DramaWatch Weekly: story dance

Dancer Andrea Parson teams with story shaper Susan Banyas to tell tales at CoHo Summerfest; Chekhov rides again; a twist on "Shrew"

“I’ve always been interested in theater,” says Andrea Parson, “but I’ve always been on the outskirts of it, because I’m a ‘dancer,’ not an ‘actor.’”
You can practically hear the air quotes as she speaks, conscious of the arts-discipline silos that so often shape the perceptions others have of artists but not the visions they have of themselves. Then again, the emphasis hardly is misplaced: Parson well and truly is a dancer. Winner of the highly prestigious Princess Grace Award for Dance in 2010, she’s been a frequently featured company member with NW Dance Project for several years. But she hasn’t been content to stay at home in the “dancer” silo.

Andrea Parson, telling stories. Photo: Fuschia Lin

A few years ago, for instance, she studied clowning, in a workshop taught by CoHo Productions’ producing artistic director Philip Cuomo. Now, she’s bringing a show of her own to CoHo’s Summerfest 2018. Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories is a dance-theater hybrid co-directed by Parson and Susan Banyas, featuring Parson, Megan Dawn and Stephanie Schaaf, each performing an amalgam of movement and text, image-making and emotional expression, personal memory and family history.

“I wanted to see, if artists were telling their own stories, how that would affect their own movement,” Parson says of the impulse behind the show. “Would you give more, or be able to express more or feel more? And would an audience then get more from the experience?”

Parson first encountered Banyas in 2016, when Banyas appeared in Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay for Oregon Ballet Theatre. “I was very interested in knowing more about her work, and then I found out about this method she has called Soul Stories. The description sounded like it could really help me find my story.”

The following winter, Parson went to tiny Dufur, Oregon to take a workshop Banyas was teaching there. “She took to it like a duck to water; she really got it,” Banyas recalls. Parson’s desire to find a theatrical form for stories about her grandmother and about her Italian immigrant heritage led to the collaboration behind Finding Soul.

Susan Banyas. Photo: Fuschia Lin

Trained as a multi-disciplinary artist by the likes of Meredith Monk, Banyas taught, wrote and performed in Portland for decades before opening a live/work Air B&B space in Astoria three years ago. (“It was kind of a whim — no, it was more of a dream,” she says of the move. “I had a dream that I was living in a house on the side of a hill, on a river, around the corner from a city…And then I found this place.”) She recalls the inspiration that came from a storytelling symposium she attended years ago. “Learn the stories of your soul,” was the advice of the poet Robert Bly. “Learn the stories of your family,” said the feminist playwright Susan Griffin. “Learn the stories of your culture, your people,” implored the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. With those edicts as guides to her varied training, Banyas began to develop her twinned artistic methods, Soul Stories and Everyday Dancing, that she calls “foundational … the basis of pretty much everything I do.”

A Soul Story has its seed, Banyas says, in “a moment that changed you — a conversation, an encounter with a stranger, an illness, whatever.” Once the artist has chosen such a moment to plumb, Banyas’s process involves deconstructing the moment into images, then using other images as prompts to go deeper into the story and come to understand its structure. Images also inherently contain movement, Banyas points out. Which connects the process to her notions of Everyday Dancing. “That’s the body stuff,” she says. “And that’s where the spatial dimensions come in.” And then there’s language, which, when given its own assiduous focus, allows you to “get into the bigger pattern recognition” of the story and how it’s being conveyed.

Overall, it’s a multi-layered, exacting process that demands openness and vulnerability but has no room for self-indulgence. “You step out and engage with it fearlessly,” Banyas says, “or else it’s not going to be able to transform you. I got to apply this method to this beautiful group of dancers. And they’ve been upping my game, because they’re such wonderful movers. This show is very dancerly.”

As personal as Soul Stories can be, part of their essence is the collaboration involved, both in their making and in the meaningful exchange they provide with audiences.

“One of the really great things about this method is it takes many voices, many listeners,” Parson says. “This process really provides witnesses. It wasn’t until I shared my story in community that I really knew it myself.

“This whole project has been an investigation into how to reach people, through dance and through story.”

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The Ben Newman Festival of Contemporary Russian Theater

The recent symposium on the works of Anton Chekhov, held last week at Lewis & Clark College, was in part a kind of laboratory for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, the troupe that has been producing the Chekhov translations by LC professor Stepan Simek. But Jacob Coleman and Amber Whitehall, two of the PETE principals slated for major roles in last Saturday’s four-play “Chekh-o-rama,” weren’t present that day.

“They had a baby,” symposium organizer Rebecca Lingafelter said, when asked about the absences.

But, with no Coleman, somebody still had to play Uncle Vanya. And Lopakhin, in The Cherry Orchard. And Trigorin, in The Seagull.

