darius pierce

Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

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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: Holidays for days!

The week in theater offers more Christmas shows than you can shake a candy cane at!

Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.

So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.

And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.

Jennifer Goldsmith’s golden voice brightens the appeal of It Happened One Christmas, a musical revue at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.

The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).

Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.

Lady Brass (Allison Anderson, left) and her daughter Gwendolyn (Katherine Grant-Suttie) prepare for the holidays in The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery at Chapel Theatre. Photo: Wynne Earle.

At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.

And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.

That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.

Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.

As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness. 

And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.

Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”

Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)

Austen-tatious: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Photo: Russell J Young

Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.

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Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

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If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.

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Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.

Second-hand news

As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).

Opening (holiday-free edition)

An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?

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Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis. 

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Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.

Closing

So much to do! So much to do!
And if you haven’t yet caught Shakespeare in Love at Lakewood or the Hullabaloo Alice in Wonderland, well, there’s more for the priority list.

The flattened stage

Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”

The best line I read this week

“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”

— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch 

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

PAMTAs: It’s Guys, Dolls, Rock, Scissors

"Guys and Dolls" and the new "Legend of Rock Paper Scissors" take the top trophies at Portland's 2019 musical-theater awards

Broadway Rose’s rollicking revival of Guys and Dolls and Oregon Children’s Theatre’s new musical The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors scored big wins Monday night at the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards. Guys and Dolls took the best-production award for the 2018-19 season, plus outstanding director (Sharon Maroney), music director (Jeffrey Childs) and sound design (Brian K. Moen). Rock Paper Scissors won for outstanding original musical, plus original score (Eric Nordin) and director of an original musical (Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who retires later this year).

PAMTA emcee Darius Pierce with the hardware. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

The award ceremony, in downtown’s Dolores Winningstad Theatre, was presided over by emcee Darius Pierce and PAMTA founder Corey Brunish, the multiple Tony-winning Broadway producer and longtime Portland performer.

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Vertigo at the crossroads

After 21 years of sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility, the scrappy theater has reinvented itself again

For two decades, Theatre Vertigo has been sending postcards from the edge of the middle-class American sensibility. It’s developed a reputation for gritty, rough, challenging, neurotic, and hilarious theater – often at the same time. Some of the most thrilling pieces of art on the Portland theater scene have been crafted on the Vertigo stage: Hellcab, Freedomland, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Adding Machine, A Maze, American Pilot, to name just a few. Despite its small size, Theatre Vertigo is also famous for being perhaps Portland’s preeminent theater ensemble, turning its roster over on a routine basis (Vertigo alumni going on to become many of the Portland theater scene’s most prominent names) but staying committed to the ensemble model, eschewing even an artistic director.

But two years ago, Vertigo reached a moment of crisis. The company was known for turnover, yes. But eleven members, for a variety of reasons, all decided to take their leave at once. Of the four who decided to remain, none had been there more than a year. The future of Theatre Vertigo was very much in doubt.

From left: Joel Patrick Durham, Paige Rogers, Jacquelle Davis, Samson Syharath, and London Bauman in “A Map of Virtue,” opening Friday, Oct. 26. KKelly Photography

Now Vertigo is presenting its first mainstage production in more than a year, Erin Courtney’s haunting romance, A Map of Virtue. Just the fact of the production announces two things. One, Theatre Vertigo is still here, and still doing new plays that scare other theater companies away. Two, a new sensibility is now making the call, so that while there is still much that will be the same about Theatre Vertigo, there is still more that is different. Regardless, Vertigo has its sights set on another twenty years.

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PAMTAs: It’s ‘Scarlet,’ ‘Addams’

Portland Playhouse's adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" and Broadway Rose's "Addams Family" top Portland's night of musical-theater awards

The 2018 PAMTA awards, Portland’s annual celebration of its year in musical theater, swept into the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland Monday night like a showstopper tune.

Big winners in the award ceremony, hosted by actor Darius Pierce, included outstanding original musical winner Scarlet, Portland Playhouse’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter; and Broadway Rose’s The Addams Family, which took the best-revival PAMTA and, like Scarlet, several individual awards.

Lisamarie Harrison as Morticia in Broadway Rose’s “The Addams Family,” winner of the outstanding revival PAMTA. Photo: Sam Ortega

One of the evening’s highlights was a special “outstanding contribution” award to the popular and highly admired performer Sharonlee McLean.  “Sometimes without even knowing it an actor brings something to the room, something intangible, special, weighty, an asset they may not even know they possess,” the introduction said. “Such a unique, wonderful and magnificently talented actor is Sharon Lee McLean.”

Susannah Mars and Eva “Rainbows” Hudson Leoniak in Portland Playhouse’s outstanding original musical, “Scarlet.” Photo: Brud Giles

This year’s PAMTA awards, for achievement during the 2017-18 season. Categories and winners are in boldface, with finalists listed after:

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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