Corrib

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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DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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Field of Dreams on the Emerald Isle

In "Hurl," Corrib Theater’s new production, an ancient sport becomes a metaphor for today’s struggles over immigration and diversity.

In Corrib Theatre’s Hurl, conflicts over immigration and race literally play out on the pitch of a rural Irish village. Led by the best one-two acting punch I’ve seen so far this season from co-leads Cynthia Shur Petts and Clara-Liis Hillier, it’s a well-timed shot of Irish theater whiskey sent over to warm Americans during our own new ICE Age.

In Irish playwright Charlie O’Neill’s fictional 2003 story, a group of immigrants from far-flung lands (Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Nigeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Argentina, inner-city Dublin), seeking to forge a community spirit,  assemble to play a centuries-old Gaelic sport distantly resembling lacrosse or field hockey. Initially rebuffed and discouraged by Rusty (a sublimely smarmy Petts), a local sports official, they finally manage to persuade a defrocked priest, Lofty (a sharp, unsentimental Hillier) to coach them in a village team that will compete against other community teams in a national amateur league.

At the outset, he’s “banjaxed” (drunk) and they’re disorderly, but if you’ve seen anything from Hoosiers to Bad News Bears and so many others, you pretty much know the standard sports-inspirational story that ensues: motley crew of underdogs takes on the big bad establishment. And you can guess the rest, right up to the climactic Big Game and its Inspirational Halftime Speech.

Teamwork: Wynee Hu (left to right), Falynn Burton, Kenneth Dembo, Clara Liis-Hillier, James Dixon, Alec Lugo, and Heath Hyun Houghton in Corrib Theatre’s “Hurl.” Photo: Adam Liberman

When O’Neill wrote Hurl, his country’s foreign-born population was in the midst of more than tripling to 17 percent, between 1996 and 2011. As a post-show talk back explained, there were important differences between Ireland’s and America’s experiences with recent immigration upsurges. But both there and then, and here and now, recently arrived immigrants sparked resentment from some native-born citizens. Conniving politicians manipulated fears about “differences,” darkly implying that the new arrivals threatened Our Traditional Way of Life — that instead of contributing vitality and diversity to their new home, “They” were somehow taking something away.

Rusty and Lofty respectively represent resistance to and celebration of racial and national diversity. In a brilliantly restrained and subtle performance from Shur Petts, Rusty, who keeps coming back throughout the show like a bad case of head lice, usually keeps the real reasons for the dispute carefully covert. Onstage here as in real life, most racists and nationalists seldom spell out their real reasons for resistance to change. Still, he’s a little too easy to dismiss as one of those backwater racists, not like us urbane good guys. As too many of us have belatedly learned, racism’s reality is less obvious and more pervasive than most of us well-intentioned theater-goers imagine, extending to our own neighborhoods and even assumptions.

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The Quiet Men, ready to explode

Corrib Theatre's tense, potent production of Owen McCafferty's "Quietly" drags the Irish Troubles into the present in a Belfast Pub

The power of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, Corrib Theatre’s latest production, takes you by surprise.

It starts slowly and, naturally, quietly. In fact, when it begins, it’s just a lone barman, Robert (Murri Lazaroff-Babin), sending texts to his love – or loves? The texts set up that they have moved to Belfast, where this play is set, from Poland. No one seems entirely happy about it.

Enter Jimmy (Ted Rooney), a depressed or angry (is there really a difference?) regular at the bar, clearly comfortable shooting the breeze with Robert, but not talking about anything particularly important. Their conversation mostly centers on a soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland playing on a TV — and a 1974 soccer match between Poland and West Germany. But Jimmy hates soccer, so this conversation is meaningless. Or is it?

From left: Tim Blough, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Ted Rooney. Photo: Adam Liberman

Jimmy mentions that someone might stop by to talk to him, and to ignore any yelling. Robert has plenty of worries of his own, what with some local folks not appreciating having a Polish bartender. So he doesn’t want any trouble.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Crikey!

Blimey: Some Portland stages are getting all Irish on us. Plus a Magic Show, a White Hound of the North, and mom's brief scandalous affair

Fun linguistic facts: Did you know “blimey” is short for “blind me,” and “crikey” for “croak me?” And just like that, an expression of simple surprise becomes a murmured self-annihilation. Thank James Joyce for putting it to paper, and thank the Irish for their wry twist on the human condition, which, this month, we celebrate.

At least two companies seem to be making St. Patrick’s festivities official, mentioning “Irish Month” in promoting intimate Irish shows: Portland Story Theater’s Luck of the Irish and Readers Theater Repertory’s Lovers: Winners.

The former will fill the Old Church to the brim with music and blarney for a 90-minute step-dancing, harping, fiddling variety and storytelling show.

The latter, a dramatic reading of Brian Friel’s Lovers: Winners, eavesdrops on two teenagers struggling to focus on studying for their exams, even as “an unforeseen event propels them into disgrace.” Ooooooo. (Call 971.266.3787 to make reservations. The Blackfish Gallery fills up fast.)

