DramaWatch: “James X” marks the spot

Darius Pierce nails a challenging performance in a riveting play for Corrib Theatre. Plus: new awards, new hires, new seasons and new shows.

As the man who calls himself James X moves fretfully around the room, his surroundings offer small clues about his circumstances. His backdrop is a wall of collage, a dense and none-too-orderly assemblage of maps and letters, overlayed here and there with a grimy old piece of clothing, say, or a worn little teddy bear pinned like an insect specimen. But somehow what might be the most banal item in the room comes to seem the most haunting: sitting beneath a bench, unobtrusive, untouched and unremarked upon, a cheap red rubber ball.

The premise for Gerard Mannix Flynn’s James X, receiving a riveting production by Corrib Theatre that closes Sunday, is that James is waiting his turn to speak to the authorities, representatives of the powers of Church and State that have imposed their judgments and punishments on him throughout his life. It’s to be a trial, of sorts, but for once, at long last, James it seems has mustered some amount of clarity and courage that he might turn the tables, that he will be the accuser, not the accused.
And as this middle-aged Irishman unspools a colorful yarn that weaves itself, despite all James’ self-deprecating charm and dark wit, into a relentless torture device, that red rubber ball just sits there in the shadows, a symbol of childhood innocence not so much stolen as never granted at all.

Documentary evidence: Darius Pierce stars in the Corrib Theatre production of James X, a sometimes humorous but mostly harrowing tale of bias and abuse in the Irish child welfare system. Photo: Adam Liberman.

“According to this state file,” James says early on, brandishing one document among the thick sheaf he’s collected, “I was a dangerous person — at three years old!”

Performed by Darius Pierce as a 90-minute firehose of a monologue, so pressurized it suggests less the gift of gab than the curse of memory, James X is a powerful indictment of punitive and authoritarian strains in Irish society, the tendency to see sin and criminality in the normal process of growing up among the underprivileged. Drawn in part from Flynn’s own life, it has previously been his own performance piece — Corrib’s Gemma Whelan is the first director to gain Flynn’s permission for an independent production.

James’ monologue is a more-or-less chronological recounting of his life, a narrative in which he is beleaguered from the very start. Concluding a comically cataclysmic account of his own birth, he says in a tone of indignation tinged with wry humor, “I am immediately hung upside down!

Early on the humor has room to poke up through the muck of daily life. “I shit me trousers and pissed me pants, not once but many times,” he says, before adding with an ironic little dance, “It’s how I learned to count!” The practical and emotional difficulties of growing up in an ever-growing household full of competing children and contemptuous adults make for lots of laughs, but also for a sort of creeping dread that really kicks in — with a subtle darkening in Kelly Terry’s lighting and Rodolfo Ortega’s sound design — when the 11-year-old James is shipped off to an “industrial school” for orphans and neglected children.

From there, his path is an ongoing nightmare of bureaucratic callousness and outright depravity — beatings, reform school, forced medication in a mental hospital, and worse, all for the crimes of truancy and an occasional petty theft.

Hard times come again no more: Darius Pierce in James X. Photo: Adam Liberman.

It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking story, and Pierce — one of Portland’s most protean actors, fresh off an equally remarkable performance in Artists Rep’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart — draws us in to James’ essential likeability, his confusion, his shame, his bitterness, his brokenness, his groping toward redemption and justice. When Corrib first announced this play as part of its season, Todd Van Voris was to perform the role. In my imagination, a Van Voris performance gets deeper into the pain and, in some later moments, menace, of the character; but I don’t know that even he would have found such a piercing combination of the sweet and the sad, the fierce and the frightened.

Pierce’s performance is one of those you might keep hearing talked about for years by those lucky enough to see it.

Recent encouraging events

Recent Unsettling Events adds to Portland playwright Andrea Stolowitz’s awards shelf.

Portland playwright Andrea Stolowitz’s play Recent Unsettling Events was among the many works to get a reading earlier this month in the Fertile Ground festival, but it already had distinguished itself as the 2020 winner of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s New Play Award. Now Stolowitz, who has won the Angus Bowmer Oregon Book Award for drama three times for previous plays, adds to her resume with the 2020 Blue Ink Playwriting Award for Recent Unsettling Events, a dive into the controversies over free speech and identity politics on college campuses.

The Blue Ink award is chosen by the staff of Chicago’s American Blues Theater, where Stolowitz’s play, and those of three other finalists, will be presented in a festival of staged readings, May 2-4. 

Personnel file

Sometimes news doesn’t seem especially new. Such is the case, from our perspective, with the recent announcement that Oregon Children’s Theatre has appointed Marcella Crowson as the company’s new artistic director.

