CoHo Theatre

Portland theater’s little ‘Black Box’

Gary Cole's online play based on his backstage novel about life, love, and revenge on the theater scene scratches an itch in Covid-19 time

“Theater people are strangely compelled to perform their art… regardless of the obstacles placed in their path, by the empty bank accounts, oppressive landlords, and unflattering critics,” the character Ned Prince observes halfway through the opening scene of CoHo Productions’ online play Black Box: Page to Stage.

I nominate pernicious viruses to be added to Ned’s list of obstacles.

But I suppose that would be a bit of an anachronism, since Black Box – written by CoHo co-founder Gary D. Cole and based on his novel of the same name – isn’t set in 2020. Instead, the virtual work looks back, with a rightful amount of nostalgia, to Portland’s past: a portrait of a theater community in an age when people could actually go to the theater.

Critic and board member, setting the scene: James Luster and Marcella Lasch in “Black Box: Page to Stage.” Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre

Black Box is inspired in part by Cole’s time as a theater producer in Portland. “CoHo Theatre is the center of the novel,” Cole says, although the novel’s plot and characters are mainly fictitious.

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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.”

ArtsWatch Weekly: Outsmarting the Grinch

Stuck in an impeachment funk? Liberace, Liza, shape-note singing, and a whole lot of holiday shows to reset the mood.


IT’S BEEN SOMETHING OF A HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS WEEK across America. But if I can draw your attention away from the impeachment proceedings for a few minutes, let me gently remind you that it’s also a season of peace on Earth, good will toward men, and more holiday shows than you can shake a peppermint stick at. Ah, the traditions. Ah, the welcome rituals. Ah, the familiar faces of … Liberace and Liza Minnelli?

That’s the lively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek holiday duo arriving at CoHo Theatre for a limited run of A Very Liberace & Liza Christmas, a tribute cabaret starring the casino-lounge-smooth David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris. “The chemistry between the imagined pair gives off the sparks of a well-programmed Vegas act that’s being prepared for a television special,” Christa McIntyre wrote in an enthusiastic review for ArtsWatch three years ago. “Your foot will be tapping, and don’t expect the rest of you to remain idle in your seat.” The show gets four performances Dec. 26-29, and we’re giving you early warning in case it sells out, which it just might. Ring-a-ling ding. It’s a sequin thing.

David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, bringing a bit of Liberace/Liza glamour to the holiday stage at CoHo Theatre. Photo: Mike Marchlewski 

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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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DramaWatch: First Nations first

The week onstage: A trio of shows by Native American playwrights; some Freddie Mercury; "La Belle" returns. Plus, new seasons news.

With a rising anti-immigration fever sweeping the United States and President Trump’s threat on Tuesday to deploy military guards along the Mexican border until his exclusionary wall can be built, it is well and truly time for this: A trifecta of plays by Native American writers highlights Oregon’s theater week. Once again, now: Who’s interloping on whom?

“Manahatta”: Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) think they are signing an agreement for the Lenape to trade with the Dutch indefinitely. Jakob (Danforth Comins, left) and Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) have other intentions. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The world-premiere production of Manahatta, by Cherokee writer and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, is off and running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. A tale of then and now, it’s the story of Jane Snake, a securities trader who lands on Wall Street in 2008, on the island that was home to her ancestors until they were forced out in the 1600s, and the struggles of her contemporary family in Oklahoma.

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A visit with: Phyllis Yes

With her new play "Good Morning, Miss America," the well-known feminist visual artist turns her talents toward the stage

How refreshing to be reminded that sometimes an artist is an artist is an artist, no matter her chosen medium and despite our own reductive need to “frame” her as just ONE thing. This is most definitely the case with the multi-faceted contemporary visual artist Phyllis Yes, who also happens to be a fine and gifted playwright.

Her debut play, Good Morning, Miss America, premieres at CoHo Theatre on Saturday, March 10. The show tackles some tough issues, namely the psychological and logistical challenges of caring for ailing and aging parents who have lost their autonomy and ability to care safely for themselves. It features a crack cast including Lorraine Bahr, Rick Sadle, Jane Fellows (who also directs) and Kelly Marchant. With set design by Tim Stapleton and light design by Jamie Rea, the show promises to be top-notch.

Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes. Photo: Heaven MacArthur

Theater rehearsals are generally closed affairs, but I was lucky enough to sit in on one for Good Morning, Miss America at McCoy Millworks during the end of the third week of the process. I arrived in time to watch the industrious Fellows and the production stage manager, Annie Bosworth-Foley, prepare the space for rehearsal. Shortly after, Yes arrived, followed by Bahr (whose character, Jane, is based on the real-life Phyllis) and Sadle, who portrays Phyllis’s real-life stepfather, Lou. Small talk ensued about the show, the particularly gnarly evening traffic, and the outcome of a Portland Trail Blazers game, a team Phyllis follows enthusiastically.

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