Black Nativity

DramaWatch: Sarah Ruhl’s Almond Joy

"Melancholy Play" is a whimsical reminder that sometimes you feel like a nut. Plus: holiday treats and many helpings of Christmas stuffing.

 “There is a basic emotional spectrum from which we cannot and should not escape, and I believe that depression is in that spectrum, located near not only grief but also love. Indeed I believe that all the strong emotions stand together, and that every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”

— from The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Melancholy Play, by the MacArthur Foundation fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Rurl, is in one sense an hilariously misnamed work. The overall tenor of the piece, far from dour or downbeat, is playful, verging on farcical, with absurdity within its reach. In fact, in its original iteration, circa 2001, it was titled Melancholy Play: a Contemporary Farce. A decade or so later, Ruhl revised the work to incorporate music — for string quartet and piano — by composer Todd Almond, calling for much of the dialogue to be sung, and calling for a new subtitle. This version, Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical, is the next production from Third Rail Rep, opening Saturday at CoHo Theater.

Sadness never looked so fun: Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play in a Third Rail Rep production at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

However, the play — the musical, whichever — is about melancholy. It concerns a woman named Tilly whose wistful, romantically melancholic affect is so alluring that the folks she encounters — her therapist, her tailor, her hairdresser and so on — fall all over themselves falling in love with her. Until, surrounded by all that love, Tilly has what’s either a sudden recognition or a true transformation: She’s happy.

And, well, that doesn’t go over so well.

Perhaps you’ll consider this a spoiler, but the news is out there: One of Tilly’s admirers is so undone by the change that she, too, changes — into an almond. As the website  DCMetroTheaterArts wrote of a production back east: “Not a metaphorical almond, mind, but an actual small brown nut, carefully displayed on a delicate white pillow. (One review I saw of a college production quite seriously urged people with tree nut allergies not to attend the show).”

Absurdity reached, absurdity grasped.

And yet, this is Sarah Ruhl, in whose theatrical world whimsy counts almost as a tool of philosophical inquiry. Even more so than in such later, celebrated works as The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she’s being thoughtful in a goofy way.

“It’s an odd little concoction,” admits Rebecca Lingafelter, who directs the Third Rail production with what she describes as vaudevillian style of staging and an emphasis on what Ruhl calls the “sincere melodrama” of the piece. 

Lingafelter notes that Ruhl first wrote the play as a graduate student at Brown University — where fellow students and future Third Rail regulars Kerry Ryan and Darius Pierce were involved in its early development. (Ryan performed in it back then and will do so again for Third Rail.) “You can see a lot in it about how she grew later on, some of the styles and the themes that she’d develop,” Lingafelter says. “There’s a lot that she’s exploring and working out that in her later plays she’s simplified and focused in on. And there are some of the fundamentals of who she is as an artist. Something I like about her work is that it can only work in the theater; she understands that we’re in a place of poetry and metaphor. There’s a very theatrical quality to it all that can be really fun.”

Ruhl’s point here, the meaning behind the mad method, is to make a case for an out-of-fashion notion of melancholy, both differentiating it from the much-bemoaned modern ailment, depression, and extolling it as a special kind of emotional sensitivity. 

Tailor-made for love: Leah Yorkston and Nick Ferrucci in Melancholy Play. Photo: Owen Carey.

“Melancholy can be active, yearning, hopeful, nostalgic, sexy even, and offers the possibility of communing with others,” Ruhl wrote in a 2015 foreward to the script. “Melancholy makes us contemplate the inevitable passage of time — the transience of things — and in that sense, it’s not neurotic, but rather part of the human condition.”

Depression she describes as “hermetic, sealed off, inert, hopeless,” worthy of the eradication so many seek. But might we be, she wonders, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”? Which suggests another question: What to do about those who’ve slipped from hopefully yearning to hermetically sealed? 

“The fundamental theme, for me,” Lingafelter says, “is that she thinks that community is an overlooked way to address isolation and loneliness, to keep people from slipping too far into depression.” 

In its nearly 500 pages about the history, manifestations and treatments of mood disorders, Solomon’s Noonday Demon doesn’t say just where melancholy lands on humanity’s “basic emotional spectrum.” But on its final page, Solomon writes, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.”

By which reckoning Ruhl’s Melancholy Play might serve as a grinning middle ground.
 

