coho productions

ArtsWatch Weekly: A world on fire

Trees in Trouble. Farewell, Tim Stapleton. Maryhill finally opens. Lots of music. Women in film. Pop-up posters. TBA, Street Roots & more.

NOTHING I CAN WRITE ON A DAY LIKE THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT than the story sweeping across Oregon and the West, where high winds and wildfires and crackling-dry conditions have unleashed historic devastation. Whole communities have been erased. Main highways are blocked off; others have been bumper-to-bumper crawling with people fleeing danger zones. Hundreds of people have been burned out of house and home. Complex ecosystems have been uprooted; wildlife flee with no sure place to go. In Oregon as of Thursday afternoon at least 800 square miles of land was burning, much of it out of control. 

Amid the chaos I’ve seen many small tales of courage, generosity, and resourcefulness. People in the country offering refuge for horses, livestock, pets. Parking lots and driveways offered for people escaping in their trucks or campers. Neighbors helping clear downed trees. Medical and utility and emergency workers, already stretched by the mounting catastrophes of this most extraordinary year, laboring overtime under daunting and exhausting circumstances. As I sit at my desk at 10 in the morning and look out the window the sky has turned from blood-orange to a pink-tinged gray. The acrid smell of smoke seeps through the cracks and into my nostrils. And I am deeply aware, and immensely grateful, that I am one of the fortunate ones, sitting in a stretch of Portland that’s been spared the worst of these multiple conflagrations, and that, barring a radical shift in weather patterns, is likely to remain a safe shelter. 

How did we get here? Where are we heading? In search of some answers ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson talked with Portland writer Daniel Mathews, author of the recent book Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change. Mathews takes a long view of the state of the forests, the destabilizing effects of climate change, the role of public policy, and other factors contributing to the chaos of the land. “I’m heartbroken looking at the maps and seeing so many towns and forests I visited just in reporting for this book,” Mathews tells Johnson. “This week’s fires are shocking and truly historic: it’s likely that more acres burned in the West than in any 48-hour period in written history, including the Big Blow-up of 1910. … I  guess there are a lot of disconnects between science and policy in this country, but forest fire policy is one of the most stubborn.”


TIM STAPLETON: FAREWELL TO A GREAT SPIRIT


The much loved Tim Stapleton, in transition. Photo courtesy Gary Norman

TIM STAPLETON, THE LONGTIME PORTLAND set designer, visual artist, writer of uncommonly good memoirs, and occasional actor, died at a hospice care center on Labor Day morning, Sept. 7, from the effects of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He leaves legions of friends and admirers, and an enormous hole in Portland’s artistic community. Tim, born in Kentucky coal country in 1949, constantly called in his work on memories of those days and that culture, and before he had to move to hospice care he made his home in The Holler, a stretch of country-in-the-city in a tucked-away part of northern Portland, which is where photographer Gary Norman took the portrait above. In it, Tim seems to be simply walking away, toward something, taking his soft wry voice and sometimes jagged laughter and passion and wit with him, but leaving a trail of memories behind. 

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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.”

DramaWatch: Punch-Drunk Life

Imago Theatre's "Special K" drinks deep of theatrical madness. Plus openings from CoHo, Corrib, and defunkt dot the theater calendar.

“She’s crazy. Always has been, always will be. There’s nothing here but a play.”

— from Special K, by Jerry Mouawad

In times such as these, who’s to say what’s crazy? Most of us probably think we know crazy when we see it, but if we find ourselves in its lap we might not be so sure. Special K, a new play by the always-intriguing Jerry Mouawad and Imago Theatre, is about going crazy. And about being crazy. And/or not being crazy after all. And about the way that craziness breeds more craziness around it.

It also seems to be about — sometimes fleetingly and flittingly, sometimes deep in its madly circuitous structure — mental illness, drug-induced psychosis, power and manipulation, complicity and duplicity, acting and improvising, sexuality and gender dynamics, the philosophical dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the permeable membrane between internal experience and objective reality, the elusiveness of truth, and the importance of knowing what’s in your cup.

“The insane are holier than the sane.” So says the Queen — or maybe she’s the Empress — in Imago Theatre’s Special K. Anne Sorce (center) stars, with (clockwise from left) Danny Gray, Matthew Sunderland, Emily Welch and Stephanie Woods. Photo: Jerry Mouawad.

All in all, it’s another distinctive creation from Imago, Portland’s most enduringly, consistently inventive and surprising theater company. Originally planned as a one-act, the project grew into a longer play, necessitating a week’s delay in opening. That means this weekend and next offer the few chances to see this fascinating work.

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The homesick and the haunted

CoHo Productions' "The Brothers Paranormal" tracks the spirits of the displaced, delivering a masterly blend of social commentary and supernatural horror.

A woman in white appears out of thin air, staring accusingly through her dark bangs. Books break free from a shelf, blasting through the air like missiles. A pillow moves by itself, becoming a silent weapon. Are these occurrences the stuff of delusion? Or is something genuinely spooky afoot?

That’s the mystery of Prince Gomolvilas’ The Brothers Paranormal, which has been brought to creepy and poignant life by director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, Coho Productions and MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora. With captivating characters and fantastically scary supernatural effects, the play grips you like a great horror film, but it succeeds because it cares about both the earthly and the unearthly—the anguish of the living and the dead.

Spooky truth: Thai-American ghostbusters Visarut (Lidet Viravong, foreground) and Max (Samson Syharath) delve into dark realities as The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The titular brothers are Max (Samson Syharath) and Visarut (Lidet Viravong). While Max was born in the United States and Visarut was born in Thailand, they are united in their profession: ghost hunting. Max approaches the job with sneering skepticism, but he sticks with it so he can spend time with his brother and fulfill his credo: “Fake it till you make it.”

