Beth Harper

Interview in a Time of Sequestration

A Photographer Talks to Himself About Shadows and the Mysteries of Black & White


ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


It seems much of your work is focused on the cultural life of your city and state?

Yes, it is. To paraphrase that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner, I discovered my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth photographing and that I would probably never live long enough to exhaust it.

So why black and white?

When I am obliged to talk about my photography—which isn’t that often, thankfully—I almost always start off with a discussion of my antediluvian preference for black and white. I do this because the question “Why black and white” is almost always the first one asked in the Q&As that invariably follow these talks, and I am hoping to preempt it, to cut it off at the pass as they say in Cowboy, because more often than not it is asked with an antagonizing hint of disapproval. It is a question that used to catch me by surprise. It doesn’t any more. My answer to it is always short. Black and white are for me—as they were for the famously crusty Robert Frank—the colors of photography.

Omar El Akkad, Writer, 2019.

Where Frank saw black and white as symbolizing hope and despair, I see them as augmenting our perception of form and content. Color, as we commonly think of it, is information. Lots of it. Black and white is an abstraction. When you subtract color you focus attention on form and content—on graphic order and psychological subtlety. For me black and white simply has a greater emotional and intellectual impact.

Continues…

In the Frame 5: Cultural Lights

In a fifth collection of black & white images, K.B. Dixon continues his photographic portraiture series of Oregon arts and cultural leaders


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


The photographic portrait is a complex thing—an image gathered at the center of four corners. It is what the camera sees, what the photographer sees, what the viewer sees, and what the subject hides or reveals. The facts of it can be explained to some degree, but not the experience of it. It is a magic trick, a sort of transcendental transcription. It is pulling a rabbit out of your hat, or in this case out of your DSLR.

The portraits gathered here are the latest in a series titled In the Frame—a photographic chronicle of the talented people whose contributions to the art, character, and culture of this city have made it what it is today, people whose various legacies are destined to be part of our cultural heritage.

As with the previous portraits in this series, these have been taken in situ using available light.


JERRY MOUAWAD


Writer, Artistic Co-Director, and Founding Member with Carol Triffle of Imago Theatre.

Continues…

Random order: a trick of fate

Steven Dietz's "This Random World" opens up warm and rueful possibilities (and a few questions) at Portland Actors Conservatory

The question, if you really need to ask one, is this: What is the relationship between randomness and fate? Are they simply sides of the same coin, spinning back and forth in a universe in motion, teasing their onlookers with their brief appearances and near-misses, like streaking Halley’s Comets of human comprehension? Is it all coincidence, or none of it? And on a practical level, does it matter at all?

That is the subterranean (or stratospheric) territory of Steven Dietz’s This Random World, which was a hit last year when it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and has just opened in its West Coast premiere in a swift and appealing production at Portland Actors Conservatory.

Kristin Barrett (left) and Tyharra Cozier in “This Random World.” PAC photo

The beauty of a good Dietz play is that it can explore such theoretical issues with both feet on the ground. Because he concentrates on structure, language, and character – that solid three-legged stool of the well-crafted play – the theme rises gently, tickling instead of pounding, like a wisp of afterthought that’s been carefully planted. And Dietz doesn’t answer his questions, which might help explain why, for all his regional-theater success, he’s never had a play on Broadway. He simply picks them up for closer inspection, and invites the audience in.

Continues…

Drammys: a night for Misbehavin’

Portland Center Stage's Fats Waller musical sweeps up six trophies at Portland's annual theater awards; "Orlando" wins big; actor Gavin Hoffman hits a double

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Portland Center Stage’s bold large-scale rethinking of the intimate Fats Waller musical revue, swept up much of the hardware Monday night at the Drammy Awards, sharing the spotlight with Orlando, Profile Theatre’s brash adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling, gender-bending adventure novel.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ dominated the evening with six awards, including best production of a musical, director of a musical (Chris Coleman), music direction (Rick Lewis), ensemble performance in a musical, scenic design (Tony Cisek), and costumes (Alison Heryer, who was also nominated for Orlando).

Portland Center Stage's "Ain't Misbehavin'": best ensemble in the best musical on the dest-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Portland Center Stage’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”: best ensemble in the best musical on the best-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Orlando, which was part of Profile’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl, won the coveted award for best production of a play, plus two other major categories: best actress in a play (Beth Thompson, who was also nominated for best supporting actress in Profile’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) and director of a play (Matthew B. Zrebski).