Crowson has been with OCT since 2006 and since 2016 has served as the associate artistic director. It’s a good thing, of course, that the OCT board did its due diligence by conducting a nationwide search following the retirement last year of its longtime artistic director, the beloved Stan Foote. But the eventual choice of the highly respected Crowson as his successor likely will surprise no one.

At the start of her time with OCT, Crowson led the development of the Educational Theatre Program, a partnership with Kaiser Permanente that creates plays addressing health and lifestyle issues and tours them to area schools. She’s also distinguished herself as a director of productions for OCT’s core seasons and has served as a board member of the national advocacy group Theatre for Young Audiences/USA. Stepping immediately into her new role, she’ll continue to work alongside managing director Ross McKeen to maintain OCT’s status as a leader in the development of new plays and bold approaches that respect and reward the intelligence of young audiences.

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Ramona Lisa Alexander (second from left, with Michael J. Asberry, , Lance McQueen and Gayle Samuels in Artists Rep’s 2012 Seven Guitars) is dancing into a new position at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Owen Carey

Portland Playhouse, meanwhile, hasn’t promoted someone from within, but hasn’t gone outside the family either, in a manner of speaking. Ramona Lisa Alexander recently moved to Portland from Boston, a Playhouse press release informs us, also announcing her new double-duty post as community programs and associate artistic director. But it’s a return for Alexander, who spent time here several years ago, including winning a Drammy Award for her lead role in the Playhouse’s memorable 2012 production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays. In addition to her new staff role at the Playhouse, she’s currently doing fantastic work onstage in Dominique Moriseau’s Pipeline.

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While we’re tracking the movements of artistic directors, perhaps we should be checking in on Chris Coleman, who brought a strong identity to Portland Center Stage during more than 17 years there, before leaving for Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2018. American Theatre magazine recently published news of the Denver Center’s 2021-’22 season announcement. Among the offerings are two shows that Coleman will direct, one a world premiere about an incident in 1925 in which a Colorado woman killed 140 rattlesnakes, the other the 1948 Moss Hart comedy Light Up the Sky. Coleman’s interest in Hart goes back quite a way, apparently.

In the book, “Voices of the Armory,” a chronicle of the long campaign to create the Gerding Theater, Coleman writes that when he was approached about the PCS job he was asked to make a list of the sort of shows he might start with. “I thought that was a bunch of hooey, so I just decided to write down the craziest ideas that popped into my head” — one of which was “a Kaufman and Hart screwball comedy with a cast of 50.”

Most intriguing in the Denver season, though, might be a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Rose Riordan, the longtime Coleman lieutenant who has joined him as associate artistic director in his current post.  

Bound from Broadway

Popular musicals bring a lot of joy to those that love them. So I’ll lock my snarky-critic side in the closet for a bit and simply report that Broadway in Portland has announced the shows for its 2020/’21 season — and that it’s not a bad lot after all.

Up first in the fall is The Band’s Visit, by playwright Itamar Moses and the songwriter David Yazbek, followed by such familiar titles as Cats, Ain’t Too Proud (the Life and Times of the Temptations), something or other called Hamilton, Jesus Christ Superstar, Summer: the Donna Summer Musical, and closing out the season in summer 2021, Pretty Woman.

Building blocks

In case you’ve been wondering what’s going on with the renovation of Artists Rep’s downtown headquarters, an update came recently in an email sent out recently by the company’s managing director J.S. May, and co-signed by artistic director Damaso Rodriguez. While the company has parked its administrative and assorted other functions at a space in the South Waterfront, and moves its shows around to various venues in what it is calling “ART on Tour,” May reports that the initial phase of the renovation — including moving utility connections, seismic upgrade and installation of a new stairwell — has been completed under budget. Meanwhile, we’re getting closer to the part that actually piques interest, the design of new theater, rehearsal and related spaces in the half of the block that Artists Rep retained in its blockbuster deal with the developers of a high-rise tower now also being built.

“The team for our project is comprised of Lever Architecture, Fisher Dachs Theatre Design Consultants, Howard S. Wright Construction, and managers SOJ. Working alongside our staff and board of directors, this team is closing in on the final design for our new home. The City of Portland’s Design Review process has been completed, and permits have been submitted. At this time, our Capital Campaign Committee has raised 60% of the funds required to complete the project. Our goal is to break ground this summer after we finish securing leadership gifts. At that point, we will share the design with our larger community, and launch the public fundraising phase of our campaign to fund the project in full. If we are able to hold to this schedule, ART will return home after only one more season “On Tour” in time to launch our 21/22 season.”

Please note that by “leadership gifts,” May is not referring to managerial skill or charisma; he means big money. 

