Contrary to what you might have heard, experimental theater and other forms of contemporary art are nothing to fear. In fact, the auditorium amid the offices of PICA – the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art – has taken on an atmosphere that’s positively alluring in its darkness.
Encircling the space from above are tiny lights arrayed in half-moons, each softly illuminating a hanging crystal skull. Onstage, amid the de rigueur chandeliers, the assembled characters wear lace and fringe and feathers, black cloaks and silver-white wigs, pale powdery makeup and heavy Doc Martens boots. Masks of a fluffy white rabbit and a desiccated bird skull evoke the eternal push-pull between life and death, much as romance and despair mingle in the overall mood of the room.
This is the playfully spooky setting for Cardiac Organ: a Goth Cabaret, the latest concoction from PETE, or the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. The show, which opens Saturday night and runs Wednesday-Sundays through July 8, features covers of 1980s goth-rock songs from such bands as Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Cure and the Cocteau Twins, interspersed with strange tableaux and monologues, all delivered with PETE’s trademark theatrical panache.
After the strangeness and darkness of the pandemic years, director and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman said following a recent dress rehearsal, the company was looking for a production “that would be fun to make for us, fun for audiences and cathartic for everybody. Eventually, this goth cabaret idea floated to the top.”
The company has floated this way before. In 2015, amid a variety of productions grappling in various ways with aspects of Moby Dick, PETE turned the CoHo Theater into the Drowned Horse Tavern, a beer-fueled, sea-shanty-based cabaret show, built around such songs as “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor.”
“And they are great songs,” wrote ArtsWatch founder Barry Johnson, “full of yearning and heartbreak, the life sensual and the life of privation, songs that understand that death is nearby.”
One could say much the same about the material that makes up Cardiac Organ, which, like its predecessor, builds up a kind of thematic and emotional richness through an accretion of images, observations, jokes, sensations…
“It ended up having this through line, but we weren’t trying to make it mean any one thing from the outset,” Coleman said of Drowned Horse Tavern. “Our take on the cabaret form loomed large in the company imagination after that.”
And Cardiac Organ is, he said, “in a way a very personal piece about the company,” reflecting experiences shared by himself and other PETE principals such as set designer Peter Ksander, guitarist/band director/sound designer Mark Valadez, and others. “We all were, to some extent, goth kids. All of us, in our small towns around the country, were listening to these songs at formative times.
“My hope is that it feels inviting to anyone,” Coleman said. “What’s funny, though, is that the three women who perform it, none of them grew up with this music.”
Ah, yes, the three women. At the center of this dark circus are more of PETE’s co-founders, the brilliant actresses Rebecca Lingafelter (fresh off a magnificent performance for Third Rail Rep in the understated drama Mary Jane), Cristi Miles and Amber Whitehall, bringing to mind a vaudeville version of the spectral trio from Shakespeare’s Scottish play.
Just before a midweek run-through, the trio worked on a tricky harmony, Miles in particular trying to pinpoint her note at the end of a passage. “I’m never gonna get it,” she complained mildly.
Suddenly all three were repeating that phrase to a different tune – the catchy ‘90s R&B hit by En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” – harmonizing, dancing, perfectly in sync. Whatever they might lack in goth bona fides they more than make up for in performance skills and camaraderie.
Those PETE members who did grow up goth shared their recollections with playwright Chrisopher Gonzalez (an occasional ArtsWatch contributor), who, as he did for the most recent PETE show, The Americans, absorbed the company’s discussions and devising sessions as inspiration for the show’s text. “They each gave what was essentially a TED Talk about aspects of goth culture that they found interesting,” he said.
Gonzalez described his contributions as “comedy bits in between the songs,” but that’s selling them short. True, some scenes suggest the Catskills of the Damned (“Seriously, what is it with these modern coffins? They obviously haven’t been designed by anyone who’s been dead.”), or skewer the human penchant for vanity, as in a routine about how a colorful death serves as social capital in the Afterlife. But he also touches on love and loss, parental exhaustion, the value of friendship, the tragedies of the world, and the existential despair of the solitary soul (“You should have seen me before Fukushima. You should have seen me before Darfur … You should have seen me before the worst disaster of them all – you should have seen me before I was born.”)
Blended with the show’s imaginative design elements and extravagantly yet precisely expressive performances, the result is like a sort of netherworld comedy-variety show, the bright baubles of the form cracked into beguiling sweet-and-sour oddities.
There’s so much in Cardiac Organ to enjoy and nothing at all to fear.
After all, death is a cabaret, ol’ chum. Come to the cabaret!
