The Portland Ballet fall enrollment 2022

DramaWatch: Imago in Pirandelloland

Jerry Mouawad and Drew Pisarra's new "Voiceover" dips into dance and sound with an existential twist. Plus the JAW new plays festival, a Stan Foote tribute, openings and closings.

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Featured in Imago’s “Voiceover,” from left: Isaac Ellingson, Kellie Holway, Emma Holland, Jessica Curtiss. Photo: Fiely Matias

Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad long has used exploratory working methods and a well-developed knack for physical theater to create surprising and innovative productions. For instance, several years ago he made a series of ingeniously conceived shows he called “Opera Beyond Words.” Drawing on mime, dance and physical comedy, performers acted out imaginative narratives (the geopolitics of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a cocktail party, a typing school as a surreal dictatorship, a production of Othello fraying from the same jealousies between cast members as between characters) with no dialogue. 

For his latest work, Voiceover, Mouawad returns to his interest in modern dance, melding it with an exploration of the slippery natures of identity and reality, a tack inspired by the work of early 20th-century Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello.  And this time – the title suggests – words play a prominent role, with a mix of pre-recorded monologues and live dialogue offering views into the thoughts of the characters.

The voiceover element, Mouawad explained in a recent phone interview, came from one of several approaches that he and co-creator Drew Pisarra tried out while trying to develop a new movement piece.
“Drew and I went through different concepts and kept getting stuck. One thing we talked about  was doing a backstage comedy like Noises Off, where a lot of the comedy is based on what you can’t see because it’s happening out front.” That also had been the method behind Stage Left Lost, Mouawad’s wordless Othello riff.

Voiceover flips expectations in a different way, using recordings to share interior monologues. “Instead of a lot of it being about what you can’t see,” Mouawad said, “it’s about what you can’t – or wouldn’t ordinarily – hear.”

Pisarra lived in Portland in the mid-1990s, gaining critical attention for Jean Genet-inspired solo shows, creative collaborations with the dancer Katherine Peterson, and as writer for Phoenicians in the House, Mouawad’s Robert Wilson-esque, movement-theater take on Euripides’ Orpheus. “Basically since I moved to New York twenty years ago I’ve been lobbying to do another project with Carol and Jerry,” he said, referring to Mouawad’s Imago co-founder Carol Triffle. 

Pisarra and Mouawad began writing monologues, trying out different “themes and riffs.” Meanwhile, Mouawad cast several performers who had skills in both dance and theater and began to try out choreographic ideas. The idea emerged of a show about a choreographer working with a group of dancers, with no one quite sure what’s going on.

“Somewhere in the process I said we should read Pirandello,” Mouawad said. “I felt that he was almost the father of Existentialism in theater – even though Existentialism wasn’t around yet: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author came before Sartre. I’ve always been interested in the question of ‘what is being’ – without being didactic about it. And the characters in this show are in the process of exploring that question.”

As Mouawad described it, he and Pisarra “try to keep the ball in the air” – not resolving questions but letting them mutate into other questions: What is the dance they’re working on? Do these dancers even know this choreographer or not? The choreographer’s name is Jackie – is it a man or a woman? And so on.

Pisarra mentioned something he attributed to the theater director Richard Forman, about liking the first 15 minutes of any movie the most, because that’s the part where you don’t really know what’s happening. But then the more things get explained, the less it can be intriguing or surprising.

That preference fits with the somewhat Pirandellian view that questions about who we are and what is real can’t ultimately be answered. So asking why something happens or exactly what it means in Voiceover likely is beside the point. 

“Is it a puzzle or is it a knot?,” Pisarra mused. “Are you going to pull it apart, or are you going to navigate through it?”

Interjected Mouawad: “Or are you going to keep it as a puzzle or a knot that you really like?”

The flattened stage: home edition

DESPITE THEIR SIGNIFICANCE to the history of theater, the plays of Luigi Pirandello don’t seem to be produced very often these days in the U.S., with the exception, perhaps, of Six Characters in Search of an Author.  But here is an interesting, appropriately creative and theatrical, primer on the man and his work.

Weekender

THE CHOICE OF PLAYWRIGHT given the opportunity to develop their work through JAW, Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights’ festival, often has tilted toward those with established national reputations (Adam Bock, Will Eno, Constance Congdon, Jordan Harrison…). And sometimes – as this year – it leans instead toward promising writers with a local connection.

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Among the plays to be featured in staged readings this weekend are Anya Pearson’s Without A Formal Declaration of War, which transposes characters from Aeschylus’ Greek classic Agamemnon to the political tumult of East Oakland in 1969; and Even Faster Than a Blink, a family drama by the popular actor Tyler Andrew Jones. In addition, the JAW Teen Playwrights Showcase will include short works by four area high-schoolers who’ve been mentored by Portland playwright Sara Jean Accuardi.

Also on tap are Untitled Project, a solo show by New York actor/comedian Larry Owens; and The Brightest Thing in the World, a romance by Japanese-American playwright Leah Nanako Winkler. 

One-nighters

Eleanor O’Brien in her 2020 show “How to Really, Really? REALLY! Love a Woman.” Photo: Shiah Lints

ELEAONOR O’BRIEN DEBUTED Plan V: the Joyful Cult of Pussy Worship, her latest theatrical paean to sexual pleasure, in last month’s OUTwright Festival. In my review for ArtsWatch, I described it as “a sort of TED Talk-cum-revival meeting set a decade in the future (that) tries to show us not just a future bright with pleasure but one thereby redeemed from the ills of an oppressive patriarchal history.” Since then, she’s reworked the show in preparation for performances in London and Edinburgh, and is presenting it one more time at the Back Door Theater. “Hopefully, you will see the incredible growth and nuance it has gained.” 