The flattened stage (Thanks-taking edition)

Thanksgiving is a time of tradition. And for me, there is no tradition more hallowed at this time of year than watching my favorite video clip of the Apple Sisters.
I fell in love with the Apple Sisters in 2008, when the trio performed in the Best of the Best Sketch Fest, which I reviewed for The Oregonian: “Like a crisp, sweet McIntosh with a razor inside, the act is a 1940s radio variety show that revels in its homespun innocence (‘Heck’s bells!,’ one of the sisters exclaims) and cornpone humor (Seedy Apple: ‘You’re so dumb.’ Lusty, busty blonde Cora Apple: ‘I ain’t dumb! I can hear just fine!’), but sneaks in shards of political and sexual commentary. Facing the prospect of joining the war effort, Seedy remarks, ‘We know that war isn’t all raindrops on roses and whites-only drinking fountains.’ And then there are the references to Candy Apple’s mysterious husband, Cheryl (‘It’s not like I’m hiding Cheryl in a closet,’ Candy says.)”

Yet somehow that review neglected to mention their greatest bit, an incisive and hilarious pocket history of North American (re)settlement, “Pilgrim/Indian Song.” 

Opening (Brutal Xmas Onslaught Edition)

A cozy “Carol”: Portland Playhouse has filled houses and warmed hearts for the past several years with its production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

In the early years of Portland Playhouse, artistic director Brian Weaver was the serious-minded sort who didn’t take the rote route of programming a Christmas-themed show at the end of the year. But his brother Michael (or, as I like to call him, Weaver the Younger) argued that there was nothing wrong with giving the people what they like. Eventually Weaver the Elder was won over, and scheduled a production of the most obvious choice possible, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Directed that first time by Cristi Miles, it was a huge hit, boasting such a fidelity to Dickensian virtues that audiences talked of seeing the old familiar play anew. These days, Weaver the Elder  directs the show — an adaptation by Rick Lombardo, with songs by Lombardo and Anna Lackaff — himself, and year after year it’s a reliable seasonal treat. And really, with such performing talents as Michael Mendelson as Scrooge and Ben Tissell as Bob Cratchit, how could it be otherwise?

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This Carol, of course, is known for having multiple personalities. For instance, A Xmas Cuento Remix at Milagro, in which playwright Maya Malán-González gives A Christmas Carol a modern Latinx twist. In this version — which has productions this season in Portland, Cleveland and Chicago as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program — hip, shapeshifting carolers serve as a mythic chorus, performing remixed Spanish and English Christmas songs, guiding the story and helping a woman named Dolores Avara to learn forgiveness and embrace holiday traditions. Triangle Productions, by contrast, gives the story a bawdy, Victorian music hall treatment, via Scrooge in Rouge, a spoof in which an outbreak of food poisoning reduces the available cast to just three hearty/hardy/foolhardy folk. The resulting requisite crossdressing, quick-change approach should be a comedic blank check for Dave Cole, Jeremy Anderson-Sloan and the always-vibrant Cassi Q. Kohl. (Stumptown Stages also has a more determinedly musical adaptation coming up, but that won’t open until Dec. 5.) 

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If Dickens is an example of the culturally specific elbowing its way into universality, then maybe Black Nativity is on its way there too. Langston Hughes’ spirited re-telling of the Christian nativity story though black gospel singing and “traditional” Christmas carols has both a strong character and a broad appeal — enough so that PassinArt will present the show for a fifth consecutive year.

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Around this time last year, critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh — whose Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol did well for Artists Rep earlier this decade — presented a one-night reading of his new play The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery. Now he’s back at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie with a full production of the story, about a lady detective and her daughter whose quiet country-house Christmas Eve turns instead into the mystery and intrigue of a jewel heist.

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Fred Bishop (left) and Jennifer Goldsmith star in It Happened One Christmas, a new holiday musical revue from Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

“Grimbles” sounds like a blend of “Gimbels,” the famed but now-defunct department-store company, and “grumble,” which you might be inclined to do if forced to be in a department store during December. In any case, it’s the name of the store that’s the setting for the story of It Happened One Christmas, a new original musical by Broadway Rose stalwarts Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis. As a cleaning lady and a security guard make their nightly rounds, the magic of Christmas Eve begins to take effect. The too-seldom-seen Jennifer Goldsmith stars as Frances, the cleaner, alongside Fred Bishop as Walter the guard.

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The distinguishing feature of The Hullabaloo! Alice in Wonderland, British-panto-styled offering from the company known as Jane — or at least one thing that makes it stand out — is the price. Tickets are free. (I sometimes think that Portland citizenship should be contingent on whether someone knows who popularized the phrase “Free is a very good price!”) But there’ll be no citizenship tests for these freebies, just email info@janetheater.org to reserve yours.

Closing

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite bands is the observation in a Husker Du song: “Expectation only means you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.”
So I won’t pretend to really think I know quite what’s coming to the Performance Works NorthWest under the title Funeral for Expectations. Glancing at an email from the show’s creator/performer Julia Brandenberger, I first noticed the phrase “immersive and participatory ceremony of disposition,” and thought, “They’re going to bury the audience?!?”

