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‘Return to Wonderland’: Portland Playhouse serves up a foursome of fine films

The live-theater company, which adapted to film when the pandemic hit, liked what happened and returns with a fresh quartet of topical films.

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A scene from “Walla Walla.”

In the depths of the 2020 pandemic shutdown of live theater, Portland Playhouse mounted a virtual theater event dubbed Wonderland. It featured four new plays, each of which explored the sociopolitical landscape of that dark year, from the Trump administration’s child separation policy to the history of misogyny.

Two years later, live theater is (mostly) back (for now, at least), but the world remains a confusing and intimidating place. The Playhouse’s producing director, Charles Grant, has again recruited a quartet of strong, diverse voices as lead artists for four short films under the banner Return to Wonderland. To explain it, Grant referred back to the origin of the original project.

“The seed of this idea originated in the summer of 2020. We stopped producing live theater in March, but even though we were working from home, none of us were laid off during those months. All of the many things that happened in June 2020, particularly in Portland, in terms of what was going on for Black Americans, Black Portlanders, had an impact.” And as the pandemic dragged on, Grant says, the Playhouse wanted to figure out a way to connect safely with its audience and its artists. Wonderland, he says, was about “responding to our current moment in time from the perspective of wonder.”

Any connection to Lewis Carroll’s Alice was inadvertent but, Grant says, appropriate. “What is it to go down this rabbit hole, to allow yourself to be taken on this journey, so that when you come out the other side, you are not the same. You have a new perspective.”

The 2020 event was, by design, a fast-paced process. Artists had only about two months to create the work they would contribute, from pre-production to a final edit. That helped, Grant, says, instill a sense that the work “was responding to this current moment. Everything you are doing is of this moment.”

Even though audiences are largely able to gather in person, the decision was made to bring back the format and to use Return to Wonderland to kick off Portland Playhouse’s 15th season, a remarkable milestone.

A scene from “Return to Kingsley.”

Again, all four of the pieces in the program feel almost uncannily contemporary. This is especially evident in Hayley Durelle’s Walla Walla, in which a pair of close friends embark on a road trip from Idaho to Washington so that one of them can obtain an abortion, which has been criminalized in their home state. “When I wrote the proposal for this short film in the spring,” Durelle writes in a statement, “it imagined a future in which the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, and a ‘trigger law’ in neighboring Idaho went into effect, criminalizing abortion in the state.”

When the Court did just that on June 24, Durelle’s speculative fiction became cold, hard reality. But, in keeping with the theme of wonder, Walla Walla isn’t a dark polemic focused on the inevitable suffering that decision will engender. Rather, aided by naturalistic performances from the two leads, it’s a testament to the way friendship can temper even the most adverse times. Don’t let the bastards get you down, indeed.

“I feel like in each of the films you really see the power of community. ‘I can’t do this alone’ is a thread that runs through all the pieces,” says Grant.

A still from “Petals and Thorns.”

The process of selecting the lead artists involved an open application. Submissions were open for a month, and Grant contacted specific artists to make sure they were aware of the opportunity. Applicants sent in their ideas, resumes, and a description of the resources they would need. A panel of three, including Grant, examined the submissions for three key qualities: “Number 1, does is respond to the current moment? Number 2, does it feel like they have a clear vision? And Number 3, does it help us to achieve a vast diversity of offerings?” Grant says. “We’re all coping with this current moment in different ways, so we want to show that through the films we select.”

For Return to Wonderland, the lead artists had a less accelerated schedule, although having two months instead of one to create an entire 20 to 25-minute film still isn’t a luxurious pace. A lack of previous filmmaking experience was not a bar to participation. Kamryn Fall, for instance, is an experienced local filmmaker with her own production company, Kryptic Films. Her contribution is a portrait of the Portland-based indie pop artist Kingsley, who celebrates Black female power and ingenuity in a series of three music videos which she discusses and dissects. On the other hand, Durelle had never written or directed a movie before making Walla Walla.

Similarly, this was the first foray into filmmaking for spoken-word artist La’Toya Hampton, a/k/a/ The Poet Lady Rose. Her work, Petals and Thorns, documents the experiences of a group of young people in a spoken-word workshop undertaken and expressing the ways that living through COVID has changed them forever.

Last, but not least, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis contributed Larry & Joe-Joe, an episode from an ongoing series about the two young leaders of an organized crime syndicate that fights back against racism and police brutality. It’s perhaps the most cinematic and dramatic of the bunch, which isn’t surprising in light of Ellis’s role as an experienced local stage actor and the founder of the company Confrontation Theatre.

A scene from “Larry and Joe-Joe.”

The themes of connection and community that run through the films extended to the interactions between the filmmakers. “It really felt important, because it was so fast, that we connected the four artists with each other,” Grant says. “We had a meet-and-greet at the beginning, and then last week we had a happy hour, a space for them to discuss what worked and what didn’t work, to share editing tips with each other, and that come back to the idea that we can’t do it alone. Return to Wonderland is one community, one artistic endeavor, and to see that has been really special.”

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Portland Center Stage Portland Oregon Theatre

Asked whether there are plans for any future returns to Wonderland, Grant laughs. “Honestly, I don’t know yet. It really feels great to have this thing that is made by and made for those of us in Portland. But I kind of want to get through this weekend first!”

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(Return to Wonderland, which was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, screens on Sept. 3, 4, 9, and 10 at Portland Playhouse, with additional screenings at the McMenamin’s Kennedy School on Thursday, Sept. 8 and at Cinema 21 on Sept. 10 at noon. Tickets are available here.)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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