The Drammy Awards ceremony, Portland’s annual celebration of top achievements in theater, jammed the downtown Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts with a mixed crowd of theater fans and stage professionals, from actors and directors to designers and stagehands. In all, 117 productions were considered for awards by the 16-member Drammy committee. Late-season shows that were still running in June, such as Portland Playhouse’s hit Peter and the Starcatchers, Corrib’s Our New Girl, Triangle’s American Idiot, defunkt’s The Udmurts, and Artists Rep’s Grand Concourse and The Skin of Our Teeth, will be considered for 2016-17 awards.

Actor and director Beth Harper, founder and artistic director of the professional-training Portland Actors Conservatory, won this year’s lifetime achievement award, and it was a popular choice: when she walked onstage she was greeted with a standing ovation by the crowd, several of whom had graduated from the Actors Conservatory, and several more of whom have worked with her in shows. “For a girl from Pea Ridge, Tennessee, Miss Beth, you have done all right,” actor and director Brenda Hubbard said in introducing her. Harper thanked her own mentor, the legendary late Portland teacher and director Jack Featheringill, and commented, “It really does feel quite lovely to be appreciated.”

Gavin Hoffman scored a rare double victory in the acting categories, taking home the best actor Drammy for his performance as a desperate actor juggling life and art in The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre, and the supporting actor award for his performance in Great Expectations at Portland Center Stage. David Bodin shared the supporting-actor award for his Malvolio in Portland Shakespeare Project’s Twelfth Night. “I’m not greedy, really I’m not,” Hoffman said disarmingly in the second of his two acceptance speeches.

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production "Orlando" at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production “Orlando” at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Other major acting awards went to Brian Demar Jones for best actor in a musical (Under the Influence, Fuse Theatre Ensemble), Malia Tippets for actress in a musical (Heathers: The Musical, Triangle Productions and Staged!), Jamie Rea for supporting actress in a play (A Doll’s House, Shaking the Tree), Cassie Q. Kohl for supporting actress in a musical (H.M.S. Pinafore, Mock’s Crest Productions), James Sharinghousen for supporting actor in a musical (Oklahoma!, Broadway Rose), and Kai Tomizawa for young performer (Junie B. Jones: The Musical, Oregon Children’s Theatre).

Among several special awards, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild gave out $17,000 for several projects, including $2,000 to the Rex Putnam High School theater department for children’s theater programs, $4,000 to CoHo Theatre for an exterior sign, $5,000 to John Ellingson to study puppet design in England, and $6,000 to Shaking the Tree for lighting and sound equipment. And the group Age and Equity for the Arts awarded $30,000 – $10,000 to Profile Theatre, $20,000 to CoHo – to support equity programs. Imago Theatre won the Artslandia Award of $5,000 in advertising and publicity.

The evening’s hosts were the seven members of The 3rd Floor comedy troupe, and what might have been a logistical disaster turned out instead to be a smooth, sometimes surprising, and often very funny addition to a show that ran a little over two and a half hours. The group’s quick wits and easy teamwork made the evening run like a machine – the sort of machine that includes spatters of blood, a cranked-up Carmina Burana soundtrack, an 8-foot-tall Sasquatch helping to announce the best-costume nominees, and at least one close-to-the-bone running gag. The troupe’s performance was refreshing and bittersweet: after 20 years onstage, it’ll call it quits after a July 9 reunion/retirement show at Artists Rep.

*

The complete list of 2015-16 Drammy winners and nominees. Winners are listed in boldface at the top of each category:

 

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Brian Demar Jones
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Max Artsis
Dogfight
Staged!

Jared Miller

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Joel Walker
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY

Gavin Hoffman
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Bobby Bermea
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Allen Nause

Chapatti 
Corrib Theatre

Seth Rue
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Malia Tippets
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged! 