Oh! And it looks like fly-by-night micro-company Speculative Drama and Susurrations will soon debut an Irish-infused White Hound of the North at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven (reserve at events@thesteepandthornywaytoheaven.com)

Of course, you can’t mention Irish Theater in Portland without checking in on Corrib. One may even wonder if, like serious partiers shun New Year’s Eve as “amateur night,” serious Irish folklorists snub St. Patty’s. Sure enough, looks like they’re laying low in the afterglow of Lifeboat, and in more ways than one, prepping Quietly for April. Two Irishmen meet in a Belfast bar 30 years after The Troubles to remember events and reconcile a rift.

 

Oh: And how about a little sleight-of-hand? Portland Center Stage opens Andrew Hinderaker’s “The Magic Play” this weekend on the Main Stage at The Armory. That’s Jack Bronis as “Another Musician” waving that giant Queen of Hearts. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

What sort of affair is Our Mother’s Brief Affair? Sounds like a talkie on a park bench rather than a song-and-dance soiree. Triangle Productions opens it this weekend. Like Mother’s iconic Burberry trench coat, it sounds like a subdued character study in revealing, concealing, and putting on airs.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Double Chekhov, Ghost Hunters

It's January. Time to shake off that holidays hangover and get on with the shows.

Hello. The holidays are over and now plays can be about anything again. Next week brings Fertile Ground, brimming with homegrown theater offerings of every conceivable topic and timbre. There’ll be almost too much to mention then, so this week by comparison is short to summarize.

For those who can’t wait ’til next week, a couple of plays are opening early that you can Chekhov your list.* Northwest Classical Theatre brings Patrick Walsh’s adaptation of The Three Sisters to its old stomping grounds the Shoebox (with a familiar face from last season’s Playhouse Creatures gracing the cast). I, for one, miss the days when NWCT used to hang their collection of velvet cloaks in the Shoebox’s breezeway. Glad they’re back.

Dainichia Noreault as Irina, Elizabeth Jackson as Masha, Christy Bigelow as Olga in Northwest Classical Theatre Collaboration’s “Three Sisters.” Photo: Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble presents Štĕpán Šimek‘s “visceral, in-your-face” take on Uncle Vanya at Reed College. Expect surprises. (Though in the context of Chekhov, what does that mean? A gun not firing? Who knows?)

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Animal instinct: Corrib’s ‘Chapatti’

Last year's hit two-hander about a dog lover and a cat lover reopens for a new run, this time on the Artists Rep stage

EDITORS’ NOTE: Corrib Theatre’s February 2016 show “Chapatti,” starring veterans Allen Nause and Jacklyn Maddux as a couple of “lonely Dublin codgers,” is back for a fresh run opening Monday, April 3, and continuing though April 16, this time on the Artists Rep stage: ticket and schedule information are here. ArtsWatch’s review from last year’s production is below:

 


 

To begin with, Dan’s a dog man, even though he’s trying to give away his boon companion for reasons that will become unsettlingly clear. Betty’s a cat woman – you could almost say a crazy old cat lady, given that she’s got nineteen, more or less, prowling around the house, and curiously, no one ever questions how the place smells. Obviously, this is never going to work.

Then again, as they say, opposites attract.

I wouldn’t call Christian O’Reilly’s 2014 play Chapatti the flip side of The Gin Game, exactly, although you could make the case. D.L. Coburn’s oddly Pulitzerized 1976 two-hander, like Chapatti, throws together an older man and an older woman in a situation not entirely in either one’s control, and is a showcase for actors of a certain age, giving them sparkling leading roles rather than confining them to playing old Uncle Fred and Aunt Bea, stuck in the corner with the overstuffed furniture in yet another family drama about the libidos and travails of kids in their twenties or even their forties.

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

Nause and Maddux: animal instinct. Photo: Owen Carey

In that sense Chapatti (the title is the name of Dan’s little bowser, whom we never see on stage, although his presence is felt) and Gin are blood brothers, star vehicles for seasoned performers who know the tricks of the trade. But while The Gin Game grows increasingly nastier – time hasn’t turned resentful Weller into a cuddly bear, and he goes raging into that good card game like an unrepentant attack dog, stripping away the niceties of civilization as he snarls – Chapatti heads in a different direction, toward reconciliation and second chances. It unabashedly wears the trappings of a traditional romantic comedy (geezer meets geezer, geezer and geezer endure complications, geezer gets geezer) but it’s not precisely a sentimental play, because it veers away from the romcom formula, deepening and dropping into disturbing danger zones, and it leaves a great big question at the end, so you can’t say it’s all sunshine to The Gin Game‘s surly storm. But if Chapatti isn’t bubblingly optimistic, it’s generously hopeful, and it provides a lot of fun as it rolls down the tracks on its ninety-minute journey toward whatever its unsettled destination will be.

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