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DramaWatch: Wolves on the loose; Liberace & Liza on the holiday stage

Four humans huddle in a farmhouse against a storm as the wild beasts roam outside in "Taking Care of Animals." Plus some grand celebrity impersonation, openings, and last chances.

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Poster for 21ten Theatre's production of Jerrod Jordahl's play "Taking Care of Animals," showing thr skeleton of a human inside a wolf's body. Poster design by Jacks Solomon.
Poster design by Jacks Solomon.

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“There are wolves. There shouldn’t be but there are because things are changing.”

There are wolves, lurking in the middle distance beyond the farmhouse at the center of New York playwright Jerrod Jordahl’s Taking Care of Animals. And there are four people, caught up in various patterns of simmering conflict and suppressed desire. But mostly what there is is snow, coming down in an ever-worsening storm.

“They say a blizzard’s coming,” announces Bruce, a farmhand, early in the play. “They said the storm of the century.” To gauge by Jordahl’s stage directions, they meant a storm that seems to last a century. As what comes to feel like environmental catastrophe howls outside on the Iowa fields, a more human brand of turmoil plays out in the farmhouse den.

Ted Rooney, whose 21ten Theatre is staging the play’s premiere, describes it in a note on the theater’s website as “an off-beat, dark, and funny play – think Coen Brothers.” Presumably that’s an insight into how the work is being interpreted by director Alex Hurt (son of the late, Oscar-winning actor William Hurt) and a cast that features Rooney, Illya deTorres, Annie Trevisan and Michael Heidingsfelder.

Or perhaps it’s an indication of my lack of imagination as a reader. Even though Jordahl states that “the tone is just left of center – this is not a naturalistic play, despite some of its trappings,” on the page it felt more like bitter allegory than black comedy –  Sam Shepard’s Buried Child came to mind. 

Trapped by the perpetual storm, the farm owner Gerald, his daughter Amelia, and the employees Bruce and Abisai, a Mexican-American among Whites, become a little social microcosm, in which class stratification, sexism, patriarchal authority and other related dynamics form a weather system of their own. Gerald is a domineering creep, jealously husbanding his privilege. The downtrodden Amelia is a Cassandra of sorts, not so much disbelieved as ignored altogether. Bruce is the self-interested conniver, set against Abisai, who strains to maintain his integrity. Wolves and pigs and birds, symbols of the natural world, flit about the periphery of the story, but it’s clear that who needs taking care of are the humans, whose power dynamics begin shifting as the household’s command-and-control structures, not to mention the world outside, begin to collapse.

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Some plays are meant to be read, as much or more than to be performed, but I don’t think Taking Care of Animals is one of those. So I’m intrigued to see how Hurt (who performed alongside his father in an Artists Rep production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land back in 2011) draws out the humor amid the darkness.

“Because the wolves are here now, things have changed. The world is different. You made

it different and now you’re surprised there are wolves, but they’re here so get used to it.

It’s called survival.” 

Opening

David Saffert and Jillian Snow star in "Liberace & Liza: Holiday at the Mansion." Photo courtesy Portland Center Stage
David Saffert and Jillian Snow star in “Liberace & Liza: Holiday at the Mansion.” Photo courtesy Portland Center Stage

Life doesn’t always give us what we want, so sometimes theater has to. You could say that’s the case with Liberace & Liza: Holiday at the Mansion, the sparkling seasonal celebration that’s playing through Christmas Eve at Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio.

According to David Saffert, Liberace didn’t play concerts during the Christmas season, and though the famous pianist and entertainer was friendly with the famous singer and actress Liza Minnelli the two never performed together. So the act that Saffert and Jillian Snow have created is like a fantasy-showbiz all-star team. The pair have done holiday shows before, for CoHo Theatre and for PCS, but this is their most elaborate presentation yet, imagining a private show in the party room of Liberace’s lavish Las Vegas home. The songs are cheerfully and expertly delivered, the impersonations are loving and lived-in, and Saffert and Snow have such a chemistry that their comic banter shines as brightly as their glittering outfits. It’s a delight.

