Clackamas Rep

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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DramaWatch: Goal-oriented theater at Portland Playhouse

"The Wolves" leads the week in theater with teens and teamwork. Also: the Mueller Report on stage; big buildings and Vertigo; and sensational soloists.

Portland Playhouse’s season-opening production, The Wolves, focuses on the nine teen girls who make up an indoor-soccer team. Which presents an obvious question.
“Is this a rousing, heart-warming, inspirational sports story?,” I ask director Jessica Wallenfels. “Or is it good?”

A disingenuous question, that latter one. Because by all accounts, The Wolves is a terrific play. Written by Sarah DeLappe — apparently her first play to get any notable production — it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to American Theater magazine, it’s one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country for the 2019-20 season. Among the many critical huzzahs typed its way, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote of a 2016 Off-Broadway production that it exuded “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most striking playwriting debuts in recent memory, and absolutely not to be missed.”

Kailey Rhodes (foreground) works on ball control in The Wolves at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Wallenfels humors me. “It is inspiring,” she responds. “But not in the usual ways.
“It’s inspiring in the way that it shows a group of girls and insists that their lives, their concerns, their thought processes be considered, in a way that they’re usually not.”

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The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

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“Queens Girl”: a colorful, complicated coming of age

Rich, evocative writing and Lauren Steele's vibrant performance highlight a winning one-woman play at Clackamas Rep.

Over the course of decades writing about performing arts in Portland, I have come to recognize a certain sort of experience that I refer to as a “black dot show.” This is when I happen to glance around at the audience and notice that I am the black dot amid an auditorium full of white people. As a Portland native, I find these occurrences neither surprising nor uncomfortable. 

On a second scan of the crowd at Clackamas Repertory Theatre this weekend, I spotted a young family in the back row that tilted the melanin equation a bit, but I already was musing about the company’s choice to stage Queens Girl in the World — a play about black adolescence and identity in early-1960s New York — for what I would guess is the oldest and whitest audience among Portland-area theaters.

Lauren Steele as Jacqueline Marie Butler, navigating the tricky terrain of adolescence and the socio-political changes of the ’60s in “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft


I’m not the only person to find the choice surprising. In an unusually personal program note, the playwright, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, recalls her initial inclination to deny Clackamas Rep’s request for performance rights: “I pulled up your website and here’s what I saw: both of you (artistic director David Smith-English and managing director Cyndy Smith-English) are white. Your past theatrical seasons were white. Your theatre is located in a white community. You are outside of the City of Portland. Enough said.” But a follow-up phone call and a chance visit changed her mind.
“I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” she wrote. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”

From the moment that Lauren Steele steps onstage as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production. Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.

We meet Jacqueline — or Jackie, as she’s mostly called — on the stoop of her family’s two-story detached brick house in a neat but modest part of Queens, serenaded by the roar of planes on their descent to LaGuardia Airport. She comes across as sweet and sheltered. It’s quickly apparent that she’s hard at work, navigating and negotiating a path between the exacting uplift-the-race standards of her parents and the looser culture of the surrounding neighborhood. Her mother is a stickler for propriety, in speech and manners, such a model of Negro grace and bearing that Jackie refers to her not as “Mom” but as “Grace Lofton Butler.” By contrast, Persephone — a neighbor girl who is growing up a bit faster and less inhibited than Jackie — says things such as, “James ain’t feel me up! He jus’ kiss on me lil’ bit.”

It might seem at first that we are in for an engaging, lighthearted coming of age story. Jackie looks forward to confirmation classes at church, because her Grace will let her trade in her kid’s anklets for real stockings. When Grace begins talking tactfully of “womanly cycles,” Jackie is half puzzled, half excited: “Am I getting a bike?!” she wonders. Jackie’s social development briefly gets airborne with her first crush/kiss, then is blown off course when her parents transfer her from PS 124 to a private school in Greenwich Village, where suddenly she’s a black dot. 

All of this is easy to enjoy and easy to relate to, regardless of the racial/cultural specifics — Jackie’s or those of any audience member.

Steele is a wonderfully winning performer, and versatile to boot. (The program lists 13 roles portrayed by Steele, but as is often the case with such shows, this really is a single character telling us a story. While young Jackie vividly recreates the distinctive speech and mannerisms of the people in her life, we see these others strictly from her perspective, which is sometimes sensitive, sometimes broadly comic.) Director Damaris Webb has shaped the production with a sure and easy rhythm and unfussy, solidly supportive design work (Haley Hurita’s projections are especially effective). And Jennings’ writing is studded with descriptive gems: Jackie says her mother has a voice like “twilight-colored taffeta,” sketches an image of her proud West Indian father with his “dimples and brushed mustache,” and swoons at the 15-year-old boy whose recently changed voice sounds like “melting butter in a skillet.”

