Coho Summerfest

‘Blue Mountain’: a solicited audient’s response to ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie’

Workshop performance of this weekend's SummerFest feature intensifies classic play's tragedy and humor by stripping its words to the bone

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One dark and stormy night in January, I braved Portland’s mild winter weather for an unusual play called, of all preposterous things, Philip’s Glass Menagerie. The triple pun was enough to make me go—a mash-up of Philip Glass (whom I had recently written about) and Tennessee Williams’ famous tale of stifling Southern family love, adapted by Philip Cuomo and performed in CoHo’s black box theater by the CoHo Clown Cohort. (An updated production is playing this weekend at Coho SummerFest. Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.)

I knew practically nothing of the play, and I’m not gonna rehash it here. I knew it was a heavy one when I invited a friend and he said, “nah, Glass Menagerie, I’ve seen it once—oof!—once was plenty.” I mentally catalogued it as Deep & Troubling Theater and prepared myself for an evening of soul spilling and “ACTING!” Even with clowns and whatnot, I reasoned, it would probably still be pretty normal theater, right? Nope. What I got was Tennessee Williams stripped to the bone, the bones reassembled like Robert Crumb’s Ezekiel, dancing skeletons in a dark room with little more than a typewriter, a chaise, a couple pieces of fruit, and an inflatable unicorn.

… a play that sometimes seems lighter than air. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

The result was spectacular. In that January workshop performance—preparation for this weekend’s Summerfest premiere—the four actors performed an interpretation (perhaps “translation” would be more accurate) of Williams’ memory play. The use of Glass’ music was frankly a little gratuitous, snippets from Passages and North Star piped in just for the interstices, barely enough to justify the pun, but I quickly got over that. A little Glass goes a long way, and too much would have detracted from the performance.

The real Glass inspiration was the Einstein on the Beach-like treatment of the text (actually Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson probably deserves credit for that, but then we would lose the pun). Cuomo’s production stripped away something like 98 percent of Williams’ words, translating all that frustrated, understated, cloistered, closeted angst into the telegraphed language of clowning, like a Borges metastory adapted by Tati. Single words and short phrases, repeated and repeated and repeated again, became the scaffolding for long-form physical comedy, each little twist on the phrase a new revelation of plot or character or theme, each variation both a joke in itself and the punchline to earlier jokes. “I’m going to the movies.” “Come in!” “Blue Mountain.”

This achievement in itself would have been monumental, but then we got into the gender flipping and the serious clowning. Actor-director (and local legend) Isaac Lamb portrayed matriarch Amanda with a larger-than-life vulnerability, deftly maneuvering the character’s various moods: tender and domineering, morose and vulnerable, desperately cheerful, wistfully despairing. Australia-Portland transplant and experienced drag performer Emily Newton amazed me with her series of Gentleman Caller characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Tom (that’d be Mr. Williams) was the most overtly clown-like of the bunch, toggling adroitly between traditional mime routines (the bit with the cigarette was particularly good) and the hilariously helpless rage that is the fate of teenage writers everywhere. Sascha Blocker anchored the cast as Laura (Tom’s sister, based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, and don’t go googling her unless you’ve got a few hankies handy). Blocker’s red hair and fragile resilience reminded me above all of Julianne Moore’s star-making performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, and on the few occasions when her performance turned comedic, she was funnier than anyone else.

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#//< EMBEDDED >//# review: con job

Pratik Motwani’s addictive, surprising solo show at Coho Summerfest is a metaphor for today’s social media malevolence

by MARIA CHOBAN

“Want some candy, little girl?”

Any good con job, whether hooking a future junkie or a theater audience depends on great acting. I said “Yes,” grabbed the candy, then allowed Pratik Motwani to roller-coaster me through his 75-minute short course on how to become an addict in his latest creation — #//<EMBEDDED>//#, playing through this Sunday at CoHo’s Summerfest. Only two performances left — run, don’t walk. This is a terrific con job.

It’s the sly story of a nebbish mama’s boy recently moved to America from India. For his birthday his mommy, who lives in India, sends him a card, an orange shirt, and a cell phone. Probably among the three worst things to send a lonely 20-something unsupervised male. In lieu of connecting with the real world, the ugly duckling with huge buck teeth creates an online virtual version of himself and throws this upgraded swan on the virtual wall to see if it sticks.

Pratik Motwani stars in ‘Embedded’ at Coho Summerfest.

Motwani portrays both roles in this solo show. Cinnamon 1 is the living, breathing, lonely mama’s boy videorecorded and projected on the center screen above the stage, with whom Cinnamon 2 interacts. Motwani performs live the role of Cinnamon 2, the avatar, interacting with impeccable timing with the video. (Think about how much rehearsal this required to memorize the pauses and inflections in the video.) Motwani pongs between hip strings of naughty emanating from the declaiming Cinnamon 2 (“Ice Ice Icicles, spec spec spectacles, test test testicles. Woah, this mic is turned on!”) and searing lonely decresendoing salutations to his mom, unable to hang up: “Bye mommy. Bye. Bye bye bye bye?”

Sound design frames this multimedia extravaganza of lighting, projections, mime, dance, acting. From the beginning scrapings heard in the dark to the iconic cell phone rings or Super Mario Brothers theme or “likes” racking up, we’re conditioned to respond as with Wagner’s leitmotifs. When the phone rings it’s mommy so get offline! When the bell dings, it’s an adoring fan! So happy! Stay online! All this in addition to dance music like the “Bidet Mambo.”

Motwani, a wiry, Mumbai-born California theater artist who has appeared in Imago Theatre’s Frogz and ZooZoo, is a precise, exuberant dancer. He looks a lot like Pivot Animator figures in motion when learning how to move as a virtual creation. Trippy projections corkscrewing us down a hole into virtual hell or escalating us back up to mommy’s phone call abetted the sound. Lights going up in the audience when the show went LIVE or the shadow images of Cinnamon 2 behind a screen mimicking Cinnamon one in the real world weren’t just cool effects. This was intelligent theater that kept us hooked, addicted… conned.

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DramaWatch Weekly: story dance

Dancer Andrea Parson teams with story shaper Susan Banyas to tell tales at CoHo Summerfest; Chekhov rides again; a twist on "Shrew"

“I’ve always been interested in theater,” says Andrea Parson, “but I’ve always been on the outskirts of it, because I’m a ‘dancer,’ not an ‘actor.’”
You can practically hear the air quotes as she speaks, conscious of the arts-discipline silos that so often shape the perceptions others have of artists but not the visions they have of themselves. Then again, the emphasis hardly is misplaced: Parson well and truly is a dancer. Winner of the highly prestigious Princess Grace Award for Dance in 2010, she’s been a frequently featured company member with NW Dance Project for several years. But she hasn’t been content to stay at home in the “dancer” silo.

Andrea Parson, telling stories. Photo: Fuschia Lin

A few years ago, for instance, she studied clowning, in a workshop taught by CoHo Productions’ producing artistic director Philip Cuomo. Now, she’s bringing a show of her own to CoHo’s Summerfest 2018. Finding Soul: a Constellation of Stories is a dance-theater hybrid co-directed by Parson and Susan Banyas, featuring Parson, Megan Dawn and Stephanie Schaaf, each performing an amalgam of movement and text, image-making and emotional expression, personal memory and family history.

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