DramaWatch: Monster Mash-Up

CoHo Clown CoHort cavorts through Romanticism's fertile ground; meanwhile openings and closings dot the Portland theater calendar.

The work done in the past few years by director Philip Cuomo and his CoHo Clown CoHort has been fun of a high order, inspired lunacy resolving itself into a deeper sort of sense. In Philip’s Glass Menagerie, from 2018, and last year’s Witch Hunt, Cuomo used clowning’s heightened physical style to plow new roads into the interior of classics by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (respectively), not performing the plays but riffing on their themes and characters, creating looser, more imagistic alternative narratives while arriving at similar truths.

The Clown CoHort’s latest project, which was presented in a workshop version as part of the Fertile Ground festival, ups the ante. From the title alone, Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (a Romance) sounds absurd, almost like a taunt to anyone who might ask the artist that cliched question “Where do your ideas come from?” (though Cuomo’s director’s note actually spells out the origins and connections quite sensibly). But there’s also something about that name—the double parentheticals are what really gives it panache—signalling that we’re going over the top here for a reason.

Sascha Blocker (left) and Emily Newton in the CoHo Clown CoHort’s surprisingly touching Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (A Romance). Photo: courtesy of CoHo Productions.

Instead of extrapolating playfully from a single, essentially serious text, this one’s a monster mash-up. Those previous pieces came from what Cuomo called an interest “in mid-century American realism as a contextual jumping-off place.” With the threads drawn from classical music and Mary Shelley’s philosophical-horror touchstone Frankenstein, the new show shifts that launch point back a century or so, to Romanticism’s era of grand passion and great discovery. Yet it takes a crazy bounce off the 1930s and ‘40s all the same, through the inescapable references to movies such as James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein and the kiddie-matinee fodder Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Since we’re already transposing themes into different cultural keys, why not make Beethoven and Chopin our Abbott and Costello stand-ins?

So, the set-up sounds like it’s leading to something even more madcap, but funny things happen when you start clowning around this seriously. Monster Hunters (seems like the best abbreviated name, to me), though certainly funny, turns out to be the least uproarious of the Clown CoHort shows. Yet it’s surprisingly lovely, and easily the most emotionally affecting.

The show still is in need of some, er, restitching. On the night I saw it, the audience began to clap at several late moments that felt like poignant endings only to find the show wandering on in search of a more shapely ending. But there’s something terrific here, just under the chisel.

A lot of the hilarity in the previous shows came courtesy of Emily Newton, whose quick wit and outsize expressiveness fuel characters that seem to move through the world like big grumpy authority figures flustered by the ineptitude around them. She’s up to her scene-chewing ways again here as Beethoven, stalking the stage in pursuit of “moon-stahs!,” as she pronounces it amid the elliptical dialogue, and furrowing a fuzzy brow during musical interludes with Emily Eisele’s moon-faced and mutton-chopped Chopin. 

All along, though, the CoHort’s secret weapon has been Sascha Blocker, cast mostly in the role of the young innocent who awakens our sympathy amid the yucks and the broader pathos of the more demonstrative characters. Her role is less like that of a comic “straight man”—and she has precision skills for eliciting a laugh when she wants—than like an emotional/tonal center for the shows, especially this one. 

Sascha Blocker, “lovely, precise, emotionally transparent” as Laura in Philip’s Glass Menagerie. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

There’s something interesting about watching Blocker, one of Portland theater’s great beauties, bloom into a niche as a clown. She neither plays up nor subverts her looks, but rather achieves a kind of emotional transparency that can draw us in, as in the early going here when her Bride of Frankenstein is a pained and inarticulate outcast, or dazzle us, as she learns and grows, moving from monstrousness to grace

The vehicle of that grace is the romance that develops between Blocker’s Bride and Eisele’s charming, almost pixie-ish Chopin, which develops slowly and sweetly. In a way that wasn’t always so in the previous shows, the main plot thrust here is clear: The Monster Hunter gets captured by the game.

Taking history for a spin

Because Cuomo isn’t just the Clown CoHort’s director but producing artistic director for CoHo Productions, Monster Hunter is all but guaranteed to get a finished staging later this year. The future of another Fertile Ground standout isn’t as certain.

eVortex 1, a musical by writer Sue Mach and composer Bill Wadhams, packed the Village Ballroom last Monday, as it packed the Mission Theater during last year’s festival. Last year, the show was only half-written, but its potential was obvious; this time, fans got a staged reading (directed by Allen Nause) of a full draft, and it was fantastic. The show’s title and its subject come from a rock festival staged outside Portland in 1970 as a diversionary tactic to keep anti-Vietnam War protesters from clashing with visitors to an American Legion convention with Richard Nixon initially scheduled as keynote speaker (he canceled at the last minute). That’s a fascinating story of culture and politics, but what makes this piece so engaging is the way Mach’s book and lyrics illuminate the character of the central figure, Oregon Governor Tom McCall. Not yet the revered figure of civic myth, this McCall is a gin-swilling former newspaperman muddling through his first term and doubting his political future. Through private ruminations, debates with his aides and adversaries, and tussles with his sweetly overbearing mother, we see a political and personal transformation take place in response to potential crisis.

Leif Norby’s performance as McCall is close enough for rock’n’roll, which— because this is essentially a rock musical—is damn-near perfect. It isn’t only McCall’s story, though, and a character Mach invented, a young anti-war activist named Sally, balances things out as an embodiment of flower-power idealism and the good-natured promise of youth. It’s a cliche to say that a performer “shines” in a role, but what other word would be right for Malia Tippets, whose easygoing, open affect and astonishingly clear singing lift the show to another level.