The evening’s bill begins with a performance of Piananatomy, a solo show by the fine Portland musician and theater artist Jana Crenshaw, who describes it as “a story of lost innocence.”

Multi-hyphenate artist Julia Bray launched All Boats as not a show, per se, but a format. Each All Boats voyage, if you will, brings together six artists working in various disciplines “to explore their creative process, present new work in a non-normative space of experimentation, and expand their artistic connections in an authentic & genuine way.” Later on, those artists nominate others to take part in the next journey. Among the participants this time around is the talented young actor/poet Ken Yoshikawa, who has done strong work for such companies as Oregon Children’s Theatre (The Journal of Ben Uchida) and Corrib (Maz & Bricks).

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Stan Foote: a musical tribute. Photo: Rebekah Johnson/2019

Normally I’m all for a little wordplay, but I can’t say I think much of the title Foote Fetish: A Tribute to Stan Foote. Might the former Oregon Children’s Theatre artistic director, who died in May, have been an erotic object to some? That’s not for me to say, or judge. But if the organizers of this event meant “fetish” in the sense of “irrational devotion,” well, that just ain’t so. Because even the biggest fans of Foote’s artistic leadership, directing skills, literary acumen and community spirit had plenty of good reasons for devotion.

So, by whatever name, this evening of cabaret performances by Foote friends Darcy White, Tyler Andrew Jones, Sara Mishler Martins, James Sharinghousen and Ashlee Waldbauer is a fine way to honor a great man and an artist of national stature. And it’s sure to be a kick.

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The Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro presents storyteller Alton Takiyama-Chung in Haunted Rim: Chills for a Summer Night, a set of ghost stories and other tales to stir up Pacific waters.

Closing

Phillip Guevara as Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” Photo: David Kinder

Michael Mendelson, director of Portland Shakespeare Project’s The Winter’s Tale, told DramaWatch a couple of weeks ago that he viewed the play as one that’s very relevant to our time. And indeed, one of the most striking things about this production is Phillip Guevara’s performance as the Sicilian King Leontes, who drives the tragic first half with his jealousy about his wife and his best friend. Armored in certitude and anger, impervious to any perspective but that of his own suspicious heart, he raves as if he’s a Republican who has just lost an election. 

Guevara’s second-act turn – convincingly chastened and softened by remorse – also helps this production make the tricky but necessary pivot from tragedy to comedy, romance and  redemption. Just as important, though, is the clarity of Tracy Young’s modern-language adaptation, and some fine supporting performances, especially by Andrés Alcalá, Lucy Paschall, Joshua Weinstein and Gary Powell, all of whom dance deftly between the play’s harrowing tension and healing mirth. 

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“Hadestown” on tour: Hell in a band basket. Photo: Kevin berne

It’s fitting that Anais Mitchell’s recasting of the mythic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is titled Hadestown. One of its key strengths is its sense of place – with darkly stylish scenic design (by Rachel Hauck) evocative of, say, a 1930s New Orleans speakeasy and the subterranean factory/prison thereunder. And Hades himself, the underworld ruler and our story’s antagonist, is easily the most compelling character here. He’s stern and self-centered, a demonic seducer with a voice like burled mahogany, but Kevyn Morrow makes him the most vividly realized part of the show. 

Judging by the touring Broadway production at the Keller through Sunday, it’s easy to understand the success of the show, which won Tony Awards for best musical and best original score. It renders the narrative clearly and propulsively, and threads it with admirable contemporary relevance through nods to environmental and economic-justice concerns. Its musical performances are richly textured and energetic (kudos in particular to the offstage drummer, Anthony Ty Johnson). And it’s all delivered with a brassy showmanship that blows away any vestige of the esoteric from an ancient Greek story.

Yet that last point is also where it lost me. So intent on being lively and easy-to-follow, the show – in this skeptic’s view – too often comes across as pushy, presentational and obvious, as if Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin feared folks wouldn’t relate unless the material was sanded down and puffed up into commercial hucksterism. In short, it tries far too hard to be likable. Then there’s the lackluster choreography (distinctive in the underworld scenes, painfully unimaginative otherwise), uneven songwriting (often soulful and gritty, sometimes bland and overblown), and – at least on last Tuesday’s opening night – a rather limp performance by the male lead. (Both the playbill and a cast-change insert listed Chibueze Ihuoma for the role of Orpheus, but the cast photos suggest it actually was an understudy, J. Antonio Rodriguez.) Also, for all his dark magnetism, Hades gets only a handful of scenes/songs.

Not that a better musical would be worth rooting for eternal servitude in death, but I think I’d like Hadestown better if the Devil, so to speak, got his due. 

The flattened stage: theatrical edition

London visits the Oregon coast, via the National Theatre’s live-captured high-definition video presentations NT Live coming to the Newport Performing Arts Center. Skylight, a tense relationship drama by the master David Hare, stars Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, directed by Stephen Daldry.

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival launches a new series, Theatre on Film, “special watch parties featuring cinematic captures of select 2022 repertory shows, followed by a live talkback and Q&A with the artists.”  Unseen, Mona Mansour’s drama about an American conflict photographer in the Middle East, sounds like a potent place to start.

The best line I read this week

“To be alive and explore nature now is to read by the light of a library as it burns.”

– Tom Mustill, British documentarian and author of “How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication,” as quoted in The New Yorker

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

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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