culture

Carola Penn, longtime Portland artist, dies

Wide-ranging subjects and provocative arrangements captured urban life, landscapes, politics, abstracts, and childhood memories

Carola Penn, a leading Pacific Northwest artist whose paintings were rooted in landscapes both political and personal, has died. She was 74.

Penn, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, spent most of her life in Portland, where she lived quietly, dedicating her days to her work. She was laconic by nature; prolific and disciplined.

Carola Penn artist

Carola Penn in her studio. Undated.

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DramaWatch: Gunning for understanding

Chapel Theatre Collective's "Friends With Guns" tries to get past the divisive and doctrinaire. Plus: openings at Corrib and Artists Rep.

Jason Glick and Danielle Weathers, artistic leaders of Chapel Theatre Collective, appear to have a keen eye for stage literature. The company’s debut production, Anatomy of a Hug by Kat Ramsburg, paired a dramatically potent premise (a mom, released from prison because she’s dying of cancer, moves in with the daughter she was convicted of trying to kill) with emotionally astute writing.

Opening this weekend, Friends With Guns, by Stephanie Alison Walker (like Ramsburg, a Los Angeles writer), should be even more attention-grabbing. Walker digs into the increasingly heated American debate about gun possession by framing the matter in a personal, easily relatable story — and then letting people’s worst inclinations take over.

Well, at least one person’s worst inclinations.

Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Friends With Guns” is another provocative premiere for the Milwaukie company. Photo: courtesy of Chapel Theatre Collective

Shannon and Leah meet one day at the park and quickly bond over the mutual stresses of parenting and modern life. Leah is confident and comforting, and her husband Danny ticks off every box of impressive yet effortless cool. When Shannon brings her husband Josh to meet them, the warm-and-fuzzy circle of instant friendship is complete: They start making Thanksgiving plans together, and it’s only May.

But then it comes out that Leah and Danny have a blemish on their liberal bona fides: a safe full of firearms locked in the garage. Let’s just say that Josh isn’t cool with this, and complications — ranging from mildly unfortunate to downright ugly — ensue.

The script is tight, bright, smart, funny, engaging. On the page, the characters quickly come alive as the kind of folks you’d probably like. (Glick and Weathers will star alongside Claire Rigsby — who was a minor revelation in The Thanksgiving Play last year at Artists Rep — and Joseph Bertot.) Walker has a handle on a variety of gun-rights/gun-control perspectives and the skill to incorporate them in a way that feels natural to the characters. It’s a terrific piece of writing.

And boy, did it piss me off.

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DramaWatch: a new place to play

Lewis & Clark prof Stepan Simek opens a small, flexible studio space. Plus: Openings around town and in Fertile Ground.

Stepan Simek is a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, a director, and an accomplished theatrical adapter and translator. Now he’s also a real estate developer.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Simek recently opened a small studio space for “actors, directors, musicians, singers, teachers, coaches, and anybody who may need a beautiful, affordable, flexible, and warm place to rehearse, teach classes, do small performances, concerts, readings, meetings, pop-ups, auditions, and whatever else may strike your creative need or fancy.” Or, as he put it during an open-house event earlier this month, “Everything is allowed, except amplified music and Bible study.”

The 2509 is a new studio space in Northeast Portland, open for rehearsals, performances and other creative uses. Photo: courtesy of Stepan Simek.

The place, a handsome 600-square-foot daylight basement, is named after its street address, 2509 NE Clackamas St., in a part of Portland known as Sullivan’s Gulch. Simek hopes it will help, in whatever small way, with the general space crunch afflicting so many Portland artists. But that wasn’t the project’s original purpose.

At first, Simek was setting out to repair his house’s crumbling foundation, which would require raising it on jacks. He and his wife Esther Saulle-Simek, a musician, decided to have a lower-level addition built as an apartment, or what’s known these days as an “accessory dwelling unit.” But the construction process turned out to be more than twice as long, and more than twice as expensive, as originally planned. Eventually they reasoned that they’d stand a better chance of recouping their costs with piecemeal rentals, even at low rates.

Still, though, the 2509 has a homey feel, with a gas stove along one wall opposite a small wet bar. It has a full bathroom and curtained-off area at the back that can be used as a bedroom for visiting artists. A grid attached to the middle of the ceiling holds a small LED lighting system, double-paned windows minimize sound for the surrounding residential neighborhood, and there’s room to seat an audience of 50 or so.