Claire Avakian
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Courtney Freed
Falsettos
Live On Stage

Kailey Rhodes
Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Beth Thompson
Orlando
Profile Theatre

JoAnn Johnson
Mothers And Sons
Artists Repertory Theatre

Val Landrum
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

Kayla Lian
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

Jessica Wallenfels
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Maija Garcia
Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Maria Tucker
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Kent Zimmerman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Alison Heryer
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Sarah Gahagan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Alison Heryer
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Ashton Hull
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Chris Coleman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Diane Englert
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Bruce A. Hostetler
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Sharon Maroney
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY

Matthew B. Zrebski
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Michael Mendelson
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Louanne Moldovan
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Pat Patton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

In the Heights
Stumptown Stages

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A PLAY

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Cock
defunkt theatre

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

Orlando
Profile Theatre

 

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Don Crossley
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Kristeen Willis Crosser
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Carl Faber
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Diane Ferry Williams
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST MUSIC DIRECTION

Rick Lewis
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Tracey Edson
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Jonathan Quesenberry
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Jeffrey Childs
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Ernie Lijoi, Kevin Laursen, Lawrence Rush
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Adrian Baxter
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Rory Stitt
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Matthew B. Zrebski
Chrysalis
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT

Noah Dunham
How to Stop Dying
Action/Adventure Theatre

Ernie Lijoi
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Sacha Reich + Jamie Rea
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

Claire Willett
Dear Galileo
Playwrights West

 

BEST PIT ENSEMBLE

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

Mame
Lakewood Theatre Company

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY

Orlando
Profile Theatre

Cock
defunkt theatre

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre 

 

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Tony Cisek
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Stephen Dobay
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Tal Sanders
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Tim Stapleton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST SOUND DESIGN

Rodolfo Ortega
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

Richard E. Moore
The Drunken City
Theatre Vertigo

Seth Nehil
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Scott Thorson
Sex With Strangers
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

James Sharinghousen
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Troy Pennington
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Blake Stone
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Joe Theissen
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY

David Bodin
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

and

Gavin Hoffman
Great Expectations
Portland Center Stage

Matthew Kerrigan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Todd Van Voris
The New Electric Ballroom
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Cassi Q. Kohl
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Amanda Pred
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Danielle Purdy
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Emily Sahler
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Jamie Rea
A Doll’s House
Shaking the Tree

Crystal Ann Muñoz
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

Anne Sorce
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Beth Thompson
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

 

BEST YOUNG PERFORMER

Kai Tomizawa
Junie B. Jones: The Musical
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Annabel Cantor
Ramona Quimby
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Morgan Fay
The Wrestling Season
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

Agatha Olson
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

 

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Beth Harper

 

SPECIAL AWARDS: 

Best Properties Design: Kaye Blankenship, In the Next Room,” or The Vibrator Play, Profile Theatre

Best Scenic Artist: Mindy Barker, The Drunken City, Theatre Vertigo

Best Solo Performance: Matthew Kerrigan, The Dissenter’s Handbook, Shaking the Tree Theater

Special achievement by a producer: Adriana Baer (Profile) and Samantha van der Merwe (Shaking the Tree), Passion Play

 

PATA SPOTLIGHT AWARDS:

The following Spotlight awards were presented by Portland Area Theatre Alliance (PATA):

  • Other: Kate E. Ortolano, sign language
  • Crew: Crew of The Skin of Our Teeth at Artists Repertory Theatre
  • Stage Manager: Karen Hill
  • Stage Manager: D Westerholm

 

PORTLAND CIVIC THEATRE GUILD AWARDS:

  • Mary Brand Award: $2,000 to Rex Putnam High School Theatre Department Children’s Theatre Program to bring theater to elementary school audiences that otherwise could not afford to attend.
  • Leslie O. Fulton Fellowship: $5,000 to John Ellingson for travel to England to study at the Beverly Puppet Festival in July, following which he will connect and interact with several prominent puppet companies in England.
  • Portland Civic Theatre $4,000 Award  to CoHo Theatre to pay for the creation and installation of an exterior sign marking the building and increasing the visibility of the theatre.
  • The Portland Civic Theatre $6,000 Award to Shaking the Tree to upgrade their lighting and sound equipment.

 

AGE AND GENDER EQUITY AWARDS:

  • $10,000 to Profile Theatre
  • $20,000 to CoHo Productions

Reverend Buckhorn (Michael Fisher-Welsh) gathers the flock in "Holy Ghosts." Photo: Gary Norman

Here’s what theater really ought to do: transport you to another world.

