Portland Center Stage Portland Oregon Events

DramaWatch: Welcome to the Cuomo Collaborative

Small-theater stars CoHo, PETE, and Third Rail join forces to beat the real estate game. Plus: Last chance to see Imago's "Voiceover"; openings & closings.

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… and now they are three. The newly formed Cuomo Theatre Collaborative will house three creative small companies — CoHo Productions, Third Rail Rep, and PETE — in CoHo’s Northwest Portland building. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

Once upon a time, CoHo Theater was off the beaten path. Though only a half-block from the bustling small-business strip of Northwest 23rd Avenue, the theater’s low-slung building felt more a part of the nondescript warehouses and light commercial businesses just to the east. But as the Slabtown neighborhood continued to grow (energized for good or ill by a spiffy New Seasons market, among other new real estate developments), Philip Cuomo recognized the danger. 

For many years, the Portland performing arts scene has been like a frog in the pot of the city’s real estate market, the water getting hotter by the minute. The pressure of increasing rents and/or the loss of performance spaces to more lucrative commercial uses has bedeviled the arts community, limiting available places to perform, rehearse, teach and conduct off-stage business. As CoHo’s producing artistic director, Cuomo wanted to protect the theater from the vicissitudes of the market and began planning to try to buy the building where CoHo Productions has been housed for the past quarter-century. 

Philip Cuomo: A visionary’s dream lives on. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

Cuomo’s death last year, following a two-year bout with lymphoma of the central nervous system, was a bigger blow to the theater community than the loss of any building could be. But it might also have galvanized others into even stronger support of his plan for CoHo.

Now, the company has announced the formation of the Cuomo Theatre Collaborative, a consortium of companies with strong ties to the beloved actor/director/teacher/administrator.

Along with CoHo Productions (which now is run by the team of program director Phil Johnson, operations manager Morgan Clark-Gaynor and communications director Laurel Wilde), the collaborative includes Third Rail Repertory Theatre and the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Cuomo was a member of Third Rail as an actor and director, and the company is led by his wife, the magnificent actor Maureen Porter. One of Cuomo’s Third Rail compatriots, Rebecca Lingafelter, is a co-founder of PETE.

PETE’s recent adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” was a hit. Now the company will be one of threein residence at CoHo Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey

In addition to the personal connections, common cause is clear in the need that all three companies have for work space and the community-minded ethos they share. “Using a model of collective leadership, artist empowerment, and affordable access, the CTC will leverage this space to preserve and deepen the performing arts as a necessary ingredient for community vitality in Portland’s exploding Slabtown neighborhood,” a statement on the CoHo website reads in part. “The building will serve as a space of inclusion, access, innovation, and connection. It will continue to serve as a venue for small to midsize companies like CoHo, Third Rail, and PETE, and the innumerable artists who have created and shared innovative work in the space for the last 26 years.”

According to the statement, Cuomo already had made significant progress on the project,  “including negotiating purchase terms with the building’s owner, securing support from a foundation and two generous individual donors, and even engaging an architect to design renovations which would transform the space into a multi-functional artistic center for the community.”

Here’s hoping the Collaborative can fully honor Cuomo’s invaluable legacy by giving theater artists and appreciators a broader path to the future.

Opening

The Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre presents Side by Side by Sondheim, the musical revue stitched from a variety of songs by the master of American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. Fittingly, the performances will be in the Crystal Room of the Tiffany Center, the downtown building that will be the full-time home of the conservatory (previously located in the St. Johns neighborhood) starting with the coming fall semester. 

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Much as cliches must have once had something going for them in order to become commonplace, so a classic play such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town earned its spot in the American canon by delivering an emotional depth and sturdiness of craft that sometimes gets overlooked amid its seeming ubiquity. Gather Repertory Theatre, a Newberg company led by a handful of fairly recent George Fox University grads, will bring the poetic evocation of community life to, well, one hopes, community life – staged, fittingly, on the front steps of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center.

Closing

Imago’s “Voiceover”: fascinating, funny, philosophically frightening. Photo: Fiely Matias

“We all go around as if the world is normal. But is it? What is this dance?”

