The latest show at Shaking the Tree in Southeast Portland, Forbidden Fruit, is yet another immersive marvel from director/designer Samantha Van Der Merwe, an evocative tour through chambers of mythic and cultural psychodynamics regarding feminine social roles.
But the show – or rather its pre-performance introduction – also offers a glimpse at something new for the company: a lobby. Audiences arrive not at the Southeast Grant Street warehouse where the performance takes place but to a door around the corner on Southeast Eighth Avenue, formerly the home to a ChefStable catering business. The space looks bright, modern and businesslike, retail clean rather than funky creative. Yet it looks to be a major boost to the stature of Shaking the Tree as a creative hub for this part of the city.
“I parked and saw a ‘for rent’ sign,” Van Der Merwe says of what led to the expansion. The restaurant design company – also the theater’s landlord – had decided to cut loose the catering operation, which had been battered by the pandemic, Van Der Merwe says. “I called and asked if I could look at the space, and they were surprised that we were interested. But, of course, for them it’s good to have fewer different tenants to deal with.”
The former catering space isn’t directly adjacent to the theater, but only a small art gallery stands between them. “This new space is about 3,000 square feet, basically the same size as our warehouse,” though it is divided into several rooms. For Shaking the Tree, it now provides not only a pleasant lobby and a handy kitchen, but also storage and offices, a second dressing room for actors, a couple of extra bathrooms, and an area, formerly used for tastings and the like, that can be used for rehearsals. Van Der Merwe also sees expanded possibilities for scenic design: “I’ve always thought it would be nice to be able to switch sets at intermission.”
The added elbow room is welcome, but where it really will allow the company to stretch out is on the calendar. The storage and secondary rehearsal space make it so that one production can be in preparation while another is onstage, which means Shaking the Tree can rent to other theatermakers more often without crimping its own schedule.
“We were having to say no to a lot of rentals before,” Van Der Merwe says.
The expansion has doubled the company’s rent, but Van Der Merwe and the company’s board thought it an opportunity too good to pass up. After getting a major donor to double their annual contribution, Shaking the Tree inked a one-year deal: “If it’s successful, then we’ll sign a five-year lease.”
“It was one of those calculated risks,” Van Der Merwe says. “Like when I moved here from Stark Street, our rent doubled then, too.”
Shaking the Tree enjoys strong popularity and a sterling critical reputation. Just a couple of blocks away, the 21ten Theatre, formerly the Shoebox, provides a cozy home to lots of small companies and one-off productions. With more companies presenting at Shaking the Tree, too, the neighborhood could build toward a creative critical mass. And we can all enjoy the fruits of that.
A bit deeper into Southeast Portland we find another little addition to the roster of performance spaces, this one with its origins in a semi-regular series of poetry readings and ping-pong parties. Several years ago, Pat Janowski, a musician and actress who’s currently in Our Shoes Are Red’s Records From Babel, and her husband Mark Savage, author of the novel Fictional Film Club, began inviting their creative friends over, with the instruction to “bring whatever you’re working on. Those evenings went from basement gatherings to nights at the Jade Lounge under the name “Mind Meld With Mark.” The Jade Lounge crowds so often ended up playing Ping Pong afterward in Janowski and Savage’s Montavilla neighborhood garage that the couple eventually decided to cut out the middleman.
Now, after a renovation of the garage (two-bedroom ADU on top, performance/party space below) they have what they’ve christened Le Salon Rouge.
The place is reminiscent of the 2509, the small performance/rehearsal spot that theater director Stepan Simek and his musician wife Esther Saul run in the daylight basement of their Sullivan’s Gulch home. Each is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood, but has room for about 30 or so folks to gather for creative endeavors – just about right for table reads, workshops, monologues, small ensemble performances and the like, as long as they aren’t too loud. (As Simek quipped when opening the 2509 a few years ago, “It is available for anything except amplified music and Bible study.”)
For now, they’ve scheduled only the book-release event for a poet friend, in mid-April, but plan to rent the space for a small fee; they can be contacted through an Instagram page, salon_rouge_pdx.
“We’re still figuring out the parameters of what works for us,” Savage says. As Janowski adds, somewhat cryptically, “Here at Le Salon Rouge, we resist conventional definitions of progress, proficiency, productivity, success – and time.”
The flattened stage
This being March, it’s only fitting that the March Hare, of Alice in Wonderland fame, should make an appearance, and he does so in Forbidden Fruit. Apparently the character has been bubbling under in Van Der Merwe’s consciousness for some time, as this lecture she delivered in 2019 suggests:
The page on the StageWorks Ink website that promotes the revival of Varsity Cheerleader Werewolves LIVE From Outer Space features extensive quotes from reviews of the show’s 2013 production. In one, from Willamette Week, we’re told that the show “sidesteps both the deadening rhythms of dated sci-fi pastiche and the high-camp artifice ordinarily infecting modern musical comedy.” According to the similarly highbrow Portland Mercury, however, it “dishes out a host of campy tongue-in-cheek tropes that echo Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and ’80s B-movie sci-fi romps.”
Hmmm…They both loved it, albeit for what sounds like contradictory reasons.
In any case, we ain’t talkin’ Ibsen here. Some folks firmly believe that the phrase “mindless fun” is redundant. If those are your people, a “cabaret-style production featuring sexy cheerleaders, rebellious youth, evil aliens, ‘80s music, cabaret dance numbers and puppets” could be your kind of fun!
