DramaWatch: Punch-Drunk Life

Imago Theatre's "Special K" drinks deep of theatrical madness. Plus openings from CoHo, Corrib, and defunkt dot the theater calendar.

“She’s crazy. Always has been, always will be. There’s nothing here but a play.”

— from Special K, by Jerry Mouawad

In times such as these, who’s to say what’s crazy? Most of us probably think we know crazy when we see it, but if we find ourselves in its lap we might not be so sure. Special K, a new play by the always-intriguing Jerry Mouawad and Imago Theatre, is about going crazy. And about being crazy. And/or not being crazy after all. And about the way that craziness breeds more craziness around it.

It also seems to be about — sometimes fleetingly and flittingly, sometimes deep in its madly circuitous structure — mental illness, drug-induced psychosis, power and manipulation, complicity and duplicity, acting and improvising, sexuality and gender dynamics, the philosophical dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the permeable membrane between internal experience and objective reality, the elusiveness of truth, and the importance of knowing what’s in your cup.

“The insane are holier than the sane.” So says the Queen — or maybe she’s the Empress — in Imago Theatre’s Special K. Anne Sorce (center) stars, with (clockwise from left) Danny Gray, Matthew Sunderland, Emily Welch and Stephanie Woods. Photo: Jerry Mouawad.

All in all, it’s another distinctive creation from Imago, Portland’s most enduringly, consistently inventive and surprising theater company. Originally planned as a one-act, the project grew into a longer play, necessitating a week’s delay in opening. That means this weekend and next offer the few chances to see this fascinating work.

Strange and compelling, part dark comedy, part epic tragedy, part absurdist merry-go-round, Special K is Mouawad’s extended riffing on the “reality puzzles,” as he calls them, of the early-20th-century Italian writer Luigi Pirandello, particularly a 1922 play called Enrico IV (or Henry IV). Perhaps fittingly for such a slippery, kaleidoscopic piece, Mouawad says he doesn’t remember the exact origins of Special K, of quite how Pirandello’s explorations of illusion and identity moved to the center of his own creative process. Another antecedent of the play, he says, was a project he worked on several years ago but abandoned — “15 versions of a screenplay about a guy who thought he was JFK.”

Somehow that notion melded with the premise of Henry IV, which centers on a modern aristocrat who has injured his head falling from a horse and subsequently spent 20 years believing himself to be an 11th-century German king. Unable to cure him, his family sets him up in a remote castle and hires actors to play along with his delusion. As with the Pirandello play, Mouawad’s play opens with an actor arriving to join the small cast/royal court, and as he struggles to understand and play this elaborate theatrical game, so do we in the audience.

“I hadn’t read Henry IV in a decade, but I did remember that opening scene,” Mouawad says about the start of his writing process. Rather than go back directly to the source, he had an assistant write outlines of the Pirandello play and of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime as inspiration/reference, then went on along his stream-of-consciousness way.

Special K centers on a character called HER, a queen who is so mercurial that she’s not even always a queen; alternating hours, upon the hour, she becomes empress, and woe to her courtiers who lose track of the time and call her by the wrong title. Instead of an equine accident, her mind’s been pitched back several centuries by an overdose of party punch spiked with the anesthetic ketamine, known in street-drug parlance as Special K. 

Mouawad switched the gender of his central character for a simple reason: the presence of a magnificent actress right for the role. Anne Sorce has been a star of the Imago stage for several years, and her performance in Special K ranks alongside the likes of 2012’s Black Lizard as one of her most striking and memorable. She first enters as a regal and terrifying beauty. Soon she’s tossing off anachronistic comments and bits of antic wordplay. Then suddenly she’s throwing a friendly arm around one of her minions and speaking to him like an ad for a dating service. That’s just within one brief scene, and as the play goes along she’s by turns fragile, distant, glowering, goofy…Orbiting this zig-zagging star and navigating tiffs and trysts of their own are her actors/courtiers, two men, Narcissus and Goldmund (“named after HER favorite book”), and two women, Thelma and Louise (“named after her favorite movie”).

“Sometimes it feels like a Sid Caesar show, sometimes it feels like a Hitchcock psychodrama, sometimes it feels like something else again,” Mouawad said, speaking before a mid-week dress rehearsal. 

The fluid style and tone keep the audience as unsettled as the characters, but that seems to be the point, especially as the shifts are made with such artful precision by the performers (a cast of seven, including Sorce) as well as by the many moods of Jon Farley’s lighting and Myrrh Larsen’s sound design. Who’s in character or not, who’s innocent, who’s evil, what’s real or what does that even mean — it’s all up for grabs.

“In directing it, in working with the actors, I’m always asking, ‘Is there a way to latch on to one way of seeing things, to give it a really strong thread, but let it still resonate with the other possible interpretations. That was a lot of what the Harold Pinter plays I did a couple of years ago were about; I think I learned a lot by directing Pinter.
“I’m kind of like a Cubist painter; I want all sides to be resonating at the same time.”

And how crazy is that?

The flattened stage

Special K certainly stands on its own and you don’t need to do any study to appreciate it. But if you’re so inclined, this compressed version of Pirandello’s Henry IV, from a 1949 episode of the early TV show “Studio One” offers a look at the frame that Mouawad used: 

Opening

Corrib Theatre continues its fruitful focus on contemporary Irish plays with James X, writer and Dublin City Councilor Gerard Mannix Flynn’s one-man show — performed here by the reliably remarkable Darius Pierce, and directed by Corrib founder (and former Dubliner) Gemma Whelan — about the abuse and neglect of Irish children at the hands of both church and state. The Irish Times has called the play “an extraordinary act of testimony…a brilliant mix of theatre, performance art, documentary and direct human encounter.” In an interview with Corrib publicist Nicole Lane, the playwright described the work as “big poetry. It stands on the corner like hip hop. It is immediate and real. It is a political manifesto, a poem, a long rap, to be delivered.”