Song(s) of the week
There probably is no legal requirement to include the Bauhaus classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in any treatment of goth-rock culture, but the song is almost a sort of foundational text. In case you don’t recall its dark splendor:
Or, for a somewhat contrary view:
Conflict is the heartbeat of drama, and in christopher oscar peña’s How to Make an American Son conflict between Mando, a successful and straitlaced Honduran immigrant, and Orlando, his spoiled gay teen son, is on display from the opening scene. But crucially, so is love, threaded through in small, subtle, clear touches throughout. As the action develops – around Orlando’s spendthrift ways and his schoolboy crushes, and around the contract renewals for the family’s janitorial business – we’re made to see that the bigger, perhaps intractable conflicts are the ones between both these men and a white American hegemony that won’t ever let them pay off their American dream.
The play – and Ben Villagas Randle’s staging for Profile Theatre that’s every bit as moving as it is entertaining – is as clean as one of Mando’s office buildings. Not just in the glassy minimalist set designs by Megan Wilkerson, but in the casually potent dialogue, the easy narrative flow, the clearly flawed yet (mostly) highly likable characters, and most especially in the almost invisible accretion of thematic complexities. Peña’s touch remains almost sit-com light, even as he steps toward profound issues in American society and his character’s hearts.
Led by Jimmy Garcia as Mando and Matthew Sepeda as Orlando, the acting here is especially fine, with Crystal Muñoz giving off a multifaceted shine as a longtime employee of Mando’s and Isaac Lamb finding a voice that perfectly matches the khaki shorts and ugly boat shoes of his character, a cold symbol of both middle-management mediocrity and white privilege.
Lee Blessing’s taut two-act two-hander Going to St. Ives is a study in contrasts – between England and Africa, between colonialism’s highly refined spoils and autocracy’s sadistic whims, between nursery rhyme and realpolitik. But most of all between its two headstrong and impressive characters: May, the mother of the military ruler of an unnamed African “empire,” and Cora, an accomplished surgeon who May has sought out for a problem with her eyes.
Ted Rooney directs a production at his 21ten Theatre (formerly the Shoebox) that features sharply drawn work from Quigley Provost-Landrum as the proud and wily May and Erin McGarry as the almost equally determined Cora. Their charged and transactional relationship – Cora wants a favor of humanitarian aid, May wants help in murdering her own murderous son – is a complex investigation of moral philosophy that plays out like a sort of dual-family drama, the dancing power dynamic between the two often shifting on the grounds of personal revelation. However layered and sometimes even schematic Blessing’s ethical metaphors (vision, surgery, riddles…) may be, this production sheaths them in pulsing life and palpable emotional stakes.
The Pursuit of Happiness, Ernie Lejoi’s new musical getting its premiere production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, is ambitious, fun, fanciful, and, well … new. That is to say, it has a lot going for it, but probably too much going on in it.
The playwright, composer, lyricist and also one of the half-dozen or so performers, Lejoi clearly is a font of talents. His story’s conceit has a group of gods playing with human fates, plopping catastrophes in our paths, thinking that’ll snap us awake. So the actors here do double duty as deities draped in thrift-store futurism who think a nuclear attack on Hawaii will do us good, and as mortal couples with hidden time bombs in their relationships and sexual identities.
Lejoi moves his human characters through an admirable and mostly deft dance through several dilemmas and opportunities of society’s emerging genderqueer times, with only a gentle poke at heteronormativity (although serving up a few sharp elbows to Christian moralism). His songs are bright and tuneful and his dialogue brims with clever wordplay and a sort of intellectual fractiousness. But the repetition of running jokes gets overdone and the story seems to wander through several plausible endings before still tacking on an epilogue. As directed by Rusty Tenant, this production is spirited and warm. But a little pruning of happiness is in order.
Also this weekend it’s time for Stumptown Stages’ production of The Full Monty to pull its civvies back on and leave the Brunish Theatre.
That the road to recovery from the Covid crisis remains bumpy for many arts groups should come as no surprise. All the same, last week’s announcement of an end – at least for now – to one of the country’s most renowned theaters felt like a rude shock.
Southern California’s Center Theatre Group has responded to a sharp decline in attendance and revenue not just with layoffs but with the suspension of productions at the highly regarded Mark Taper Forum, through at least the 2023-’24 season.
“The Los Angeles organization becomes the latest arts organization in the country — from regional theaters to symphony orchestras to opera houses — to grapple with a drop-off in attendance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” reported The New York Times. “The center, which has a long record of championing new and innovative work, has been struggling to redefine its mission and regain its financial footing since reopening after the pandemic.”
Added an article in American Theatre magazine: “‘We’ve been putting on a brave face, saying, ‘We’re back, we’re strong,’” said [CTG managing director Meghan] Pressman, referring not only to CTG but to the theatre field writ large. ‘We need to send the message that, no, actually we’re hurting. We’re not back to normal. We need your support.’”
The flattened stage
The best line I read this week
“I have resolved not to be a suicide because I love life which I know, better than death which I don’t, and which I suspect is the ultimate bore.”
– Alice Walker, from a journal entry, New Year’s Day, 1978, as quoted in The New Yorker
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.