DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

After all, what she and the other main character, called M, carry with them most of all is an enduring, if not always untroubled, friendship. And no garage sale helps you clean out your closets of misunderstanding and resentment.

Tonight Nothing — which CoHo Theater presents this weekend in a workshop production directed by Courtney Freed —  muses on our relationships with people and possessions, and with personal memories and family legacies, with what we must survive and what we might achieve.

Clark, in the dark, with her music and her audience. Photo: Steve Brian


Clark and Lewis met a few years ago in a workshop about “storytelling as a political act.” Clark, who played music and acted onstage from early childhood in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, had quickly made her mark in Portland after moving from New York about six years ago, starring in such shows as The Light in the Piazza at Portland Playhouse, and The Last Five Years and Winter Song at Portland Center Stage. She found herself “really interested in creating an original work.” Lewis, who’d grown up in the theatrical fertile ground of Ashland, Oregon, settled in Portland after some peripatetic years to form From the Ground Up, an organization that provides arts workshops for youth and under-served communities. Having focused in recent years on work with young women or women “identifying as being in the second half of their lives,” she wanted to create something that served as a generational bridge.

Using the devised-theater processes Lewis employs for From the Ground Up, the pair wrote Tonight Nothing (the title comes from a sign at a logger bar in Blue Lake, California, where Lewis studied at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre) for themselves to perform, with Clark providing original music. In a non-linear series of scenes, they unpack some of the baggage of a long friendship. When they hit an impasse, what helps isn’t a garage sale (though they do try that, too), but the magical intercession of M’s great-grandmother, a kind of brass-tacks role model based on Clark’s real-life great-great aunt, who was a Dust Bowl survivor and “a hall-of-fame trap shooter.”

The play was given a public reading last summer at New Expressive Works, allowing Clark and Lewis to get a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council that helped fund this weekend’s workshop production. So, while Tonight Nothing as you can see it for the next few nights may be something of a work in progress, it’s likely to be more of a keeper than that electric wok.


OPENING


Safiya Fredericks (Natalie) an Greta Olgesby (G. K. Marche) in Ashland’s How To Catch Creation. Photo: Jenny Graham

Well, I guess this is it — the last opening of an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production in the Blll Rauch era. Granted, Rauch, much-lauded as artistic director since 2007, already has departed for a job as artistic director at the new Ronald O. Perelman Center, the multidisciplinary performing-arts complex at New York’s World Trade Center, but this production of Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation was initiated on his watch. Intriguingly, it also marks the OSF directing debut of Rauch’s successor, Nataki Garrrett, who served as acting artistic director of the theater company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts before Chris Coleman was hired away from Portland Center Stage. 

Staged in the Thomas Theatre, How to Catch Creation traces the linkages between four contemporary black Bay Area artists and the legacy of a queer feminist writer from the 1960s. 

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A summer highlight for theater aficionados (or, really, for anyone interested in the creative process), JAW, Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights’ festival, celebrates and supports the painstaking craft of writing for the stage. Following more than a week of intensive work by writers, actors and directors, this weekend’s free staged readings let the public in on exciting works in progress, plays that frequently go on to popular productions around the country. This year’s slate includes an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, a solo show about the father of the diarist Anne Frank, an examination of human value through the lens of human bondage, a set of short works by select high-school students, and even an audience-participation playwrights’ slam.

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However much we at ArtsWatch strive for journalistic quality, the creation of a column such as this sometimes amounts — at least in part — to merely re-writing press releases. Even then, we’ll try to add context, detail, a dash of opinion, something to enliven our prose and spark your interest. But there are times when what we have to work with is, well, not a lot of help. Take the description CoHo Theater provides for All 100 Fires, a solo show by Philadelphia artist Donna Oblongata:


“Somewhere in a forest nearby, a lone guerrilla commander will ask you to prove yourself during a game of Pass the Sponge. If you fail at that, maybe you can help grind the sulfur. Meanwhile, the Giant Ibis was thought to be extinct in Cambodia, though footage from a few years ago reveals that some still exist. That part of the story is true. Basically. But can you really believe a man who was brought up in the taxidermy trade? Join our hero, who actually is maybe a traitor, for the war we were born to fight.”

Donna Oblongata’s All 100 Fires: a lone guerrilla and a giant ibis.

Pass the Sponge? Sulfur? Taxidermy? If these random elements are appealing to you, this might be a show you enjoy, but damned if I know what you’ll be signing up for.

Then again, how do you encapsulate hybrid theater forms, non-linear performances or shows that just aren’t especially plot-driven? Oblongata, as quoted by CoolCleveland.com, says her work “occupies a unique space between social practice, performance art, pageantry, and American musical theater.” Oh, O.K. Somewhat more usefully, a news item at the website of her alma mater, Purchase College in New York State, describes All 100 Fires as “a comedy about mass extinction, guerrilla warfare, and self-immolation.” Apparently it also includes puppets.

In any case, CoHo has a good track record of stocking its summer schedule with rewardingly inventive theater, so let’s just guess that this show qualifies.


CLOSING


High-flying though they are, the witchy women of the hit musical Wicked have to come down to earth sometime. Well, at least they have to move on to the next tour stop. Fortunately for those fans who may not have had their fill in the Portland run that ends this weekend at the Keller Auditorium, Elphaba, Glinda and company are just easing down the road a ways, for a July 31-Aug. 11 engagement at the Hult Center in Eugene.

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Peter Schuyler as Borachio and Julet Lindo as Don John in Bag&Baggage’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Casey Campbell

According to ArtsWatcher Christopher Gonzalez, Bag & Baggage’s gender-fluid adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing “dazzles us with its vibrancy and charms us with its silliness.” Textual and thematic fidelity suffer some, he suggests, but entertainment doesn’t. After Sunday, though, it really will be nothing.


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“‘He loves her. She loves him.’ How simple it sounds. How simpleminded it is. Not only is love itself complex; it never arrives unaccompanied, but brings its whole village, like a wagon of refugees.”

— from the essay “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” by William H. Gass


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

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