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DramaWatch: Send in the Clowns Without Borders

A host of clowns and colorful performers prepare a pair of shows to support the international aid group. Plus: Shakespeare north & south, "Yohen," "Nassim," Laurie Anderson, "Resurrection," and more.

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Following the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, Portland's cowboy clown “Leapin’ Louie” lassos a happy crowd eager for a little relief. Photo courtesy David Lichtenstein
Following the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, Portland’s cowboy clown “Leapin’ Louie” lassos a happy crowd eager for a little relief. Photo courtesy David Lichtenstein

Let there be a gathering of the clowns, the circus performers, the aerial artists, the physical comedians, the music-makers, the variety acts. In fact, let there be two such gatherings, on the same day and in the same place. And let these gatherings mark the 25th anniversary of one of Portland’s signature annual get-togethers — one that is both highly entertaining and for excellent purpose.

We’re talking about the 25th Annual Portland Clowns Without Borders Benefit performance and party, which is happening Saturday, March 30, at Alberta Rose Theatre, with a 2 p.m. matinee and a 7 p.m. evening show. And we’re talking about a pretty amazing group of performers who are steeped in skills that are both historically rooted and blissfully off the beaten track.

Clowns Without Borders is an international organization that, like Doctors Without Borders, responds to natural and human-made disasters around the world, from hurricanes to war zones to refugee camps: Several Portland area entertainers are regular participants. Doctors Without Borders tends to the physical and medical needs of people affected by disasters. Clowns Without Borders tends to their emotional needs.

Amica Hunter and David Cantor of the physical comedy duo A Little Bit Off. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Amica Hunter and David Cantor of the physical comedy duo A Little Bit Off. Photo courtesy of the artists.
Big-nose clown Iman Lizarau. Photo © Pierre Feniello, 2016.j
Big-nose clown Iman Lizarau. Photo © Pierre Feniello, 2016

In her 2021 story for ArtsWatch Enter laughing: A world of clowns, Danielle Vermette took a deep dive into the history and work of Clowns Without Borders, laying out their travels to trouble spots around the world. She wrote about the clowns’ travels to Haiti in 2010 following a devastating 7.0 earthquake that left an estimated 250,000 people dead: “The people of Haiti are living proof of what Red Skelton so nicely put into words: ‘No matter what your heartache may be, laughing helps you forget it for a few seconds.’ I like to hope Mr. Skelton had knowledge of the work of Clowns Without Borders, whose beginnings can be traced back to 1993, when school children in Barcelona raised money to send the Catalonian clown Tortell Poltrona to their pen pals in Croatian refugee camps.” 

Globe-trotting musical clown Luz Gaxiola and fans. Photo courtesy Clown Without Borders.
Globe-trotting musical clown Luz Gaxiola and fans. Photo courtesy Clown Without Borders.

From Catalonia and Croatia, Clowns Without Borders grew and grew, and Portland-based performers such as Leapin’ Louie, the expert roper and cowboy clown, have long been a part of it. Joining Louie at Saturday’s extravaganzas will be musical clown Luz Gaxiola; clown Iman Lizarau; Amica Hunter and David Cantor of the physical comedy duo A Little Bit Off; circus and vaudeville performers Thom Wall & Benjamin Domask-Ruh; physical comedian and ukulele player Angel Ocasio; and the teen troupe The Zig Zags, from Echo Theatre, Portland’s longtime center for physical theater and comedy. 

Let the laughter begin. Let the good times roll. And let the clowns continue to travel, brightly and bravely, to the disaster and conflict zones where they’re needed most.

Opening

Kathy Hsieh and William Earl Ray star in “Yohen.” Photo: Owen Carey
Kathy Hsieh and William Earl Ray star in “Yohen.” Photo: Owen Carey

Yohen, by the talented Japanese American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, is a two-person play about aging, marriage, companionship, and the divisions that can grow during a long relationship, especially after a major life change such as retirement. Race plays at least a tangential role, too: She’s Japanese; he’s Black; and cultural tensions might rise almost unknowingly. When something breaks, or cracks like a pot in a kiln, can it be mended?

