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DramaWatch: Send in the Clown Cohort

CoHo's clowns tie a twister by the tail. Plus: a jukebox musical at Lakewood, a sketch comedy festival, Astoria's "performathon," seasons' greetings, throwing the dice on "Six."

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Veteran clowns Jeff Desautels (left) and Sascha Lynn Blocker. Photos courtesy CoHo Clown Consort.

The new show by the CoHo Clown Cohort is a disaster.

A natural disaster, that is. Intrepid adventurers and theatrical scientists that they are, the members of Clown Cohort are riding again, setting out to chase a Twister.

The group’s latest project, which will get a work-in-progress public showing on Saturday night at the CoHo Theater, applies the sometimes silly, sometimes surprisingly poignant methods of clowning to, of all things, the 1996 movie blockbuster about storm-chasing scientists amid an outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Saturday’s performance likely will be just a bits-and-pieces affair, with the Cohort’s seven current members presenting some of the raw ideas that have come out of their initial consideration of the source material — what Sascha Blocker, one of the group’s veteran leaders, calls “a fast and furious 15 hours of rehearsal.”

Some of the ideas they’re working with so far include tornado drills, storm-warning language and (of course) Wizard of Oz references. With a longer set of developmental rehearsals set for September, a CoHo Twister this fall is set to be the first full Clown Cohort production since the death, in November of 2021 from lymphoma, of founder Philip Cuomo.

To say that Cuomo had been a leading light of Portland theater fails to capture his particular manner of shining. For Third Rail Rep, he’d been a versatile and marvelous actor and a probingly intelligent director. For The Actors Conservatory, he’d been an admired teacher; for CoHo Productions, an impactful administrative leader. For many, many folks in the theater community here, he’d been a beloved mentor, a spirited collaborator, a friend with rare gifts for empathy.

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Philip Cuomo, founder of and inspiration for the CoHo Clown Cohort. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

And in his last several years he made a unique mark with what may have been his favorite theatrical form, clowning. Launching the Clown Cohort, he devised and directed a series of brilliant shows that took such dramatic mid-20th-century classics as The Glass Menagerie and the Crucible, extruded them through the physical-comedy forms of clown tradition, and managed to transform them into bright, hysterical entertainments that nonetheless kept the thematic and emotional heft of their sources.

Emboldened by those successes, he tossed both gothic Romanticism and horror-movie camp into the hopper, and came out with the truly inspired – and wonderfully titled – Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (a Romance).

He had another clown production in the works when his (then undiagnosed) illness first caused him to stop working. What joys he might have created, we can’t know.

Yet the Clown Cohort lives on, now directed by Blocker, who has often provided the vital emotional core to its shows, and Emily “High Kicks” Newton, a veritable neutron bomb of hilarity.

“We’re absolutely leaning into the same methods that Philip used, but we’ve added some things,” Blocker says. 

How did they arrive at a 1990s disaster epic as a jumping-off point?

“Emily and I said, ‘Philip was inspired by particular stories. What are we inspired by?,” Blocker recalls. Somehow, a film club she’s part of brought the Twister movie to mind.

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“I’ve always been told by mentors that there’s special power in stories that have a personal connection to you. So I’m pulling from my Midwestern background. I’ve seen many tornadoes, including being in a car during a tornado.” As she discussed the idea with the rest of the Cohort, she says, they were intrigued also by the environmental aspects of the story and by the feelings of community that a natural disaster can evoke. When it came to a vote among a few other ideas, Twister whirled its way to the top.

As Blocker summarizes, “There’s something about the idea that’s dramatic and scary and challenging.”

Opening

From left: Lindy Hatcher, Emily Smith, Blythe Woodland, and Alyssa Beckman in “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at Lakewood. Photo: Triumph Photography

It’s jukebox musical time once again at Lakewood Theatre, where Thomas C. Graff directs The Marvelous Wonderettes, writer Roger Bean’s concoction of 1950s and ‘60s pop hits (“Stupid Cupid,” “Lipstick on Your Collar,” “It’s My Party,” etc.) with a story about the high-school “songleader” squads of the era. Cue the romances, rivalries, a 10-year reunion, etc.

