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DramaWatch: Amazing ‘Hombres,’ scarlet letters, pro wrestlers, Frederick Douglass & more

In a busy theater week, Artists Rep's "Hombres" nears the end of a sparkling run and promising productions pop up all over town.

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Jimmy Garcia and Phillip Ray Guevara in Artists Rep’s “The Hombres.” Photo: Lava Alapai

Sometimes a man can’t help but stare.

On the construction site, the work has to be done right, so you’ve got to pay attention. And wasting time is no better than stealing from the boss. And yet … there’s a yoga studio next door, where women come to stretch and bend. And it just looks so good.

Amid the work crew, Hector’s hardly the one you’d expect to play Peeping Tom. After all, he’s such a stern stickler that his carefree younger colleagues refer to him behind his back as “Señor Serious.” But the little habit he develops ends up affecting them all.

In The Hombres, a marvelous, warmly affecting production from Artists Rep which ends its run this weekend, playwright Tony Meneses doesn’t try to deflate masculine stereotypes so much as face their underlying issues and let them breathe. So the first inflection point comes when Julian, the studio’s lone male instructor, politely confronts Hector. Turns out, it isn’t the allure of taut bodies in yoga pants that has him transfixed. Defensive and tight as a drum, he nonetheless confesses: “It seems to help them, the women that come here,” he stammers. “They seem better, after – less angry. That’s what I want.” 

Striking a deal to trade janitorial help for lessons, Julian enters a world of candles and curtains, lavender incense and wicker lampshades (the scenic design is by Megan Wilkerson), where cutting loose after hours means Aimee Mann music playing at medium volume.

But as Hector thrives, his friends on the scaffolds – Pedro, boyish and agreeable; Beto, cocky and so immature that his favorite sport is spitting on the gringo businessmen below – grow suspicious. And as they – and, somewhat separately, a white suburban type named Miles – move into Julian’s orbit, various aspects of male psyches and behavior, facets of sexual orientation and gender performance, modes of communicating or withholding, come into play in surprising, or at least refreshingly non-cliche, ways. As all these men fumble their way toward peacefulness and connection, the story builds to a tragic/heroic choice for Hector.

Upon reflection, Meneses’ writing has a few warbles: Some of the early dialogue feels stilted and the play is structured around Julian despite Hector having the far more illustrative character arc. But you’re not likely to notice such minor issues, amid the compelling central performances by Jimmy Garcia as Hector and Philip Ray Guevara as Julian, and the surehanded direction by Reena Dutt that helps the whole thing feel relaxed and revealing, a testament to the possibilities of authenticity and connection in male friendship.
 

Opening

Josie Seid as Hester and Anthony Michael Shepard as Monster in “Fucking A.” Photo: Owen Carey

Though she’s been a star of American theater for a couple of decades, Suzan-Lori Parks is, again, having a moment. A recent profile of the playwright in The New York Times enumerates her current newsworthiness: “A starry 20th-anniversary revival of Topdog/Underdog, her Pulitzer Prize-winning fable about two brothers, three-card monte and one troubling inheritance, is in previews on Broadway. Sally & Tom, a new play about Parks’s two favorite subjects, history and theater, but also about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, has just begun performances at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Plays for the Plague Year, Parks’s diaristic musings on the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and a coincident string of deaths, including those of Black Americans killed by police officers, is to be presented next month at Joe’s Pub, with Parks onstage singing and starring. And The Harder They Come, her musical adaptation of the 1972 outlaw film with a reggae score, will be staged at the Public Theater early next year.”

Add to this illustrious list a production from Portland’s Shaking the Tree of Parks’ Fucking A. A dark, dystopian fable with the contours of a classical tragedy, the play riffs obliquely on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which a character called Hester Prynne was made to wear an “A” as part of her punishment for adultery. Parks’ protagonist is named Hester, too, but her mark – not sewn onto her clothes but branded into her flesh – stands for her job: abortionist. The play is no simple pro-choice polemic, but rather a thorny musing on questions of power and deceit, vengeance and mercy, bonds of love and systems of violence. (And read Freya Drake’s ArtsWatch interview with Kayla Hanson, who plays Hester’s best friend, sex worker Canary Mary.)

Samantha Van Der Merwe, one of the city’s most astute directors, deploys a cast including such magnetic performers as Josie Seid, John San Nicolas and Briana Ratterman, in what is one of the season’s most eagerly-anticipated productions. 