Er…maybe not. Brandenberger, whose training is in ballet and theology, instead intends to put to rest such things as “struggles with body…toxic judgements and the stresses of achievement culture and perfectionism.”

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La Ruta, Artists Rep’s powerful production of Isaac Gomez’ play about mothers and daughters and the harrowing experiences of those working along the U.S./Mexico border, closes its run on Sunday.

Second-hand news (theater journalism worth reading)

Long ago, early in my time as an arts journalist, I walked into a rock club one night and a friend of mine approached me. “Have you been feeling OK lately,” she asked. “Fine. Why do you ask?,” I replied. “You haven’t been mean to anyone in your column the past few weeks,” she said.
What she meant was that she liked, and missed, the barbed comments I slung at bands I didn’t like. But I found the exchange disheartening. Granted, it was fun to be snarky. My favorite line of mine from that era came as a brief mention of a laughable hair-metal band called Rex and the Rock-Its: “If the worst thing a critic can do to a band is to ignore it entirely, why am I being so nice?” Yet I didn’t I want to be seen as being mean, and I believed that writing criticism was about much more than taking pot shots — or even really about passing judgment.

That incident came to mind while reading recently about the death of John Simon, long a notoriously negative critic for New York Magazine, famous for both his erudition and his viciousness.
As a general matter, criticism has become a toothless monster since Simon’s late-20th-century heyday. But his passing presents an opportunity to consider what criticism can and should — or shouldn’t — do. 

In the obituary at Vulture, New York mag’s culture website, Christopher Bonanos, one of Simon’s later editors, outlines how sharp and colorful Simon’s writing could be, and how egregiously he could stray outside the lines of fair play. Bonanos also closes his piece on an especially apt note: “I don’t think it’s cruel to say this, because John himself would undoubtedly have turned it into a gleeful anecdote: When he had the stroke that killed him, he was at a local dinner theater. Hell of a review.”
American Theatre magazine chipped in with twinned commentaries, one by Michael Feingold, a former critic for the Village Voice, and one by Jack O’Brien, former artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre.

Interestingly, it’s the fellow critic who registers disappointment and disapproval, while the theater artist presents a case for the defense.

The best line I read this week

“Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues.”

— from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch


It’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll give thanks for Barry Johnson, one of the Northwest’s very finest thinkers and writers about the arts, for creating Oregon ArtsWatch and providing a chance for a former daily-paper hack like me to keep writing.

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

Black Nativity: The joy is now

PassinArt's Portland production of Langston Hughes's gospel musical moves up to a bigger church, and keeps the music fresh

Fifty-seven years ago, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade decided the world needed a celebration of Christmas apart from re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in various mediums. What was needed, they surmised, was something with a little color to it, a little extra flavor. What they came up with was an original piece called Wasn’t It a Mighty Day? – traditional Christmas songs done in a gospel style along with other gospel music, all strung together by narration that tells the story of the Nativity. By the time it opened Off-Broadway in 1961 – one of the first Black productions ever to do so – Ailey and Lavallade had left the production over a dispute about the new name, Black Nativity.

Decades later, Black Nativity is still serving its original function of providing something other than the standard, all-white Christmas fare. There is a Black Nativity production going on somewhere in just about every corner of the nation. In Portland, Black Nativity is produced by the longest-running Black theater company in the city, PassinArt.

Almost forty years ago, following much the same impetus as Hughes, Ailey and Lavallade in New York, Connie Carley, Michael Brandt and Clarice Bailey decided to fill a need they saw in the cultural scene of Portland. Together, they created  PassinArt, whose goal is literally to pass the art and culture (and history, knowledge, etc.) of the Black community down from one generation to the next. After a brief period of flux, Carley became the managing director and Jerry Foster became the artistic director. The two have kept PassinArt going ever since. (Last season, their production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running garnered eight finalist nods in the Drammy Awards, including one for Oustanding Production, and took home the prizes for Ensemble and Set Design.)

The 2018 “Black Nativity” cast. Photo courtesy PassinArt

Like Two Trains, many PassinArt productions deal with issues around social justice that face the Black community. For both Carley and Foster, the purpose behind Black Nativity is the same – but different.

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DramaWatch: Holiday Edition!

Christmas Carols, radio plays and parodies dominate the seasonal-theater calendar.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re into that sort of thing.

Tradition holds that the next few weeks will be dominated by Christmas cheer — and likely by Christmas hype, Christmas stress, and when it comes to the world of theater, Christmas cliche.

What starts in autumn as a theater season wrestling with big themes of life and society suddenly turns into a procession of simplistic celebrations of sentiment and/or frivolity.

