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DramaWatch: Michael and Linda, together again

Old pros Mendelson and Alper continue a long onstage partnership in Artists Rep's "The Children." Plus: Ashland opens, new seasons, Lost Treasures & more.

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Michael Mendelson, Linda Alper (center) and Elizabeth Elias Huffman in “The Children.” Photo: Lava Alapai

The Children, which opens Friday in the Ellyn Bye Studio at the Armory, is an Artists Repertory Theatre production featuring Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson as a long-married couple.

Let’s keep going if you’ve heard this one before.

“We were just talking the other day about how it feels very familiar,” Mendelson said in a recent phone interview. “We’ve been down this road.”

We have, and it’s been wonderful. Mendelson and Alper both are longtime members of Artists Rep’s resident artists program, and over the course of numerous productions together have developed a rare onstage rapport, resulting in some of the theater’s most memorable shows. Also, they keep winding up as husband and wife.

“We have done roughly 15 shows together,” Mendelson reckons. “And in the majority of those shows we’ve been related, and in the majority of those we’ve been married.

“The first show we did together was Superior Donuts, and we didn’t even have a scene together. Now she’s like my sister. She’s my stage wife, very much so.”

Alper, in a separate conversation, notes that in addition to all their stage time together, Mendelson also has twice been her director and produced a reading of her play The Best Worst Place (since retitled Shanghai). And she traces their connection back to one play in particular. “I think it really started when we did this play called Ten Chimneys. We played this couple called the Lunts, who were actors famous for the way they worked together.”

In finding how to play that relationship, they found a synergy of their own. 

“It comes out of absolute respect and admiration,” Mendelson says. “I feel like I can do anything onstage with her, and that’s such a gift. We feel very safe together. I enjoy working with many, many people onstage. But the relationship Linda and I have is a special thing.”

“We have similar backgrounds,” Alper says. “We both have had rigorous classical training, we have similar discipline, we have similar tastes, we find the same things funny. And the rest of it is just mysterious.”

Alper and Mendelson, married again. Photo: Lava Alapai

Among all the plays Alper and Mendelson have performed together, The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood, has particular echoes of Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life – one of my favorite productions in my 15 years of seeing plays at Artists Rep. In both plays, the characters played by Alper and Mendelson are highly educated, successful types who have come to terms, more or less, with a provisional lifestyle forced on them by natural disaster. In both, the specter of mortality, by cancer in particular, looms. And in both, the disjunctions in a mostly tight and loving bond are exposed through interactions with a visitor whose worldview differs essentially from theirs.

“But these are really different characters, and different plays,” Mendelson hastens to add. “In Quality everything is really out in the open, but here there are really intense things going on and we’re going to use humor to just avoid them. That’s what people often try to do in real life, too, I think.

“One of the things we want to be conscious of is to create a different relationship, show people different colors. This one is a playful and loving and complicated relationship.”

“For me, the character in this is almost the opposite,” Alper says. “(She’s) much more inhibited and nerdy. Not nearly as sophisticated, even though she’s a scientist. Not as flamboyant. And Brits are so different from Northern California ex-hippies.”

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Despite being called The Children, no children are in the play. Hazel (Alper) and Robin (Mendelson) are retired nuclear engineers getting by in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that has damaged the nearby power station where they used to work. With a surprise visit from Rose, a former colleague (played by another estimable Portland stage veteran, Elizabeth Elias Huffman), they’re soon dancing around long-buried love-triangle points of tension. But the true reason for Rose’s arrival is not just the play’s galvanizing late revelation but also the axis of its philosophical and emotional investigation.

“This is a very funny play,” Alper insists, lest the themes of inevitable aging and potential nuclear meltdown strike you as a downer. “Even though it’s about a heavy subject, it’s a very buoyant piece – very polite, but there’s also a slight nastiness to it. It’s just a really smart, entertaining play.”  

Opening

Okay, this is weird. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 2022 season on Saturday with – no Shakespeare.

