Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: The sadness of ‘American Girl,’ the sweetness of ‘Come From Away’

A busy stage week also brings a pair of promising kids' shows, the opening of "The Judy," a Shakespeare parody, and the Broadway opening of the born-in-Portland "Thanksgiving Play."

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Naomi Jackson (Nikki, left) and Maia McCarthy (Lisa) in “American Girl.” Photo: Juliet Mylan

American Girl by Mikki Gillette is a play about Nikki Kuhnhausen, a Vancouver, Washington teen who become known not as she dreamed, by becoming a makeup artist for stars such as Nicki Minaj, but as a murder victim, killed in 2019 in a transgender hate crime. So it’s no spoiler to reveal that the show ends in a mother’s anguished wail: “Why did someone do this to my beautiful, brave girl?!”

Kuhnhausen’s bravery took the form of an early and imperturbable certainty about her own  identity: She was a girl, gender assigned at birth be damned.

But in watching Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s premiere production of American Girl, its tempting at times to think the brave ones were her family – for cooperating with Gillette on a story that makes pretty much everyone involved look bad. 

On the night I saw the show (a couple of weeks ago, near the beginning of a run that ends Sunday), someone seated near me commented at the end that, “It almost seemed like transphobia killed her, but it was the least of her issues.” Indeed, while the paranoid violence she faces while doing sex work are the grim markers along her tragic journey, it’s the drug-saturated milieu of her upbringing, and the compromises of character that seem to create both around and within her, that make the play feel at once so honest and so disheartening. 

It’s important to note here that Gillette says in a program note that the characters other than Nikki and her parents are composites: “While their actions and circumstances reflect incidents and situations shared with me, they are not meant to resemble real-life individuals.”

Nikki Kuhnhausen, the trans teen from Vancouver, Wash., whose life and death inspired “American Girl.” Photo: Lisa Woods

Those composite characters include a brother, Arthur (played by Milo Vuksinich with a penchant for frustration that’s easy to relate to), who rails against their parents’ mottled histories and continued dysfunction; he tries to look after Nikki but is hampered by his own involvement in the methamphetamine trade. There’s also a pair of young women (Jenny Tien and Naiya Amilcar) who either sell meth or trade on their sexuality for steady access to it, either way winding up enmeshed in Nikki’s life in unhelpful ways.

Closer to the center of things is Nikki’s mom, Lisa (Maia McCarthy), who’s sober but conflicted, caught in an ineffectual middle ground between the impulse to indulge her child and a set of strict guidelines dictated by an unseen stepdad who doesn’t want anyone’s bad habits affecting his own sobriety. Which just leaves her dad, Kane, who – despite not being the killer – is the de facto villain of the piece. Defiantly resigned to his own addiction, he’s willing to let his adoring daughter turn tricks to pay for his drugs.

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But of course there’s Nikki herself, too. And although the show, directed with fine pacing and a bracing verisimilitude by Sarah Andrews, features generally strong performances all around, it was in Nikki’s portrayal by Naomi A. Jackson that I found myself kept at arm’s length. Jackson’s Nikki is so determinedly, performatively girlish that she seems at times more like a seven-year-old than a 17-year-old. Partly that seems a blend of mom’s passive-aggressiveness and dad’s manipulations: If Nikki can’t get what she wants, she shows flashes of petulance, but then amps up the cutesiness or the woundedness until others give in. Perhaps it’s an accurate portrayal; I couldn’t say. But I found it an off-putting one amid all the family and friends blithely tugging one another deeper into the mire.

Transphobia is present in the story, necessarily and uncomfortably so, but it’s not really grappled with directly, and it takes a backseat to all the colossal dysfunction that sends Nikki heedlessly into danger.

In that light, the mother’s closing question might better have been not “why?” but “who?” And in that case, the answer might be – everyone?

Opening

The Broadway hit musical “Come From Away” arrives in Portland on tour. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks it was clear that various artistic responses would come to such a perspective-altering event. But it’s not likely that anyone foresaw a work as emotionally powerful in quite the manner of Come From Away, a show that Ben Brantley described in The New York Times as “a big bearhug of a musical” about stranded jetliner passengers. The show – with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein – depicts the experiences in a small Newfoundland town on and after the fateful day, when dozens of planes are ordered to land at its airport, and townsfolk pull together to house and feed the thousands of travellers, amid worldwide fear and uncertainty.

