Beth Thompson

A room with a redemptive view

Fertile Ground 2021: "The November Project," which takes place in a bathroom, has its roots in a life-turning crisis in Jessica Wallenfels' life

Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago. 

In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”) 

Drama in the bathroom: Many Hats Collaboration’s “The November Project” at Fertile Ground.

In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic. 

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Cuddles at CoHo

Fear, intimacy and absurdity collide in the CoHo Productions staging of "The Found Dog Ribbon Dance."

I first heard about Cuddle Con — the Portland cuddling convention — shortly before it debuted in 2015. A classmate in an audio storytelling class was doing a project about the event, and I remember thinking that it sounded glorious. As a single 24-year-old with only a couple close friends and no career, I found the prospect of physical intimacy with even a stranger inviting.

As it turned out, I never attended Cuddle Con, but I have remained fascinated by the concept of professional cuddling. What, I have found myself wondering, does it say about our society that people are literally paying for platonic closeness? Has the numbing isolation induced by social media sundered society that badly? Or does professional cuddling simply represent a solution to the age-old agony of loneliness?

Those questions aren’t answered in CoHo’s production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, which I can safely say is the first play I’ve seen about a professional cuddler. Yet the play is a moving and entertaining meditation on the joy of physical intimacy and the awfulness (for some people) of its absence. Watching it may bring up painful memories of isolation (it did for me). But it also delivers a satisfying brew of truth, wit and catharsis.

Faraway, so close: Clifton Holznagel (from left), Beth Thompson and Tom Mounsey test the boundaries of togetherness in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a play by Reed College alum Dominic Finocchiaro. Photo: Owen Carey.

Directed by Connery MacRae, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance stars Beth Thompson as Norma, a woman who has started a successful cuddling business in her home. Her clients include an emotionally and physically scarred young woman (Deborah Jensen) and an elderly man (Marty Baeudet) who doesn’t speak a word until near the story’s end.

While the play could have worked as a series of vignettes about Norma’s clients, Finocchiaro chooses other narrative paths. He shows us the evolution of Norma’s romance with Norm (Tom Mounsey), a minor YouTube celebrity who works in a coffee shop, and her ongoing quest to find out who owns the dog she recently found (the pooch is played by Clifton Holznagel, who eschews a tail in favor of a black T-shirt that identifies him as a canine).

Norma’s cuddling technique is exemplary — her voice is so soothing that even her trite insistence that her home “is a safe space” becomes seductive. Achieving intimacy in her personal life proves more difficult for her, an irony that becomes a catalyst for a love-work crisis that causes her to question everything that she has devoted her life to.

It’s disappointing that the explanation for Norma’s fear of closeness with anyone besides her clients turns out to be fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s disappointing that the play offers an explanation at all. Making the story of what cuddling means and why it matters about one person’s inner strife distracts from the fascinating question of why human beings are so starved for connection that cuddling has become a viable job.

That oversight bothered me without diminishing my appreciation for the production’s numerous successes, especially Thompson’s performance. Found Dog chronicles the crumbling of Norma’s romance with Norm, which makes her doubt not just whether she’s capable of being part of a relationship but the value of physical intimacy itself. It’s haunting to watch Thompson take Norma on a journey from preaching the gospel of cuddling (“There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need”) to all but renouncing her faith (“I want to believe. But I don’t know anymore”).

Tom Mounsey gets all in a whirl in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Photo: Owen Carey.

The play suggests that while professional cuddling has value, mediated affection has its limits, an idea that Norm embodies. His fame is the result of a peculiar fetish—he films himself dancing to the music of Whitney Houston while wearing a luchador mask and waving a ribbon through the air. He is willing to look ridiculous in front of anonymous internet users, but he refuses to let Norma see him dance, which underlines the inability of both characters to experience togetherness beyond confines of their respective pursuits.

The beauty of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance lies in its portrait of Norma and Norm gradually bumbling beyond those restrictions. In a show-stopping scene, Norm dances to Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” waving his crimson ribbon in a series of dizzying spirals and swirls. It’s a jubilant spectacle, but it’s just the beginning. Because above all, Found Dog is about how for both Norma and Norm, “I want” becomes “I will.”

SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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A gorgeous fairy tale, in triplicate

CoHo's "This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing" is a theatrical marvel about the adventures of not-so-identical triplets

At the risk of revealing my own ignorance, I must admit I had no idea what I was going to see when I was tapped to review CoHo Productions’ This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing. I hadn’t heard of Finegan Kruckemeyer, the esteemed Australian playwright who has had 84 plays commissioned on five continents and whose works have been translated into eight languages.

These Girls, into the woods and beyond. Photo: Owen Carey

I was even mildly annoyed to see that this play about women was written by a man. “What could he know?” I thought. “What does he have to say on this topic that hasn’t been said before?” Turns out the answer to both question is, “So much.”

This Girl Laughs was first produced in 2011 in Argentina and has been produced dozens of times and received numerous awards since. According to Kruckemeyer’s website, it’s suitable for ages 7 to adult. Which might make one think this is production for children. It is, and it isn’t.

This is a play about children. Or people, I should say, who start out as children – as people often do. And it is about how three specific children – identical triplet girls, who, like most identical twins/triplets/etc., turn out not to be identical at all. It is also about, as CoHo has written, “cakes, battle, sun bathing, world carrying, unpleasant badgers, boring people, dancing, romance, walnuts, and long walks.” This is a fairytale. It is about loss, love, and redemption. It’s an odyssey, a bildungsroman in triplicate, and an epic poem.

But none of these descriptions is wholly true. If you were to read the script for This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, it would read like a novel, with chapters, in a third-person narrator’s voice. It’s a story about losing everything and finding a way to recover. It’s tragic and hopeful. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious. Kruckemeyer’s website says it can be performed by any number of players, and has been performed by one to 30.

Sharon Mann and Beth Thompson, traveling underseas. Photo: Owen Carey

Because this tale is broad and universal, just like a life (or three), and can be melded and shaped and shifted in magical ways. And what CoHo has done with Kruckemeyer’s beautiful words is capture lightning in a bottle.

With a cast of six fine Portland actors (most of whom I’ve enjoyed watching onstage a time or two or several), and under the deft direction of Tamara Carroll, CoHo’s space transforms from a modest home in the forest where three girls live with their mother and father – “And the girls knew in their hearts that this happiness they felt, living in the forest with that man and that woman, it would never end. … Until one day, it ended” – into a snowy wood, and then into warring villages and into beaches and a lighthouse floating across the sea and a vacated bakery and a Snow White-style fairytale filled with animals and a single young woman living out her life in the forest, and into the most boring town in the world, and into a mansion. …

It’s no small feat to pull all of this off on any stage, particularly a smaller space such as CoHo’s. Kaye Blankenship’s scenic design, Jennifer Lin’s lighting, and Sarah Andrews’ props play a major part in bringing this magic to life – but so does that incredible cast of six.

So, let’s talk about the singular actors who make up that cast: Conor Eifler (Younger Man), Duffy Epstein (Older Man), and Sharon Mann (Older Woman) play a plethora of characters and help narrate the triplets’ journeys. They are all so good that it feels unfair to single any of them out, but Epstein gets the most poignant and trickiest plot points, and he rises to the challenge. Epstein recently outshone a remarkable cast in Profile Theater’s Water by the Spoonful. That he doesn’t do that here is to his credit – he downplays his roles here in service to the greater good.

In a fairy tale, one must take measures: Duffy Epstein, Alex Ramirez de Cruz, Jen Rowe, Beth Thompson. Photo: Owen Carey

And, that greater good is those three girls of the title, the triplets. Carmen, the youngest and the one who “does nothing” (but what a lie that is) is played with sweetness, quiet, and innocence by Alex Ramirez de Cruz. The middle sister, Beatrix, the girl who cries (and does so much more than that) is played with reckless abandon, charisma, and comedic timing by Beth Thompson. And the oldest, Albienne, who laughs (though not as often as you’d think), is brought to life by the remarkable Jen Rowe, a force to be reckoned with at all times, but particularly when she’s wielding a sword in battle or flour in a bakery.

Seeing this triptych of women on the CoHo Stage, you will be struck by how lucky you are (although they have all been on the same stage at least once before, in Portland Playhouse’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in 2012, they didn’t carry that play in the same way). It is not an overstatement to compare casting these three to casting the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern in a television show: Audiences are rarely that lucky.

And yet here we are in 2018 with HBO’s Big Little Lies on our televisions – and, if you are lucky enough to be in Portland right now, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing onstage at CoHo Theatre.

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This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing continues through March 3 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 N.W. Raleight St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.