Doesn’t need to be with exotic sets and costumes, although an occasional Cats or Lion King isn’t a bad thing. It might be nothing but a single actor on a naked stage, carrying you on a journey. The journey might be to somewhere you’ve never visited, or to somewhere you’ve seen a thousand times, but never quite this way. And what if – what if – it reveals that the exotic and the commonplace are eternal bedmates, sleeping side by side?

Romulus Linney created just such an exotic familiarity in 1970 with his Appalachian religious drama Holy Ghosts, a tale that shoves straight through the long and storied history of revivalism in American religion toward one of its most extreme conclusions: holy-roller snake-handling. Garry Wills writes about revivalist fundamentalism as a phenomenon in his fascinating 2007 book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Linney’s sweet believers live it as a personal reality. As the good and lusty Reverend Buckhorn puts it, “Well, what is real religion? One thing I know, it don’t have no beginning and it don’t have no end. It is happening all the time, and tonight I hope it will happen to us.”

Instead of treating his story as a freak show, Linney cuts to the causes and benefits – poverty and loneliness on one hand; acceptance, love and group identity on the other – and every now and again, once he’s lulled you, he shakes you awake again to remind you this is a cult, and a pretty weird one, at that. The church’s cultishness makes its people, who are the play’s heart and soul, no less likable – maybe even more so, because it reveals the emotional logic and essential quest for goodness beneath their radical beliefs. And it brings home the isolationist mentality of extremist groups: all will be wonderful, if only you do exactly as we do. In a world cleft by combative politics and fundamentalist fervor, Linney’s hardscrabble Appalachia doesn’t seem so far away at all.

Holy Ghosts is smart and lively and theatrically engaging, a rollicking American spiritualist tale in the loosely scattered tradition of Elmer Gantry, Friendly Persuasion and Wise Blood. And in its latest Portland production it’s getting a performance that coaxes out an overflowing baptismal font of oddball yet astute charms.

Apt name: Emery John Frazier as Carl Specter. Photo: Gary Norman

You could divide the audiences for Portland Actors Conservatory’s new production into two parts: those who hum along to the old-time hymns and gospel tunes being played on the piano by the proper Mrs. Wall (Cate Garrison) and those who don’t know The Old Rugged Cross from the Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow.

I have it from the horse’s mouth that before rehearsals began, some of the actors themselves hadn’t made the gospel hymnal’s acquaintance. Yet by opening weekend they were in full foot-stomping spirit, for which ample credit must go to director Beth Harper, musical director Andrew Bray and, presumably, God Almighty.

I don’t mean that mockingly. I’ve known the people in this play, or people very like them, and I grew up singing their songs, whose words and harmonies sweep back on me like inescapable yet strangely welcome ghosts. We are who we were, no matter how much more we become. And these are vivid, vivid people in vivid, if peculiar, circumstances.

Music is at the soul of the revivalist spirit that haunts Holy Ghosts, and poisonous snakes, the successful handling of which signifies faith and glory to the true believers of the theatrical congregation, are in its grip. Linney’s play is Southern Gothic, and from a rationalist perspective its characters are as nutty as a Truman Capote fruitcake – who are these people, and why are they doing this insane stuff? – but they also follow a rigorous logic of the heart. The craziest thing about the play is how it gets inside fanaticism and allows you to understand and even sympathize with it, or at least with the people who turn to it for solace.

Holy Ghosts isn’t only historical or Southern-regionalist. These snake-handlers aren’t so different from the Oregon faith-healing advocates who regularly land in court for entrusting their children’s health to God instead of medicine, even when their children end up dying from preventable causes. And how many steps removed are they from the fanatical fundamentalists raining violence on the world, or for that matter, from the saints whose images line cathedral walls? Sometimes fanaticism is only a half-step to the side of heroism and the commonplace. Sometimes it’s benign. Sometimes it’s dangerous.

Blue state urban bubble-dwellers really ought to see this play, and not to poke fun at the red-state rubes, although the drama has some very funny scenes, but to get inside some pretty interesting skin and begin to understand the culture wars from a different perspective. Among these fervidly holy men and women “value politics” isn’t a matter of partisan tactics but of everyday life. And don’t think you’ll always know what the values are: In the Actors Conservatory’s production, black and white people are equals in the eyes of the Lord, and so are gays and heterosexuals. Not exactly earth-shattering propositions, unless you look around the country these days.

