Amy Newman

DramaWatch: Holidays for days!

The week in theater offers more Christmas shows than you can shake a candy cane at!

Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.

And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.

Jennifer Goldsmith’s golden voice brightens the appeal of It Happened One Christmas, a musical revue at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.

The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).

Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.

Lady Brass (Allison Anderson, left) and her daughter Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie) prepare for the holidays in The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Wynne Earle.

At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.

And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.

That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.

Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.

As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness. 

And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.

Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”

Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)

Austen-tatious: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Photo: Russell J Young

Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.

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Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.

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Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.

Second-hand news

As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).

Opening (holiday-free edition)

An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?

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Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis. 

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Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.

Closing

So much to do! So much to do!
And if you haven’t yet caught Shakespeare in Love at Lakewood or the Hullabaloo Alice in Wonderland, well, there’s more for the priority list.

The flattened stage

Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”

The best line I read this week

“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch 

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

“Or,” what? a comedy of opposites

Third Rail leaps into Liz Duffy Adams' quizzical neo-Restoration comedy, ricocheting between eithers and ors

Or, the Liz Duffy Adams play that opens Third Rail Repertory’s season, makes good on a promise included in a prologue, delivered here by the ever-engaging Maureen Porter as she enters from the back of the house at Imago Theatre. The brief speech serves to acclimate us to the heightened yet playful language of the play, as well as to hint at the method to Adams’ stylistic madness. The idea, we’re told, is to “ricochet between a dense array of opposites.”

Or you might call it a mash-up. Take an intriguing historical figure — 17th-century poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn, noted as Britain’s first female professional writer — whip up some suspenseful plot points suggested by a sketchy biography and a tumultuous era, fold in some door-slamming farce, and wrap it all in the frisky wit of Restoration comedy. The combination plays to several of the various strengths that Third Rail has demonstrated over the years, for the thoughtful and the madcap, the silly and sublime, the sociologically resonant and the fancifully theatrical…

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Maureen Porter as playwright, spy, and al-around quizzical kid. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, — the comma purposefully included — is a fitting title. On one level, it’s a pithy snippet from the windy, wishy-washy titles common to Restoration-era plays, their alternative interpretive options hinged by that conjunction. More meaningfully, it alludes to the plethora of possibilities opening up in Aphra’s world. Should she be spy or writer? Kept woman or commissioned artist? Will she love men or women? Will she be rebel or loyalist? And are those she meets what they seem to be, or do words, wardrobes and even histories deceive? Considering the subject, who biographer Janet Todd described as “not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks,” the abundance of questions seems appropriate.

“Ors divide less than they subtly link,” asserts that aforementioned prologue. “We all embody opposites within.” And so Adams doesn’t explore choices so much as she establishes the unity of opposites, as alternatives and deceptions and intentions all turn themselves inside out, to serendipitous effect.

Or she could just be trying to show audiences a good time. The majority of the narrative centers on a single night, in which Behn juggles a budding relationship with a young actress, the amorous interests of King Charles II, and the sudden reappearance of a former lover who may or may not be involved in a Catholic plot to kill Charles, all while trying to meet a dawn deadline to finish a play she fervently hopes will launch a path-breaking career. As directed by Philip Cuomo, the action is brisk without ever feeling unduly frantic, aided by the efficiency of Behn’s rustic plank-floor lodging in Kristeen Crosser’s scenic design and the apparently protean quality of Jessica Bobillot’s costuming. And Portland theater has few pleasures as reliable as Maureen Porter in a lead role; she imbues Behn with an unforced elegance and charm, a silky-strong determination, and a social agility that would serve anyone well in either espionage or theater. Whenever Behn has a choice to make, a balance to strike between competing desires and demands, the glint in Porter’s eyes makes tactical calculation look like the sweetest of human impulses.

Or you might think that Porter doesn’t wind up as the star after all, as one audience member suggested during a post-show discussion last weekend. It’s not (as he seemed to think) that King Charles takes over, narratively or thematically; Behn writes Charles as a rather benign monarch, more a sensualist than a power monger. William Scot, Behn’s back-from-the-dead ex-lover, is a schemer, but a has-been. And Lady Davenant, whose company offers Behn the theatrical opportunity she craves, doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise but only makes a cameo. Yet Damon Kupper embodies all those roles  — especially the matronly motormouth Davenant — with such relish, while never really hamming it up, that he does wind up the show’s most memorable performer.

