allen nause

Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

Continues…

Long, cold, and worth it

Artists Rep's premiere of E.M. Lewis's Antarctic drama "Magellanica" – all five and a half hours of it – tells an epic tale of lives on the edge

Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.

Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.

Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.

From left: Vin Shambry, Sara Hennessy, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, Joshua J. Weinstein, Barbie Wu, Eric Pargac. Photo: Russell J Young

Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.

Continues…

Animal instinct: Corrib’s ‘Chapatti’

Last year's hit two-hander about a dog lover and a cat lover reopens for a new run, this time on the Artists Rep stage

EDITORS’ NOTE: Corrib Theatre’s February 2016 show “Chapatti,” starring veterans Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux as a couple of “lonely Dublin codgers,” is back for a fresh run opening Monday, April 3, and continuing though April 16, this time on the Artists Rep stage: ticket and schedule information are here. ArtsWatch’s review from last year’s production is below:

 


 

To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.

Then again, as they say, opposites attract.

I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.

Continues…

Heidi Schreck dishes the soup

The author of Artists Rep's new "Grand Concourse" chats about writing, acting, soup kitchens, and getting from Wenatchee to the Big Apple

Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.

And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Rep. Photo: Nicole Lane

Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.

Continues…

Animal Instinct: Corrib’s ‘Chapatti’

Two geezers, 19 cats, a dog, and a dilemma: Nause and Maddux find life and love (maybe) near the end of the line

To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.

Then again, as they say, opposites attract.

I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.

Continues…

Through the ‘Twelfth Night,’ clearly

The excitement of Portland Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night' is in its transparency

The Portland Shakespeare Project launched its fourth season with Twelfth Night on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. That’s a simple enough sentence, especially in Shakespeare-besotted Portland. Portland’s acquaintance with Shakespeare is deep enough that I don’t have to append a descriptor to the title—”the rom-com Twelfth Night,” say, if I wanted to be just the tiniest bit cheeky. And maybe a bit wrong.

Not totally wrong: Twelfth Night IS a romantic comedy, no doubt. And it’s other things, too, a lot of other things. But it takes a very clear understanding of the existential predicaments of its characters by the actors to coax an appearance from those wonderful “other things.” Because otherwise the flow of words they generate just rushes on by.

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project's 'Twelfth Night'/David Kinder

Orion Bradshaw, Allen Nause and Jim Butterfield provide the hijinks in the Shakespeare Project’s ‘Twelfth Night’/David Kinder

So, the REAL lead of this account: Portland Shakespeare Project opened a Twelfth Night on Saturday that is about as transparent and understandable as we can expect of a play from the very early 17th century, when English was written and understood in a very different way. Even a familiar one such as Twelfth Night. And this clarity frees our (we in the audience) imagination to consider and delight in the possibilities of the play, consider alternate readings safely, lose ourselves in a moment, confident that we’ll regain our footing, no matter how spongy the ground beneath us—the language—becomes.

Continues…

Review: All aboard for points past

Portland Opera's splashy revival of Kern & Hammerstein's 'Show Boat' plies the waters of American theater and racial history

Of the three shows generally regarded as having transformed the Broadway musical from glittery variety show to new American storytelling form, Show Boat is the toughest to pin down. Its music, by Jerome Kern, is less organic and complex than George Gershwin’s for Porgy and Bess: though opera companies often adopt it, as they do Porgy, it’s more comfortable as a musical-theater piece, with a great popular-music score dominated by its individual songs and engaging style rather than continuing musical themes. Its story, by Oscar Hammerstein II based on a rambling novel by Edna Ferber, is far more episodic than the more tightly woven book that Hammerstein wrote for Oklahoma!

