Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Knocking back a couple of pints with Roddy Doyle

Third Rail Rep bellies up to the Irish writer's "Two Pints." Plus: A Lebanese solo show, an annotated "Merchant of Venice," openings and last chances.

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Bruce Burkhartsmeier (left) and Michael O'Connell in Roddy Doyle's "Two Pints," from Third Rail Rep. Photo: Owen Carey
Bruce Burkhartsmeier (left) and Michael O’Connell in Roddy Doyle’s “Two Pints,” from Third Rail Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Facebook, it must be acknowledged, can be put to many uses – some of them even good ones, believe it or not. Creative ones, even.

So it was that the Irish writer Roddy Doyle – best known for his debut novel The Commitments, or perhaps from the film adaptation thereof – when authorly exigencies caused him to join the social-media behemoth, began using it to post a series of brief scenes, fictional dialogues between a pair of fellows who shoot the breeze over beers at the local.

Having quite a talent for this sort of thing (the writing, I mean), Doyle attracted quite a following on the site, and eventually these dialogues were collected into a series of books. Eventually, he accepted the suggestion that he make a play with the characters, which – though it was written on its own rather than excerpted from the Facebook files – carries the same title as the initial book.

Two Pints, which opens Friday at CoHo Theater in a production by Third Rail Rep, doesn’t let us belly up with the boys, but nearly so. The two men, despite or because of the vivid specificity of their Dublin speech, seem like folks we might know – or be. The script never names them (they’re simply designated as One and Two) and they barely greet each other; their shared presence is taken as an organic fact.  Occupying an entertaining middle ground between MTV’s Beavis & Butthead and Beckett’s Vladimir & Estragon, these bar-stool philosophes are pleasant company, not exactly worldly but maybe smarter than they want to let on.

In the view of a critic for the Chicago Tribune, Doyle “is nodding at the great Beckettian Irish tradition of using conversations that seem to be about nothing much to express the deepest concerns of humans on this green earth. … And like the tramps of Waiting for Godot, they are wondering about immortality and deciding that, in the absence of any superior information, heaven may be most useful defined as ‘a pub with a bit of a football.’”

Michael O'Connell and Bruce Burkhartsmeier laughing it up at the bar in Third Rail Rep's "Two Pints." Photo: Owen Carey
Michael O’Connell and Bruce Burkhartsmeier laughing it up at the bar. Photo: Owen Carey

Portland theater fans should be especially eager to make their acquaintance, as they’ll appear here in the guise of (or is that the other way ’round?) two of the city’s finest actors, Bruce Burkhartsmeier and Michael O’Connell. And look who’s there serving the pints – it’s Scott Yarbrough, who (a publican’s pay being what it is, I guess) doubles as the director. 

Yarbrough and O’Connell were founding members of Third Rail. Burkhartsmeier entered the picture later, but made his mark. (He’d been away from the stage for a few years, and I recall thinking, when I saw him for the first time, alongside McConnell in Conor McPherson’s Shining City, “Jesus! Where did this guy come from? He’s terrific!”) Other shows that featured both O’Connell and Burkhartsmeier (A Skull in Connemara, Penelope) still stand as high points in the company’s history. And for Yarbrough – one of the small handful of directors whose work I credit with sparking my love of theater – this marks his first show staged since 2018, when a production of Philip Ridley’s audacious comedy Radiant Vermin re-confirmed his talents.

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Yarbrough counts himself a devoted Doyle fan from the time he first saw the film version of The Commitments, and, according to a director’s note in the Two Pints playbill, considers him “the voice of modern Irish literature.” So when Covid shut down so much of the world a few years ago, Doyle was there for him.

“During the pandemic [former Third Rail members] Valerie Stevens and Tim True were living in Los Angeles and we’d all be in touch by email on and off,” Yarbrough recalls. “So we thought, ‘Is there anything we can do just for us, creatively?’ I had this script around and so Tim and Michael and I would work on it online.”

That work continued “here and there” after True and Stevens moved back to Portland in 2022.

Meanwhile, Third Rail had been presenting a reading series for patrons over Zoom, and when that series could finally have in-person shows, artistic director Maureen Porter asked the trio to read Two Pints, and liked the results enough to add the play to this season.

“We weren’t really looking to produce it professionally,” Yarbrough says. “It had just been something fun for us.”

Like the two men in the play, O’Connell and True were good friends who’d spent countless hours gabbing about everything and nothing (which, in such a relationship, can become nearly indistinguishable). But earlier this year, True moved to Amsterdam for a new job. After a few actors read for the part, Burkhartsmeier got the gig.