Already Hand2Mouth Theatre has used the 2509 for rehearsals, the renowned Portland actor Michael O’Connell has used it to teach classes, and Orchestra of the Moon — a band that includes Saulle-Simek and plays what it calls “early music for modern times” — performs there this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Simek hopes the place will stay busy. (Reservations can be made by email: simek@lclark.edu) After repeating his line about it being open to everything but amplified music and Bible study, he says simply, “I want it to feel alive. I want life!”

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Jane Austen, upended

Kate Hamill's Sense and Sensibility at Portland Center Stage is a lively, bawdy, physical comedy, somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

If you know anything about Jane Austen and/or Sense & Sensibility, you’ll be surprised to arrive at the Armory to find actors mingling on stage in contemporary dress, in what could very well be a modern-day apartment. This continues until the play starts, when ultra-modern dance music starts and the cast members shake their contemporary bodies.

As they dance, 19th-century music begins to play as, one by one (or two by two), the cast members shed their modern-day clothing for flowing white undergarments, which they’ll wear in various forms for the remainder of the play.

No, this is not your typical Jane Austen. And it’s not your typical theater production, either. Instead, playwright Kate Hamill — inspired by the dearth of roles for women in theater — has created something entirely unique: a lively, bawdy, physical comedy centering on the lives of women that feels far removed from and yet somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

Quinlan Fitzgerald (center) is suitably charming to both suitors and audiences in “Sense and Sensibility” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Credit for the intense theatricality of this production, though, has to be at least partially given to director Eric Tucker (who has directed previous productions of this play, first at Bedlam, the theater company in New York where Tucker is artistic director). Tucker’s direction calls for acrobatics and pratfalls and upended scene staging (so that actors perform and staging is carried out in such a way that the audience is looking down on the scene from above; you have to see it to really believe it, but it’s marvelous).

For this production, Portland Center Stage and Tucker have assembled a fabulous and agile cast of characters. Most members of the cast take on multiple roles, including the gossips that are so prevalent and destructive in the lives of our protagonists, the elder Dashwood sisters of Austen’s novel. Those two sisters are wonderful counterpoints to one another: the reserved and resolute Elinor (Danea C. Osseni, returning to PCS after portraying Nettie in last fall’s beloved production of The Color Purple) and the passionate and fun-seeking Marianne (Quinlan Fitzgerald, who is fabulous and scene-stealing, and whom audiences will fall for right along with her onstage suitors).

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DramaWatch: Planning for a bountiful harvest from Fertile Ground

Portland's wide-ranging new works festival offers more than you can manage alone. Plus, new shows from Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and others.

“Conceived and organized by the Portland Area Theater Alliance, Fertile Ground is a new, 10-day, city-wide festival dedicated to the creation and promotion of original works for the theater. Home-grown and wide-ranging, it both reflects and nurtures the creativity, aesthetic diversity and collaborative spirit of Portland’s performing community with three dozen projects in all. Even in these cold, hard times (in terms of the weather and the economy) it looks like something fun and invigorating enough to take root on the highlight calendar of Northwest arts events.”

Doesn’t seem so long ago, really, that I wrote that — in my former life as theater critic for The Oregonian — about the first Fertile Ground festival in January of 2009. Surely enough, the festival did take root and very quickly grew into one of the city’s mid-winter cultural staples. Not only did that first iteration provide proof of concept (a.k.a., “It works!”), but it delivered memorable works such as Christine McKinley’s science-themed coming-of-age musical Gracie and the Atom, Ezra Weiss’s Mad-Hatter-hip jazz version of Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Keystone’s rocketry epic Apollo.

Right off the bat, attendance was in the 10,000 range. Soon, the number of plays/projects/performances on offer doubled, and Fertile Ground became a reliable hot house for buzz-worthy work: The North Plan, Famished, Dear Galileo, Willow Jade The Huntsmen, The Tripping Point, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Hillsboro Story, My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, The Snowstorm…

Maureen Porter joins the CoHo Clown Cohort for “Witch Hunt,” a seriously comic take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” as part of Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Urban Body Project.

