Chapel Theatre Collective

DramaWatch: Gunning for understanding

Chapel Theatre Collective's "Friends With Guns" tries to get past the divisive and doctrinaire. Plus: openings at Corrib and Artists Rep.

Jason Glick and Danielle Weathers, artistic leaders of Chapel Theatre Collective, appear to have a keen eye for stage literature. The company’s debut production, Anatomy of a Hug by Kat Ramsburg, paired a dramatically potent premise (a mom, released from prison because she’s dying of cancer, moves in with the daughter she was convicted of trying to kill) with emotionally astute writing.

Opening this weekend, Friends With Guns, by Stephanie Alison Walker (like Ramsburg, a Los Angeles writer), should be even more attention-grabbing. Walker digs into the increasingly heated American debate about gun possession by framing the matter in a personal, easily relatable story — and then letting people’s worst inclinations take over.

Well, at least one person’s worst inclinations.

Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Friends With Guns” is another provocative premiere for the Milwaukie company. Photo: courtesy of Chapel Theatre Collective

Shannon and Leah meet one day at the park and quickly bond over the mutual stresses of parenting and modern life. Leah is confident and comforting, and her husband Danny ticks off every box of impressive yet effortless cool. When Shannon brings her husband Josh to meet them, the warm-and-fuzzy circle of instant friendship is complete: They start making Thanksgiving plans together, and it’s only May.

But then it comes out that Leah and Danny have a blemish on their liberal bona fides: a safe full of firearms locked in the garage. Let’s just say that Josh isn’t cool with this, and complications — ranging from mildly unfortunate to downright ugly — ensue.

The script is tight, bright, smart, funny, engaging. On the page, the characters quickly come alive as the kind of folks you’d probably like. (Glick and Weathers will star alongside Claire Rigsby — who was a minor revelation in The Thanksgiving Play last year at Artists Rep — and Joseph Bertot.) Walker has a handle on a variety of gun-rights/gun-control perspectives and the skill to incorporate them in a way that feels natural to the characters. It’s a terrific piece of writing.

And boy, did it piss me off.

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Chapel Theatre’s “Anatomy” lessons

Kat Ramsburg's "Anatomy of a Hug" grapples with the challenge of connection in a fraught mother-daughter relationship.

Living with roommates can be tough. Sharing space, overlapping schedules, compromising privacy — it all can be tricky. And if you wind up stuck with someone that, for whatever reason, you’re not inclined to like, the situation can get ugly.

Even so, it’s a bit of a shock when Amelia, giving a cursory tour of her apartment to an older woman named Sonia, snaps at her that they shouldn’t “share any personal information.”

But then, you surely could add “mother and daughter” to the list of emotionally loaded living situations.

Chapel Theatre Collective’s “Anatomy of a Hug” deals with the difficulty of getting close when you’ve become a wooden character in your own life story.

And what else might make things especially tense? Let’s see…how about if mom’s been in prison for killing dad? And the daughter is convinced that she was also a target of the crime? And mom’s out now through a compassionate-release program because she has terminal cancer?

That’s the potent set-up for Anatomy of a Hug, a well-crafted drama by Los Angeles playwright Kat Ramsburg, on stage now as the debut production from the Chapel Theatre Collective. It’s a smart, emotionally perceptive piece of writing, with the acidity of its premise balanced by just enough romantic sweetness.

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DramaWatch: Going to the Chapel and we’re gonna see theater

Chapel Theatre Collective makes its debut in Milwaukie, the Red Door Project finds a helpful way to "Cop Out," Red Riding Hood goes Shaking the Tree, and more.

Jason Glick had no intention to run a theater company.

“I’d tried to start a theater company before, in Nashville, when I was in my twenties and I didn’t know what not to do,” he says. “And I was happy with my place in the community here, with the acting work I was getting at Artists Rep and such. Fundraising, worrying about where the money’s coming from for the next show, that kind of stuff was never on my bucket list.”

And yet, here he is at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, a performance space that opened earlier this year, preparing the debut show by  the resident theater company, the Chapel Theatre Collective.

“It really just fell in my lap,” he says, talking before a recent rehearsal of Anatomy of a Hug. “And there was a feeling that we’re in the right place at the right time.”

Jessica Hillenbrand (clockwise from front right) Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Amanda Vander Hyde and Jason Glick rehearse “Anatomy of a Hug” at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Danielle Weathers.

The place is a refurbished church a reasonable drive from Portland proper, not far off of highways 99 and 224. It has 99 seats on movable risers, a small bar for beer, wine and sodas, a computerized lighting board, and a basement eatery called the Secret Pizza Society (a relative  of the Southeast Portland vegan deli Papa G’s). The time is an era of increasing competition for too few performance spaces in the city. (The space also is the regular home of the dance company Trip the Dark., and the company Street Scenes also has plays scheduled there later this year.)

The origins of the Chapel Theatre Collective can be traced back to Milagro’s 2016 production Davita’s Harp, whose cast included, among others, Glick, Danielle Weathers and Illya Torres-Garner. Later, after Torres-Garner, who owns a construction company, had purchased the old chapel near his home, he also happened to be doing work on Glick’s house and talked about wanting someone to produce theater in his new space. Glick, a former Theatre Vertigo member,  joined on as artistic director, with Weathers, who’s been leading the Reading Parlor series at CoHo, and Torres-Garner as associate artistic directors.

The company will present three productions for its inaugural season, with Anatomy of a Hug looking like a very promising start. The script, by Kat Ramburg, concerns an awkward, TV-obsessed young woman trying to cope with the unexpected attentions of a sweetly enthusiastic co-worker and with an uncomfortable reunion with her mother, released from prison as she’s dying from cancer. Glick directs, with Jessica Hillebrand in the central role, plus Jacklyn Maddux, Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Shareen Jacobs.

Chapel Theatre Collective’s “Anatomy of a Hug” deals with the difficulty of getting close when you’ve become a wooden character in your own life story.

February will bring Stephanie Alison Walker’s Friends With Guns, with Torres-Garner directing Glick and Weathers, then sometime in the spring, Weathers will direct Torres-Garner and others in Rachel Bonds’ Curve of Departure.

Regardless of the choice of the scripts and the talent on stage, fledgling theaters can have a rough go of it. Is this a scary thing to be doing?

“Not when I’m in the rehearsal hall, ‘cause that’s my jam,” Glick says with a smile. But he’s approaching it all seriously. “We have to run it like a business, not like a bunch of theater kids having fun. It’s about not having egos but working together toward a collective goal. And I’m not in this for one season, My hope is that we’re doing this for long-term prospects.”

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