Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: ‘True Story,’ hunt for Bruno

Premieres from E.M. Lewis and Carol Triffle top the theater week. Plus: Trying to break down the breakdown at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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Joshua Weinstein and Maria Porter in Artists Rep’s premiere of E.M. Lewis’s “True Story.” Photo: Lava Alapai

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“Here’s the thing. It’s all a story.”

“She said.”

– from the play True Story by E.M. Lewis

Theater is one of the great realms of story, perhaps the greatest, with means that can at times be more immediate and more nuanced even than the printed word, with its capacity for detail and abstraction, or cinema, with its knack for wide-ranging or fantastical representation. This weekend in Portland theater brings new shows – new stories – by two of the area’s most notable theater artists, women whose storytelling approaches could hardly be more different from each other.

One is a playwright, in the craft-conscious sense that the term implies, working within conventional modes of theater, threading rich thematic connections and moral inquiries through scrupulously naturalistic situations and dialogue. The other writes, but her scripts are more an indivisible element in freewheeling creative projects for which she’s also experimenter, conceptualist, director, with results that can feel refreshingly subversive of convention.

The former, in this telling, is E.M. Lewis, whose multi-layered crime drama True Story opens in the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio in a production for Artists Repertory Theatre. Lewis has won numerous awards and had productions across the country and overseas, but is perhaps best known locally for The Gun Show, a smart, searing first-person examination of firearms in American life, and Magellanica, an Antarctic adventure epic.

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The latter is Carol Triffle, co-founder of Imago Theatre and a comic actress of rare abilities, whose works as a writer/director over the past several years have opened a portal to one of the most odd, idiosyncratic theatrical worlds I’ve ever encountered: funky, rough-hewn, off-kilter musicals that blithely ignore the structural and stylistic norms of any other musicals you’ve seen. She’s back with Where’s Bruno?, a sort of rock’n’roll ghost story.

The two works are wildly different. Yet each, in its own way, is out to subvert expectations.

True Story centers a second-rate mystery writer (“I wish everyone would quit saying that,” he complains at one point) in a mystery of his own. He has a heart full of grief and a belly full of rotgut Scotch and a new gig as ghostwriter for a man recently acquitted in a high-profile murder case. Lewis spools out her narrative like a game of cat-and-mouse ‘round an M.C. Escher house: The world we’re in is naturalistic, but time frames quickly begin to dance around and overlap one another; the crime in question shifts; questions of fact chase questions of justice while questions of marketability await the winner. It brings to mind a variety of famous stories – Rashomon, Reversal of Fortune, Doubt – that play with the slippery nature of knowledge and, therefore, of storytelling.

Lewis’s story works well on the page, and a production directed by Luan Schooler, starring Joshua Weinstein, brims with promise.

The premiere of Carol Triffle’s “Where’s Bruno?” at Imago. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

As with several of Triffle’s shows, I found Where’s Bruno barely comprehensible on the page. But it’s surely not written to be read. It’s a jumping-off point for performance, and in any case it’s hard to imagine someone other than Imago staging it, so distinctive is Triffle’s comic voice. The story concerns a couple of has-been rock stars who are visited by the ghost of their band’s dead frontwoman and also by Elvis as a ghost or angel or something. It’s at once supernatural, whimsical and gritty. And characters don’t burst into song to mark emotional and narrative peaks but seemingly as punctuation to scenes or brief windows into their inner states.

To be honest, I’ve found Triffle’s quasi-musicals to be hit-or-miss propositions. But their comic originality is undeniable, lots of Imago fans love them, and when they work they seem to get at something about the ultimately untrackable contours of human hearts and human relationships in a way that normal shows don’t.

Resignation

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 production of “Romeo and Juliet”: Catherine Castellanos and Shauna Miles, with Tim Getman and Erica Sullivan. Photo: Jenny Graham

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is, to me, like a stranger who used to be a close friend. I’m no longer sure what I know or understand about it.