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Two fine performers — William Earl Ray and Kathy Hsieh — star in this co-production of PassinArt: A Theatre Company and Portland Playhouse, which opens Friday, March 29, in the Brunish Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts and continues through April 21.

Hsieh and Ray are directed by Dmae Lo Roberts, the creator of the longtime podcast Stage & Studio, which is published regularly on ArtsWatch. She recently had an engaging and revealing S&S conversation with playwright Gotanda, talking about his long career and the rise of Asian American theater. You can read about and listen to their conversation here.

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Alex Purcell as Christopher Marlowe and Bradley James Tejeda as William Shakespeare in Liz Duffy Adams' "Born with Teeth" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham
Alex Purcell as Christopher Marlowe and Bradley James Tejeda as William Shakespeare in Liz Duffy Adams’ “Born with Teeth” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo: Jenny Graham

Things are livening up this week in Ashland, the southern Oregon town that’s been home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since a fellow named Angus Bowmer founded the festival with a pair of summer shows in 1935: Friday, March 29, will be the official opening of the 2024 season, which will keep rolling through mid-October.

The festival’s opening weekend, following a week and a half of preview performances, will feature the first four of an eventual 10 productions: Shakespeare’s tragedy of ambition Macbeth; Liz Duffy Adams’ two-hander Born with Teeth, about the rivalry and sometime collaboration of the playwrights Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe; writer/performer Lisa Wolpe’s solo show Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender; and writer/performer Rodney Gardiner’s Smote This … A Comedy About God .. and Other Serious $H*T.

For a more complete look at the new season, see last week’s column DramaWatch: Springtime & Shakespeare.

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If you’d like to get your Shakespeare fix a little closer to Portland (or warm up for a trip to Ashland), The Canon Shakespeare Company is opening a run of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 in rotating rep at North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company. The shows open Thursday, March 28, and continue through April 14.

These are the plays, written in the 1590s, that famously introduce the characters Prince Hal, reluctant heir to the throne; the fiery rebel Hotspur; and the blustering-drunkard knight Falstaff. They make up half of what’s sometimes called the Henriad of history plays, which also includes Richard II and Henry V, all four of which are sometimes lumped together with the history plays covering the Wars of the Roses: Richard III and Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3.

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Graphic for the show "Nassim," presented by Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts.

In the cozy basement Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory, Portland Center Stage is getting ready to open a fascinating-sounding theatrical exploration called Nassim. In it, the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour takes the stage and, in every performance, is joined by a different second performer “while the script waits, unseen, in a sealed box.”

It sounds a bit like Christopher Durang’s droll comedy The Actor’s Nightmare, in which a fellow finds himself onstage in a play he doesn’t know and whose lines he’s never seen, let alone memorized, except that Nassim seems to have a more serious intention. The play is partly autobiographical, and, as the theater puts it, is “a striking theatrical demonstration of how language can both divide and unite us.”

Preview performances begin Saturday, March 30, and official opening night is April 5. The show, which is co-presented by Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts, runs through May 12. Among the scriptless local performers joining Soleimanpour onstage for an evening are Charles Grant, Chris Murray, Brian Kidd (The Unipiper), David Saffert, Susannah Mars, Dana Green, Isaac Lamb, Bobby Bermea, Dana Millican, La’tevin Alexander, and Beth Thompson.

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One night only

Laurie Anderson performing with  Doug Wieselman at Washington, D.C.'s Hirschhorn Museum in October 2023. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sdkb
Laurie Anderson performing with  Doug Wieselman at Washington, D.C.’s Hirschhorn Museum in October 2023. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sdkb

Laurie Anderson is better known as a musician, performance artist, and avant-garde artist-of-many-stripes than as a theater person, but in truth pretty much everything she does is theatrical, and at 76 she’s had a chance to do a lot. Her theatrical works have tended to be big and beyond ordinary borders, from Another Day in America to virtual-reality works such as Chalkroom and To the Moon. Lately she’s been touring with the jazz group Sexmob in a show called Let X = X, and that’s what’s bringing her to Portland’s Keller Auditorium for a single performance Friday, March 29.

