broken planetarium

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.

Continues…

‘Rosa Red’ and ‘Spellbinders’ reviews: staging history

A pair of Fertile Ground readings show the tricky challenges of using historical characters in contemporary drama

Putting history on stage can be challenging when the figures aren’t well known. Playwrights must provide much historical context, and after months or years of researching their lives, it can be hard to maintain audience perspective. Two of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival plays by Portland writers involving historical figures from the early 20th century smacked into both roadblocks. But with some repairs, both might make fascinating history-inspired dramas.

“This isn’t a historical drama!” cautioned Laura Christina Dunn, the multitalented singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist/ writer at a talkback after a staged Fertile Ground reading of her new Rosa Red at Portland’s My Music. But it turned out that the audience did need to learn more of the basics of the early 20th century socialist/feminist/pacifist Rosa Luxemburg’s eventful life than appeared in this early incarnation of her show. Not just because she’s the title character, or because of her historical importance, but so we can fully understand what’s at stake: destroying capitalism to save humanity, and why it meant so much to her that she was willing to risk her life for it.

Playwright/musician Laura Dunn

At the talkback, at least one audience member said he wasn’t even sure Rosa was a real historical character. She sure was, and a captivating one at that, but the details of her life probably aren’t too familiar to many of today’s Americans. Program notes can provide some background, and the show uses Luxemburg’s own letters to supply more. But because she wrote them from prison, locked up for seditious behavior,  the fiery activist had to use innocuous or coded language, which requires still more explication.

We don’t need need a full biography because Rosa Red isn’t really about its title character. The musical focuses on the dilemma of the recipient of those missives. Sophie Liebknecht is torn between two newborns: her friend Rosa’s revolutionary ardor (shared by Sophie’s husband Karl) for the birth of a new world, and Sophie’s own need to nurture and protect her baby from the repercussions of standing up to state violence, the violence that put Rosa in prison in the first place and ultimately killed her and Karl. Had it not already been taken, Sophie’s Choice might have made an apter title.

Continues…