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DramaWatch: Season’s greetings!

Portland's 2018-'19 theater season kicks into gear at Artists Rep, CoHo and elsewhere; and it's time to experiment with TBA.


We’ve survived the heat. Now comes the harvest.

That is to say, summer is ending soon and the boon of fall arts season is upon us. Unlike, say, baseball, there’s no official Opening Day, but this weekend is as good a time as any to mark the start of the 2018-’19 season. Labor Day has passed and Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland’s second-largest theater company, is getting things underway, as is the small yet vital CoHo. Soon enough, Portland Center Stage, the big player, will begin not just its new season but its new era under recently named artistic director Marissa Wolf.

So, what is it we want out of a theater season — either company by company or considered as a city-wide whole?

To be entertained? OK, sure. Whatever that means. Diversions and delights are great, as far as they go.

But should we be looking for more? The things we might want out of an individual play — insight into something about the human condition, an expansion of empathy for those we may have discounted, a mirror on our own foibles or desires, a call to arms about a cause celebre… — we might get more of out of a smartly programmed season.

Profile Theatre’s focus on particular playwrights lends itself to the accretion of meaning. And I rather like what the small Twilight Theater is in the midst of — a 2018 calendar-year season with plays that examine the interweaving of theater and life, plays within plays and/or about plays and such. But for the most part, especially in a time where the season-subscription model continues to fade from popularity or maybe even plausibility, the big houses seem to value stylistic variety and box-office potential, while small companies mount too few productions to draw out broader themes and ideas.

Perhaps these are musings for a different moment, though. For now, the schedules are set.

So, again: What do we want out of this theater season — not the one out of our stage-nerd utopian dreams, but the one we’re going to get?

Speaking only for myself, I’ll say: Tell me more, please, about life and how to live it.


Openings all over the place!

At Artists Rep, a “Skeleton Crew” (from left, Vin Shambry, Bobby Bermea, Shelley B. Shelley and Tamera Lyn) goes up against the Great Recession. Photo: David Kinder

In its broad outlines, Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau’s dramatization of Rust Belt decline, bears a lot of similarities to Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning dramatization of same. Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015; Skeleton Crew won the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award that year, premiered Off Broadway in 2016 and opens this season for Artists Repertory Theatre.

Morisseau’s play, the last work in a triptych called “The Detroit Projects,” stands on its own, though, as an empathetic portrayal of pride, loyalty and sacrifice within a group of Detroit autoworkers in danger of being right-sized or left out. After all, this is one of those era-defining topics that can stand to be mulled over repeatedly.

It’s the cusp of the Great Recession of a decade ago, and a proud but dwindling blue-collar crew is hanging on at one of the few remaining auto plants. Morisseau draws the characters, their connections and conflicts, with a fine eye for emotional truth. And the cast that director William Earl Ray employs here — including Shelley B. Shelley, Bobby Bermea and Vin Shambry — should prove powerful tools to get the job done.


There’s a big place in my heart for Texas. That’s mostly from having lived in Austin for few years in childhood and falling under the spell of the University of Texas Longhorns (Hook ‘em, Horns!). I’m occasionally put on the defensive by friends who deride it as the home of George W. Bush, Rick Perry, school-textbook manglers, evangelical vote wranglers, oil-soaked environmental despoilers and so on. In response I’ll remind them of the glorious Austin music scene, of Willie Nelson and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, of thoughtful media heroes such as Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers and Linda Ellerbee, of stalwart Democratic politicians such as Barbara Jordan. But the most redeeming thing about Texas I’ll point to is Ann Richards.

Margie Boule as the famously colorful Texas governor from the 1990s, Ann Richards. Photo: Triangle Productions

The late Texas governor was a colorful politician and a rival to the Bush family. Among her many memorable quips was one aimed at George H.W. Bush: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

OrpheusPDX Portland Oregon

Written and originally performed by Emmy-winning actress Holland Taylor, Ann is a portrait of her life and career and slightly salty no-nonsense character. Outfitted with the requisite white/silver coif, Margie Boule, my former colleague for many years at The Oregonian, looks ideal for the role in a three-week run by Triangle Productions. Hook ‘em, Margie!


The premise sounds like it should make for a pleasant enough diversion: A crotchety old woman is forced to share her prized apartment in a senior center with an annoyingly chipper newcomer, and resolves to get rid of her. The two make an emotionally charged bet, which results in a war of one-upmanship. Sounds simple enough, funny enough. But Ripcord, opening at Clackamas Rep under the guiding hand of David Smith-English, is by David Lindsay-Abaire, whose Fuddy Meers is one of the most weirdly, wildly funny plays I’ve ever read, and whose Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole is a flawlessly written and emotionally incisive drama. He has described this play as an attempt to combine his early comic spirit and his later dramatic craft. Sounds promising to me.


Jill and Ollie have a bloody nice house! You’re not going to believe what it cost them. Philip Ridley’s cutting satire Radiant Vermin — a kind of Picture of Dorian Gray for our time of income inequality and lifestyle envy — offers an unflinching look at how our society values ambition and sacrifice, and how it draws a line between the haves and the have-nots. To kick of the CoHo Productions season, Scott Yarbrough, one of Portland’s finest directors, makes dark magic with a strong, compact cast of Kelly Godell, Diane Kondrat and Chris Murray.


