DramaWatch Weekly: Helping Philip Cuomo

The beloved actor, director, and leader of CoHo Productions is dealing with lymphoma, and a fund has been set up to help. Also: Openings, from Scrooge to Bella Abzug.

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On Nov. 20, CoHo Productions sent out an email under the heading, “Philip Cuomo: the Man, the Myth, the Legend.” Despite the playful tone that might suggest, the content of the message was sobering. Addressed to “Dearest CoHo Community,” the letter began “As some of you know, Coho’s Producing Artistic Director, Philip Cuomo, has been fighting an aggressive medical condition for the better part of the past two years … During the first months, we all held hope that he would be able to return to his former energetic self and his position at the head of CoHo. A few months ago, it became evident that he would not be able to continue his work with us.” 

This, to my knowledge, was the first public statement from the theater about Cuomo’s health, but word of the artist’s struggles had been spreading through the local theater community recently. With Cuomo headed home from an extended hospital stay, the company opted to make a more public call for support.

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

Cuomo has for years been one of the leading lights of the Portland theater scene as an actor, director, administrator, teacher and mentor. He was a major contributor to the success of Third Rail Rep at its peak a decade ago, gained a loyal following among students during a stint at Portland Actors Conservatory, and for the past nine years was artistic director at CoHo, helping that company sharpen its identity and increase its activity as a key creative hub in the city.

But all of that, and whatever else might be highlighted from his resume, can’t capture the essence of Cuomo’s impact, which comes most powerfully from his personality and character. Kind, calm, gentle, energetic, playful, impish, thoughtful, caring, even wise — these qualities have distinguished him in pretty much any setting and made him a kind of quiet but powerful center of gravity for those who’ve known and worked with him. 

I became aware of Cuomo’s health issues in January of this year. The CoHo Clown Cohort, a project of Cuomo’s that has produced some of the most delightfully, surprisingly incisive theater in town in recent years, had a new work-in-progress scheduled for presentation (virtually) in this year’s Fertile Ground festival. Planning to feature it in this column, I was puzzled when I noticed one day that it no longer was listed on the festival website. Responding to an email query, festival director Nicole Lane was discreet: “Philip is not well, so they decided to withdraw.” 

After that, I’d occasionally ask theater folk I encountered what they knew about his condition; the answers were vague but concerning. It appeared, I was told, that he’d had  a series of debilitating symptoms, caused by some sort of serious auto-immune disease.

It wasn’t until after the recent CoHo email that I checked with the world’s No. 1 news source — Facebook. There, relatively recent updates from Cuomo’s wife, Maureen Porter (managing artistic director of Third Rail, and one of Portland’s very finest actors), his nephew, Isaac Lamb (also a Third Rail company member and sometime-star in the Clown Cohort) and other family provide some details. He’d been hospitalized since suffering a stroke in June, and eventually was diagnosed with lymphoma of the primary nervous system.

Philip Cuomo in full clown mode. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

Lamb created a GoFundMe campaign, “Medical Fund for Philip Cuomo and Maureen Porter,” to raise money for home nursing care, assistive equipment and accumulating bills. A page at the website Caring Bridge also allows donations and facilitates communication for Cuomo’s community of supporters.

I’m reminded of the Portland jazz musician Richard Burdell, who lived for 14 years with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ­commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Burdell’s community of friends and family came to use a certain phrase as shorthand for their community, a motto of sorts: “17A.” After Burdell no longer could speak or move much more than his eyes, communication was accomplished using a wall chart of letters and common phrases, which Burdell could choose among with a flick of his eyes when someone pointed at them. Chart 1, item 17, column A was the shortcut for “I love you.”

Similarly, Cuomo’s large and loving community seems to have found its motto in one of Cuomo’s own sayings, a bit of advice he’d often give to students, actors, friends in the face of various challenges. In a busy world where it’s often all too easy to rush past the truly important things, it’s advice worth taking to heart, even — perhaps especially — for a journey such as Cuomo’s.
“Stop. Find joy.”

Opening

“A Christmas Carol” at Broadway Rose, from left: Robert Head, Victoria Spelman, Valentina Silva, William Shindler. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Charles Dickens’ 1843 story A Christmas Carol has proved nearly as malleable as it has enduringly popular (the Wikipedia page for “adaptations of A Christmas Carol” is kind of mind-boggling, frankly). And as if the basic material wasn’t surefire enough, someone thought to add the work of big-bucks Broadway heavyweights Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. The result was A Christmas Carol, the Musical. Dan Murphy and Annie Kaiser will direct the show for Tigard’s Broadway Rose. Paul Cosca as Scrooge headlines a cast of eight that also includes the reliably delightful Emily Sahler.

Sponsor

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To some folks, a story that centers on virgin birth, a supernatural savior and traveling wisemen already counts as fantastical. So why not imagine (perhaps borrowing a bit from another Biblical story) a great flood — only this time not of rain, but of tea? 

Wendy Westerwelle as Bella Abzug at Triangle. Photo: David Kinder

The team of Canadian fringe-festival vets called James and Jamesy (Aaron Malkin and Alaistair Knowles) present O Christmas Tea: A British Comedy, a show the Vancouver Sun described as a “seasonal offering of silliness [that] fuses pratfalls, dancing, clowning and more into a panto-like romp following a Christmas wish come true and gone awfully awry.” The show gets two performances on Sunday at the Newmark Theatre, but if you miss it there’ll be many chances to catch it all next month across British Columbia — though be forewarned: the Dec. 7 show in Salmon Arm already has sold out. 

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In a matchup characteristic of Triangle Productions, one of Portland’s most beloved stage veterans, Wendy Westerwelle, portrays one of liberal America’s most fondly recalled social activists, the late New York congress member Bella Abzug.  Bella! Bella!, written by Harvey Fierstein using many of Abzug’s own quotes, might be the only political tale that’s set in a hotel bathroom, but not for any seedy intent — the premise is that Abzug is holed up there awaiting results of a 1976 senatorial primary.

The flattened stage

Tradition being so central to our late-year holidays, I’m absolutely verklempt to find that my favorite Thanksgiving ritual — repeated viewings of a video clip of the Apple Sisters performing their “Pilgrim/Indian Song” — is no longer possible; the old link brings up a YouTube page stating that the video is “private” and no longer available.

It ain’t the same as that brilliant little small-theater performance caught on tape (or digits, as it were), but here’s the next best thing:

Best line I read this week

“All you need to know about this new musical can be found in the faces of the actors charged with delivering its material — confused, subtly pained, regretful, and possibly thinking of ways to repent. Kwame Kwei-Armah, Brian Yorkey, and Tom Kitt have concocted a show so bafflingly bad, and intermittently offensive, that its performers can’t help but wince.’

— from a calendar brief, by Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker, about The Visitor at the Public Theatre.

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This holiday I’ll give thanks for, among other things, all the talented and hardworking and deeply soulful theater artists and others in this wonderful Northwest community who create and present art that helps me learn about the world and (one hopes, at least) how to live in it.

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

About the author
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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