Washougal Art & Music Festival

DramaWatch: The (true) magic of theater

A little razzle-dazzle from "Shazam!," PlayWrite's 24-hour play fest, circus for Cutie, Cheryl Strayed in Astoria, Bill Rauch's big adventure, last chance for a fistful of good shows.

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The great escape: It’s Houdini time. Photo courtesy Kramien Productions.

Everyone loves magic, of some sort or another. We might speak of, say, the magic of falling in love. The magic of Christmas opens both hearts and wallets every year. Around these parts, many of us quite enjoy the magic of a long-distance pull-up jumper by Damian Lillard.

It would be remiss, in this column, not to mention what’s called the magic of theater – not just its flexibility as a storytelling form or its array of technical effects, but the ineffable qualities borne from the immediacy, the communal experience. And where would theater be – historically speaking – without magic as subject matter? Why, there’s a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Portland’s largest theater right now.

And then, of course, there’s magic. By which I mean, well … what else to call it? Theatrical magic? Y’know…illusion, prestidigitation … magic-show magic.

Tricks.

Such magic has many devotees and many more folks who find it a delightful diversion. I’m in neither camp. Nor, until a few years ago, was Greg Tamblyn. 

“For me, it’s all about story,” says the longtime Northwest stage director. “A lot of magic shows I’ve been to, there isn’t any story, it’s just a lot of someone pointing to something and then it disappears. Or they might talk a little about themselves growing up, and it’s a bunch of baloney.”

But through his work with the company Studio Concepts, crafting elements of the Portland Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade, Tamblyn came to know Rick Kramien, the owner of one of the event’s sponsors, George Morlan Plumbing.

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Kramien’s father was Stan Kramien, a magician who’d toured extensively through the Pacific Northwest with his illusions, even making major TV appearances (see below), and the younger Kramien helped Tamblyn with a musical he once worked on about Harry Houdini. All this put Tamblyn in touch with a rich family legacy built around magic. 

What’s going on? In “Shazam!” it’s up in the air. Photo courtesy Kramien Productions.

“When his dad got old and couldn’t tour anymore, Rick built a huge barn with a stage in it and every year they’d do a big magicians jamboree,” Tamblyn says. 

Eventually Tamblyn and Kramien’s family teamed up to create Shazam!: the Magic Show, a production featuring a young magician named Matthew Laslo, creating what they believe is both a compelling showcase of Laslo’s talents and a fitting tribute to Stan Kramien. The team tried out a smaller version of the show in 2020, just before the pandemic. The expanded production will have a brief run this weekend at Lake Oswego High School Auditorium, with plans for later touring around the region.

Laslo presented an array of illusions that he wanted to include, and Tamblyn wrote (and also directs) the resulting show, a sort of coming-of-age tale in the context of a stage-magic performance. 

“I crafted (the sequence of) these illusions so it goes from Matthew as a boy, winning best young magician at a contest as an 11-year-old to Stan Kramien becoming a mentor to him and so on. Stan becomes like Obi-Wan Kenobi to him.”

In Shazam, Stan Kramien is a voice (performed by the expert Portland actor Leif Norby) coming through a cassette player, guiding Laslo through the escalating difficulty of his material. 

Tamblyn also has injected the show with dance sequences and even animal acts (“We have a horse and a llama and ducks in it – it’s crazy!”), but his specialty as a theatermaker always has been finding a deeply relatable heart in what can otherwise seem fluffy fare.

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“Instead of focusing on the box onstage, you’re focusing on the people.”

The flattened stage

“More theatre, less commitment”

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps the daddy is a deadline. So the nonprofit PlayWrite Inc engages in some heavy-duty matchmaking, so to speak, this weekend with Write On: 24-hour play festival. Friday night June 16, eight playwrights draw for genre and number of actors, then write 10-minute plays overnight. Saturday morning, June 17, directors draw for which plays and which actors they’ll direct. Showtime comes 24 hours after the first draw. Poison Waters hosts the presentation of these plays as a 20th-anniversary celebration for PlayWrite.

Opening

Looking for some good advice? A decade or so ago you might have checked out “Dear Sugar,” the online column that served as an unlikely on-ramp to literary stardom for Portland writer Cheryl Strayed. That was then. But now you could do worse than heading to Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater, where Deanna Duplechain directs Tiny Beautiful Things, Nia Vardalos’ stage adaptation of Strayed’s insightful, reflective “Dear Sugar” writings. Strayed herself will be there on June 17 for a post-show discussion moderated by Marianne Monson of The Writers Guild of Astoria, and some additional seats recently have been released for that show.

