All Classical Radio James Depreist

DramaWatch: Welcome to the ZooZoo

Imago's playful costumed critters return for a welcome holiday run, this time with some zebras joining the menagerie. Plus Fuse's "Great White," Bridgetown's "Orphan Boy," a national look at OSF's leadership switch, last chances & more.

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New kids on the "ZooZoo" block: Zebras, all dressed up and ready for showtime. Photo: Kyle Delamarter
New kids on the “ZooZoo” block: Zebras, all dressed up and ready for showtime. Photo: Kyle Delamarter

At Imago Theatre on a recent afternoon, five performers in matching outfits mill around onstage taking a breather before another run-through of a new piece. A few of them are holding masks in their hands; one has his perched above his face, as if easing into the transformation it offers.

Over speakers, from the rear of the room comes the voice of a stage manager: “Are you guys ready?”

“They’re not guys,” Kyle Delamarter, the show’s rehearsal director, playfully objects. “They’re ‘bras.”
“Sorry, zebras.”

 And yes, once Imago co-artistic director Jerry Mouawad calls them to their places and resumes the rehearsal, they are zebras. They stand with equine poise, their tails gently flicking side to side. They scan their surroundings, stomp their feet; after a moment, amid a savannah soundscape of twittering birds and buzzing insects, they begin to prance about.

So begins the unsurprisingly titled “Zebras,” a brief new Imago sketch that is presented at the beginning of a familiar show that it fits with well, the longtime family favorite mime-and-mask extravaganza ZooZoo, returning for another welcome holiday run.

“Zebras,” though, is intended to be part of a future show, called Roo (short for kangaroo). Its inclusion here is illustrative of the lengthy process of creating Imago’s signature style of theatrical vignette. Whether it’s zebras, house cats or a paper bag – or even the memorable amphibians that established the Imago brand in the earlier touring hit Frogz – the creatures/characters are the result of many months of trial and error in fabricating masks and costumes, then in finding a situation or wordless story that brings the creature to life in a relatable way. As Mouawad puts it, there’s always “a production development period and then the rehearsal development period.”

On the theatrical menu at "ZooZoo": An anteater waiter. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.
On the theatrical menu at “ZooZoo”: An anteater waiter. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre.

“We fail quite a bit,” Mouawad admits. “The polar bears probably had five renditions before the one we ended up using. Others, like the paper bag, came fairly easily – though initially we created a really huge bag that was about 12 feet high.” (The bag they eventually settled on, in which an unseen something moves about to comic effect, is about seven feet tall.)

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Mouawad likens the trial-and-error approach to the work of a scientist who starts a project looking for something but finds something different along the way. “And then a lot of it is distilling it to the most economical and universal presentation,” he says.

However painstaking the Imago folks can be in crafting the look of the costumes, in refining every stance and gesture of the performers, that trial-and-error ethos comes through as a playful freshness that has delighted audiences for decades.

Mouawad and his Imago co-founder, Carol Triffle, have created dozens of masks and sketches over the years and packaged them into a shifting succession of shows: first called Frogs, Lizards, Orbs and Slinkies, then Frogz, then Biglittlethings, then (for the past decade or so) ZooZoo. Each is a loosely structured collection of vignettes using masks, costumes, puppets and the like to create visual wonderment and moments of comic possibility.

Some characters/costumes have migrated from show to show over the years. Among those on offer in the current show, as the Imago website describes them, are “hippos with insomnia, arrogant anteaters, introverted frogs, paradoxical polar bears, acrobatic worms, self-touting accordions and tricky penguins.” 

The polar bear, a longtime "ZooZoo" favorite. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette.
The polar bear, a longtime “ZooZoo” favorite. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette.

As I wrote some years ago about an earlier version, “the pieces often examine the practical considerations of their fanciful conceits: How, for instance, would an anteater read a restaurant menu with that big proboscis in the way? If penguins played musical chairs, how would they jockey for position, psychologically as well as physically? … ZooZoo maintains the Imago tradition of giving the kids visual fuel for their imaginations while at the same time providing adults with resonant metaphors of transformation.”

Even amid transformation, though, some habits remain. So it was that, during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, Mouawad and Triffle, who formed Imago in 1982, returned to their longstanding love of making masks. Having developed a suitable zebra design, they had a company create 3-D molds for the masks, parted out the final fabrication of a full set of zebra heads, and took to Zoom to begin developing movement motifs and other ideas for the creatures.