Over the course of decades, OSF developed traditions and rhythms within its programming schedule, one of which was that the season always began with a production of one of the namesake playwright’s works, staged in the marvelous theater named after festival founder Angus Bowmer. With all the disruptions of the past few pandemic years, frankly I’ve lost track of what has happened when down in Ashland, whether a Bard-less period actually has happened before. And perhaps times such as these simply puncture the power of precedent. The world may be  returning to normal, but it’s no surprise that normal ain’t what it used to be. (Speaking of which, OSF does still have Covid safety policies in effect.)

In any case, two (not the once-customary four) shows open this weekend. Matters of war, memory and accountability course through Mona Mansour’s unseen  – about an American photographer in Syria – which plays in the Thomas Theatre, under the direction of OSF associate artist director Evren Odcikin. The Bowmer Theatre hosts the myth-making, Caribbean-flavored Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical Once on This Island.  

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Clara-Liis Hillier, Kevin-Michael Moore, and Elizabeth Young in “Don’t Hug Me” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Things are about to get chilly and silly at Broadway Rose, where Don’t Hug Me, a rom-com musical about a mid-winter visit by a smooth-talking karaoke salesman, opens under the direction of the crafty stage veteran Dan Murphy, with a cast including such likable talents as Kevin-Michael Moore and Clara-Liis Hillier.

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Julia K. Harriman and Austin Scott in the national tour of “Hamilton,” playing through May 1 at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo: Joan Marcus

And some little show called Hamilton, merely the most culturally influential and celebrated musical in decades, gets into its latest touring run at the Keller Auditorium.

Freestyle guest supreme

Word has it that the performers of the hip-hop-steeped Freestyle Love Supreme, currently stalking the Armory mainstage for Portland Center Stage, are marvelously adept improvisers and musicians. All the same, it’s good to turn the beat around from time to time. So – guest stars!

And what better guest star for an improv show than Wayne Brady, the Emmy-winning vet of such TV hits as “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” and Broadway star of Hamilton and other shows? Brady will join the Freestyle fun for three performances on Friday the 15th and Saturday the 16th.

Weekenders

Putting a twist on its “Lost Treasures” series of staged-reading-style musicals, Lakewood Theatre presents a new work in development (a “third draft,” says the Lakewood website) by Kurt Misar and Russ Cowan. Canterville!, “loosely adapted” from the Oscar Wilde short story “The Canterville Ghost,” involves ghosts and hell-hounds, jealous lovers and aristocrats, all astir in a great English country house.

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The director and playwright Aaron Posner has spent most of his career back east, but he grew up in Eugene and has directed at Portland Center Stage (including his adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion in 2008). Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater gives his 2013 adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull – with its themes of love and art, generational divisions and lifelong disappointments, but updated as Stupid Fucking Bird – a trio of staged readings over the weekend, directed by Edward James.

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Before he gained wider acclaim with the searing family drama of Rabbit Hole (writing both the 2006 play and the later screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire worked in a very different style, much more madcap, if no less artful. A woman with amnesia; another woman with aphasia as the result of a stroke; a man who communicates through a foul-mouthed puppet; a man called Limping Man but who could as well be called “Lisping Man”; secrets; subterfuge; confusion! All this and more swirls together in the antic, funhouse-mirror comedy Fuddy Meers (the title comes from the stroke victim’s attempt to say “funny mirrors”).  Cody Larsen directs this staged reading at the Newport Performing Arts Center. Proceeds from the shows are intended to help the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts complete art center renovations. 

One night only

That issues of gun violence in America could become more pressing than they’ve been for the past few decades hardly seems possible, and yet, of late…

(Sigh.)

#ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence “addresses gun violence through a variety of lenses and experiences” in eight plays written by high school students and selected by a panel of award-winning playwrights. Presented locally by Third Rail Rep, and scheduled to mark the anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School on April 20 of 1999, the staged readings are free but require reservations for online viewing or in person at Congregation Beth Israel’s Pollin Chapel.