***

When circus meets Death Cab for Cutie. Photo courtesy Constructive Interference.

Start to tell me about a circus performance and my eyes are inclined to roll as a visible sign that my ears are shutting. Call something a physical-theater performance and I’ll stay open to whatever it is slightly longer. But – in what normally would be an entirely unrelated confession – I kind of like the long-running NW rock band Death Cab for Cutie. So I’m willing to imagine that  Transatlanticism: a Circus Tribute, a show by the new company Constructive Interference, geared to the band’s breakthrough album from 2003, could just as well be described as a physical-theater tribute. My prejudice; your results may vary.

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In any case, the show runs just two nights at the Alberta Rose Theatre, June 22 and 23.

Closing

“The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement” nears its end at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

The (relative) summer lull is fast approaching the theater season, bringing the grim prospect of – gasp! – fewer shows to see. But there’s still time to pick the last of a fine spring crop. This weekend brings the final performances of California, The Theatre Company’s family road trip through the multiverse; The Inheritance, Part 2, the finale of Matthew Lopez’ epic reworking of Howard’s End, from Triangle; In a Different Reality She’s Clawing at the Walls, from the always intriguing company Shaking the Tree; The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement, Portland Playhouse’s rousing, multidisciplinary experiment in what might be called liberation theater; and of course, Road House: the Play, Siren Theater’s hilarious, loving stage send-up of the (in)famous 1989 stinker of a Patrick Swayze movie. 

Alumni report

The past week has brought news – both good and less so – regarding two leading New York theatrical figures who formerly made their mark in Oregon.

The good news belongs to Bill Rauch, the beloved former Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director. In 2018, after more than a decade of great success in Ashland, Rauch took a post as artistic director for the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center – which at the time still was on the drawing board for the World Trade Center site in New York City. Now at last the Perelman has announced its inaugural season of programming.

The slate includes lots of music, a bit of dance and enough theater to keep Rauch’s old fans interested. Among the theatrical offerings are a one-man show by the famous Laurence Fishburne (Like They Do in the Movies), a new show by David Henry Hwang (An American Soldier), a re-mounting of a show (Between Two Knees) that premiered at OSF in 2019, and, of course, Cats.

No – really. Yes, that Cats. Sure, it’s as famously weird as pretty much any perennial audience favorite could be. And yes, it features the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and ipso facto it’s dreck. But Rauch will serve as co-director (along with Zhailon Levingston) of this production, and I wouldn’t put it past him to dig diamonds out of the litter box.

Meanwhile, the career of Mark Russell has hit a less-welcome inflection point. Russell served as guest artistic director for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA festival from 2006 to 2008, providing smooth leadership following the departure of the organization’s visionary founder Kristi Edmunds. But even then Russell’s main job was with New York’s Under the Radar Festival, which he founded in 2005. But The New York Times reported a few days ago that Under the Radar has come to a halt, having lost the production support of the Public Theater. 

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“(L)ike every show at the Public, the festival lost money,” Russell told the Times. “It was designed to give our artists their celebration. When would you have a party and expect to come away with money? We had really good parties.”

The best line I read this week

“Prospective travelers, in the thirteenth century, were advised by Aldebrandin of Siena ‘to eat only light meats and drink plain water or water infused with onion, vinegar or sour apples to purify their humors.’ How comforting to know that our weakness for dietary elixirs, far from being a passing fad, is one of the eternal verities, and that, when Aldebrandin counsels his readers ‘to keep a crystal in their mouths to calm their thirst,’ he is not, as you might think, clinging to absurd superstition but courageously paving the way for Gwyneth Paltrow.”

– Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker, reviewing “A History of Fatigue” by Georges Vigarello.

Song of the week

The composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and the librettist Craig Lucas – creators of the sublime 2005 Tony Award winner The Light in the Piazza – have reunited recently for the current Off-Broadway show The Days of Wine and Roses. But speaking of returns, before Piazza there was Saturn Returns, an early Guettel song cycle that was performed Off Broadway and later recorded under the title Myths and Hymns. Among those wondrous songs is this musicalization of a well-known Greek tragedy. Happy Father’s Day!

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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