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The announcement last week that Nataki Garrett is resigning from her position as artistic director moves OSF yet further into uncertainty, leaving the company with vacancies in both artistic and administrative leadership while it conducts an emergency fundraising campaign to stave off more layoffs and production cancellations.

In a way, the dire circumstances at the festival shouldn’t be surprising. In casual conversations recently with such theater-industry insiders as J.S. May (Artists Rep’s executive director) and Damaso Rodriguez (former Artists Rep artistic director, now a consultant and freelance director), I’ve been told that OSF is hardly the only theater in the country in crisis these days. Even so, it was uniquely positioned among regional theaters to bear the brunt of Covid restrictions – bringing large groups of people from far-flung communities together in (mostly) indoor spaces. Other theaters have faced climate-change-related challenges, too, but none with the severity and financial impact of the Western wildfires that repeatedly have choked Ashland with smoke.

And yet, with its size, its reputation, its storied history and its ambition, that OSF of all places could be on the ropes still feels shocking. Garrett’s news coming just three weeks after the sudden plea for emergency donations (when Garrett was stripped of executive director duties, just a few months after taking those on) gives the sense of an organization not taking decisive action so much as tumbling headlong down the stairs.

I wish that I understood it all better.

My experience with the festival primarily equates with Bill Rauch’s tenure as artistic director, from 2007 to 2019. The majority of those years I covered the festival for The Oregonian and so had good access to company members and strong relationships with them, especially Rauch and longtime executive director Paul Nicholson and the in-house communications staff. If I had a question, I knew who to call. If I walked around in Ashland – and sometimes even in Portland – it wouldn’t be unusual to see a familiar actor in a coffee shop or on the street and strike up a warm conversation.

These days, I know … no one, really. A week or so before the start of pandemic shutdowns, I had a nice lunch with Evren Odcikin, an impressively astute and personable fellow who’d recently been hired as associate artistic director and remains with the company. There’s still a media and communications staff creating the festival’s own materials, but press relations have been outsourced to a company in San Francisco. The acting company still includes longtime favorites Kevin Kenerly and Kate Hurster, but frankly, I recognize just a handful of names and faces.

Of course I recognize both that my previous degree of familiarity was a privilege and that I haven’t been as scrupulous a DramaWatcher as regards OSF in recent years as I ought to have been. But I don’t think I’m unusual among OSF fans in finding continuity to be one of the great pleasures of the place. And it’s not as though the place has been hidebound (though some of Garrett’s public statements have hinted at that view), but the recent pace of change has been unprecedented.

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Of course it’s possible that Garrett’s efforts toward change faced greater resistance because she was the first Black woman to lead the company. But change has always been tricky at an institution founded on classicism and tradition. It’s also worth noting that Garrett had barely arrived when the layer cake of catastrophes was served. It’s no knock on her to wonder how it all would have played out – finances, programming adjustments, equity/diversity advances, etc. – if the Covid and climate crises had come years earlier, when Rauch and Nicholson had the company riding high while balancing stability with incremental change. Conversely, I’ve heard rumors that prior to Garrett’s hiring, a strong faction of the OSF board favored giving the job to Timothy Bond, an experienced Black theater maker who was associate artistic director at OSF under Rauch’s predecessor, Libby Appel. Having started with a strong level of familiarity and trust already established, would he have fared better, or at least avoided the death threats that Garrett says she received?

In any case, the uncertainty persists, and for whoever takes over leadership of the festival the answers to the complex questions of income, demography, programming, casting and so on necessary to get the place back to its former strength will not be easy to find.

Meanwhile, I feel like I should renew my acquaintance with OSF. The gifted theater professor and commentator Daniel Pollack-Pelzner said last year that he went down to Ashland expecting to find a company in disarray and instead was dazzled by the artistry onstage. I should hope for the same. But I look at a schedule that currently offers just Romeo & Juliet (one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays) and Rent (one of my least favorite musicals) and a four-hour drive from Portland hardly seems worthwhile. Frankly, nothing in the rest of the season looks likely to change that calculation for me.