It’s a different chemistry than that between O’Connell and True, Yarbrough says, but no less potent. 

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“It’s a play about friendship, even more than it is about life and death,” he says. “As a play, it’s a weird creature. It doesn’t follow regular dramaturgical rules at all. There are lots of non-sequiturs. And the challenge for us is to make those non-sequiturs feel like they have as much of a place in the play as the thoughts about mortality and the afterlife and those sorts of things.”

The prospect of watching two fellows sit and talk might sound boring to some (personally, I’ve long considered My Dinner With Andre my kind of action movie), but a dark-edged comedy with language at the fore is the turf where Yarbrough really excels.

“I always direct toward the music and the rhythm of the language,” he concurs. “There aren’t many stage images you could create for a play such as this. And really, the language is the action of the play.”

Which isn’t to say it isn’t moving, in the emotional sense – or that there’s no movement, in terms of the story.

“Act I sets it up as being a very different play than what it ends up being,” Yarbrough says. “We’re surprised to find that these guys are more than what we thought.

“…I wouldn’t call them worldly. I don’t think they’re too curious about the outside world, although they can talk about what’s going on in the world. They just are of their place, very much. They know what they like and what they want.”

At least part of which is, “Two more.”

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The flattened stage 

Opening

I spent a fair amount of time in recent weeks with Piercing the Veil – a show that blends medieval music, puppetry, poetry and more in a celebration of Celtic myths and autumnal ritual – reporting a preview story for ArtsWatch. Even so, Thursday night’s preview performance before a full house at 21ten Theatre felt like a fresh wonder. The presence of the audience brought out a more playful expressiveness from performer (and lead writer) Briana Ratterman, and the atmosphere created by Abby Jacquin’s soft, cool lighting and an (uncredited) scenic design that was part apothecary, part country-cottage kitchen put the puppeteering magic of Keziah Peterson and Birdie Amico in sharp relief. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a more beautiful showcase than I’d realized for the quartet Musica Universalis, whose early-music winds, strings and percussion suggest the homey tipping its hat toward the sublime.

***

Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals program has created plenty of remarkable work, but its new show Spider is especially noteworthy: Not only was it commissioned for the YP ensemble, but it was written by a YP alum.

Madeleine Adriance worked as a YP between 2016 and 2019 as an actor, dramaturg, and assistant director, and currently studies playwriting at Brown University. Spider, intended for audiences 14 and older, grapples with issues around video games, artificial intelligence and collective trauma, and is directed by Adriance’s mentor and former teacher Matt Zrebski.

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Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali and writer in her play "Jogging." Photo: Nora Noor
Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali and writer in her play “Jogging.” Photo: Nora Noor

Continuing its mission to bring the world to Portland, Boom Arts presents Jogging, a show by the Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali, which uses her daily running habit as the viewpoint to consider matters including Beirut’s tumultuous history and the lives of Arab women. 

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Newport’s Red Octopus Theatre stages Shakespeare’s powerful political drama Coriolanus, as “abridged and directed” by Milo Graamans. 

One night only

theatre dybbuk's "The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad." Photo: Taso Papadakis
theatre dybbuk’s “The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad.” Photo: Taso Papadakis

To a modern audience, the most disquieting, the most uncomfortable of Shakespeare’s plays is not (from my experience and observation) a foreboding tragedy such as Macbeth, or the blood-soaked roundelay of revenge that is Titus Andronicus, or even Measure for Measure, an ostensible comedy set amid murky social and sexual ethics.

I think that dubious title is firmly claimed by The Merchant of Venice, which – though it is remarkable for the full and vivid and relatable depiction of the Jewish money-lender, Shylock – is constructed to revel in his defeat and humiliation. The more powerful the production, the more principled yet flawed Shylock seems, even the more sympathetic his antagonists are made to appear, the harder the play’s resolution is to take.

The Los Angeles company theatre dybbuk, in Portland for a four-day residency including lectures and writing workshops, opens its visit with a performance of The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad, presented in association with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. The show “brings together elements of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with Elizabethan history and news from the 21st century to expose the underbelly of the classic play.”

The timeliness of the endeavor is, as always, unfortunate, but valuable – as it attempts “a kaleidoscopic view of the ways in which members of a society displace their fears on the ‘other’ during times of upheaval.”

As of this writing, the performance is fully booked, but a standby list will be created on the evening of the show.

