Oregon ArtsWatch DramaWatch Marty Hughley

DramaWatch: Michael Mendelson, from stage to sage

The versatile actor moves into the top seat at The Actors Conservatory. Plus: Wade McCollum's return, openings, closings.

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Michael Mendelson with frequent onstage partner Linda Alper (center) and Elizabeth Elias Huffman in Artists Rep’s 2022 production of “The Children.” Photo: Lava Alapai

As one of only a dozen fully accredited stand-alone actor-training schools in the country, Portland’s The Actors Conservatory rightly cast a wide net when looking for a new managing artistic director. With the company’s founder, Beth Harper, set to retire after leading the school for 37 years, the organization spent months on a national search, fielding applications, interviewing semi-finalists, then finalists, etc.

In the end, the school’s board decided that the right solution was close at hand, choosing the veteran Portland actor, director and teacher Michael Mendelson. In addition to his roles as artistic director of Portland Shakespeare Project and a resident artist with Artists Repertory Theatre, Mendelson has taught at The Actors Conservatory since 2009. He’ll move into the leadership post there on July 1. 

Harper, according to the announcement, will stay on for as much as two years as Artistic Director Emeritus.  

“It seems like everything I’ve done in my career has been building to this: my years as an actor, my years as a teacher, my years as a director, my years as an artistic director,” Mendelson said last week in a phone interview, shortly after his hiring was announced.

As an actor, Mendelson arguably has been the most accomplished in the city over the past couple of decades, delivering memorable performances for a host of companies, from the little Northwest Classical Theatre (for whom he created an absolutely galvanizing Shylock in the 40-seat Shoebox Theatre) to Portland Center Stage. At Artists Rep, his work ranged from emotionally complex contemporary dramas (The Quality of Life, Marjorie Prime, the recent and exquisite The Children) to wry comedies (Blithe Spirit, Holidazed) to the occasional classic (The Cherry Orchard), with the abundant craft, intellect and precision usually disappearing into a vividly realized, fully felt character. Though his directing resume isn’t as long, he’s shown a similar scrupulous skill and fine emotional attunement. 

Michael Mendelson: from stage to sage. Photo courtesy The Actors Consevatory.

Mendelson currently is in rehearsals, directing The Winter’s Tale for Portland Shakes, set to open July 7. But theater audiences will have to get used to seeing less of his work onstage for awhile.

“I know that acting is going to be on hold for a time,” Mendelson said. “TAC is a huge job and it’ll be my focus. But we’re looking to create some alliances, including with Portland Shakespeare Project.” 

It no doubt will help that Karen Rathje, managing director of Portland Shakes, more recently took on the same position with the conservatory as well. “If Karen and I, at some point, decide that circumstances require creating a new role for me with Portland Shakes, we’ll do that – with the understanding that TAC is the priority.”

With such a busy creative life already in place, what led him to pursue a job that’s likely to be both demanding and somewhat more administrative in nature?

“One factor was Covid and the lockdown,” he replied. “That was an opportunity to think about what I want, what the next part of my life would be. Many artists in town juggle a lot of things to make our nut and to find artistic fulfillment. And I’ve been happy to be able to do that. But I started to think about what it would be like to not do that. So when this opening became available, I really started to think about that: What would it be like to commit to that, to sit in that seat until I retire – which is how I’m thinking of this. I’m awfully excited about the future.

“My goal is to give students the very best educational experience we can. They will always be first in any changes we might make. I want them to be able to craft a life in the arts.” 

Opening

Wade McCollum, on the line in “Mr. Madam” at Triangle Productions. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

WE ALWAYS KNEW we’d lose him. 

In the first decade of this century, Wade McCollum was a blazing star in Portland theater, the sort of outsized talent seemingly destined for brighter climes. He grabbed attention at Portland Center Stage in Bat Boy: the Musical, and was a mercurial marvel in the solo play I Am My Own Wife. At Artists Rep, he was part of a near-legendary production of Sondheim’s Assassins. In 2007, a neophyte theater critic wrote that he played the Emcee in Cabaret “like a cat with a mouse tail peeking out of his mouth.” At one point, he starred simultaneously at PCS in the solo comic romp The Santaland Diaries and at Portland Playhouse, playing twin roles in the drama Dying City. It was no surprise that his talent took him along to other regional theaters, national tours, Off Broadway shows.

But then, we never really had him. Discussing his career in 2010 with that same struggling critic, McCollum pointed out that the closest he’d ever come to actually living in Portland was a year in which he did four shows back to back while housed at the Mark Spencer Hotel. 

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The Portland Ballet fall enrollment 2022

All the same, Portland theater fans will be happy to see him again, as he returns to Triangle Productions (where he once starred in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that I sorely regret missing) for Mr. Madam. Written and directed by Triangle Productions’ Don Horn, this solo show is based on the life and writings of a mid-century drag performer named Kenneth Marlowe, who becomes a madam in more than one sense – first, in the sexual-services sense, then later transitioning to female gender identity as Kate Marlowe. The role would seem to have some echoes of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the transgender woman who was the subject of I Am My Own Wife, though likely with a more light-hearted story.