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

But Show Boat came first, hitting the Broadway stage in 1927 (Porgy and Bess followed in 1935; Oklahoma! in 1943). It set the template, both in long-form musical storytelling and its willingness to take on serious cultural issues – most notably, America’s post-Reconstruction Jim Crow heritage and its continuing ineptitude in racial matters. In a current atmosphere roiled by flashpoints in Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston on top of longstanding systemic inequities, the racial discussion in Show Boat may seem cautious and outdated. But it was radical for its time, and as Portland Opera’s new production brings home, the show remains much more than a historical curiosity. It deserves its place of honor, even if it also needs to be understood in the context of its original time and place.

Show Boat is many things: a long family drama, a peek behind the doors of seemingly implacable racial attitudes, a tale of love and abandonment and eventual reconciliation. It’s also, as Portland Opera’s revival of the 1994 Harold Prince version makes abundantly clear, a show about show business: a subtle but unmistakable nostalgic parade of American popular-culture styles from the sweeping gestures of the Victorian stage to the hoary jokes and comic dance kicks of vaudeville to the razzmatazz of the Charleston era.

The Opera’s Show Boat, which opened Friday night in the wide-open spaces of Keller Auditorium, isn’t the knockout audiences might’ve hoped for. Its long first act can drag, the episodic second act inevitably gets a little sketchy, the mix of operatic and musical-theater singing styles can be a little jarring, and the expanse of the Keller, which is much too big for this epic yet also intimate show, makes both the voices and the acting seem distant: the show, in English, uses supertitles, and at least from the first balcony below the overhang, they were helpful verging on necessary. But even more goes right, including a smart and sassy performance by former company resident artist Lindsay Ohse, whose career is beginning to blossom, as romantic lead Magnolia. This Show Boat emerges as a satisfying, involving, and often slyly funny show, even if it doesn’t sweep you off your feet.

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers "Ol' Man River." Photo: Cory Weaver

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers “Ol’ Man River.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Part of what makes it work is director and co-choreographer (with Becky Timms) Ray Roderick’s subtle emphasis on the story’s showbiz setting. Roderick and scenic designer James Youmans smartly place the orchestra not in the pit but upstage, as if it were the house band on the Cotton Blossom, the riverboat that plies the Mississippi, bringing traveling shows to Natchez and points north and south. The orchestra helps fill the Keller’s wide stage, providing a sense of celebration and an illusion of fullness to Youman’s minimalist, mobile set, which relies on lighting and projections to insinuate time and place. It also pushes most of the action downstage, closer to the audience, which is a good thing in the cavernous Keller, where voices can become hopelessly muffled as singers move farther to the back. At key points Youmans provides a small rolling stage on the larger main stage, creating a sly theatrical echo chamber, like a Shakespearean play-within-a-play: characters in the play, who are show people, move in and out of the mini-stage, where, in the guise of the melodratic characters they play in the riverboat shows, they ham it up mightily before stepping back onto the larger stage and resuming a more realistic, if still presentational, acting style. It’s like a little rolling history of American stage fashion, from the days of Dion Boucicault to the flapper age; a theatrical nostalgia to go along with the cultural nostalgia of the play itself, which steeps itself in the culture of the postbellum South even as it roundly criticizes it.

It’s fascinating how the musical’s show culture blends into the play’s approach to race. In the end, Show Boat is important not so much for what it says about race in America – no profound insights here – as for the fact that, in its time and place as a big-budget Broadway show, it took on the gnarly questions of race at all. Show Boat gives its major black characters (the boat hand Joe, his boat-cook wife Queenie, the mixed-race star performer Julie) reduced opportunities and strictly controlled roles in the riverboat culture, where they are expected to support and defer: the evocations of Mammy culture are strong. Yet the show folk also are presented as looser and more liberal on racial matters than the towns they visit and the audiences they entertain. The boat is a little artists’ colony, bound to the rules and attitudes of the land but subverting them as much as possible, a little semi-independent vessel bobbing toward the future. Yes, Cap’n Andy has to cut Julie and her white husband Steve loose after her mixed-race status is revealed in Mississippi, where mixed marriage is a prison offense. But the people of the Cotton Blossom conspire in a ruse to at least let Julie and Steve slip away free and together, outside the reach of the law.

