play is made up of lots of short scenes and the name for each is written on cards, which the actors toss across the stage at the outset. The random order in which they pluck the cards off the floor determines the sequence of the scenes. So “Pick-Up” refers to this process, not to one of the two characters (and you could pretty much choose whichever) picking up the other in a cafe over a bottle of cranberry juice. 

Otherwise, the story might just as well be called 52 Meet-Cute. It’s a common tale of two attractive young folks who happen across each other, tumble into love, then get snagged by the tangles of personalities and unarticulated desires.

And yes, that’s a story, but is that a true story? Or, rather, is that merely one story, among many that might be made from the same elements?

With its fractured and randomized approach, the play, which has just extended its run at 21ten Theatre through Sept. 17, doesn’t just tart up a simple narrative in post-modern garb. It forces audience members to pay attention to how we’re assembling the pieces in our own minds, to consider the ways in which things might have not just seemed but really been different based on different vantage points, to contemplate the limits of logic and intention in any relationship.

“The meaning of a romance is (or was) in the moment,” writes director Gavin Hoffman in a program note, “and one moment does not necessarily lead in a straight line to the next moment, nor to a tidy conclusion of meaning.”

This particular romance is between a man, played by Brian Pater, and a woman, played by Annie Trevisan. Each is effective in a range from suitably adorable to justifiably frustrated, with plenty of fine and mixed shades of ambiguity in between. (Pater, in particular, brings to mind the boyish charm of John Krasinski’s character from The Office.) Hoffman has also added an onstage guitarist, Ben Stormer, whose music provides tender emotional underscoring as well as pleasant cover for the interstitial moments when Pater and Trevisan are setting up props from scene to scene.

The scenes have names such as “Snoring,” “No Point in Calling,” “How Do You Know Her?” Trevisan and Pater take turns, each picking up a card at the end of one brief scene, then calling out the result. Some can make you tense up even before the scene begins, just from the name, such as one called “I Didn’t Say That.”

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Fairly quickly – at least by the order on the night I saw the show – you can figure out that the relationship has come together quickly after the cranberry connection, burned hot for awhile, hit some rough or at least drifting patches, had some stops and starts. Many of the scenes are mere everyday blips – a quick kiss as one partner rushes out the door, say. Others are solo reflections, spoken side by side for poignant and/or comedic contrast. Some are fragments of fights. Even presented in a strict chronology, they make a spotty, impressionistic narrative. With not just time sequence but emotional progressions scrambled, they’re a romance in fractals. Any relationship is ultimately unfathomable from the outside, and sometimes from the inside too; so perhaps this is the closest to a true story. Ambiguity and subjectivity come to seem like the dark matter in the physics of the relationship, invisible and mysterious, yet somehow dominant.

One imagines that the flukes of juxtaposition could make interesting differences from night to night; when I saw the show, for instance, the scene “Second Meeting” was followed immediately by “First Meeting” – a curiously confused meet cute. Similarly, the vagaries of rhythm play a role: lots of short, less substantial scenes fell toward the end of the performance, which I suspect made the overall effect flatter than it otherwise might have been.

But all this makes it sound like more of a philosophical or metatheatrical experiment than it really is, or at least needs to be. It’s quite possible to take it in from a more directly emotional vantage point, and the fluidity of Pater and Trevisan – one moment suspended in bruised ambivalence, another flushed with fresh infatuation or flashing defensive anger – is a pleasure to watch. And if its lingering flavor is bittersweet, it’s also frequently a hoot. (I can’t recall ever laughing so hard just at the appearance of a sweater.)

The show is part of a series from 21ten intended to be spare and portable, ideal for bringing around to various community settings or other small theaters throughout the state. If you’re unable to make it to 21ten this weekend or next, here’s hoping you can pick it up some other time.

Good news/bad news

Jessica Ranville starring in “Where We Belong,” playing through Oct. 15 in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

The latest developments in American theater’s ongoing financial crisis point in opposite directions for two prominent Oregon companies, with some sunshine poking through down in Ashland while clouds darken in Portland. 

Late last week, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it has received a $2 million gift from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation for its 2024 season, and new artistic director Timothy Bond spoke optimistically about the company’s recovery.