Ben Newman in another classical update, with Shannon Mastel in Portland Shakespeare Project’s “Pericles Wet.” Photo: David Kinder

So, in stepped Ben Newman, who kinda knocked them all out of the park. His Trigorin — a famous but self-doubting and dissatisfied writer — seemed likeable rather than pompous, and, like many of us, painfully aware of his own faults yet still mystified by the antipathy of his enemies. Newman’s Vanya — where Coleman’s was nearly unhinged with boredom and passion in PETE’s full production this past season — came across like a kind of ne’er-do-well teddy bear, with a teal bathrobe and a sweet-and-sour affect. And his Lopakhin — always, to my mind, the crucial role in the dance of progress and decline that drives The Cherry Orchard — was grumpy and caustic yet still entirely sympathetic, the one clear-eyed fellow amid those lost in the past or dream-drunk about the future.

The four staged readings made for a long day in the theater — about 12 hours from start to finish — but each play had attendance of about 50 to 75.  And the day was enlivened by lots of fine performances: Philip Cuomo in fine comic form as the squeaky-booted klutz Yepikhodov in The Cherry Orchard; Maureen Porter as the glamorously self-satisfied actress Arkadina in The Seagull; Jahnavi Caldwell-Green as Natasha, passive-aggressive tyrant of The Three Sisters; Victor Mack as the aged and haughty Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya and the aged and humble Firs in Cherry Orchard; and so on.

The real star, however, was the Simek translations, which breath a casual contemporaneity into Chekhov. This is Chekhov in which characters say, “My bad,” and call each other “freak,” “scumbag,” “knucklehead.” More importantly, these translations deftly resolve the Chekhov comedy/tragedy conundrum by refusing to acknowledge such a division. This Seagull, for instance — the most engaging version of the play I’ve yet seen — was high-flying and hilarious, until a soft landing on a poignantly sad note. The most striking moment may have come in The Three Sisters, directed by Cristi Miles: one of the sisters, Masha, played by Miles, crying in anguish at the looming departure of Vershinin, a soldier she’s fallen in love with, while at the same time, her husband, played by John San Nicolas, looks on with an expression of comically sheepish forbearance. That combination of sadness, awkwardness and humor was the day’s touchstone.

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High art

I count no less than seven heavy hints — punning references to weed and vapors and such — in the press release for Ambition Puff’d, Theatre Vertigo’s one-time, late-night Friday show. So let’s just go ahead and presume that it consists of the sort of grab-bag of Shakespeare scenes and monologues that small companies often will trot out for fundraisers, followed by an intermission during which the actors will smoke lots of marijuana! Then it’s back to the Bard miscellany, through a filter of cannabinoid intoxication.

Well, I suppose, why not? A similar idea works to hilarious effect on Drunk History.

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Opening

Couple of guys sitting across a table from each other, playing a board game: perfect subject for a musical! Of course that’s not quite what Chess, the 1980s musical hit, is entirely about. It’s set amid a Cold War-era chess rivalry but trades also on themes of love, betrayal and geopolitical tensions.  Don’t know about you, but the songwriting team behind Mamma Mia and the pop band ABBA always makes me think of geopolitics. In any case, Lakewood is presenting a production directed by the ever-capable John Oules, with music direction by Darcy White.

 

Experience Theatre Project’s “The Taming and the Shrew.”

The Taming and the Shrew is not a typo. It’s a “commedia dell’arte-style farce” by Experience Theatre Project that takes off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. That it’s adapted and directed by Sara Fay Goldman provides reason for optimism.

Caws and Effect is a pun (albeit not a very good one), but it also is the title of a show by the Vancouver, B.C. puppet theater duo Mind of a Snail. Large-scale shadow puppetry, masks, projections, original music (and some good reviews) suggest the effects might be quite entertaining.

The ways in which a society can slip, or sometimes march, into authoritarianism is a topic of (ahem) some interest these days. Michael Bertis has written and directed a play, called Adroit Maneuvers, that examines the topic through the recollections of a Viennese woman recalling the Nazi annexation of Austria and of WWII. The description of the story on the project’s website suggests that it’s ambitious, working in Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as characters, threading in music, etc.

In any case, Bertis has enlisted some formidable local talents, including Diane Kondrat, Leif Norby, Gary Powell and Chris Porter.

Not all that infrequently, shows come around that — however much information their producers provide — it is difficult to form much of an idea about in advance. Distances seems to be such a show, drawing from such various forms as theater, installation art, dance, sound design and so forth. You’ve got chunks of indeterminate Richard Foreman text to be performed, you’ve got a former auto-parts store as the venue, you’ve even got an unexplained reference to “cereal” in the description on the show’s Facebook page. You’ve also got an intriguing cast of contributors, including performers Grace Carter and Paige McKinney, and “wardrobe consultant” Jenny Ampersand.

Romeo and Juliet — perhaps you’ve heard of it — opens the annual summer season of Portland Actors Ensemble, the longtime local park Shakespeare specialists. Lone Fir Cemetery should make a fine locale, what with all the dying and such.

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Closing

Portland theater audiences should be familiar by now with the comedic talents of Darius Pierce, one of the town’s most versatile actors. But Night Bus offers a chance to catch him in full-on sketch-comedy mode, as part of a seven-actor ensemble directed by Brooke Totman and also including Ted Rooney.

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Best line I read this week

“In 1801, Samuel Taylor Coleridge calculated the impact ratio of scientists to poets like this: ‘the souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton.’”

— from a July 1 book review in The New York Times

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

 

 

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