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If you wanted to choose two people as pillars of the Portland sketch comedy scene, you might well settle on Ted Douglass and Shelly McLendon – even though they probably prefer being able to move around rather than being stuck standing around as pillars. Douglass was a principal in the terrific troupe The 3rd Floor; McLendon is the owner and artistic director of the comedy-centric Siren Theater. But both have resumes far too vast and varied to list here.

In any case, the two teamed up several years ago to deliver some of the top sketch troupes from around the country to Portland audiences. Hence the upcoming 5th Annual Portland Sketch Comedy Festival,  which features performers from Portland, Seattle and as far afield as Boston.

The flattened stage

Sketch comedy, potent onstage, also lends itself particularly well to short video clips. So it’s not hard to get a little online appetizer of the aforementioned festival’s acts. Here are a few choice tidbits: 

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One (long) night only

Theater makers work tirelessly to provide you with the elevating pleasures of the performing arts.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Well, the folks at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater seem to be out to prove the point, presenting a 24-hour Performathon. Both a birthday celebration and fundraiser for the company, the marathon event “will feature scenes, monologues, music, dance, and more,” with – at this writing – still some time slots available for additional participants.

Seasons’ greetings

Third Rail Repertory Theatre has announced that it will open its 2023-’24 season, the company’s 18th, in October with a play about a couple of white guys sitting around yakking in a pub.

In these days of determined diversity, that might not seem like such an exciting prospect. But the guys in question are loquacious Irishmen from the mind and pen of Roddy Doyle, the Booker Prize-winning novelist whose work has spawned such film hits as The Commitments. And the guys playing those guys will be the first-rank Portland actors Michael O’Connell and Bruce Burkhartsmeier, under the direction of Scott Yarbrough, who led Third Rail in its magnificent first decade.

Which is enough to suggest that Two Pints – which grew out of short comic dialogues that Doyle began posting years ago on his Facebook page – should be one of the highlights of the fall calendar. 

Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune called the play “a study of friendship” in which Doyle “is nodding at the great Beckettian Irish tradition of using conversations that seem to be about nothing much to express the deepest concerns of humans on this green earth … like the tramps of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ they are wondering about immortality and deciding that, in the absence of any superior information, heaven may be most useful defined as ‘a pub with a bit of a football.’”

Also on tap for the season: Sanctuary City, a play by Martyna Majok about undocumented immigrant teens, directed by Cristi Miles; and Portlander Lava Alapai’s Middletown Mall, a story of 1990s twentysomethings, directed by Isaac Lamb.

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Boom Arts has put tickets on sale for its 2023-’24 season, which features works of dance theater, ritual performance and other boundary-melding forms from Lebanon, South Africa, Iran, and that most strange and exotic of distant lands, New York.

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Corrib Theatre’s 2023-’24 season will feature … well, we don’t know yet. Corrib, trying to assure that its season announcement goes down smoothly, is pairing it with a whiskey tasting (Irish whiskey, of course) in a Friday evening fundraiser at Alberta House. Our guess is that they’ll keep serving up high-quality Irish stage literature.

The winning lottery number is Six

It’s a gamble: Khaila Wilcoxon as Catherine of Aragon (center) in the North American tour of “Six.” Photo: Joan Marcus

In our post-Hamilton world, hip historical revisionism is all the rage. Hence Six, a musical about the ill-fated wives of King Henry VIII, which The New York Times called “a rollicking, reverberant blast from the past.” The show’s touring production is due at the Keller Auditorium in a couple of weeks to kick off the 2023-’24 Broadway in Portland season, and apparently an eager crowd awaits.

“There are virtually no tickets left for sale for this engagement,” the media relations consultant Julie Furlong writes in an email, “however, there is a lottery for a limited number of seats,  which will be an avenue to procure legitimate tickets. (We always caution people from using 3rd party sellers.) Please be advised that this lottery is different from others such as the Hamilton lottery. It is NOT a rolling lottery where people can enter every day. It is a one-shot deal. Enter once and there is one drawing.” ​​

Entry for the lottery will be open from July 14 to 21 at LuckySeat.com 

The best line I read this week

“Theater takes place all the time wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading us this is the case.”

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–  John Cage

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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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