Jerry Mouawad says he can’t remember how the rhinos started marching into view.
That is, I’ve asked the writer/director how he came to settle on Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros as the jumping-off point for his latest Imago Theatre creation, Julia’s Place, which opens Friday and continues through June 18, and which also involves people turning into lumbering beasts. But the creative process in play at Imago is as multivalent as any, and more elliptical than many. So a straightforward answer of “I can’t remember” is a suitable starting point for our discussion.
“I do remember that I wanted to do another clown piece,” he offers, adding that he’d been poking around on YouTube, watching pop-science lectures on time and multiverses. “And often when I’m starting on anything there’s a play that’s in the background there somewhere, and this time I guess it was Rhinoceros for some reason. So I watched a little of a production with Zero Mostel, but I didn’t want to get too far into the particulars of it.”
Instead, Mouawad started writing, setting off from an Ionesco-like premise – an Everyman in a cafe and a world around him suddenly changing in strange ways – and following the trail of his own interest in the tricky switchbacks of language and logic while also incorporating his flair for visual invention. “There’s a lot of absurdism in it, and it started to be fun and playful in terms of using shadow puppetry – which we started using when we did The Birds (the Conor McPherson play, staged last fall). It’s for adults, but using some of the stagecraft we use for the family shows.
“There’s lots of lazzi in it – that’s a commedia dell’arte word; it means comic stage business – intermixed with some philosophy. Well, absurd philosophy.”
Any comic endeavor, especially of an absurdist tilt, gets a boost from the presence of Imago co-founder Carol Triffle, the Julia who presides over the place in question, a cheap Italian restaurant (“If I walked by this place, I wouldn’t want to eat there”). Partly because of the budget, but more so because the play is mostly about language and relationships, Mouawad says he’s tried to keep the visual design “rather simple, a very naturalistic setting visually – except for the shadows of the rhinos.”
Rhinoceros, which premiered in 1959, is most commonly interpreted as a parable about the creeping rise of fascism in Europe during the ‘30s. But it also has been something of a theatrical perennial, its blooms darkened by whatever sociopolitical fear is in the air at the time of a given staging.
Julia’s Place, Mouawad says, isn’t meant to be so pointed. Variability and flexibility, so much a part of his creative process, may have thematic roles as well.
“I’m not even sure what absurdity is,” he confesses. “Every time I do a play, I learn new things but come away with more questions. I’m not even sure what the questions are on this one.”
I have never seen the 1989 film Weekend at Bernie’s. If it’s a popular Hollywood movie of the 1980s, you can pretty much just assume I didn’t bother with it then (that was my indie-rock and foreign-film decade) and might not ever. Apparently it’s some yarn about a couple of guys who find the dead body of their boss and, for comically complicated reasons, try to maintain the ruse that the guy’s still alive.
Come to think of it, I might be aware of the movie’s existence only because of Weekend at Bernie’s: Live Onstage, an adaptation, by a bunch of Portland sketch-comedy stalwarts, that has played to great response a couple of times over the years. It’s back again, and perhaps this time I ought to bother. The cast – boasting the likes of Jason Rouse, Andrew Harris, Ted Douglass, Kevin-Michael Moore and others – is damn near guaranteed to be a hoot.
Bag & Baggage presents Troy, USA, a collaboration between playwright Don Wilson Glenn, who has done some fine work of late with Vanport Mosaic, and the multifaceted journalist/artist Dmae Lo Roberts. The two have adapted the Shakespeare “problem play” Troilus and Cressida, a bitter quasi-comedy about love and power, placing the action within the anti-war activism of 1972. June 2-3 performances were canceled because of Covid concerns, but others are expected to proceed as planned.
Portland Revels returns at last to live performance with Yasmin Ruvalcaba Saludado’s Un Pajarito Canta, or a Little Bird Told Me, a story about the powers and privileges of storytelling.
One night only
Charisma and enthusiasm aren’t in short supply among stage performers, but Portlander Vin Shambry can make you feel that he has the keys to some national strategic reserve of the stuff. As part of the seventh Vanport Mosaic Festival, he’ll present Poorlandia, which he devised along with Matthew Kerrigan. In what he calls a “traveling performance art piece,” he talks and paints, addressing his experiences of homelessness, being Black in one of America’s whitest cities, and the Portland beneath the Portlandia satiric gloss.
