“I desperately want a Pulitzer Prize someday and it’s all I really care about,” the playwright christopher oscar peña said. “But I also love the Kardashians. And those two things explain a lot about my work.”
Along with fellow writer and fellow New York University alum Kristoffer Diaz, peña was in town in late April and early May for what Profile Theatre called its Playwrights Convening, a 10-day residency in which they worked on new plays for Profile’s upcoming season, its first to feature all world premieres.
Near the end of the process, which also included public readings of the plays, Profile hosted a dinner for the playwrights at Vino Veritas in Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood, letting some of the company’s supporters get to know them. I had the pleasure of sitting next to peña – also a writer on HBO’s Insecure, Jane the Virgin, and Promised Land – for most of the evening as he chatted with a charming openness about his inspirations and obsessions.
“I call my plays American Dream Plays,” he said, an apt description for stories that involve immigrant stories but at a slight remove, animated by a tension between first- and second-generation approaches to status and identity. “We’ve achieved the American Dream, but now we ask, ‘Was it worth it?’”
Profile commissioned peña and Diaz (as well as Lauren Yee, whose schedule precluded attending the residency) ”to write plays exploring the American identity in the 21st century” and they’d come up with warm, funny and sometimes profound works that, as Profile’s artistic director Josh Hecht put it, “center BIPOC LGBTQIA+ characters, but for whom their identity is not the source of the play’s conflict.” To judge from last month’s reading, peña’s Our Orange Sky should be one of the highlights of Portland’s 2023-’23 theater season.
But first comes peña’s How to Make an American Son. The play, which premiered a year ago at Arizona Theatre Company, opens Saturday in a Profile production directed by Ben Villegas Randle.
At Vino Veritas, peña was clear about the autobiographical origins of his recent works. Asked by someone about his muse, he replied, “I’m currently writing about my family, so I guess they’re my muse – though ‘muse’ is usually a positive thing.” He spoke of his estrangement from his brothers (who serve as models for characters in Our Orange Sky), and it was easy to see in him the same sort of financial privilege and social precariousness that characterizes the protagonists of both Our Orange Sky and How to Make an American Son.
The latter play centers on the gay teenage son of a successful Honduran immigrant. Dad’s concerns are an ethics of hard work and the tricky task of extending clients’ contracts with his thriving janitorial business, while Orlando (“reeks of privilege” reads the character description) cares more about designer bags, coveted concert tickets and the possibility of a date with the hot jock at his fancy private prep school.
Inevitably, these two orientations come into conflict. Reviewing the Arizona production, Broadway World called it “an eloquent tale of American exceptionalism turned dire and sullen. The playwright transforms a seemingly innocuous sit-com into a universal drama about race and sexuality, fueling a combustible mix of prejudice and cultural dominance.”
Part of what’s striking about peña’s writing isn’t just that it is so self-referential, but that he is so committed to being understood that he is surprisingly willing to make himself look bad. As his obvious stand-in, Orlando is highly sympathetic – smart, sweet, vulnerable – but also, you might think, kind of shallow and self-centered, with a sophomoric shell of superiority that at times doesn’t hide his insecurities so much as take them out on those around him. That peña can make us feel such a character in all its emotional complexity and in all its complicated socio-cultural context is his artful dance along that Pulitzer/Kardashian line.
Duffy Epstein (left) and Kelsea Ashenbrenner in “California.” Photos courtesy The Theatre Company.
What happens in Vegas, the advertisers tell us, stays in Vegas. (A butterfly flaps its wings in Caesar’s Palace and causes a storm in the Bellagio?)
What happens on a family road trip in Oregon, playwright Trish Harnetiaux seems to suggest, does not stay in Oregon, but, rather, leaps about through interdimensional modes of time, space, alternate possibilities and even, perhaps, simultaneous yet contradictory outcomes.
Buckle up; we’re headed to California. Or, rather (and/or?) to California, the “plutonium comedy” by Harnetiaux that Jen Rowe is directing for the Theatre Company in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it four-night run.
Where are we going, again? Well, Harnetiaux’ script includes an introductory quote from Edward Abbey: “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”
There may be some science and logic behind the play’s multiverse conceptual shenanigans, but the details that matter are that the story takes place – or at least starts out – in a station wagon, with a family of five heading from Spokane to Huntington Beach, California. Dad is intent on making the entire journey without stopping, even for bathroom breaks, so that alone might explain why things get a bit loopy after a while, as they pass the Hanford site (with its atom-spllitting history and quantum-physics aura) and into the open spaces of Eastern Oregon. The New York Times likened the play to “a maddening Google Map offering confusing routes from starting point A to destination infinity.
“(A)t first it seems as if Harnetiaux is setting up a conventionally amusing memory play peppered with nostalgic details …(but) the show takes on a darker tone as unreliable narrators bend memory and reality into an ominous tangle of confusing chronologies and alternate possibilities. The ground is constantly shifting away from both the characters and the viewers.”
As a description at the site New Play Exchange adds, “There’s much we never fully understand in terms of a literal story, but in a way that feels intentional and thematically rich.”
This should be rich terrain indeed for Rowe and a cast that includes one of my longtime favorite Portland actors, Duffy Epstein.
Tobin Gollihar and Ian Paul Sieren, the writer/actors behind Spring 4th Productions, darken the tone a bit on their latest show – Apollyon Delivery Service, about a poet in his forest retreat – without abandoning their usual comedic grounding.
Reading(s) is(are) fundamental
Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s ongoing OUTwright Festival features a Sunday afternoon reading of Mikki Gillette’s Blonde on a Bum Trip, the story of “pioneering trans actresses Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis as they claw their way from off-off-Broadway experimental theater to underground film stardom in Andy Warhol’s factory scene.”
Lakewood Theatre Company’s production of Something Rotten, a satirical mashup of elements from Broadway and Shakespeare, has its final performance on Sunday. The rest is silence.
Look for the union label
From a June 6 press release issued by Actors Equity: “The strippers of Portland’s Magic Tavern informed their employer on June 1 they are forming a union and asked that Actors’ Equity Association be recognized as their bargaining representatives. These dancers have been on strike since April 4 due to the unsafe working conditions at the club.”
From a June 8 press release: “Dancers…, who recently informed their employer of their intent to organize with Actors’ Equity Association, will hold a Stripper Pride rally Sunday and picket line outside of the club. Striking Magic Tavern strippers will be joined by both stage actors and stage managers who are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, along with strippers from the recently unionized Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood, other activists working for sex workers’ rights and more…Picketing begins at 3 p.m. PT; speakers, including the striking strippers, begin at 4:30 p.m. No RSVP required.”
The flattened stage
The power of pedagogy!
The best line I read this week
“He is wise enough to know that, in almost any room he enters other than one occupied by members of his family, he is likely to be the only person present whose power and influence derive entirely from his birth. Indeed, if Charles checked his privilege, there would be nothing left of him—just a crumpled pile of ermine and velvet, and a faint whiff of Eau Sauvage.”
– Rebecca Mead, in an article for The New Yorker about Britain’s recently-crowned King Charles III.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.