“The great news I can tell you is that we are getting a much stronger return of audience this season compared to last season,” Bond told Dave Miller in an interview for the show “Think Out Loud” on OPB. “We think we’re gonna end up with about 15,000 more tickets sold than in 2022. And student groups are coming back. That was a big, big blow for many theaters and OSF as well because when COVID happened, schools shut down field trips and all that. But we’re getting student groups back. We’re gonna have twice as many students this season as we saw last year.”

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Programming plans for next season aren’t yet complete, but Bond suggested that longtime fans will like what they see. “They’re gonna see at least 30% Shakespeare out of a mix of that and some new work and some other classical work. And some of our long-time favorite actors and directors are coming back to do work with us. I think they’re gonna feel a homecoming in many, many ways.” 

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Meanwhile in Portland, Artists Rep continues to work toward its homecoming – with construction  proceeding on its Southwest Alder Street headquarters – but now will be doing so with a skeleton crew. Just a few weeks after announcing the suspension of its 2023-’24 season, the company recently cut several staff positions in order to save money.

“I’m sorry to share that our colleagues Luan Schooler (Director of New Works), Meg Schenk (Development Manager), and Jon Younkin (Data Services Manager) have been laid off,” newly hired managing director Aiyana Cunningham wrote in an email to supporters. “Additionally J.S. May (former Executive Director, current Capital Campaign Director) will be working at a reduced capacity. We are also slimming down operational expenses the best we can.”

In an echo of the emergency that OSF faced earlier this year, Cunningham said that the “blunt truth is that without a significant strategic shift or influx of cash, we are projected to run out of money for basic operations in mid October.”

Opening

“Jouissance: A Movement Piece,” presented by Jordan Kriston and Chenise Crockett, is part of the 2023 CoHo Clown Festival. Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre

Both a tribute to the late, great director/performer/teacher Philip Cuomo and an exercise in community-building – aimed at supporting local artists working in the form, bringing visiting artists to share their work, and attracting new fans and participants – the CoHo Clown Festival returns for its second year. Once again, CoHo Theater plays host to nearly four weeks of “physical comedy, movement arts, humor, and fringe performance.” The opening weekend features Morgan Clark-Gaynor as host and guide for a public participation version of Cuomo’s “clown dance ritual,” a show by veteran mime artist Sule Gurbuz, and the post-partum impressions of a solo show called Anne Zander is MOTHER. 

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From left: Tom Walton, Jane Bement Geesman, Caren Graham, and a dead body
 in the classic comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Lakewood Theatre. Photo: Triumph Photography

“At some time there may have been a funnier murder charade But the supposition is purely academic. For Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”

That was the response of Brooks Atkinson, who spent nearly four decades as theater critic for The New York Times, to the 1941 opening of Arsenic and Old Lace, the charming tale of a pair of very sweet old maids who, as part of their charitable natures, take care of lonely old men with no one to look after them – by serving them their special elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide.

Dusting off the old gem for Lakewood Theatre, director Don Alder gives us Jane Bement Geesman and Caren Graham as the mild-and-murderous aunties, and a cast that also includes such reliable stage veterans as Tom Walton and Melissa Whitney.

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From left: Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Sarah Lucht, and Jayne Stevens in “Old Love, New Love.” Photo: Karmin Tomlinson

Old Love New Love, a play by Laura Brienza, examines faithfulness in relationships (among other matters) through a small constellation of couples. There’s the aging, ailing pair who have met and fallen in love at a memory-care facility; there’s each of those two and their longtime spouses, who have differing responses to the twilight affair; and then there’s the midlife-crisis couple, with the daughter of one of the older marriages confronting her husband’s one-night stand. 

The thematic and emotional potential is rich, and this Clackamas Repertory Theatre production, directed by Karlyn Love, has riches of its own in a cast that features Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Sarah Lucht, Gary Powell, and the company’s executive director, Cyndy Smith-English.

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Matilda, the hit musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale of brave resistance to schoolhouse tyranny, plays the Gallery Theatre in McMinnville, directed by Jennifer Gallegos. (Portland Playhouse will open its own production of the show a month from now.) 

One night only

Meredith Kaye Clark, Susannah Mars, and Stephanie Lynne Smith roll ou an evening of Sondheim songs. Photo courtesy Clackamas Repertory Theatre.