Roderick and his mixed cast of operatic and musical-theater singers do a generally fine job with the songs, and create some vivid scenes along the story’s picaresque journey. Ohse is nicely matched by the tall and dashing Liam Bonner as Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler who steals Magnolia’s heart. Bonner’s operatic singing style can seem a bit out of synch with the show’s more generally musical-theater approach to the songs, but dramatically, he gets to the fatal attraction of Ravenal’s odd blend of charm, honor, and weakness. Arthur Woodley, as Joe, rises grandly to the challenges of Ol’ Man River, and Angela Renée Simpson, as Queenie, eloquently states an underlying theme with the bluesy Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round. Megan Misslin as the show boat trouper Ellie May has great fun with the witty Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and resident-artist alum Hannah S. Penn, as the misfortunate Julie, brings an effective sad edge to her acting performance and a gritty weariness to the romantic ballad Bill. (There is a key moment in the second act when Julie makes a great sacrifice, and the scene is a rare slip-up in the staging, flying by so swiftly that you hardly notice it.)

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap'n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Stage stalwarts Allen Nause and Susannah Mars are especially effective as Cap’n Andy and his parsimonious wife, Parthy Ann, who inexplicably disapproves of virtually every aspect of the life she’s chosen to lead. On Why Do I Love You they provide an illuminating demonstration of how good actors approach a song: Mars, a star of the musical-theater stage, with her deep understanding of the emotions inside the lyrics; Nause, not known as a vocalist, with a veteran actor’s instinctive feel for the rhythmic and dramatic nature of a song. Nause also brings down the house twice in grand comic style: first, in his one-man performance of the rest of a riverboat show after his star’s been knocked out of commission; second, when he ditches Parthy Ann on New Year’s Eve in Chicago and wanders in grand insobriety into the revels at the Trocadero nightclub. In a way, though Show Boat is mainly Magnolia’s story, Cap’n Andy is the thread that ties it all together, and Nause knows how to sew.

With additional songs like Make Believe, You Are Love, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and the borrowed After the Ball, Show Boat is a treasury of great American song. Portland Opera seems to be committed to producing a musical-theater piece every season – 2016, the debut of its reinvention as a summer festival company, will bring Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – and the opera is also the local presenter of the Broadway Across America series of touring musicals.

It’ll be interesting to see how those twin approaches to the art of the musical play out: a fresh look at classics in the opera-season slot, perhaps, while BAA continues to provide new stuff (and perennials like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera, both haunting the Keller soon). Imported or domestic, musical theater seems to be flourishing in Oregon. It’s become a staple under Bill Rauch’s leadership at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and under Chris Coleman’s leadership at Portland Center Stage. Smaller companies such as Oregon Festival of American Music, Broadway Rose, Staged!, Clackamas Rep, Lakewood, and Stumptown provide regular infusions.

The presence of that culture underscores the importance of how Portland Opera chooses its projects, and how well it pulls them off: it’s not the only game in town, and its choices have to be canny, aimed not only at the box office but also at refreshing and interpreting important moments in the history of the form. Show Boat seems to fit that bill. But the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium remains a serious impediment. From an artistic point of view, the city badly needs a new mid-sized theater, something between the Keller and the 870-seat Newmark: a hall of 1,400 to as high of 2,400 (if it’s well-designed for comparative intimacy) seats that could be shared by opera, ballet, and perhaps some other users. Politically and economically, the time for such a project doesn’t seem right, and wishful thinking won’t make it so. But the stakeholders should keep their eyes on the prize. It’ll never happen if it isn’t dreamed first.

*

Portland Opera’s Show Boat repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 7; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9. Ticket information is here.

*

Mark Mandel’s review of Show Boat for The Oregonian is here.

 


 
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!