For a show that hasn’t been workshopped extensively yet — something every musical needs—Vortex 1 appears ready to get up on its feet and start moving toward production. But as of Monday’s reading, Mach said the project’s next step wasn’t clear. That’s too bad. That Portland Center Stage— which takes pride in presenting plays about the Northwest and also has made it a priority to produce more plays by women—hasn’t snapped this up for a world premiere is strange and puzzling.

The flattened stage

It’s impossible to see everything in the Fertile Ground festival. But not everything disappears into the ether once the annual event is over. Just by chance, in my periodic wanderings around YouTube, I came across this clip from the 2013 installment of Live on Stage’s “4×4 Musicals” event. Mark LaPierre’s Tech Booth: the Musical seems especially apt for the busy creative chaos of this time of year.

Quick hits

One of the most acclaimed works from last year’s Fertile Ground festival was The Undertaking, an affecting, bittersweet examination of the fraught emotional terrain of end-of-life care. A movement/theater piece conceived and directed by Jessica Wallenfells, it featured sensitive and powerful performances by the magnificent JoAnn Johnson as an elderly woman raging against not just the dying of the light but the thwarting of her will, and by Beth Thompson as her devoted but frustrated daughter. Bag & Baggage brings the show—including accompaniment by the Northwest Piano Trio playing Shostakovich—back for a welcome, if brief, two-night engagement in Hillsboro.

JoAnn Johnson (left) and Beth Thompson star in The Undertaking. Photo: Gary Norman.

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Susan Banyas’ The Hillsboro Story, which first appeared  in 2010 as a stage production by Artists Rep, keeps on—as good stories are wont to do—finding new forms. A kaleidoscopic mix of memoir, oral history, historical and journalistic research, poetic reflection and social-justice advocacy, it reports and contextualizes a complicated civil rights battle that took place in Banyas hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio, in the 1950s—an early test case following the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.

Banyas built out from the stage script to create a book also called The Hillsboro Story, published last fall (and featured in Oregon ArtsWatch) and also has turned it into educational curricula, and various excerpted performances. This Sunday she’ll make two presentations at West Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. At the morning services she’ll give a speech called Discovering the Beloved Kaleidoscope Community. Then at 4 p.m. she’ll perform what she’s calling Outtakes, excerpts from the published material and some of the bits that didn’t fit, woven through with music by her longtime collaborator David Ornette Cherry.

Opening

NW Children’s Theater brings back its hit Jungle Book adaptation, created several years ago in partnership with Anita Menon of the Anjali School of Dance, giving the Rudyard Kipling classic a fresh, Bollywood-spiced flavor.

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Despite the sweetly evocative title En el Tiempo de las Mariposas, which translates to “In the Time of the Butterflies,” the latest play at Milagro isn’t exactly all color and light. Written by Caridad Svich, two-time winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award, and based on an acclaimed work of historical fiction by Julia Alvarez, it dramatizes the lives of the Mirabal sisters, resistance activists against the the mid-20th-century “El Jefe” dictatorship of the Dominican Republic. Christy Drogosch directs a production in Spanish with English supertitles.

Closing

Racial reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding remain matters of contemporary concern, but there are inherent dramatic advantages to addressing those themes through 1960s settings. The ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. hover just outside the frame of Blind, a new play by the Portland writer Bonnie Ratner, not as sanctified (if inconsistently honored) civic tenets but as the proposals of a living and controversial figure. The focus of the play, though, is not on Great Men of History, but on a Jewish shoe salesman suspicious of the black Brooklyn neighborhood around his shop, and on a woman from that neighborhood determined to talk some social justice sense into him. 

Determinedly optimistic, the play—in a premiere production by Chapel Theatre Collective—blithely skirts all the possible tragic outcomes in favor of, well, reconciliation and understanding that come about with effort instead of pain. All the same, the story is engaging, and the characters and their journeys made real through several fine performances — especially by Jason Glick as the shopkeeper, Jill Westerby as his alcoholic wife back on Long Island, Andrea White as the enlightened antagonist, and Anthony Green Caloca as a more distrustful Jewish merchant. Well worth the trip to Milwaukie.

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A Tony Award winner for best musical and best score (among other categories), Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a flawed yet sympathetic teen outcast who gets the emotional connections he craves by creating an elaborate deception about his relationship with a classmate who has killed himself. The show has been criticized for letting its protagonist off the hook too easily, favoring feel-good resolution over dramatic logic. But more so it has earned praise for its treatment of issues such as social anxiety, grief and loneliness, its engaging and affecting songs, and relatably conflicted central character. The Broadway touring company has just a few more evenings at the Keller Auditorium.

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Though it later went on to indie-film and TV versions, Del Shores’ Sordid Lives first appeared as a stage production in 1996 in Los Angeles, where it ran for years. A Twilight Theatre production directed by Meghan Daaboul ends its three-week run on Sunday. Billed (somewhat crudely) by publishing company Samuel French as a “black comedy about white trash,” the play concerns a small-town Texas family preparing for the funeral of a respected matriarch who has died in unexpected and embarrassing circumstances. 

The best line(s) I read this week

“Life doesn’t go on. It goes nowhere except away. Death goes on. Going on is what death does for a living. The secret to surviving in the universe is to be dead.”

— from “77 Sunset Me” (or The Art of Dying) by Peter Schjeldahl in The New York Times

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

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