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DramaWatch Weekly: Deaths in the family

Remembering Philip Cuomo, Stephen Sondheim, and Dave Frishberg. Plus: A "Curious" reopening, Christmas Carols everywhere.

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“Because Cuomo isn’t just the Clown CoHort’s director but producing artistic director for CoHo Productions, Monster Hunter is all but guaranteed to get a finished staging later this year.” 

I wrote that in a February 2020 Dramawatch column about a workshop showing of Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (a Romance) by Philip Cuomo’s CoHo Clown Cohort.

Guarantees aren’t always what we think they are. An oft-quoted phrase has it that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. There is such a thing, however, as tax evasion. 

Death, sorry to say, has been a bit too prevalent in the DramaWatch world of late. Cuomo’s passing on Nov. 27, after a difficult bout with lymphoma, has been an emotional blow to the Portland theater community of which he was such a vibrantly creative and supportive part. 

His life will be celebrated and memorialized at a public gathering from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, at the Alberta Abbey, 126 N.E. Alberta St., Portland.

Philip Cuomo and his wife, Maureen Porter. Photo: Lava Alapai

Cuomo’s death comes hard on the heels of the deaths of other heroes, the songwriters Dave Frishberg and Stephen Sondheim

Frishberg, who died Nov. 17, was a jazz musician, though it’s easy to imagine that — had he been born a generation earlier, like heroes of his such as Frank Loesser — he might have had a fine career writing for Broadway musicals. His songs, often leading with a wry wit, earned him four Grammy nominations, but he moved to Portland in 1986 in part to have a place where he didn’t have to do his “act,” as he called it; he wanted the space to be simply a piano player. His skills at the keyboard were enough to make him a leading figure in the culture of the city, but he also formed a fruitful musical partnership with the Portland singer Rebecca Kilgore. And he wasn’t a stranger to the world of theater, working a little with Cygnet Productions, whose co-founder Louanne Moldovan he first met when both lived in Los Angeles and were cast in a movie together.

Sondheim is one of those figures whose work seems almost topographical, defining the heights and shapes of the theatrical landscape. Many others have, and will, offer more trenchant tributes to his genius than I can. But I can say that I was instantly saddened last Saturday morning when I first heard the news of his death, and that feeling grew much stronger in the afternoon, when word came that Cuomo, at 58, was gone too.

I find myself thinking of a touching moment in a recent show, Danse Macabre: the Testament of Francois Villon. In one performance, at the tiny Northeast Portland studio called the 2509, a woman in the audience rose midway through the performance to go into the restroom, right on the edge of the space. Coming out a moment later, she stood along the wall, waiting for a moment when the action shifted to a different part of the room so that she could slip back to her seat. As she waited, one of the play’s two characters stood next to her — a life-sized dark-angel puppet, clad in black, with a charcoal-gray face of twisted, grimacing features. The main action was elsewhere at this moment, with Jean-Luc Boucherot enacting Villon’s debauched recollections at a downstage microphone. But in a moment of inspired improvisation, puppeteer Briana Ratterman Trevithick rested her masked head on the shoulder of this woman, gently, quietly. The sweet nuzzle of death. “I am here for you, too,” it seemed to say. 

But let us not be morose, whatever the temptation. Cuomo had a motto: “Stop — find joy.” That isn’t always easy. Cuomo, of course, knew that (which is why, I imagine, his advice begins by telling us to halt what sometimes seems the natural course away from joy). It is a skill and a practice, and his mastery of it is essential to the deep impact he had on so many in the theater community here.

So in the struggle to find joy through the sadness of the past week or so, I’ve pulled out my old Frishberg LPs (is there a more concise and delightful start to a song than “You knock back the schnapps/You talk back to cops/You walk in the room and conversation stops/I can’t take you nowhere!”?) I’ve recalled the transporting thrill of watching a fine production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve refreshed my memory by looking back at some of Cuomo’s marvelous work over the years (such as Penelope, Enda Walsh’s magnificent comedic update of Homer, which he directed for Third Rail in 2012; or the Clown Cohort shows such as Philip’s Glass Menagerie) or simply remembering the first time I met him, sitting with his wife, Maureen Porter, on the back stairs at Artists Rep, where she was rehearsing Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden.

After all, perhaps this is what great artists do for us: show us that joy is one more thing that can be guaranteed.

Re-opening 

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”: Back onstage. Photo: Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage

One of the many shows caught out and cut short by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic was Portland Center Stage’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which opened in early March of 2019, but didn’t enjoy much of a run. Now we get what isn’t really a revival, but more a re-start.

Celebrated in London’s West End (where it hauled in seven Olivier Awards in 2013) and on Broadway (a 2015 Tony Award for best play), Simon Stephens’ adaptation of a Mark Haddon novel puts theatergoers inside the mind of a mathematically gifted, socially impaired 15-year-old turned amateur detective, who delves into the mysterious death of a neighbour’s dog only to discovery troubling family secrets. 

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Directed (still) by Marissa Wolf, the production appears to bring back much the same cast, which includes (I dimly recall) a particularly charming and empathetic performance by Ithica Tell as the boy’s friendly neighbor.

A-caroling we will go

Stumptown Stages’ “A Carol for Christmas,” set in the Midwest during the Depression. Photo: Paul Fardig

Last week, Broadway Rose got the season of Dickensian sentiment started with its production of A Christmas Carol, the Musical and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival debuted It’s Christmas, Carol, a wildly comic and song-stuffed adaptation by veteran OSF actors Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley and John Tufts (the trio behind some truly hilarious Marx Brothers recreations in past seasons).

But while there are three ghosts of Christmas, there are of course numberless versions of the classic tale. Up next locally we have A Christmas Carol at Portland Playhouse, in a treatment of  a Rick Lombardo adaptation that’s been known over several years (as directed initially by Cristi Miles and currently by Brian Weaver) for its sincerity and careful craft. This time, Cycerli Ash stars as Scrooge.

Meanwhile, Stumptown Stages goes the musical route as well, with the premiere of A Carol for Christmas, which transposes the action to the American Midwest during the Great Depression, and features a score by James Campodonico and Stumptown dramaturg Janet Mouser.

The flattened stage

Remember (those of you old enough to have gone to school in pre-digital way-back) when your teacher was just worn out some days and just showed a bunch of film strips? We all loved those days!

Well, consider this the DramaWatch equivalent. 

First, a few clips that, in various ways, highlight the inventiveness, the thoroughness, the precision of Sondheim’s remarkable mind and art.

And though the simple single-camera documentation here misses a lot of fun stuff happening off to the sides of the stage, it’s great to find this recording of one of Cuomo’s inspired CoHo Clown Cohort works, Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (a Romance). 

The best line I read this week

Stephen Sondheim: “I’ve often said — facetiously — ‘I really don’t want to write a show until it’s entirely cast and rehearsed.’”

Frank Rich: “Sometimes you’ve come close!”

— from my notes of a 2008 Portland Arts & Lectures event featuring the artist in conversation with the former critic for The New York Times, at that point discussing the writing of “Comedy Tonight,” the opening song for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, during the show’s out-of-town tryouts.

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

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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