Seattle Repertory Theatre Fat Ham

DramaWatch: A Constitutional question, a howling at the moon, a new-works fest

Portland Center Stage sinks its teeth into "What the Constitution Means to Me"; The Old Church's "Moon Series" goes musical; Chapel Theatre hosts 10 new works; a Wilde "Earnest" & more.

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Rebecca Lingafelter and Andrés Alcalá in "What the Constitution Means to Me" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Rebecca Lingafelter and Andrés Alcalá in “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

The title of Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me, which opens this weekend in a production at Portland Center Stage, is, as most good titles will be, evocative in multiple ways. 

At its most basic level, the play’s title harks back to its early inspiration – speeches that a young Schreck, a native of Wenatchee, Washington, presented in competitions at American Legion halls in order to win money for college. (For more on Schreck’s Northwest connections, see ArtsWatcher Brett Campbell’s thorough backgrounder.) Expressing a personal connection to the foundational document of American government was part of those speeches, as it is part of a play that both recreates Schreck’s teenage enthusiasm and grapples with a current outlook complicated by a grown-up understanding of personal, familial and social history.

And really, it’s those last two words that offer so much possibility, resonance and, well, meaning: “to Me.” What the Constitution means – as a whole or in its many and varied particulars – is a constant, contested issue in American law and politics. Schreck has some opinions in that regard, of course, and so that added “to me” invites pondering how we each interpret the thing. At the same time, it seems to suggest, again, something more emotional; a statement of values that uses the document as a mirror, a reckoning with how we regard the thing.

The Constitution is the flawless blueprint for the shining city on the hill that America has imagined itself to be. Or, perhaps, it is but the crafty plan for a crooked house. Or, in its changeability, it is many things in between.

In 2018, when What the Constitution Means to Me was being staged Off Broadway (in between its initial staging at Berkeley Rep and a 2019 Broadway run that resulted in a Tony nomination for best play and a spot among the Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalists), press coverage often mentioned how timely the play felt, referencing the interpreting/adjudicating role of the Supreme Court and a then-current confirmation fight. Wrote Laura Collins-Hughes in The New York Times: “The night I saw Constitution, a few days after the Senate committee testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett M. Kavanaugh, and before Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the play’s concerns could hardly have felt more viscerally urgent. In the row behind me, a woman wept deep, grieving tears — a kind of crying so suffused with pain that we’re not used to hearing it in public, even in a darkened theater. But this is not an ordinary time.”

According to American Theatre magazine’s annual survey, Schreck’s Constitution will be the most produced play at U.S. theaters this season, with at least 16 productions around the country. Schreck, who also has won acclaim as an actor and a writer for TV, starred in the early productions of What the Constitution Means to Me, but of course isn’t zipping around the country all year for 16 different stagings. At Portland Center Stage, the lead role will be performed by Rebecca Lingafelter, a theater professor at Lewis & Clark College and a founding member of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Lingafelter has been on a tear of remarkably varied yet consistently stellar performances in the past few years. Under the direction of PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf, we should expect more of the sensational same.

No doubt the presidential election set for this fall made What the Constitution Means to Me look timely a year or so ago when all those theater seasons were being planned. Now, as one leading candidate no longer bothers to obscure his threats to Constitutional order as we’ve known it, as many of us have become uncomfortably familiar with the text of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Section 3, the topicality is glaring.

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Collins-Hughes called the play “both winsome love letter to and worried critique of one of the nation’s founding documents.” Central to Schreck’s relationship to the Constitution is her view of its flaws and failures, in particular how its structure and its most prominent concerns reflect (and protect) the interests of landed white men. This shouldn’t be a controversial position (if it is, in its essence, a perfect document, what need could it ever have had for amendments?), but the reactionary reflexes of American exceptionalism are strong. One feature of the play is a show-closing debate, involving a teen stand-in for the younger Schreck (Divine Crane and Alabaster C.K. Richard will alternate in that role at PCS), about whether the Constitution should be repealed and replaced. As Time Out New York wrote of the show, it is “theater in the old sense, the Greek sense, a place where civic society can come together and do its thinking and fixing.” 

