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DramaWatch: Triangle’s epic ‘Inheritance’

Matthew Lopez' two-part drama reimagines "Howards End" as a gay New York saga. Plus openings, closings, a big theater bash, and a new leader for Oregon Children's Theatre.

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Gary Norman (left) and James Sharinghousen in “The Inheritance.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

“Everyone thinks an inheritance is something you get in a will,” Don Horn says. But he interprets the word in broader terms than money or property or heirlooms: “Your inheritance is remembering. It sometimes isn’t physical; it’s sometimes emotional, or spiritual, or even cultural. What you’re given throughout life is your inheritance.”

These musings relate to the latest project from Horn’s theater company, Triangle Productions. The Matthew Lopez play The Inheritance is a mammoth, two-part, six-hour presentation, a loose yet loving transposition of themes, narrative structures and character types from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End into the world of middle- and upper-middle-class gay men in New York, circa 2016. As in Howard’s End, the passing down of a beloved house is in play, and its value is as sanctuary and symbol more than as real estate. But the notion of inheritance it explores is largely about a generational transfer of cultural and emotional capital. Lopez is addressing the question of what a generation owes to the one that preceded it, especially in the complex case of generations of gay men on either side of the AIDS epidemic. 

In that sense, for Portland theatergoers The Inheritance serves as an interesting expansion on/counterpoint to the recent Fuse Theatre Ensemble production Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors, which dealt explicitly with the disruption to such generational transfer because of AIDS. It’s also a welcome return to the Portland stage for Lopez’ work: His celebrated play The Whipping Man had a powerful showing at Portland Center Stage in 2013, and in 2019 Triangle produced The Legend of Georgia McBride. “That one was about a gay man who can’t find a job and so he becomes a drag queen,” Horn says. “Entirely the opposite of what he did with this play.”

Drag queens aren’t entirely irrelevant here, however. Horn says that he views this production of The Inheritance as a way of honoring his longtime friend Walter Cole, who died recently after decades of performing as Darcelle XV, the doyenne of Northwest drag artists, and as a prominent community activist.

And although AIDS is a powerful presence in the story of The Inheritance, leading the great London critic Michael Billington and others to liken it to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, it isn’t predominant. Another antecedent Lopez has acknowledged is Terrence McNally’s Love, Valour, Compassion. 

Michael Teufel (left) and James Sharinghousen. Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

“In writing The Inheritance, I wanted to take my favorite novel and retell it in a way that its closeted author never felt free to do in his lifetime,” Lopez wrote in a piece for the Times. “I wanted to write a play that was true to my experience, my philosophy, my heart as a gay man who has enjoyed opportunities that were denied Forster. It was my attempt to explain myself to the world as a gay man of my particular generation….What I was attempting was an examination of class, economic inequality, and poverty within the gay community — issues I have rarely seen depicted in theater.”

The Inheritance debuted in London, where it was a decided hit and won the Best New Play honors at the 2019 Laurence Olivier Awards. A subsequent Broadway run had a more mixed reception (“The combination of skyscraping reach and soap opera-ish pulp makes The Inheritance both easy to make fun of and hard to dislike,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times. “Ultimately, the play twists itself into ungainly pretzels as it tries to join all the thematic dots on its immense canvas.”) But a 2022 production at the Geffen Playhouse led L.A. Times critic Charles McNulty to laud it as “one of the pinnacle achievements in the theater’s history.”

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

To judge from a dress rehearsal of part one, The Inheritance, directed here by Andrés Alcalá, it could well be a pinnacle achievement for Triangle as well. (Part I runs through April 22; Part II is scheduled for June 1-17.) 

The play begins with members of its large cast (13 actors) milling about or sprawled across the stage, scribbling in notebooks. Once they begin to speak, it appears that they are engaged in a collaborative effort – they suggest directions, speak lines and then correct them, advancing the story in a piecemeal yet instantly compelling fashion. In effect, they are collectively writing the story as they perform it.

And my, do they perform it. By contrast to, say, Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors, there’s nothing elaborately theatrical about The Inheritance, almost nothing in the way of settings or props. But the story ambles from scenes of convivial friendship to explicitly described (and somewhat abstractly represented) sex to domestic squabbling to group discussions of politics and culture. The cast of 13 is led by Michael Teufel and James Sharinghousen as the mid-30s boyfriends Eric Glass, a conceited writer, and Toby Darling, a good-natured political activist, rough stand-ins for the Schlegel sisters of Howards End; and the two turn in precise, vivid, thoroughly lived-in performances, probably the finest yet I’ve seen from these mid-career vets.

But it’s a long first-act monologue by Gary Norman that marks this as a production not to be missed. It’s the first time we’ve seen Norman on stage for several years now, and it’s as welcome a return as could be. Speaking as a character recalling his life coming out of the closet and into a long relationship and then a role as a compassionate supporter of the dying, Norman performs with heartbreaking tenderness and depth, reminding us that theater at its best can offer a shared emotional inheritance.

Opening 

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

In a better world, perhaps Mikki Gilette’s new play American Girl would be based on the great early Tom Petty song. Instead, it’s the story of Nikki Kuhnhausen, a trans teen from Vancouver, Washington, who was murdered in 2019. ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea recently detailed the work of the Fuse Theatre Ensemble artists who’ll be bringing the story to life, led by director Sarah Andrews.