There’s nothing belittling or cartoonish in the colorful congregation that flocks to Linney’s little pentecostal church. Linney himself explains them well in a 1987 interview from the New York Times:

”The play is funny,” he says, ”but it’s not a satire. It takes these rural people very seriously. It deals with people who, I think, are very desperate. Their religion is not a small thing to them, their humanity is not a small thing to them. The two things are very much mixed together. It’s not a matter of an actor getting on stage and making fun of a country bumpkin; it’s a matter of trying to understand very deep feelings of people who are themselves at the bottom of American life. You can’t get much further down, as far as rural American is concerned, than a lot of these folks. And yet they feel, through the extreme cathartic experience that they go through in these services, they feel recognized by some great power.”

Linney has a way of bringing you up short. It’s one thing when you discover a young runaway wife is planning to marry the gray-haired preacher father, not his handsome son: May and December have met many times before. It’s another thing to learn that preacher father has already buried six hard-working wives and scattered something in the neighborhood of 17 kids across the countryside. He is, as they say, charismatic. He also seems scarily biblical and patriarchal, an Old Testament lord and master of his clan. Yet in the clinches, as it were, he can be as gentle as a lamb of God.

Cancer Man (Tim Stapleton), Nancy (Katie Butler).
Photo: Gary Norman


Among director Harper’s grandly cast collection of oddballs and fanatics,
three are crucial to the driving of the plot: Katie Butler as Nancy Shedman, the innocent and fiery young wife who has fled her young husband into the arms of the patriarch; Jeffrey Arrington as her hot-headed and sometimes two-fisted husband, Coleman; and veteran Michael Fisher-Welsh as Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr., the patriarch. Arrington’s Coleman, who has pursued Nancy to the church with his divorce lawyer (a wonderfully fleshy and seedy Jim Davis) in tow, is a pistol itching to go off, and when he and Fisher-Welsh go at it it’s almost like God and Satan getting testy with each other in The Book of Job. Somebody’s going to win this argument, and it might be surprising to find out how it all works out.

The three performances seem ideally calibrated: the true believer, the unbeliever, the wavering aspirant. Butler and Arrington, both conservatory students (as are most of the cast), hold their own remarkably well in a company anchored by veterans Fisher-Welsh, Davis, Garrison and Tim Stapleton as Cancer Man (yes, there’s a character named Cancer Man, and he’s quite amazing). But then, pretty much everyone fills the exotic bill well. Holy Ghosts is one of those well-crafted plays where the first act ends exactly where the first act ought to end and everyone in the cast gets a knock-’em-dead moment in the spotlight (that’s why actors love to be in them). And Harper (who grew up in Tennessee and knows this territory) is a director known for her skill at creating a genuine, almost musical, ensemble on stage. In a Harper show the good stuff happens in the space between the performers, where the energy meets.

Stuff happens. Revelations are made. Anguish and humor rear their ugly-pretty heads. Lives even change. More than that I see no need to tell, except maybe for this: The snakes do come out to play. And you don’t want to be sticking your hand too close. You could be transported.

One more thing does need to be told, and that is that you really ought to take time to absorb Faith and Work, the show of paintings hanging on the lobby walls. They’re by the multitalented Stapleton, who is terrific as Cancer Man and is also the conservatory’s resident scenic designer. He grew up in Kentucky coal-mining country, and the portraits in this exhibition are of family members: his uncles, father, grandmother, others.

From "Faith and Work," paintings by Tim Stapleton.

Crosses of Calvary show up. A canary in the mineshaft. The hand of God. A rail of a woman with the face of an old soul. Coal-stained faces of miners, hard-working men, variously proud and stoic and trouble-brewing and jovial and dignified and wearily ready to rest and start it all again. Stapleton homes in on eyes, which leap with independence and personality. These are the faces of tradition and hard-laboring poverty, and they provide the base, if you need one, for understanding the soil from which Holy Ghosts has sprung. We may (or may not) be the world’s richest nation. But as George Orwell has pointed out, some pigs are more equal than others. And some are left to shift on their own – with a little help from their Friend. In a way, these paintings are holy ghosts, too.