And yet, I don’t want to be resigned to something so glorious just fading away.

Opening

A young cat is a kitten and a young dog is a puppy and a young heavily commodified monster is a beast junior. I think. In any case, the musical-theater students of Lakewood Theatre Company will perform what’s called Disney’s Beauty and the Beast JR, a slimmed-down version of the classic fairytale/commercial behemoth, directed by Julie Lane.

***

The name sounds like a new term for procrastination (something of a specialty in my case), but a/void/fest is a festival of site-specific contemporary performance billed as “an amalgamation of responses to a theoretical impending apocalypse.” (Non-artsy translation: Celebrate good times, come on!) The half-dozen or so shows in rotating rep, which appear to tend toward the darkly mythic, are the work of PETE’s ICP – that is, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Institute of Contemporary Performance, a 10-month artist training program.

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Closing

Wildin Pierrevil and Isaiah Reynolds in “Choir Boy” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega called Choir Boy – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s tale of power struggles and prejudices within an elite Black boys prep school – “a spiritual journey of longing and aspiration” and a show that “operates on the most soulful level.” She also called it a show not to be missed, but you’ve only a few more chances to pick up the tune.

***

Sharon Maroney’s new musical “Audition From Hell” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Ortega was less effusive about a “breezy musical” by Broadway Rose producing artistic director Sharon Maroney that offers a look at the backstage drama facing – how shall we put this? – women just as much in their prime as Don Lemon is. “Audition From Hell doesn’t bite off more than it can chew; its aims are genuine and executed well by a fine cast and creative team.”

The flattened stage 

The best line I read this week

“That’s the place where philosophy begins – with a certain anxiety about how to live the life that is yours.”
– philosopher Jonathan Lear, quoted in an article from The New Yorker about his University of Chicago colleague Agnes Callard.

***

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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2 Responses

  1. Marty, thanks for your comments about the OSF “breakdown.” I learned something (that PR is outsourced to a company in SF), which may explain at least some of the issues surrounding this crisis, especially as it relates to community support. Many here in Ashlandia argue that we have something of an “absentee landlord” problem, given that the Board is presently made up mostly of folks from out-of-area who have little first-hand knowledge of the l-o-n-g history of the company and what made it both unique and, for a while, spectacularly successful.

    If you have the time and the interest, just for starters, there’s a lengthy Nextdoor thread on the subject, begun I think in January or February (and itself a continuation of a lengthy previous thread) in which a score of local audience members, former staff & artists, directors, volunteers, ex-Board members, ex-donors, and local business owners whose livelihoods have been deeply impacted, have weighed in as the crisis unfolded in real time, There’s a lot of good info and lively opinions.

    The thread starts here: https://nextdoor.com/p/gtwBTjf7wzy9?utm_source=share&extras=NTYyNjc0MTk%3D

  2. It will be difficult to catch any show at OSF past July, I believe, so scoot down if you want to see R&J: Admins on the most recent company call confessed that, well past the “Save Our Season” $2.5 mil the org is trying to raise, it needs $7.5 to get it to October. As to catching the show, there are plenty of empty seats still available.

    How to “Save Our Shakespeare Company”? Return to the basics. Promote a “Back to Bowmer” campaign far and wide; stage small shows beautifully designed, directed and performed. Stage jewels, gems, treasures of our theater corpus. Go from there, and grow from there.

    This company could rise again. But it must use the playbook Angus wrote to do it. Not only will a starved audience return over time, but audiences on the run from other failing woke companies will show up. Back to Bowmer would do it. But a hero, and a heroic board, and bravery beyond all passing is demanded. This will be the reason this company will fail, ultimately. They will move at half-measure. They will fear being called a name or two. They will neither speak nor act on what their hearts and minds tell them they need to do. The company will fall, and all because they will not screw their courage to the sticking place.

    This is a dire prediction, and I hope it won’t come true. But I know what’s needed to prevent it. Will a hero rise in Ashland? Will he lead a heroic board to renewal? Not if past is prologue.

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