Jerrod Jordahl’s play Taking Care of Animals, on the boards at 21ten Theatre, is a big play in a small room, all of it taking place in the neglected den of an Iowa farmhouse. At once funny and eerie, it’s a family drama amid incipient apocalypse, light on its feet even as it trudges toward what might be a frigid world’s end or a hard-won new dawn.
“Annie Baker with a touch of Harold Pinter” is how director Alex Hurt, chatting after one of the opening weekend performances, described how the play’s stylistic world strikes him. Certainly, Jordahl confidently balances weight and levity, and the thing conveys a subtle sense of reality slipping slowly, inexorably off its moorings.
It is a big play in a small room also in the sense that it needs to conjure the sense of a colossal snowstorm (the defining external action of the play) and of big, mysterious – probably global – changes afoot, while the 21ten is a fledgling theater of modest means with a 40-some-seat house.
In order to square those facts, Hurt persuaded Jordahl – a New Yorker who was in town for some of the rehearsals and the opening weekend – to add some interludes, moments of direct-address description and narration that shift some of the atmosphere-setting and storytelling burdens from production designers (though Andrew Bray’s storm sounds are expert and essential) and onto the script. Delivered by Amelia (Annie Trevisan), a brow-beaten farmer’s daughter who turns out to be the play’s emotional and philosophical center, these interludes add a sense that what we’re hearing is a sort of campfire story.
From my initial reading of the script in its prior version, I wasn’t sure of the play’s comedic potential, feeling instead the weight of its implied commentary on chauvinism, patriarchy, climate denialism, social control and violence. All those themes come through onstage, more strongly even. Yet laughs come quickly, from the awkwardness of the characters themselves, the uncomfortable tensions between them, and some finely shaded performances ever-so-slightly to the left of realism.
Ted Rooney (21ten’s artistic director), illya deTorres (who’s done fine work at Artists Rep and his own Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie) and Trevisan (who was in 52 Pickup this summer at 21ten) all give strong performances, but it is Michael Heidingsfelder, who I’d not seen before, who unlocks the comic potential of the play. His character, a farmhand named Bruce, is conniving, self-centered, self-pitying. But Heidingsfelder traces his wide developmental arc, from dunce to devil to sweet-hearted penitent, with an endearing specificity, reminding us all what careless animals we can be.
“God bless us, everyone!” goes the familiar benediction at the end of what must be the most oft-staged play in American history.
But, with so much blessing evidently needed, why leave the job up to Him/Her/It? That “everyone,” of course, includes your local artists. And since theater artists in particular are the concern of this column, we suggest that you exercise your holiday spirit by blessing those good folk with your dollars at their ticket booths, your presence at their events, your enthusiasm for their fine work. As a recently launched billboard campaign puts it so succinctly, “go see a play.”
One of the many things of value those artists bring to our lives is warm, approachable, friendly entertainment. (My personal view is that this isn’t the, er, most valuable of values, but that’s a kvetch for another time.) So this time of year brings plenty of opportunities for just that, with agreeable Christmas shows abounding.
Of course, there is A Christmas Carol, most notably, for Portland audiences, in a consistently acclaimed production at Portland Playhouse. Year by year, it moves through changes (this year sees Playhouse favorite Lester Purry taking up the role of Ebenezer Scrooge undergoing a dreamtime/ghost-world ethics exam, and Charles Grant, a company jack-of-all-trades, in the director’s chair), but it seems always to retain its irresistible energy and reassuring inclusivity.
Meanwhile, at Broadway Rose, musical mavens Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis use a bus-depot setting and the tried-and-true snowbound trope as a nice way to pair some weary travelers with assorted festive songs in Home for the Holidays, hopefully cheering us all along the way.
Also: Northwest Children’s Theater welcomes you into its home, the Judy, for one of our great tributes to transportation logistics, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. PassinArt returns to the ritual of Black Nativity, which might sound like the name for a Christian heavy metal band, but is of course Langston Hughes’ gospel-steeped 1961 play. And down at Cannon Beach, the Coaster Theatre finds a Miracle on 34th Street in the well-loved Meredith Willson musical version.
Reading is fundamental
At the center of Thomas Gibbons’ play Bee Luther-Hatchee is a book, published as the autobiography of a reclusive 72-year-old black woman named Libby Price. But when the editor goes to deliver a prize the book has won, she finds that the author is in fact a white man. Thus begins an argument about art, identity, legitimacy and related matters.
First thought: The editor is right that this counts as a hoax, whatever the quality of literary imagination applied, but didn’t she ever hear of due diligence?
Second thought: The issues raised by this scenario are fascinating and relevant, and a Monday-night play reading from PassinArt sounds like a fine way to work our hearts and minds on them.
Everybody wants to get into the act
Back in-person for the first time since 2020, Portland’s wide-ranging, new-works-focused Fertile Ground Festival is set for slightly later in the year than was the prior custom, April now instead of late January. One thing this means is that it’s not too late for you to toss your creative hat into the ring. If you’ve an original play you want to stage, a performance project to produce, or, well, any art (“Over the past decade, the festival has grown its scope of offerings to encompass a breadth of artistic endeavors including dance, multidisciplinary projects, comedy, visual arts, literature, animation, film, and holds the door open to any art form,” states the festival website), this could be your chance. Producer registration is open through Dec. 31.
The flattened stage
Yes, of course, you’re so welcome; I love the Apple Sisters, too!
The best line I read this week
“We make a great deal in the arts world of the distinction between professionals and amateurs, but it often seems to me that the truer and more important distinction lies in the degree to which artists, no matter their level of technical prowess, give freely to the world of what they have, and use that gift large or small to help pry open the mysteries and the adventures; to embrace a broadening concept of community as the world shrinks; to create a larger table for a more varied and sustaining and convivial feast.”
– the ever-esteemed Bob Hicks, at Oregon ArtsWatch
And, for dessert…
“At strict fifteen-minute intervals—in a fairy-tale scene that lacked only a small boy pointing an impudent finger—designers or their representatives laid out costumes for the approval of the newly entitled Sir Mick, and a London tailor who works with Alexander McQueen took his measurements. Jagger ordered a hundred or so items, most of them versions of next year’s summer collections but made in stretchier fabrics or brighter colors or with extra crystals, to catch the light. (A rock star has roughly the same fashion priorities as a six-year-old girl.)”
— Ian Parker, in a 2002 story for The New Yorker about Mick Jagger’s wardrobe planning for a Rolling Stones tour. In a brief description of Jagger’s fashion history from the 1960s on, Parker also refers to “Jagger’s sporty, gay-quarterback phase.” The band recently announced plans for a 2024 tour of North America.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.