Then again, cliches become cliches for a reason. Imbue the right ones with a little action and they become ritual, tradition. Wrap them in sturdy narrative and they become chestnuts, even classics.

So never mind my jaundiced, churlish, runaway-Catholic’s view. Holiday-season theater offerings abound, for those who want to unwind from shopping, entertain family, or get a refresher course in some of those seasonal ideals. Here’s your DramaWatch Christmas theater menu:

Tim Blough (in cap) at the center of “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” at Broadway Rose. Photo by Sam Ortega.

By my count, no less than a half-dozen productions in the Portland area this season are based around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and/or old-timey radio broadcasts. Perhaps each represents a particular period of potent nostalgia, a century apart — the early Victorian era that’s done so much to shape our romanticized holiday images, and the Great Depression and World War II, evoking memories of social unity carrying us through hardship. In any case, the two periods meet at Broadway Rose in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, in which a broadcast of the Dickens tale is undermined by so many minor mishaps that the cast takes to riffing on the story in the style of (the then-new genre) film noir. Tim Blough, Joe Theissen and Malia Tippets are among the notable talents involved.

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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A Dickensian Nor’wester and scattered Revels

ArtsWatch forecasts this week's holiday theater weather.

This weather, huh? What’s the forecast for this weekend and beyond?

A.L. Adams

To the southwest, there’ll be scattered Revels, with peak conditions for viewing Nordic Lights, and some precipitation rolling in from the Mediterranean will leave conditions Pericles Wet, while a family drama high pressure front builds up between Morrison and Alder. A Dickensian chill will sweep along the east river bank, building into a twister as it crosses into Northwest and breaking into gales of wry laughter as it heads for the Hils. It will miss Tigard altogether, which will experience mild enough conditions to continue its Holiday Parade already under way. Meanwhile, the Northeast will experience bursts of gospel, and as you head toward Columbia, be on the lookout for flaming radicals.

Dickensian drama is blowing in with the return of Portland Playhouse’s popular “A Christmas Carol” (above), Scott Palmer’s “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol'” at Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro, Second City’s “Twist Your Dickens” at The Armory, and Phillip J. Berns’s “A Christmas Carol: A One Man Ghost Story.” Photo: Portland Playhouse

As you head Southeast, expect some choppy seas, and an abrupt shift as Utopia closes at Hand2Mouth and a dystopia opens at Theatre Vertigo: Victor Mack will direct José Rivera’s Marisol, a near-contemporary of Angels in America with some similar motifs—mental illness and spiritual warfare between angelic beings—along with some surprisingly ripped-from-current-headlines themes—namely, the struggle of a Puerto Rican woman against an unjust god who is dying and “taking the rest of the universe with him.” Also the frenzied desperation of an urban hellscape where citizens driven into homelessness by debt and personal injury gnash and wail in the streets.

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a shining star. PassinArt photo/2016

Happy holidays, y’all. Jacob Marley left a message; something about “mankind being our business?” He said he’ll try again—repeatedly throughout our city, then at Vertigo on Christmas week, when Phillip Berns reprises his solo version of the classic.

Imago’s’classic “Frogz” leaps back into the swim. Photo: Imago Theatre

But what were we talking about? Oh yes. The weather. Northwest Children’s Theater will experience spells of magic, to subside by midnight. And tell the kids next weekend’s conditions should be ideal for watching FROGZ. Til then, stay warm, from hands to heart.

OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Big 500, Black Nativity, ZooZoo one last time

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s tough to say goodbye to an old friend, but that’s what lots and lots of Portlanders will be doing beginning Friday when Imago Theatre starts the final wrap-up on its touring hit ZooZoo.The magnetic menagerie performs on its hometown stage through January 3 before heading out for one more national tour, and then it’s back to the storage room for good. ZooZoo is a young old friend as old friends go: it’s been around only since 2009. But as an extension of the company’s international hit show Frogz (which reaches all the way back to 1979 under various names, and in various stages of development) it seems older. And it’s been a good friend.

ZooZoo's anteater: starting Friday, a final fling. Photo: Imago Theatre

ZooZoo’s anteater: starting Friday, a final fling. Photo: Imago Theatre

Now Imago is setting aside both shows, and their mask-theater tradition, as it develops its new spectacle, set to premiere next December: Beauty and the Beast, in a radically different version from the Disney movie and stage musical. It marks a huge departure for Imago and its cofounders, Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, both of whom have been doing more radical projects for many years. But Frogz and ZooZoo have been plenty radical on their own terms: family shows that rely on edgy, inventive movement along with otherworldly costuming and the intense theatrical impact of mime. It’s family theater from a strange and weirdly fascinating family.

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