Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Fast Breaks, Snapshots and Cut-Ups

Generations and cultures clash on court and off at Artists Rep, plus Broadway Rose’s Steven Schwartz hybrid revue/musical and The Theatre Company’s video theater stream

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Victoria Alvarez-Chacon and Jessica Damouni in Artists Repertory Theatre’s ‘American Fast.’ Photo: Shawnte Sims.

“Khady Salama doesn’t believe in anything.”

That simple graffito shows up on a wall amid the action of American Fast, a play by Kareem Fahmy in a gripping production from Artists Repertory Theatre that closes this weekend, and serves as a major plot point. In fact, the play begins with Khady, a college basketball phenom striving to reach her sport’s pinnacle, caught up in the controversy that bursts forth with that writing on the wall –  although what the words are we don’t learn until later – then backtracks to bring us up to that pivotal moment and beyond it, to a denouement that it is less about belief than revelation.

Belief is a big part of the story. Khady is short for Khadija; the girl’s devoutly Muslim parents named her after that religion’s first convert and “mother of all believers.” Khady, however, has grown up into a non-believer, though less out of philosophical objection than the egoistic pre-occupation of the young and gifted. She professes to believe in herself and her talent, but that belief is a fragile sort. And she’s not grounded enough to be open with anyone about either species of doubt.

So the core of the play’s premise is that Khady has to face two simultaneous challenges – bull her way to victory in the NCAA tournament at the same time that she placates her mother by fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Or at least pretends to fast.

Belief and doubt also are at issue with Khady’s boyfriend Gabe, an openly lapsed Muslim whose faith in his future is tested by Khady’s neglectful behavior.

Speaking of belief, a picky observer might waver in their trust of the storytelling here, amid a variety of (very minor) miscues – names mispronounced, timelines tangled, plausibility strained. Perhaps the most impactful of these are the script’s assumption that a college dean would wield more institutional power than the coach of a top-tier basketball program or that graffiti would endanger multimillion-dollar donations.

But these quibbles are about the world of sports, and that’s not really what American Fast is about. 

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

And at its core, it isn’t really about belief either. Its true conflict isn’t between different faiths (Islam vs. secularism, religious tradition vs. individualism, etc.). At heart it’s more about internal conflicts within Khady, like ego vs. empathy. It’s a coming-of-age story as a family drama, as a tale of immigrant cultural reconciliation, dressed up as a sports story.

Then again, it wears all those layers well, and is especially admirable in the surehanded way that it mainstreams the cultural specificity of Khady’s life and predicament.

Artists Rep’s production, with crisp direction and rather symbolic choreography by Chip Miller, is especially winning in its supporting performances. Dre Slaman, as Khady’s mother, can make us feel her stern love with just the arch of an eyebrow, her gentle concern with the widening of the eyes. As the self-described “good-guy Gabe, dutiful boyfriend,” Anthony Michael Shepard flashes a jock’s cockiness but foregrounds the character’s sweetness, earnestness and vulnerability. Victoria Alvarez-Chacon gives Khady’s coach a well-meaning heart under a tough veneer. 

Jessica Damouni’s Khady is, frankly, harder to like, though I think that’s more a matter of writing than of performance. Khady is cocky and insecure, callous and needy, all in big, messy measures. 

But then, even without the clashing cultures that American Fast puts into play, growing up isn’t always pretty.

Believe that.

Opening 

Recycling is, we all can agree, a good thing. Michael Scheman and David Stern must have thought so, in any case, when they conceived of the musical Snapshots, to which they’ve given the subtitle “a musical scrapbook.”
Somewhat like a scrapbook, the show repurposes pre-existing pieces in service of its own story, in this case setting songs by the acclaimed Stephen Schwartz within a new story, with lyrics re-fashioned (by Schwartz and others) as necessary. The result is, as Schwartz’s website describes it, “a hybrid – part revue and part book musical.”

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Andrew Maldarelli and Ali Bell in Broadway Rose’s ‘Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook.’ Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer.

Schwartz’s oeuvre offers lots to draw from; his many musicals include Pippin, Godspell and the somewhat more recent hit Wicked, whose songs sound so cheaply artificial on their own yet work so marvelously for and within the full show. The Snapshots story (with a book by Stern) uses the handy narrative device of a box of photographs as the opportunity to look back at the relationship of a middle-aged couple who’ve been drifting apart. 

Annie Kaiser directs a production for Broadway Rose.


Experience Theatre Project – so named to highlight its emphasis on an “immersive theater” approach where the action takes place around and near to the audience members (who might even been involved once in a while) – presents Clue, a “murder-mystery comedy thriller” based on the 1985 film, which in turn was based on the long-popular board game. 

You probably know the drill: dinner party, death, roundelay of suspects and clues, dramatic reveal. Alisa Stewart directs a sizable cast. 

Closing

Semillas, writer/director Alicia Dogliotti’s look at environmental restoration – and a rare chance to see Milagro co-founder Jose Gonzalez onstage –  ends its run at Milagro this weekend.

The flattened stage 

Making the hard pivot into pandemic-era producing a few years ago, Jen Rowe and The Theatre Company not only set out to create work for video but also launched a commissioning program to enlist some impressive playwrights into the effort. The biggest name among those commissions may have been Yussef El Guindi, the Seattle-based, Egyptian-American playwright whose works have been produced at Portland Center Stage, Artists Rep, Seattle’s ATC, Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and other major companies.

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Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

El Guindi’s project for The Theatre Company, called The Cut-Up, will at last be available beginning January 30, with rental on the site Stellar.com allowing 48 hours of online access.

Directed by May Adrales and shot at Block 17 Apartments in Northwest Portland, the short film is a monologue for Brian Thomas Abraham as a man whose start-up company produces wellness apps

But wellness might mean many things.

“Our team focuses on refugees,” he says. “Since refugees also carry smartphones, our company wants to develop an app that helps people running for their lives.”


However much you think you know about William Shakespeare, it’s always a treat hear from a true expert on the subject:

The best line I read this week

“He had breakfast as a president, lunch as a dictator, dinner as a detainee.” 

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Venezuelan newsletter Arepita summarizing the recent failed coup attempt by Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, quoted in The New Yorker and The New York Times.


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

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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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