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DramaWatch: ‘Hair,’ ‘Young Frankenstein,’ Imago’s bedroom, Corrib’s scarecrow, singing ‘Matilda’ & more

As the theater season shifts into high gear, Center Stage's "Hair" marches to the beat of 1968's drum and a host of other shows hit the stage.

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Marching as to peace: The cast of Portland Center Stage's “Hair,” in a protest-march scene. Photo: Jingzi Zhao
Marching as to peace: The cast of “Hair.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

The word “unprecedented” seems to have taken up permanent residence in the news coverage of 2023, but it’s still no easy argument that the public mood is as dramatically fraught these days as it was in 1968. As Portland Center Stage literary manager Kamilah Bush sums up in a program note for the musical Hair, “1968 was the peak of political unrest in all corners of the world.” 

Into the breach of that bitterly divided culture shimmied a new sort of theatrical beast, the first “rock musical” to hit Broadway. Though certain aspects of the 1968 Hair were considered shocking (some four-letter words, some full-frontal nudity, a largely promotional attitude toward sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll), the show was an upbeat hit, a flower-powered bright spot where America could meet perhaps slightly to the left of the middle. Wrote Clive Barnes, the long-influential critic for The New York Times, in a review that repeatedly lauded how “likable” the show was, “The theme, such as it is, concerns a dropout who freaks in, but the attitudes are those of protest and alienation.”

Maybe it was that cheerful packaging of rapprochement as revolution (and vice-versa) that made Hair such a success and such a symbol of the era’s mix of turmoil and idealism. It’s been produced many times through the years and throughout the world, including in a Tony-winning 2009 Broadway revival.  

I’ll admit I’ve never given the show any serious consideration, finding the baggy acid-rock aesthetics of the thing too dated, too easily lampooned. 

But, for its splashy season-opening mainstage production, PCS has handed the reins to Isaac Lamb, who, after distinguishing himself as a remarkably vivid and versatile actor (primarily with Third Rail Rep), honed his directing chops with a series of smaller-scaled, emotionally intimate and dramatically potent musicals for Broadway Rose and others. He’s shown a great knack for finding the resonant core of a work and for employing just the right theatrical approaches to deliver that core with clarity and impact.
And it certainly can’t hurt that Lamb’s cast is stocked with high-wattage talents such as Lauren Steele, Tyler Andrew Jones, Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr., Maddie Tran, Malia Tippets and others.

The flattened stage

Opening

When I was a teenager, some of my siblings and I would play a sort of game when we re-watched the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein, trying to see how closely we could recite the lines in sync with the actors on screen. Suffice to say, we’d seen it a few times. It’s a marvelously funny horror parody.
More recently I’ve come to appreciate not just the film’s comedic brio but also what a lovingly detailed tribute it is to the Gothic look and atmosphere of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and what an emotional corrective it is to that film: By emphasizing the Creature’s need for acceptance and love, Brooks brings the tale away from the cheap chiller/thriller precipice and back a bit toward the more philosophical yet also more passionate strains of the original Mary Shelley novel.

"Young Frankenstein" with music. Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages.
“Young Frankenstein” with music. Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages.

I’ve yet to see a production of the musical version, which Brooks and the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted 15 or so years ago, and which the admiring critic Michael Billington, of The Guardian, praised as also “a love letter to the rackety world of American vaudeville.” But with Stumptown Stages presenting it, with direction and scenic design by Steve Coker, all I can say is, “It! Could! WORK!!”

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Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad has spent decades as perhaps Portland’s most prolific and fascinating theatrical experimenter, whether in ambitious concept pieces (for instance, his celebrated staging of Sartre’s No Exit on a shifting, tilting platform; or La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, a captivating steampunk re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast), wordless movement-theater narratives (The Cuban Missile Tango), or any number of exploratory scripts of his own. Adding extra interest to that last category recently has been a revived collaborating relationship with New York writer Drew Pisarra, who first worked with Imago when he lived in Portland three decades ago. 

