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DramaWatch: Bella’s truth, and other tall tales of the stage

Say hello to Bella, "City Without Altar," Hand2Mouth, a thin place and a floating bordello. Short runs for "Zandezi," Shakespeare jokes, and "Shrek Jr." Last chance for the excellent "The Children."


The cast of Kristen Childs’ “Bella: An American Tall Tale.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

YOU PROBABLY WEREN’T TAUGHT THIS in history class, but the “Founder of Our Country,” George Washington, shares at least one essential quality with Sir Mix-a-Lot, the Seattle rapper famous for the 1992 hit “Baby Got Back.”

Both men, we know by either legend or self-proclamation, cannot lie. 

But who would have guessed that an appreciation for big butts could, like Washington, become a touchstone of American cultural myth? 

Apparently Kirsten Childs did. Childs’ musical Bella: An American Tall Tale centers on a character that the Portland Playhouse website slyly describes as a “woman of mythic proportions and heroic appeal.” Bella, who calls herself calls a “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” leaves Mississippi to become “a Wild West figure with a Wild West figure.”

Double-bubble-entendres aside, the show is Childs’ attempt (at least according to a second-hand quote five years ago in The New York Times) to “create a new myth celebrating the power and the beauty of the Black female” – attacking mainstream ideals with, you might say, a rearguard maneuver.

In any case, Bella thwarts the rough advances of a hometown rogue and hits the road – or, rather, the train tracks – to escape the commotion and to reunite with her man, serving out West as a Buffalo Soldier. Set in the early days of the Jim Crow era, the show references some grim parts of history, though in quite a lighthearted context. (I’m not sure if we’re supposed to find the Playhouse’s “content advisory” funny, but somehow a list that rolls from  “use of the N-word,” “stereotypes of Africans as cannibals” and “mentions lynching” to “there is a strip tease by a Chinese American cowboy” struck me as hilarious.)

From left: Matthew Sepeda, Danielle Barker, Lauren Steele, LaRhonda Steele. Photo: Shawnte Sims

Portland Playhouse initially scheduled the show to open on May 7. However, some non-health-related production issues, followed by a Covid case within the cast, led to delays in technical rehearsals and cancellation of the first few preview performances.

Butt what are you gonna do?

Opening night has been rescheduled for Friday, May 13. Danielle Barker takes the title role in a production directed by Damaris Webb, who’s fresh off fantastic work at Clackamas Rep with Queens Girl in Africa. That other show’s star, the luminous Lauren Steele, appears here too; as does her mother, the renowned Portland rhythm & blues singer LaRhonda Steele, playing a character called “Spirit of the Booty.”

The flattened stage: Gilbert & Sullivan/Baby Got Back

Best line I read this week

“If there is a universal truth about beauty — some concise and elegant concept that encompasses every variety of charm and grace in existence — we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. What we call beauty is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful nor entirely random, neither merely a property nor a feeling. Beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world’s answer to the audacity of a flower.”

— Ferris Jabr, in The New York Times Magazine, writing about theories on the role of aesthetics in evolution.


A WEEK AGO, at the opening show of Profile Theatre’s Appropriate (fantastic show, by the way), I ran into the esteemed actor and ArtsWatch contributor Bobby Bermea. “You have a show coming up soon, don’t you?” I asked.

“Hand2Mouth,” he replied.

“Oh, right. What are you guys doing?”

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“We’re making it up.”

Of course, the fashionable way to phrase that would be, “We’ll be performing a work of devised theater, created collaboratively by the ensemble of artists.” But by either description, We Live Here sounds promising. The description on the Hand2Mouth website, I’ll confess, I can’t make heads or tails out of (“We Live Here travels an audience from the same community, location, city or group through an interactive series of touchpoints in the course of a life; slowly becoming more and more influenced and responsive to the participants’ interactions and responses…”)

But the involvement of such talents as Bermea, the multitalented stage veteran Susannah Mars, Briana Ratterman (so darkly compelling in Hand2Mouth’s recent hit The Testament of Francois Villon) and others is enough to pique my interest.


ONE OF THE IDEAS behind the formation of Portland’s The Theatre Company was that it would focus on staging plays in a variety of public spaces around the city. Jen Silverman’s The Moors at Tabor Space was meant to kick things off in March 2020, when a certain viral disruption came about. After two years of commissioning scripts, and producing podcasts and videos, TTC at last serves up its  first in-person production, The Thin Place, an exploration of the supernatural by Lucas Hnath, known for such plays as The Christians and A Doll’s House, Part 2. This production will take place at KEX, and though my first thought was that a radio station is an interesting setting for a play, it turns out that this KEX is a hip hotel near the east side of the Burnside Bridge. The cast is led by the terrific Diane Kondrat and Theatre Company artistic director Jen Rowe.