Any unfortunate soul who has yet to discover the musical-theater magic of Stephen Sondheim is encouraged to make that acquaintance through some mutual friends. In Hey Old Friends!, Saturday night at Clackamas Rep, Portland stage favorites Susannah Mars and Meredith Kaye Clark, joined by pianist Stephanie Lynne Smith, perform an evening of the master’s songs, selections from such obscure shows as The Frogs as well as such hits as Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. “Anyone can whistle,” as Sondheim once wrote, but almost no one else can write with such subtle craft and penetrating emotion. 

Reading(s) is/are fundamental

The Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s 2023 New Play Award winner, Bad Babies (A Western Fairy Tale), is the story of “a scurrilous old woman (who) lives on the edge of the desert” with trauma in her past and visitors in her future. The play is the work of one of Portland’s finest actors, Jacklyn Maddux, who stars in this staged reading alongside Deanna Wells and Sean D. Lujan, directed by the revered Allen Nause. 

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Triangle Productions continues its Pride Series, readings of important plays from gay theater over past decades, with Doric Wilson’s Street Theater, which The New York Times has called “a comedic take on the drag queens, the bar owner, a police officer and other characters caught up in the pivotal Stonewall gay-rights uprising of June 1969.”

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The flattened stage (theatrical edition)

The NT Live presentation of Jack Absolute Flies Again – a madcap update of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals – hits the high-definition screen in the Alice Silverman Theatre at the Newport Performing Arts Center. 

Closing

Diane Kondrat in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in an old Victoria’s Secret storefront. Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative.

“Bravura” might not feel like quite the right word to describe the central performance in a play as oblique as Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, a bit of existential musing that splits the difference between the everyday and the otherworldly. But acting technique sometimes is most brilliant in subtlety, and so Diane Kondrat’s work in this Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative production qualifies. Chris Porter, her stage partner here, doesn’t get much time to show his stuff, but look sharp and you’ll appreciate his droll presence as well.

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Meanwhile, the Broadway-based touring production of Tina: the Tina Turner Musical shakes and shimmies its way out of town after Saturday’s performance.

Season’s greetings

Coming, as it did, amid a flurry of bad news about theater companies all around the country, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s announcement in July that it would “pause our Mainstage programming for the fall of 2023” sounded like a dire development.

But, as Jenn Hartmann Luck, OCT’s new producing artistic director, emphasized when I met her shortly thereafter, it really meant cutting just one show from the season. Summer camps, classes, in-school programs, and the work of the teen actors in OCT’s Young Professionals Company all carried on as usual. 

And now, OCT is preparing to hit ‘play’ once again, announcing a promising slate of shows for this winter and spring, in what will be its 35th anniversary season.

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In fact, January will feature two shows from OCT, with a musical adaptation of the beloved bedtime book Goodnight Moon in the Winningstad Theatre and the cosmic rock musical The Lightning Thief just upstairs from there in the Newmark Theatre. In April, Dino-Light blends  technology, puppetry and dance to tell a story that blends science, magic and (this being an all-ages show) a friendly dinosaur. Then, Chelsea Clinton gets into the act (sort of) with an adaptation of her book She Persisted, a show The New York Times lauded as “an exuberant, time-traveling history lesson that instills confidence, too, encouraging girls to listen to their own voices and not be afraid of using them.”

Let’s take off a show!

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” someone once wrote. But now a few more of those players are in the union, as Actors Equity Association becomes the official bargaining representative for dancers employed at the Magic Tavern, a Northwest Portland strip club. A Thursday vote by the National Labor Relations Board – or, more specifically, its Subregional Office 36, in Portland – put the stamp of federal recognition on a June vote by the dancers, who’ve been on strike since April over working conditions, to have Equity negotiate a new contract with their employer.

The flattened stage (home edition)

The best line I read this week

“I abhor the nonsense of ‘audience participation.’ Riots and other communal activities may have their value but must not be confused with dramatic art. Drama must create a factitious spell-binding present moment and imprison the spectator in it. The theatre apes the profound truth that we are extended beings who yet can only exist in the present.”

– from the Iris Murdoch novel The Sea, the Sea.

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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