What ultimately elevates Queens Girl in the World, though, is the “in the world” part. By gradual, graceful, deceptively significant steps, Jennings builds her story (“semi-autobiographical,” according to Webb’s director’s note) outward from that unassuming front stoop, taking in larger ideas and events: the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, gradualism versus radicalism in politics, the tricky relationship of social-justice allies, the complex overlays of racial/economic/ideological identity, the cascading cataclysms of the march on Washington, the Birmingham church bombing, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.  As she is at the outset, toggling between Persephone’s street vernacular and her mother’s textbook English, through all the growth and change and turmoil and learning Jackie repeatedly finds herself in complicated social dynamics, facing contradictory expectations, having to construct and calibrate an identity that fits herself and her situation.  

In that regard, maybe Jackie’s neither black dot nor black sheep, as much like any of us as different from us — not just a Queens girl in the world, but a chameleon riding a rainbow.

DramaWatch: Moving in rhythm to creative Heights

Portland Center Stage kicks the theater season into musical high gear; plus TBA experiments, Artists Rep gets dystopian, and other calendar comings and goings.

Now as ever, New York City is a place for dreams. Some of those dreams are pursued amid the busy streets of close-knit neighborhoods, where immigrant families and friends scuffle toward a better life. Others are played out across stages under bright lights, where passions pulse and songs soar through that efficient pleasure-delivery system known as the Broadway musical.

In the Heights, which opens the 2019-’20 season at Portland Center Stage is a dream in both these ways, and the beginning of a dream come true for those wanting renewed energy and relevance in the American musical.

Ryan Alvarado (top) and cast members of In the Heights light up the neighborhood with song. Photo: Michael Brosilow_Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

The greatest energy infusion in a generation has come from composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: an American Musical, the 2015 cultural supernova that won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize with its inspired blend of hip-hop and history. But Miranda already had brought rhythmic juice and sociological savvy to Broadway with In the Heights, a vibrant, witty and heartfelt tribute to his heavily Hispanic Upper Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights. 

Conceived and presented in its earliest form while Miranda was a student at Wesleyan University, In the Heights underwent several years of development, emerging as a 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for best musical and best original score, as well as a best-actor nomination for Miranda in the role of Usnavi, a bodega owner at the center of the story. 

In its completed version, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it’s a story of striving and celebrating, of struggles and hopes, of worries and romances, of a community balancing precariously between continuity and change. Some critics have griped about the “soap opera” quality of the story, but “In the Heights” pulses with real human feeling as well as its  propulsive mix of salsa, soul and hip-hop. 

The show has been in Portland before, as a Broadway bus-and-trucker in 2010, then in a local production by Stumptown Stages that was a 2016 Drammy Award finalist for outstanding ensemble. This latest is a sort of regional-theater mega-production: Directed by May Adrales and featuring a mostly consistent cast, it arrives at Portland Center Stage following month-long runs last season at Milwaukee Rep, Seattle Rep and the Cincinnati Playhouse.


Time has come today

Somewhere amidst my books, last time I checked, I still have programs from the first several iterations of the Time Based Art Festival, more commonly known as TBA, the flagship program from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. I’ve lots of fond memories of excitement and discovery from those days, diving into the festival’s diverse array of multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and, well, sometimes just undisciplined art.
Over the past decade, however, I’ve grown progressively less interested in TBA’s brand of progressivism, coming to prefer more familiar and definable performance forms and such old-fashioned virtues as, oh you know, coherent writing. I’ve become a snob for conventional theater.

By contrast, TBA is, according to the PICA website, “ten days of contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” Actually, Sept. 5-15 is eleven days, but at least that description is easy to follow, unlike much of the rest of the TBA program notes. I always found that the festival experience benefited greatly by seeing as much as possible, whereupon the good, the bad, the interesting and the weird all informed and enhanced one another. But unless you have loads of free time and the money for one of the upper-tier passes ($200 for the Immersion Pass or $500 for the Patron Pass), you’ll need to pick and choose. And that leads to poring over program notes, trying to decipher all manner of performance-theory gobbledygook that rarely offers much sense of what might be in store. (One performance description this year promises “textures of reflection dipped in impressions of deconstruction and decay.”) 

This critic’s curmudgeonly caveats aside, some very promising shows for theater fans appear on this year’s TBA calendar. Sept. 12-14, Anthony Hudson’s drag-clown character Carla Rossi puts a queer spin on coming-of-age story form with Looking for Tiger Lily, an exploration of cultural, racial and gender norms shot through with caustic wit and trenchant insight. And on the 13th and 14th, Seattle musician and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo presents Susan, a musical portrait of his American mother coping with abandonment by his Nigerian father. 


Opening

While acknowledging that his unflinching stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is “designed to hit you hard,” co-writer Robert Icke told the Hollywood Reporter, “if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.” The original London production reportedly got so far under the skin that some audience members fainted. Director Damaso Rodriguez stages it for Artists Repertory Theatre, with a top-flight Portland cast featuring Chris Harder as beleaguered hero Winston Smith.