In a recent Facebook thread, two critics I much admire, Oregon’s own Suzi Steffen and the fine Twin Cities writer Dominic Papatola, discussed how unexpectedly moving they’d found the show. As Papatola wrote: “Didn’t really know what was about when we booked tickets to see it in London. Bawled my eyes out, for reasons that — years later — are still not fully clear to me.”

The Broadway touring production that touched Steffen heads up the highway to the Keller Auditorum for an engagement beginning Tuesday.

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Burl Ross and Brendan Long in “Something Rotten!” Photo: Triumphy Photography

Sometimes Denmark is just a state of mind. Which is to say, things can be rotten pretty much anywhere. So there’s Something Rotten in Lake Oswego. In this case, a parody of both Shakespeare and Broadway, in a comedic musical by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, with songs by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick. Alan Shearman directs for Lakewood Theatre Company.

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Samson Syharath as Dragon in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.” Photo: Briana Cerezo Photography

Oregon Childen’s Theatre presents Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Min Kahng, based on a book by Grace Lin. It’s a blend of fantasy and Chinese folklore, presenting the hero’s journey of a young girl who sets out to help her poor family by seeking answers from the Old Man on the Moon who her father has told her about. OCT’s cast, which is directed by Dmae Lo Roberts, features, among others, the terrific performers Madeleine Tran and Samson Syharath. 

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It’s time again for Elephant & Piggie’s ‘We Are in a Play!’ And though these particular charming animals have been onstage before – for Northwest Children’s Theatre, even – they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing that company’s new downtown home. The company officially throws open the doors of its new space, The Judy, at 1000 Broadway building, across the street from Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. This longtime kids favorite should make for a nice housewarming affair.

The flattened stage

With James Corden having just left his job as host of The Late Late Show on CBS, I’m reminded of having first seen him in an NT Live simulcast of the comedy One Man, Two Guvnors (a British adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters), playing the same role that won him a Tony Award when the show moved to Broadway. Here’s hoping he gets back to stage work someday. Meanwhile, we can see him in a bit of showbiz pastiche – as he does here: 

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Second-hand news

The musical The Phantom of the Opera closed its engagement at the Majestic Theatre in New York recently, but held on to its status as the longest-running show ever on Broadway – by Wikipedia’s reckoning, 13,981 performances over a span of more than 35 years. Among the many tributes marking the closure was an article from The New York Times relating the reactions of three of the newspaper’s critics who attended the show one last time. Though the comments were mostly laudatory, I found this exchange most incisive: 

“Michael Schulman: 

I apologize for saying what I’m about to say. But you remind me that I also kept thinking about Donald Trump. Because, like The Phantom of the Opera, he is over-the-top and ridiculous and from the eighties. He was a fixture in New York during that era. He plays Phantom music at his rallies. Just looking at the gilded proscenium of it all, I thought that’s . . .

Helen Shaw: 

. . . his bathroom.

Michael Schulman:

It’s a meeting of two exemplars of questionable taste, who came out of the same questionable era.”

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Sarah Lucht (left) and Claire Rigsby in the world premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” at Portland’s Artsists Repertory Theatre in 2018. Photo: Russell J Young

Speaking of Broadway and incisiveness, Larissa FastHorse’s marvelously funny The Thanksgiving Play has just opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre. And around here we already know how funny it is because it was commissioned by Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, which also staged its world premiere back in 2018. 

Artists Rep’s connection to the play continues, as the company’s new artistic director Jeanette Harrison has worked on the Broadway production as associate director. 

More significantly in the larger scheme of things, FastHorse, as the first Native American woman to have a play on Broadway, has been getting some press lately, with Q&As appearing in both The New Yorker and American Theatre magazines.  

The best line I read this week

“Quinn has a New Yorker’s impatience with asking too much of your neighbor—c’mon, bud, just acknowledge the weather and move along. He scoffs at what we once called political correctness and at the same time decries the profusion of ugly voices on the Internet. This tempts him into contradiction: He sometimes loves the invigorating wire brush of insult, other times waxes rueful about the end of manners. (He contains fuckin’ multitudes.)” 

– Helen Shaw, theater critic for The New Yorker, reviewing Colin Quinn’s monologue Small Talk.

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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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