MYS Oregon to Iberia

DramaWatch: A ‘Passing Strange’ musical, Grimm tidings, Mount Plastic, Fertile Ground & more

Portland Playhouse opens a rock musical by Stew, a musical "9 to 5," Carol Triffle's absurdist comedy scales a peak, Shaking the Tree's grim fairy tale, "Extraordinary People" at Fertile Ground.

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Charles Grant glides through space in rehearsal for the rock musical "Passing Strange," which opens this week at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Ela Roman
Charles Grant glides through space in rehearsal for the rock musical “Passing Strange,” which opens this week at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Ela Roman

Let there be music. Lots of it, by the singer-songwriter and playwright Mark Lamar Stewart, better known by his stage name of Stew. And let the play be a rock musical called Passing Strange, and let it be passing strange, in a good way.

Odds are pretty good that it will be.

Consider the cast that’ll be opening Passing Strange on Saturday evening, April 20, at Portland Playhouse: A highly promising lineup led by Charles Grant as a young musician known simply as “Youth”; the terrific Portland singer LaRhonda Steele as his mother, against whom Youth rebels as he sets off from his home in Los Angeles to make music in Amsterdam and Berlin; LaRhonda Steele’s equally terrific singer-actor daughter Lauren Steele; plus Andrea Vernae, Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr., Jelani Kee, and Jasonica Moore.

Consider Stew himself, who created Passing Strange in 2004 and then kept working on it, after being a part of the musical group The Negro Problem in the 1990s and then launching a successful solo career. And consider the rapturous reaction to the play’s New York debut, where it gathered a slew of honors in the 2008 Tony and Drama Desk awards, among them outstanding musical in the Drama Desks (it was nominated for best musical at the Tonys), winning best book of a musical for Stew at the Tonys, and racking up wins at the Drama Desk Awards by Stew for outstanding lyrics and by Stew and Heidi Rodewald for best orchestration.

Passing Strange is bursting at the seams with melodic songs, and it features a handful of theatrical performances to treasure,” Christopher Isherwood wrote in a glowing review for The New York Times, adding that actor Daniel Breaker as Youth “is a rock-and-roll Candide — a wanderer whose innocence is never entirely corrupted.”

Finally, consider Broadway veteran and former Portlander Rodney Hicks, back in town to direct Passing Strange, to which, as he told writer Bennett Campbell Ferguson for a story in Willamette Week, he’s added some twists and turns of his own. “We’re just really tricking the entire theater out,” Hicks told Ferguson. “When you walk in, you’re in another time and space.”

Also Opening

Consider, too, a very different sort of musical — 9 to 5: The Musical, which opens Friday, April 19, at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove. No, Dolly Parton won’t be in the show, but her songs will be. And is there ever a bad time for a rousing comedy about a group of working women giving their twerpy misogynist male boss his comeuppance? I think not.

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Rehearsal photo for a stage adaptation of Alissa Nutting's Brothers Grimm adaption "The Brother and the Bird." Photo courtesy Shaking the Tree Theatre.
Rehearsal photo for a stage adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s Brothers Grimm adaption “The Brother and the Bird.” Photo courtesy Shaking the Tree Theatre.

Shaking the Tree Theatre and Alissa Nutting’s tale The Brother and the Bird seem like an ideal matchup: Shaking the Tree’s commitment to visually seductive theater and out-of-the-ordinary storytelling, Nutting’s adaptation of one of the Brothers Grimm’s grislier, more haunting tales.

Nutting’s story, which first appeared in the 2010 collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, is a contemporary take on the Grimms’ tale The Juniper Tree, which is about, let’s just say, a family with issues. Consider this little ditty:

My mother, she killed me, 
My father, he ate me,
My sister, she saved my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree
tweet, tweet…

Shaking the Tree’s adaptation of Nutting’s adaptation is a quick 60 minutes, directed by company mastermind Samantha Van Der Merwe with a two-person cast of Sammy Rat Rios (who’s also music director and composer) and Briana Ratterman Trevithick. The Brother and the Bird opens April 20 and continues through May 18, and word is tickets are going fast fast fast.

Imago’s “Mission Gibbons”

Neanderthals and backpackers discuss the end of the world in Carol Triffle's "Mission Gibbons." Photo:  Jon Farley
Neanderthals and backpackers discuss the end of the world in Carol Triffle’s “Mission Gibbons.” Photo: Jon Farley

Speaking of out-of-the-ordinary tales, what do you get when a trio of time-traveling Neanderthals cross paths with a trio of modern women backpacking to a place called Mount Plastic? You get Carol Triffle’s audacious comedy Mission Gibbons, which continues through April 27 at Imago Theatre.

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I dropped in on Mission Gibbons on Sunday afternoon, and the hominids were hopping around the place like nobody’s business. In addition to an occasional obligatory “oo-ga” and “ah-ga” the three Neanderthals (Imago vets Kyle Delamarter, Tory Mitchell and Brooklyn Williams) spoke remarkably fluid modern English, even if they didn’t much care for the term “caveman,” and the three squabbling backpackers (Anne Sorce, Amy Katrina Bryan, Laura Loy; also Imago vets) alternately argued about who should’ve brought the food and bemoaned the global environmental crisis and the Impending End of Life As We Know It.

Into this improbable stewpot drop such spoken ingredients as “No, you don’t have to be sad. It’s not opera” and “I’ve come to save the world.” Saving the world is much on the play’s mind, and the Neanderthals, we’re led to understand, bear Great Secrets From The Dim Past that just might do the trick. We’re never actually let in on what those secrets might be, although the backpackers’ eventual determination to bike instead of drive, recycle, and cut back on plastics is admirable and praiseworthy, if insufficient to the task.