That’s fitting, because, as The New Yorker quoted Schreck herself, “the Constitution can be thought of as a boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to find out what it is we really believe.”

One night only

Seattle's Julia Francis, above, joins Portland eminences Susannah Mars and Jessica Wallenfels for an evening of "Howling at the Moon."
Seattle’s Julia Francis, above, joins Portland eminences Susannah Mars and Jessica Wallenfels for an evening of “Howling at the Moon.”

The ongoing “Moon Series” at The Old Church in downtown Portland is music-focused, intended to celebrate “intentional healing through sound, ritual, poetry and creative visuals.” But this Thursday, Jan. 25th’s, installment, Howling Into the Unknown, should be of interest to local theater fans for the involvement of two of the scene’s favorites, the singer and actor Susannah Mars and choreographer-turned-director Jessica Wallenfels. 

Those two have assembled the show with Seattleite Julia Francis, who has moved from careers as actor and singer-songwriter to being a “sound healing practitioner” and workshop facilitator. Wallenfels met Francis at a workshop on Linklater voice technique, a vocal training method for actors, in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. The fellow Northwesterners began looking for ways to work together on group exploration of sound rituals. 

“We slowly started putting this together and then roped Susannah into our coven,” Wallenfels says. Discovering the “Moon Series” gave them a direction.

“Every full moon is associated with a different animal or element or theme,” Francis elaborates. “There are various traditions around the world and for every full moon of the year there are various different names for it within those traditions – the Strawberry Moon, the Harvest Moon, and so on. This moon is known in many circles as the Wolf Moon, to signify the wolf that’s out there in the cold and snow. So we decided to invite participants to imagine their own wolf nature.”

To Mars, the howl of the wolf conjures ideas of resonance (both sonic and emotional) and communication. For all three, the physicality of sound, both when created and received, is an essential element. As Mars puts it, “I’ve known, ever since I started singing, that sound gets inside you and moves your bones around.” Accordingly, they’ve fashioned a show in two parts, which they liken to breath. “The first part is like the inhale, the taking in of the musical, performative part,” Francis says. “The second part is the exhale, where the audience gets to use what they’ve taken in and embodied and then express it together.”

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The show is “a big beautiful experiment for all of us in the moment of it happening,” Wallenfels says. “But I know for sure that Susannah Mars knows how to sing, Julia Francis knows how to sing, and Stephanie Smith knows how to play piano, and they’ve been cooking up a beautiful half of a program.”

Considering recent times, as well as having healing as a raison d’être, they recognized grief as a central subject, and Mars sought out music that “would soften everyone around the edges around the subject of loss,” such as William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag,” Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and “Angel Spread Your Wings,” a Danny O’Keefe song that Mars has long loved in a version by Judy Collins. 

“And then I’m going to offer a chance to breathe, to feel into your body, for the audience,” Wallenfels continues. “And then Julia takes over for the sound ritual,” employing voice and the shimmering resonances of “crystal alchemy bowls” to create an enveloping “sound bath.” In addition to whatever physical or emotional benefits the experience might provide, Francis sees it as offering different ways for people to come together and honor others.

“What we’re talking about here is this space where those we have loved that have passed on have gone. So, to put the wolf imagery aside, howling into the unknown is about how we grieve. So much of our grief happens in isolation. We wanted to provide a safe and playful space to come together and honor those we’ve lost, to take in these beautiful songs but also to make sound together.”

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Mike Birbiglia stops the ride, for one night only, at downtown Portland's Newmark Theatre.
Mike Birbiglia stops the ride, for one night only, at downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

In one of his best-known personal mishaps, Mike Birbiglia inadvertently jumped from a second-story window of a Walla Walla, Washington La Quinta Inn while sleepwalking. Fortunately, Birbiglia is skilled at turning pain into comedy and comedy into art. It’s common for stand-up comedians to be strong storytellers, but not for them to enjoy – as Birbiglia has with such shows as Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend – lengthy and acclaimed engagements on Broadway, where his skill with long-form observational narrative has distinguished him and his self-effacing character has proved endearing.