Lauren Steele stars as Jacqueline Marie Butler, trying to navigate the new in Queens Girl in the World, at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Multi-character/single-actor shows are challenging by their very nature, and you’d think that’d be especially so for young performers. But Lauren Steele, who stars in the West Coast premiere of Queens Girl in the World for Clackamas Rep, has the kind of powerhouse presence and keen intelligence to make you confident she’ll rise to the challenge. A coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water tale of a black girl in the 1960s moving from Queens to the wilds of Greenwich Village, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ play — directed here by Damaris Webb — also occasions some pre- and post-show lectures about the racial politics and literature of its time period. 

Solo performers at least have an audience around them. Being a caregiver for a dying parent often can be lonelier work. In Mala, a play by Melinda Lopez, delves into that fraught (and for growing numbers of us, familiar) subject, with the compelling Julana Torres performing, directed by Brian Shnipper.

Summer may nearly be over, but Lakewood Theatre Company and director John Oules are going to camp. That is, they’re staging The Rocky Horror Show. Y’know, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Closing

Devised theater can be rich with fresh perspective or can fall prey to the lack of a cohesive voice and coherent structure. (Though, to be fair, I suppose a conventionally written script can have the same range of outcomes.) And an “authentic, empowering, sex-positive, feminist portrayal of local strippers” might be an intriguing show premise to some theatergoers but I cannot honestly count myself in their number. But I am interested in From the Ruby Lounge — produced by William Thomas Berk, who, along with the cast and crew, devised the script — because of some of the promising young talents involved such as co-director Sarah Marie Andrews, her Crave Theatre co-founder Kylie Jennifer Rose, and Taylor Jean Grady. The show’s run ends on Saturday, with only so many seats available in the Shoebox Theater, so scarcity adds value, too. 

Also looking worthy of your time, even on such a busy weekend, is a production of Hamlet  by the young company Clever Enough. The twist here? Apparently a heightened emphasis on — of all possible characters — Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince in this Danish tale, the guy who usually just shows up at the end to clear out the bodies and take over the throne.


The flattened stage

With the opening of another promising theater season, perhaps we should revisit some performance tips from a master thespian:


Best line(s) I read this week

“Art does not reflect society and environment and consciousness so much as it tells us what environment and society and consciousness do not know. It compensates for conscious attitudes; it reveals to us that there are other, perhaps opposite, but still tenable ways of looking at things, of feeling about things…Art tells us what we do not know or do not realize. And it prepares the way for change.”

— from “The Jazz Tradition” by Martin Williams

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

The Week: TBA or not TBA?

As the contemporary arts festival surges onto an already bulging September calendar, that is the question.

A NEW CROP OF APPLES IS HITTING THE PRODUCE STANDS. Lush ripe tomatoes are overflowing gardens and markets. Cukes are ready for pickling. America’s schoolchildren, ready or not, are back in the saddle again. And today, for the 17th year, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA Festival kicks off again. “TBA” stands for “Time-Based Art,” which mainly means performance – art that takes place in a set period of time, in front of an audience – although visual art’s part of the mix, too. And the time is very contemporary: the art of today, for good and sometimes ill. As PICA puts it, the festival, which runs in venues around Portland through Sept. 15, “gathers artists and audiences from around the world” for eleven days of “contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” 

Eiko Otake. Photo courtesy Joseph Scheer, IEA at NYSCC, via PICA


Over the years TBA’s had a lot of hits and a lot of misses. Its emphasis on non-traditional and resolutely experimental work can elevate the narcissistic and the sloppy. It can also champion fresh art of astonishing provocation and beauty, as it did in the festival’s very first incarnation, on Sept. 11, 2003, when, on the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the great butoh-influenced performers Eiko and Koma stunned their Portland audience with an outdoor performance in and around the water at Jamison Square, beneath a darkening sky. That performance, eloquently titled Offering, was sad, deep, ghostlike, hopeful, profound. “It strikes me, on this anniversary of death, that the world’s war-makers would detest this dance, which is about deep truths that can’t be glossed or managed,” I wrote at the time. “One watches an invisible flight of ideas. It is the holy and the profane, inseparable, wrapped into one. A mystery.”

The good news is that Eiko Otake is back at TBA for the first time since that 2003 performance, and she’ll be a busy part of things. You can see her tonight, at TBA’s opening reception, in her evolving piece A Body in Places, based on her return to post-nuclear disaster Fukushima. Prints and video works will also be on view through Oct. 24 at PNCA’s 511 Gallery. There’ll be a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life, on Sept. 9. She’ll perform her Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable, with several collaborators, Sep. 12-14. And in a free event on Sept. 13, she’ll be in conversation with chroreographer Linda K. Johnson and PICA Artistic Director Kristan Kennedy.

 

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DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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