Onstage, once they’ve convinced us of their equine character, one of them exits briefly – then returns wearing a cape, black lined with brilliant red. Nature-show ambience gives way to a beat. Without, we hope, giving too much away, the phrase that comes to mind is disco savannah. Suffice it to say, these guys know how to have fun.

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Oh – excuse me. Not guys. ‘Bras.

The flattened stage

Opening

Patrick Hilton (left) and Ajai Tripathi in Tripathi’s “Great White Gets Off,” at Fuse Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Rusty Newton Tennant
Patrick Hilton (left) and Ajai Tripathi in Tripathi’s “Great White Gets Off,” at Fuse Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Rusty Newton Tennant

The latest Fuse Theatre Ensemble production, Great White Gets Off, according to ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea, “walks in the steps of a long tradition of American art that deals with the sexual and power dynamics between races. … The fact that the relationship in the play is also a queer one only ups the emotional stakes and political volatility.” Actor/playwright Ajai Tripathi (co-starring with Patrick Hilton, directed by Rusty Tennant) looks at what happens when two men meet for some hook-up fun but a world of social history sneaks into the bedroom.

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The Peppermint Bear returns for a little holiday breakfast fun. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre.
The Peppermint Bear returns for a little holiday breakfast fun. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre.

Now rare, dinner theater was once a regular on Americans’ entertainment menu. But apparently breakfast theater is still an option – at least in ​​Lakewood Theatre’s annual Holiday Magic Breakfast Theater production, The Peppermint Bear Show, which includes a free continental breakfast as prep for some kid-friendly frivolity. This year’s installment of the long-running tradition presents a story called The Peppermint Bear Asks Who Needs Sneeds?, about a nefarious plot to steal Santa’s cache of toys just before delivery day.

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A storybook musical: Bridgetown's operetta "Ludlow Ladd: The Poor Little Orphan Boy." Photo: Tess Vigeland
A storybook musical: Bridgetown’s operetta “Ludlow Ladd: The Poor Little Orphan Boy.” Photo: Tess Vigeland

Bridgetown Conservatory gets into the holiday spirit through affectionate mockery, with Ludlow Ladd: The Poor Little Orphan Boy, a satirical operetta set in Victorian Liverpool. Described as “part Dickens, part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Fractured Fairy Tale,” the show (with music by  Gerald Jay Markoe, and libretto and lyrics by Michael Colby) uses carols to tell the story of a boy in search of a home on Christmas night.

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After premiering in Portland – that’d be the East Coast Portland – nearly 20 years ago, then bombing Off Broadway, John Cariani’s play Almost Maine has gone on to be produced – and celebrated – hundreds of times around North America and overseas. The play presents, as a New York Times review put it, “short, starry-eyed vignettes … nine interlocking love stories, all happening in the same New England town on the same moonless night.” The Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria makes that night last a couple of weekends.

Weekender

If you want some seasonal entertainment but are tired of the same old sentimental plots, perhaps CoHo’s Home for the Holidazed is your cup of spiced tea. Billed as “a fully improvised Hallmark Holiday Movie Musical,” the show features performers riffing on cheeseball characters and sugarplum tropes to create a new treat each time out.

One night only

Boom Arts brings "Bear Grease" to Portland. Photo: Kevin G. Ellenburg, KGE Photography
Boom Arts brings “Bear Grease” to Portland. Photo: Kevin G. Ellenburg, KGE Photography

Not that I’ve ever given Grease – the stage musical or the movie – much thought at all, but I’d have assumed that its main flaw was vapidity, not the political/ethical taint of colonialism. Nonetheless, hip-hop artist MC Red Cloud, one of the creators of Bear Grease, which Boom Arts is presenting for a single performance at the Portland Art Museum, describes the show as “a decolonized version of Grease.” With decolonization comes space for Native characters and concerns, within a pastiche of 1950s rock-and-roll and American teen culture.