Lakewood Theatre started its 2018-’19 season earlier than most, back in July. But it gets into this big weekend with a production of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Roger Hirson musical Pippin. I’ve no idea how director Paul Angelo (whose work I admire) is approaching the material, but a tidbit stumbled upon through our pal Wikipedia suggests I needn’t be so pessimistic about the show’s prospects: “Musical theatre scholar Scott Miller said in his 1996 book, From Assassins to West Side Story, ‘Pippin is a largely under-appreciated musical with a great deal more substance to it than many people realize….Because of its 1970s pop style score and a somewhat emasculated licensed version for amateur productions, which is very different from the original Broadway production, the show now has a reputation for being merely cute and harmlessly naughty; but if done the way director Bob Fosse envisioned it, the show is surreal and disturbing.” “


The Eventbrite page for Shock Opera includes a disclaimer: “Audience is 21+ years only. This show has loud audio, music, profanity, partial nudity, drug references, violence, strobing lights. NO REFUNDS.” Such elements are to be expected in a rock musical about the rise of the band/persona Alice Cooper, whose garish horror-show concerts were what some folks think of as “theatrical.” Apart from the potentially fun production opportunities, I can’t quite grasp why someone would bother. But then, I hate the horror genre in whatever guise, and apart from a few thrilling early tracks find the Alice Cooper catalog a waste. Those of you without my prejudices, knock yourselves out.


When it comes to finding avenues to present their truer selves onstage, more and more theater artists are taking matters into their own hands. For example, a trio of fine Portland-area musical-theater performers have banded together, along with pianist Mont Chris Hubbard, for the Ingenue’s Revenge, a cabaret revue that puts forward a classic character type but asks the potent question: What happens when that sweet young thing starts to lose her innocence and reclaim her power? Answering through an array of classic and contemporary showtunes will be Sarah DeGrave, Caitlin Brooke and the ever-dynamic Cassi Q. Kohl.

Twilight Theatre continues its season (organized by calendar year, unlike many companies) devoted to theater about theater with Steven Dietz’s multi-layered, anti-linear, expectation-defying, twisted riddle of a comedy Private Eyes, directed here by Paul Roder. It does include a private eye, but with its plot points about marital infidelity and deceit, and its repeatedly slippery play-within-a-play conceit, apparently it’s concerned not so much with privacy as veracity. Truth, apparently, is in the private eye of the beholder.


Best line I heard this week

“I know fact from fiction, know they are the same— two sides of believing in the singing of God’s name”

— from “The Dark Is Light Enough” by the singer-songwriter Joe Henry

Time of the season


That’s the commonly accepted short form for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time- Based Art Festival.

Unfortunately — or, perhaps fortunately, depending upon how you see such things — there’s no good shorthand for the unruly variety of performance forms, thematic avenues and general zeitgeist zest spilling out all over town during the 11 days of the event. Some of it, though, is bound to fit something near to conventional notions of theater and to satisfy the interests of theater fans.

The New York theater team Split Britches looks at global anxieties in “Unexploded Ordnances,” part of the 2018 TBA festival. Photo: Theo Cote.

Historically, it’s always been hard to guess, from the often inscrutable art-speak of program descriptions, which shows are going to be truly rewarding or at least sufficiently interesting. Scanning through this year’s info online, I found four that look promising to me: Jack &, Unexploded Ordnances, Vinyl Equations, and Fin De Cinema’s presentation of Beauty and the Beast.


Guide rules

Willamette Week (the paper where I started my journalism career, decades ago) recently published its Fall Arts Guide, introduced with a provocative-sounding headline: “The new generation of Portland artists aren’t breaking the rules. They’re making their own.”

Let’s just briefly note the matter of subject-verb agreement (the new generation aren’t?), and get to the rules in question. If they’re not breaking the rules, then they must be abiding by them, right?. And if they’re also making their own, then they must have even more rules than previous generations of Portland artists.

And, y’know, that’s really exciting. The best art often comes from pushing against restrictions, from the clarity imposed by boundaries, from forcing order upon chaos. So, hooray for rules!


Counting Kay

Theater, perhaps more than any other art form, subscribes to the notion that the work is completed only in the engagement with an audience, that those who come to see and hear are also contributing something vital.

By that reckoning, then, who is more vital to the Portland theater community than Kay Olsen?

Perhaps you’ve seen her — at pretty much any theater event in the area, she’s the sweet-faced, white-haired retiree often volunteering as an usher, then taking a seat in the front row to watch the show. She’s dedicated, and, consequently, beloved. It’s about stories, not stats, but all the same, what she does, year after year, is impressive.

On Sept. 1, she posted a message to her Facebook page:

“Well, my friends, I have counted and then recounted my year’s worth of programs (from plays) seen in and around our wonderful city. This year my number of shows is 457. I must say, for a 75 year old woman, I did fairly well! We’ll see what next year brings; and I’m so prepared to enjoy all that you wonderful people provide for me. thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the fun!”

Enjoy this season’s several hundred shows, Kay! We’ll look forward to seeing you.


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


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.