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Newman, Porter, Kupper: Ors come in threes. Photo: Owen Carey

Or you could make a case for Amy Newman as the most arresting changeling here. She appears as bearded, gnome-like jailer, and a slightly bow-backed servant woman with a put-upon air, but shines especially as Nell Gwynne, a young woman who dresses like a boy, talks with a cheeky, slangy wit and displays a sexual frankness that underlines Adams’ implicit comparison of the post-Puritan-repression 1660s with the swingin’ 1960s. Porter’s serene surefootedness is essential to ground the enterprise, but it’s the gender-and-costume shape-shifting by Newman and Kupper that provide this production its comedic zip.

Or, to take another view I can support nearly as much, does all the mad dashing in and out of doors add to the ideas Adams is working with, or does it just distract from them? At times it seems just an excuse to do the play with such a small cast, rather than something intrinsic to the material, and it calls extra attention to the manufacture of the entertainment in progress — which, along with a sprinkling of self-referential theater jokes, feels gratuitous. Furthermore, the sense of pure momentum the farcical elements engender actually saps some of the necessary tension from the predicaments the story presents. There’s that plot against the king, but never a sense of mounting danger or any danger at all, really. Behn is suddenly saddled with that ultra-tight deadline, yet there’s no tick-tock anxiety built up around it.

Ors — or at least Or, — not only subtly link but slightly muddle. And the balancing and blending of the heady and the headlong leaves this feeling less substantial than it might have been, though I’m inclined to think that’s due to the writing more than the production itself.

Or maybe I just need to see it again and keep unifying those opposites.

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Or, continues through October 10 by Third Rail Rep at its new home space in Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

Here at the edges of the Western World

Looking for meaning behind the brogue in Artists Rep's laughter-laden 'Playboy'

St. Patrick’s Day puzzles me. One day per year, Irish-Americans and nearly everyone else adopt — enthusiastically, often wildly — the otherwise derogatory ethnic stereotypes of the Irish. And no one thinks anything’s amiss. Unless the bar runs out of green beer.

Imagine, for comparison, Americans of all sorts spending Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of abolition, slugging malt liquor, chomping watermelon and running up to one another shouting “Kiss me, I’m black!”

Then again, there’s something liberating about being able to laugh at ourselves and to let others laugh right along.

Laughs come regularly in The Playboy of the Western World, a century-old Irish classic by John Millington Synge, currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre. So does a kind of self-mockery elevated to celebration.

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

Playboy is the story of Christy Mahon, a poor farmhand who ducks into a pub in a County Mayo hamlet and, meek though he seems at first, sends a jolt throughout the community. The electric charge he brings is his story: that he has killed his father and is on the run from the police. The locals, apparently hungry for any kind of excitement, are thrilled to meet someone brave and brazen enough to commit parricide. And the more positive attention Christy gets, the more flair he puts into his tale, and the more he’s treated like a celebrity. The women fawn, and a competition for him develops between the publican’s tough-minded daughter, called Pegeen, and the sly Widow Quin.

Continues…

Fight night: Unraveling ‘Gidion’s Knot’

Boom! Third Rail's new two-hander is like a boxing match in a fifth-grade classroom.

Whatever else a two-hander play happens to be about, it’s almost always about a fight. It could, of course, be about two people united in blissful harmony, but then it wouldn’t be a play, because plays imply action, and action implies conflict.

So let’s place Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ intermissionless hour-and-a-half drama pitting a fifth-grade teacher against an upset mother, inside a metaphorical boxing ring. The fighters land lots of blows, parry quite a few, and show off some fancy footwork. Something primal’s going on, an intellectual bloodlust that gets in your nostrils and stimulates your lower brain. Sock it to her!

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Amy Newman as Heather, the teacher, and Dana Green as Corryn, the mom, are good fighters in Third Rail Rep’s new production of Adams’ play, which debuted in 2012 and is a hot property right now on the resident-theater circuit. It’s a pleasure to watch them move around the boxing ring, which at the intimate CoHo Theatre, where Third Rail’s production is being mounted, consists of a brightly decorated schoolroom complete with desks, board displays (the class has been studying ancient mythologies), inspirational statements and pinned-up papers: scenic designer Kristeen Crosser makes you feel as if you’ve walked straight into an after-school parent/teacher conference. Green and Newman are good tacticians, sweet scientists of the acting ring. I admire the skills they and director Michael O’Connell reveal as the fight goes on, especially the way they use long beats, Pinter-like pauses, to ratchet the suspense and play up the emotional undercurrents of what swiftly becomes a horrendously uncomfortable encounter. The writer and performers are adept at turning up the heat and delivering a chill.

Continues…