Anne Sorce, seen here in Imago's "The Black Lizard," returns as the lead in the premiere of "My Bedroom is an Installation." Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.
Anne Sorce, seen here in Imago’s “The Black Lizard,” returns as the lead in the premiere of “My Bedroom is an Installation.” Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.

Of late the duo has been indulging in a shared fascination with the reality-twisting, linearity-fracturing ways of the great 20th-century Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello. And that appears to be holding true, too, for My Bedroom Is an Installation, which the Imago website describes as a “Pirandellian fantasia with a cameo by King Lear” set in “a psychologically-boobytrapped room cohabitated by a talkative puppet, a mysteriously silent roommate, and a dancing coat.”

Most intriguing, this show marks the return of Anne Sorce, perhaps the most compelling featured actor in the Imago stable over the years. She was at the center of such dark and riveting productions a decade or so ago as Yukio Mishima’s Black Lizard as well as the off-kilter comedies of Imago’s other leading light, Carol Triffle. She should be ideal for the sort of philosophical farce it sounds like Mouawad and Pisarra are up to here.

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Ashley Song (“Scarecrow”) comforts Kerie Darner (“Woman”) in Marina Carr’s “Woman and Scarecrow” at Corrib. Photo: Owen Carey

If spring is the time of year that our hearts turn to love (or at least sex), then fall is when death starts to creep in for its turn. Which makes this a fitting time to meet Woman and Scarecrow, a play by the Irish writer Marina Carr. Amid the medicinal haze of her deathbed days, Woman reviews her life in conversation with what might be a combination of hallucination, alter-ego and old friend. Can bitterness be put to rest while dark things still try to claw their way out of the closet?

The New York Times has called it “a blistering beauty of a play that rages with regret and pitch-black humor at the wasted years of a misspent life,” and The Guardian described it as “laden with poetry and …flashes of romanticism.”

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Corrib Theatre presents it (in the more expansive space of Alberta House, rather than last season’s home at 21ten Theatre), with Kerie Darner as Woman and Ashley Song as Scarecrow (as well as Jason Glick and Maria Porter), directed by Holly Griffith.

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Portland Playhouse's "Matilda the Musical." Photo: Ela Roman
Portland Playhouse’s “Matilda the Musical.” Photo: Ela Roman

Let’s not beat around the bush here: If you even think you might have an inclination to want to see Matilda the Musical at Portland Playhouse, you’re advised to get your tickets soon. At last check, more than half of the 31 performances scheduled (through Nov. 5) have sold out already.

And really, why wouldn’t you want to see it? Adapted by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin from a book by Roald Dahl, the tale of a bookish girl’s magical triumph over a tyrannical school principal has been a runaway hit wherever it’s been. And director Brian Weaver has assembled an oh-my-gosh kind of cast, with such top talents as Susannah Mars, Dana Green, Meredith Kaye Clark, Benjamin Tissel, Claire Rigsby and others. 

Weekender

I’m a bit tempted to think that “a non-linear exploration” of mental health challenges sounds less like a play I need to see than like a description of my own life. And yet Coming Up for Air, getting a five-show run at Performance Works Northwest, is an intriguing proposition. Written by Portlander Nancy Wilson, the play centers on a woman portrayed at ages 20, 40 and 60, by actors Claire E. Aldridge, Ariel Puls (who did some fine work this summer with Original Practice Shakespeare Festival) and Alyson Ayn Osborn. The cast also includes David Heath and the too-seldom-seen Betty Moyer, and former Artists Rep mainstay Stephanie Mulligan ensures a scrupulous directorial hand.

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A few weeks ago, ArtsWatcher Lori Tobias interviewed psychiatrist-turned-playwright Greg Berman about the creation of his play Bartow, a look at Indigenous heritage, art and healing through the life of the late visual artist Rick Bartow. Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater presents a staged reading of the work this weekend for three performances. 