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The action’s in the ring in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Photo: David Kinder

How racial identity is constructed, performed and/or manipulated in American society is a fascinating and complex subject. Credit playwright Kristoffer Diaz with the idea of dealing with it not through dry dissertation but in the ring. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity melds drama, satire and sport in a story set amid the sweat and sparkle of professional wrestling. Josh Hecht directs a Profile Theatre production that includes La’Tevin Alexander (usually a stalwart at Portland Playhouse) and one of my favorite Portland actors, the too-seldom-seen Duffy Epstein.

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21Ten revives Christopher Durang’s 1987 “Laughing Wild.” Photo courtesy 21Ten Theatre.

Formally inventive and audaciously funny, Christopher Durang was one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the 1980s, and flashed back into prominence with his 2013 Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Yet his work doesn’t seem to be staged all that regularly these days. Recently, though, Astoria’s TenFifteen Theater produced his classic The Actor’s Nightmare. Now, Portland’s 21ten Theatre resurrects Durang’s 1987 play Laughing Wild, which the writer’s website describes as a “study about the perils and stresses of modern life in urban America.” Structured as a pair of monologues from nameless strangers, followed by a scene of fanciful, dreamlike interaction between the two, it’s a dark comedy that the 21ten thought relevant to the current late-pandemic moment for its “themes of mental illness, loneliness and addiction.” The production stars the talented veterans Brooke Totman and Darius Pierce, with Ted Rooney directing.

Sponsor
White Bird Dance Paul Taylor Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

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As Dorothy Parker might have said – if she’d needed to come up with a line about the pulpy, campy musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors – you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make it drink blood. Steve Coker directs the laugh-hungry perennial for Stumptown Stages.

The Frederick Douglass Project

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” 

That quote, from 2017, by someone who – strangely enough – was president at the time, almost borders on making sense. The “job,” presumably, was goading the United States into abolishing slavery, but in any case “has done” is a strange verb tense in regard to someone who died in 1895 and therefore isn’t likely to keep doing. As for being noticed more and more, Douglass arguably was one of the most famous people in the Western world in the mid-19th century, but isn’t so today. All the same, Douglass could well be described as amazing, and indisputably is worthy of greater recognition, still and always.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection). Wikimedia Commons.

That’s where Corrib Theatre’s The Frederick Douglass Project comes in. Originally commissioned by Solas Nua, a Washington, D.C., company focusing on contemporary Irish arts, the project features two plays about the famed orator and activist. Washington writer Psalmayene 24’s An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland outlines the first few decades of  Douglass’s remarkable life, and Wild Notes by Dublin playwright Deirdre Kinahan focuses on an 1845 speaking tour of Ireland, where, in the early days of the Great Famine, the American found familiar sympathies aroused. “I see much here to remind me of my former condition,” Douglass wrote to the antislavery journalist William Lloyd Garrison, “and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.”

For these staged readings, Portland theater favorite (and ArtsWatch columist) Bobby Bermea directs an ensemble featuring James Dixon in the role of Douglass. 

Closing

Much to my own disappointment, I’ve managed to attend only one night of the Coho Clown Festival, but that show – Emily Newton’s embryonic but promising work-in-progress Big Baby, followed by the wonderfully surreal Mind Blown by the skilled duo Box of Clowns – was a mind-expanding hoot. The fest still has more in store for its final weekend, shows that look likely to be wild and whimsical rides into the richly imagined worlds of theatrical clowning.   

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Also ending its run this weekend is A Song for Coretta, Pearl Cleage’s tribute to Coretta Scott King, staged by PassinArt.

The flattened stage

Good Bad Babies

I’ve long been a fan of Jacklyn Maddux’s precise, deeply considered work as an actor in shows for Third Rail Rep, Corrib and other Portland companies, so I’m a little chagrined to admit that I didn’t realize she’s also a playwright. Yet her play Bad Babies (A Western Fairytale) has won this year’s Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award. Among the seven other finalists named are other plays by celebrated Portland performers: The God Cluster by Ernie Lijoi, which Fuse Theatre Ensemble staged earlier this year, and Shanghai by Linda Alper, which (under an earlier title, The Best Worst Place) had a staged reading in 2019 as part of Portland Shakespeare Project’s Proscenium Live.

Best line I read this week 

“The Narrative carries none of the poetry of Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass, but it too is a song of myself. There is not the epic tragedy of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and yet it is a story – not wholly unlike Ishmael’s – of survival in a world at sea with evil.”
–  historian William S. McFeely, on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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

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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