So here we are at the 10th anniversary of that inaugural edition, with the 11th annual festival set to kick off on January 24. Chances are good that a critical and/or popular consensus will lift a few of the 70-some presentations to memorable status and/or further development and/or subsequent productions. But the whole idea here is that these shows are new; so while we may have hunches about what’s promising based on the artists involved or the idea they’re pursuing, no one really knows what you really ought to see. Of course there’s the matter of subjectivity. Topics range from Shakespeare to BDSM (er…if you have to ask…), and while my personal “Don’t care!” sign starts flashing red at the thought of, say, vampire stories or circus arts, you might think me a hopeless dolt to be intrigued by a Chekhov adaptation or a drama about gun control.

And schedules only complicate the matter further! For starters, not everyone can do a full Kay Olsen on the thing (Portland theater insiders know what I mean). With so many shows, at venues spread across Portland and (a bit) beyond, at conflicting or overlapping times, even a full-time commitment to the festival wouldn’t allow you to see even half.

So.

Decisions, decisions.

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A judge’s journey from El Salvador to Oregon

A new play at Milagro Theatre explores the astonishing life of Multnomah County's Judge Xiomara Torres.

The life story of Judge Xiomara Torres—who journeyed from El Salvador to California as a nine-year-old undocumented immigrant in 1980 and was appointed to the Multnomah County Circuit Court by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017—seems too vast and inspiring to be contained by a single stage. Yet Judge Torres, a new play by Milta Ortiz that is making its world premiere at Milagro Theatre, dares to retrace Torres’ footsteps.

A less inventive playwright might have chronicled Torres’ experiences with dull, dutiful faithfulness. Yet Ortiz—whose visionary spirit is expressively channelled by director Mandana Khoshnevisan and a terrifically versatile cast—takes a stranger and more engaging approach. She has created a play that, while not strictly true to Torres’ life, uses symbolism and spirituality to get to the truth of it.

Dreamlike wonderment enlivens the inspiring story of “Judge Torres” at Milagro Theatre. Photo: Russell J. Young.

Judge Torres begins by showing us Torres’ childhood in El Salvador, which the play sums up in the idyllic image of Xiomara (Marissa Sanchez) dressed in a jaunty pair of overalls and raving about her love of books. Her bliss, however, is soon overshadowed as civil war ravages El Salvador, forcing her and her siblings (Cindy Angel and Eduardo Vasquez Juarez) to flee across the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico.

When the Torres family arrives in America, they are giddy—to them, even the sight of vending machines packed with Coca-Cola is a revelation. But glee gives way to terror for Xiomara when, at 13 years old, she reveals that she has been sexually abused by a family member (per Torres’ request, the play doesn’t reveal the identity of the culprit). Split from her siblings and placed in foster care, Xiomara is left to endure more or less alone as she struggles to embrace her destiny: standing up for the rights of abused children the way that her court-appointed special advocate, Jan Brice, stood up for her.

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Jimmy Mak’s: Ace of clubs prepares to play a new hand

Friday's Mission Theater concert helps revive the brand of one of Portland's most influential nightspots, due to re-open in the fall.

For many years, J.D. Stubenberg and Lisa Boyle were mainstays of the great Portland music club Jimmy Mak’s, in their own ways as vital to the place as the hotspot’s founder/owner Jimmy Makarounis and the musicians who lit up the stage there. Since the club’s closing at the end of 2017, followed hard upon by the death of Makarounis from laryngeal cancer, they’ve been involved in plans to revive and sustain the Jimmy Mak’s legacy.

So now they’re getting the brand back together.

Tonight’s concert at the Mission Theater — a high-energy double serving of rock-and-soul featuring the Yachtsmen and the Paul Creighton Project, with the Soul Vax horns adding some special sauce all around — comes to you under the Jimmy Mak’s Presents banner, an imprimatur of the discerning yet populist aesthetic that Makarounis and Stubenberg championed over the past couple of decades. The show is a benefit for the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship at Portland State University, a program launched in 2017.

Portland pop-rock band the Yachtsmen will play at the Mission Theater on Friday to benefit the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship.

The show also serves as a reminder that the much-loved, much-missed club likely isn’t gone for good. In fact, the investor group Friends of Jimmy Mak’s plans to launch a new location this fall.

“We’ll hopefully start swinging hammers by the end of May, maybe June,” Stubenberg said last week. “So we’re hoping to open in September or October, but we won’t really know until we get into construction.”

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