Never mind. We all know we’re in a world of existential hurt, and no play, Neanderthal gurus or not, is going to provide the solution to the mess homo sapiens has made of things. Triffle is an absurdist of merit and an advocate of an extremely physical form of comedy — aren’t people and the contortions they can twist their bodies and voices into just a kick? — and the true Neanderthal bone to chew on in Mission Gibbons is the exaggerated humor of people from different circumstances bumping into one another, becoming confused, taking one another’s psychic temperature and adjusting their expectations.

Things move both fluidly and in slo-mo; the performance volume’s turned up high, and the silliness of the situation despite the play’s Doomsday aspirations lights the comic light. What might happen under these unlikely circumstances? There’s even a hint or three of potential interspecies canoodling. As it turns out, we’re all simians, laughing and weeping at each other and ourselves.

The Imago stage is dominated by the creatively named Mount Plastic itself, which is designed by Alex Meyer and looks as if it’s made of slabs of shale rising to a peak against the sky. Characters scramble up and down its slopes, in the center at ground level is a good-sized cave, and as I stared at the imaginary mountain during the show it seemed to me that the slabs of imaginary shale began to look very much like stacks of femur and other bones, a pile of hominid history. As we all hurtle toward a presumed human and planetary endgame, I can only say, well played.

“Extraordinary People” and the Fertile Ground Festival

The cast of Wednesday evening's Fertile Ground Festival staged reading of "Extraordinary People" applauds playwright Sandra de Helen (left) at the end of the show. Photo: Marty Davis
The cast of Wednesday evening’s Fertile Ground Festival staged reading of “Extraordinary People” applauds playwright Sandra de Helen (left) at the end of the show. Photo: Marty Davis

The setup of Sandra de Helen’s Extraordinary People sounds almost as off the charts as Triffle’s Mission Gibbons: Three sets of adult conjoined twins, variously still conjoined or surgically separated, gather for the funeral of a fourth set of conjoined twins, who have died in an auto accident. (Check that: One of the surviving twins, who’s refused to see her sister since their abrupt separation 10 years earlier, doesn’t show up for the funeral.)

But while Triffle’s theater is a theater of movement and exaggeration, de Helen’s is a theater of language, and the dialogue of the six characters nudges the play away from their highly unusual physical circumstances and toward a more familiar common question: How do we reconcile our desire for a private life with the reality of our connections with other people?

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At heart, Extraordinary People is a comedy, in the gentle sense: an exploration of the ways in which closeness can be too-closeness, a blessing or a curse; and in the ways that ordinary people (for in crucial ways these extraordinary people are also ordinary) find the right blend of companionship and independence in their lives. The lines crackle with both wit and yearning, providing plenty of laughter as they delve into some core human complexities.

I saw de Helen’s play Wednesday evening at the Back Door Theatre, in its second and final performance in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival of new works. It was presented as a staged reading, with chairs and music stands for the six performers and for Larry Toda, who read the stage directions. No blocking, no set, no costumes — just, let’s hear the script itself, coming out of the mouths of good actors, and see how it’s working in front of an audience.

That’s business as usual at Fertile Ground, where you might sometimes see a full finished production of a new show but are more likely to see works-in-progress: staged readings, workshop productions, pieces that writers and directors want to see get on their feet for a look and figure out what their next steps might be. For audiences, it’s a rare opportunity to see artworks in the making, before the fine-tuning and final revisions. That sense of being in the midst of an evolving beast provides much of the festival’s excitement.

At Wednesday’s reading, Chrisse Roccaro and Sharonlee Mclean were a crack comedy duo as Lulu and Linda, the still-conjoined twins, and were joined ably by Jane Ferguson as the twin who escaped and Barbara Lusch as the twin who was left behind; Michael J. Teufel as the he who was a she, and Stephanie Torres de los Santos as his sister, the aptly named Hope. Louanne Moldovan directed.

My sense of this show-in-the-making? It’s a good, appealing script with good, appealing characters, and I hope it moves on to a full production.

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With about 65 shows scattered on stages all around greater Portland, Fertile Ground is still a relatively short festival: It began on April 12 and wraps up on Sunday, April 21. That still leaves a lot of shows available to catch. To help you in your hunt, ArtsWatch has published several stories about what’s happening in the festival:

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More theater stories

A couple of other recent stories from the ArtsWatch files:

James (Justin Rogers) adds a special ingredient to the dal cooked by audience members in the semi-improvisational "Mrs. Krishnan's Party" at the new PRAx arts center in Corvallis. Photo: Gabe Braukman
James (Justin Rogers) adds a special ingredient to the dal cooked by audience members in the semi-improvisational “Mrs. Krishnan’s Party” at the new PRAx arts center in Corvallis. Photo: Gabe Braukman

In “Mrs. Krisnan’s Party” opens PRAX’s theatrical run with a bang, Gabe Braukman writes about attending the first theater show in the Ray Theater of the new, $75 million Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts — or PRAx — at Oregon State University in Corvallis, and finding himself, much to his surprise, “cooking dal at center stage alongside someone I had never met. Her name was Roxy.”

For more on OSU’s new arts center, see Brian Libby’s architectural overview Corvallis’s PRAx of life opens its doors, Braukman’s PRAx Facts: OSU’s Patricia Valian Center is a transformative investment in the arts, and OSU’s new cultural hub throws a party, Alexander Banks’s report on the big splash at PRAx’s open house that gave the campus and the surrounding community their first look inside the new center.

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is getting down to business with the opening round of shows in its 2024 season, and in her story In Ashland, a pair of winners at OSF Darleen Ortega reviews two sparkling solo shows: Rodney Gardiner’s Smote This: A Comedy About God … and Other Serious $H*T and Lisa Wolpe’s Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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