He comes to the Newmark Theatre with his new show,  Please Stop the Ride, for two performances Friday, Jan. 26. The title, he told Boston.com, was inspired by a childhood experience at a carnival: “There was a ride called The Scrambler. I invited a girl I had a crush on to go to this carnival when I was in seventh or eighth grade. What you don’t realize at that age is that you shouldn’t eat popcorn and peanuts and cotton candy and then step onto a machine called The Scrambler. … I feel like that’s a metaphor for all my experiences growing up, and now at age 45.”

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

Opening

Leah Yorkston, Trevor Hennigan, and Galen Schloming in "The Double-Threat Trio" at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer
Leah Yorkston, Trevor Hennigan, and Galen Schloming in “The Double-Threat Trio” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The website for Adam Overett, the writer/composer of the musical The Double-Threat Trio, includes a rave from the site Pittsburgh in the Round: “… you’re guaranteed to love it!”

That’s the sort of loose talk that can put a cynic on his guard: There’s no show that everyone loves, and the harder something tries to meet that standard the worse it’s likely to be.

But Overett’s site also includes several sample songs (from the show’s 2019 premier at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera), and I’ll be damned if they’re not witty, charming, and tuneful. And the show’s narrative conceit – three performers, each lacking one  of the requisite skills for musical-theater success as a singing/acting/dancing “triple threat,” team up to become more than the sum of their deficits – should offer lots of opportunity for comic incident and community-minded sentiment.

Broadway Rose gives it a staging, directed by the redoubtable Dan Murphy.

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For the past decade or so, this time of year has often boasted lots of showcases for local playwrights, chances for them to get their short plays up in front of audiences, whether for our entertainment, their own education, or (usually) both. The usual host for these, the Fertile Ground Festival, returns to action this year after a “strategic re-set,” but that’s not until April. Meanwhile, though, the Chapel Theatre Play Festival in Milwaukie will help fill the gap. 

The new festival will present two programs, each consisting of five short plays, with each program being performed three times over the event’s two weekends. Could be a prime opportunity to discover new voices.

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CMNW Council

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Algernon Moncrieff (Nick Medina) and Jack Worthing (Brave Sohack) in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Photo: Alisa Stewart
Algernon Moncrieff (Nick Medina) and Jack Worthing (Brave Sohack) in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Photo: Alisa Stewart

Experience Theatre Project promises a virtual visit to Victorian England via an immersive staging of Oscar Wilde’s effervescent comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Alisa Stewart.

Closing

Time is about to run out for ¡Huelga!, Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ biographical play about labor leader and social activist Dolores Huerta, a co-founder with Caesar Chavez of the United Farmworkers Association. So, too, for the Disney musical Anastasia, in a youth version by Hillsboro’s Stages Performing Arts Youth Academy, and Shakespeare’s grand romance The Tempest at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis

The flattened stage

Following the vexing cold snap that recently hit the state, winter might not be something you’re in the mood to celebrate. But it might really help to recall the festive start of the season, and Portland Revels provides an easy way with its digital capture of last month’s show The Midwinter Revels: Emerald Odyssey, available for free viewing in the next few weeks on YouTube.

The best line I read this week

“Comedy is more likely to involve shared shock than communal bonding; impiety is its theme far more often than is any collective ‘moment of healing.’ In truth, the happiness we experience is the happiness of escape, however momentary, from the enforced good feelings that phrases like ‘a moment of healing’ suggest. Piety is poison to comedy. A world in which comedy plays a healthy, constructive role in bridging social divides and making people share their feelings might be a good thing, but it would not be a funny thing. Bringing people together in high-minded community is the task of folk music.”

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker

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CMNW Council

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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