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Portland Actors Conservatory’s “Core Values.” Photo: Owen Carey

Trying to make some contribution beyond judgmental scribblings, your humble DramaWatcher also has served, for the past several months, on the board of The Actors Conservatory. So, to avoid showing any bias, I’ll try to stick strictly to the facts here: The school’s second-year students make up the cast of Core Values, a Steven Levenson play about the staff of a travel agency navigating uncertain times in their industry and in their lives, directed by Portland stage veteran and conservatory artistic director Michael Mendelson. The show is the first full production in the Tiffany Center headquarters that the conservatory moved into last fall

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

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If you somehow were bound to be stuck in the middle of the action of a Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus might be the last one you’d choose. But – hardly the sort to shy from a challenge – the folks at Speculative Drama are giving it their trademark immersive-theater treatment, in what could be a high-minded take on horror. Renowned not so much for its body count as for the colorfully gruesome manner of dispatching its victims, the early revenge play fairly boils with violence and cruelty. But its concerns with matters of honor, loyalty, grief and justice give you plenty to think about amid the gore.

The flattened stage

Closing

“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” So says a sermonizing Father Flynn, one of the oppositely-charged poles in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama Doubt. In this view, as in this story, he’s set against Sister Aloysius, iron-willed principal of the parish school and a paragon of doctrinal doggedness and certitude. The power struggle implied by their temperamental differences emerges around the case of one young student for whom Flynn is said to be “a protector.” Flynn says any special attention is to help the boy, the school’s first Black student (the story is set in 1964) feel less isolated. Aloysius leaps to the conclusion that something inappropriate and possibly horrible is happening. He holds institutional clout, but she’s not one to cross (so to speak).

From left in “Doubt”: Diane Kondrat, Todd Hermanson and Ariel Puls. Photo by Triumph Photography

In Antonio Sonera’s scrupulous production for Lakewood Theatre, these characters and the many things they represent are brought to life with all the necessary tension by Todd Hermanson and Diane Kondrat, respectively. Yet as compelling as their chess match is, Shanley is after much more than procedural entertainment; his script teems with philosophical conundrums, compelling you to think about the power of belief, the danger of certainty, the limits of knowledge, the uses of skepticism, and so on. He asks, ultimately, how we go about making ethical choices when we can’t have complete information about either the situation we face or the outcome of whichever actions we choose. And while he suggests that there are no easy answers, one thing you shouldn’t doubt is that this is a play worth seeing.

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Telvin Griffin and Taylore Mahogany Scott in PassinArt’s “Seven Guitars.” Photo: Owen Carey

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars – the 1940s chapter of his justly celebrated “Century Cycle” of 10 decade-by-decade plays about African-American life  – tells a story about deep yearning, thwarted ambition and the empty inheritance of the dispossessed. At the end of its previews, this production from PassinArt still was finding its flow, with an awkward performance or two holding an otherwise strong ensemble back from full flight. We’ll suspect its bluesy wail has warmed up sufficiently since.

Sponsor

Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

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And this weekend is your last chance to catch the return of Varsity Cheerleader Werewolves LIVE From Outer Space. Rah-rah.

New leadership at OCT

Jenn Hartmann Luck takes the reins at Oregon Children’s Theatre. Photo courtesy OCT.

Oregon Children’s Theatre has just announced the hiring of a new artistic leader, only the third in the company’s 35-year history. In a press release Thursday, the company named Jenn Hartmann Luck as its new producing artistic director. An announcement on the OCT website says that Hartmann Luck will begin the new job in May. 

The title of “producing artistic director” suggests that Hartmann Luck will serve a combined role as head of both the artistic and administrative operations at OCT – though neither announcement specifies, and ArtsWatch has not yet been able to confirm this. In any case, the new appointment should mark both a reset and a steadying of the beloved institution, which in recent years has weathered the retirements and subsequent deaths of its longtime leaders, founding artistic director Stan Foote and managing director Ross McKeen, as well as the loss of its headquarters on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. Marcella Crowson had succeeded Foote as artistic director. Dani Baldwin will continue in her role as artistic director of the Young Professionals Company, OCT’s accomplished teen acting program.

Hartmann Luck will move to Portland from Austin, Texas, where she has served as director of partnerships and programming for education at the Paramount Theatre, presenting performing arts for young audiences and running an education program serving more than 22,000 students per year. “Prior to her time in Austin,” OCT says, “she was part of P.L.A.Y (Performing for Los Angeles Youth), the award-winning education department at Center Theatre Group.”

Bashing theater lovers

Theater lovers having a bash, that is.

Portland Center Stage presents what it bills as “a community party for all,” the Theater Lover’s Bash (maybe that apostrophe is out of place, or maybe it just means the singular theater lover is you!). DramaWatch doesn’t typically include fundraising events, but in addition to the food – knishes, salad wraps, “charcuterie cones” (?), etc. – and the cocktails and the obligatory DJ, the featured performance does look to be awfully appealing. 

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Back by Unpopular Demand, written by PCS literary manager and dramaturg Kamilah Bush and directed by Isaac Lamb, is a musical concerning friends who once had a band called Every Day a Little Death come back together for a big reunion gig. What’s great here is that those friends are played by Crystal Muñoz, Tyler Andrew Jones, Dale Johannes and Kayla Dixon; plus we’re promised a “special appearance” by cast members from the upcoming PCS production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy.

The best line I read this week

”Think of that Easter day

When they rolled the stone away

And the apostles said they’d seen Jesus by the city wall

Well Saint Thomas’ heart was pure

When he said, ‘oh right yeah sure’

That’s why Saint Tom was the grooviest apostle of all

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Is there a god above?

Is there eternal love?

Probably not

Probably not

Is there a home up in the sky?

Will we be there by and by?

Probably not

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

No, probably not”

Susan Werner, “Probably Not”

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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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