The bordello crew, painting their floating place of business, in Triangle’s “Sex on the River.” Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

WAY BACK WHEN, a Portland woman named Nancy Boggs had an idea and decided to see if it would float. This was around 1880 and, although Portland was young and reckless, Boggs nonetheless wanted to work with as little oversight from the city as she could manage. So she bought a big, flat-bottomed boat, built a saloon and bordello on the deck and began running bawdy party cruises along the Willamette River. Business flowed.

This colorful bit of civic history forms the basis for Sex on the River, a new musical by Don Horn and his company Triangle Productions. 


Jasminne Mendez’ world premiere “City Without Altar.” Photo courtesy Milagro Theatre

MILAGRO PRESENTS THE WORLD PREMIERE of City Without Altar, Dominican-American playwright Jasminne Mendez’ look at the 1937 Parsley Massacre, an horrific mass killing of Haitians in the neighboring Dominican Republic by the Dominican army. Si Mon’ Emmett, a staffer at Berkeley Rep, directs a piece that, according to the Milagro website, “takes the form of a poetic ritual, transforming the stage itself into an altar where the spirits of the…victims can once again have a voice.”


“Zandezi,” May 14-15 only at Portland Playhouse. Photo: SadeeLensworks

FORMER PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE acting apprentice Ronald Sigeca returns, from Zimbabwe, along with actor and co-creator Cadrick Msongelwa, to present their show Zandezi, a physical-theater work about guilt, innocence and criminal justice. 


EVERYBODY HAS TO make a living. So David Lindsay-Abaire, writer of the Pulitzer-winning dramatic masterpiece Rabbit Hole (as well as some wonderfully antic comedies), takes a Dreamworks gig, creating the book and lyrics for Shrek the Musical, based on the popular animated movie. Then again, he does so well enough to earn a Tony nomination.  

So, the combination of family-friendly commerciality and high-level craft is also in the DNA of the compact version, Shrek the Musical JR. Lakewood Theatre Company’s musical theater students put the beloved green ogre on the board for three shows this weekend.

One night only

FOR ALL ITS HIGHFALUTIN associations and tradition-bound expectations, the work of William Shakespeare provides plenty of room for playful experimentation – especially if you’re not really performing the work of William Shakespeare. The improv-comedy group Love, Shakespeare takes themes, tropes, tricks from the Bard’s world (loosely defined), tosses them around the room, and spins those associations and expectations on their pointy heads. It’s great fun from, and with, some sharp-witted performers.


PERHAPS AT THIS POINT, any discussion of climate change unavoidably includes (wittingly or not) elements of political analysis and cultural critique. Which rolls right into the wheelhouse of climate activist and theater-maker Josh Fox, who brings his show The Truth Has Changed to the Hollywood Theater under the aegis of Boom Arts.


Michael Mendelson, Linda Alper, and Elizabeth Elias Huffman in “The Children.” Photo: Lava Alapai

CLIMATE CHANGE is the topic at issue, also, in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, albeit only by inference. On its surface, the play, which Michael Billington of The Guardian ranked third on a list of best theater shows of the century so far, depicts a tense relationship triangle among retired nuclear engineers reunited in the aftermath of a disaster much like the tsunami and subsequent reactor crisis at Fukushima in 2011. The interpersonal dynamics gradually bloom with thorny social and moral questions about generational responsibility, individual aspirations versus communitarian ideals, and how we measure the value of life. It’s a subtle, thought-provoking work, infused with healthy doses of laughter. 

The production from Artists Rep, directed by Luan Schooler and starring three marvelously matched stage titans – Linda Alper, Elizabeth Elias Huffman and Michael Mendelson – is the kind of finely wrought work of art that reminds us how and why theater is essential. Please go see it while you can.


Also passing into history: Twelfth Night by the Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals, and a Clever Enough Hamlet.

Second-hand news

I find this review of an Off Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, by Alexis Soloski in The New York Times, especially worthwhile for two reasons.  For one thing, that musical is, to my view, such an enduringly fascinating and moving show, and I enjoy Soloski’s clarity and concision in explaining what makes it work. Also, I like the way the review weaves a few personal recollections and responses in, threading those through a discussion of the balance between the intellectual and emotional aspects of Sondheim’s (and librettist James Lapine) work.

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


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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