DramaWatch: Goal-oriented theater at Portland Playhouse

"The Wolves" leads the week in theater with teens and teamwork. Also: the Mueller Report on stage; big buildings and Vertigo; and sensational soloists.

Portland Playhouse’s season-opening production, The Wolves, focuses on the nine teen girls who make up an indoor-soccer team. Which presents an obvious question.
“Is this a rousing, heart-warming, inspirational sports story?,” I ask director Jessica Wallenfels. “Or is it good?”

A disingenuous question, that latter one. Because by all accounts, The Wolves is a terrific play. Written by Sarah DeLappe — apparently her first play to get any notable production — it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to American Theater magazine, it’s one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country for the 2019-20 season. Among the many critical huzzahs typed its way, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote of a 2016 Off-Broadway production that it exuded “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most striking playwriting debuts in recent memory, and absolutely not to be missed.”

Kailey Rhodes (foreground) works on ball control in The Wolves at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Wallenfels humors me. “It is inspiring,” she responds. “But not in the usual ways.
“It’s inspiring in the way that it shows a group of girls and insists that their lives, their concerns, their thought processes be considered, in a way that they’re usually not.”

The Wolves have some high-stakes matches to play, and some of the members get scouted by college programs. But the drama isn’t in the sport. It’s in the team.

“The play is a coming of age story, in a way,” Wallenfells says, “but it deals a lot with the social dynamics of the team — how they react to each other, or ignore each other or band together. How do those on-pitch and off-pitch developments affect one another and affect all the characters.”

The team emphasis comes through also in how the characters are identified, not by name but by their jersey numbers. That curious vagueness, to Wallenfels’ mind, is an opening to greater specificity. “The number is a container where the actor brings something of herself to the character. Also, if you’re not told at the outset that this character is named Brittany, or whatever, it eliminates some expectations about femininity and makes us see these girls just as people.

Especially in the wake of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s recent World Cup victory and pay-equity battle, the interplay of sports and gender, on various planes, is particularly salient. 

“I think the play treats gender with a long stick,” Wallenfels says. “What does it mean to perform gender when you step away from (the need for outward expressions of it)? Because they don’t have to perform it for each other. They’re women, but they kind of lose that gender in a group so that, again, we have to think of them as just people.”

Teamwork: the ensemble cast of The Wolves. Photo: Brud Giles

The play takes place primarily in team warm-up sessions, an energetic confluence of movement and chatter. “It has a lot of physicality in it but it’s still a language-driven play,” Wallenfels says, calling it “kind of a triple salchow of theater.” (That reference is from a different sport, of course. Wallenfels admits that it’s cast member Kailey Rhodes who is the production’s resident soccer expert.)

Having been best known as a theatrical choreographer before emerging in the past few years as a busy and skillful director, Wallenfels looks like a good choice to stage The Wolves.
“Part of my attraction to it is in asking how does the physicality of the group tie the group together…how the group functions for maximum performance.

“I feel like my approach to art is a bit athletic — that aspect of always reaching and trying to be better, both in its content and its form.”

Reportage

Mea culpa: I have not read the Mueller Report. It’s kinda long.
Granted, in the six months since the redacted version became publicly available, I’ve probably read 448 pages worth of basketball commentary on ESPN.com. Suffice it to say, the responsibilities of citizenship are not always foremost in my mind. 

But I have a feeling that Robert Schenkkan understands my predicament (though surely he doesn’t share it). And so, apparently, does Artists Repertory Theatre.

Schenkkan, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright whose works include the incisive depictions of the Lyndon Johnson presidency, All the Way and The Great Society, is no stranger to weighty tomes and historical documentation. And within a few months of the Mueller Report’s release he had distilled from it a 70-minute, one-act play called The Investigation: A Search for Truth in Ten Acts, which his website describes as a “reader’s version of the ten possible acts of obstruction of justice noted” in the historic report. 

Artists Rep is helping us all with our civic responsibility by presenting a reading Monday evening (on the set of its current show, 1984) at Imago Theatre. Directed by resident artist JoAnn Johnson, the cast will feature Don Alder as Donald Trump.

Opening

Workshopped at Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival in 2013, complex, by 2011 Reed College grad Dominic Finocchiaro is billed as a “dark comedy about modern living and other forms of mass murder.” Which sounds like characteristic programming for Theatre Vertigo.

Clifton Holznagel in Theatre Vertigo’s dark comedy complex. Photo: SleeperStudios.

“There is something almost nightmarish about thousands of residents living one on top of another in identical little boxes,” Finocchiaro told the Reed magazine, explaining his fascination with big apartment buildings. “The play deals with the alienation and disconnection inherent in urban life; about how terrifying it can be to search for connection in a disconnected world.”

In a longer look at the production, ArtsWatcher extraordinaire Bobby Bermea calls it “funny, lyrical and not for the faint of heart.”


Theatre Vertigo apparently has kind of a thing about buildings. Not just apartment complexes but hotels, too. Teaming up with Matt Haynes’ the Pulp Stage, Vertigo helps host a pair of “ live recording parties,” letting audiences in on the fun as Pulp Stage creates the first eight episodes of a comedy serial podcast, THAT DAMNED HOTEL.

Closing

The best part of Queens Girl in the World at Clackamas Rep might be the deceptive depth and breadth and sparkling detail of Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ writing. Or it could be the vibrant, endearing solo performance by Lauren Steele. Or you might credit the sure-handed direction by Damaris Webb that has the whole piece clicking along rhythmically. It all starts with Jennings, so I’m inclined that way, but take your pick. Just make it out there by Sunday’s closing matinee.


In Mala at CoHo, Julana Torres’ relaxed and engaging performance comes across like an old pal catching you up on her life. Photo: Owen Carey.

Another fine solo performance comes courtesy of Julana Torres, at CoHo Theater in the Melinda Lopez play Mala. Torres’ manner is casual but gripping, as she speaks to us about the complicated practical and emotional challenges of caring for an elderly and ailing parent, navigating a confusing health-care system, fraught family dynamics and the tricky terrain of a loved one’s dignity and autonomy. I suspect I’m hardly alone in recognizing much of my own recent experience in it. 

The flattened stage

If, by chance, you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like Stephen Sondheim musicals…well, I just don’t understand you.
For the rest of us, here’s something to dig into happily. On  May 20, 1984 a British TV program called “The South Bank Show” presented Sondheim teaching a class of students at the Guildhall School of Music, including student performances. Here’s a bit of it:

The best line I read this week

“It wearies me, you say it wearies you;

 But how I caught it, found it, or came by it

 What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born

 I am to learn;

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, 

That I have much ado to know myself”

— from “The Merchant of Venice,” by that Shakespeare dude.


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

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