Closing

Anne Sorce and Sam Gordon in Imago's "My Bedroom Is an Installation." Photo: Kyle Delamarter
Anne Sorce and Sam Gordon in Imago’s “My Bedroom Is an Installation.” Photo: Kyle Delamarter

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously asks. Cynthia, the bleary protagonist of My Bedroom Is an Installation, is confronted with the similarly tricky question of what dreams may come in sleeplessness. And whether death might just creep in as part of the bargain.

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It’s somewhat puzzling title notwithstanding, My Bedroom … isn’t an installation so much as it is a surreal theatrical fantasia of prolonged insomnia, with suggestions of distress and delusions and ego splitting along the way. 

Written by Drew Pisarra and Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad, the show sets Cynthia (Anne Sorce, mercurial and marvelous as always) on a towering bed (eight mattresses high, if my count and recall are correct) surrounded by cardboard boxes, and serves her with two strange companions. A silent, white-clad figure called Solo (Sam Gordon, slender and fluidly expressive) shadows her, flitting about like a ghostly Harlequin, while her main interactions are with a wooden puppet called Whip, who emerges from her slumber in one of the boxes to act as guide, nudge, scold, antagonist.

Meanwhile, context comes from occasional supertitles – bureaucratic correspondence from Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, the personification of death, assuring her that their offices have received the reports of her condition and are working on the matter. Hypnos even provides detailed instructions on the proper method for counting sheep.

“Whither goes the weather in my mind?,” she muses at one point, and by the time we get a puppet performance of King Lear’s storm soliloquy in the empty guts of a television, she’s not the only one wondering that. Experiencing this show can make you feel as bent as sleep deprivation, without any of the negative effects. It’s absolutely one to see – even if you have to stay up past your bed time.

***

A different sort of artful confusion is at work in California, Trish Harnetiaux’s pretzel-logic recounting of a family road trip in which time lines split, alternative outcomes overlap and Mom sleeps through the most harrowing part. Jen Rowe’s production for The Theatre Company was a warm, strange, hilarious adventure when staged earlier this year, so I’d assume this re-mounting puts the pedal to the metal even more.

Take it on the JAW 

For a couple of decades now, JAW, Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival, has been a valuable developmental stage for new plays, many of which have gone on to full productions at major regional theaters – including several on the PCS mainstage.

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But for aspiring writers eager to get in on the opportunity to hone their scripts with the help of actors, directors and audience feedback, the way in has been blocked – or at least obscure. Play selection for the festival has been, for the most part, a closed system. The PCS selection committee chose a few scripts each year from a pool that, although large, came from familiar sources – submissions by known writers, recommendations by literary managers from various theaters, products of other play-development programs.

If you’re not in the clique, though, here’s your chance: PCS has announced a new “open submission program” for JAW, and even pledges to select “one play each year” through it. The window for these submissions is a 24-hour period, starting at 10 a.m. Nov. 1. “Of those submissions, 50 will be sent to readers for evaluation,” the announcement states, without specifying how that number might be winnowed from a larger volume.

The new regime even includes a local workaround, with a “Portland Playwrights Script Submission Policy,” essentially an invitation for writers in the metro area to send in work “at any stage of development and at any time during the season” to PCS literary manager Kamilah Bush. 

Season’s greetings

North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company has announced the schedule for a six-play season next year, with an intriguing mix of works by writers as disparate as Bertolt Brecht (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by Tobias Anderson and Michael Streeter), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Everybody) and Mae West (The Drag). And of particular interest, there’s the season-ending Fezziwig’s Fortune, written by a pair of Portland theater-scene favorites, Josie Seid (currently doing fine work onstage at Shaking the Tree in Blood Wedding) and Sara Jean Accuardi. 

***

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its 2024 lineup a few weeks ago, but apparently couldn’t help but keep going. OSF has just added a 10th production to the schedule with  Coriolanus – in a modern adaptation developed through Play On Shakespeare and the upstart crow collective – which will be a co-production with Portland Center Stage (where it will be staged earlier in the year). 

The best line I read this week

“One has to live in one’s own little local world of religion mostly. … I don’t mean any relativism nonsense. I mean just that one’s ordinary tasks are usually immediate and simple and one’s own truth lives in these tasks. Not to deceive oneself, not to protect one’s pride with false ideas, never to be pretentious or bogus, always to try to be lucid and quiet. There’s a kind of pure speech of the mind which one must try to attain. To attain it is to be in the truth, one’s own truth, which needn’t mean any big apparatus of belief. And when one is there one will be truthful and kind and able to see other people and what they need!”

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

***

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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