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THEATER IS, IN ALMOST ALL INSTANCES, a highly collaborative art form, and that’s especially so of a musical. Bad World, a musical getting its premier production at Shaking the Tree from Portland’s Crave Theatre, is the work of numerous artists – the book alone is credited to an eight-person “devising team.” And yet it’s hard not to imagine that the driving force behind the show, nearly seven years in the making, is Kylie Jenifer Rose, who, in addition to being part of that devising team, has co-written the lyrics (with Jennifer Provenza) and the music (with James Liptak), and is one of the show’s four performers. She even lends her name to the central character. 

Part coming-of-age story, part survivors’ testimony, Bad World concerns Rose, a young woman who’s been sexually assaulted while travelling for a research project and joins a support group to cope with that past. Rose – Kylie Jennifer, that is – is an engaging performer, and the songs for Bad World are lovely as well as dramatically taut. The show is directed by Rachael Singer and Jennifer Lanier, with musical direction by Andrew Bray.

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From left: Sara Hennessy, Cynthia Shur Petts, Nicole Marie Green in Corrib Theatre’s “Kissing the Witch.” Photo: Adam Lieberman

THE PAGE ON CORRIB THEATRE’S website for Kissing the Witch, by Irish-Canadian playwright Emma Donoghue, has photos of all of the show’s cast and creative team, except one – projection designer Alan Cline. Perhaps that’s just a coincidence, but maybe a fitting one: Cline appears (if that’s the word) to be the only male involved in this production of feminism-focused fairy tales. 

The site also takes care to point out that this “is not a children’s show” (recommending it for those 12 and older). Rather, it is a set of short pieces adapted from Donoghue’s 1997 book Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, which reworked the Brothers Grimm and others.  

“Donoghue’s stories,” reads on abstract at Brill.com, “offer alternative possibilities of female emancipation that reach beyond the boundaries of traditional folk plots. Her female characters subvert the canon, bringing to the fore issues hitherto alien to the fairy-tale universe.” 

Tracy Cameron Francis directs an ensemble cast including Nicole Marie Green, Sara Hennessy, Wynee Hu and Cynthia Shur Petts. 

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Eleanor O’Brien, performing her “How to Really, Really? REALLY! Love a Woman” at the 2020 Fertile Ground Festival. Photo: Shiah Lints

ARTISTS SOMETIMES STRUGGLE to find a clear and consistent direction or theme for their work, something engaging and rewarding they can revisit again and again. But you might say Eleanor O’Brien has that licked. The Portland writer/performer’s “sex-positive theater” crusade continues with Plan V: The Joyful Cult of Pussy Worship, getting a workshop production in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival as prep for touring to the Vagina Museum in London and the famed Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This latest show borrows elements, she says, from her last touring show, How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman, and her virtual presentation Cult of Cunnilingus, which was featured earlier this year in the Fertile Ground festival. It also attempts to capture today’s rapidly shifting gender-and-sex zeitgeist by imagining life a decade in the future. 

***

THE PORTLAND ARTS organization From the Ground Up presents Still Here: a Mini Festival of New Works in Progress, featuring ten members of its residency program, including such noteworthy talents as the musician and theater artist Jana Crenshaw and (on the second weekend) the theatrically minded dance star Andrea Parson, who has worked with such multi-disciplinary innovators as Susan Banyas.

***

IN VANCOUVER, Wash., Magenta Theater presents Same Time Next Year,  Bernard Slade’s 1975 rom-com about a long-running affair in which the couple meets for an annual tryst for 24 years.

Closing

Lakewood’s small-cast version of Lerner & Loewe’s classic musical Camelot prepares to ride off into myth and legend.

The flattened stage

“All the world’s a stage,” goes the adage, but these days it might be amended to “All the world’s a promo.” So, the bulk of this clip of a show called “Broadway Bartender” concerns the show Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. If you’re mostly interested just in Wade McCollum himself, he offers a glimpse of his upbringing just past the 11-minute mark, followed by a banjo demonstration!

Travel plans

As if to herald the solstice with poetry, not just one but two Shakespeare festivals kick into gear next weekend. The venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland began its season in April this year (rather than the customary February), but for some fans the real deal is when productions move onto the stage of the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre. There, we’ll be treated to the late, great Bard’s great, late Romance The Tempest, directed by Nicholas C. Avila and starring the terrific OSF veteran Kevin Kenerly as Prospero; also, Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation, a musical-comedy-adventure spectacle by Qui Nguyen, Robert Ross Parker and Shane Rettig.


Even more intriguing – for novelty and variety, at the least – is the 2022 Opera House Shakespeare Festival, at the Elgin Opera House, just northeast of La Grande. The brainchild of former Northwest Classical Theatre Company head Grant Turner, now associate artistic director for the Opera House, this 10-day inaugural fest features productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello (with Portland stalwart and esteemed ArtsWatch contributor Bobby Bermea in the title role) and The Merchant of Venice. 

Best line I read this week

“I don’t really like the word ‘genius’ applied to the theater. I don’t think that theater can quite cope with genius. I think it’s too practicable a business to have to worry with genius. I think, if anything, the height of ambition should be to have a genius for practicability.”

– OK, not read this time, but heard, from Sir Laurence Olivier, in an interview with Dick Cavett

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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One Response

  1. I just watched that very Dick Cavett interview and find Olivier to be so very interesting…he is not terribly impressed with himself, as one might expect, and like Brando in his interview with Cavett not terribly impressed with acting in general…although I think Olivier has more “respect for acting”.

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