DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

At a break in the rehearsal, Camp says that it is surprising how trenchant Nietzsche’s critique of education still is, nearly 150 years later and an ocean away — “though I don’t think we’d want to try his solutions to the problem,” he’s quick to point out. “His recommendations are pretty creepy — that part about obedience is pretty much Nietzsche’s view!”

Camp is in agreement with his Prussian predecessor in lamenting what Camp calls a “customer service view” of higher education, a world of “learning outcomes” and “marketable skills” and the quantification of everything. “You’re trying to see somebody wisdom,” Camp says, “but how do they know what they want until they have that wisdom?”

“When I was in college, I didn’t have a return-on-investment mindset like my students do today,” says Coleman, who teaches at Pacific University.

“But that’s obviously a position of privilege,” Camp reminds him. “You’re a child of academics, too.”

The world of higher ed that Camp and Coleman work in is different from that of their parents. The rising cost is an oft-discussed dynamic, but Camp points also to the ever-increasing layers of administration. (How to Learn includes references to “the Vice Chancellor of Advancement, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Institutional Development and Co-Curricular Initiatives, the Director of Student Success, Inclusivity and Dorms, the Vice Associate Vice Chancellor of Strategic Planning…”) Part of Camp’s point, it seems, is that who and what college should be for just isn’t a simple thing to determine.

“If we could populate this country with the skills of the liberal arts, that’d be good for all of us,” Camp opines. “On the one hand, it feels thoroughly crucial to read Kierkegaard and to understand his ideas about the other and so on. And from another perspective, that feels like crazy privilege.

“I don’t have any solutions. But the point of a play like this just to poke at the problems.”

Opening

That spooky All Hallows time of year is nearly upon, so that means there are lots of frightening things coming up on the theater calendar. Like, y’know, Dreamgirls.

I’m not much of a fan of most things Halloween-related, which I suppose is the main reason I’ve yet to experience any of the annual seasonal events by the Reformers, the theater troupe consisting of Charmian Creagle, Sean Doran, Richard E. Moore and Chris Beatty. What I’ve heard about their work in years past, however, is that what they do is remarkable — creative, strange, expertly executed and truly frightening without pushing into any actually unsafe territory. “It’s not a play,” they say. “It’s not a haunted house. It’s an experience – one only the Reformers can offer.” It’s a small-group thing, too, with only twelve people will be admitted per 25-minute “viewing.” This year’s production is called Yes, No, Goodbye and apparently has something to do with toys or Ouija boards or warnings from the future or who knows what. It’s Halloween; you take your chances.

Milagro’s annual Dia de Muertos celebration visits a forest of the fantastical in the world premiere of writer/director Georgina Escobar’s Alebrijes! The story takes its name from a variety of imaginary hybrid creatures originated by the 20th-century Mexican folk artisan Pedro Linares. In Escobar’s tale, one of them steals the imagination of a young bride-to-be, forcing her and her fiance on a journey between the present, the past and a psychedelic-jungle vision of the afterlife.

Imagine you are cursed to obey every command you are given, no matter how foolish. Sounds a little like childhood, doesn’t it (at least from a child’s point of view)? Which makes that an apt premise for the children’s show Ella Enchanted, by Karen Zacarias with music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, adapted from a book by Gail Carson Levine. Ella, who must be remarkably patient, reaches age 15 before she rebels against this ferkakte fantasy life and goes on a quest to reverse the curse. Sounds like a good seasonal choice for Oregon Children’s Theatre.

After taking the 2017-’18 season to regroup, the ever-scrappy Theatre Vertigo gets back in the production game with A Map of Virtue by Erin Courtney, who told Paper magazine that the play is “a little bit of a formal adventure, because it’s symmetrical, but it contains a varied emotional landscape which includes love, horror and friendship. It’s also about the present, the supernatural, and the ways we try to understand evil.” Emilie Landmann directs for Vertigo.

Dreamgirls, the musical telling a fictionalized version of the story of a Motown girl group much like the Supremes, is a highly accessible and enduringly popular piece of theater. I don’t much care for it, finding its storytelling cliches wearying, its character inconsistencies egregious, its depiction of the music business implausible…But what the heck, this Stumptown Stages production stars the terrific singer Julianne Johnson, so there’s always that to enjoy.

Short runs

Lakewood presents another quick hit show in its “Lost Treasures Collection Series,” spare, concert-style performances of noteworthy yet less-often-produced musicals. Corey Brunish and Shirley Address star here in Alan Jay Lerner’s 1966 Tony nominee On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.  It’s a love story, but the plot involves extrasensory perception, hypnotism and reincarnation; you know — science.

Writer Gigi Rosenberg brings back a solo show she workshopped early this year in the Fertile Ground festival, under the title The Inheritance, under its new name, Firstborn. She’ll give it two performances here at Performance Works NW before taking it to the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York later this month.

Closing

Seth Rue (in a composite photo) portrays the many characters in Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” by Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder.

It’s been all-too-short a run for Fires in the Mirror, the fascinating Anna Deavere Smith docu-drama about the 1991 Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn and, by extension, the ongoing fraught relationship between a pair of long-persecuted minorities. Profile Theatre’s production, directed by Bobby Bermea and starring a terrific Seth Rue, opened last weekend but already is due to close Sunday.

Also: Chapel Theatre Collective’s debut production Anatomy of a Hug, a sharply written family drama with an unusually potent premise, closes Saturday. Will Eno’s Wakey Wakey prepares to go nighty-night at Portland Playhouse. And time runs out at Keller Auditorium for the touring Broadway musical On Your Feet!

Best line I read this week

“Of the dozens of (Revolutionary War hero) Ethan Allen drinking stories, the most famous is the story of how he and his friend, Remember Baker, has been drinking and walking all night and lay down for a nap in a rocky glen. ‘Sometime later Baker was roused by a noise and woke to gaze horrified at the spectacle of Colonel Allen asleep while on his broad chest was coiled a huge rattler, all of five feet long.’ As Baker watched, the rattlesnake repeatedly bit his friend. Baker pushed the snake off Allen and then noticed the snake’s head weaving strangely. The snake released a huge burp, and Baker understood — the snake was drunk. When Allen woke up he complained about the mosquitoes.”

— from the book Drinking in America, by Susan Cheever

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