Not even theater’s greatest artists can stay in the game forever, so it behooves those of us who love the art form to encourage converts to the faith, as it were. This week offers a couple of opportunities to get our fix of shows and support up-and-coming talent at the same time.
The artists of Portland Playhouse’s in-house training program get the run of the place Monday and Tuesday evenings for the annual Apprentice Company Solo Shows, presenting a half-dozen autobiographical shorts. Then on Tuesday, Portland Center Stage hosts the PCS Teen Playwrights: Spring Showcase, featuring new short plays written by students from several local high schools, performed by a professional cast and directed by Lava Alapai.
What most distinguishes a particular theater company, more than the building where it operates or the actors and designers it regularly employs, is its programming, the selection of plays it chooses to produce.
But even the best may slip out of character once in awhile. Companies with long, proud, deserved reputations for stage-literature acumen still can cough up an inexplicable hairball, something so flawed you can’t figure how it got through the earliest selection committee thumbing through scripts.
I’m reminded here of the clumsy sci-fi adaptation A Wrinkle in Time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, or the stale stereotypes and sit-com cliches of American Hero, which Artists Rep served up in 2016. The poor performers! Which is to say, even great performers are left helpless in plays so bad.
To this ignominious list, I’ll sadly add Bella: An American Tall Tale, concluding its run at Portland Playhouse this weekend.
Let me hasten to add that, should you attend and be able to ignore certain aspects, you will find much to enjoy. Directed by Damaris Webb, this musical is high-spirited and at times soul-stirring, thanks to powerful ensemble singing and a few truly vibrant all-around performances (from Kristin Robinson, LaRhonda Steele and, especially, Lauren Steele).
And in Act I, at least, this “tall tale,” a fanciful Wild West adventure, hints at higher ambitions. “There is one thing you can’t erase,” sings its Black, female protagonist, “the motherland written on my face, the language of my nose and lips and hair.” References to lynchings and to subsistence living on barren prairies cast meaningful shadows amid a mostly sunny romp.
But the contrasting tones clash from the start, and playwright Kirsten Childs soon drops any pretense of social commentary in favor of silliness and (worse) sloppiness. Granted, we’re dealing with a basic story premise that’s ridiculous. Bella’s butt is so large, and therefore so attractive, that it makes men faint. It brings the danger of sexual violence against her, but also gives her various, er…superpowers?
Bella goes on a cross-country journey, but many of her adventures are revealed to be mere fantasies, and Bella’s grandma alternates proud testimonials to family and cultural legacy with signs of advancing dementia. But Childs seems to use her unreliable narrators to excuse any shoddy disjunction she likes, and in matters of narrative logic, character motivation and historical detail, things grow steadily more incoherent. And as appealing as her music often is, Child’s lyrics are sometimes clumsily verbose.
As the lyric quoted above suggests, Childs set out to, in her own words, “create a new myth celebrating the power and the beauty of the Black female.” Yet she’s created a show that, in addition to all its tonal and structural flaws, turns on a single objectifying stereotype. Over and over, in a 100-minute parade of booty jokes, Bella tells us that Black female pulchritude – hell, Black female identity! – is a big ass. Childs tries to flip the script on racial cliches, but winds up fumbling the pages all over the floor.
The flattened stage
Someone might someday endeavor to chart the family tree of Portland sketch comedy, but the branches will be quite a tangle. Suffice it, for the moment, to say that many of the folks behind the aforementioned Weekend at Bernie’s adaptation have a history with the great sketch troupe The 3rd Floor. So why not let’s revisit a little 3rd Floor gem from 2006:
The best line I read this week
“Without quite knowing why, I’ve always disliked the truism that conflict is drama’s fundamental ingredient. Yes, we fight and cajole and coax and settle scores: that’s our species, and it’s frequently how we show ourselves onstage. But this bit of craft wisdom—conflict is king—is the handmaiden of a paranoid anthropology, and a limited way of thinking about action and speech. We humans do much more than struggle, will against will. And our talk isn’t strictly coefficient with our need to act upon or influence others for our own ends. Often, to the contrary, it springs from a mysterious overflow of unbidden feeling, more a free gift of sound and syntax—of humor, of love—than a blunt instrument of acquisition.”
– Vinson Cunningham, in The New Yorker, reviewing a new production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.