Antonio Sonera

Drammys: Where’s the party?

DramaWatch: Attendance dropped and the drama crept behind the scenes at this year's Portland theater awards. What comes next?

Once upon a time I had a dream about the Drammys.

I don’t mean dream as in a sleepytime movie, but rather a hope, a wish, an ideal of a future. When I first began to care about the Drammy Awards, the annual celebration of Portland-area theater was held at the Crystal Ballroom. At one end of the oblong room, outstanding theater work was honored onstage. At the other end, the combination of the entrance and the bar catalyzed a sometimes raucous social scene as friendly acquaintances convened. There was tension between the two elements, with the loud, lubricated chatter from the back sometimes drowning out the official proceedings, but it had the feel of a fabulous party. That feeling continued once the event was done, as the crowd spilled outside into a stream of sidewalk clusters stretching around the block and into Cassidy’s, which suddenly boasted more actors than you could shake a script at. 

Drag clown Carla Rossi was emcee at this year’s Drammy Award ceremony, where attendance was down. Photo: Scotty Fisher/Sleeper Studios

I was writing about theater for The Oregonian, and was thrilled about all the interesting and talented local artists I was encountering. Seeing so many of them all together, as one big, convivial community, celebrating one another and the fine work they’d done over the past season, was exhilarating. 

I figured that excitement should be shared.

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Rody trip: Ortega in Prague

Sound designer and composer Rodolfo Ortega gets a surprise bonus for his stellar work on "Magellanica": a trip to the Prague Quadrennial

The curtain falls, the lights go down, a season comes to an end. The artists have done their work, the audiences have received it, the critics have had their say. The awards ceremonies come and go, met — as always — with equal parts elation, pride, anger and derision. As the dust settled on Portland’s 2018-19 theater season at last week’s Drammy Awards ceremony, 5,000 miles away Rodolfo (Rody) Ortega, composer, musician, and sound designer nonpareil, was receiving recognition of a very different sort: He’d been invited to exhibit his work at the Prague Quadrennial.

What’s the Prague Quadrennial? Ortega had the same question when Stephanie Schwartz, a scenic designer he was working beside on E.M. Lewis’ epic Magellanica at Artists Repertory Theatre, where Ortega is a resident artist, suggested he should submit his compositions from that project to the festival.

Rodolfo Ortega, designer deluxe.

 “‘I have no clue what you’re talking about,’” Ortega remembers saying. “I had never heard of the Prague Quadrennial. So, I started doing a little bit of research and basically it’s this showcase of a variety of different artists from the entire planet that are particularly on the technical side of theater. That is, costume design, scenic design, sound and lights and music composition.”

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Antonio Sonera’s Badass Hospitality

As the city's new theater season swings into action, Portland's maverick director speaks out about why it's done, and who should have access

Antonio Sonera is the maverick of the Portland theater scene: a wild card, an enigma, complicated and controversial, undoubtedly gifted, knowledgeable and hard-working. He’s been a vital part of the Portland theater scene for 30-odd years, yet in many ways, he’s on the outside looking in. He hasn’t worked at Artists Rep in years. He’s never directed at Portland Center Stage. He’s never worked at Portland Playhouse or Profile or Defunkt. He’s on the Drammy Committee, yet, in those same three decades of doing good — and oftentimes great — work in this town, he’s yet to win a Drammy himself. If you look back over his career his record holds up against any local director you can name. El Paso Blue, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, El Grito Del Bronx, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Invasion!, Sans Merci, God of Carnage and his most recent piece World Builders all were among the most memorable productions of the seasons in which they appeared. A lot of accolades and awards are sprinkled throughout that small sampling of Sonera’s work — as well as a lot of risks being taken and buttons being pushed. When Sonera works these days, it’s primarily on projects he’s developed or produced.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him about that hiatus; about his company, Badass Theatre; and about the state of theater in Portland. Anyone who knows Sonera already knows he had a lot to say. He’s a man of strong opinions and he’s not afraid to speak them. He’s also a thoughtful man, smart, experienced and perhaps most importantly, he gives a damn. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t deny his passion or commitment.

Antonio Sonera, up close and personal. Photo: Tim Krause

When World Builders rolled around this June Portland hadn’t heard from Badass in four years, which was too bad. Because when Badass had spoken, people had listened. Invasion!, Jonas Hassen Khamiri’s perception-shattering tornado of a play, was easily the most talked-about theater piece of its season. Sans Merci, Johnna Adams’ brutal exploration of love and grief, contained a trio of outstanding performances, headed by the amazing Luisa Sermol, ripping her soul to tatters and leaving it there on the stage for everybody to see. (Sermol won an award for her work, not her first by any means, and not her first under Sonera’s direction. She’d taken home another Drammy for her work in Boleros for the Disenchanted at Milagro in 2012.)

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‘World Builders’ review: when worlds collide

Badass Theatre Company’s production of Johnna Adams’s play explores alternative mental universes before falling back down to earth

As the audience files in, Whitney and Max sit silently at opposite corners of the stage, lost in thought.

In fact, we soon learn they’re deeply immersed in their respective fantasy worlds — the condition that, Whitney informs us in relatively clunky blatant exposition, landed them both in this sterile patient lounge. As part of a research project they’ve been reluctantly enrolled in, they and the (unseen) other patients must take their prescribed experimental medication intended to eliminate their fantasizing — or face involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Dunkin and Tidd in Badass Theatre’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

But what if they don’t want to give up their imaginary worlds? And even if the treatment works, how will these damaged people cope with mundane, messy reality?

That’s the provocative set-up for Johnna Adams’s World Builders, which Badass Theatre is staging through June at southeast Portland’s Shaking the Tree Theatre. It’s a fascinating concept and a promising play that offers tantalizing glimpses into alternative mental realities, before losing its way when reality returns.

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