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Aerial hoop performer Jacki Ward will be one of many performers at March 31’s benefit performance for The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven. Photo courtesy Jacki Ward.
Aerial hoop performer Jacki Ward will be one of many performers at March 31’s benefit performance for The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven. Photo courtesy Jacki Ward.

Easter Sunday, March 31, is the fitting day for Resurrection: A Benefit for The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, at Alberta Rose Theatre. It’s a party/performance to help the Steep and Thorny pay for repairs to its East Side Portland rehearsal and performance space, which suffered severe damage when a sprinkler pipe burst during the January ice storm, flooding the building. Doors open at 6 p.m. for a show that’ll include aerial acts, clowning, draglesque, physical comedy, music, and more.

Last chances

Octavio Solis’s rousingly vivid Quixote Nuevo, in which Cervantes’ windmill-tilting knight is transported to the contemporary Texas/Mexico border, closes March 31 on the Main Stage of Portland Center Stage.

“Solis’s vision, under the wise direction of Lisa Portes and embodied by a versatile and committed cast, captures something important about heroes: They see things that ‘sane’ people can’t. We are too busy adapting and conforming to the sanctioned disorder and violence around us,” Darleen Ortega wrote in her ArtsWatch review. And Misha Berson wrote this insightful interview with Solis about his long quest to bring his adaptation to the stage.

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Also closing March 31 is Paul Zindel’s witty late 1960s comedy/drama And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, at HART (Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre).

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Seasons greetings

As sure as Spring, we’re moving into theater-season announcement season, and ArtsWatch will attempt to sprinkle them through our columns like a light Spring rain. (You can see Portland Center Stage’s 2024-25 lineup in this story, which also reports PCS’s $1 million gift from the Mellon Foundation.)

A couple of others to begin:

Broadway Portland, which sponsors the Broadway Across America touring shows (mostly musicals), has announced its 2024-25 season in Keller Auditorium. (And on the subject of the Keller, be sure to read Brian Libby’s breakdown for ArtsWatch of the three plans to either replace or renovate the aging and earthquake-susceptible concert hall.)

The season lineup: the musical Peter Pan, Aug. 27-Sept.1; the latest tour of Wicked, Oct. 16-Nov. 3; the multiple Tony-winning musical Kimberly Akimbo, Jan. 14-19, 2025; the return of Hamilton, March 4-23, 2025; Life of Pi, based on the Yann Martel novel, April 8-13, 2025; the musical Six, in which the many wives of Henry VIII get their pop-star turn at the microphone, April 29-May 4, 2025; the return of multiple Tony-winner The Book of Mormon, May 27-June 1, 2025; MJ The Musical, the theatrical tribute to Michael Jackson, July 15-20, 2025; and & Juliet, the musical that posits that Juliet didn’t die along with Romeo, but survived to start anew, Aug. 5-10, 2025.

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Lakewood Theatre, the resident company at Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts, has announced a 2024-25 season of largely nostalgic, lightly entertaining shows, starting with the Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons jukebox musical Jersey Boys, directed by Isaac Lamb, July 12-Aug. 18. Following in order: R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, an intriguing-sounding updating of Karel Čapek’s 1921 play about a society of humanoid but emotionless robots (what could go wrong?), adapted and directed by Matthew Zrebski, Sept. 13-Oct. 20; A Christmas Story: The Musical, Nov. 8-Dec. 15; a stage adaptatation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, directed by David Sikking, Jan. 3-Feb. 9, 2025; Michael Frayn’s clever and ever-popular farce Noises Off, directed by Don Alder, Feb. 28-April 6, 2025; and Groundhog Day: The Musical, April 25-June 8, 2025.

Lakewood’s “Lost Treasures Collection,” its series of short-run concert style revivals of interesting but largely forgotten or neglected musicals, will feature on the Lakewood Center’s downstairs Side Door Stage. The new season will open with By Jeeves, based on the absurdly and wonderfully comical P.G. Wodehouse stories, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book & lyrics by the terrific Alan Ayckbourn, Oct. 25-26. It’ll be followed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Stop the World: I Want To Get Off, Feb. 14-15, 2025; and Lock Up Your Daughters, based on an 18th century comedy by Henry Fielding (also author of the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), April 11-12, 2025.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
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