Opening

The playwright Naomi Iizuka has a varied background, geographically speaking — born in Tokyo, raised in several different countries, educated at Yale. She’s worked in Iowa, Texas, California. She’s even spent a little time in Portland, having workshopped her play Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West in Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival a decade ago.

Ken Yoshikawa stars in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 at the Winningstad Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey.

Iizuka’s play The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, however, is a story with particular resonance for where we live on the West Coast. Based on a book of historical fiction by Barry Denenberg, the play presents an inside look at the concentration camp (or “internment camp,” if you prefer to soft-pedal it) in Mirror Lake, California where thousands of Japanese-Americans from coastal communities were imprisoned during World War II. By relating the experiences of a 12-year-old boy, the play illuminates a low point in American history in a way that opens it up for examination and discussion by young audiences. Oregon Children’s Theatre chose Dmae Roberts — a theater artist and Peabody-winning radio journalist whose childhood was split between Japan and Oregon — to direct this production, which features Ken Yoshikawa as Uchida.

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Presenting a twinned story of a 1970s high-fashion designer making a belated bid toward accessibility and a contemporary woman grappling with family-history and body-image issues, Sheila Callaghan’s dark comedy Everything You Touch was lauded by Theatre Mania as a “bold dissection of beauty, self-worth, and human connection.” Theatre Vertigo’s production in the Shoebox Theatre is directed by Jessie Hirschhorn.

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American society’s kerfuffle over “same-sex marriage” might seem to have been settled, but not long ago it was a very hot-button issue. The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter, looks at the controversy through a familiar lens, that of a small-town baker asked to make a cake for a wedding that raises the hackles of her religiosity. Salem’s Pentacle Theatre stages it under the direction of Jennifer Gimzewski.

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Interestingly, The Cake was staged just this past fall at Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene. Now that company is on to The Roommate, a play by Jen Silverman about a chatty, middle-aged woman in Iowa who takes in a boarder from the Bronx, with both women changed by the ensuing odd-couple dynamic. Craig Willis directs.

Closing

The latest ArtsWatch Weekly column, by the esteemed Bob Hicks, spills a little Indian ink on the subject of Northwest Children’s Theatre’s version of The Jungle Book, focusing on how Anita Menon’s choreography and Rodolfo Ortega’s music “create a vibrant theatrical atmosphere. You can see and feel it from the get-go, an exuberant opening burst of overlapping music, dance, and visual spectacle that’s among several revisions from the show’s original production five years ago.” But you’re running out of chances to get into that jungle groove.  

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Saturday also sees the last flight of Milagro’s En el Tiempo de las Mariposas, a Caridad Svich play about Dominican sisters who become political activists against a dictatorship.

Second-hand news

I once met a New York actor who swore that he could identify (and replicate) a dozen geographically distinct accents from within the city of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. Your (sometimes insufficiently) humble DramaWatcher, on the other hand, can make no great claims to phonetic expertise. Not that that stopped me from griping about an actor’s accent in the recent Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Portland Center Stage.
But all that was in mind when I came across an article from the culture section of the BBC website, “Are authentic accents important in film and TV.”

Writer Rachael Sigee discusses the difficulty in getting accents right, the increased scrutiny they fall under these days, and a new tendency to quit bothering with them altogether:

“Such a creative strategy may seem to offer a ‘backlash’ against authenticity, but perhaps it’s more about the creators concentrating on being authentic to the essence of the story, rather than every tiny detail. …(actress Rebecca) Humphries says that this option of abandoning accuracy is also becoming more common in theatre: ‘For a really long time, things needed to be quite rigid and firmly in place, and now there’s this real fluidity… If [the performance] is really good then the only people who are moaning about [accuracy] tend to be old-school purists and they’re just quite boring.’

“Actor Charlie Allen explains that in theatre, there is often more of an opportunity to perfect an accent. ‘If you’re doing film and TV, you’re essentially kind of on your own before you turn up on set, and you’re not necessarily getting the feedback or guidance that you would do if you were in the theatre rehearsal room.’

…(G)etting an accent right is a lot more complicated, say, than simply shortening a few vowel sounds and calling everyone ‘duckie’. An accent needs to be embedded into the context of the story, rather than floating around on top of the performance, connected to nothing.

…But how we judge accents often comes down to a subjective decision about how important we think authenticity is in any particular instance. What is crucial is that we believe the stories we are watching, and that belief comes from somewhere considerably more inscrutable than what country, region or state a character sounds like they’re from.”

The flattened stage

Best line I read this week

“There is a grace of the gods which sends goodness. Perhaps there is a grace of the gods which sends joy. Perhaps indeed they are the same thing and another name for this thing is hope.”

— from “The Nice and the Good” by Iris Murdoch

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

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