Closing

Ilya deTorres and Annie Trevisan in “Taking Care of Animals.” Photo: Scott Alan Thompson
Ilya deTorres and Annie Trevisan in “Taking Care of Animals.” Photo: Scott Alan Thompson

An intimate theater, an exciting young playwright with a meaningful story to tell, an inspired ensemble cast, and a scion of acting royalty in the director’s chair – all these elements have come together at Portland’s 21ten Theatre in Taking Care of Animals, an example of the big-time work a small theater can deliver under the right conditions. Jerrod Jordahl’s play is part compact family/workplace drama, part apocalyptic social/environmental cautionary tale. Director Alex Hurt, son of Oscar winner William Hurt, has tailored the production to the meager space and budget of what used to be aptly named the Shoebox Theatre, yet still drawn out both the larger-than-life thematic strains and the potently awkward humor of the thing. Highly recommended.

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Cast members of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” entering its final weekend at Portland’5. Photo courtesy PassinArt.
Cast members of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” entering its final weekend at Portland’5. Photo courtesy PassinArt.

As of this writing, you have more than two weeks left to finish whatever shopping and assorted prep you feel the need to do for a certain Nazarene’s 2023rd birthday. What’s urgent is the theater calendar, which indicates that PassinArt’s Black Nativity, Fiddler on the Roof at the Shedd Institute in Eugene, and The Play That Goes Wrong at Pentacle Theatre in Salem are soon to disappear.

Second-hand news

With an eye on the American theater industry’s growing concern with issues of race and gender equity, a recent article from American Theatre magazine recaps the experiences of a handful of the artistic leaders hired at major regional companies over the past half-decade. Headlined “Change Comes Fast, Change Comes Slow,” the story examines the tenures of Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore Center Stage, Jacob Padrón at Long Wharf Theatre, Robert Barry Fleming at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Hana Sharif at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and – perhaps of greatest relevance for ArtsWatch readers – Nataki Garrett at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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American Theatre managing editor Kelundra Smith mentions early on “the impossibly high expectations placed on these leaders of color, who in the years since they were hired have faced a seismically shifting theatrical landscape, as well as the unforeseen challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Among the dynamics she and the story’s subjects discuss are changing leadership structures; the high costs of maintaining permanent, dedicated theater spaces; the challenges of attracting more diverse audiences; and disagreements about how politically charged season programming should be. 

Left: Nataki Garrett, departed artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Right: Tim Bond, the festival’s current artistic director. Hillary Jeanne Photography

At least as reflected in this article, Garrett – who joined OSF in August 2019 and resigned in May of this year – had the roughest road, both because of the outsize effect of the pandemic on a destination theater such as OSF and because of the sometimes nasty resistance to the changes she implemented. Surely Garrett sounds more bitter than others, and race is very much foregrounded in her quotes about her experience – as she believes it was at the forefront of how she was received. “If they ever allowed a Black woman to be the overseer on a plantation, it wouldn’t make her the owner,” she told Smith. “I was clear that how people take in my natural hair, dark skin, and African name was going to be how they regarded the position.” She also seemed to chafe at having to serve as the public face of the company in regard to fundraising, complaining about a role that involved “making very wealthy people feel like the spaces were theirs.”

Interestingly, Smith notes that former OSF associate AD Tim Bond has returned to Ashland to succeed Garrett (referring – dismissively, I thought – to what she calls his “piecemeal rebuilding”), but failed to mention that Bond, also, is Black. Or that he’s been met (so far as I can tell) with an almost rapturous welcome from OSF supporters.

***

“We’re a scrappy bunch of people who are gonna figure this out.”

That’s an optimistic take about the current state of regional theater, offered by Danny Feldman, producing artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse in California, speaking with Kai Ryssdal for the economics and business show “Marketplace.” Though of course it focuses on the particulars of the Playhouse – one of the nation’s oldest and most celebrated regional companies – their conversation is a nice primer on the history of the regional theater at large, as well as its importance and its current challenges.

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The best line I read this week

“I know you can’t hold animals to human standards. Cats don’t kill songbirds because they’re innately cruel; they do it because it’s in their nature, just as it’s in a wolf’s to rip the throat out of a calf, and a rabbit’s to chew through the cord you’re using to charge your laptop. That said, rams are assholes. We’ve had them on our property for five years now, a slightly different mob every summer, and each new addition is meaner than the last. Light a bonfire in their pasture and they’d likely headbutt the flames, just to show them who’s who.”

– David Sedaris, from “The Violence of the Rams,” in The New Yorker

***

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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