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Personnel file

Broadway Rose has added to its management team, hiring a new executive director to lead the company alongside founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy. Meredith Gordon started in the job Oct. 2, but she’s not exactly new to the place.

Meredith Gordon, new executive director at the musical-theater company Broadway Rose.
Meredith Gordon, new executive director at the musical-theater company Broadway Rose.

“This is a full-circle moment for me,” the company’s announcement quotes Gordon. “My undergraduate degree is in musical theater performance, but for the last 15 years I have been focused on growing a career in nonprofit development. The opportunity to now lead an organization that promotes the love and sharing of art in the community — with a theater on whose very stage I sang and danced many years ago — brings all of the pieces together for me.”

Gordon – who I recall as excelling in bright-eyed ingenue roles – has worked in fundraising and board management for nonprofits and recently completed work on an MBA from Willamette University.

Song of the week

Wishing a (belated) happy 99th (birthday) to the 39th (President):

Second-hand news

“I find myself in a very odd Pirandello play where I’m collaborating with someone who wants to seem to be writing a musical but doesn’t want to actually write a musical. Years ago I wrote a play for teens that turned out to be quite popular in competitions: it’s a child who shows up for a piano lesson with an eccentric old piano teacher, only there’s no piano. But the teacher makes the child play as if there’s a piano. Little did I know I was prophesying my own future.”

That curious musing comes from an email from the playwright David Ives, to the director Joe Mantello, in the midst of the long process of working on a show with a notorious procrastinator.

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But when that procrastinator also is one of the greatest masters of the American musical theater, we should just be happy that something eventually got finished. The musical Here We Are, by Ives and the late, great Stephen Sondheim, did get finished and recently had its premiere in New York. Ives and Mantello, along with the longtime critic Frank Rich, detail that winding process in a marvelous article for New York Magazine’s culture site Vulture.

Interspersing candid conversation among Ives, Mantello and Rich with excerpts from email exchanges between the playwright, the director and Sondheim, the story is a fascinating window into not just some of the peculiarities of Sondheim’s psyche and working methods, but into the inevitably complex, unpredictable, sometimes serendipitous creative process behind any ambitious collaborative creative work.

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Amid the widespread handwringing lately over the precarious state of nonprofit theater in America, one of the questions raised is whether ticket sales are sluggish because ticket prices are fat. A recent article in American Theatre magazine, headlined “Are the Ticket Prices Too Damn High,” examines the issue, with data and anecdotal perspectives from a variety of theaters across the country. 

The conclusion? Inconclusive: “As Milwaukee Rep’s Chad Bauman put it, ‘The question isn’t, have we priced ourselves out of range for a vast majority of people?’ The question is, are the vast majority of people finding enough benefit in what we are offering to pay the prices that we are charging?”

Among the sources actor/professor Rosie Brownlow-Calkin spoke to for the story was Portland Center Stage managing director Liam Kaas-Lentz, who told her, “Programming challenges have really changed.” 

“Since 2021, he said, PCS has produced several shows that ‘wildly exceeded (their) goal and several shows that wildly missed their goal.’ He added, ‘The misses are deeper.’”

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April 12-21. Those are the dates recently announced for the return of the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, as reported by Bennett Campbell Ferguson in Willamette Week. The long-running event, an incubator for locally generated new plays and other performance pieces, moved its activities online with the advent of the Covid-pandemic and then shut down this past winter for a strategic re-set that included finding a new festival director. So, as the festival returns to a slate of live performances in venues across the Portland area, it will be headed by the fiercely intelligent young theatermaker Tamara Carol. It also will come along later on the calendar than in its initial decade or so, having previously occurred mostly in January.

Then again, April is a better time to be in bloom.

Best line I read this week

“Life is absurd and mostly comic. Where comedy fails what we have is misery, not tragedy.” 

– from the Iris Murdoch novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine

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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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