Dementia from old age and/or Alzheimer’s disease usually is no laughing matter. But Kenneth Lonergan’s play The Waverly Gallery earned its selection as a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist in part by its blending of humor with unavoidable pathos. Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater presents the story of an elderly Greenwich Village gallery owner on the downslope of time and memory.
The 1988 movie Hairspray managed the neat trick of creating fun, funny, mainstream entertainment without washing out writer/director John Waters’ subversive (and playfully smutty) worldview. Transpose the story of unconventionally fabulous teen Tracy Turnblad and her dreams of TV-dance-show celebrity to the yet-more-vibrant setting of a stage musical, and Hairspray rolls into the Keller Auditorium for a promising Broadway Across America presentation.
Reading is fundamental
Lava Alapai recently was named associate artistic director of Artists Rep, but she’s been at work on other projects too. Her new play Middletown Mall gets a staged reading on Sunday at CoHo Theater, with Isaac Lamb directing a talented cast including Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Miriam Schwartz, Blake Stone, Treasure Lunan and Gavin Hoffman. Third Rail Rep provides production support and the email account for RSVPs: firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, new play development continues apace in Southern Oregon with the Ashland New Plays Festival, which presents staged readings of Side Effects May Include…, the acclaimed Lisa Loomer’s look at American psychopharmacology. Vanessa Stalling directs a cast include one of the all-time great Oregon Shakespeare Festival veterans, David Kelly.
Madeline Sayet’s solo play Where We Belong – performed at Portland Center Stage by the charming and precise Jessica Ranville – is about place and belonging; that is, the places we call home or where we feel at home, what it means to belong to a place and with others. Despite its broad resonances, it’s a highly personal story, told from Sayet’s distinct perspective as a member of the East Coast Mohegan tribe, and it’s a fine piece of theater, relating Sayet’s journey as a Shakespeare scholar grappling with the legacy of colonialism and threading it with vivid imagery and layered metaphor.
The irony in this production is that a show about place and belonging is presented in a place it doesn’t quite belong. Which is not at all to say that Native American stories and concerns don’t belong on the main stage of Portland’s biggest theater – of course they do. But for all Ranville’s performance chops and director Mei Ann Teo’s attempts to bring movement and flair to the presentation, it remains too small and too static a show for the expansive Armory stage, too often feeling as much like a lecture as a play, or failing to close the distance with a sense of familiarity and intimacy.
All the same, it’s well worth seeing. Just sit close if you can.
It’s best to take each production of a given play on its own terms, but I’ll admit that, for me, Imago’s production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer couldn’t have escaped the shadow of a 2009 Artists Rep staging that still glows in memory. Sure enough, in Act I on the night I saw the current show, I found some of the acting too broad, some of the Irish accents tipping toward Lucky Charms territory, the moments of growing gravity skipped through too lightly. And yet, by the show’s end, McPherson’s glimmer of Christmas light, of hope beyond hope for a redemption open to the lost lamb in all of us, came shining through. Jeff Giberson’s portrayal of the protagonist, the guarded Sharky Harkin, was well-grounded throughout, but it was Tory Mitchell as Sharky’s difficult older brother who made me change my mind. Choices of characterization that I first thought were flippant and ill-suited revealed themselves as keys to a hard-won optimism at the heart of McPherson’s play.
Other shows sliding off the boards, so to speak, this weekend include Pearl Cleage’s What I Learned in Paris, at Portland Playhouse, which ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega called “joyously entertaining”; Portland Center Stage’s premier of Lauren Yee’s Young Americans, which Ortega praised for the way it “gently troubles our assumptions”; and Hand2Mouth Theatre’s Time & Time Again, a devised work about subjectivity, perspective and all those ticking seconds.
The difference between cheap, pandering nostalgia and rich, comforting nostalgia sometimes is just a matter of whose nostalgia it is. The folks at Lakewood Theatre Company trade pretty regularly in nostalgia – as demonstrated by their just-announced slate of plays for the 2023-2024 season, in which the closest thing to a contemporary story is Aaron Sorkin’s 1989 play A Few Good Men.
And yet even my snooty, cynical heart is buoyed by the inclusion of some of my nostalgic favorites. Most particularly, that’s Holiday Inn, the Irving Berlin musical that’s lightweight as snowflake but served up such chestnuts as the sentimental “White Christmas” and the effervescent “Happy Holidays.” Lakewood’s production won’t have the advantage of starring Fred Astaire, of course, but I’m excited all the same. And then there’s Arsenic and Old Lace, an 80-year-old warhorse but one that retains a delightfully wicked wit.
Maybe your kind of nostalgia is the “‘60s hit parade” of The Marvelous Wonderettes or the big-haired, shoulder-padded feminist empowerment of 9 to 5 (or even one of the lesser-known gems gracing the Side Door Stage). Whichever you like, you can look forward to looking back.
The best line I read this week
“Some scholars observe that, in classrooms today, the initial gesture of criticism can seem to carry more prestige than the long pursuit of understanding. One literature professor and critic at Harvard—not old or white or male—noticed that it had become more publicly rewarding for students to critique something as ‘problematic’ than to grapple with what the problems might be; they seemed to have found that merely naming concerns had more value, in today’s cultural marketplace, than curiosity about what underlay them. This clay-pigeon approach to inquiry struck her as a devaluation of all that criticism—and art—can do.”
– Nathan Heller in an article for The New Yorker about declining enrollment at university humanities departments.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.