Bag & Baggage Productions

At its best, theater makes magic happen onstage. Fairy tales do the same on the page. So I had high hopes for a pair of short-run May Portland theater productions that updated magical children’s tales. Unfortunately, while each provided sporadic moments of stage sorcery, neither could overcome decidedly un-enchanting scripts.

Mermaid Meets Music Man

Portland indie theater company Broken Planetarium specializes in cheerfully low budget enchantment. (“We’re trying to get beyond ‘scrappy,’ impresaria Laura Dunn noted in a quick pre-show fundraising appeal.) Its fabulous Atlantis made rough magic from cheekily low-fi design, a compelling story set on a post-climate catastrophe flooded New York City rooftop, and Dunn’s delightful original folk songs.

Laura Christina Dunn in ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo: Sophia Diaz.

BP’s latest show, Sirens of Coos Bay, takes H.C. Andersen’s ever-popular The Little Mermaid to the 1990s southern Oregon coast town, where the curious creature from the deep (“I want stories I have never known,” LM sings at the outset) encounters a local rock band whose frontman must fall in love with her if she’s to survive on dry land. 

Scriptwriter Dunn draws on her immigrant mother’s memories of the setting’s time and place to weave in evocative details about the timber wars, spotted owl, economic decline. Torn between the bickering boys in the land band, on one fin, and on the other, a female a cappella chorus of fellow mermaids who can’t understand why she’d give up undersea immortality, she also confronts her lover’s own demons, depression and addiction induced by his hometown’s sense of isolation and limited horizons.

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Bridgetown Orchestra over troubled water

Multimedia production of ‘On Being Water’ doesn’t run deep

Story and photos by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The spare music starts up, scales and single notes slowly traversing the speaker array around the room. A vast drone-hum like an industrial air-conditioning unit rises up almost subliminally and suddenly shuts off, weighty in its absence, leaving silence in its wake, like the passing of a whale.

Bridgetown Orchestra Artistic Director Tylor Neist is nothing if not ambitious. Two years ago, the composer took us to outer space with his multimedia spectacle The Overview Effect. Previous years have seen scores for Lear and Kabuki Titus (both for Bag & Baggage), a string-quartet-plus-electronics piece for Fear No Music, and the formation of piano trio ThreePlay.

This year’s grand, complicated endeavor: On Being Water, an ersatz-immersive experience on aquatic themes, hosted at Hillsboro’s Vault Theater over Labor Day weekend, performed by Neist alone on a small ensemble of machines.

“You might suspect there’s not a 50-piece [Bridgetown] orchestra behind me,” Neist said with an ironic smile when introducing his show. He explained the absence of the planned, expected, promoted string quartet: “We found that using a live string quartet didn’t work so well.” So Neist recorded them separately and loaded them into his machines. “They’re in my orchestra right there,” he said, gesturing to the bank of MIDI keyboards and desktop computers. It wasn’t the production’s only technical difficulty: at some point designer Benjamin Read pulled out of the production, and Thursday’s opening night performance had to be cancelled when the sound system refused to properly send those pre-recorded string sounds through its 32 speakers.

After a few minutes it becomes evident that this music isn’t going to go anywhere: there will be no harmony, no melodies, just a swirl of vaguely tonal, vaguely minor, vaguely classical soundscapery. I jot in my notes, “terrible pun—watered down JLA.”

The Vault—formerly a bank, naturally—is a small space, a black-box theater sort of room comparable to CoHo. A central square of folding chairs; four bare walls, extending to bare rafters and ducts above; a raised stage up front, nothing on it but an inexplicable glass bowl. (Perhaps it’s for tips? Or maybe it’s for leaving your business card and winning a free lunch).

Neist had decorated the space with an array of projectors and a scattering of white surfaces for his oceanic imagery to be projected upon: big white boxes, five stacks, four high; a busy perimeter of dangling strings, festooned with blank white paper squares; white cloth drapes suspended hauntedhousely from those rafters.

Over those white planes, some kind of geissian digital video collage, rivulets of sound and images cutting across physical and acoustic planes more or less at random, generating cross-currents in the audio-visual stream. The visual themes come in a series of discrete, very long sections. In one, it’s bubbles going up and down like Tomorrowland’s submarine trompe-l’œil. In another it’s all random debris and eggy translucence, then rippling luminescence, all of a sudden dense lines falling like sleet, jagged ice on hard edges, angular folds of hanging fabric, frozen deco ridges, curvilinear light paths and gossamer pearline strings of ghostly effervescence.

