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DramaWatch: Profile and the playwrights

At Profile, a gathering of contemporary voices. Plus: Clowning around at Milagro, Corrib's gritty solo show, last days for "Come From Away," Portland Playhouse's new season and more.

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The playwrights: Lauren Yee, Kristoffer Diaz, christopher oscar peña. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre.

“It seems like just a small workshop, but it’s really a new arm in the spiral of Profile’s evolution.”

That’s Josh Hecht, speaking in casually cosmic terms about The Playwright Convening, which has brought a couple of the Profile Theatre currently featured writers to Portland for the past week. In a manner similar to Portland Center Stage’s annual playwrights festival, JAW, this convening allows the writers – in this case Kristoffer Diaz and christopher oscar peña – to work with directors and casts (and to a certain extent, if they wish, each other) on their latest plays, reworking or refining what’s on the page to come to life more clearly on the stage.

Hecht, Profile’s artistic director, is right that the event marks a key move forward for the company. Though Profile, since its inception, has been keenly focused on theater as a literary art, Hecht points out that only now, a quarter-century into its history, is the company commissioning, developing and premiering works for the stage.

That new facet to the company’s work is part and parcel of how that evolutionary spiral has moved during Hecht’s tenure. 

Under founding artistic director Jane Unger, Profile emerged with a clear, concise mission and a format to match: Each season’s slate of productions focused on the work of a single playwright. First came a season devoted to Arthur Kopit, then Tennessee Williams, then Constance Congdon, with Arthur Miller, Athol Fugard and others following. “Jane was very interested in the titans of 20th-century playwrights,” Hecht says. Her successor, Adriana Baer, “moved us more into the 21st century” using the same format for works by the likes of Quiara Alegria Hudes. 

After Hecht’s arrival in 2017, though, the Profile calendar became slightly more complicated, with “double seasons” addressing two or more writers whose works bear some relation. Lately, for example, the schedule has been alternating productions of works by Diaz, peña, and Lauren Yee, under the thematic rubric of “the American generation.” 

As Hecht explains, the revised format serves a variety of company goals. As engrossing as the original approach was, it often meant full seasons – and sometimes successive years – of plays by white men. So the new scheduling helps Hecht make the programming more equitable more quickly.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

And while the featured writers of recent seasons may lack the familiarity of, say, a Neil Simon or a Sam Shepard, presenting them in clusters allows for a sort of thematic and stylistic crosstalk amid the plays, Hecht says: “When we started that in 2018 with Lisa Kron and Anna Deavere Smith, we found that the way the plays speak to each other, in terms of how they approach their subjects and how audiences respond to them and so on, that was really exciting for us. And you’re still going to see, say, four Paula Vogel plays in 18 months or whatever; so it is still a deep dive into a body of work.”

Hecht’s more thematic, perhaps even sociological orientation comes out in these “American generation” seasons. “They’re all writing in what’s undeniably an American milieu,” he points out. “Their stories are set amid basketball, pro wrestling, Chinatown – these very American things. And they’re all writing about the creating of distinctive cultural identities in fashioning an American identity. And one that’s very pluralistic and multicultural.”

Much as with JAW, the gritty work of polishing the plays gets put to the test, so to speak, with public readings at the end of the process. Diaz’ Reggie Hoops (which previously had a college production but which Profile will give a professional premiere) takes the stage Friday night. On Saturday afternoon it’s peña’s our orange sky. Then Sunday afternoon they’ll take part in an onstage artists talk hosted by Hecht and joined (remotely) by Yee, who was unable to attend in person because of family duties. After the weekend, peña will stick around for the first week of rehearsals for Profile’s next production, his play How to Make an American Son.

“It’s going so well,” Hecht says about the convening overall. “It’s just been great to bring these people together.” 

Opening

John San Nicolas in the clown nose in “The Play You Want.” Photo courtesy Milagro Theatre.

Milagro presents The Play You Want. And of course we all want what we want. That title is barbed, however. Reminiscent in concept of the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, this Faustian cultural satire by Benardo Cubria concerns a writer who sarcastically dashes off a work of crass racial cliches only to have it become his pathway to success. It might also sound familiar because Milagro previously gave it a reading in the virtual days of the pandemic in 2020. This time, we get to experience it in person, with a cast featuring the talented John San Nicolas.

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Corrib Theatre’s ongoing exploration of contemporary Irish stage literature brings us Myra’s Story by Brian Foster, a one-woman show that grapples with such cheery matters as alcoholism and generational trauma, though, as the theater notes, “embodying Irish humor and tenacity.” For insight far beyond my ken, ArtsWatch also has published a discussion between the show’s star, the redoubtable Luisa Sermol, and its dramaturg, the brilliant Portland author and activist Rene Denfeld. Corrib founder Gemma Whelan returns to the company to direct.