The pair’s dubious spirit-detecting abilities are put to the test by Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard), a couple convinced that their apartment is haunted by a ghost who may be speaking Thai. The brothers sell Delia and Felix a “full-investigation package,” but after they learn that Delia’s family has a history of schizophrenia, Max is convinced that they will find evidence of nothing more than hallucinations.

Yet the apartment is a hotbed of eeriness, a place where sinister white lights abruptly turn on and the fingers of an unseen figure attempt to claw their way through a screen. Some playgoers may try to explain away these images, but The Brothers Paranormal seems to truly believe that ghosts walk among us and that skeptics like Max are fooling themselves (an idea enforced by the revelation that Max’s relationship to the paranormal is more complicated than he claims).

CoHo by candlelight: Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard) await their fate in The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The Brothers Paranormal is a multifaceted collage of moods and genres. An early scene begins with Felix cheerily telling the story of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised new lyrics for “Mack the Knife” and climaxes with him and Delia fearfully awaiting the ghost’s arrival by candlelight while Max and Visarut catalogue the sounds of the neighborhood (a passing car, a barking dog) in the hope of uncovering traces of a spectral presence. It’s the most frightening moment of the story because it allows you to bask in the glow of anticipation, imagining what horrors may come.

But the play has more to offer than sublime terror. Max, Visarut, Delia and Felix share a sense of profound displacement—the brothers because their family emigrated from Thailand, the couple because Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. Whether or not the ghost is real is beside the point. It symbolizes the isolation each character experiences, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being away from your homeland.

There’s something deeply moving about seeing this story through the eyes of the two siblings and an African-American wife and husband. The Brothers Paranormal is about being Thai in America (Theatre Diaspora describes itself as Oregon’s only Asian and Pacific Islander theatre company) and the yearnings that transcend cultural boundaries, particularly the hunger to return home (in Max’s case, to a home he has never seen).

The Brothers Paranormal’s greatest strength is the way that it clearly and compassionately lays bare the needs and desires of its characters, which are communicated by everything from Felix’s desperate paean to the apartment (“This is it. This is all we got. This is everything”) to the moment near the end of the play when Max tearfully collapses, overwhelmed by all that he has experienced and lost. As The Brothers Paranormal reminds us, his pain is the pain of many.


Are we what we hoard? Anti consumerist phenomena like the minimalist living movement warn us of the dangers of our stuff. Our desire for it can keep us from finding our own meaning, or at least enjoying the things that really matter. 

In their crisp, moving show Tonight Nothing,which enjoyed a brief run at Portland’s CoHo Theater the last weekend in July, creator/performers Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis see the stuff we can’t let go of as symbols, even talismans, of our past experiences and personalities. (Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.) The question for their characters, Kaye and Em, is whether they hold us back, or help us figure out who we really are. It’s not about the stuff — it’s about the people who carry it with them.

Clark & Lewis in ‘Tonight Nothing.’ Photo: Steve Brian.

In a series of vignettes interspersed with letters spoken aloud to the audience by each actor to each other, we see Kaye and Em’s close friendship evolve, from college through various  life changes — marriages, birth, love affairs. As their decade-long conversation proceeds through periods together and apart, both physically and emotionally, we see how very different these friends are — and how their friendship abides those differences.

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DramaWatch: a friendship in song

Meredith Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis launch a show at CoHo. Plus: JAW weekend, new in Ashland, 100 fires this time, last call.

“And remember your main relationship to everything you bring is that you’re gonna have to carry it, so choose wisely.”

That sounds like a good bit of practical travel advice. But because it is a line from a play, it also has other meanings, greater resonances within a story, and perhaps within the lives of those who come to see that story unfold onstage. 

Meredith Kaye Clark (left) and Katherine Murphy Lewis: in Tonight Nothing, a friendship to unpack. Photo: Steve Brian

In Tonight Nothing, by Merideth Kaye Clark and Katherine Murphy Lewis, one of the characters, called K, is prone to packing up and heading off — to find adventure, to find herself, to escape some disappointment or other, vague or acute. Yet she is loathe to choose, to leave things behind, whether that’s a stuffed animal, an electric wok or something less tangible, something she’ll have to carry not in her backpack but in her heart or her psyche. 

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Drammys: Where’s the party?

DramaWatch: Attendance dropped and the drama crept behind the scenes at this year's Portland theater awards. What comes next?

Once upon a time I had a dream about the Drammys.

I don’t mean dream as in a sleepytime movie, but rather a hope, a wish, an ideal of a future. When I first began to care about the Drammy Awards, the annual celebration of Portland-area theater was held at the Crystal Ballroom. At one end of the oblong room, outstanding theater work was honored onstage. At the other end, the combination of the entrance and the bar catalyzed a sometimes raucous social scene as friendly acquaintances convened. There was tension between the two elements, with the loud, lubricated chatter from the back sometimes drowning out the official proceedings, but it had the feel of a fabulous party. That feeling continued once the event was done, as the crowd spilled outside into a stream of sidewalk clusters stretching around the block and into Cassidy’s, which suddenly boasted more actors than you could shake a script at. 

Drag clown Carla Rossi was emcee at this year’s Drammy Award ceremony, where attendance was down. Photo: Scotty Fisher/Sleeper Studios

I was writing about theater for The Oregonian, and was thrilled about all the interesting and talented local artists I was encountering. Seeing so many of them all together, as one big, convivial community, celebrating one another and the fine work they’d done over the past season, was exhilarating. 

I figured that excitement should be shared.

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