The lack of boundaries between audience and stage and set, the immersive nature of the multimedia presentation, the intimacy of the little theater with its chairs and wires, bespectacled composer bent over glowing-apple-backed Macintosh—all washed together the liminal space between creator, performer, stage, and audience. In Neist’s words, On Being Water is about “bridging inner and outer worlds, old and new traditions.”

Before beginning the performance, he left us with: “Water has an unbelievable ability to carry metaphors. Find that deep place and enjoy the sounds.”

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‘Blithe Spirit,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ reviews: way out west

Theatre in the Grove and Bag & Baggage Productions add darkness and depth to 20th century classics

It started as just a chance to take the parents to a show we knew they’d like. They’re big fans of classic American musicals, and they don’t come more classic and American than Oklahoma! The folks are a bit too superannuated to make it down to Ashland. But a drive to familiar Forest Grove, they could handle. That’s how we wound up on closing night of what I foolishly assumed would be a podunk production of an overfamiliar American classic perpetrated by a team from west of Portland’s creative center, and produced by a community theater company on a too-small stage miles from Portland. At best, I thought, maybe the folks would enjoy it even if I rolled my eyes.

Boy, was I wrong! Theatre in the Grove’s May production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 classic turned out to be one of my most surprisingly delightful theatrical adventures this year.

I realized we were in for something special in the fraught duet “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which the protagonist Curly McClain (winningly played and sung by Austin Hampshire) tries to inveigle his nemesis, farmhand Jud Fry, into committing suicide. Jason Weed directs it as a dangerous dance, with Curly circling Jud, smiling and nodding toward an imagined noose. And in the crucial scene between Jud and Laurey Williams, the woman he and Curly both desire, director Weed and actors Brandon Weaver and Jade Tate show us that Laurey isn’t a simple goody two shoes love interest, nor is Jud a stereotypical bad guy. She’s shallow, self-absorbed, while he’s vulnerable, even damaged. Yet those dimensions somehow don’t conflict with their main actions in the story. They’re complicated humans, not inconsistent characters.

Brandon Weaver (l) as Jud Fry and Austin Hampshire as Curly McLain in Theatre in the Grove’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Photo: Jennifer McFarling.

The main credit for Jud’s dimensionality — and the lion’s share of the abundant audience applause, rare for the bad guy in any show — went to Weaver, whose spectacular, deeply considered performance is one of the finest I’ve seen in an Oregon musical. Far more than a simple black hatted villain, he could be genuinely terrifying, even while merely glaring at other characters, and yet in the same scene subtly reveal the anguish beneath the brutality. Weaver, another Hillsboro native who’s appeared in two dozen Grove performances since 1990, deserves wider exposure. I hope to see him on other Oregon stages soon.

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‘Death and the Maiden’ review: a history of violence

Bag & Baggage's production of Ariel Dorfman's play about confronting the consequences of repression makes more persuasive political analysis than drama

A man bound and gagged. A woman pointing a gun at him. Confess his crime against her, or else.

You can’t ask for a much tenser set up than that. Death and the Maiden keeps the audience wondering throughout: did he do it, and will she do it? One of those questions will be resolved before the show is over.

But although they drive the plot, those aren’t the main questions raised by Ariel Dorfman’s provocative 1990 play now running at The Vault Theatre in Hillsboro. How do people, and by extension society, heal from past violence? Is confession enough? Or confession plus repentance? How about vengeance? Or should we just leave the past buried and move on?

Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina and Anthony Green as Roberto in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Death and the Maiden.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Dorfman’s play purports to dramatize this recurring conundrum by reducing it to three characters: A vengeful victim, blindfolded, tortured and raped years before by minions of a now-deposed military dictatorship. Her maybe-victimizer, whose voice resembles that of the man who, during the depths of the repression, tortured her to the recorded strains of a string quartet.  Her husband, who happens to be involved in the country’s efforts to confront its repressive past.

But even as the plot, and the ethical arguments, unfold, Dorfman’s script, and this production, leave those characters pretty much where they started. While Death and the Maiden poses some still-urgent questions, here it dutifully proceeds more like a combination formula thriller and a detached classroom ethics debate than an emotionally gripping character drama.

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Solofest preview: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions' new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in Solofest this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run at each performance in different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault. 

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