Who among us hasn’t had thoughts like that from time to time? But as such questions come up in Voiceover – director Jerry Mouawad’s latest fascinating, funny and philosophically frightening movement-theater piece at Imago – there’s more than just existential absurdity at issue. The show concerns a troupe of dancers who, so far as anyone can tell, don’t know what dance it is they’re trying to learn. And very little seems normal – or maybe, after awhile, everything does – when the parameters of behavior, choreography and even consciousness keep shifting.

“You could call it Seven Dancers in Search of a Choreographer,” says one of the many voiceovers that alternate with live dialogue, voicing the show’s debt to the great Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (the filmmaker Federico Fellini and the theater director Robert Wilson also get name-checked). “Or you could call it Jackie Is in Pain.

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Jackie is the choreographer, a domineering, self-tortured and misanthropic force that floats through the piece like a miasma, seeming almost to possess the minds of various dancers in turn, before eventually appearing as a glowering eighth character. The fluidity and permeability of identity – one of Pirandello’s central themes – is reinforced in other ways: at one point, dancers find they can exert control over other dancers’ bodies through thought; later, they begin to hear each other’s thoughts. A series of bits about problems with ensemble timing suggests something about how interdependency and social context affect who we are.

In its suggestion of a kind of comic/cosmic malevolence at the center of things, it recalls Mouawad’s Tick Tack Type, which was a surreal dark-comedy vision of a dystopian typing school. In the view it offers of a performance and the ensemble process behind it playing out simultaneously, it’s a bit like Stage Left Lost, the director’s experimental riff on Othello.

But where those previous works – part of Mouawad’s “Opera Beyond Words” series – focused more on movement, here the text, co-written with New York artist Drew Pisarra, gets equal weight, and frequently lands on the edge between lighthearted and profound: “Am I just an ingredient for others to use?” “What if I could control the thoughts in my head?” “Am I stuck in a loop of questions? Is that what originality is?”

In the world of Voiceover, the answer to those last two questions is “Yes, thank you!”

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Last chance to see Charlie Brown and the gang at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer 

Also on time’s chopping block this weekend: Song of Extinction, by the acclaimed Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis, at Twilight Theater, and the comic-strip-turned-musical  You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, at Broadway Rose.

Adjust yourselves accordingly

In his thorough preview a few weeks ago, ArtsWatcher David Bates called the Pentacle Theatre production of Ted Tally’s Terra Nova, about early 20th-century Antarctic exploration, an “adventure story, a character study, and a critique of British class society,” as well as “a poignant and occasionally horrifying artistic rendering of the price such endeavors can exact, and an indication that Pentacle’s post-pandemic theater is ready and willing to swing for the fences.”

But in theater, unlike in baseball, sometimes the fences move. What was to have been the final weekend of the show’s run has been canceled, due to an “urgent” (but not contagious) medical condition confronting one of the cast members. “Ticket holders have three choices: donate tickets back to the theater, receive a credit for an upcoming performance or request a refund,” instructs as newsletter from the theater. 

Meanwhile, the openings of twinned Shakespeare tragedies – Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet – from Salt and Sage Productions have been postponed to the first weekend in August. No poison in the ear, no bad advice from a boneheaded friar; blame a certain pesky coronavirus. 

The flattened stage

Apropos of the aforementioned revue from Bridgetown Conservatory, here’s a fun clip of what I like to think of as Sondheim speed trials: 

The best line I read this week

“You try to be as honest as you can. I am not making it for an audience in the fifteen-nineties. Even if it was one hundred per cent authentic, in terms of every stitch on every actor’s body, and every intonation, what you can’t change is the landscape inside my head. I am not thinking about Henry VIII making his own church. It is not what I bring into the theater with me. It is not what I read on my phone before I switch it off for the play. There’s a dishonesty, I think, in pretending that is possible. Because the most authentic thing that exists is the relationship between the actor and the audience.”

– British director Robert Icke to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead in an article about a production of Hamlet.

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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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