Closing

More than a week before the final shows of In the Name of Forgotten Women, CoHo Productions announced that tickets for the remainder of the run had sold out. But, as sometimes is the case with such popular shows, you might try calling the theater to find out if you might be waitlisted in case of cancellations, or if – as that earlier announcement indicated – there still are slots available for volunteer ushers. 

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Also this weekend, the battery runs out on Stumptown Stages’ musical of digital-age romance, Tinderella

Season’s greetings

Hey, there, Portland Center Stage 2022-2023 season! Look forward to meeting you when you get here in August. I see you’ll arrive with a musical first (in this case, Jonathan Larson’s pre-Rent work tick, tick … BOOM!) – just like old times!

Keep on trucking

You, you, you oughta know! That is, if you’ve read DramaWatch with any regularity, you oughta know that I’ve not much interest in a stage musical constructed around the songs of 1990s rock demi-talent Alanis Morissette.

But then, the Broadway in Portland series – all those bus-and-truck touring shows that plop down periodically in the Keller Auditorium – isn’t programmed with your jaded DramaWatcher’s tastes in mind. But the just-announced Broadway in Portland 2022-2023 season does offer varied shows for varied tastes, some of which even the dyspeptic might enjoy! You’ll have your choice of jukebox musicals (Jagged Little Pill, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg), garishly stylized musicals (Moulin Rouge!, Hairspray), classics literary and less-so (To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady), and one comparatively off-beat charmer (Come From Away).

The Irish succession

This era of administrative change in Portland theater continues apace, now with a (not unexpected) change at Corrib Theatre. Adam Liberman, the Irish-focused theater’s managing director for the past several years, is stepping down, to be replaced by Karl Hanover, who’s been handling media relations and other functions for the company.

“He’s a talented actor, as well as highly experienced off-stage in box office management, house management, and in administrative positions at well-known theatres across Portland and San Francisco,” Liberman says of Hanover in an announcement of the change. “He’s hard-working, organized, and meticulous. He has a strong connection to his native Irish culture, as well as the culture of Portland and to the recent changes and challenges sweeping the country and the non-profit theater world.”

Meanwhile, Corrib remains on the hunt for a new artistic director to take over from the company’s founder, Gemma Whelan. In October, Corrib announced that Justine Nakase would become the new artistic director at the start of 2022. Whelan described Nakase, who was the company’s part-time community engagement director and who also has taught at Portland State University and Linfield College, as the “perfect fit.” Just before Christmas, however, Whelan sent out an email to supporters, informing them that “Nakase, who we announced earlier would take the position, is no longer able to.”

Clarification, of a sort, came later in a post from the Corrib board to the website PDX Backstage.

“Recently we had to dismiss an employee who had been publicly announced as the future Artistic Director of Corrib Theatre,” the board’s letter read, in part. “Corrib has strong standards of conduct to ensure that all employees and contractors treat each other with respect and dignity; feel appreciated; value each other’s contributions, expertise, and experience; and work together in a low-stress and collaborative manner. This employee did not meet that standard, despite having exceptional expertise and qualifications in other respects.”

The letter also expressed regret about how the company handled the matter and said that formal procedures had since been adopted to ensure better performance evaluation and feedback.

The flattened stage

As a subscriber to the online editions of The New York Times, I also receive frequent emails highlighting articles on particular topics, and so, of course, theater is one of these topics. Mostly these emails promote links to new reviews and features, but sometimes pull tidbits out of the archive. Thus, piggybacking (so to speak) on a piece about Joel Grey and his West Village loft, appears this:

Best line I read this week

“I sometimes wonder what Dorothy Gregory thought when she saw me off on my maiden voyage to Greece. She didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go at Easter, and when I got there I did feel alienated. Easter (Pascha) is a big family holiday, and I was a total stranger, a xeni. Dorothy would have cringed if she had heard me trying to keep up my end of the Easter greeting: ‘Christ is risen,’ a person says, and you are supposed to respond, ‘Truly He is risen,’ but I got the ending on my adverb wrong and said, ‘Really? He is?’”

– Mary Norris, in The New Yorker, on learning the wonders of the Greek alphabet and language.

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

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

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.
Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

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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