Darius Pierce stars in the one-man play James X, by Corrib Theatre. Photo: Adam Liberman.

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Does the Portland sketch-comedy scene have a ruler of some sort, an inspiring leader chosen by election or acclimation? Maybe not, but why not let Shelley McLendon have that job? She’s earned it, having been a part of a huge array of funny business, from the hit stage adaptation of the cheesy movie Road House to her part in several sketch and improv groups such as Sweat and the Aces. It’s with the latter — in which she’s joined by the comedically gifted Michael Fetters — that she’s presenting a show called Ghost Town at the Siren Theater, where, of course, she’s the artistic director.

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Some directors just seem to mesh with some playwrights. Scott Yarbrough’s treatments of Craig Wright’s plays helped power the rise of Third Rail Rep a decade or so ago. Rose Riordan’s affinity with the work of Adam Bock paid repeated dividends for Portland Center Stage during her years as associate artistic director there. Perhaps something similar is happening with the director Connery MacRae and playwright Dominic Finocchiaro. Just last fall, MacRae directed the world premiere of Finocchiaro’s daring dark comedy complex for Theatre Vertigo; now MacRae and Vertigo stalwart Tom Mounsey are co-producers with CoHo of another work by the Brooklyn-based Reed College alum. 

The Found Dog Ribbon Dance sounds like a comic twist on a quest story, putting a professional cuddler (an occupation that you figure just has to have some thematic significance) on the road to track down the owner of a lost dog. A cast that includes, among others, Mounsey, Heath Koerschgen and Beth Thompson certainly bodes well for an enjoyable journey.

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Jami Brandli’s Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead) gets its Portland premiere from defunkt theatre. But if something about the play sounds familiar — it puts a mid-century modern spin on Aeschylus, with the eternal dramas of Clytemnestra, Medea, Cassandra and Antigone playing out in suburban, 1960 New Jersey, amid marital infidelity, racial tension and the quotidian anxieties of pill-popping housewives — you might well have seen it before. Sort of. 

In 2014, Bliss was included among 46 plays compiled by the Kilroys, a Los Angeles theater company working toward “gender parity” in the field. The following summer, a Portland trio calling itself the Hearth Collective presented it in a set of staged readings from the Kilroys list, held in Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio. Memories of that reading, though fuzzy now, are enough to make me confident that this new production, directed by Sarah Armitage, will be well worthwhile. 

Closing

The cast of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Russell J. Young/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
 

Practitioners and dedicated fans of most art forms favor ambition. If you’ve heard a lot of music or seen a lot of plays, it’s natural to want things that feel new, that challenge your expectations. But remember that famous saying from Yoda, “Do or do not — there is no try”? Well, Yoda was an idiot. You can’t do if you don’t try. And sometimes you try and can’t do.
Which is a windy way of getting around to part of what’s admirable about School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play, about to end a run at Portland Center Stage: Its reach is not anything magnificent, but its grasp is firm and complete.

Set in a Ghanaian boarding school in the 1980s, the story uses familiar elements of teen social tensions to examine colorism — not just within the hierarchy of the clique of girls onstage but in the Eurocentric beauty standards that dominate much of the world and thus the beauty pageants that loom so large in their dreams. Andrea Vernae, one of Portland’s busiest new actors in the past couple of years, does what may be her best work yet as Paulina, a ruthless queen bee whose desperation is brought out by the arrival of a lighter-skinned, American-raised rival. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh provides a sort of generational harmony to that main narrative line — hints of a long-simmering conflict between the headmistress (Kisha Jarrett, marshalling potent subtleties of timing, facial expression and body language) and a haughty former classmate turned talent scout. But then she just lets those story arcs play out without unnecessary complication.

The script is smart, funny and touching; gently insightful about a problem probably pressing to some audience members and never contemplated by others. Add an energetic, highly likeable ensemble, design work that suggests both the modest resources and fashionable aspirations of the “developing world,” and assured direction by Lava Alapai. The result is a tight, lively production that offers small revelations but big pleasures.

Second-hand news

On the final night of the Fertile Ground festival last week, a few dozen people gathered in the upstairs lobby of the Armory to listen to some Portland theater administrators discuss their IDEA — that is, their work toward greater Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility. One of the points stressed was the continual need to examine all the ways in which theaters can be more inviting and responsive to everyone, to not just think in terms of race or gender only.

I’ve thought more lately about issues related to hearing loss, having recently read Life After Deaf, a fine memoir by a dear friend, veteran East Coast arts journalist Noel Holston. I’m sure that made me more attentive to a recent article from American Theatre, “With Smart Caption Glasses, the Eyes Have It,” about a new approach to closed-captioning for performances. 

Best line I read this week

Nitsuh Abebe, in The New York Times Magazine, on the word “existential”:

“What we are talking about when we use the word today is something much more straightforward than continental philosophy. We are talking, for the most part, about whether a thing will continue to exist, or whether it might be at risk of going away. There are other ways to say this, but none seem as enjoyable. Calling something ‘a matter of life or death’ sounds hysterical and alarmist; ‘existential threat’ feels more solemn, gravely analytical, as if you’ve been poring over classified reports with world-weary experts. It is the verbal equivalent of a B-movie scientist somberly removing his glasses.” 

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

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