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

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The Doomsday Clock – that graphic representation of our proximity to global catastrophe – was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, with the possibility of nuclear holocaust newly apparent. But the 1980s, that era marked by the greedy triumphalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, seems a better time than most to examine our collective propensity to peer into the abyss. 

Hand2Mouth Theatre’s Youth Devising Ensemble takes over the former Victoria’s Secret space in the Lloyd Center mall (fitting place to ponder decadence and impending disaster, no?) to present Closer to Doomsday? No Duh?, a  “look at societal destruction through 1980’s pop culture,” directed by Olivia Mathews and Jenni GreenMiller.

One night only

Shelley McLendon, artistic director of Siren Theater and Portland sketch-comedy all-star, leads The Siren Theater Improv Giants to the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio for a night of off-the-cuff fun on Monday, May 8. Though of course they’ll be making it up as they go along, the page about the event on the Portland Center Stage website suggests they have a theme in mind, noting that they’ll riff on “all things Holmes and Watson.”  

Closing

The North American tour of “Come From way” continues through Sunday, May 7, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Perhaps it’s ironic that a show about being stuck should have such a sense of propulsive movement, but that’s just one of the curious charms of Come From Away, the hit Broadway musical about a small Newfoundland town with a strategic location and a large airport and – quite suddenly – thousands of passengers grounded amid the global uncertainty following the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s not a dancerly show, really, but the briskness of the storytelling, with a marvelous ensemble gliding effortlessly among multiple roles, sweeps you along through an unusual yet life-changing incident that feels like an unlikely juxtaposition of the everyday and the epic. The music, inflected with strains of Celtic lilt and folk-rock lift, is sometimes almost too determinedly rousing, but with the surge of fellow-feeling the story provides you’ll be in no mood to do much but let it carry you away. 

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Great Wide Open, Portlander Jessica Wallenfels’ adaptation of a novel by Kevin Canty, didn’t really pique my interest in its source material; its narrative, while engaging, is a bit quotidian. But the open-hearted emotional expression and vivid, kinetic theatricality that Wallenfels and co-director Charles Grant bring to this production, which features a vibrant and versatile cast, make it one of the great pleasures of this theater season.

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

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Also ending its run this weekend is Impulse: Sweet 16, the improv showcase for the talented teens of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals program.

Season’s greetings

Portland Playhouse recently announced the programming for its 16th season. The snarky part of me thinks that such a milestone might’ve been marked by, say, an adaptation of the John Hughes flick 16 Candles, or perhaps (for something a bit darker) Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. But the Playhouse itself is long past the learner’s-permit stage, having developed quickly from plucky upstart to become one of the region’s leading companies.

Its four-show season for 2023-’24 starts with artistic director Brian Weaver helming the highly regarded musical of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, serves up the customary cold-weather comfort of A Christmas Carol (which this company somehow keeps managing to rid of any scent of mothballs), and then things get really interesting.

Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field ventures into the fraught territory where our educational and criminal-justice systems overlap. And Passing Strange, the Tony-winning musical by Stew (along with Heidi Rodewald, both formerly of the witty and incisive rock band the Negro Problem), offers a singularly entertaining perspective on Black cultural identity, following its young protagonist “from the gospel churches of South Central L.A. to the punk rock clubs of Amsterdam and Berlin” as he navigates amid his emerging sense of himself and the peculiar racial mirror that others hold up to him. 

The flattened stage

The 2023 Tony Award nominations recently were announced, and among the prominent contenders is the corniest show of them all: Shucked, a musical comedy (with book by Robert Horn and songs by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally) that The New York Times called a “glut of gleeful puns” and that in the show’s own description qualifies as “cornography.” Wrote the Times critic Jesse Green with grudging admiration, “For more than two hours, it pelts you with piffle so egregious — not just puns but also dad jokes, double entendres and booby-trapped one-liners — that, forced into submission, you eventually give in.”

Whatever pop of pleasure or kernel of wisdom that show might provide, however, I wonder if it can be worth the trip all the way to Broadway – when, after all, we can just go to YouTube and lend an ear to a sweet treat from our beloved Apple Sisters:

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

The best line I read this week

“The doctor came in with a gang of medical students and interns, making their rounds … She didn’t like drug addicts … ’I have a question for you: When they brought you here, they did a toxicology screen on you and found you had Fentanyl, morphine, heroin, cocaine, PCP, Benzodiazepine, methamphetamine, and alcohol in your system. The only thing you didn’t have in your system was marijuana. You don’t smoke marijuana?’

“I paused for effect and said, ‘I’m trying to get a job.’”

– Jerry A. Lang, former singer for Portland’s “Kings of Punk,” Poison Idea, in his memoir “Black Heart Fades Blue.” 

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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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