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Salem’s Pentacle Theatre attempts to do right by The Play That Goes Wrong, a farcical evening of theatrical mishaps besetting an amateur troupe staging a murder mystery. Created in 2012 by London’s Mischief Theatre Company, the original won Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards. The Pentacle production is directed by Susan Schoaps. 

Weekenders

Founded a little less than four years ago, Portland’s Renegade Opera operates as a reformer of the form, not a traitor to it – dedicating itself to progressive and equitable production practices as it creates “accessible and immersive opera.” Among its projects is the two-day Artists in Conversation Festival, featuring what the company describes as “concert-theater works.” She Loves You Back consists of “climate dramas” set to works by Schumann and a trio of living composers, including Portlander Lisa Neher. American Patriots, created by Samantha Williams and Yaven Segal, is “an unflinching look at the lived reality of American Ideals today,” featuring  excerpts from interviews with a variety of Americans, set to music by Segal and others. Each show will be performed twice during the festival, at the Historic Alberta House.

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Fall Festival of Shakespeare presents Portland-area middle- and high-school students, under the guidance and aegis of Portland Playhouse, performing surprisingly relevant plays by some old English dude. This year’s participating schools include Da Vinci, Harriet Tubman, ACMA, Parkrose, McKay, and Park Academy.

Closing

Playwright christopher oscar peña (left) and director Josh Hecht at an artist talk about "awe/struck." at The Heathman Hotel Photo courtesy Profile Theatre.
Playwright christopher oscar peña (left) and director Josh Hecht at an artist talk about “awe/struck.” at The Heathman Hotel. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre.

Reviewing christopher oscar peña’s  awe/struck., ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega singled out cast member Crystal Ann Muñoz as “luminous…her performance makes every word and movement count.” No argument here; Muñoz, who plays the show’s central character, a well-to-do Latin American immigrant in Chicago, is wonderful as always, by turns fiercely principled or warm and funny or even (for a moment) judgmental and nasty.

But to my mind it is a performance by Jimmy Gacia as her tremulously protective father that most marks this as a show not to miss. The character is a fascinating bundle of sorrows, regrets, worries, anger, and – above all – loving dedication, and Garcia balances it all in a way that feels heart-rending and profound. 

There’s great work all around – from the rest of the vibrant ensemble (Lea Zawada, Alexandria Hunter and Skyler Verity), to evocative sound and video design (both by Luke Norby & FiveOhm Productions), to direction (by Josh Hecht, adept at the tonal and rhythmic challenges of a script that’s structurally and ethically messy on purpose). But amid a story that keeps the layers of questions and complications coming, Garcia provides an emotional center that shines through.

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Also nearing the end of the line: Wonderland, the sketch-comedy show that pairs the veteran savvy of Jason Rouse, ​​Scott Engdahl and David Burnett with the youthful energy of several of Rouse’s students from Pacific Crest Community School; and Bee, Lower East Side Shakespeare Co.’s tale of an Iranian woman’s escape from an abusive marriage and her path toward happiness. 

The flattened stage

One key to Liberace’s extraordinary popularity was his habit of mixing classics with more approachable fare. Here’s just one example of many ways he approached that comforting combination.

Then again, a brand built on outsized showmanship grows ripe for parody: 

The best line I read this week

“Portland

You had a cameo in ‘Portlandia’ and own a bicycle, a unicycle, and another bicycle. You maintain a well-oiled beard and know exactly which doughnut shop to go to (not that one). You make a vegan breakfast burrito that’s so delicious and full of highly enriched riboflavin that one can hardly taste the shame you feel for working in advertising.”

From an article in The New Yorker, “How You Know You’ve Made It, by City,” by Irving Ruan and Alex Watt

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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